Scales & Tales

Do They Mate For Life?

When our parrots and owls are on their walks through the park, curious Guests often ask “Do they mate for life?” I always say “Well… sort of.” There is rarely enough time to delve into the sordid details of avian love, but with Valentine’s Day approaching, I thought I’d give it a try!

PigeonBirds, a bit more than other animal groups, have a reputation for being faithful partners. Doves can be found in religious texts as symbols of innocence and fidelity, there are many accounts of the same bird couple returning to the same nest site year after year, and we have even named some of them “lovebirds.”

Well, the truth is, love is a many-splendored thing, and monogamy is more complex in the bird world than we used to think.


The large and colorful Cassowary

Monogamy is the term used when one bird pairs with one other bird for the long term. But it isn’t the only option. Our state bird, the Ring-necked Pheasant, is one of the species that utilizes polygyny – one male mates with multiple females. The brilliantly colored male often travels with his group of females to defend them from rivals during the breeding season. However, he has little to do with caring for the chicks. The flip side of the coin is polyandry, one female mating with multiple males. This is a bit rarer, but not unheard of – the cassowaries, jacanas, and phalaropes are among those species where the females mate with multiple males. A lady phalarope will lay a clutch of eggs for the father to care for, and then leave to look for more partners.

In fact, there isn’t even one form of monogamy. Some birds bond with a single partner, but only for as long as a single breeding season lasts – this seems to be the case with the Northern Cardinal and Black-capped Chickadee. Many songbirds have what is called “social monogamy,” where the male and female only consort socially with one partner. But if you did a genetic test on their hatchlings, you might find some oddballs! These are the lovechildren of quick trysts outside of the pair bond. “Genetic monogamy,” where a pair of birds is socially bonded and sexually exclusive, is much rarer. Finally, even the most faithful of birds can hit a rough patch, and yes, get divorced.

You can hardly blame past scientists for assuming the birds they saw devotedly preening each other were monogamous. Who can keep eyes on a bird 24/7 in impassable jungle? It was only with the development of genetic testing that we began to realize just how rare monogamy actually was.

Why stay together at all? Monogamy seems to be favored in species with comparatively long lifespans, slow reproductive rates, and needy babies (Emperor Penguins, Bald Eagles, Greater Flamingos, Military Macaws etc). Chances of chick survival in these species are often much better with two parents around to provide care.


A pair of Eclectus parrots, male on the left, female on the right.

Yet even in these groups, cheating and divorce can occur. And their cousins may thrive with a completely different system. A Military Macaw like our Bubba may never stray from his girl, but across the world, his little green cousin the Eclectus parrot is bringing a delicious treat to his red-and-blue lady huddled in her tree cavity… then flying a ways to give another treat to his other lady… whilst a different male brings tidbits to the female he just left! On rare occasions, Bubba’s neighbors might not even get the species right, resulting in hybrids like our Catalina Macaw, Nazca.


Nazca the hybrid Catalina Macaw

It may seem like science has exposed bird relations as a messy soap opera, but for me, it highlights something nature cherishes most: diversity. Diverse strategies and genes improve the chance of surviving the many challenges of life on Earth.

If you are spending Valentine’s Day with your sweetheart, enjoy yourselves! If you are not, try searching for videos of grebes doing their mating dance. It will make you smile, and maybe you could get a few pointers.

Julia Kittelson, Curator of Birds

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The REAL “Story of an Eagle”

This bizarre story has resurfaced on Facebook recently but it has been around for at least 8 years. In keeping with our policy of debunking totally incorrect animal photos and stories we offer you the truth about eagles. The original text of this recurring post is in quotes. Our factual responses to each part are below them in bold.


“The Eagle has the longest life-span of its species. It can live up to 70 years”
First of all a species is one type of animal, like the bald eagle or golden eagle, so, are they referring to one particular, extra special, eagle within his particular species? But let’s assume they actually mean genus or family, in other words, eagles in general. Generally speaking, eagles live around 30 years in the wild. Sometimes they do live longer in captivity due to a consistent food supply, veterinarian care, and shelter from extreme weather. But 70 years is not common and even quite unlikely. 

“But to reach this age, the eagle must make a hard decision. In its 40th year…”
In other words… 10 years after it should already be dead.

