Reptile Foraging 7

Reptile Feeding and Foraging

reptile smarts

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In the past few months I have been doing some writing on behavior, cognition, and some other in depth works in an attempt to understand more than the captive environment of the latest pet reptile. It’s accurate to say, if you can recreate the natural living conditions for most reptiles then they can thrive in a captive environment. I have continually come across a statement which to be honest makes me want to contact the author and speak to them directly to figure out what they are basing their statement on.

The statement I am referring to is

‘buy a smaller enclosure first as the reptile can become lost and not find its food.’

Really? I mean seriously folks, when was the last time you saw a reptile in the wild eating out of a food bowl? Is there a special store for snakes to obtain frozen thawed rodents that we have yet to find? This of course goes without saying that the vitamin and mineral shops in the reptile world must be making a killing by now. As my reviewer so carefully pointed out, I am not saying that you don’t have to feed vitamins and minerals. You absolutely must, you will see later in this piece that we cannot fully replicate the natural diet so we have to use supplements in order to ensure the reptile is getting the proper nutrition.

reptile vitamins

R.A.G. Store


All kidding aside, whether a reptile is captive bred or wild caught they have the instinct to  obtain nutrition as this is an over riding factor for survival.

Let me clarify, some wild caught reptiles, will not adapt to the captive environment.

There could be a multitude of factors at work to cause this. The biggest factor, in my observations is that of recreating the natural habitat. Reptiles are relatively a solitary animal insofar as they don’t share resources in the wild. Komodo Dragons Varanus komodoensis will ‘share’ in a kill and some species of reptile will stack on top of one another in the same basking area. However, there is a definitive hierarchy order to these behaviors. What I am specifically referring to is that after reptiles are born and move off from the parents they are for all intents and purposes on their own for the rest of their lives.

Reptiles, unlike birds and mammals are ill equipped to provide food for their offspring, the young must find it on their own. If they don’t find food, they die. This is the law of the land so to speak and a prime example of one of my old bosses statements

Even the stupid ones survive in captivity.

It is my view that even the stupid survive because as humans we will intervene as it were to make sure the animal survives.

I want to point out that all animals in the wild have a home range where they are able to discover the resources needed for survival. If they are unable to find these resources then they will inevitably perish. We can argue for days that this speaks to cognitive ability, whether learned or instinctual and that really is for another piece. This could also be viewed as survival of the fittest as the one who discovers the resources will obviously survive.

In my recent article 3 Reasons your Reptile Won’t Eat! I stated that security is one of the paramount concerns to snakes. This is because after feeding they will attempt to retreat to a warm basking area to digest their meal. This has been observed both in the wild and in the captive environment. Even what I refer to as active foraging snakes such as Racers and other species are known for their active foraging will seek out a warm basking area to digest a meal just as a sit and wait snake will move off from the ambush position to seek an area to bask in.

Some argue that baby or juvenile snakes have exhibited issues in procuring food that is provided in the enclosure with them when they are housed in a ‘large enclosure’. Then when these same snakes are moved to a smaller enclosure they are able to obtain the offered prey and thrive. To my mind not knowing whether live or pre-killed is being fed; the predator vs. prey relationship should be looked into. I am looking at this from an analytical side, if this snake were in the wild and refused to eat it would perish.

The weak in the wild die and therefore are unable to pass on what may be considered bad genetics. If an animal cannot survive due its inability to obtain resources needed for survival should we interfere?

Now then, breeders use their knowledge of genetics to breed for colors, patterns, etc. but is it possible we are breeding for weakness by interfering by making sure that these babies are feeding as we want them to and not allowing them to perish as they would naturally? I am sure some readers will be offended by that statement, the fact of the matter is in the wild babies rarely survive to adulthood and this is why animals have multiple offspring so that at least one and maybe more might survive. So breeders let me ask you this, is this a moral quandary or a financial one?

