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A Day in the Life of Issabella, Red-tailed Boa

Feb 14 2012
by NEW Zoo Education Dept

Sometimes I think that people consider me to have a dull life.  I am, after all, quite the sedentary serpent!  But, let me tell you, that suits me just fine.  A typical day for me includes very little activity, but that is exactly the life we boa constrictors are designed for.  In the wild, we typically stay still and wait for our food to come to us. 

As such, today starts much like any other day, with me curled up in a corner of my exhibit.  In weeks where I am fed, it is not too likely that I’ll move from my warm spot as I digest my food.  This week is different, however, because I am in the process of shedding my skin.  During this process, I lose my interest in food, and would rather wait until I am out of my old skin.

It surprises some visitors when they find out I’m only offered food once a week.  Look at it this way: I just don’t understand why anyone would want to be warm-blooded!  It takes so much food just to create the energy required to generate all that heat your warm-blooded body produces.  I need to eat only once a week (sometimes less!), then find a warm spot, and I’m all set.  Believe it or not, some species of large snakes can get by on just a few meals per year!

Contrary to popular belief, we boas don’t “crush” our prey or break any bones when we constrict.  We just hold on tight until our prey has stopped breathing, tightening our coils with each exhale.  At the Zoo, my keepers feed me large rodents, such as big rats.  My food is always offered pre-killed; this is more humane for the prey, and also safer for me.  A large rat can kill a boa constrictor if it lands a bite in the wrong spot!  Even though the food is already dead when offered to me, I still can’t resist the urge to constrict it.  The natural instinct is just too strong!

Here’s something you may not know about snakes and the way we constrict our prey.  Just like human beings can be either right-handed or left-handed, individual snakes coil specifically clockwise or counterclockwise.  In the litter of boas that my mother gave birth to, there were “left-handed” and “right-handed” baby boas. Each time we eat, we always coil in that same direction!

Finally, after over a week of being in shed, it is time for me to lose this old layer of skin!  When I am in shed, you can tell by looking at the color of my eyes; during my shed cycle, they appear to become cloudy.  During this time, I’ll admit that I can be pretty cranky.  You would be, too, if you were completely covered by a layer of old skin!  To shed this old layer, I create a break in the skin along my neck by rubbing it against a log in my enclosure.  After peeling back the layer covering my face, I slowly work my way out, with the dead skin peeling off, inside-out.  It feels great to have a shiny layer of scales again! 

My day ends almost exactly as it began.  I’m comfortably curled up in a corner, but, this time, my scales are looking brand new! 

Issabella sheds

Only a small amount of old skin is left clinging to my tail here. I'm almost free!

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