Originally published in Herptile 29(3) September 2004:110-117.



You see them when you go to a zoo. You see them at the local Natural History Museum. In fact you see them at almost every major institution. These are the areas where the public is generally not allowed. You know these areas exist because of the large "Off display" and similar signs.

But why are these areas hidden?

The reasons are many and while zoos and Natural History Museums are not regarded as secure institutions in terms of national security and the like, the justification for having "off display" areas is real.

So while this article appears from an Australian perspective, you can rest assured that it's pretty much the same sort of scene in North America, Europe and most other parts of the world.


The display area of a zoo is primarily there for the purpose of educating the public. One sees the icon species like large snakes, big lizards and those animals deemed to be spectacular and often of regional importance. But more often then not, it's the "off-display" area that the really intense research and conservation activity goes on.
The species here are often small, innocuous and quite frankly would be of little interest as a public exhibit.

A classic example here in Australia is the rare and possibly endangered Striped Legless Lizard (Delma impar).

Native to the basalt-strewn grassland plains west of Melbourne the species is pitifully small and spends most of it's time hiding under cover.

Rather than being housed in large zoo-type exhibits, the lizards are kept at the Melbourne Zoo "off-display" in small plastic tubs in a rack-style set-up.

Here the lizards are kept in large enough numbers to support a decent breeding colony. By having the lizards "off-display" the staff at the zoo find they are able to have better access to specimens and not be constrained by having to keep them in cages that allow the public to view the animals.

The lizards are thus allowed to remain out of sight, which is their preference and hence breeding prospects are enhanced.

The "off-display" area of Melbourne Zoo also includes a number of endangered geckos as well as some endangered Romer's Tree Frogs (Philautus romeri) from Hong Kong.

Again the reason for the specimens being off-display is primarily due to the secretive nature of the specimens when combined with the need to house large numbers and to successfully breed them.

The benefits of all this show up when the zoo produces enough specimens to either share with other such institutions, or ultimately to release specimens back into the wild. The latter assumes that the original cause of decline has been mitigated.

Further benefits from the off-display areas of zoos show up when surplus animals are released into herpetoculture. For some years, the Melbourne zoo has been doing just that. Relatively unusual among public zoos here in Australia, the Melbourne Zoo has been selling surplus reptiles to private keepers.

Another bonus from the research efforts in the off-display areas of zoos are the numerous publications that ultimately result.

Some of the earliest python breeding publications, such as those by Boos in the 1979 issue of the International Zoo Yearbook came from the off-display efforts at zoos here in Australia and the USA. This information has contributed to the situation we see today, whereby breeding most pythons is effectively routine and commonplace.

A less satisfactory part of the "off-display" areas of many zoos are the holding cages for reptiles seized by local authorities. Yes, that's the critters smuggled into the country without correct permits and the like. Then there's the local species as well, seized on the basis that the original keeper didn't have the correct permits.

While in the past zoo keepers enthusiastically regarded seized reptiles as a great source of new stock and often sought after species, the general view of keepers at zoos has in recent years moved against holding seized stock.

Of greater significance has been the ever-present risk of importing specimens with diseases that may spread to the rest of the collection.

For years, Melbourne Zoo's had this very problem. As the local wildlife department's preferred repository for seized reptiles, they've brought in countless diseased reptiles, mite infestations and the like, not all of which they've managed to contain to the incoming critters.

And yes, with the best keepers and veterinary surgeons money can buy, Melbourne Zoo's had to contend with almost every reptile disease you can name, including the baddies like Cryptosporidium, IBD and others.

Thus the losses of specimens potentially outweighs the gains in terms of new and wanted creatures.

And so these days, the keepers at Melbourne, Taronga and most other Australian zoos, tell me that they'd rather never see the reptiles seized by the wildlife authorities.

The problem for the zoos is that invariably following a seizure, there is litigation. If the original owner of the reptiles win's their court case, the reptiles must be returned to them. And if there are complications, such as death or disease, the original keeper can then sue the institution or government department for damages.

The best known case in Australia was that when a Queensland keeper Bob Buckley had his Green Pythons (Chondropython viridis) seized by the local wildlife authority. The snakes were held at Sydney's Taronga Zoo pending the legal proceedings. Ultimately Buckley won and the court ordered the return of the snakes.

Some had died and so Buckley in turn sued the zoo and the government. He got a very large payout.

There is another less satisfactory part of the "off-display" part of zoos and it bears no real reflection on the zoos and those who run them.

