Audubon Zoo celebrates the surprise arrival of triplets

A baby Shingleback Skink, born at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans late last month (John Snell)
A baby Shingleback Skink, born at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans late last month (John Snell)

New Orleans-- The Audubon Zoo is celebrating the arrival of  3 baby of Shingleback Skinks, an Australian lizard rarely bred successfully in captivity.

The large lizards, about 6 inches at birth, are named for their armor-like scales.

The first two of the set arrived on August 29.

Nick Hanna, assistant curator of reptiles, said a zoo keeper was walking by their enclosure when she saw a baby running around.

"Needless to say, we were excited," said Hanna, who explained the zoo has been trying to breed the Shinglebacks since 1990.

The third baby Shingleback was born the next day.

Unlike many reptiles, Shingleback Skinks give birth to live young as opposed to hatching them from eggs.

"Working with them year after year after year, you kind of get used to I don't want to say 'failure,' but not seeing this."

In the wild, adult males and females tend to be monogamous, Hanna explained.

"They're kind of picky about their mates."

While the lizards are common in the wild in Australia, Hanna said they are illegal to import, and therefore, rare in the U.S.

The zoo acquired its current pair of parents via confiscation in 2005.

"It takes a long time getting a pair used to one another," Hanna said.

Climate further complicates the process, since the Australian summers and winters are reversed on the calendar.

Curators put them through a period of brumation, sort of a hibernation for lizards.

The Shinglebacks were separated from one another and placed in an enclosure at about 55 degrees for a period of roughly 3 months.

After being cooled and gradually warmed, the pair was reintroduced.

Audubon plans to keep the babies and supplement the collection with potential mates from other zoos.

Another set of triplets, African Black-Crowned Cranes, arrived Sunday and Monday of this week.

The cranes, normally on exhibit with Audubon's giraffes, are being temporary isolated in a nearby enclosure.

Audubon staff members explain the concern is not so much the safety of the young chicks as the aggressive nature of the parents.

"They're very protective of those kids and very mean about it," said Carolyn Atherton, curator of birds.

Normally, Audubon sees large numbers of chicks in the spring and early summer months.

However, Atherton said "a lot of African species don't experience a winter and summer like we do."

Therefore, they can breed year round.

In the case of the cranes, Atherton said they normally look for chicks in the later summer.

This year brings a bumper crop of sorts since the cranes had no chicks in 2011 and just one last year.

Unlike the baby lizards, the Black-Crowned Crane chicks will likely be shipped to a new home in another zoo next year.

Zoos operate under standards for sharing such species "so we can keep the genetic pool as diversified as possible."