Reptile research and studies include the biology, ecology, taxonomy, behaviour, husbandry and conservation of reptile species. This branch of zoology is called herpetology.
Despite their slow metabolisms, reptiles often appear to thrive in poor conditions, even though they may be suffering emotionally and psychologically. Increasing recognition that reptiles have the capacity for sentience can help change this perception and inform animal welfare policy.
Reptiles may seem indifferent or even hostile to their humans, but they do have personalities and respond to interactions. Some reptiles that have a reputation for being irritable, such as tortoises and iguanas, can be placid and tame with regular handling. Others have individual personalities that can be temperamental and difficult, such as a python that will nip at the feet of its owner or an alligator that is only willing to tolerate being handled by people who are familiar with its behavior.
Reptilian owners report a variety of motivations for keeping their animals, including convenience and entertainment. Some describe the animals as companions, while others see them as part of a duty of care. Many report a sense of admiration and fascination for the creatures’ beauty, intelligence, mysterious nature, and unusual behaviors.
For some, the reptiles’ idiosyncratic co-evolutionary relations inspire feelings of closeness and a bond that is not unlike those experienced with mammalian pets. This is important as it indicates that reptiles can evoke similar emotions to other species and encourage responsible pet-keeping habits.
A significant proportion of respondents defined their reptiles as family members (64%), followed by friends (28%). These sentiments are likely to have a profound impact on the sustainability of captive reptilian populations. In an increasingly human-altered world, the time window for breeding reptiles in captivity is shrinking, and the ability of lizards to disperse northward over changing climate conditions is challenged by natural geographic barriers like mountain ranges.
Threats to Reptiles
Reptiles are being pushed to the brink by many of the same factors that threaten the world’s other land vertebrates — amphibians, birds and mammals — including habitat destruction, hunting, invasive species and climate change. But because reptiles’ ranges often do not overlap with those of other threatened tetrapods, their plight can be overlooked.
For example, the king cobra, the world’s largest venomous snake, is in trouble, with its habitat being degraded by agriculture and logging, while the habitat of the narrow-headed garter snake, an aquatic reptile, is being lost to agricultural and energy development. These developments can alter microclimates, inhibit sun exposure and impede critical daily activities, particularly for herpetofaunal species that rely on aquatic environments.
Chemical contaminants such as herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and sewage can also harm reptiles. They can be inhaled or ingested through air or water, and may interfere with their hormones and other biological functions (Gibbons et al. 2000). Aquatic reptiles, like the narrow-headed garter snake and Mexican garter snakes, are especially susceptible to these contaminants because of their permeable skin.
In addition, many reptiles are hunted for meat or pets and sport, which can lead to population declines or even extinction. The twin-spotted rattlesnake, for instance, is now known to occur in only four disjunct mountain ranges in the United States and is one of our most endangered reptiles (Prival et al. 2002). The loss of this rare species would have major impacts, including a reduction in prey available for predators and the permanent alteration of valuable ecosystems.
Model Organisms for Research
Research into biological phenomena often requires the use of model organisms. These are organisms that occupy a specific position in the evolutionary tree and share common characteristics with human beings. Model organisms are used to help researchers better understand the mechanisms that govern life and the development of disease. Typically, model organisms are easy to work with in the laboratory and have short generation times so they can be manipulated quickly.
A number of models have been used in biological research for decades, including the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, the plant Arabidopsis thaliana and the mouse Mus musculus. These organisms are used to study a wide range of biological issues, from the basic mechanisms that govern cellular growth and cell differentiation to the genetics of heredity and disease.
The work conducted with these organisms has also led to significant medical breakthroughs, such as the discovery of simple forms of gene regulation and the understanding that many cancers and metabolic diseases are caused by faulty gene expression. Moreover, the process of studying organisms in their natural environments can provide a wealth of information that would be difficult to achieve by simply working with a model.
Reptiles can serve as models in a number of research areas, including environmental conservation biology. For example, by studying how reptiles adapt to different climates, scientists can gain a greater understanding of the factors that affect human survival and well-being. Reptiles are also useful for testing the efficacy of medical devices such as pacemakers and artificial heart valves.
Economic Value of Reptiles
Reptiles are of a considerable economic value to humans. Despite being viewed as dangerous, snakes and their kin have been hunted for food since antiquity; alligator hide is used to produce leather; and sea turtles are a key component of seafood cuisine. Additionally, many species of venomous reptiles serve as effective natural pest control agents.
However, the vast majority of cost studies of amphibians and reptiles report costs associated with post-invasion management actions (control or eradication). This differs from other species groups where cost types are usually more evenly distributed among management and damage categories. This suggests that improved investment in prevention measures could reduce costs by reducing the need for management and the scale of incurred damage.
A disproportionately high amount of research has been conducted in low biodiverse regions of the world, which is reflected in the skew of study locations and taxonomic coverage of results (Fig. 3). These areas experience the highest rates of habitat loss, resulting in a greater proportion of threatened reptiles.
While a great deal of effort has been put into understanding amphibian and reptile movement ecology, the broader field of dispersal remains poorly understood. This is likely due to the fact that reptiles are often perceived as inert organisms whose role is to disperse seeds and spores, and the fact that they have a relatively restricted home range. This is a perception that is limiting our understanding of the ecological role of tropical reptiles.