As any competent herpetoculturist will know, many species actually do best in small and very Spartan cages. Most of us are familiar with the small rack-style cages used by most keepers, breeders and the like.

Because zoos tend to be at the cutting edge of herpetoculture, they too use them.

The only problem with this, is that because of their public profile, the zoos have a habit of being targeted by the "anti's", the so-called "animal rights" people. The zoos get targeted if they have anything in a cage that doesn't appear to resemble the wild habitat that the animals come from.

And so, for the general public at large, most zoos like to pretend that they keep all their creatures in large naturalistic terraria, and thus they keep the business end of their operations, including the large-scale captive-breeding well and truly "off-display".

Now although the "off-display" areas are just that "off-display", there are always exceptions. Included here are almost any bona-fide herpetologists.

At the major public zoos here in Australia, (Melbourne, Taronga (Sydney), Adelaide and Perth), the head keepers (Chris Banks, Peter Harlow, Terry Morley and Gerald Kuchling (also of the University of Western Australia)) have only been too keen to let fellow herpers into the "off-display" areas as best as their busy schedules allow.

In my more limited dealings with curators in other countries, the situation's much the same. We herpers really are like an extended family or religious sect. And that's how it should be.


A typical Natural History Museum usually has a large dinosaur skeleton in the entrance lobby and then most of the exhibits are stuffed animals, fossils and interactive displays. That's the public facade.

The business-end of the Museum is well and truly off-display.

These are usually hidden in the adjacent buildings or floors that are simply not accessible to the public.

Here you find a mixture of science labs, equipped with the latest scientific equipment, as well as the stables like work-benches, microscopes and the like.

Usually not too far away are the thousands or even millions of preserved specimens, which are neatly ordered into their relevant taxa.

For reptiles and frogs this usually means being pickled in jars and drums containing a formalin solution.

The reptile curators have several jobs, including to make sure that all these specimens are kept in order and more-or-less reflect current taxonomic thinking. Although I recall a couple of years back Jeanette Covacevich in the Queensland Museum remarking to me that if they kept ten years behind current taxonomy, they'd be doing well.

Her theory had merit. In the case of well-known species, it's often deemed better to leave them with their old name labels, rather than change them to something new, only to find that the name is reversed or changed again a short-time later.

That's why you still see the Australian Brown Water Pythons at that Museum still labelled as "Liasis mackloti" after Kluge.

Covacevich was right when she said, "It doesn't matter what name we give them, we all know that they're Water Pythons."

Besides that, most Museums label everything with individual serial numbers.

Museums always want specimens and almost any taxonomist you'll meet will complain about the general shortage of specimens available for study. And that's in spite of all the Australian Museums willingly exchanging and sharing specimens as research dictates.

Here's a couple of statistics for you.

Of all the hundreds of thousands of reptile specimens in Australian Museums, to date only three False King Brown Snakes (Pailsus pailsei) are known to be in collections. That hardly represents a decent sample. Particularly when you think that their only known habitat the Leichardt River Drainage and environs near Mount Isa, Queensland was invaded by feral Cane Toads (Bufo marinus) in about 1985 and the holotype was collected in 1984.

For the Pilbara Death Adder (Acanthophis wellsei) you have about 50 specimens. Again not much of a sample. There are loads of other species which are similarly poorly represented.

And so you'll find almost all curators dead keen to receive any new or unusual reptile offered to them.

To all you private keepers out there who ever get something unusual, can I ask that when it dies, you freeze or pickle it and offer it to the local Natural History Museum along with any and all data you have for it. 20 years later some totally unconnected researcher may find your material very useful!

When they're not preserving and maintaining their collections and databases, Museum curators get up to their own research. You'll find their results in their own "in-house" Museum publications (e.g. Records of the West Australian Museum), as well as the more familiar journals like Copeia, Journal of Herpetology, etc.

Curators at Museums also have a range of other duties. Besides an ongoing role in maintaining and updating the "on-display" exhibits, they have to perform routine identifications for members of the public, (such as that snake that just got a shovel through it's head), as well as answering a whole host of other queries from potential authors, media and the like.

By and large they do this job remarkably well.

Occasionally and when time permits, Museum curators will get into the field themselves to do research on reptiles or even keep live animals for some study. However more common than this, is collaboration with others at places like Universities who may do combined studies on live animals and the dead specimens held in the Museum's archives.

