In honor of World Tomistoma Day, here's an interview with one of our Herpetology Keepers, Colin, on his daily work with our Malaysian false Gharial crocodiles (Tomistoma schlegelii).
What does your day-to-day consist of?
Typically, my day begins
with a sweep through the collection to check in on the animals, ensure
they are in their appropriate enclosures, have water, and don’t have any
health issues or injuries requiring immediate veterinary evaluation.
I’ll begin preparing diets; chopping salads for the herbivores,
portioning out rodents, poultry, and fish for the carnivores, and
scooping out a big cup of crickets or cockroaches sprinkled with calcium
and vitamins for the insectivores. I’ll then go from exhibit to
exhibit, cleaning and feeding as I go. Animals that thrive in humid
environments get misted daily (sometimes multiple times per day), and
everybody gets fresh, clean water.
Following the morning
routine, I might head to the office to take care of work on the
computer. Record keeping, correspondence with coworkers and colleagues
at other zoos and aquariums, and ordering feed, supplies, and equipment
usually makes up the bulk of this time.
Our afternoons generally
consist of feeding and training our larger animals – the Komodo dragons
and the Tomistoma. These sessions are where we not only teach the
animals new behaviors, they are also the best opportunity during the day
to evaluate their health, physical fitness, and psychological
well-being. Each feed includes a pre- and post-session discussion
between members of the Herpetology team to make sure everyone is on the
same page and to evaluate the animals’ progress.
concludes with another round of record data entry and correspondence and
a check-out inspection of all the animals to make sure everybody is
settled in for the night. A not well-advertised, but crucial (and
time-intensive) component of all of the tasks above, is the sweeping,
mopping, dish-washing, disinfecting, and glass cleaning of our service
and exhibit areas. We also spend a good amount of time out on the
exhibit gallery floor to interact with guests and answer questions
throughout the day.
What sort of knowledge or training is required to properly care for tomistomas?
crocodilians have the same basic biological needs: a proper light/dark
period, adequate temperatures in the air and water, appropriate variety
of food, and a home spacious enough to exercise and practice natural
behaviors. Learning what those specific parameters are, and how to
ensure we meet them, is the most important knowledge we develop.
Additionally, because Tomistoma can be incredibly psychologically
sensitive compared to other crocodilian species, extensive experience in
animal behavior and stress recognition and mitigation are critical to
maintaining their health.
Under what conditions can tomistomas thrive? How does the aquarium maintain these conditions in their exhibit?
prefer water and air temperatures in the low 80’s, with a basking spot
of about 100 degrees. We maintain this environment through in-line water
heaters, specialized basking lights and radiant infrared heaters, and
the building HVAC. Optimal water quality is maintained through a very
large filtration system that sits above the exhibit, supervised by our
Team, and is checked weekly by our in-house Water Quality Lab
technicians. Behaviorally, Tomistoma can be shy, and while they
generally get along together, sometimes need their privacy. We help them
with this structurally, by building natural blind spots and visual
barriers into the exhibit, and by providing access to an adjoining
“holding area” with both water and land area where they can get some
What kind of preventative care do these crocs receive?
are very physically tough animals, and have some of the strongest
immune systems in the animal kingdom, so their preventative care needs
are pretty minimal. Our veterinary staff might evaluate fecal or blood
samples to keep an eye out for potential health risks, and we conduct
annual physical exams and health discussions to identify any issues, but
in general their health management is reactive in nature. Many
illnesses in crocs are preventable through proper environment, diet, and
reducing the risk of accidental transmission of pathogens, which we do
through footbaths, consistent cleaning of feeding equipment, and overall
cleanliness of access points to the exhibit.
What are Ralf and Sommer’s favorite food?
They both really like rats and chicks.
How would you describe Ralf and Sommer’s personalities? How do their personalities affect how they are cared for?
is very bold, very confident, and very food motivated. While this
potentially makes her more dangerous to work around, it’s also made her
much easier to train which in turn, creates opportunities to work with
her safely. For instance, she learned to follow a target pole into their
holding pool really quickly, so any time we need to move her off
exhibit to clean thoroughly, it’s very easy to do so.
the other hand, is very shy, picky about who he’ll work with in training
sessions, and if circumstances aren’t perfect, he has no problem diving
to the bottom of the pool, sitting in a dark corner, and waiting for us
to leave before he comes out again, often hours later. He is slower to
learn new behaviors because he is still a little hesitant to “come out
of his shell”. In fact, he was here at the Aquarium for nearly 6 months
before he would eat from tongs!
What is the most difficult part about your job?
balance among the many different responsibilities of the job. As
zookeepers, we wear a lot of hats: cook, cleaner, trainer, plumber,
electrician, carpenter, vet assistant, chemist, engineer, sculptor,
painter, author, educator, data entry technician, groomer, nutritionist,
accountant, and on rare occasion… rodeo clown.
Squeezing all of
those duties into a 40 hour week takes an incredible amount of
coordination, communication, and flexibility, particularly when trying
to synchronize schedules for tasks requiring multiple teammates, even
multiple departments, all of whom have their own priorities during their day.
Do they bite? Are they friendly to humans/to each other?
we say, anything with a mouth can bite, that’s what mouths are for.
Among crocodilians, however, Tomistoma fall into the lower end of the
aggression spectrum. Attacks on humans are rare (30 documented attacks
in the last 10 years, only 12 fatal, compared to 1100+ attacks by
saltwater crocodiles in the same span), but as with many wild animals,
creating an association between humans and food increases the risk of a
bite substantially. For Tomistoma, who have a very healthy natural fear
and aversion to humans, the difference can be night and day (Ralf and
Sommer present an ideal example of this as I mentioned above).
tend to get along pretty well with each other, as long as they have
adequate space and food. Social disputes are largely settled through
body language and intimidation, but fights occasionally erupt.
Ralf and Sommer, there is an interesting social situation occurring
right now. When they arrived, Sommer was the larger croc by a wide
margin and was the established dominant animal in the pool. Now that
Ralf is catching up to her in size, and will eventually surpass her,
they are restructuring their social hierarchy. He is getting more
assertive, and she is reluctant to back down, so there are occasional
conflicts, particularly right after feeding time. These conflicts almost
always end with Sommer chasing Ralf up the ramp and out of the water.
She may bite him lightly to expedite his exit, but never causes any
serious injury. Once he’s out, she’ll keep an eye on him for a little
while, but the conflict is usually over after that. That is the
importance of providing an ideal habitat with lots of hiding spaces and
blind corners, nearly any physical dispute can be mitigated and even
terminated simply by giving the submissive animal a way out.