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Exotic, Aquatic and Back Yard Creatures 

Tropical rainforests are the most important type of ecosystem in the world because more than half of all species of plants and animals are found there.  The reason for this incredible species diversity is that conditions for plant growth are ideal with warm weather year round and plenty of rainfall.

Because of the thick plant growth and tall trees, most of the habitat in the tropical rainforest is above the ground and most animals can be found in the trees.  The Green Iguana lives in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America.  It is an example of an animal adapted for living in the trees.  

The iguana's green color gives it good camouflage in the leaves.  Its legs and feet are adapted for climbing.  The legs are long and the fingers are extremely long with long sharp claws at the end.  This is so that the iguana can grip tightly to the tree.  The back legs point out and back instead of forward.  This is an adaptation for gripping the tree as the iguana climbs down. Its body is light weight and it can jump from high in the trees to escape predators and land without hurting itself. It has large eyes because it needs good eyesight to see where it is going as it climbs through the trees.

People in South America refer to Green Iguanas as “Chicken of the Tree” and they are commonly hunted for their meat.  While iguanas are not endangered, many animals around the world are because humans kill them for the value of their meat, skin or other body parts.  Examples are the Black Rhinoceros whose horn is used in Chinese medicine and African Elephants that are killed for their tusks.   Many species have already become extinct and many more will become extinct in the future because of hunting and poaching.

The Green Iguana's color blends in with the leaves of the trees where it lives.

The iguana's long legs, fingers and sharp claws are an adaptation for climbing.

The Common Boa Constrictor is also from the tropical rainforests of South and Central America  but it has a different habitat than the Green Iguana.  You can tell something about an animal's habitat by its camoflauge.  The Boa blends in with the leaves on the forest floor so it spends most of its time on the ground.  With its thick heavy body it is not very well adapted for climbing. If it were a tree snake it would be green with a long slender body.

The Boa is camoflauged for living on the ground

Tropical Savannas and grasslands are ecosystems that are warm year around but have little rainfall.  All of the rain comes during a short rainy season and the dry season can last for 10 months with no rainfall at all!   Forests cannot grow because it is too dry but grass can survive the drought.  This is the main ecosystem found in Africa where the Savannah Monitor lives.  This monitor lizard shares its territory with the lions, giraffes, zebras, and elephants we are familiar with.   

Like the tropical rainforests, grassland ecosystems are also being destroyed by humans at an alarming rate.  Grasslands are used to graze cattle and too much grazing can turn them into deserts.  Scientists call this “desertification”.  In the past 50 years, the Sahara Desert in Africa has expanded by hundreds of square miles because of the desertification of grasslands.  

The plants and animals from the savannah must be adapted to survive through the long dry season with very little water available.  Large animals like elephants migrate from one area to another when it gets too dry to find food or water.  The Savannah Monitor is too small to travel that far so it burrows into the ground to survive.  This protects it from the heat and the drought.  Its camouflage blends in with the color of the dirt.  It has short legs and short strong fingers for digging.  Its body is very flexible so that is can move around in the tight space of its underground burrow.  When it gets extremely dry the Savannah Monitor become inactive and hibernate the reptiles around here do in the winter.  It has smaller eyes than the iguana and has poor eyesight, depending instead on its keen sense of smell to find prey and detect danger.  Its uses its tongue to help with its sense of smell the same way a snake does.

 

The monitor lizard's color blends in with the dirt.

The desert ecosystems are the driest of all.  Plants and animals have to be adapted to living in an extremely dry environment.  The Bearded Dragon is a lizard from Australia that is adapted for living in the desert.  Its light color gives it camouflage in the sandy soil and reflects the heat of the sun.   A captive Bearded Dragon must a have place to bask that is over 100 degrees and it will rarely move from that spot!  The flat body of the Bearded Dragon makes it easy for it to burrow under the sand to escape from the heat and from its predators.  

The temperature in the desert can get cold at night and very hot during the day.  The Bearded Dragon can regulate its temperature by changing its skin color from dark to light.  If it wants to warm up it gets darker to absorb the energy from the sunlight.  If it wants to cool off it gets lighter to reflect the sunlight. The Bearded Dragon has lots of little spikes that stick out all over its body. That gives its body more surface area which helps it to regulate its temperature. 

There is very litte food and water available for animals living in the desert.  Reptiles are common in desert ecosystems because they can get by without much food or water.  Reptiles are cold blooded so they don't use energy to keep body warm.  Animals get their energy from their food.  Since cold blooded animals don't use as much energy they don't need as much food as warm blooded animals.  

Reptiles don't need as much water because their kidneys conserve water by making a waste product that has very little water in it.  This is the white stuff you see in bird and reptile poop!  It is called uric acid.  The waste from our kidneys is called urine and it is 95% water.  You would die of kidney failure in just a few days with no water but desert reptiles can go for a long time without water.  In fact, the Bearded Dragon does not drink water.  It gets all the water it needs from the insects and plants that it eats.  