Observations in Nature & Nurture

In my observations in a naturalistic enclosure (not a sweater box or a rack system) that recreates the animals natural environment they tend to thrive better than those kept in other enclosure set ups. I have not done extensive studies on this, these are only my observations. Sure the reptiles will survive in sweater boxes and rack systems and they will reproduce too. Are they thriving though? Why do we have overweight reptiles? Because they don’t have to forage! They are locked away in an enclosure being lazy. Not to mention the fact that the diet we feed is nowhere near what they find in the wild. Yes a mouse is a mouse, most snakes in the wild are eating a variety of foods not just rodents, I have read reports of what we consider rodent eaters in captivity consuming bird and lizard prey in the wild as well as carrion when available.

My conclusions on reptile foraging in captivity is that it must be encouraged and that we as herpetoculturists allow the weak to die out as would happen in the wild. I do believe strongly that the genetics being passed on when we interfere by accommodating a weaker reptile who cannot ‘find’ its food in a large enclosure when all other parameters are being met should be let go. Yes there is the dilemma of when to give up just as there is with our own species, when do you pull the plug on life? Given the proper parameters for survival I can say that more often than not the reptile will find its resources such as food and water. If it doesn’t, then I think we are forcing an animal to live that would have under any normal circumstances passed away. Do we have the right to play God? I look forward to hearing your intelligently written comments. For more on reptile cognition please see the Dan Noble interview on The Reptile Living Room

7 thoughts on “Reptile Foraging

  • Donna

    Actually, the vast majority of captive-bred reptiles now do exceed the lifespans of their wild counterparts, when in captivity. It should be understood that most wild animals live short and rather brutal lives. It’s rare for any wild animal to die of old age. Even with chameleons, we now have panther and veiled chameleons that will exceed 5 years of age in captivity–and rarely live more than 1 or 2 in the wild. I see no reason to be so unrelentingly negative about the reptile industry/hobby. With the exception of wild-caught individuals, and those species that haven’t been successfully reproduced over multiple generations in captivity, I can’t think of any currently that do not live longer in captivity than they would in the wild–both on average, and on record.

    If you consider the ownership of reptiles to be selfish…why do you have them? This is an honest question, I really don’t understand your view.

  • Jo

    John what a great article and I have to agree with Dave certainly gives food for thought of all the animals kept in captivity; reptiles are the only ones who do not typically reach their normal lifespan. In captivity, most animals should live to-or even exceed this due to the improved conditions (regular feeding, veterinary care, etc.) and lack of predators. However this doesn’t happen its a tragic commentary on how poorly we understand and provide for them. If the reptile trade itself fully knowledgeable, if the people selling reptiles were honest about husbandry to help maintain reptiles, the reptile trade would not be the multi-million dollar business it is… Having a reptile in the home is like having a visitor from another planet stay with you and is the last remnant of an ancient era REPTIELS are NOT pets we have no rights to assume we have the rights, the welfare of the animal should always come first. People’s obsessive and selfish reasons for keeping exotics are not justification to own any animal it’s a privilege, At a certain point in time man conceived the notion of ‘rights’ and it is man alone that employs such a concept without regards to ethics. With reptiles, we are attempting to keep an animal with very specific environmental and dietary needs in an environment very much unlike its native habitat but we as owners should try and provide a close to natural habitat for them as we possibly can. If I sound negative at times, it is because I am.. I think your comments Donna are very rude but I guess that’s a trend these days one that is a negative by-product of good intentions but poor education, Reptiles are not things. They are living, breathing, animals, that have nerve structure and needs that we so-called higher animals have. Whether they live only a couple of years or 150 years, they require the same commitment to their care and well-being as does any animal. And Donna WE as humans do play god,we have no given “RIGHT” as you so wrongly put it.I apologise to John for my rudeness.

  • Donna

    Seriously, this is your reply? I understood your article perfectly well, I just didn’t happen to agree with its conclusions–sorry. The fact that I disagree does not mean I did not understand your point. This is not something you should take personally. A disagreement with your opinion is not an attack on you.

    I think your response is rather offensive and personal, in the face of it. I don’t think there is anything compassionate about allowing an animal to starve to death if it isn’t well-adapted to captivity, or struggles when it is young. That doesn’t seem humane to me. Perhaps you were suggesting they should be euthanized, instead? I still disagree.