“…its long and flexible talons can no longer grab prey which serves as food. Its long and sharp beak becomes bent.”
“Its old, aged and heavy wings, due to their thick feathers, stick to its chest and make it difficult to fly.” (More on this later.)

eagle1 “Then, the eagle is left with only two options: DIE or go through a painful process of CHANGE which lasts 150 days. The process requires that the eagle fly to a mountaintop and sit on its nest. There the eagle knocks its beak against a rock until it plucks it out. Then the eagle will wait for a new beak to grow back…”
An eagle’s beak is made of keratin, like human fingernails. Like our fingernails, an eagle’s beak is constantly growing. Eagles tear at tough foods and wipe their beaks against hard objects like branches or even rocks to keep them clean. This process also helps keep the beak in magnificent shape throughout an eagle’s entire life. The loss of a beak in the wild would be certain death to any bird of prey.

“…and then it will pluck out its talons”
The talons are also made of keratin, like human fingernails. And so the talons too are constantly growing. Grabbing and killing prey keeps the talons sharp as well as prevents them from becoming too long. If they got soft, there would be something seriously wrong with the bird. The talons are what an eagle uses to catch food. To pluck them out would not only be extremely difficult and painful, but would also take away their ability to provide food for themselves. And, most importantly, when a raptor loses a talon in this fashion, it is possible it will not grow back and the loss of blood can be horrific. Therefore, it would die of starvation even if it survived the likely infection caused by “plucking out” its talons.

eagle3“When it’s new talons grow back, the eagle starts plucking its old, aged feathers.”
Birds naturally lose their feathers & regrow them in a process called molting. Eagles go through a molt roughly once a year throughout their lives. During a molt, old feathers naturally fall out and new ones grow in to take their place. There is no pulling of the feathers. Some bird species do lose most of their feathers at one time and are forced to hide until the grow back, but not raptors like eagles. Flight (wing and tail) feathers drop out one by one and are replaced one by one, not all at once so that the animal can continue to fly and catch food. Plus, jerking out its feathers could also cause permanent damage the feather follicle so no feather grows back. Without feathers, a bird is unable to fly. If they cannot fly they cannot hunt for food or escape predators that cross their path. Both cases would obviously lead to the death of the bird

“And after 5 months, the eagle takes its famous flight of rebirth and lives for 30 more years.”
Again, they just don’t live that long. But, “flight of rebirth”? Maybe they are referring to the mythical phoenix? Since these eagle “facts” are all total myth it must be a phoenix they are talking about…

eagle4 “Why is change needed? Many times, in order to survive we have to start a change process. We sometimes need to get rid of old memories, habits and other past traditions. Only freed from past burdens, can we take advantage of the present.”
We know the point of this thing was to be a lovely and inspirational story and we hate to rain on that parade. However, we feel we can just as easily be inspired by true stories about animals and should not need to make stuff up.

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HOW BIG IS BIG? Facts from the World’s Largest Reptile Zoo about Giant Reptiles and Snakes. – PART 2

As I mentioned in the first part of this post last week, our reward sign exists mostly to make a point that most reptile zoos fail to mention: not how big reptiles really get, but how big they really don’t get.

 But the Internet Never Lies!

In spite of regularly appearing stories on the Internet, there is no such thing as a 10-foot rattlesnake or a python or anaconda that was captured and found to genuinely be 40, 50, or 60 feet long or any other giant reptiles that were found in some remote part of the world—let alone the suburbs or a reptile zoo. I cannot begin to tell you how many people have guaranteed us their grandpa, or uncle, or father saw, held, or killed a 9- or 10- or 11-foot rattler. Yet, no one—not even other reptile zoos—has ever been able to verify this or bring us an actual rattlesnake that’s even 8 feet long. And, as we have thoroughly discussed in past blog posts, those many photos purporting giant reptiles, snakes and crocodilians on the internet are faked, often using forced perspective, or just outright lies. You can read two of my past posts on this subject here and here.


