The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden welcomes five new Yucatan box turtle hatchlings and a female Mang Mountain pit viper to the Herpetarium, the Zoo’s reptile and amphibian habitat. Only discovered in 1989, Mang Mountain pit vipers are incredibly rare, among the largest vipers in the world, and masters of disguise. The species’ brown and green coloring makes the perfect camouflage for moving around the forest; even their eyes are skillfully hidden almost to the point of being indistinguishable from the rest of their body. The venomous species has a unique adaptation for hunting prey: caudal luring. The last four inches of the Mang Mountain pit viper’s tail is completely white and it mimics a worm by wiggling its tail, luring prey to within its striking range. The species, native to the Hunan province in east central China, is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which estimates approximately 500 individuals remain in the wild.
During his tenure at San Diego Zoo, Oklahoma City Zoo Deputy Director Barry Downer was the first to oversee a Mang Mountain pit viper breeding program in the United States.
“In 2003, we successfully incubated 8 eggs and worked with a German institution to increase genetic diversity by exchanging hatched animals,” said Downer. “Found on a single mountain in China, Mang Mountain pit vipers remain relatively mysterious to the animal science community. I’m glad to have the chance to continue to contribute to the understanding of this animal and that Zoo guests can discover this remarkable species.”
Five Yucatan box turtle hatchlings (two arrived in July, three in August) are currently viewable in the Herpetarium’s “Nur-SSS-ery”. Turtles are the most endangered group of vertebrates in the world, with populations across the globe declining as a result of harvesting by humans for pet and food markets. Yucatan box turtles are native to a small area of the Yucatan Peninsula with total population numbers thought to be less than 10,000. That number decreases every year due to habitat loss and illegal collection for the pet trade worldwide.
The Yucatan box turtle hatchlings are unique in their pale coloration compared to other box turtle species, allowing them to better blend with vegetation that is in their natural habitat. Like the hatchlings, adult Yucatan box turtles are a lighter color than other box turtle species; often being pale/light tan with shades of yellow. The adults are kept off public view due to their shy nature.
In addition to caring for and breeding endangered turtles and tortoises, the OKC Zoo partners with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) to conserve turtles. TSA works in 15 countries, leading conservation efforts that include enforcing laws that protect turtles, rehabilitating and releasing turtles confiscated from traffickers, and breeding and releasing endangered turtle species.