  • John F Taylor Post author

    Donna, as previously shown in your other comments here on this site. You have completely missed the entire point of the piece and just created your own mini-blog with in my site. I am not sure the point of this as there was more verbage in your comment than my entire article. Which I cannot even express how far off you went with your comment. Rather than banter about it I am leaving the comment and hopefully someone can explain it to you because I simply have not the time. I have nothing further than to suggest you re-read the article as it was intended.

  • John F Taylor Post author

    Dave, I hear you loud and clear and if I am not mistaken I know whom you speak of and yes it is very sad. Robert Applegate who said “I was in this before we made money, I was in this when we weren’t making money, and I will be in this when are again, I breed snakes because I enjoy it.” I am glad and knew you would understand this piece and appreciate it for what it said.

  • Donna

    Well, the fact is, the animals we have in captivity aren’t IN the wild…and, unless you’re working in a conservation program breeding endangered species for release, they never will be again. What makes a reptile fit to live in the wild may not be the same traits that make it fit to live in captivity. Slowly but inevitably, we are domesticating our captive-bred reptiles. This is not something we should struggle against, it’s something that we should promote–again, they will ALWAYS be pets, and the ones that are best suited to the environments we provide are the ones that will thrive…they are the ones whose genes should be passed on.

    As a breeder, I hold back offspring that eat quickly and often, grow quickly and well, and have good temperaments. In the wild, the cautious, high strung, and aggressive animal may have more of an advantage. Traits that may suit a snake living where predators abound will not be an asset in captivity. A snake won’t eat unless it’s in a small cage? This is not a problem in captivity.

    It’s absolutely a money issue…allowing offspring to die would mean not being able to sell them. Ethical breeders will include feeding records and other information that allows buyers to see that the animal had some issues, but using selective breeding programs, you can use an animal that was a poor feeder, cross it with a good feeder, and take the positive traits from that poor feeder into the future without reinforcing the poor feeding behavior. So, there’s a ‘purpose’ for some of those animals in breeding projects, and they will also be pets.

    Over time, poor feeders will be selected out by breeders. There is no point in allowing them to die.

    Ditto for foraging ability. Does a leopard gecko have to be able to find insects on 1 acre, if it’s never going to see anything larger than a 2 foot by 1 foot area, for its entire life? What purpose would that serve for it? If the ability isn’t needed, why should we strive to preserve it? The animal isn’t fit to live in the wild…that’s actually good, isn’t it? If it escaped into some region where it might survive in the US, but was too domesticated to forage properly, isn’t it GOOD that it would not survive there?

    Perhaps, instead of trying to preserve wild traits in our captive reptiles, we should be doing exactly the opposite–promoting selective breeding that will make the very suitable pets, but very UNsuited to life in the wild, thus reducing the risk of any of them becoming introduced species in areas where they should not be.

    We are keeping these animals in our care, in entirely unnatural conditions. Then we want to preserve the traits in them that would make them suited to an environment they will never see…how is that fair to them? Let them change–let them evolve to live the way we are asking them to live. It’s in their best interests as much as ours.

    Humans don’t play god, they simply do what humans do–manipulate everything around them, including other life forms, and by our evolution, we have a ‘right’ to do that (‘right’ is such an odd term, anyhow). Nothing could be more natural for OUR species. What you are advocating is just as much a manipulation as what other folks do when they take extreme measures to save an animal, because it all occurs in an artificial environment. There’s no way to know if an animal that fails to thrive in captivity would have failed to thrive in the wild. It’s entirely possible that things would have gone very differently for it, and the bold, relaxed animals that thrive in our care would be the first eaten, due to their lack of proper caution.

  • Dave Johnson

    Once again very well worded and food for thought . I can only give my opinion on personal experience and as a breeder who virtually gives his offspring away and funds breeding and rearing from my own pocket and operates as a loss I can assure you I breed for the pleasure of being the first person a baby bonds to and not to amass a personal fortune . I am well aware that not all people get into the hobby for the same reasons as myself and financial gain outweighs morality and compassion to some . There are records of studies carried out on the Enigma morph in leopard geckos initially that showed genetic problems but could not define why they occurred . While these tests were being done certain big name breeders well aware of the problems health wise continued to breed this morph knowing full well they could produce and sell on an animal that will not only die but suffer in the lead up to it’s eventual death .

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