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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Extinct Animals - Last Known Address

The Cincinnati Zoo has the unfortunate distinction of being the site of two extinctions -it is where the last known passenger pigeon died, as well as the last known Carolina parakeet.  Can you identify the extinct animals in this quiz based on where and when the last individual of the species died or was reported?

Passenger pigeon memorial at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis)

Sumatran Rhinoceros

Dicerorhinus sumatrensis (Fischer, 1814)

Range: Once throughout Southeast Asia, now found only in small pockets of Sumatra, Borneo, and Peninsular Malaysia
Habitat: Wetlands, Rainforests
Diet: Fruit, Bamboo, Leaves, Bark
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Induced ovulators (unlike other rhino species), a single calf born after 15-16 month gestation period (usually born during the rainy season of October through May), calf becomes independent at 16-17 months of age and becomes sexually mature at 7-8 years old; births occur at 3-4 year intervals
Lifespan: 35-40 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • Smallest of the living rhinoceros species: head and body length 2.3-3.2 meters, shoulder height 1.1-1.45 meters, weight up to 1,000 kilograms
  • Thick skin is covered with red-brown hairs; the coat is long and dense in younger animals, but becomes sparser in older individuals; it is believed to be related to the now-extinct woolly rhinoceros of Europe and Asia
  • The only Asian rhinoceros which has two horns (though the second horn is often so short that it may not even appear to be present)
  • Females maintain stable home ranges, males are slightly more nomadic, though both sexes may make seasonal movements to avoid flooding; both sexes mark home rnages with feces, urine, and soil scrapes
  • Believed to be nocturnal, with the days spent lying in mud wallows or shallow pools.  Besides wallows and feeding grounds, a key component of every range is a salt-lick
  • Very agile compared to other rhinos, with moderate climbing and swimming abilities
  • Once there were three subspecies; D. s. lasiotis (mainland southeast Asia) is now probably extinct, D. s. harrissoni found on Borneo, D. s. sumatrensis found in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia
  • Driven almost to extinction by habitat loss (mostly from palm oil plantations) and hunting for its horn, valued in traditional medicine.  Population numbers in the low 100s overall, but is highly fragmented
  • Species has traditionally not thrived in captivity due to lack of knowledge of its biology and reproductive life; only successful captive births have occurred at the Calcutta Zoo and, over 100 years later, at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, where three calves were produced.  The species is now also managed in protected sanctuaries in Sumatra.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Zoo Review: Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

Opening its gates in 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanic Garden is the second-oldest zoo in the United States.  It's impossible to stroll around the zoo without being reminded of its history, whether you are looking at the architechture (the Reptile House, constructed in 1875, is the oldest zoo animal building in the US) or the wildlife (reminders of Cincinnati's long history of "firsts", both in terms of exhibitions and captive breedings, including the first zoo births of American bison, California sea lion, and trumpeter swan).  Its history has sadder chapters as well - the facility marks the place where the last individuals of two species - the passenger pigeon (1914) and the Carolina parakeet (1918) died.

The zoo grounds themselves are a juxtaposition of new and old.  Ornate, Victorian-era animal houses are filled with naturalistic exhibits, while many of the newer zoo displays are truly astonishing. The Wings of the World bird house displays birds in a series of geographically themed habitats, ranging from the African savannas to the sub-Antarctic coastlines.  Two walk-in aviaries transport visitors to two very different rainforests - Latin America (with golden conures, sunbitterns, and cock-of-the-rocks) and Australasia (home to crowned pigeons, rhinoceros hornbills, and flying foxes).  The building is especially noteworthy for its displays of Arctic and Antarctic birds - puffins, sea ducks, Inca terns, and three species of penguin roost of the rocks or dive in their pools in front of visitors.  Outside, an interactive aviary features mischievous kea, alpine parrots from New Zealand.

King penguins in the World of Wings sub-Antarctic exhibit

Equally impressive was the reptile house, where Chinese alligators are the centerpiece of the single round room.  Unlike many zoo reptile houses, which tend to be dark and hushed, this was light and airy, complements of the great skylights overheard (probably explained by the fact that this was built as a monkey house, not a reptile house).  The collection of venomous snakes, including king cobra, rhinoceros viper, and Aruba rattlesnakes, is especially noteworthy.  Outdoors, Galapagos tortoises plod through their yard (in warmer months), while Japanese macaques scramble over a rocky island.  More reptiles can be found in two other buildings - a separate building for monitor lizards (with Komodo dragons as the star occupants) and Manatee Coast, home to American alligators, American crocodiles, alligator snapping turtles, and many smaller herps of the Everglades.  Of course, in this building it is the manatees that are the star - Cincinnati is one of the only inland zoos in the country to display the lovable aquatic mammals, removed to captive settings due to injuries obtained in the wild.