The African Connection That Never Panned Out

Some time ago I got a call from a man who said he was originally from South Dakota but now worked in the oil industry in Africa. He said he knew where 40-foot African Rock pythons were to be found. Apparently they were common in this one isolated remote area and he knew locals who would take him to capture them. Of course, he wanted to know if we would pay double the reward for a pair and also how to ship the giant reptiles to us. I told him without hesitation we would pay the reward for both a male and female pair of 40-foot pythons and even offered suggestions for shipping the giant reptiles to us. (I’m pretty free with our money when I know we won’t be spending it!) The maximum size for an African Rock Python, by the way, is about 20 feet. And guess what? Yeah, we never heard from him again.

The verified record for the world’s longest snake, the Reticulated Python from Asia, is 33 feet. And, although records for Anacondas are confusing, they probably don’t get over 20 to 25 feet. However, a big anaconda can weigh up to a massive 300 pounds! No crocodile species alive today—in the wild, or in a reptile zoo—can reach a fabled 30 or more feet.


Reticulated Python

Green Anaconda

Green Anaconda


Maniac, Cassius, and Lolong

The biggest crocodile species on earth is the Saltwater Crocodile of Australia and Southeast Asia. The absolute maximum length for a Saltwater crocodile, according to our friend George Craig at Marineland Melanesia on Green Island in Australia, is probably 22 or 23 feet. George has spent his life working with crocs – he knows his stuff. Our own giant Saltwater Crocodile, Maniac, is 15 feet 7 inches long so he has some growing to do.

Cassius the Crocodile, Green Island, Australia

Cassius the Crocodile, Green Island, Australia

The largest crocodile ever confirmed was Lolong in the Philippines and he measured 20 feet 3 inches. He was in captivity at reptile zoo in the Philippines for only a short time and unfortunately died in 2013. George Craig once again has the confirmed largest crocodile in captivity, Cassius, and he would easily measure 18 feet in length if he were not missing the tip of his tail and bit of his snout from his days chasing boats with outboard motors. Check out George’s Facebook page for some really cool stuff!

 South Dakota Giants

 The records for giant reptiles in South Dakota are a bit less exciting:

  • The Prairie Rattlesnake, the only rattler found within about 400 miles of Reptile Gardens, has a record length of 71 ½ inches (a whole two feet and one-half inch short of that $25,000 reward). Honestly, in South Dakota a really big rattlesnake would be 4 feet long.

    Prairie Rattlesnake photographed in the Badlands

    Prairie Rattlesnake photographed in the Badlands

  • If you captured one of our often seen Plains Garter snakes that straightened out to a whole 43 ½ inches, you’d have a world record.

    Plains Garter Snake

    Plains Garter Snake

  • The red-bellied snake is rarely seen but common around here and would be a record setting giant at a mere 16 ¼ inches.


    Red-Bellied Snake

Next time you visit the Reptile Gardens, have a look at our reward sign on the upper level of the Sky Dome. Nearby you’ll find the words: “How Big is Big” and underneath are lines painted to show the record lengths for giant reptiles, there’s a line for a python and a line for an 8-foot rattlesnake. I know, I know, that rattlesnake you saw in the Badlands last summer just had to be bigger than that line we have painted on the wall! All I can say is: bring him in and we will give you $25,000.

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HOW BIG IS BIG? Facts from the World’s Largest Reptile Zoo about Giant Snakes and Reptiles. – Part 1

We have a sign on the grounds—which can also be seen on our website—that lists various reptiles and how much we would pay for really large specimens. We’ve had many thousands of questions over the years about this sign. One of the reasons we’ve had so many questions about how large reptiles (especially giant snakes) can get is because their size may be the single most misunderstood thing about these already very misunderstood animals.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Are Those Rewards For Real?

 “Can they actually get as big as the ones on your reward sign?”

Yes, but each would be a world record for its species.

“Would you really pay that much?”


“If you’ll pay $25,000 for an eight foot rattlesnake, would you pay $12,500 for one four feet long?”

Sorry, no. How about 10 bucks?

Probably the most famous reward on our list is the one just mentioned that says we will pay $25,000 for an 8-foot rattlesnake. There are only 3 of the 100 or so varieties of rattlesnakes in the world that could even come close to growing to 8 feet – and none live around here. The 3 biggest rattlesnake species are: the Western Diamondback, the Eastern Diamondback, and the Mexican West Coast Rattlesnake. We get calls and visits every year from folks who see “8 footers” all the time and intend to bring us one.

