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Today anyone entering our hobby, or beginning a project with a new species has, in many cases, a tremendous amount of information literally at his fingertips. Some types of reptiles have entire books dedicated to their care and husbandry, and species-specific care sheets abound on the internet.
The access to this information is a great asset to the herping community, but only if it is used properly. I see many today who have come to rely on the work of others, depending solely on outside information. This has resulted in a marked slow down of advancements in the hobby.
Some see it as once methods for captive reproduction have been established, further investigation into a species is unwarranted. Others are concerned with only the reproduction of a species itself, and have no interest in gaining new information to contribute back to our base of knowledge.
Take for instance the neophyte keeper who gets his first pair of kingsnakes. He pours over all the care sheets he can find and purchases a little book at the pet store detailing how to properly care for his new charges. The captive care information provided is of great benefit to him, having no previous knowledge of the species.
A couple of years later he decides to try his hand at breeding his snakes. Once again he returns to the care sheets for advice. He stops feeding the pair on November 15th, and begins cooling on December 1st.
On Valentine's Day, he warms them up and waits for the female to shed. After this shed, he puts them together and lets them breed three times and waits for the next shed. On the 11th day, he gets nervous and posts a few questions in the forums asking what he should do (after all the care sheets said she would lay 7-10 days after the shed). After some reassurance from the local "experts" he decides to give her some more time, and she finally lays on the 17th day.
He already has his incubator calibrated to exactly 82°F, checking it regularly to ensure it doesn't rise or drop a degree. He prepares the vermiculite in the exact proportions given in the manual and places the eggs in the incubator.
On the 55th day he opens the incubator expecting to see a freshly hatched group of baby kingsnakes. When he finds the eggs intact, he gets nervous again, everything said 55 days to hatching. He posts some more questions asking whether he should slit the eggs. With more reassurances, he waits an agonizing 4 additional days before the first egg pips, followed by the others over the next 3 days. Finally he has his first batch of babies.
The next season he repeats the process, a little more confident, and with the realization that it's not an exact science after all. Still the same formula is applied, and breeding his kingsnakes has been reduced to the same effort as following a recipe for baking a cake.
The above example, perhaps somewhat exaggerated, demonstrates what I am talking about. Our new breeder has been primed for years of repeated action, and anything new learned is purely by accident.
I'm not condemning care sheets or books, quite the opposite. These sources of information are a valuable asset, but should only be used as a base of knowledge. So many keepers become dependant on these sources of information and turn them into a crutch. They are so busy listening to the words of other people, they forget to listen to the animals themselves.
I've seen numerous requests for care sheets on a specific snake, like sinaloan milksnakes. I've even seen the same requests made for a specific phase of California kingsnake. These people seem more comfortable when the exact name of their snake is in the title, regardless of the fact that the care of dozens of North American colubrid species is identical.
If people become bound to ready made instruction manuals, and harbor this dependence on the work of others, who will be the new pioneers of herpetoculture? Who will be the ones to form and explore new ideas?
If we have come as far as we are going to in our knowledge of these animals, I am quite content to leave the hobby now. If there will be no further increase in knowledge, then I can see no more reason to devote time and energy to it.
We have not reached that place though, in many areas we have only begun to scratch the surface.
Some are hesitant for fear of failure, for others it is the fear of lost production. Just as money is a strong motivator in breeding morphs and such, it is also a strong inhibitor of experimentation. Often when you venture into unexplored territory, you will run the risk of losing a clutch of eggs, or even an animal. These risks need to be taken.
We cannot rely solely on zoos and other professional institutions to study our reptiles for us. Their interests do not always align with ours. Even though we benefit from their work, some of the questions we have will never be investigated outside of the private sector.
In the beginning advancements were made by large leaps forward. The determination that cooling was needed for colubrid reproduction, or calcium addition to the diet of insectivores for instance. These were huge advances at the time. Today there will be few discoveries that will affect herpetoculture at that level, but that doesn't mean they will be unimportant. Many of the original discoveries need refining, and there are many existing areas that need investigation.
I'm not saying you should quit breeding snakes to sell, nor am I condemning the practice. For the sake of the hobby though, I believe every experienced reptile keeper should make an attempt at increasing knowledge. People have become so focused on the monetary value of reptiles, and how many they can produce, they have become detached from the innate inquisitiveness that brought them to this hobby in the first place.
Ours is a hobby where discoveries are not limited to those who hold a PhD. Anyone who keeps reptiles has the potential of contributing something of value to the community.
Use those care manuals to form the basis of your maintenance strategy, but do not come to depend on them entirely. Once you have learned to keep your animals healthy, put the books down and turn your attention toward the animals themselves. Find an area that raises your curiosity and investigate it. Always remember, the goal is not to have all the answers, but to be able to ask better questions.