The Emerald Tree Boa
Zoo Miami’s Amazon and Beyond exhibit is home to one of the most vibrantly colored snakes in the world – the emerald tree boa. Native to the rainforests of South America, its habitat at the zoo has been replicated in various interesting ways.
Zoo Miami’s two female emerald tree boas’ principal keeper, Kevin Kopf, says that, “At Zoo Miami we have given our two emerald tree boas approximately five places on which to perch and hunt. We can flood the exhibit and drain it as necessary. I have placed live moss and plants – from palms to bromeliads – on the bottom of the exhibit. The emeralds have a basking spot that can reach up to 90 degrees but prefer it around 72 degrees at night and at a high of 86 degrees during the day.” Additionally, to mirror the boas’ native habitat even more, four blue and yellow dart frogs (Dendobates tinctorius) coexist with them in the exhibit.
Blue and yellow dart frog
Contrary to common belief, the emerald tree boa is non-venomous but has teeth that are larger in proportion to those of other non-venomous snakes. This allows them to puncture through bird feathers and grip their food. So watch that bite!
Nocturnal and arboreal, the emerald green boa spends its days wrapped around a tree branch with its head nestled in the center. The fact that it is nocturnal does not mean it spends the night slithering around looking for prey. Actually, it remains wrapped around branches with its head stretched down as if ready to attack. Which is exactly what it does when prey approaches below. This snake has heat sensors around the top and bottom of its mouth, which alert it to the approaching prey. The boa suddenly strikes, grabs and pulls the prey into its mouth with its long teeth, and constricts it until the prey asphyxiates. This boa feasts on small mammals and is known to also eat some small bird species, lizards and frogs.
The emerald tree boa has a slow metabolism, which classifies it as a "sit and wait predator;" this enables it to go through a long period without food. We feed ours a large rat once a month,” says Kevin. Zoo Miami’s boas are five feet long and weigh between two and three pounds.
When emerald tree boas breed, they have a gestation of six to eight months and, like all other boas, the babies are born alive. When hatched, they are orange/red and after a few months, they start changing into their beautiful emerald green with white stripes. According to Kevin, the color change does not start in any specific part of the boa’s body. Rather, the specks of green start showing up arbitrarily and by the time it is one year old, it will be its full regal green. However, in very rare cases, an emerald tree boa will be born completely green.
Our two boas are easy to handle. As they are nocturnal, Kevin cleans the cage during the day when the snakes are not very active. “If I have to take them out I use a snake hook and place them in a bucket. If you get bit by one you should clean the spot right away and keep the bite area clean.” Luckily, Kevin’s never been bitten by one.
Kevin handles emerald tree boa behind the scenes at Amazon and Beyond
While the emerald tree boa is not endangered, its greatest threat is loss of habitat.
I asked Kevin why so many people are afraid of snakes and he thinks it’s because they think snakes are “slimy.” Which they aren’t!
Kevin ends by saying the emerald tree boa is, “By far my favorite snake at Zoo Miami! For some reason, I have loved them since I was a little kid and I first saw one. They are born bright red to orange and turn green as adults and look great on display. I have eight of them at home!”
Let’s hope when you see these beautiful snakes at Zoo Miami, you will leave sharing Kevin’s enthusiasm!
Photos by Susana Cortázar