Reptiles: The Beautiful And The Deadly

Greg Louzan


The desert Rattlesnake looked me dead in the eyes for a staring contest on my second lap through the snake room at the Museum of the Rockies last weekend. It was another snowy February morning in Montana and what better way to warm up than look at exotic reptiles from the warmest parts of the globe? My own love affair with reptiles occurred long before I took on this project or walked into the museum that morning. As early as third grade, my neighborhood friend Adam and I would spend hours with his bearded dragon, feeding it crickets and mealworms while letting it run free in the basement of his family home. After realizing this newfound love for reptiles, I spent much of my free time trying to catch garter snakes along the stream in our backyard or tempting fate by getting too close to our local snapping turtle population. The excitement of feeding my own reptile was too much to resist and by late elementary school, I was ready to take the plunge into reptile ownership. I went down to my local PetCo and excitedly dropped all of my young savings and birthday money on a terrarium, heat lamp, a dozen crickets and a new leopard gecko named Quincy. My perception of reptiles, beyond the stream and my own gecko, came primarily from the movie industry and binge-watching Steve Irwin on Animal Planet. In general, these two outlets portrayed these cold-blooded creatures in stark contrast to each other. On one hand, there was Holes with the ultra deadly (and fictional) yellow spotted lizards of Camp Greenlake and Harry Potter fighting off the evil Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. On the flip side was Steve Irwin, a fun-loving Australian TV show host who gave millions of kids the message that reptiles, while dangerous and sometimes deadly, should be treated with utmost respect. The former portrayal of reptiles have resulted in them being seen as an adversary overcome rather than a delicate part of ecosystems across the globe.

In the spirit of changing public perception of an often misunderstood family of the animal kingdom, Museum of the Rockies has spoiled us Bozeman-area reptilian fanatics with its latest exhibit aptly named Reptiles: The Beautiful And The Deadly. The ground floor level of the museum has been transformed into an interactive exhibit featuring a healthy mix of live animals and informative hands-on activities. The traveling exhibit came to fruition through the tireless efforts of Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland in Allenwood, Pennsylvania and has been touring throughout North America since 1999. It is the world’s largest traveling reptile exhibit and the culmination of 35 years in educating the public about these creatures. The traveling reptile zoo took two a half years to transition from idea and design to its final constructed form it tours in today. All the photography featured on the illuminated panels throughout the exhibit comes from world-renowned wildlife photographers Joe and Mary Ann McDonals of McClure, Pennsylvania, who capture these creatures in spectacular form. The exhibit, which opened on January 25th, will be running through the summer until September 13th, so there is plenty of time to see these cold-blooded creatures up close. As you walk through the exhibit on your self-guided tour, you will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with a wide array of reptiles, ranging from harmless and cute to the “dead within minutes” variety. The diversity of these animals had me go from smiling to myself one minute to contemplating what it would feel like to have the deadly venom of the Gaboon viper coursing through your veins in the middle of the African rainforest. Thankfully, attacks from these vipers are extremely rare, but still I was struck by the fact that these snakes have the longest fangs of any venomous snake on Earth at two inches and the second highest venom yield of any snake other than the Malaysian King cobra. While these snakes may sound terrifying and are firmly in the “nope rope” category, this viper is said to be very docile when being handled.

To complement the 19 living dioramas are interactive trivia games to test your reptile knowledge and 35 information panels which will have you walking away with some new fun facts up your sleeve. You will learn the differences between a crocodile and alligator, how snake venom works and the truth behind commonly held snake myths. One new to me is that snakes can actually see heat; combine this with their nocturnal nature and they become some of the most effective predators in the animal kingdom. Like all of the Museum of the Rockies exhibits, this traveling tribute to the reptile is a multi-sensory experience sure to appease seasoned reptile enthusiasts and newcomers alike. These beautiful and deadly creatures are in habitats unique to their native environments as arranged by a zoologist on hand throughout the duration of the exhibit. On the outer perimeter of the exhibit, you are able to touch reptile parts such as the jaws of alligators and crocodiles, feel the skin of a snake and touch turtle eggs. This hands-on experience is valuable for all ages to form a more well-rounded perception of reptiles. As seems to be the goal of this traveling exhibit, attendees will leave the museum with a newfound appreciation and deeper scientific understanding of these oftentimes misunderstood animals. For those who are excited about the turtles and crocodiles but hesitant about the snakes, have no fear because the exhibit is separated into two spaces with the snakes on display in the far room.

Museum hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. now until May 22nd and then will extend to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. until September 7th. The museum offers discounted rates for students, senior citizens and children ages 5-17. Worth noting is the upcoming Smithsonian Magazine day on Saturday April 4th, when downloading a Museum Day ticket at www.smithsonianmag.com/museumday will allow free admission for two people. Reptiles: The Beautiful And The Deadly is a must-see for those in the area with an affinity for reptiles and highly recommended for anyone interested in admiring exotic animals a short drive from home. 

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