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Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: Hope for Animals and Their World

"In October 2008 in Barcelona, Spain, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)... concluded that 'at least a quarter of mammal species are headed toward extinction in the near future.' And tragically, for many, there may be little that can be done.  Yet I have been so inspired by the stories in this book and by the people who refuse to give up."

In my last semester of college, I took a course called "Conservation Biology."  On the first day of class, the professor strolled to the white board at the front of the room and wrote the words "We're F---ed" in large letters.  That kind of set the tone for the rest of the class.  From global climate change to invasive species to loss of genetic diversity, the class was, in many ways, a litany of the ways in which we are killing off the planet.  The professor wasn't a complete pessimist, though - at the start of each class, he'd encourage us to share good news - any good news - that we'd come across since the last lecture.

If I'd had a copy of Jane Goodall's Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued form the Brink, I would have brought him a copy.  One of the world's most famous wildlife biologists, Goodall has spent years advocating for animals, especially for the chimpanzees for which she is best known.  In the face of all of the challenges threatening the natural world, you'd think that would be a great way to loose faith.  Instead, Goodall - along with Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard - has compiled a collection of stories, describing animals which were once threatened with imminent extinction at the hands of man before being pulled back.

The stories of the species in question are grouped by theme.  The first set of chapters deals with those animals which were driven to extinction in the wild, but were saved because of captive populations in zoos, including some of the stories already shared on this blog, such as the reintroduction of the California condor and the reintroduction of the red wolf.  Several of the other chapters describe the roles that zoos have played in saving animals from extinction, and an endorsement from a figure as well-respected at Dr. Goodall is always nice.

Some of the species highlighted are well known, such as the giant panda and the whooping crane.  Others are obscure even among animal keepers, such as the pygmy hog and the Formosan landlocked salmon.  It is the more obscure species that I'm especially glad Goodall included.  Lots of people are willing to put up the money and the effort to save (or at least to nominally protect on paper) tigers, elephants, and other charismatic mammals. It's the smaller, less attractive, and less noticeable animals that are often in the greater danger, though - they can slip through the cracks, unnoticed and unmourned.  Dr. Goodall devotes her final chapter to explaining why (even in the face of ridicule and sometimes hostility), species such as the Salt Creek tiger beetle.  In the appendix that follows, the authors give a list of ways that the average citizen can help save endangered species - supporting reputable zoos and aquariums is on the list.

Working with endangered species, whether in the field or in captivity, can lead to caretaker fatigue.  It's easy to see how you could loose hope, with so many species fading away and so few people caring.  A book like Dr. Goodall's, however, can serve to remind us that not all is lost.  For some animals, there is hope.  All it takes is for us to have the will to turn that hope into action.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

From the News: Fish May Not Like Being Stadium Backdrop

Earlier this month, I've posted two separate articles about exotic animals in captivity, but not in zoos - elephants in circuses and pet pythons and boas.  Tonight's news blurb, describing a new aquarium display opening up at the stadium of the Miami Marlins, fits into the vein.  Obviously, since I've spent the last two years running this blog, I'm a supporter of zoos and aquariums (or at least the good ones).  But these articles about circuses, exotic pets, and other owners raise an interesting point - who should and shouldn't have animals?

Should private ownership of all species be open to everyone?  Do we draw lines, and how do we draw them?  While the animal rights activists in the article raise some valid points about a baseball stadium maybe not being the ideal place for a fish tank, I doubt that many visitors to the stadium will give it a second thought, other than to say, "Hey, isn't that neat?" before turning their attention to the game.  Besides, many restaurants and stores have fish tanks - isn't this just a greatly expanded version of that theme (albeit with the risk of baseballs smashing into the tank)?

If fish are okay, what about birds?  Would it be okay for Baltimore to build a raven aviary, or Philadelphia to have an eagle exhibit at the stadium?  Right now, Maryland Zoo and Elmwood Park Zoo both house avian mascots for those NFL teams - what if the league decided to just cut out the middle man?  And heaven help us if the Detroit Tigers, the Jacksonville Jaguars, or the Chicago Bears decided to follow this idea to its conclusion.  I guess we should just be glad that there is no team called "The Orcas" - the last thing we need is another Blackfish.

There are some folks in the animal care profession who maintain that ownership and display should be for everyone - an attack on a private owner with a tiger in his yard amounts to an attack on the Bronx Zoo in their eyes.  Most of us, I think, agree that there are some lines, some rules that need to be set, though no one can agree where they should be.  I would feel a lot better about this Miami tank if I got the impression that it was being built with the fish, rather than the fans, in mind.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Zoo History: A Tomb at Ngorongoro

"So much of Africa is dead already, must the rest follow? Must everything be turned into deserts, farmland, big cities, native settlement, and dry bush? One part of the continent at least should retain its original splendour. ... Serengeti, at least, shall not die."