A child watches a manatee scratching its backside against the glass in the underwater gallery of Manatee Coast

Perhaps the most innovating animal house in Cincinnati is World of the Insect, not the first insect house in the zoo world but certainly one of the best.  Visitors can wander through a butterfly garden, watch leaf-cutter ants carry their food through acrylic tunnels, and find out how much they way in insects.  The most popular animals in here are (typically) not insects (or even arachnids... though there are lots of those in here too), but the naked mole-rats, used as an example of an insect-like mammal.

Leaf-cutter ants at work in World of the Insect

Cincinnati is perhaps most famous for its cats above any other residents, and the zoo doesn't disappoint cat-lovers: over a dozen species are represented here.  There are two exhibits of lions, as well as outdoor homes for tigers (including white Bengal tigers... hence Cincinnati's football team), snow leopards, and pumas.  Most of the others are kept inside one of the zoo's newest displays - Night Hunters.  Down darkened hallways, an impressive collection of nocturnal creatures are found, including many cats - sand cat, black-footed cat, fishing cat, Pallas cat, clouded leopard... There are, of course, some non-cats, including fennec and bat-eared foxes, hyena-like aardwolves, vampire bats, binturongs (think University of Cincinnati's mascot, the "bear-cats"), and Eurasian eagle owls.  The largest display features bushbabies and flying foxes scrambling through the treetops, while aardvarks meander below.

A bat-eared fox in Night Hunters

Even more nocturnal creatures are found in Jungle Trails, a recreated-rainforest of Southeast Asian and African wildlife.  Along the meandering jungle trail (complete with interactive play features for kids), bonobos, Sumatran orangutans, gibbons, and lion-tailed macaques can be found.  Two buildings - one for Africa, one for Asia - feature indoor housing for these animals, as well as separate displays for small animals - lemurs, genets, snakes.  Cincinnati was the first US zoo to display aye-ayes, possibly the most extraordinary of Madagascar's lemurs... and some of the hardest to display.  I must of had super-luck the day that I visited, because I was able to actually see the alien-like animals (keepers that I talked to from other departments said that some of them have never seen them in years of walking by the display).  Additional primates are found in the Gorilla World, where a troop of gorillas roams a spacious yard with lots of climbing structures, with colobus monkeys and guenons in side displays.

If there is one animal that brought me to Cincinnati above any other, it would have been Harapan - currently the one, the only Sumatran rhino in the world outside of Indonesia.  He and his siblings (since headed back to Indonesia) were the only members of their species ever conceived and born outside of their native range... and he will probably be the last.  Earlier plans to import more Sumatran rhinos to the US have fallen through, and Haran is going back to Indonesia.  His exhibit (admittedly unimpressive and plain for such a remarkable animal) is in Wildlife Canyon, also home to Bactrian camels, Przewalski's horses, takin, and Visayan warty pigs, as well as towering flight cages of andean condor and Steller's sea eagles.  Other large mammals occupy dusty yards in the middle of the zoo - bongo, okapi, Grevy's zebra, and black and Indian rhino.

Other animal attractions at Cincinnati included the red pandas, gibbon islands, Asian elephants, and Children's Zoo, home to barnyard animals.  Nearby Wolf Woods features Mexican wolves and river otters, with sea lions nearby.

Overall, I was bedazzled by Cincinnati.  In a lifetime of visiting zoos, I was still amazed at how many animals I saw here that I've never seen elsewhere.  The grounds were beautiful (hence the addition of "Botanical Garden" to the name.  The place was swarming with volunteers and docents, eager to answer questions.  Cincinnati's commitment to conservation is also beyond reproach - there were lots of educational graphics about conservation, lots of chances to donate to specific causes, and lots of information about field work supported by Cincinnati.  The zoo is also home to C.R.E.W. - Center for the Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife - which is responsible for tremendous advances in our knowledge of endangered animals, especially cats and rhinoceroses.  That being said...

