PANTHEROSAURUS MAGAZINE - RECENTLY PUBLISHED ARTICLE
RECORD KEEPING FOR REPTILES -
BY RAYMOND HOSER,
41 VILLAGE AVENUE, DONCASTER, VICTORIA, 3108, AUSTRALIA.
This paper first appeared in PANTHEROSAURUS - NEWSLETTER OF THE VICTORIAN ASSOCIATION OF AMATEUR HERPETOLOGISTS (VAAH) IN 1995, What follows is a text only version of the same article (no italics). Please download the entire article if desired, however if the article is later referred to, please cite Pantherosaurus as the original published source. Publication details are that it was published in Volume 1, number 1.
There have been a number of previous articles written in reptile magazines and journals in relation to keeping records on reptiles and the importance of this. These include:- Hoser (1984) and others.
For most people the idea of keeping detailed records in relation to their captive reptiles sounds like an absolute bore and waste of time. In fact in all practical terms, over 90% of the time it is just that - a waste of time. However it is in those few cases, when something goes wrong, that the possession of good records can be invaluable. In fact, good records for a captive reptile in circumstances of illness may mean the difference between life and death for the animal. Now when one realises the attachment one gets to their reptiles (or dare I say pets), let alone their monetary value, the need to keep these animals alive for as long as possible assumes paramount importance.
For example if sloppy records (or no records) end up costing a person a $2,000 python, then that person may well regret not having had the self-discipline to keep good records.
Often when a reptile-keeper takes their sick reptile to a veterinary surgeon, the first thing they will ask is where are the records. It is often from records (and sometimes records alone) that proper disease diagnoses are made and reptile's lives saved. I cannot emphasise this enough.
Even failures in keeping - deaths, non-breeding and so on, must be recorded. These may later be the impetus for planned success. For example in the late 1970's early 1980's I had trouble breeding Death Adders (genus Acanthophis). I carted my records (which were detailed) to Rick Shine at Sydney University and cried on his shoulder about my failures. I was particularly upset as I had bred many other reptiles previously. Also Joe Bredl and Peter Mirtschin in South Australia were at the same time pumping out young Adders from repeated breeding and the one snake I really wanted to breed I couldn't. To me, my failure stuck out like a sore thumb. After seeing my notes, Shine stated he was sure that the only reason for my failure was that I was overheating my snakes. Or at least that was the only 'fault' he could identify. Shine picked this one up straight away. I took his advice, cooled my Death Adders (and Ant-hill Pythons (Anteresia perthensis)) over the following winter and bred the lot the very next season. None had bred prior.
Now when I talk records for reptiles I'm not talking about those little bits of paper that keep wildlife bureaucrats happy. That is another story. But rather I am talking about the detailed files that may ultimately keep your reptiles happy - and that is what I hope must of us are about.
Some rules of thumb when keeping records for reptiles are as follows:-
The system should be as simplified as possible, while still allowing for maximum detail to be recorded.
All information should be as accurate as possible, meaning given facts should be recorded at the time they occur or as close to that as possible.
The system should be easy to use and time efficient.
The system used should be open ended in that it can allow for any number of reptiles, time frame or amount of data.
The system should be standardised and able to be used on any potential species (for example all types of reptile).
While there are many methods of keeping records, there should always be a 'hard (printed) copy, even if a computer is the primary storage site.
The use of technology to record information (for example cameras and photos) or store it (computers) is often more efficient than simple pen and paper (drawing or writing) in the long term and also aids in recall/later use of information.
Security is needed to protect records from potential threats (sources of loss), as in theft, fire, computer going down, or whatever.
THE RECORD SYSTEM ITSELF.
Invariably this involves giving every animal an Identification number. While it may be nice to give every pet snake or lizard a human-like name, most people with more than ten specimens tend not to do this. Therefore the only logical way to give each animal a name is with a number. All major breeders, zoos and other institutions do this, or perhaps I should say, all the competent ones do.
