by Whit Gibbons

February 10, 2003

Following are a few of the environmental questions I have received recently. Two are how-to questions about preserving individual animals; the third is about an extinct species.

Q. - Where I work in upstate New York, we came across a mudpuppy [salamander] in our steam condenser. What should we do with the critter? Is it safe to return it to the freezing river? We figure he made his way into a warmer pipe under our building, but possibly he got sucked in from the nearby river. Any help you can give would be appreciated. I'd hate to see this critter meet an untimely demise considering what he's been through to end up where we found him.

A. - Mudpuppies in your region of the country live naturally beneath frozen lakes and rivers during the winter. So the animal will be fine if you release it into cold water. You should move a salamander, fish, or other aquatic animal from one aquatic situation to another in a manner that will have minimal thermal impact on the animal. In this case, put the mudpuppy in a plastic bag filled with the water you are currently keeping it in and place the bag in the river water for several minutes so the temperature changes gradually. Open the bag and release the mudpuppy when it is ready to swim out, preferably alongside a bank it can hide under to avoid predatory fish.

Q. - Please don't think me stupid, but an acquaintance told me that if I can't feed my 10-foot python, I should put it in the freezer for a month until I can afford some food for it. All I want is advice contradictory to this idiotic statement and to stop any cruelty from being inflicted.

A. - Your acquaintance may be well meaning, but following that advice will leave you with a dead python. For many pet reptiles like pythons that are native to the tropics, cooling them down a few degrees below room temperature, but nowhere near freezing, may reduce their tendency to eat and lower their metabolism so that they use less energy. Thus your python might be able to go longer without eating and with no harm. However, make sure you keep water available.

Because I get many inquiries about feeding native pet snakes at this time of year, I asked Tony Mills of the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab to provide a general answer to the question "why is my snake no longer eating?" According to Tony, "Temperate Zone snakes will often 'shut down' and prepare to hibernate, whether you want them to or not, when winter approaches. They may key on light levels, temperature, or other factors in the room. One solution is to simulate hibernation by placing the cage in a cool place to keep the snake from losing too much body weight. The temperature should be below 65 but above 45 degrees F. Provide a water bowl and a hiding place for the snake. When warm, springtime weather would normally occur in the snake's natural habitat, warm the cage up to room temperature, and begin feeding the snake again."

Q. - I want to know the details about the consequences the extinction of moas had on their predators. Did they decrease after moas became extinct?

A. - Interesting question, but I doubt if much is known about what the natural predators of the gigantic, flightless birds known as moas were before the colonizing Maoris arrived on the New Zealand islands. Characteristically, a large, herbivorous creature like a moa, even though not a predator itself, would be able to protect itself as an adult from virtually any other animal, as is true of elephants, American bison, and Cape buffalo. Presumably most of the predation was on the eggs and young. As the several species of moas became extinct, some of their predators would have shifted to other prey, such as the still-surviving moa species or other birds, but some predators may have gone extinct themselves. The example would probably have been a good one to show the cascading effects of abruptly removing native species from a region, but the details can only be surmised at this point.

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