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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Virgin Snake

When the keepers at the Louisville Zoo discovered that their reticulated python had given birth, that would have been great news no matter what, but probably nothing too out of the ordinary.  What was out of the ordinary, however, was that "Thelma", the 11-year old python, gave birth to her six young without any "assistance"... as in, without having been bred by a male.  

The birth took place back in 2012, but was just announced recently as the zoo did some analysis behind-the-scenes.  Like many snakes, female reticulated pythons can store sperm for lengthy periods of time, so the folks at Louisville wanted to confirm that the babies weren't the result of some long-ago coupling.  In the end, DNA analysis verified that the little pythons were pure Thelma.  For the first time ever, parthenogenesis had been confirmed in the world's longest snake.

Parthenogensis ("virgin birth") is the process by which a female gives birth to offspring that are not fathered by a male.  Many of the cases of it are reported in zoos, aquariums and laboratories - not that it is more likely to happen there then in the wild, but in those controlled conditions, it is easier to verify that no male was present and to do DNA tests on the offspring.  The phenomena has been observed in many species, including many that normally reproduce sexually.  Examples include Komodo dragons, zebra finches, and numerous sharks. It has never naturally been observed to occur in mammals.  In some populations of lizard, parthenogensis is the only way in which reproduction has been observed to occur - the populations are all female!

It's uncertain how or why exactly these virgin births occur to some animals but not others, even within the same species.  Hopefully, data collected at the Louisville Zoo and other institutions that have documented these incredible births will be able to shed a little more light on these occurrences.  Until then, congratulations to Louisville on their fascinating discovery!

A reticulated python (but not Thelma... or one of her miraculous offspring)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Going, Going, Almost Gone...

"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."

- William Beebe

When I was younger, my father took me on what - to a thirteen-year-old zoo fanatic - was the coolest vacation imaginable - San Diego.  We hit the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego, and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography Aquarium, but my favorite animal attraction was the world famous San Diego Wild Animal Park.

There were a tremendous number of "firsts" for me on that trip - my first koala, my first okapi, my first Tasmanian devil - so it probably wasn't too surprising that, when our guide pointed out a small herd of white rhinos in one of the paddocks, I didn't get too tremendously excited.  I mean, rhinos are cool and I love them, but the zoo back home had white rhinos, so they weren't that high on my "must see" list.  If I'd known better how the future would have turned out, I might have taken a closer look.

The white rhinos we had back home - along with 99% of the other white rhinos on earth - were southerners.  What I had seen in San Diego, on the other hand, were some of the last northern white rhinoceros - a critically endangered subspecies - left in the world.  That herd in San Diego - and some individuals in the Czech Republic - represented all that was left of a population of animals that once thrived across Central Africa.  Poachers - armed with weapons obtained easily from the region's endless civil wars - decimated the wild population.  Attempts were made to establish rhinos in sanctuaries in Africa.  They have not succeeded.

With the recent death of the male Suni, the total global population of northern white rhino is six.  When one more dies, you'll be able to count the numbers on one hand.

The northern white rhino won't be the first rhino subspecies to go extinct - very recently, the West African black rhinoceros went extinct as well.  Somehow we haven't lost a whole species of rhino in modern times, but unless things change dramatically, I can't believe that the Javan and Sumatran rhinos are going to hold on for that much longer. The loss of a subspecies isn't as disastrous as the loss of a species - I can imagine that, if things ever stabilize in Central Africa, southern white rhinos could be introduced in their stead (similar to how Aldabra tortoises have been used as a surrogate for now-extinct giant tortoises on islands throughout the Indian Ocean).  Also, in our new genetic age, sperm, eggs, and other biological materials can be frozen and possibly used again in the future.

Still, the loss of a unique population of endangered animals is a grim reminder of how tenuous the fate of an endangered species can be.  I was pretty young - my early teens - when I saw the northern white rhino for the first and only time.  I remember our guide taking a moment to remark upon the ancient lineages of the rhino family, extending back millions of years.  I don't think I ever suspected that those million-year lineages might end in my lifetime.

A southern white rhinoceros... soon probably to be the only white rhinoceros left on earth

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Animal Olympians

As was stated in the last post, animals are capable of some pretty amazing feats of speed, endurance, and agility.  Today's quiz highlights a few olympians of the animal world.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Exercise - Animal Style

In yesterday's post, I mentioned that I had a few ideas on how to use a visit to the zoo to promote exercise and physical activity.  The problem, of course, with saying something like that is that eventually someone expects you to actually produce said ideas.  So, without further ado, here are some animal exercise ideas.  Some of them are cheap and easy to incorporate into any zoo.  Others, admittedly, require a lot of expenditure and logistical tinkering (to say nothing of insurance).