I typically adopted a very simple system for the reptiles I held. Each was given a number based on their scientific name. Diamond/Carpet Snakes were listed as MS-1, MS-2 and so on, based on their scientific name (Morelia spilota), and so on for other species. When two species had the same scientific name initials, I would add a second letter of the species name to separate the two types of animal. For example APr for a Northern Death Adder (Acanthophis praelongus) and APy for a Desert Death Adder (Acanthophis pyrrhus). This system worked fine for my collection which only had limited numbers of species. The system worked well as it was open ended as to the numbers I could give the snakes and lizards and yet was simple as I didn't actually need to learn any elaborate code to identify the animals or remember what numbers had been assigned to what snakes or lizards.
In keeping records for given reptiles, I recorded all on sheets of paper (held in the snake rooms) before this information was later transferred to individual files for each animal. Prior to 1983, individual snake files were held in paper form, but later these records were keyed into a computer. The original hand-written notes taken in the snake rooms were retained as back-up hard copy in the event of losses in other files, even though I backed up my disks regularly.
For people and/or institutions with large collections, where it may not be possible to remember a number assigned to a given snake or lizard, card files are often a preferred method of day-to-day use. A card (or cards) are assigned to a given reptile and stay with the reptile while in use. If/when the reptile is moved from cage to cage, the card goes with it. The card is stored on the side of the cage or in a similar spot.
As the records always record key identifying features, (scalation, different markings, etc), the given reptile can always be recognised in a group cage or similar. Again such records or recording systems are particularly important in large collections where a keeper may not be intimately familiar with a given reptile.
Individual reptiles' files tend to record key data for that reptile, including body measurements (at regular intervals), feeding, sloughing, and other key individual events. Breeding activity, often includes more than one reptile and so these records are often stored on different files, but whether this is actually done is a matter of choice for the person involved.
ABBREVIATIONS AND CODES.
Because two aims in keeping records are to 1/ Minimise time taken to do the task and 2/ Store as much information as possible, and these two aims are competing, the use of coded abbreviations helps to achieve both. Rather than writing out a full word, it is easier to write just one or a few letters. I adopted this method after I found myself spending too much time keeping records. The code used by myself was simple and easy to remember, being based on the words abbreviated. As I used it frequently, I never had trouble remembering the abbreviations used.
Of course, with computers and word-processing, the abbreviated terms can always be written out in full with ease at a later date - again with minimum effort by the person keeping the records - provided you have the right programme.
The abbreviations/code used by myself ran as follows:-
MAO = Measurements as of ... (A date is then given - I used - day - month - year)
SV = Snout to vent length
T = Tail Length
TBL = Total body length (as in from tip of snout to end of tail)
EE = Eye to eye
ES = Eye to snout (tip of snout)
EN = Eye to nostril
NN = Nostril to nostril
W = Weight
MG = Maximum girth
HL = Head length (max.)
HW = Head width (max.)
HD = Head depth
NG = No growth (since previous recorded measurement)
All measurements were given as numbers only, the linear measurements always being in centimetres and all weight measurements being in grams. As the two terms are not interchangeable in the above context, there was never risk of confusion in measurement.
Other (uncoded) information would be written out in full, but perhaps I should stress that about 90% of records I took fitted within my coded system, making it easy and quick to do.
For snake sloughing the following abbreviations/code was used:-
CS = Captive shedding (usually followed by a given number, as in 1, 2, 3, and so on)
P = Pieces (of skin) (preceded by a number)
MOS = Measurements of skin
SV(S) = Snout-vent length of skin
T (S) = Tail length of skin
TBL = Total body length of skin
So as an example on the file of snake AA-4 (A female Death Adder), the following appeared:-
3/7/79 CS-3 1P MOS SV(S) 82.5 T(S) 14 TBL(S) 96.5
MAO-3/7/79 HL 4.2 HW 3.6 HD 1.6 SV 61 T 10.5 TBL 71.5 MG 9.5 W 310
As you can see, that's a lot of information in a very small space. Written or typed in a hurry, many such entries can be made on files in a very short space of time, freeing up time to do other things.
As feeding is a major pre-occupation of reptile and reptile-keeper alike it only stood to reason that I developed a coded system for feeding snakes also...anything to save time!
