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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Pig-Nosed Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta)

Pig-Nosed Turtle (Fly River Turtle)
Carettochelys insculpta (Ramsay, 1886)

Range: Southern New Guinea, Northwestern Australia
Habitat: Rivers, Lagoons
Diet: Mollusks, Fish, Crustaceans, Fruit, Aquatic Plants
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Females nest between July and October at night, sometimes in groups; nest pit dug with hind limbs, up to 50 centimeters deep.  Eggs are 4 centimeters in diameter and weight 35 grams – incubation period is 64-102 days, with rising water stimulating eggs to hatch.  Hatchlings are 5-6 centimeters long.  Temperature for sexual differentiation is 31.5 degrees Celsius (higher temperatures females, lower males).  Females usually nest twice per year.
Lifespan: 35 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix II

  • ·         Largest Australian turtle – maximum length of 70 centimeters, maximum weight of 30 kilograms; males are generally slightly smaller with a  longer, thicker tail
  • ·         Resembles a sea turtle in having flippers instead of webbed feet for limbs (males have two claws on edges of anterior flippers); also only turtle species in world to have thick, pig-like snout (responsible for one of common names), which can be used as a snorkel while swimming
  • ·         Color ranges from silver-gray to brown-black, with light spots on carapace; ventral surface is creamy yellow or pink
  • ·         Can tolerate brackish or saltwater, and sometimes seen out at sea or nesting on beaches alongside sea turtles
  • ·         Rarely leaves water (never seen basking on sandbanks or rocks), has difficulty moving on land; normally leaves the water only to nest
  • ·         Primarily nocturnal, using snout (which is equipped with sensory receptors) to probe for food in mud at the bottom of the water
  • ·         Home ranges may be up to 10 kilometers of river (larger than other freshwater turtles)
  • ·         Crocodiles are major predators, but nests and hatchling are also threatened by feral buffalo, which may trample the nests
  • ·         Desired as food source due to large size and tasty meat, especially in New Guinea, where eggs are also collected extensively

Friday, February 5, 2016

From the News: Chester Zoo celebrate breeding 'living fossil'

I count myself as extremely lucky that, at the tender age of having just left college, I was able to land my first zoo job working with one of the world's most extraordinary reptiles - the tuatara of New Zealand.  During my stint with the prehistoric, lizard-like creatures, my curator (who was constantly bombarding me with questions about how their temperature was, how were they eating, etc) bought a bottle of fine New Zealand wine, which he then put under lock and key.  It was his intention, he said, to drink it when he finally achieved his goal of being the first zoo outside of New Zealand to breed the species.

That was almost ten years ago. If you're reading this, boss, I guess you might as well open the damned bottle.  Congratulations Chester Zoo!

Photo credit: Chester Zoo

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Secret Lives of Prairie Dogs

"There is an old Navajo warning that if you kill off the prairie dogs there will be no one to cry for the rain..."

-Stephen Harrod Buhner, Sacred Plant Medicine

I didn't see a groundhog on Tuesday, but I did see one of our zoo's black-tailed prairie dogs (no word on whether she saw her shadow).  That surprised me.  This time of year, I would have put the odds on it being more likely that I would have seen a wild groundhog than a captive prairie dog.  Prior to that brief glimpse, I can't think of the last time that I saw one.  Weeks, maybe.

If it seems strange that a zookeeper would go for weeks without actually seeing on of his or her animals, it is... unless the animal in question is a prairie dog (which is not a dog, of course, but a ground-dwelling squirrel).  Everything about prairie dogs is weird, from a captive management standpoint.  Unlike any other species in our collection (down to the hissing cockroaches), I can't tell you how many prairie dogs we have at any given time.  That's because the entire theater of their life, except for brief foraging expeditions, takes place beneath the surface.  They breed underground.  They are born underground.  They die underground... and when they die, they do so in chambers which are then sealed off by the others.

They even poop underground - the poop being deposited in special chambers (and there aren't just bathrooms - there are bedrooms, pantries, you name it).  That, of course, means that I don't have to clean in there.  Basically, I add food and water.  Easiest exhibit in the zoo.

If you exclude the aquariums and aviaries, I think prairie dogs might be the one species which has been exhibited at every single zoo I've ever visited.  Maybe one or two didn't have them, but that's it.  They are among the most ubiquitous of zoo critters.  Visitors love them.  What's always surprised me, then, is how no one ever seems to have developed a truly great prairie dog exhibit.

Prairie dogs have a great story to tell.  Forget about rattlesnakes or wolves, they are one of the most feared and loathed and misunderstood animals in the Americas.  Ranchers and farmers have waged wars of them for centuries, accusing them of ruining grazing land and leaving holes all over the place for their horses to step into a break legs.  They've been popular live-targets for every kid with a gun in the western states.  While prairie dogs have remained fairly common across their range, their once immeasurable numbers have diminished greatly, often to the severe detriment of animals that rely on them (sometimes exclusively so).
Image obtained from Arizona Game and Fish Department

And other animals certainly do rely on them.  The burrows of prairie dogs shelter a host of other animals, from burrowing owls to toads to the black-footed ferrets which feed almost solely on prairie dogs (talk about ingratitude).  Besides ferrets, the dogs feed hawks, badgers, coyotes, and snakes.  The constant tunneling of the rodents churns the soil, improving the grazing for other herbivores, such as bison and pronghorn.  All of this makes a fascinating story zoo visitors would lap up.

