Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 1:42 PM on Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reptiles pay visit to Chapman School

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Photographer: McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

With a Burmese python draped across his shoulders, [[naturalist Scott Shupe gives a presentation on reptiles at Chapman School.

Some school assemblies are good excuses to get out of class. Some are so interesting even parents show up. The assembly at Chapman School on Sept. 20 was definitely the latter.

The attraction was Scott Shupe, director of education and outreach at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade, Ky., and his traveling companions, live reptiles Shupe brought from containers one at a time for everyone to see.

First, Shupe made it clear students needed to be quiet. If he noticed the reptiles were becoming agitated, Shupe said he would raise his hand, a sign it needed to be even quieter. He also made it clear the reptiles were not for touching, but he would walk around the room to make sure they were visible to everyone. Finally, he asked that questions be saved until the end.

Acknowledging snakes have a reputation for being the most feared creatures on earth, Shupe began by introducing a boa constructor. With it draped around its neck, he explained characteristics setting snakes apart from other reptiles. For starters, they don't have eyelids, they don't have ears, they don't have noses.

Shupe said a snake's forked tongue functions as a "nose." It collects scent particles from the air and, when withdrawn into the mouth, the tongue connects with organs in the roof of the snake's mouth that detect the scent.

The second reptile to be introduced was a Burmese python.

"This is one of the world's largest snakes and can reach up to 25 feet," said Shupe. "This a young one. It's only eight years old and 12-feet long."

As he walked back and forth, the snake moving around his arms, neck and shoulders, Shupe noted that snakes are "not a good choice for a pet. My dog loves me, but this snake doesn't know what that means. (Snakes) don't understand loyalty."

Next to be introduced was a Tegu lizard. While it is one of the largest lizards in North and South America, the largest in the world is the Kimodo dragon, which grows up to a length of 10 feet and can weigh more than 100 pounds.

The fourth guest to be introduced was a creature so different from the others that "scientists decided it wasn't a reptile at all, but was all in its own class:" tortoise. Shupe described the African spurred tortoise as a youngster at 25 years of age.

"This is one of the longest living animals on earth," said Shupe. "They can live to be more than 100 years old."

The top of a tortoise's shell is actually its backbone and ribs, Shupe pointed out, while the hard bottom part of its shell is its breastbone.

Next came a kingsnake, named because it is "the king of all snakes," said Shupe. "It hunts down and kills other snakes, even rattlesnakes."

Once, after finding venomous snakes with increasing frequency near his Kentucky residence, Shupe brought home a few kingsnakes and the problem soon was solved.

A bullsnake is "another valued friend to man," said Shupe. "This is Mother Nature's number one mouse trap." Similarly, the corn snake, "a pretty valued friend to man," earned its name by removing rodents from stores of harvested corn.

Shupe administered the "snake test" to Principal Conrad Woodhead by placing the coiled corn snake on Woodhead's outstretched palms and directing students to give a slow one-to-10 count. Woodhead was to remain perfectly still, even if the snake decided to uncoil itself and explore its location. Fortunately, the snake remained motionless. So did Woodhead.

"This test is to remind you that most snakes don't deserve their reputation," said Shupe, retrieving the still-coiled snake from Woodhead's hands.

The final reptile to be introduced was a legless lizard.

"I can usually fool you with this one," said Shupe, removing what appeared to be a yellow snake from its container. Although it lacked legs, it did have eyelids, a nose and ears.

Shupe began his career in 1971 at the Reptile Institute of Silver Springs, Fla. He worked at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida and the Reptile Gardens in Rapid, City, S.D. In 1978, he formed the Natural History Educational Company, providing live animal education programs for schools, state parks, federal agencies and tourist attractions. In 2005, he wrote "U.S. Guide to Venomous Snakes and Their Mimics." Shupe has received multiple awards.

He has given presentations at libraries and schools throughout Alaska. Woodhead contacted him after learning he was visiting other schools in the state.

Among questions asked at the end of the program was if Shupe had been bitten by a venomous snake.

"Five times," he said, referring to work that involved removing venom from snakes. "That's why I don't do that anymore."