Mexican West Coast Rattlesnake

The Mexican West Coast Rattlesnake is also known as the Mexican Green Rattlesnake.

How Many Do You Want?

I remember receiving a call from a woman in North Carolina who wanted to confirm our rattlesnake reward. I assured her we would definitely pay her – with the usual stipulation that it must be delivered to us live and in good condition. Her concern, she told me, was not that we would pay or even that they would have to deliver it in good shape. But, she wanted to know, how many we would take at that price? She said she hated to send “the boys” out to catch five or six 8-foot rattlesnakes if we would only take one. I told her to have the boys catch the first one and we could negotiate from there on all the others they would find. I never heard from her again.Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

In fact, we never hear from any of those giant snake catchers again. I guess those darn “giant snakes” look so much bigger in our minds than they really are. Our reward sign has been posted for almost 60 years and we have yet to pay any of the rewards even though wehave upped the rewards numerous times over the years.

Our reward sign exists mostly to make a point as to how big reptiles really get, or more accurately, how big they really don’t get.

We often hear stories about giant snakes in this area that were seen crossing the highway so long that they stretched all the way across the road from ditch to ditch. Sorry to burst your bubble but that’s impossible, well, unless the road was only about 6 feet wide (or the snake was chopped in two). Maybe it was just moving really fast. The region’s biggest snake is the Bullsnake with a record length of just 8 feet.



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Reptile Gardens Wins TripAdvisor’s 2015 Certificate of Excellence Award

Reptile Gardens has officially been awarded the 2015 Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor for the fourth consecutive year. We’re extremely happy to have been awarded this certificate for the last four years. Our staff has a tremendous amount of pride in ensuring that our guests have an experience that is truly memorable. Every day we strive create those memorable experiences by welcoming, engaging, entertaining, and educating guests of every age. This award is the result of a culmination of reviews from people around the world, and we are honored and humbled by so many people sharing their wonderful experience. From our family to yours: Thank You.

In addition to receiving TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence, Reptile Gardens has also received acclaim from the Guinness Book of World Records as being the World’s Largest Reptile Zoo. However, we’re not just about reptiles. We’ve worked hard to create an exotic, relaxing, and beautiful botanical garden that features very happy and very healthy tropical plants in a very non-tropical South Dakota. Take some time to stroll through the gardens and Tortuga Falls to visit Darwin, the Australian Kookaburra. Whether you’re visiting the Black Hills or are a local resident, Reptile Gardens welcomes everyone to an adventure that the whole family can enjoy.


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Reptile Gardens Opening Day

With the arrival of spring, Reptile Gardens is once again preparing to open their doors for the new season. Opening day will be Saturday, March 14, 2014 at 9AM. It will be their 78th year welcoming visitors from all over the world.

Impala Lily

kangaroo paw
The staff at Reptile Gardens spent the winter getting the park ready for the 2015 season. The Garden Department will have lots of beautiful flowers in the tropical Safari Room on opening day, including some fun new plants like Impala Lilies and Kangaroo Paws.

The Reptile Department has prepared the exhibits and all the snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, amphibians, and bugs are looking good in Sky Dome. Our Giant Tortoises, Quazi, Tank, and Orville are ready to greet visitors to the park and receive some neck scratches.

The Gift Shop and the Jungle Outpost Gallery are filled with fun new T-shirts, lots of spectacular new rocks, fossils, and minerals, and many other items – souvenirs, collectibles, keepsakes, and art works.

The busy season in the Black Hills is from Memorial Day to Labor Day, however Reptile Gardens is open through November.

Reptile Gardens is open for you to visit early in the season, before the crowds, and take advantage of a reduced admission which includes a free season pass to visit anytime you like as many times as you like throughout the season. Make a plan to visit this one of a kind attraction this year and get ready to make memories!

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Reptile Gardens in the Winter

The days are getting shorter and the weather is getting cooler. Fall is definitely in the air at Reptile Gardens. We will be closing for the year 2014 on November 30, so stop by to see us again soon before we close our doors for the winter. Which raises the question: What does happen at Reptile Gardens in the winter?

