Reptiles are probably one of the most abundant animal types we have in the park that you may never see. Reptiles are cold-blooded, or to put it more accurately, they are ectotherms. This simply means that their body temperature does not self-regulate like mammals. In other words, they have to move to a cool place when they get too hot and to a warm place if they get too cold. This one all important fact governs every action of an ectotherm. Reptiles are relatively inactive unless they are trying to keep warm, cool off, eat, avoid predation, or find a mate. The act of “playing” as some mammals and birds will do is not seen in the world of the ectotherm. Conserving energy is the name of the game.
Here in the park, the reptiles consist of snakes, turtles, and lizards. Differentiating between amphibians and reptiles confuses some people. Theses groups are both ectothermic and neither possesses fur or feathers, and they are often mistakenly considered slimy by many people. But the reptiles do not have moist skin like the amphibians do (frogs, toads, and salamanders); instead they possess scales that aid in retaining moisture and providing some protection. They do need to shed this specialized skin and this can occur in several ways. Snakes will shed all at once, with their skin turning dull and dry and then peeling off from head to tail often in one piece. The process is similar to taking off a sock and having it turn inside out as it is removed. The lizard’s skin sloughs off in pieces and is sometimes eaten by the animal, whereas the turtles have what are called scutes, which are larger plate-like scales that shed off the shell as needed.
Reptiles are opportunistic feeders; they generally aren’t too picky about their diet. Most snakes will eat small mammals, birds, insects, and even fish. One of our snakes, the hognose, is a specialized feeder and eats mostly frogs, while the lizards tend to eat mostly insects. Most of the chelonians, or turtles and tortoises, are omnivorous; meaning they eat plant and animal matter. By the time they are adults, their diet is mostly vegetative.
A venomous animal is one that is capable of injecting venom into its prey through a bite. A poisonous animal is one that will poison another animal if it is eaten. Plants can be poisonous but not venomous, but an animal can be venomous or poisonous. Some frogs would be poisonous if eaten, but if a person is bitten by a rattlesnake, the snake is said to be venomous. It is possible, although improbable to encounter a venomous snake while enjoying Prince William Forest Park. Two venomous species can be found here, but they are not abundant, and prefer to stay away from humans. The northern copperhead and the timber rattler occur in this area of Virginia.