A child-friendly serpent

The milksnake has never been my favorite reptile to demo, mainly because its name is its only unique talking point, and a fairly senseless one at that. (When cows weren’t giving much milk, some farmers blamed milksnakes, which were hanging around to eat the mice that were hanging around to eat the grain. As if a snake could milk a cow.) Yet this week’s animal encounter with Sylvia became an unexpected delight, thanks to the hordes of small children who found her delightful. I don’t know who declared this Thursday “cute kid day at the Mn Zoo,” but home-schooling families seemed to be out in force, despite an impending sleet-storm. The typical home-schooling family at the zoo includes three or four alert, polite, inquisitive children ranging in age from 3 to 12, and on Thursday they were all stopping in the Minnesota Lodge to check out Sylvia, an Eastern U.S. snake whose range overlaps the Twin Cities. (Milksnakes are nocturnal, so don’t expect to spot one easily in the “wild.”) I’d dismissed Sylvia and her breed as uninteresting, but her lack of defense mechanisms (hissing, cobra-like neck-flaring, rattlesnake-like tail-quivering) made her less scary to kids than the Western hognose or bullsnake, which rely on such tricks to fake out predators. Her small head and smooth, soft body also helped. She slid languidly through my hands, occasionally tucking her head up my long sleeve for warmth. A probably 7-year-old girl spent about 10 minutes admiring Sylvia, exclaiming “She’s so cute!” and, a little later: “She doesn’t have any fur!” A younger boy, initially fearful, grew increasingly absorbed in Sylvia, and when the time came to put her back in her pillowcase, he was still standing there, wordlessly grinning at her. In 20 minutes, 45 guests stopped by to look at Sylvia — a number more typical of the booming summer months at the zoo. I won’t underestimate this snake again.

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The splash zone

When the dolphin stadium is open to guests, there’s always a volunteer inside to make sure human hands and other objects stay out of the 500,000-gallon show pool. Between training sessions, dolphin fans under a certain age will ask plaintively, “Can’t you make them jump?” Unless you’re a trainer with a bucket of fish, the answer is no. But some days an antic spirit seizes hold of the dolphins, for a minute or an hour, and when I entered the stadium Thursday morning, the air had that electric feeling. Two trainers with clipboards (but no fish buckets) stood above and behind the pool, observing and note-taking, while Semo (the sole and senior male), Allie (pregnant with Semo’s dolphin-child) and Allie’s mom April took increasingly frenetic laps around the pool. Although there was no training session in progress, the staffers were playing a CD of movie music from “Shrek” and “Madagascar,” and it became clear that all three dolphins were chasing each other. For extra fun, at least one was swimming on its back. A dolphin’s top speed is around 20 mph, and I’d swear somebody (maybe Allie?) hit that. Fast laps always raise a long, cascading water-wave that crashes over the side of the pool, drenching anyone standing or sitting within 10 feet or so. Guests either love this or hate it, and a toddler by the window pitched a fit, running back to her dad’s arms for about 90 seconds before she toddled off again, chuckling and cooing. And yes, a dolphin jumped, unasked by any human, arcing high in the air and eliciting a gasp from the little crowd before returning nose-first to the water.

This quartet of kids watching Semo through the glass missed it all: By the time they came in, the electricity had ebbed, the dolphins had worked the manic burst out of their systems, and the water’s surface was again smooth and blue. There’s no telling when the next eruption might occur.

Show us your tongue, Slinky!

Last week I got recertified to demo blue-tongued skinks at the zoo, since it’s been awhile since I’ve handled this Australian lizard. Of the two skinks we demo, “Slinky” is the one who reliably shows her tongue, which truly is a shade of cobalt blue somewhat darker and duller than my shirt in this picture. If I just had a faster camera, fellow volunteer Henry would have caught the tongue-flick for posterity. Why the blue tongue, you might ask? Apparently the freak-out factor gives predators pause (evolutionary advantage!). People who spot these skinks in Australian gardens sometimes freak out as well: With its triangular head and stubby little legs (easily hidden by grass), a blue-tongued skink looks a lot like a death adder, which must be about as poisonous as it sounds. At the zoo, though, passersby seem more willing to touch a harmless skink than an equally harmless species of snake. This boy enjoyed Slinky quite a bit.

The spiny softshell shuffle

I’ve been missing the zoo after three weeks away. On my last volunteer visit, I was treated to a glimpse of this guy (or gal?) in the turtle tank that divides the Minnesota and Tropics trail entrance areas. (This photo was taken from the Tropics side, but the turtle tank was added as part of the new Minnesota Lodge, and the view from that side is equally fine.) Like a Minnesotan burrowing under winter blankets, this spiny softshell turtle tends to bury itself in the sand — flat and invisible until it extends its neck a startling length, periscope-style, to check out its world. Zoo staffers say it can breathe under the sand for 30 minutes if it holds very still, but only five minutes if it’s been active. It’s considered the fastest swimmer of Minnesota turtles, and sometimes it joins the painted turtles in paddling around the tank. But I’ve yet to see it sunbathing on logs with the other turtle species, and this was the first time I’d ever seen the spiny softshell dancing, however awkwardly, to navigate its way into a corner. Even in a reptile, the awkwardness was oddly touching.

Update: This appears to be one of my more commonly clicked-upon posts, so I’m adding a larger new picture and a link to more information about the spiny softshell. Here she is actually sunbathing after all on the “lower deck,” seen from the Minnesota Trail side, with a view of lunchers in the Tropics. I’m fairly sure she’s female because of her size, which strikes me as at least 9″ (the usual maximum for the always-smaller male spiny softshells).

Turtles sunbathe for a couple of practical reasons: to absorb Vitamin D through their shells and, in the wild, to bake off leeches. The Twin Cities-area Warner Nature Center has a lovely Web page about spiny softshells. And if you’re curious about smooth softshells, the Minnesota DNR goes into greater depth on that subspecies.