A photo of a snake in a dark area

The effects of habitat complexity on snake welfare

For most people, it is probably easier to imagine how a gorilla or a chimpanzee experiences the world, and what they may need to have a good quality of life, than a snake or other reptile. However, knowledge about the natural environments of animals can help illuminate their behavioral needs. This information can be used to design habitats that promote these species-typical behaviors.

The Detroit Zoo is home to five individually housed juvenile Madagascar giant hognose snakes that reside behind-the-scenes at the Holden Reptile Conservation Center. Like other hognose species, these snakes have an upturned snout that they use to burrow through leaf litter to catch prey. Recently, their habitats were redesigned to include more overall space as well as new substrates for burrowing and exploration. Researchers from the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics observed the snakes before and after their transition to the new space. In the more complex, naturalistic habitats, the snakes showed a greater diversity of behaviors, and they spent more time tongue-flicking – a behavior that helps them explore their environment – and burrowing.

The responses to the new habitat also varied between individuals, demonstrating the important point that all animals, great and small, have individual needs and experience the world in different ways. This study contributed information to the limited body of knowledge surrounding the welfare of reptiles in human care.