Researchers from Brazil analyzed more than 11,000 reptile articles published between 1960 and 2021. They found that the majority of studies focused on Squamata species (snakes and lizards).
Herpetology research addresses people’s desire to understand nature and the world around us. In addition, the study of reptiles can help inform zoological practices and aid in addressing welfare issues that affect captive reptiles.
Reptiles are often used in laboratory experiments, just as mammals like rats or mice are. While the physiology of free-ranging herpetological species is important to understand in order to protect their natural habitats, it is equally important to study the physiology of captive-held reptiles so that they can be better cared for, and to ensure that their housing is comfortable enough to prevent stress-related diseases.
When researchers consider the physiology of reptiles, they are most likely thinking of snakes and lizards since these represent the majority of the herpetological species in captivity. The Physiological Ecology of Reptiles lab at Cal Poly studies mainly rattlesnakes and lizards, as these are the most accessible species in the wild and in the lab. However, when student interest and availability allow, other reptile species are also studied.
One area that needs more research attention is assessing reptile sentience, as there is little evidence of this in the existing literature. Researchers have already shown that reptiles display signs of pain and discomfort, as well as behavioural changes.
Many of these signs, such as a change in feeding behaviour or a reduction in activity level, can be triggered by different aspects of their environment, and can include changes to diet, lighting, temperature, or the frequency of habitat cleaning. Recognising that reptiles are able to experience anxiety, fear, pain, stress, and other forms of suffering can help to change perspectives on these animals as well as encourage more research into how we can improve their lives in captivity.
Reptiles have a poor image and are often misunderstood. They are regarded as dull, uninteresting animals with small brains and simple asocial lives, yet these animals engage in a remarkable diversity of complex social behavior, including family living; communicating with one another from an early age; hunting, feeding, migrating, courting, nesting, mating, and hatching in groups; and even displaying signs of play.
It is important that we recognise that these behaviours are indicative of stress, pain and discomfort. We need to understand that reptiles do suffer, particularly in captivity. The recognition of reptile sentience has direct implications on how they are kept, as this will enable a more holistic approach to their care.
For example, if a reptile is scratching excessively, this could indicate that they are bored or stressed. This could be a result of an incorrect environmental setup, inadequate diet, a health issue or suboptimal husbandry. Using an appropriate diagnostic approach, these issues can be resolved to ensure the best welfare outcome for the reptile.
This includes ensuring that they are cognitively stimulated, as research has shown that it can improve their captive condition and life. It also means recognising that they can experience pleasure and emotions, which can be overlooked in the wild due to their aversion to humans. In captivity, this can be demonstrated by the response to a treat such as a piece of fruit.
Reptiles occupy a key position in the evolution of amniotes, displaying a wide range of shapes adapted to widely varying environments. The availability of detailed fossil records and their relatively recent common ancestry with mammals, birds, and other vertebrates make them ideal subjects for genetic and genomic studies.
To date, 24 reptilian genomes have been published and 9 have assemblies deposited in the NCBI database (Table 3). Many of these sequences have been used to investigate genome evolution. The most common approach is chromosome painting, which compares different species’ chromosomes to identify similarities and differences in their structure and composition. Several studies have focused on identifying master sex-determining genes, and molecular cytogenetics has been especially well-suited for this purpose.
A recent study using comparative chromosome painting identified the candidate sex-determining gene Wt1 in the wood turtle (G. insculpta). In this case, the gene is located on the macrochromosome XX. However, this is only a preliminary result, and more research will be needed to determine whether the gene truly confers maleness in this species.
Research into the evolutionary, behavioural, and cognitive capabilities of reptiles is critical to their welfare in captivity. The public generally perceives reptiles as unfeeling, unthinking creatures, and showcasing the complex capacities of these animals can help to change this perception. The evidence of reptile sentience can also be used to encourage people to support animal welfare legislation that protects these vulnerable animals.
Reptiles are often considered to be asocial animals with little ability to feel emotions or engage in cognitive activities. However, these animals can actually lead surprisingly complex social lives and can communicate with each other both in the wild and captivity. They can hunt, travel, breed, court, nest, and hatch together; even eat in groups. They can even recognize their relatives.
The number of reptiles kept as pets around the world is unknown, but it’s likely to be in the tens of millions [3,4,5]. Unfortunately, many of these animals are wild-caught and then transported long distances for sale or trade, a practice that has significant welfare implications.
Further research is needed to explore what role the social environment plays in the emotional and cognitive abilities of reptiles, including how their behavior may be affected by poor living conditions. This can help us see these animals in a more positive light, as well as inform the way that they are cared for in captivity.
As part of this work, WARC researchers are surveying the beach nesting sites of native turtle species in Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores using GPS and accelerometer data logger pop-off packages that can be affixed to individual sea turtles. This is a critical piece of work as it will allow the collection of information on how the ocean currents affect the movements and habitat of these important animals.