Many of the zoo's exhibits are great... some are pretty bad.  Mostly, I'm thinking of the bear grottos, where American black bears, an Andean bear, and polar bears (in the overly grandiose-sounding "Lords of the Arctic") are rather bare and uninspired, to say nothing of pretty small.  The gorilla exhibit was great... the side-exhibits for monkeys... less so.  I loved the reptile house, but I couldn't help but thinking that the alligator exhibit in the center could have stood some expansion (the problem with these old buildings... once they've stood for long enough, they become sacred and no one can touch them).

Ironically, it was one of the newest buildings - Night Hunters - which frustrated me the most.  When given the choice to keep carnivores indoors versus outdoors, I usually would opt for outdoors - more space, more stimulation - but I can understand why Cincinnati did what they did - wanting to use nocturnal lighting to increase animal activity.  It's just that it felt like they tried putting too much in one building, and some of the displays - I'm thinking of the caracal and bobcat, mostly - seemed like they would have been better... left out completely, the space divided up among other animals.

I'm normally kinda disapproving of white tigers in zoos... but considering everything that Cincinnati does for cat conservation, I feel like I just need to let this one go

I hate ending things on a bad-note, especially for such an overall wonderful zoo, so that's why I saved the zoo's newest exhibit area for last.  Africa features grassy pastures for giraffes, impala, greater flamingos, and several African birds, as well as spacious displays for lions, African wild dogs, and bat-eared foxes (the bat-eared fox exhibit here compares so favorably with the one in Night Hunters.  Cheetahs are one of the stars here, and Cincinnati is famous for its cheetah run demonstrations, allowing visitors to see the cats at top speed.  The final phase is currently under construction; when it is completed, the zoo will be bringing back hippos, which will be seen from underwater viewing windows.

Once Africa is done, I hope the zoo will revisit some of its more neglected areas, securing its title as one of America's best zoos.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Curator of Crickets

Fresh out of college, I started my first paid zookeeping job in the Reptile Department of a large southern zoo.   I was excited beyond belief my first week on the job – I pictured myself feeding massive crocodiles, raking placidly among plodding giant tortoises, and caring for a kingdom of rare and extraordinary animals.  And I did a little of all of that… it’s just that most of my duties in those early days were confined to a small white room set off from the building’s kitchen.

It was in those days that I contemplated making business cards with a new title of my own creation – “Curator of Crickets.”

There were thousands of crickets, with thousands coming in every week.  They were sorted by size in various bins, divided for our feeding convenience.  There were the tiniest of “pinheads”, meant for feeding mantellas and dart frogs.  There were the one-inch giants, suitable prey for the frilled lizards, galliwasps, and other medium-sized lizards.  Tucked away among the later were the plastic shoeboxes of soil, where we hoped to induce the crickets to breed, providing us with more young crickets to feed out (we were rarely successful – flies seemed to always infest and ruin these nest boxes). 

Caring for crickets wasn’t glamorous, but it was essential to the well being of the collection, and I learned a lot of practical knowledge in those days.  How to unpack a cardboard box containing hundreds of crickets without them all escaping as soon as you lift the flap.  How to keep the colony clean – scraping all of the crickets into a huge pile, then placing food on the opposite end of the tank.  The live crickets would rush to claim it, leaving their droppings, their leftover food, and their dead behind in an easily cleaned pile.  Of greatest importance was learning to feed the crickets properly so that they themselves would become more nutritious food for our own animals, a process called “gut-loading”.

Nor were the crickets the only animals in the room that I was responsible for.  There were mealworms and their giant cousins, the superworms.  There were hissing cockroaches (spares from the insect keepers), a tank of minnows, and jars of fruit flies, crawling above the blue agar.  Recently, a tank of apple snails had been added, but these were reserved for the caiman lizards that were our curator’s pride and joy. 

And then there were the rodents.

Rats and mice were sorted in bins, much like the crickets.  The biggest were the giant rats, the size of a kitten.  The smallest were the pinkies, little naked balls of meat for our smallest snakes.  (Rabbits, guinea pigs, and once even a suckling pig graced our kitchen also, but they arrived deceased, and so required no care on my part).  While mammal prey was very rarely fed live (and then usually only to tempt a very picky eater, and then under the strictest supervision from the keeping staff), it was deemed preferable to acquire the rodents alive and fresh, dispatching them immediately prior to feeding them out.

Reptiles are a pretty low maintenance lot, provided heat and lightning and water quality are where you want them to be.  They eat far less than mammals of the same size; as a result, they poop less and require less clean-up.  The rats and mice, crickets and fruit flies, on the other hand, seemed to require endless cleanings, feedings, and fine-tunings.  It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, even after I graduated to care of the actual collection animals, I still spent more time on that little white room than I did the rest of the animals in our sprawling building.