In line with most entries for reptiles, the first thing recorded is the date. Then what is eaten. Usually I recorded the number of food items first (or if not similar, each is listed as separate entries on new lines), then whether or not they are live and dead (if this needs determining) . L = Live and D = Dead. Simple isn't it!
For colour the following abbreviations are used:
P = Pink
W = White
Bl = Black
Br = Brown
N = Nude (as in mice)
Combinations are separated with a "/" symbol and anything else is written in full.
Sizes or ages are separated as A = Adult, I = Intermediate, or S = Small. Those definitions weren't mandatory for me as I tended to weigh and record weights at time of feeding with scales in the reptile rooms. I adopted units called HMU (coded for Hoser Mouse Units), which equalled 40 grams of mouse, or HRU equalling 400 grams of rat. Although I initially recorded these units on feeding records, their use became redundant as it was usually obvious what was being fed. Thus the writing of HMU or HRU was dropped and numbers only were given. For most people direct recording of weights would be simpler.
R = Rat and M = Mouse. Other animals and food materials used tended to be written out in full.
For food intake the following abbreviations are used:-
T = Taken (Voluntarily)
F = Force fed (in any way)
Z = Regurgitated
When putting feeding records onto main files for each snake, these were listed alone and as sequential entries, away from data relating to sloughing, growth and so on, which were stored in adjacent files. This made it easier to see feeding records in the event of disease, planned breeding and so on, all of which are vital in reptile husbandry. Of course the sequence of listing information would always be the same (see below).
Returning to the file of AA-4, the following entry:-
25/9/80 - (11.00-11.25 PM) 2 LWM - T (1.3)
would mean that on 25th September 1980, between 11 and 11.25 PM two live white mice were taken voluntarily and weighed a combined weight of 52 grams.
With modern computer applications such data can be entered in such a way that it can be even easier to retrieve and make use of later.
For mating behaviour it is also possible to codify notes. This is because of the stereotyped sexual behaviour of most reptiles. I tended to file such records in separate 'General Activity" (GA) files. Entries as usual commenced with a date and then listed activity of the male snake/s or other reptile first before detailing that of females. When pairs of mating reptiles were identified, the males were listed first or when multiple males involved the uppermost or dominant would be first listed. An "X" is placed between numbers of mating snakes.
Other abbreviations/codes used when describing mating activity included;-
O = Observed (not always given or given between two times)
NCO = No copulation occurred
NMA = No mating activity (used in periods of mating activity, when it has been observed)
I = Intermittent copulation
PC = Permanently copulating
S = Started copulating
T = Terminated copulating
... = not observed and appears between two times.
Most of the above abbreviations are used in conjunction with times.
I also adopted a somewhat subjective ten level system of grading observed mating activity, ranging from 1 being a half-hearted attempt at mating without copulation occurring to 10 being the most aroused state for both snakes with connection taking place for the duration of time observed (in excess of 60 minutes).
For eggs and young of reptiles, these were also numbered. Each egg or young was numbered in a manner to identify the parent. Thus AA-25-1, AA-25-2 and so on were young of the Death Adder AA-25. Young snakes carried these numbers for the first twelve months in captivity or until their time of disposal. After that period (12 months), only a few of the offspring would remain and they would be re-assigned a number as if they were a newly obtained reptile (one, not two numbers). Otherwise the system would break down or become unwieldy in the event of a given offspring being third or fourth generation, or perhaps with an even longer captive lineage. As the records for all reptiles are kept, given lineages can always be traced if necessary.
Besides using physical characteristics to identify given captive reptiles (colour, scales/anomalies, etc) other means are sometimes used. Toe clipping, scale clipping and other forms of non-lethal mutilation are also used. Again I suppose, it's 'horses for courses'. More recently the use of micro-chips has also become increasingly widespread. This assists in identifying an animal in a large collection and/or cages with many specimens. I note here however that the greater the number of reptiles kept in a single cage, the greater the risk of potential problems arising. Therefore most keepers attempt to restrict the number of specimens per cage.
