At first glance, a Sheltopusik will fool you. Its long, legless, cylindrical body slithering through the dirt may lead you to believe it’s a snake; however, this creature is actually a lizard. Commonly known as a Russian Legless Lizard, the species’ distinguishing features led to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium’s acquisition of an adult male and female Sheltopusik as part of an animal exhibit. Ironically, the exhibit featured snakes. The Sheltopusiks were included for comparison purposes.
Following the exhibit in 2016, a herpetologist on staff developed an extensive plan to breed the species, a process that has had little success at Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) facilities and in human care. The first phase involved cooling down, or brumating, the animals’ body temperatures. This task was done by allowing the Sheltopusiks to burrow in individual trash cans housed in a standard kitchen refrigerator. After a few months in this brumation phase, the Sheltopusiks’ body temperatures were gradually raised and were introduced to each other.
In 2017, success was hopeful when staff discovered eggs were laid; however, none were fertile. The cycle was repeated, and in 2019, eggs were laid for a second time. The River Museum’s veterinarian was able to confirm that one of the eggs contained a developing Sheltopusik. The egg reached maturity and a striped Sheltopusik hatchling emerged from its shell, marking a rare successful breeding in human care and possibly the first successful breeding at an accredited zoo or aquarium since the 1980s.
Breeding programs at the River Museum expand educational and animal knowledge among our keeper staff, the AZA community, and the general public. Research at this level advances the breeding efforts for numerous species and is critical for larger efforts designed to save endangered species.
Now a juvenile, the growth and health of the young Sheltopusik will continue to be monitored by the River Museum’s staff, while it remains off exhibit. It is hoped that the Sheltopusik and its story will be part of the guest experience in the future.