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Snakes at Melbourne Zoo Are Doing Aqua-Aerobics So They Don’t Get Fat

The zoo has installed what they believe to be the world's very first "hydro-gym": an exercise pool where reptiles can build muscle tone and stay fit.

by Gavin Butler
21 January 2019, 5:06am

Not Melbourne Zoo's snakes or hydro-gym. Images via Pixabay, CC licence 0 (L); Flickr user Steven Depolo, CC licence 2.0 (R)

Keepers at Melbourne Zoo have built what they believe to be the world’s first “hydro-gym” for reptiles: a free-flowing exercise pool, designed to prevent their snakes from getting fat. The facility allows the zoo’s resident rattlesnakes, monitor lizards, and turtles to work on their fitness and build muscle tone, according to a statement, by effectively swimming against an adjustable current of water for indefinite periods of time. By making sure the animals stay shredded, zookeepers hope to replicate the same level of fitness that those specimens would otherwise enjoy in the outside world.

“The hydro-gym is a temperature-controlled, filtered body of water, which allows keepers to manage water flow through the tank,” said Alex Mitchell, herpetofauna keeper at Melbourne Zoo. “Swimming against the current in the water enables the animals to build up their level of fitness, increase their muscle tone, and be active, much like their wild counterparts would.”

Melbourne Zoo has released a video of their reptile gym and it's above this sentence.

Living in an enclosure and being hand-fed all your meals is often a pretty lazy affair, as it turns out, and many animals in captivity are at risk of falling out of shape. Speaking to IFLScience, Alex explained that “A lot of reptiles are ambush predators… [So] If they don't have to chase their prey they become sedentary and quite prone to obesity.”

Thus, the hydro-gym was born: the result of more than 10 years’ worth of planning by the Melbourne Zoo’s Reptiles, Invertebrates & Education Life Sciences team. Alex described it as “like aqua-aerobics for reptiles”: a four-to-five minute session in the pool, usually, that keeps the animals fit and helps to prevent illness and disease.

“The concept has evolved over time, from attempting to encourage snakes to swim and exercise in a bucket of water, into the revolutionary facility we have today,” he said. “It has allowed us to raise the bar in the welfare management of reptiles.”

Jon Birkett, Melbourne Zoo’s Life Sciences Manager of Reptiles, Invertebrates & Education, told VICE over email that obesity can become a problem among captive snakes if their keepers overfeed them—especially ambush hunters, who “need some additional encouragement to be active and more healthy.”

Moreover, he added, fitter and healthier snakes are more likely to make good sexual partners.

“We are committed for our animals to thrive and not just survive,” he said. “In addition, fit animals are much more inclined to be the best breeding animals.”

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