  • Animal Olympians:  Compared to a lot of zoo animals, we humans are a pretty puny bunch of apes.  Zoo animals are pretty amazing at running, jumping, climbing, and other physical activities.  How good are they?  Let's find out!  Let visitors challenge themselves and see how they stack up against the top animal athletes.  Can they run as fast as a cheetah?  Mark off a flat stretch and see how fast they can run it. Can they jump as far as a kangaroo?  How about a bullfrog?  Measure and find out!  It'll make visitors view animals with an extra degree of respect when they see how they measure up.

  • Animal Playgrounds: A lot of zoos have playgrounds, which are, of course, huge hits with kids.  How about a playground that specifically encourages animal activities?  Burrow through tunnels like a prairie dig.  Swing from monkey bars like a gibbon.  Dig in a sandbox like a badger.  Walk on a balance beam like a leopard.  It isn't just fun and games - encouraging kids to act like animals is the first step in teaching them to empathize with them as fellow living things, deserving of consideration.

  • Strike a Pose: On a similar note, use signage throughout the zoo to teach guests about the movements that animals make and encourage them to duplicate them.  Teach them how giraffes have to splay themselves out to reach the water to drink, and then have them do the same.  Explain why flamingos stand on one leg, and then see how well they can balance like that.  Chimps walk on their knuckles, warthogs feed on their knees... try it out (with suitable padding on the ground at this site).  Not only is it educational and getting people moving, but it makes for some great photo ops.  Speaking of posing, ever notice how so many yoga positions have animal names?  There's dog, cat, cobra, dolphin, camel... imagine a "Yoga at the Zoo" event!  You could even invent new poses for specific zoo animals (but don't ask what "pygmy hippo" would be).

  • Arboreal or Aquatic: Zip-lines and rope courses are becoming popular at many zoos, and they certainly get visitors moving (though when I do them, most of the exercise comes from my knees knocking).  It can also allow visitors to experience the animals - especially tree-dwellers - in different ways.  Similarly, imagine an aquarium with swimming pools built into it, allowing visitors to swim alongside (but separate from) the animals.  Try swimming like a seal versus swimming like a shark.  Can you leap like a dolphin?  How long can you hold your breath compared to an alligator?  It would be a tremendous hassle (to say nothing of safety liability) to manage a swimming area in a facility, but maybe it could be limited to small, special educational groups who could be directly supervised by staff.

These are just a few ideas that popped into my head about how to get visitors physical active and mentally stimulated at the zoo or aquarium.  I'm sure there are plenty that I haven't thought of.  If you have any ideas, please don't hesitate to share!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Get Moving at the Zoo

Despite whatever issues their husbands campaign on, it's been traditional for the First Ladies of the United States to occupy themselves by working on an issue that they feel is important.  Lady Bird Johnson took up the cause of beautifying America, Laura Bush focused on literacy, and Betty Ford fought the stigma against alcoholism.  The current First Lady, Michelle Obama, followed this trend and decided to champion exercise and healthy eating with her "Let's Move!" campaign... and people lost their minds...

There has been a fair bit of backlash against Mrs. Obama's campaign - some of it delving into paranoid fantasies of Homeland Security agents raiding houses and confiscating cupcakes and sodas - probably a fair bit more than Mrs. Bush saw when she suggested that people turn off the TV and read more books.  part of it, simply, is that no one likes being told - or even suggested - what to do, especially about something as personal as diet and exercise.  That being said, I wonder if it's the reflection of a guilty conscious on the parts of many people.

When I walk around our modestly-sized, easily-walkable zoo, I can't help but notice... a lot of our guests are out of shape...

Zookeepers themselves tend to be a pretty svelte lot.  Sure, maybe part of that is we aren't paid enough to buy too much food... but the working environment has a lot to do with it as well.  Most job descriptions require applicants to be able to lift a certain amount of weight (usually 50 pounds, sometimes as much as 100), as well as spend the day standing, walking, crawling, ducking, climbing, and - on memorable occasions - running for your life.  We push heavy wheelbarrows full of wet bedding and poop.  We climb over fences and fake rock-work and up trees.  We carry heavy bags of feed.  And except for lunch, we are always on our feet.