One thing doesn’t change; the Safari room under the Sky Dome is warm and full of life! Orchids are in bloom, and lizards are scurrying around on the ground. The turtles that inhabit Tortuga Falls are brought into the warm shelter of the big dome for the colder months. The temperature of the Safari Room is kept around a balmy 80 degrees on a daily basis, with back-up generators ready to go if the area happens to receive a winter storm that generates a power outage.

The lower level of the Sky Dome is also the winter home to some of Reptile Garden’s famous residents. Maniac, the huge saltwater crocodile can be found in his enclosure, and is free to go outside if he chooses on warmer days. Just around the corner from Maniac lives many other creatures including bugs, frogs, and spiders that remain none the wiser of cold outside temperatures.

The crocodilians that star in the gator show in the summertime are housed indoors during the cold months as well. Ken, the Head Curator of Reptiles, simply opens the door and they saunter inside themselves as temperatures drop.

Prairie Dog Town is quiet during the winter, as the furry critters head into their underground burrows for much of the cold season. If there happens to be a stretch of warm days, a few will pop up and wander around for an hour or two, but the majority is content to hunker down until spring.

Darwin the Kookaburra, who can be found in the summer months at Tortuga Falls, is taken to the bird facility and is kept indoors since he is a tropical bird. The rest of the birds also remain at the indoor bird enclosure for the duration of the winter.

The giant Aldabra tortoises go into their building every night all summer long. Once the weather cools the gentle giants spend the days indoors, warm and protected from the elements.

Reptile Gardens will remain open to the public until November 30, 2014 with daily hours from 9 am – 3 pm. The gift shop is offering the annual 20% off sale throughout November, which includes items that are already on sale. Reptile Gardens will reopen for the 2015 season on the 15th of March.

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Flower photography tips

When photographing flowers, it is easy to be distracted by their overall general natural beauty and hard to overcome the urge to just start snapping frame after frame without much rhyme or reason. While some shots can produce lovely results, try the following tips to hone in on each flowers unique characteristics, and produce some images that pay tribute to a flowers stunning individuality.

1. Select the flower carefully. When choosing one flower (or flowers) to photograph out of a group, find the flower that has the least amount of natural flaws. Things such as wilted or browning petals will be amplified in the photo. Sometimes by just changing the angle of your camera, these often subtle imperfections can be minimized.

2. Get up close. The closer you can get to a flower, the more detail will be captured and will improve the photos composition. The texture of each individual petal and pod will draw interest and create depth in the photograph.close-up

3. Isolate the flower. When you move in close to the intended flower, try to adjust the angle so that there is not a lot of background color. This can be difficult if photographing one flower amongst many, but not impossible. The less the amount of distraction in the background, the more the flower will take center stage in the photo itself. If using a digital or SLR camera, use a wide aperture which will cause the background to be slightly blurry, but keep the flower in clear focus.isolated

4. Be sure the flower is still. Photographing flowers outside does not come without challenges. Even the slightest breeze can cause your subject to waver and sway, especially those with very thin stems. If the day is particularly windy or rainy, try photographing some indoor flora. If using a digital camera, it may help to keep the image sharp by increasing the shutter speed.

5. Consider the lighting. Harsh lighting or direct sunlight can cause harsh shadows and sometimes wash out the details of the flower in photos. If the day does happen to be very sunny, carry an umbrella to cast your own shadow. Don’t be afraid to experiment with bright sunny light; the right angle can produce some dramatic, high contrast images. Overcast or cloudy days provide the ideal light for photographing flowers. Back lighting can also produce some stunning flower images. Again, get creative with angles and locations for optimum results.backlit

6. Dew drops create additional interest. If you happen to be photographing flowers early in the morning or after a rain shower, take advantage of the opportunity to capture droplets on the petals. The water adds another dimension of texture to the photo, and makes the flowers appear fresh.water2

7. Consider the angle. As mentioned previously, the angle can play a crucial role in the final photo. Think outside of the box and get down low by bending, kneeling, or even laying down. Sometimes the best angles take a bit of creativity.unusual-angle

8. Crop your image later. You may find that you have taken some great shots, and all they need is a bit of refining. Most photography software allows you the option to crop your image. This is also an opportunity to crop particular details, and create a new image altogether.

