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A View Through the Window on Animal Health: Gator and Snapper

February 14, 2017

By Sarah Banducci, Museum volunteer

A cart with two large blue plastic tubs wheeled into the exam room signals that today’s patients have arrived. Chief Veterinarian Dr. Dan Dombrowski explains to the growing crowd that both patients have outgrown their jobs as Teaching Collection animals here at the Museum. They will be transferred to another facility with a need for larger animals and the ability to accommodate them as they continue to grow. But before they can be moved to their new homes, Dr. D. has to do a wellness checkup to make sure both are healthy, so that is the agenda for the day.

Joining the team today is Adrian Yirka, head of the Live Animal Teaching Collection at the Museum. The animals in this collection live at the Museum but are only used for educational programs, not public exhibits. Adrian started out as a Museum volunteer in 1995 and has been on staff at the Museum since 2000, making him a pro at wrangling some of the larger, more powerful animals, including the two in for a checkup today.

Patient #1: American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

American alligator in the Window on Animal Health.

The Wildlife Commission brought this feisty American alligator to the Museum in 2013.

This alligator only weighed about 2 pounds when she was brought in but has since quadrupled her weight. Because she was caught in the wild, the staff does not have complete information about her medical history, but she has been healthy during her three years at the Museum.

Dr. D. starts his exam with a Doppler ultrasound to listen to her heartbeat (check out this link for Doppler audio from a snake) and a blood draw. The large size of the alligator makes these routine tasks a bit more challenging. Dr. D. also injects the alligator with a microchip — a tiny device whose unique code can be read by a universal scanner. These chips help keep track of the Museum’s animals and will assure that even after they leave and go to their new home, they will always be individually identifiable. After a head-to-toe exam, the gator is declared healthy and returned to her plastic tub.

Patient #2: Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

Alligator snapping turtle

As Adrian pulls out the nearly 25-pound turtle, Dr. D. reviews his medical history. Regardless of species, turtles that live indoors struggle to maintain a healthy shell. Even under the careful supervision of the Museum’s staff, this turtle is no exception. Several years ago he was treated for some minor shell wounds, or “shell gunk,” as the veterinary staff refers to it with visitors. However, Dr. D. reports that his shell looks great today and in reviewing his medical record, can confirm that he has not had any major health issues in the 20 years he has been at the Museum.

Despite this turtle’s lengthy stay at the Museum, he still has not grown accustomed to being handled by the veterinary staff. As Adrian carries him into the exam room, he opens his mouth wide — seeming to indicate that he prefers to be left alone today. Once the turtle is settled on the exam table, Dr. D. covers his eyes with a small towel, a technique commonly used to calm agitated animals.

Although the common snapping turtle is indigenous to North Carolina, the alligator snapping turtle is not. Dr. D. differentiates between the two types by showing off one of the alligator snapping turtle’s most distinctive features: a built-in lure used to help it catch fish. You can see the bright pink “lure” in the turtle’s mouth. The lure looks like a tasty little worm to small fish, which go after it thinking they are going to get a meal. Much to the surprise of the fish, the alligator snapper is sitting just under the water with its mouth open waiting for its next meal to swim in.

Like the alligator, the turtle receives a complete head-to-toe physical exam, including blood work, and Dr. D. has no concerns about his health. The turtle is injected with a microchip of his own and sent back to await transfer from the Museum to his new home.

It’s another busy day at the Window with a crowd of kids and adults alike pressing their foreheads against the glass for a better look at the alligator’s sharp teeth and the turtle’s lure. Although we have to say farewell to these two creatures, the Live Animal Teaching Collection now has openings to welcome newcomers to the Museum’s living collections.

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