- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Walk into a slim canyon off the main path of the Desert Dome and listen closely. If you’re lucky, you might hear the rattling of venomous snakes.

Thirteen rattlesnakes slither around a silver mine-themed exhibit. Three inches of slightly angled protective glass separates spectators from what the Henry Doorly Zoo says is the world’s largest indoor rattlesnake exhibit.

Built where a hummingbird exhibit once stood, the newly opened 1,500 square-foot Rattlesnake Canyon features a 150 square-foot main attraction, two smaller displays of snakes and lizards and the lone remaining hummingbird display in the zoo. In total, 12 species of rattlesnakes and lizards native to the Sonoran Desert, which straddles southwest United States and northwest Mexico, were moved into the exhibit.

So far, the reptiles are feeling lively in their new home, the Omaha World-Herald reported (https://bit.ly/1o1ipfj ).

“They’re much more active throughout,” said Sara Plesuk, the zoo’s supervisor of reptiles and amphibians, who wears snake-shaped earrings. “It could just be the newness - some people move into a new home and have an exciting first couple of weeks - so we’ll have to see as time goes on, but it’s very interesting.”

The idea to retool the exhibit came in August 2013. Poor exposure to sunlight in the canyon made it difficult for flowering plants to grow, and the hummingbird population had declined as a result.

In January, the zoo began construction on the $125,000 project, which shrunk the hummingbird exhibit to the one display and created one main rattlesnake exhibit and two smaller mixed reptile exhibits.

After a slight delay to focus on summer-friendly exhibits like the new camel rides and Stingray Beach, crews finished in late summer and the exhibit opened Sept. 12. Maintenance crew members donated a wagon wheel and crafted steer skulls for the silver mine-themed exhibit.

One of the goals, Plesuk said, is to help educate guests on the reality of rattlesnakes. While many people view them as a threat, the snakes are actually mild mannered, preferring to sit quietly in a coil. They only rattle when threatened, usually after being stepped on or startled. And they only strike when desperate.

“It takes them a good couple of weeks to make new venom,” Plesuk said. “It’s very calorically expensive for them to do that, which is often times why rattlesnakes don’t envenomate you when they bite you, because it’s expensive.”

Rattlesnake venom has led to a “pharmacological cornucopia” of medicines. Some regulate blood pressure or break up blood clots while others have shown promise in battling cancer in a laboratory setting, she said.

“With venomous snakes, there’s about 300 different chemicals in their venom cocktail,” Plesuk said, “and only like three to five of them are responsible for killing people.”

Similar rattlesnake exhibits, like the large outdoor-indoor one at the San Diego Zoo, have found success in clearing up misconceptions about the serpents.

Kim Lovich, San Diego Zoo’s curator of herpetology, said the four rattlesnake species native to San Diego County in that zoo’s enclosure helps guests better understand the snakes on their own properties.

“Our role as a zoo - and Omaha is no different - is to show people, as humankind, we’re responsible for maintaining what’s left of the habitat,” Lovich said. “With the Omaha Zoo’s exhibit, it’s a great opportunity to have guests get up close and to learn about how these snakes work and to respect them and learn how they operate in the environment.”

Omaha’s Rattlesnake Canyon has also freed space in the previous home of the snakes. Since the rattlesnakes left the shaded mud cave in the dome, gila monsters and beaded lizards have been added, said Jessi Krebs, the zoo’s curator of reptiles and amphibians.

For the next year or two, the zoo will monitor Rattlesnake Canyon. If these dozen or so snakes take well to the new space, as they appear to be doing, more will be added. The exhibit could grow to as many as 30 snakes. Krebs said new species will likely include more western diamondbacks, Mohave rattlesnakes, prairie rattlesnakes native to Nebraska and other rattlesnakes from rescues.

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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