Because most of the business-end of the Museum curator's job involves dead animals, they are not called upon to show their off-display areas to reptile hobbyists as often as their counterparts at zoos.

And unless one is looking at specimens of interest, the sight of rows and rows of jars, polydrums and tubs really isn't all that inspiring. However for one who has never set foot in a Museum's spirit house, it is quite an eye-opener. But after you've seen a few, they all tend to look the same.

But just don't light up a cigarette! You may blow the whole place sky high!
Because Natural History Museums tend to be stuffy places with dead animals and not much else, they just don't cut the grade when it comes to public profile and popularity like the zoos. That's even if in modern new buildings like the Melbourne and Brisbane Museums.

When a zoo sticks it's hand out for a government subsidy, the money usually comes quickly. Every bureaucrat and politician likes to be photographed next to a cuddly live animal.

For Museums, it's not quite so easy.

Jeanette Covacevich (the recently retired curator at Queensland's Museum) regularly complained about the need for Museums to involve the public more and gain a greater public relevancy.

To this end, she regularly invited volunteers into the place to help with many of the mundane and time consuming tasks. This included the re-ordering of specimens to reflect more recent taxonomic changes, or even simply to rearrange snakes from set of containers to another.

Occasionally however, these ring-ins mixed things up.

When I spent a few days looking at their King Brown Snakes (Cannia australis), I found a few unusual specimens among the few hundred filed into the relevant tank. This included some Spotted Blacks (Panacedechis guttatus) and Papuan Blacks (Cannia papuanus) that had been misidentified by volunteers.

The work of a Museum curator is often thankless and without acknowledgement.

I recall one curator here in Australia who was constantly criticised for doing nothing because he hadn't published much in journals. "Where's the evidence of his work?" you'd hear his critics exclaim.

But as one who worked with him on some occasions, I can defend him to the hilt. He had to manage a massive collection on his own, when other comparable institutions had two or even three curators. And to make things worse, his whole section was massively underfunded and put simply he never had funds to do any research, other than what he paid for himself out of his wages.

I recall when I spent a few days in Brisbane with Jeanette Covacevich and Patrick Couper at the Queensland Museum. Like most other curators, they are only too eager to open up their facilities to others who want to study specimens in their collection.

Sharing their labs, I was given a good opportunity to see them at work.

Couper spent most of the time I was there constructing a snake skeleton exhibit. It was a work of art and had been painstakingly produced.

Covacevich complained to me on the last day that she'd got nothing done.

The "nothing" was research.

But meanwhile she'd been run off her feet answering public inquiries, doing identifications, reviewing other people's papers prior to publication and more. Not only that, but at the time she was nursing a broken arm which she'd sustained after being run over by a push-bike rider outside the front of the building!

You can ditto the above for the other Australian Museums. And yet in spite of their workloads, every curator I've dealt with in Australia (and I think I've dealt with every major museum here as well as a lot outside Australia) is only too keen to help others with whatever research they have.

The scene at Universities is much the same as for the other institutions. When called on to assist, they usually deliver the goods.

However because they are not repositories for specimens in the same manner that zoos and Museums are, there is less call on them and their facilities from outsiders. However University postgraduates, professors and readers are also at the leading edge of the science of herpetology. Their research is as diverse as their funds allow, and governments devote more funds to university based herpetological research than anywhere else.

The results of their research shows up in PhD Theses, journals and the like and include all aspects of herpetology.


You'll find these in the suburbs of the cities and elsewhere. Although not usually sign-posted as being "off-display", the private facilities of most herpetoculturists are exactly that.

Without the need to justify spending to a higher power (your department head), or having to contend with the day to day grind of dealing with the public, private keepers are often able to experiment to an extent that other professionally employed herpetologists cannot.

Often these private off-display areas are set-up with state-of-the-art equipment and breed reptiles on a scale that many a public zoo can only dream of.

Furthermore the private keepers are often the only people working on a given species and hence most discoveries may in fact be made them.

Countless discoveries have been made by these people and is reflected in publications in like Monitor and Herpetofauna (Australia) and this magazine.

The cross-fertilisation of ideas between private herpetoculturist and the professionally employed at zoos, museums and universities is huge and many a professional study has had it's genesis in a series of observations made either by a private keeper or an astute observation made in the field.

Yes, herpetology really is a team sport and yes, you'll certainly find it in the off-display areas.

RAYMOND HOSER has been at the leading edge of Australian herpetology for three decades.

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