Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

House of Cold Blood

Story by Catharine Lo Griffin. Photos by Olivier Koning.

Move over Reptile House: The Honolulu Zoo has a new Ectotherm Complex. Three years in the making, the $3 million facility is designed to enable ectotherms—organ-isms that depend on the environment to regulate their body temperature—to enjoy the perks of Hawai‘i’s temperate weather.

Contrary to popular belief, the body heat of reptiles and amphibians varies with the ambient temperature—they aren’t so much “cold-blooded” as they are solar-powered. Their former residence, the Reptile House, was a cavelike building with artificially lit terrariums more common to cold-climate zoos. The new, outdoor exhibition space provides plenty of sunlight for the lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs and other amphibians to bask in and charge up their metabolism.

“The animals are really thriving here,” says Honolulu Zoo Director Linda Santos, who often catches her favorite ectotherm—a colorful, three-foot-long green iguana named Iggy—perched on his log, soaking in the sun. “There’s a lot of space and natural vegetation for them. It’s just a healthier habitat.”

There are countless fascinating facts about the complex’s residents: George, the albino Burmese python, has infrared sensors on his head and hears via vibrations in his lower jaw; Tank, the Argentinian tegu (which resembles a monitor lizard) can recognize people and has a bite force of three hundred psi. Two exhibits support local conservation efforts: Working with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the zoo has begun propagating endemic (that is, found only in Hawai‘i) land snails and butterflies for release into the wild. Of the Amastridae family of snails, only twenty of 325 known species are still found in their natural habitat. The pulelehua, or Kamehameha butterfly (the state insect of Hawai‘i), and the Hawaiian Blue are Hawai‘i’s only two native butterflies.

Santos was especially excited about the first successful round of breeding for the Kamehameha butterflies. “We had tons of caterpillars and butterflies. It was over-whelming how prolific they were,” says Santos of the eighty-plus caterpillars that visitors could see gnawing their way through the leaves of the māmaki tree, a native food source that the zoo is also cultivating. Time it right and you might be lucky enough to witness the butterflies’ dramatic emergence from their chrysalises, when they first spread their fiery orange-and-black wings and take flight.