Reptiles in the context of global change
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Zoonosis – a natural barrier to disease transmission
Disease crossover in our food and livestock systems is a growing threat. Reptiles are ectothermic and physiologically very different to warm-blooded species, including humans. Viral transmission between two species typically relies on mutually compatible 'biological environments' (i.e., warm-blooded key only fits warm-blooded lock). Reptiles in the agri-food chain therefore represent a significant barrier to viral disease transmission. They have never been linked to any of the World Health Organisations Top Ten Blueprint Diseases (those most likely to cause a global pandemic). Compared to transmission from mammals and birds, the probability of a virus crossing from a reptile to a human is very remote. According to an official European Union report, the most significant health risk posed by reptiles is Salmonella – a food-borne bacteria commonly associated with most domestic livestock. The majority of cases are not life-threatening and resolve on their own without complications.
Food and income security
The white, firm textured meat that comes from reptiles is highly nutritious and often regarded as a ‘superfood’. In line with their energy-centric biology, many reptiles have sophisticated means of managing fat reserves. Lipids are stored in specialised fat bodies. These are meticulously segregated from muscle tissue and are leveraged with precision during times of need. As a consequence, reptile meat is generally very low in fat, with saturated fats making up less than 2%.
A low basal metabolic rate reduces the need for aerobic respiration at the cellular level. Reptile muscle cells therefore have fewer mitochondria than warm-blooded species, and muscle tissue is comparatively dense and high in protein.
Reptile skin produces an attractive leather, traditionally converted for its aesthetics and durability. Today it features prominently in the luxury fashion industry. The sun-dried skin is cheap and easy to process, store and transport, and this allows even remote hunter-gatherer communities to actively participate in international trade.
Products derived from reptiles have significant pharmaceutical value in both traditional and science-based medicine. A comprehensive review is beyond the scope of this blog, but some products deserve mention. Reptile oil is widely valued for its long-chain Omega 3 fatty acids, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. Interestingly, it is traditionally used to treat burns and skin ailments in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and is the origin of the well-known 'snake oil elixir' boom of the 18th century. Reptile venoms contain unique and potent cocktails of enzymes, many of which have found pharmaceutical application as anticoagulants, pain killers and neuromuscular inhibitors.
The metabolic versatility of reptiles offers unique possibilities in environments characterised by variability and volatility – conditions forecast to increase with climate change.
Reptiles lose very little body condition when dormant. James Cook used giant tortoises as ‘living larders’ during his maritime adventures, and the ability of large reptiles to retain body condition over extended supply chains is well known in reptile trade circles. Whether it be drought, economic turmoil or socio-political unrest, reptile production offers the unique ability for farmers to shut down production inputs (e.g., food and water) for extended periods without compromising long term viability.
Reptile production is an excellent option for small-scale farmers in drought prone regions where water stress and famine are growing threats. Farming inputs can be reduced to solar-still technology (e.g., water condensation derived from desert plants) and seasonal outbreaks of rodent pests, and thus rural communities can negate the impacts of increasingly erratic and unreliable rainfall.
The unique repertoire of reptile farms has permitted many urban communities to engage in commercial agriculture, even within densely populated residential suburbs. Reptiles are sometimes viewed as a source of healthy home-grown food – the Asian equivalent of ‘backyard chickens'.
Urban farming movements have been credited with numerous sustainability benefits, including food sovereignty and security, reductions in carbon footprint and mental well-being. The various initiatives are often heavily focused on high-value horticulture, simply because restrictions on inputs and waste outputs prohibit more ambitious forms of agriculture. In many respects, reptile farming is compatible with these production constraints, and may well compliment high-value horticulture.
For example, reptile manure makes for an excellent fertilizer. The waste products of protein catabolism are water-insoluble urates, rather than urinary urea. Urates are a rich source of slow-release nitrogen, and do not readily leach or convert to harmful nitrous oxide. Compared to synthetic fertilizers, or even pig and cow manure, reptile manure is an excellent source of clean and environment-friendly plant food.
Renewable energy technologies
Reptiles are the biological equivalent of solar panels. They are equipped with specialised adaptations designed to capture and exploit solar energy. Greenhouses and polytunnels operate in a similar fashion, helping plants to capture solar radiation to maximise growth. Like plants, reptiles are well-suited to the greenhouse environment.
They are designed to shuttle along vertical and horizontal clines in search of optimal temperature, and are thereby able to exploit the full thermal benefits of dynamic greenhouse microclimates. In many respects, they are the equivalent of autonomous mobile plants.
By dovetailing reptile biology with climate-smart agricultural technology, the benefits of reptile farming can be ramped up enormously. A remarkable synergistic union of biology, human engineering and renewable energy.
Reptile production systems are highly compatible with community-based wildlife conservation and remote human wildlife landscapes.
Compared to many other forms of rural livelihoods, reptile production systems do not incite conflict with megaherbivores or large carnivores. Harvest models are invariably focused on small, abundant and accessible species, and these are typically those that benefit from small-scale cropping activities around rural villages.
Processing, storing and transporting sun-dried meat, skins and other products is cheap and easy. Reptile-derived products can be prepared at source, using traditional techniques and locally available resources, and can then be sold as and when necessary. Stockpiling allows small-scale stakeholders to access lucrative export and commodity markets, and earn foreign currency income.
Reptile production systems hold particular potential as a livelihood option for those living within buffer zones surrounding wildlife reserves. They can help to offset the impact of marauding wildlife and dampen the incentives for illegal hunting and poaching. It is interesting to note that in Southeast Asia, many professional snake farmers and hunters are reformed tiger and pangolin poachers.
Existing conservation models are often overly dependent on fragile tourism dollars – exposed and vulnerable to global downturns such as the Covid-19 lockdown. Reptile farming offers a more dependable and locally relevant source of wildlife-friendly food and income.