Cold-blooded creatures who aren't as cold as you think By: Evelyn Myers

When you think of reptiles, you may automatically think of all the threats that they can pose. Stories of alligators attacking children and fatal snake bites are easily spread, leaving readers with worries and fears of the dangers of reptiles. But what kinds of threats do they really pose to us humans? And if they aren’t as big of a threat as many people seem to think, then how do we break past the stigma against reptiles?

The reptilian reality

In 2012, the department of wildlife ecology and conservation for the University of Florida said that, in the United States, it is nine times more likely to die by being struck by lightning than by venomous snake bite. Yet many people are more willing to walk in a thunderstorm than get anywhere near a reptile.

According to Grégory Bulté, a biology professor from Carleton University, reptiles share a similar sentiment towards humans. “Most species of reptiles want nothing to do with you,” he said, when talking of the minimal threats that reptiles pose.

Reptiles such as this Western diamondback rattlesnake are dangerous, but Bulté said that even rattlesnakes prefer to avoid humans than pick fights.

Bulté went on to say that here in Canada, we pose more threats to reptiles than they do to us. As is, in Canada we don’t have an ideal climate for these cold-blooded creatures. He said that because of this, most reptiles in Canada stay very close to the southern border. All of this leaves us not having a very dense population of reptiles.

He said that the number one threat to reptiles is habitat destruction, followed by roads. Since most species of reptiles are found where there are many people, many reptiles, like snakes and turtles, will migrate across the roads and get run over. More locally, Bulté said that poaching is also an issue, as people will collect reptiles, especially turtles, for the pet trades.

Even though we are a bigger threat to reptiles than they are to us, a negative view of reptiles gets passed around. If their threat is this minimal, then why are they so feared?

The reason for the stigma

Bulté said that it largely comes from a lack of exposure. It’s a fear and dislike that gets passed down from parent to child. When talking of what makes reptiles an easy target, even when the statistics aren’t necessarily there, he said that “it’s a culture, a misinformed culture that’s very deeply engrained and that’s really hard to shake with evidence.”

The Canadian Museum of Nature currently has an exhibit on reptiles that helps to dispel some of the misconceptions. One of the many things it explains is that alligators often don't actually want to attack any humans. It explains that the few alligator attacks that have occurred have usually happened because of the alligator mistaking the human as something else.

John Swettenham, the director of marketing and corporate advancement for the Canadian Museum of Nature, said that the reasons for negative views of reptiles can be personal. He said that the way they move can seem unnatural. On top of that, snakes have been negatively viewed throughout the ages, all the way back to the Bible. Swettenham said that it all comes down to how they are different. He said that “like any fear, anything you don’t know or can’t relate to you’re afraid of.”

However, there is an easy way to move past these fears. If the main source of the fears is people being underexposed to reptiles, then people simply need to have more contact with them.

A solution

The Canadian Museum of Nature currently has a special exhibit featuring a wide variety of reptiles. The exhibit was developed in Pennsylvania by Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland, and will be on display at the museum until April 8, 2017.

The exhibit features many turtles in order to start a conversation on conservation issues.

Each creature includes information on it so that visitors of the exhibit can learn about each one. The exhibit includes this Pueblan milk snake - which it explains is a harmless snake that is often mixed up with the deadly coral snake.

Or how the Australian blue-tongued skink uses its blue tongue to shock predators when it is in danger.

The exhibit includes live reptiles that helps to show how these creatures live. It shows visitors how these frilled leaf-tailed geckos change between a light tan colour and a darker brown depending on where they are.

Daniel Boivin, the head of design at the Canadian Museum of Nature, said that the exhibit works hard to increase awareness about reptiles. “A lot more effort was put into getting people to become more sensitized to the fact that reptiles aren’t just ugly or scary,” Boivin said, “that they’re animals and they’re living.”

“sometimes it’s something very simple as, particularly with live animals, it’s just looking into their faces or seeing them moving around.” Boivin said.

He said that the exhibit features many turtles, and that it touches on a conservation message, as turtles are a good indicator of the health of an ecosystem.

According to Boivin, the best the museum can do to break the stigma against reptiles is to work to inspire people to change their perception. He said that in the end, the decision is left up to each person. He said that it doesn’t always have to be a big moment that changes someone’s perspective, “sometimes it’s something very simple as, particularly with live animals, it’s just looking into their faces or seeing them moving around.”

This simple solution of showing people and teaching them about reptiles is also found in what Swettenham said. When talking about what the museum is doing to educate past the surface fears, he says that they can move past those fears “simply by making people familiar with the natural world.”

According to Bulté, if we want anyone to invest into a conservation effort, we need to do what we can to dispel any negative attitudes.

Bulté said that “if we give up on protecting these kinds of organisms, then where are we stopping?”
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Evelyn Myers
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