    

The type of ecosystem found in our area is the temperate deciduous forest.  Temperate ecosystems are in between the hot tropic and cold artic regions.  They have hot and cold seasons.  The deciduous trees shed their leaves and go dormant as an adaptation to the short winter days and cold weather.  Reptiles have a similar adaptation called hibernation.  During the winter they find a sheltered place where they will not freeze then they go dormant for five or six months.  

The Eastern Garter Snake is one of the most common snakes found around people.  These hardy snakes can be found as far north as Hudson Bay in Canada!  Most reptiles lay soft eggs and do not protect their eggs.  Garter snakes along with Copperheads, Rattlesnakes, and a few others carry their young inside their bodies and give live birth much like mammals.  They can keep the babies warm by warming up their bodies in the sun.  The babies develop more quickly and are born sooner than babies of egg laying snakes.  The babies can even develop in cool weather, so this is an adaptation to living in a temperate ecosystem.  

The Black Rat Snake and the Black King Snake are also common around people because they find prey in buildings and houses.  They are harmless and very good to have around because they eat mice and rats.  Black Rat Snakes can get almost seven feet long!  King Snakes eat lizards and other snakes as well as rodents.  

These two black snakes along with several other black and dark colored snakes found in our area do not have camouflage.  Their color is an adaptation that helps them survive our temperate climate.  Dark color absorbs heat better than lighter colors allowing these snakes to warm up in the sun more efficiently.  They spend less time hibernating and more time active.  This helps them to survive because they can grow faster and produce more offspring.  

The Eastern Box Turtle is the only land turtle found in our area.  It has a tough shell made of bone that it can close itself in to thanks to a hinged bottom part that acts like a door.  It's shell is so tough that the only natural predator with jaws powerful enough to eat a full grown Box Turtle is a Bear!  The Box Turtle's clawed feet are adapted for walking and digging but it moves very slowly becaus of its thick protective shell.

The shell of the softshell turtle is made up of a leathery skin much less protective bone than most turtles.  Its shell is adapted for speed instead of for protection.   The streamlined shape of this turtle allows it to move through the water more quickly and with less friction.  Its feet are webbed for swimming and it has claws for digging. Its long neck and pointed nose allow it to bury itself under gravel or sand and come up for air without coming out of hiding.  Only the long neck and head comes out.  The turtle can stay buried.  

All amphibians are aquatic at some point in their lives because their eggs are laid in the water and they hatch out as larva that have gills.  Frogs and toads start as tadpoles that go through metamorphosis and change into adults.  Salamanders have a similar life cycle with larvae that have gills that can be seen on the outside of the body. Amphibians have wet skin that is not waterproof and doesn't protect them from drying out. 

The African Clawed Frog is one of just a few frog species that is totally aquatic, spending its entire life in the water.  Its back legs are in a different position than other frogs so it can swim better but it can't hop.  Its webbed feet are much larger than other frogs making it a better swimmer.  It has small eyes and poor eyesight since it lives in the water all of the time.  It has lungs and comes up for air but it can also get oxygen through its skin.  Amphibians have skin that is permeable allowing water to leak out of their bodies but also allowing them the get oxygen through their skin.

The Bullfrog is the largest frog in North America.  It is semi-aquatic.  Its spends most of it time on land near the edge of a lake or stream waiting for prey to come close enough for it to leap out and gulp down.  It must jump in the water occasionally to keep from drying out and it will leap into the water to escape predators.  Its feet are adapted for swimming and hopping.  They are webbed but they also have bumps on the fingers that are used for gripping the ground.  Bullfrog can also get oxygen through their skin allowing them to stay underwater without breathing for a long time.  In the winter they hibernate underwater and don't come up for air for months!

People have introduced African Clawed Frogs and Bullfrogs into ecosystems where they do not belong.  Thousands of species of plants and animals have been introduced both accidentally and intentionally by humans making introduced species are the second leading cause of extinction worldwide behind destruction of habitat.  This problem continues to get worse with the increase in global trade since plants and animals “hitch-hike” in shipments.  Bullfrogs are endangering native frogs where they have been introduced because frogs are a big part of their diet.

The American Toad is the most common toad in our area.  Adult toads are not aquatic.  Their feet have no webbing and their skin does not dry out as easily as the skin of frogs.  Toads survive on land by storing extra water in their bladders.  This is why they pee so much when you pick them up.  They have a special claw on the bottom of their back feet that helps them dig so they can bury themselves for protection from drying out.  They can even get a drink from damp soil by soaking water through their permeable skin..   They mainly eat insects that they catch with their long sticky tongues.

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