The biology of reptiles it the agricultural context
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Commercially farmed reptiles exhibit the full suite of essential agricultural life history traits. They grow fast, reach maturity early and have a high reproductive output. Pythons are capable of growing from 120g to 15kg in their first year, and are able to lay over 50 eggs per year throughout their 20 year adult life.
One of the reasons for this is that reptiles are able to exploit the suns abundant radiant energy to drive metabolic processes. They employ a host of unique energy-centric adaptations to achieve exceptional production efficiencies. As a result, they require less than 10% of the food calorie inputs compared to similar sized birds or mammals.
Feed conversion ratios (FCR) are exceptional. Pythons can ingest over 100% of their body weight in a single sitting. They have one of the most powerful digestive systems in the animal kingdom, and are able to digest dense connective tissue, including bone. Digestive efficiencies on whole animals can exceed 98%, and assimilation efficiencies can reach 40%. By comparison, warm-blooded livestock like chickens and cows are extremely wasteful, assimilating less than 3% of the food they ingest.
Pythons have an adaptive metabolic response and are able to adjust their growth and reproductive rates according to resource availability. When food is scarce, they can atrophy visceral organs and reduce metabolic demands by a factor of ten. They can survive without food for over a year, yet when food is plentiful, they can rapidly upregulate their metabolism 44-fold to achieve exceptional growth and productivity rates.
Water requirements are low compared to warm-blooded livestock. Reptiles have an advance water-balance physiology and many can survive for months before showing signs of water stress. This is one of the reasons why reptiles are a dominant vertebrate group in arid and drought-prone ecosystems.
Their unique morphology lends snakes to three dimensional spatial landscapes. Many are adept tree climbers but equally at home in underground burrows. Their ability to occupy a broad spectrum of spatial niches allows for versatile stocking densities, production systems and climate change resilience options.
Many snakes have a natural inclination to aggregate in high densities. Operating as a single thermal mass, they buffer against temperature flux and exploit shared basking duties. Yet, as relatively simple vertebrates (cognitively similar to fish) they do not suffer the complex social welfare issues commonly seen in aggregations of caged mammals and birds.
When reptile biology is dovetailed with modern energy-centric agricultural technology, such as greenhouse systems, energy savings can be ramped-up even further.
In an agricultural context, reptiles really are the halfway mark between dryland fish farming and solar-powered chicken - a silver bullet for food security in a rapidly changing world.