Microchipping is also useful in the event of theft in terms of authentically establishing the ownership of a given reptile at a later date. Unfortunately the cost of microchipping reptiles is often prohibitive to most keepers. For most reptiles the cost ranges from about $50-75 (1995) in Australia. Now considering a collection of from 10-50 specimens is fairly commonplace and cannot be treated in any way as excessive, the potential costs involved in microchipping a given collection are usually too high.
Photographing one's collection is also useful in terms of establishing the identity of a given reptile in the event of theft. There is also a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. This is certainly true in many cases. When I first observed mating behaviour in my captive reptiles I would dutifully record what I saw and even went so far as to draw many, many drawings of positions I observed in my snakes. lizards and tortoises. It was only after some years of doing this, that I finally bit the bullet and bought a camera. With one photo, taken in the space of a few seconds, I was able to accurately record what would otherwise have taken hours to draw. The use of video cameras to record reptile activity (such as mating) is also highly recommended.
It is an unfortunate fact of life in Australia at the moment that records you make for the benefit of your reptiles, yourself and science may be used against the better interests of all three. The villains of the piece are government bureaucrats, usually associated with wildlife departments. While I am not saying all bureaucrats are bad - far from it, the fact remains that there are several cases on record of wildlife officials in this country seizing records made in good faith and then using these records to prosecute the person/s who have made them. Invariably the prosecutions have resulted in either trivial (statutory) charges or charges based on partially fabricated evidence being laid. Although most such prosecutions have failed, such as in the Paul Orange case (see Hoser, 1993, for details), the fact remains that in every case the victim or loser has been the person who had their records seized and was put through unnecessary anguish as a result of actions by Government Officials.
Returning to the Orange case, he was prosecuted for feeding "protected' (common) lizards to his legally held snakes. In the State of Victoria, anybody who feeds a snake a skink without a specific permit allowing them to do so is also exposed to the risk of prosecution. When I raised this scenario with a wildlife official in Victoria, the response was 'yes, but, we'd never actually prosecute someone for it'. That might sound fair enough, but besides the fact I didn't believe him, if that were really true, then the law shouldn't be on the books in the first place! For those who think I may be cynical about what bureaucrats may charge a person with, I suggest they read The Hoser Files (Hoser, 1995), which shows charges are sometimes only limited by the imagination.
Getting back to the risk of records falling into the wrong hands (or those that may be potentially hazardous) it is worth noting that in wildlife matters there are usually statutory limitations. In other words if an offence or alleged offence is not prosecuted within a certain time of it taking place (say two years), then after that date a prosecution cannot be launched. Thus a ten year old record of feeding a Grass Skink (Lampropholis guichenoti) to a captive-bred Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) cannot result in a person being prosecuted for the action. In sounding this word of warning about keeping records on reptiles, I am not attempting to discourage the practice - far from it. However it would be negligent of me not to warn of the potential dangers. All I am saying is that it is wise to make sure who gets to see them or the information they may contain. What may appear to be an innocuous activity by the reptile-keeper may be seized upon by a wildlife bureaucrat as the basis for a full-blown criminal trial.
Hoser, R. T. (1984), 'A System for Accounting For Snakes', Notes From NOAH (The Northern Ohio Association Of Herpetologists), 11 (7), pp. 10-14.
Hoser, R. T. (1993), Smuggled - The Underground Trade in Australia's Wildlife, Apollo Publishing, Moss Vale, NSW, Australia. 149 pp.
Hoser, R. T. (1995), The Hoser Files - The Fight Against Entrenched Official Corruption, Kotabi Publishing, Doncaster, Victoria, Australia. 322 pp.
Raymond Hoser has been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 150 papers in journals worldwide and also nine books.
Non-urgent email inquiries via the Snakebusters incursions bookings page at:
Urgent inquiries phone:
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia:
(03) 9812 3322 or 0412 777 211
Snakebusters are Raymond Hoser's reptile education company. Based in Melbourne, Victoria, They specialize in reptile shows, corporate reptile displays, school reptile incursions, animal parties, wildlife shows, birthday parties, kids parties, childrens entertainment and education.