Of course, the physical workload varies by keeper-type.  Hoofstock keepers tend to be the buffest, from my experience - more walking, more carrying heavy objects, more rake-and-shovel bicep building.  In contrast, an aquarist might have to do heavy lifting very infrequently (though mixing that fake seawater can mean toting some heavy bags of salt), but might stay flexible and fit by weaving her way through the torturous behind-the-scenes crawl spaces that seem to make up the keeper area of every aquarium I've ever been to.  Keepers at a big, sprawling zoo might make more use of a truck or golf-cart than keepers at a small one, who tend to walk everywhere.

A big part of the equation, of course, is that zookeepers and aquarists love animals, and that tends to keep them outdoors.  Many of the keepers I know love to hike and camp.  Reptile and amphibian keepers especially love to go "herping" - trekking in search of the animals they love.  Plus, we tend to be young and there is the whole youthful metabolism going on... which is fortunate, because many of the zookeepers I know could out-eat three normal people with half their stomach tied behind their back.

So it's not the keepers that we really have to worry about as part of the whole fitness and wellness issue... it's the guests.

Of course, walking around the zoo is good exercise, but a slow, leisurely stroll only gets you so far.  That got me thinking, there had to be some ways to make going to the zoo a more physically beneficial experience for visitors... something fun, healthy, and with an educational, interactive element.  In tomorrow's post, I'm going to share some of those ideas - if you work at a zoo or aquarium, you have my blessing to steal them.  If you're a frequent visitor, take it as an invitation to put a new spin on your next visit - ways that you and your friends or family can get even more out of the trip.

Done right, a trip to the zoo can be good for the mind and good for the spirit.  With a little extra work, it can also be even better for the body.

As King Julian would say, "Move It, Move It!"

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Zoo History: The OK Thing To Do

Prior to the late 1800's, you couldn't go to the zoo.

Oh, there had been collections of exotic animals in captivity for a myriad of purposes - education, entertainment, study, sport - since the earliest human history.  The Ancient Egyptians had them.  So did the Assyrians, the Chinese, and the Greeks.  They were essential to the blood sports of Ancient Rome.  And when Cortes entered the Aztec capital, one of the most astonishing sights to greet his conquistadores was Montezuma's menagerie.

The animal collections have been around for millennia.  It's just the word "zoo" which is relatively recent.  The name, interestingly enough, comes from a song.

Founded in 1828, the Zoological Society of London is perhaps the first modern zoo in the world (though some authorities prefer the Jardin des Plantes of Paris).  It first opened to the general public in 1847 and created a sensation.  It was different from the many smaller, humbler traveling animal shows of the era, as well as the few established menageries.  It set many historical firsts for zoo history.  The official name for it's facility, located in Regent's Park, was the "Zoological Gardens" or "Zoological Society's Gardens".  Most zoos use that title - or the related "Zoological Park" - as their full title.

Enter the Great Vance.

Alfred Vance was a popular showman of the era, and in 1870 he wrote a song about the bestiary in Regent's Park. It contains the line "Walking in the zoo is the OK thing to do."  Interestingly, that opening line is the source of two linguistic firsts.  It was the first use of "OK" in the sense that we usually think of it today (as in "good" or "alright").  It was also the first use of "zoo" as a shorthand for a collection of animals.

The directors of the ZSL did not care for the new nickname - they thought it vulgar and too familiar (and they aren't alone - William T. Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society raged incessantly against those who insisted upon calling his facility "the Bronx Zoo").  Still, the name has caught on and spread rapidly, until we've reached the point where few people can tell you want the full name of a zoo is.  The word has taken on additional meanings, as well - for example, a chaotic or hectic situation (as in "this place is a zoo!")

An excerpt from Vance's song is below - if I can find a clip of it, I'll share it as well (just don't ask me what the rest of the lyrics mean... I have no idea).

The Stilton, Sir, the cheese - the okay thing to do
On Sunday afternoon - is to toddle in the Zoo
Weekdays may do for 'cads' but not for me and you
So dressed right down the road - we show them who is who

Chorus: The walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo
Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo.

So when there comes to town my pretty cousin Loo
I took her off to spend a Sunday in the Zoo
I showed her the aquarium, the tiger, the Zebu
The elephant, the Eland, that cuss the Kangaroo.

Chorus: That Sunday in the Zoo, that Sunday in the Zoo
It's jolly with a pretty girl walking in the Zoo
Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo.