When you tell people that you are a zookeeper, they tend to get excited (or at least curious) and ask questions about it.  They tend to lose interest when you tell them that most of the animals you “keep” are insects and rodents (and snails!) meant to be fed to other animals.  While caring for feeder animals may not be the most glamorous or exciting of zoo jobs, it is still essential to providing for the care and well being of the animals in the collection.

It’s an important job, even if no one gives you a business card or fancy job title for doing it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Seafood Watch

"Now I drive my Downeaster Alexa more and more miles from shore every year,
Since they tell me I can't sell no strippers, and there's no luck in swordfishing here.
I was a bayman like my father was before - can't make a living as a bayman anymore.
There ain't much future for a man who works the sea, there ain't no island left for islands like me."

- Billy Joel, Downeaster Alexa

It's a rare day when there isn't at least one story about endangered species somewhere in the news.  Maybe it's about the pandemic of rhino poaching in Africa, or about a more obscure creature, such as the Asian pangolins - both of these are about animals on the far side of world as far as most Americans are concerned, and there isn't much that they could do about it.  Or, maybe the story is about global climate change or wide-scale habitat loss... more local, perhaps, but again, not much that the average person can do, it seems.

Now, what if you were told that you could help save endangered species - ecosystems, even - based on what you have for dinner...

As human populations have continued to grow, the struggle to find new sources of food has increased.  The oceans, once considered to be one of nature's most endless resources, are now starting to come up short is feeding our planet.  First we fished out the big fish at the top of the food chain - the tuna, the swordfish, the sharks - and then the medium-sized ones... and then the little ones.  Many of the fish that we catch now would have been scoffed at as bait generations ago.  The phenomena is referred to as "fishing down the food chain"... and there is only so much further down we can go.

The problem of declining fisheries doesn't only impact fish.  Many species being driven to commercial extinction (when there become so few of them that it's no longer worth harvesting them), and whole fishing communities are being forced out of work by the decline of their fisheries.

In the late 1990's, the Monterey Bay Aquarium began its Fishing for Solutions exhibit, calling attention to the plight of the world's fisheries.  It sought to encourage visitors to make environmentally safe choices about what fish and other seafood they purchased.  This program eventually evolved into the Seafood Watch card, a handy little guide that helps users determine where they fall on the range of "Green" ("Best") to "Red" ("Avoid").  The card takes into account factors such as weather the fish or shellfish is wild or farmed, as well as what country (or region of the country) it comes from (some fisheries being more sustainable than others) and the manner in which it is captured.

I got a Seafood Watch card years ago (updated a few times since then) and keep meaning to take it to the grocery store with me while I shop for fish.  Of course, I keep on forgetting to do so and, afraid of buying an "Avoid" species, end up not getting anything...  For the more tech savvy folks out there with their fancy iPhones and droids and whatever, there is, of course, an app for it.  I mean, there's an app for everything these days.

Many of the most expensive, most sought-after fishes are the most endangered.  Think swordfish and Chilean sea bass, for instance.  By steering our appetites toward more sustainable options (especially invasive species, such as red lionfish and northern snakehead), we can help reduce the pressure on some of our most endangered wild fisheries, giving them a chance to rebound.

The impact of the average person may be small, but the combined impact can be tremendous.

Striped bass, also known as "rock fish", seen here at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.  Seafood Watch classifies this species as "Green" for "Best Choice" is caught by hand-line, or "Yellow" for "Good Alternative" if caught by gill-net or pound-net.

Monday, December 8, 2014

From the News: Conservative Blogger Rants Against "Propaganda" at Popular Zoo

When I first saw this, I almost posted it this under "Satire", because that's what I was convinced it was at first... I mean, no one is this dumb... right?  Right?


Well, condolences to any of the staff at Brookfield Zoo who may have encountered this thundering idiot as she roamed their facility (though I hope you at least got some free publicity out of the deal).  I mean, shame on you guys, actually using your institution as a platform to advocate for conservation of the animals that you care for.  It's not like that's in your mission statement or anything.  Oh, wait...

Ms. Fox is visiting Brookfield fresh off of her anti-evolution tear (if you can't pronounce it, then don't pretend you know what it means!) at the Field Museum of Natural History.  Based on how much attention she has gotten from this little rant, she may very well visit Shedd Aquarium or Lincoln Park Zoo in the near future.  Brace yourselves...