LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles Zoo is pleased to welcome two litters of Armenian vipers to the collection at the Living Amphibians, Reptiles, and Invertebrates (LAIR) exhibit. Unlike most snakes whose young hatch from eggs, two female Armenian vipers gave birth to live young on Monday, July 13 and Thursday, July 16. LAIR has housed four adult Armenian vipers, two male and two female, in its collection for around three years, but the eight babies from these two litters are the first successful births after years of encouraging the species to breed.
“Armenian vipers are difficult to reproduce in captivity because they come from a mountainous environment which has snow on the ground for a good part of the year,” said Ian Recchio, Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo. “In order to get them to reproduce here in sunny Los Angeles, we had to replicate a harsh Armenian winter which is close to freezing.”
After several ineffective attempts at breeding, LAIR Animal Care staff decided to change their tactics and create a new plan to help these vipers breed successfully. The first step was to create an environment that best replicates the mountainous, rocky crevices where these snakes make their den during the coldest part of winter. Animal Care staff purchased a scientific refrigerator, typically used for storing pharmaceuticals, to house the vipers during the six months of the year they go through brumation, or a hibernation-like state necessary for successful breeding. Once the vipers woke from brumation, Animal Care staff began the next step of the plan which was to assist these nervous, venomous snakes in their very unique method of courtship.
After the long separation, both males were introduced to the females and immediately went head-to-head in a sort of Spartan-like competition, wrestling for the opportunity to mate with the females. During combat the two males rear up and entwine the front portion of their bodies, each trying to push the other to the ground. Eventually one snake, usually the larger one, succeeds in driving the other snake away and wins the chance to breed with the female.
“This was the first time we had the chance to house the vipers in near-freezing temperatures in the scientific refrigerator and let the males engage in combat,” said Recchio. “We had a specific plan, and once all of the individual parts came into place we were able to reproduce this interesting viper. I fully believe the positive results were due to creating a habitat that mimics the species’ environment in the wild.”
The Armenian viper is a “near-threatened” species found in the Armenian Highlands and surrounding countries such as eastern Turkey, western Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran. Adult vipers typically have a charcoal gray coloring with bright orange patterns throughout the body. The Los Angeles Zoo joins fellow Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institution St. Louis Zoo in a Species Survival Program (SSP) to save this species of pit viper whose population has decreased by 80 percent over the past 40 years as a result of habitat destruction and overcollection for the exotic pet trade.
Guests can now view the adult Armenian vipers in their exhibit and their babies behind the glass at the Care and Conservation room at LAIR.
A special lecture and presentation will take place on November 3, 2015 at 12:00pm at the Witherbee Auditorium at the Los Angeles Zoo (5333 Zoo Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90027) by Jeff Ettling, Ph.D., Saint Louis Zoo, Curator of Herpetology, Director of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Western Asia and Levon Aghasyan, Ph.D., Researcher, Scientific Center of Zoology and Hydroecology, National Academy of Sciences, Yerevan, Armenia.
Shortly after the launch of the Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute in 2004, Dr. Ettling made his first trip to Armenia to start an investigation into the spatial ecology and population ecology of the Armenian viper. It’s hard to believe that he has now made 15 trips to Armenia ranging in length from two weeks to two months.
Dr. Ettling and his Armenia colleagues, Dr. Aram Aghasyan and his son Dr. Levon Aghasyan, had a good idea of what they were going to try to accomplish with their study, but they had no idea at the time how much impact the program would truly end up having for the conservation of the Armenian viper and for other wildlife.
Dr. Ettling, together with Dr. Aghasyan, will provide a retrospective look at what they’ve learned about Armenian vipers, how their work has impacted the conservation of the species and their current efforts to construct the first Conservation Breeding Facility in Armenia for propagation of Armenia’s endangered amphibians and reptiles, including the Armenian viper.