It doesn't hurt that prairie dogs are cute as buttons (I mean, to the extent that buttons really are cute, which is a concept I've never understood) and tend to be active and full of bustle and energy - at least, during periods of nice weather.  Guests love them... blissfully unaware of how savage they can be to each other (imagine Watership Down meets Lord of the Flies).

Changes in zoo exhibition techniques have revolutionized how visitors see some animals.  Reversed lighting has turned bats, small cats, and other nocturnal animals from sleeping blobs to fur to active and energetic creatures.  Underwater viewing has transformed hippos and crocodilians from floating lumps to star attractions and allowed visitors to see how penguins "fly" underwater.

It's interesting, then, to wonder about the possibilities of underground viewing.  I've been to a few facilities that show a tiny section of cut-away burrows (National Zoo has side-by-side displays for prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets in their Small Mammal House), but they've been on a very small scale.  I'm talking about  something grand and sweeping, the difference between a 10-gallon glass tank and the shark tank at a major aquarium - a sprawling exhibit where prairie dogs - displayed with their non-predatory cohorts in a mixed-species exhibit - can be viewed above the ground and below.  You could see them tunnel, observe how they utilize different chambers of their network, and watch how animals interact below the surface.  It would also allow keepers to have the opportunity to track their charges throughout their lives, rather than just rely on a few snapshots of cameo appearances on the surface.

How will it work?  Haven't gotten there yet.  I've seen it done with taxidermy mounts, but getting live animals to work in such a set-up, tunneling alongside viewing windows, would be tricky.  Maybe the answer right now isn't to actually show visitors with their own eyes, but to use technology, like laparoscopic cameras, to sneak-peeks down the tunnels.  Whatever the case, it would be fascinating to let visitors gain an entirely new perspective of an animal that many of them thought they knew.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

On Thin Ice

A reader from Pittsburgh sent me a link today, showcasing this scene from the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.  A male ostrich was enjoying some of the nice weather the area has had in the aftermath of last month's blizzard - unfortunately, there was still some ice in the yard and he fell into the moat.  Thankfully, zoo staff was on hand to rescue the bird from its predicament.

Thanks again to the contributor who pointed this video out to me, and remember: contributions of material, requests for articles, and guest editorials are always welcome at!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Groundhog Day

And now, the blog that tried to pass off the movie A Christmas Story as something vaguely zoo-related presents Groundhog Day!

There really are only two icons of Groundhog Day -  Punxsutawney Phil and Bill Murray.  One is an icon known and recognized and adored the world over... the other is... Bill Murray.  Murray, of course, starred in the movie Groundhog Day, playing a TV weatherman who is forced to relive the same day (February 2nd) over and over again, no matter how many suicidal shortcuts he takes to get out of it.

The last time I watched it, it occurred to me that, comedy aside, reliving the same day sounds like an awful way to spend eternity.  It also made me appreciate something about my job that few other people can say.

No two days are ever the same.

Life as a zookeeper is a cycle of constant change. Animals are born.  Animals are shipped in.  Animals die.  Animals are shipped out.  Exhibits are built and torn down and then rebuilt, keepers and other staffers come and go.  Everyday presents a new challenge.  Some of these challenges are, admittedly, not very fun, such as the challenge of where to put the three feet of snow that plopped down on your facility in the course of one night (Thanks Jonas...).  Others, while equally serious, are a little more unique to the profession, such as how do you catch a single, specific bird out of a free-flight aviary the size of a football field?  How do you coax a pair of pythons into a little romance?  How do you negotiate the dynamics of your chimpanzee group, a political pit of scheming that makes House of Cards look like a three-year-old's tea party?

Most days, I come home from work happy.  Plenty of times I come back sad over something that unfolded, like saying goodbye to a favorite animal.  I've been known to come home angry, either at coworkers, or the public, or myself.  I've never come back bored.

Likewise, I never walk in the front door of work the next morning and think "Yep... same old, same old today."

Saturday, January 30, 2016

From the News: Zebra cousin went extinct 100 years ago. Now, it's back.

Officially, the last quagga - a zebra-like equid from South Africa that was only partially striped - went extinct last century, the last individual dying at the Amsterdam Zoo, leaving us with only a few black-and-white photos and taxidermy mounts to remember it by.  Unofficially, it's back... at least, something quagga-ish is back.  Scientists have selectively bred plains zebra to create an animal that at least looks like the quagga.  But is it a quagga?

