Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Reptile House

There are considerably fewer exclamations of “Oh how cute!” in here than in the small-mammal house, although I happen to think that the frogs in particular are very personable. There are, however, far more cries of “I found it!”, since a number of the lizards and snakes—and frogs—are incredibly well camouflaged and difficult to find, even when they’re right in front of you. It does give one a pleasant feeling of accomplishment to finally spot the chameleon or mossy frog that’s been eluding your searching eyes.

And of course these animals, while they lack the fuzzy charm of mammals, have the romance of danger. I myself don’t have a lot of time for snakes that aren’t doing much of anything—and aren’t doing it in a photogenic way—but I’ve seen kids and adults with their faces almost pressed to the glass, riveted by the sight of a python or a particularly venomous viper. The knowledge that only that thin pane of glass separates them from something that could coil them into oblivion or kill them with a bite—it’s irresistible.

For me, the reptile house is filled with a number of aesthetic marvels. The textures of reptiles’ scales and spines, the colors of poison-dart frogs, with skin so smooth and startlingly bright that they look like plastic models—that’s what impresses me. I only wish I were more talented at capturing their shapes and colors, their gem-like, liquid eyes glistening within skin dry as stone.

A certain degree of awe creeps up on you as you go through the reptile house; these animals have a foreign, ancient quality to them. The giant snapping turtle, with its gaping mouth and tongue from which suspends a fleshy lure, is clearly a prehistoric monster, somehow transported to the present day and condescending, for the moment, to be gawked at by fascinated humans.

The toad with its heavy eyebrow ridges is a creature out of dark German forests, one that inspired the Grimm brothers when they wrote of sprites and hobgoblins. The tortoises and crocodilians are reminders of what used to overrun the earth while mammals were wide-eyed nocturnal scuttlers, scurrying through the underbrush and peering cautiously from trees.

Not that these animals themselves are dinosaurs (though surely their ancestors were present at the time when those giants walked the earth)—in fact, dinosaurs, physiology-wise, were probably more similar to big bald birds than to alligators or turtles. Still, to the untrained observer—and I include myself in this category—their appearance strikes a chord. And it does make me wonder if the world wasn’t a somewhat better place when scaly things were almost all you saw, before mammals diversified as much as they have. At least when reptiles and dinosaurs were the dominant species they didn’t have the capacity to precipitate environmental disasters as we have—no oil-drilling explosions for them.

In any case, the world is different now, and some mammals have skipped out on a crepuscular existence and started doing all sorts of things by sunlight. Including, in some cases, going to the zoo to look at reptiles and imagine being transported to a past they can’t even begin to remember.

Or just saying, “Cool! I want one of those!”


Anca said...

The chameleon's hand, ready to grasp the branch for the next step--amazing! What a great shot.

Unknown said...

What's the turtle with the super shiny, smooth-looking shell? And that first reptile shot: amazing!

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

It's a Florida softshell turtle--doesn't it look like it's made of wet clay or polished stone or something?
And thanks--the iguana was very amenable to photographs, and its skin is pretty cool.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

(And isn't that chameleon's hand amazing? They are such bizarre-looking beasts, with their eyes that can move independently of one another...)

Joy K. said...

The picture of the row of spines is wonderful. The texture and color! Great job with that. It would make a great sort-of abstract image, framed.

Liz said...

Love how you focus the narrative and the photos on specific features -- very engaging. Great post.

karetdermaga said...

i love this picture of the lizard The picture of the row of spines is wonderful. The texture and color! Great job with that. It would make a great sort-of abstract image, framed.

lizard and reptile

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