9. But, don’t limit yourself to just close-ups. There are plenty of great wider shots that can be quite spectacular or unusual.wider-image

Flowers are all unique and each contains their own special beauty. The next time you are somewhere that has stunning flowers, take the time to get up close and take some pictures – even using your cell phone, and see if you can capture some amazing images. Looking for somewhere with lots of opportunities? Check out the botanical gardens at

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A Black Hills fall vacation may be just what you need

As the sun slowly sets on summer, it is easy to think of the long, cold winter ahead. However, there is still plenty of time to take in the lovely season that is autumn for a quick Black Hills fall vacation.

The Black Hills has great weather most of the time in the fall, with comfortable sunny days and cool star filled nights. This environment provides the perfect environment for getting outside and taking advantage of some of the great outdoor attractions that the Black Hills has to offer.

Reptile Gardens

This well-known Black Hills attraction is a unique reptile and botanical paradise. Stroll through the orchid filled tropical jungle under the giant Sky Dome. Watch for parrots and free roaming lizards. Enjoy the beautifully diverse botanical gardens which have over 40,000 flowers planted every summer on the lush 30 acre grounds. Meet prairie dogs, gentle giant tortoises, a huge saltwater crocodile, and see some of the deadliest snakes in the world. Reptile Gardens was listed in the 2014 Guinness Book of World Records as having the largest reptile zoo in the world. If you visited Reptile Gardens earlier in the season, don’t forget to bring your season pass! Reptile Gardens is open until the end of November.

Harney Peak

At 7,242 feet, Harney Peak is not only the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. There are several different trails to the summit, and you may choose which you prefer based on length and difficulty. Once you reach the top, the view of the Black Hills is dazzling. A stone fire tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 and 1939 at the upper most elevation. It was used as a fire lookout until 1967. The rockwork on this structure is a work of art in itself. Not only does the tower have a multi-tiered balcony, there is also a sweeping stone staircase that leads visitors right to its doorway.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park, named after Lt. Colonel George Armstrong, Custer is a wildlife reserve in the southern Black Hills that covers over 71,000 acres of rolling prairie and ponderosa pine forest. The park is home to a herd of 1500 free roaming bison. Also inhabiting the park are antelope, mule deer, big horn sheep, elk, mountain lions, mountain goats and a curious bunch of feral burros. The park offers several scenic drives as well as many opportunities for a hike or picnic.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

If you are planning a Black Hills fall vacation, be sure to stop by the four famous granite presidents. Enjoy an outdoor stroll to the observation deck, and walk the Presidential Trail for a unique view of this iconic sculpture.

The autumn months are a fantastic time to enjoy many outdoor Black Hills attractions, and something can be found for everyone to enjoy. Be sure to double check hours of operation, as many attractions that are open in the summer do change in the fall.

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Reptile Gardens is Open in 2014

With the arrival of spring, Reptile Gardens is once again preparing to open their doors for the new season. Opening day will be Saturday, March 29, 2014 at 9AM. It will be their 77th year welcoming visitors from all over the world. New at Reptile Gardens for 2014 is their latest claim to fame. Reptile Gardens has been officially designated the World’s Largest Reptile Collection by the Guinness Book of World Records. In addition to the amazing reptile and amphibian collection, their botanical gardens continue to get more beautiful each year.

The staff at Reptile Gardens spent the winter getting the park ready for the 2014 season. The Garden Department made many changes in the beautiful tropical Safari Room, the nation’s original indoor jungle. The Reptile Department renovated and redecorated the exhibits and all the snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, amphibians, and bugs are back home and ready to greet visitors. After a successful visit to the Tucson Gem and Mineral show, along with visiting countless vendors, the Gift Shop and the Jungle Outpost Gallery are filled with fun new T-shirts, a wall of stunning jewelry, lots of great rocks, fossils, and mineral, and many other items – souvenirs, collectibles, keepsakes, and art works.

The busy season in the Black Hills is from Memorial Day to Labor Day, however Reptile Gardens is open through November.

Visit early in the season, before the crowds, and take advantage of a reduced admission which includes a pass to visit anytime you like as many times as you like throughout the season. Make a plan to visit this one of a kind attraction this year and get ready to make memories!

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