That's harder to say.  For one thing, it's hard to say exactly what a quagga is.  For the brief history that Europeans and quaggas shared, the relationship was mostly conducted down the barrel of a gun.  Little is known about its behavior, it's adaptations, heck, it's not even known if it was a separate species or a subspecies of plains zebra.  If the later, then it is certainly possible that some of those genes were floating around with other zebras... in which case the researchers simply bred it back, sort of like the Heck brothers and their aurochs.

Personally, I don't buy it.  On a superficial level, I don't think the Rau quagga (as they are called) even look too much like quagga.  Secondly, an animal isn't just its DNA and genes - it's also its behavior.  How can we know that Rau quagga actually act like quagga?  Thirdly, I worry that this is a cool experiment, but one that will divert time and money and efforts from saving species that we still have.  Will researchers be shifting their attention from studying other animals to the glamorous new cause that is the quagga?  Will zoo spaces be taken up by quagga that could go to other endangered species?  Will these quagga be self-sufficient in the wild, or always need to be pampered and coddled?  I have doubts.

Lastly, I always worry that stunts like this dampen the public's interest in saving endangered species.  After all, if extinction isn't forever, why fear it?

To learn more about this experiment, check out the Breeding-Back Blog.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Zoo History: Hippos on the Bayou

"I hope to live long enough to see herds of these broad-backed beasts wallowing in the Southern marshes and rivers, fattening on the millions of tons of food which awaits their arrival; to see great droves of white rhinoceri … roaming over the semiarid desert wastes, fattening on the sparse herbage which these lands offer; to see herds of the delicate giraffe, the flesh of which is the purest and sweetest of any known animal, browsing on the buds and shoots of young trees in preparation for the butchers block”

- W. N. Irwin, United States Department of Agriculture

At first glance, the satire piece highlighted in the most recent post looks too obvious to be believable.  The thing is, though, that like most satire it has some origin in reality.  Manatees have been considered (and to some degree, utilized) as a biological control for water hyacinth.  Capybara have been commercially farmed in their native South America.  And the third member of this little triumvirate?  Funny you should ask...

At the dawn of the 1900s, America's potential seemed to finally be checked up an unforeseen problem.  The country was running out of meat.  The seemingly endless rangelands of the west were used up and overgrazed, and a rapidly increasingly population (driven in part by increased immigration) needed to be fed.  But what to feed them?  America had always solved the problem of natural resources by moving west.  Now, there was no more west to travel to.  If there was no more land to conquer, some outside-the-box thinkers reasoned, maybe it was time to look at the water.

And so began a much-discussed, never-implemented plan for America to begin ranching hippopotamuses.

Image: Mark Summers

There were other animals involved, to be sure, but the focus was always on the hippos.  The plan called for importing animals which could utilize parts of the American landscape that beef cattle could not.  African antelope, for instance, were considered ideal candidates to ranch in the deserts of the southwest, being accustomed to drier conditions than cattle.  Hippos, it was reasoned, could be farmed in the bayous and swamplands of the southeast.  As an extra bonus, they would mop up that pesky water hyacinth, introduced by a Japanese trade delegation in the 1880s, which was blocking up waterways in the south.

This wasn't just some fly-by-night scheme bounced around by crazy entrepreneurs.  This was an issue seriously discussed in the halls of Congress, championed by politicians, endorsed by celebrities, and lauded in the popular press.  Old "African hands" (none of which, it is fair to note, were actually Africans) were consulted about the virtues - and edibility - of hippos.  Circus and zoo staff were asked to provide their expertise for how to ship and care for the animals (even William T. Hornaday got roped into the action).  Funds were being raised to send an expedition over to Africa to collect the beasts.  It was all a go.

So what happened?  The usual reason for progress to be halted.  People lost interest, usually because they get distracted by other things (in this case, first a revolution in Mexico, then an inconvenient World War).  By the time the dust has settled, the relevant players, the ones who were actually leading the charge, have all since retired or died or moved on to other pursuits.

In the end, America decided to solve her meat shortage problem in another way - and it wasn't to go vegetarian.  If more land couldn't be produced for farming, than the remaining land would have to produce more with new techniques.  Welcome to the age of the factory farm.  I'm not certain what ecological problems would have been associated with introducing hippos to the swamps of Florida and Alabama - we've since seen oryx, addax, and other African antelope introduced to the southwest, albeit for sport hunting rather than food - but I can't help but wonder if it really could be worse than the results of factory farms, both in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact.

Farming hippos in the south seems like a crazy idea now, but looking at it through the eyes of the 1900's, I really can't see why it wouldn't have worked.  After all, someone had to start with the mouflon to get the sheep, the wild boar to get the pig, the now-extinct aurochs to get the cow.  After a century of hippo farming, who knows what the result would have been?  Besides a surprising new addition to the barnyard area of your local zoo.

In telling the story of hippo ranching, I unforgivably skimmed over the stories and personalities of the men involved with it, some of whom have led what could only be described as very full lives.  I feel I can do so because their stories have all been told, in much better detail than I could ever hope to achieve, in the article which I have linked below.