Reptile Feeding and Foraging
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.
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