One North Carolina zoo is making progress toward its goal of rebuilding a threatened species’ population several babies at a time.
A rare Virgin Islands boa gave birth to a few of its babies, as shown on a video captured by the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. The video, which was posted Sept. 29 to Instagram and Facebook, showed the snakelets emerging from the mother’s body. For these rare boas, eggs hatch inside the mother and then the live offspring are birthed, the post says.
“At this point, it shouldn’t shock anyone that we have MORE BABIES! This time, the babies are tiny Virgin Islands boas, one of the world’s smallest and rarest boa species,” the post says.
Chris Shupp, the zoo’s desert supervisor, told McClatchy News he showed “so many people” the video when it first came out. It’s been an exciting prospect, in part because of the zoowide effort to help repopulate the threatened Virgin Islands boa population.
“It was pretty freaking awesome,” he said. “I loved to see that.”
The Virgin Islands boa are small, nocturnal snakes that hang out in trees, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. They originate from a few Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
At the North Carolina Zoo, there are 25 Virgin Islands boas total — 11 adults and 14 babies who were born in the past month, Shupp said. The most recent birth, shown in the zoo’s video, was Sept. 13 overnight.
Aside from its rarity, the Virgin Islands boa has a few unique characteristics Shupp has picked up on through working with the reptile. Unlike many other boas and pythons, the Virgin Islands boas are “very calm” to the point where Shupp said he almost never sees them try to bite at someone. Instead, their defense mechanism is to spray a “really smelly musk.”
He’s also noticed out in the field that the boa seems to take on a slightly different color during the day than it does at night when it’s most active.
The animal is classified as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of damage to its habitats. Habitat loss can be attributed to both man-made developments and hurricanes in the region, Shupp said. As a result, the zoo has partnered with federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Planning and Natural Resources to get its breeding program off the ground, the zoo’s Facebook post says.
Some of the adults, who are retired from breeding, are from Toledo, Shupp said. Those adults were the inception of the zoo’s project to breed the rare boa, arriving in 2017.
Not all of the boas are from other zoos though, Shupp said. Some are from the wild of the Virgin Islands, which can make their transition to human care “a little bit tricky,” he said. The Virgin Islands boa is a somewhat “opportunistic” hunter that preys on lizards, but at the zoo, they learn to eat primarily rodents.
The zoo staff also has to be conscious of simulating an accurate tropical environment, which incorporates factors such as temperature, light cycle and humidity. Those variables can have a large impact on when the boas breed, Shupp said.
Breeding is always a somewhat difficult process to undertake, Shupp said, and it was no different with the Virgin Islands boas. Last year, some of the boas gave birth prematurely, causing their offspring to die.
“We build up all this anticipation and excitement about things going a certain way. That doesn’t necessarily work out exactly what you want,” Shupp said. “It’s still a step in the right direction, but that’s slow progress.”
The zoo staff felt good about the breeding cycle this year — and their feeling ended up being correct. When the boas gave birth to their offspring, the zookeepers weighed them but have otherwise been mostly hands-off, Shupp said, to make sure they learn to be independent.
Funnily enough, the babies have tried biting more than their parents, Shupp said. They’ve nipped at keepers when they pick them up, he said, which is because the vulnerable babies are trying to make sure they don’t get eaten.
Now Shupp said the next step is making sure breeding happens on a yearly cycle, with different female boas giving birth every other year.
Not only does the zoo have big plans for continued breeding of the boas, Shupp said, but it also hopes to release some of the offspring back into the wild within the next few years — possibly including some of the babies who were born in the past month.