I showed her the swellesses and all the fashions new
Girls with golden tresses, girls with black hair too
Walnut gives the black, Champagne the golden hue
All the beautiful for ever that Madame Rachel knew.

Chorus: Oh the walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The monkeys put us to the blush on Sunday in the Zoo
Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo

So in the monkey house, our going in to woo
Piling up the agony, swearing to be true
Agony indeed! for the cheerful cockatoo
Rudely caught my ear a nip and bit it through and through.

Chorus: Oh that dreadful cockatoo, that awful cockatoo
The horror and the agony that Sunday in the Zoo
Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo.

My cousin bolted off without any more ado
And I skidaddled also looking very blue
So, sympathising friends, I bid you all adieu
Don't mention this occurrence if you meet me in the Zoo.

Chorus: The walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
I'm as great a swell as ever on Sunday in the Zoo
Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo
The okay thing on Sunday is walking in the Zoo.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Zoo Review: North Carolina Zoo

Tucked in between North Carolina's three largest cities, the North Carolina Zoo is one of America's newest zoos, having opened its gates in 1971.  It is also one of the largest walking zoos (as opposed to drive-through safari parks) in the world, sprawling over 2,000 acres.  These two traits make it one of the most extraordinary zoos in the nation, where modern philosophy of animal husbandry and zoo exhibit design were given a clean slate and room to grow.

For the first half of the zoo's relatively young existence, it focused almost exclusively on animals of Africa.  Perhaps the most extraordinary exhibit is the massive Watani Grasslands - at forty acres, bigger than many zoos are in their entirety.  White rhinos are the stars here, but they share the grasslands with several species of African antelope and tall birds.  African elephants are found in an adjacent enclosure, which appears to be part of the main exhibit.  Zebras, giraffe, and ostrich are found in a nearby enclosure.  Further exhibits in the Africa area house lions, lemurs, and red river hogs.  Two of Africa's great apes - chimpanzees and western lowland gorillas - are found in their own spacious meadow exhibits.

Ironically for such a young zoo, the state-of-the-art exhibit when the zoo opened is now emptied of animals.  The old African Pavilion used to be home to a recreated African rainforest, featuring leopards, mandrills, and a collection of African birds and reptiles.  Now it stands mostly empty of animals - outside, a cliff-face habitat holds hamadryas baboons.  The bird collection of the zoo is located in the nearby Reynold's Forest Aviary; grab a laminated guide (or print your own off at home) and try to find as many of the beautiful birds as you can in this wild-through forest.  Prior to the addition of North American exhibits, this was the only display to break the geographic mold.

Starting in the 1990's, the zoo began dabbling with North American wildlife with fantastic results.  In the first of the North American exhibits to open - the Sonoran Desert - roadrunners, tortoises, rattlesnakes, quail, and ocelot are found beneath a glass dome.  Nocturnal creatures of the desert - including vampire bats and cacomistle (or "ringtail cats", actually a raccoon relative) are found in a darkened side gallery.  Other biomes represented in the North American area are the swamp (home to alligators and puma), the plains (bison and elk, with geysers in the foreground), and the Stream, where otters, turtles, and fish can be seen underwater.  Three of North America's largest predators are found in side-by-side enclosures for grizzlies, black bears, and red wolves; North Carolina is the only place on earth where red wolves still live in the wild.  The final North American area is the Rocky Coast, where polar bears, seals, and a large collection of Arctic seabirds are displayed.  Some of the "Suarez Seven", polar bears rescued from a life in a Mexican circus, found their homes here.

Any issues that the zoo visitor has with North Carolina Zoo will mostly have to do with scale.  It's big and spread out, and it can be tiring for parents to navigate children through what seem like empty stretches (that and it's surprisingly easy to get lost).  The enormous enclosures may frustrate some visitors - to my amazement, when I first visited the Watani Grasslands, I didn't see a single animal - rhino, antelope, or bird - in the entire area.  Still, it's probably better to change visitor expectations about what a zoo should be rather than change a zoo to be what we think visitors might want at the expense of the animals.

Apart from its excellent exhibits, the zoo has a celebrated breeding history (especially among birds), as well as a great conservation track record, supporting conservation and research programs in Africa and in North Carolina.  Recently, the zoo has begun hinting at a possible third geographic area - Asia.  If they accomplish it on the scale that they have with Africa and North America, North Carolina Zoo could stand to be one of the greatest, most exciting zoos on the east coast.