A Thriving Habitat for Reptiles and Amphibians In Your Own Backyard

Posted May 21, 2020 by Christi Nakajima
Young Christi catching and releasing a catfish in her backyard.

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, I was fortunate enough to spend much of my childhood playing in my backyard – a shady, grassy slope bordered by tall trees and opening up into a pond shared by a number of our neighbors. Every day, my best friend and I found new ways to explore nature without even leaving the yard; whether it was spotting a heron creep across the shallow edges, watching a turtle bask on “turtle island” (a dead tree stump protruding from the water), or seeing the occasional snake make its way across the water’s surface, the world rarely felt limited. 

Tank, one of the box turtles at the Cincinnati Zoo. Some turtles help plants reproduce by eating the plants and dispersing the still-intact seeds.

Even if your backyard doesn’t feature a pond like mine did, your yard may still be home to a variety of small creatures that showcase an often overlooked world. And one way to attract more animals to it is by making it an accommodating home. Not only with this bring more life to your backyard, but it will help the animals, too. While many species are incredibly resilient, habitat loss has made it difficult for them to survive; this is why the Zoo works to “build a better home for wildlife”. Roads, buildings, parking lots, and even monoculture farms mean fewer areas where animals can shelter, find food, or mate.

A hellbender at the Cincinnati Zoo. Salamanders like the hellbender help balance prey populations by eating snails, insects, crayfish, and other invertebrates.

For example, the hellbender, a large salamander which can be seen at our Reptile House, has seen an 82% decrease in population in Ohio since the 1980s, largely due to a worsening of the water quality in the streams they call home. Spotted turtles are also threatened in Ohio due to the alteration and destruction of their primary habitat: wetlands. Even species that are not currently endangered should be protected from population decline, because each species plays an important role in various ecosystems. 

Obsidian the black rat snake, by Christine Conway. Snakes provide an important ecosystem service by helping to keep rat and other small mammal populations in check.

Despite growing up in a developed area, I still got to witness wildlife – especially reptiles and amphibians that have become somewhat accustomed to life around people. If we help to provide animals with the things they need to thrive, they will come, and their populations will be safeguarded. So, what do these types of animals need?

Most animals (even mid-level predators like snakes) need to be able to hide from predators. If a yard is only covered in short grass, there is nowhere a reptile or amphibian could hide from a hawk or a fox. Therefore, creating shelter is one of the easiest and most effective ways you can help wildlife in your own backyard. For example:


Brush pile by Christine Conway

In the fall, build a brush pile by pushing the leaves and sticks that naturally accumulate into one pile off to the side of the yard.




Toad abode by Sandy Dobberstein

Place a toad abode in your yard next to a shallow dish filled with water. One way to make your own is to turn an old flower pot on its side and bury it halfway in the ground in a damp, shady place.






A pollinator garden registered with the Zoo’s Plant for Pollinators Challenge.

Plant a pollinator garden. Not only will the plants provide cover for our reptile and amphibian friends to hide under, but they will also help important pollinators like butterflies and bees! Click here to learn more and to register your garden through the Zoo’s Plant for Pollinators Challenge.






After you’ve created a nice home for wildlife, if you enjoy watching the animals that end up there, consider participating in citizen science. It’s a fun activity for families and individuals alike, and can be very informative as well! Simply download the iNaturalist app, create an account, take a picture of an animal, and upload it to the app. These observations will help researchers better understand and protect nature, so grab your camera and don’t hold back! Click here to learn more about iNaturalist. 

Now that you know about how to help native wildlife, on your next visit to the Zoo look for our toad abodes, pollinator-friendly plants, and the logs that turtles use to bask on! Sometimes when I pass by Swan Lake, I think of the pond that I grew up on and how just that small piece of habitat supported ducks, turtles, songbirds, and other wildlife even with being in an urban environment. My hope is that one day, every backyard can become part of a larger, interconnected, and thriving habitat.