Together, reptiles and amphibians are called “herps.” They rely on the environment around them–the sun, water, or ground–to generate the heat they need to survive. With a continuous supply of warmth and water, the majority of the Earth’s herp species live in the tropics. All are habitat specialists, with unique adaptations for avoiding predators and acquiring food.
Depending on their habitat, tropical herps eat a variety of terrestrial and aquatic insects, animals, and plants. Sunshine, warm temperatures, and an abundance of rainfall contribute to a wealth of available food. Constant access to food allows them to reach a much larger size than species living in cool climates.
From deserts to forests to saltwater coasts, tropical herps live in a variety of habitats. They can be found along river banks, near oceans, on the forest floor, underground, or high in the canopy. Reptile habitats can change significantly from one species to the next. For most amphibians, life starts in water.
A warm climate allows tropical herps to spend less time maintaining body temperature and more time eating, breeding, and producing young. To dodge predators, escape searing daytime heat, and conserve water, many herps are nocturnal (active at night). Diurnal herps (those active during the day) protect themselves using color, camouflage, and even poison.
Many tropical reptiles and amphibians are currently endangered or threatened. Tropical habitats are dwindling at alarming rates, and global climate change is altering habitats, breeding seasons, and affecting the entire food chain for many species. Because each species has adapted to fill a specialized niche, disappearing habitats seriously threaten the stability of some populations.
Central America & Caribbean
Desert Island River, Lake, Wetland Tropical Forest
Indian Star Tortoise
Asian Forest Tortoise
Henkel’s leaf-tailed Gecko
Of the 6, 000 known species of amphibians in the world, about half may disappear within the next 50 years. Imagine if the world was to lose half of its birds, half of its mammals, or half of its fish……the loss of amphibians is unprecedented. This represents the most extreme loss of species since the dinosaurs.
Ecosystem Health: Amphibians play critical roles in ecosystems, often serving as the base of a food chain.
Agriculture: They perform invertebrate pest control important to agriculture.
Medicine: Some species have been found to produce substances that may provide medical cures for humans.
Indicators: Amphibians are like canaries in a coal mine, warning us of dangers that may threaten us.
Why Are They Disappearing?
Loss of Habitat: As habitats disappear around the world, so, too, do the animals that live in them.
Disease: The most immediate threat to many amphibian species is a fungus that’s moving quickly around the world. The deadly effects of the Chytrid fungus may be increased by the remaining causes.
Climate Change: Even slight changes in temperature and humidity affect these small, cold-blooded creatures.
Pollution and pesticides: Here in Minnesota, certain pesticides have been shown to have an indirect link to deformed frogs. Over-collection for pets and food.
Things the Zoo’s Done/Doing
The Turtle Conservation Fund is an exciting new initiative created through the cooperative efforts of three major turtle conservation organizations: Conservation International, IUCN Turtle Survival Alliance, and IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. The mission of the Turtle Conservation Fund is to ensure that no species of tortoise or freshwater turtle becomes extinct, and that sustainable and protected populations of each species continue to exist in the wild.
The components of the initiative include three main areas. The first is support and development of breeding colonies, both captive and wild. Second, the fund will help support conservation biology research including field surveys, data collection, reintroduction techniques, and genetic studies. Finally, the fund will support in-country education and training programs in veterinary and husbandry techniques and help with facility enhancement for zoos and rescue centers.
The Minnesota Zoo’s Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Grant Program has provided financial support to The Turtle Conservation Fund for its work toward preserving all tortoises and freshwater turtles in Southeast Asia. Staff champions for this project were Tropics Mammals Keeper, Karla Anderson and Tropics Bird Keeper, James Nelson.
Zoos across North America are working to conserve several tropical reptile and amphibian species through cooperative programs called Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs. One of the goals of these programs is to maintain genetically healthy populations of endangered and threatened herp species through managed breeding programs in zoos and aquariums. Currently, the Minnesota Zoo participates in SSP programs for the Radiated tortoise, Asian forest tortoise, and Komodo monitor.