Magazine article USA TODAY

Lizards and Snakes ... Oh, My! the American Museum of Natural History Is the Ideal Showcase for Live Squamates and Their Remarkable Adaptations for Survival, Including Projectile Tongues, Deadly Venom, Amazing Camouflage, and Sometimes Surprising Modes of Locomotion

Magazine article USA TODAY

Lizards and Snakes ... Oh, My! the American Museum of Natural History Is the Ideal Showcase for Live Squamates and Their Remarkable Adaptations for Survival, Including Projectile Tongues, Deadly Venom, Amazing Camouflage, and Sometimes Surprising Modes of Locomotion

Article excerpt

"LIZARDS & SNAKES: Alive!" introduces visitors to a diversity of squamates--the animal group that includes legged and legless lizards and snakes. It showcases live specimens and their remarkable adaptations for survival, including projectile tongues, deadly venom, amazing camouflage, and sometimes surprising modes of locomotion. Representing 26 species from the Amazon, Caribbean, and Galapagos Islands--and occurring in countries such as Australia, Cuba, Egypt, Fiji, Guatemala, Kenya. Madagascar, Mexico, Sudan, and the U.S.--the specimens range from a four-inch Tropical Girdled Lizard to a 14' Burmese Python. They are shown in re-created habitats complete with ponds, tree limbs, rock ledges, and live plants.

The exhibition includes four species of geckos in a case equipped with cameras located in two different viewing stations that allow onlookers to zoom in on the creatures. There also is a Web camera mounted on the Water Monitor case, enabling virtual visitors around the globe to observe the daily life and routine behavior of one of the largest living species of lizard on Earth.

"'Lizards & Snakes: Alive!' brings science to life by inviting visitors to meet and mingle with some of the world's most exotic and fascinating creatures," notes Ellen V. Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History. "These small--and sometimes terrifyingly large--ambassadors from the natural world teach us about the glorious diversity of life, the fragility of natural systems, and our own responsibility to study and steward life on Earth."

"'Lizards & Snakes: Alive!' dispels many mistaken notions," points out exhibition curator Darrel Frost. "For instance, snakes are not slimy and are just an [incredibly] successful group of lizards that have lost their legs. Visitors to this exhibition will learn about the amazing diversity of squamates--a group composed of roughly 8,000 known species of lizards and snakes--and how they have evolved into many shapes and sizes and have come to live in so many habitats."

"Our fascination with lizards and snakes starts early and endures throughout life," adds Michael Hager, executive director of the San Diego Natural History Museum. "'Lizards & Snakes: Alive!' is a great family exhibition where curiosity about nature is nourished. Teaching careful observation and learning about fascinating strategies for survival are key ingredients in the development of careers in science."

The exhibition examines many aspects of squamates, including differences in hunting techniques. One group, the "sight hounds"--consisting of about 1,400 species, including iguanas and their relatives--like humans, relies mostly on vision, not smell, to find their dinners and mates, and uses their tongues to capture food. The "nose hounds'--a large group containing monitors, skinks, and snakes--on the other hand, employ a highly evolved chemo-receptive system that collects chemical clues from the environment with forked tongues and delivers them to special sense organs on the roofs of their mouths. Another focus is how snakes, among the most evolutionarily successful vertebrates on Earth, have compensated for the absence of limbs with thermal vision, complex venom-delivery systems, constriction, and expandable jaws that give them the ability to swallow prey many times larger than their own heads.

"Lizards & Snakes" also offers numerous interactive stations, inviting museum-goers to listen to recorded squamate sounds, test their knowledge about these creatures, explore the inner workings of a rattlesnake on the hunt, and view videos. An activity center for children encourages youngsters to, among other things, match lizards to their habitats, assemble squamate skeletons, touch skin casts, enjoy puzzles, and play science-related games.

Fossil specimens and casts are on view as well. Among the highlights is a fossil cast of Megalania, the largest-known terrestrial squamate, which attained lengths of up to 30'. …

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