Located at the southern edge of the Serengeti Plains, Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater is one of the great wildlife wonders of the world.  Contained within the walls of the extinct volcano are some of East Africa's most magnificent animals - lions and elephants, hippos and giraffes, even some of the last black rhinos in the Serengeti ecosystem.  So plentiful, so visible, and so easily approached are the residents of the Crater that some visitors have dubbed it "God's Zoo."  The nickname is perhaps apt, as the crater rim is the final resting place of one of the most extraordinary zoo-men who ever lived.

View from the floor of Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Bernhard Grzimek became director of the Frankfort Zoo shortly after the Allied liberation of Nazi Germany.  His appointment came not at the hands of Germans, but of the American authorities; whereas other German zoo directors eagerly supported the Nazis (sometimes in rather bizarre ways), Grzimek, a veterinarian by training, had been involved in the resistance, supplying food to hidden Jews.  Now, after the war, Grzimek had a job.  He didn't have much of a zoo, though - Allied bombing had reduced the Frankfort Zoo - virtually all German zoos, really - into rubble.  Among the tiny handful of animals (about 20) which survived was a hippo which had avoided the destruction by huddling at the bottom of its tank.

Rebuilding Frankfort Zoo was a full-time job, and Grzimek worked at it tirelessly; within his lifetime, he saw it become of the best zoos in the world, especially renown for its innovative exhibits.  Beyond the zoo, however, he took on several additional roles, including the compilation of perhaps the most comprehensive textbook of zoology ever produced.  Today, Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Animal Life is still a must-read for anyone working with animals; our zoo has a full set in our library, and I consult it often (I'd buy a copy for myself, but it would probably take up a whole bookshelf).  Yet even this scholarly opus, along with the resurrection of his zoo, pales in comparison to Grzimek's most important contribution to the animal world.

Assisted by his son Michael, Bernhard Grzimek became a pioneer in zoo field conservation.  Zoo involvement in wildlife conservation went back at least to William Hornaday at the turn of the century, but the focus had largely been preserving animals in the zoo.  Grzimek was convinced that the real work that needed to be done was saving animals in the wild, while there still was a wild.  He aimed his sights on the plains of East Africa, the greatest concentration of wildlife left on earth.

At the time, it might have seemed a ridiculous move.  The herds of East Africa seemed endless; why worry about their future?  The Grzimeks, however, saw that the world was changing; former colonies in Africa and Asia were winning independence.  Once plentiful species teetered to the edge of extinction (as with the American bison), sometimes going over the edge (as with the passenger pigeon).  Most importantly, no one knew what was even out there, so who could say what was being lost?

Wildebeest migration on the Serengeti Plains

Outfitting themselves with a small plane (painted black and white, dubbed "The Flying Zebra"), the Grzimeks and the Frankfort Zoological Society initiated a survey of the wildlife of East Africa.  The work that they did - counting the herds, mapping the migrations, studying the interactions of species - resulted in the documentary Serengeti Shall Not Die!, which won the 1959 Academy Award for Best Documentary, as well as a book of the same title.  More importantly, the awareness that it raised about East Africa's surprisingly fragile ecosystems led to the creation of Serengeti National Park.  Unlike many other African national parks, Serengeti was mapped along ecological lines to contain the whole of the great wildebeest-zebra-gazelle migrations which define the ecosystem.  Whereas many parks are too small to contain viable populations of large mammals (resulting in zoo-like management), Serengeti seems relatively secure.  The knowledge that went in to mapping out this park was obtained by the Grzimeks.

This knowledge, however, had to be paid for.  In 1959, Grzimek's son Michael was flying in their plane when he collided with a griffon vulture and was killed.  Bernhard was devestated by the loss; he had his son buried on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, where he could watch the animals below.  When Bernhard himself died in 1987 (after nodding off while watching circus animals which some children), his ashes were buried next to Michael.  It's tempting to think that together, father and son, they still watch over the animals that roam the grasslands they helped to protect.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Learning at the Zoo

Years ago, zoos were one of the only educational opportunities that the public had to learn about wild animals.  Today, we have the internet, documentaries, live-streaming videos of animals in the wild, and all sorts of other technologically-advanced learning tools.  Some people suggest that this means that zoos have had their time, that they are now educationally obsolete.

The authors of a new study in Conservation Biology, however, beg to differ.  The findings of a recent study suggest that visits to zoos and aquariums increase awareness about biodiversity and encourage visitors to help conserve wildlife.  The study can be found here (it's a paid-access site, but the abstract is free).

man photographs a polar bearZoos and aquariums around the world attract more than 700 million visits every year. (Credit: Chris Smith/Flickr

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Where's the Green?

"O Paddy dear, and did you hear the news that's goin' round?

The Shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!
No more St. Patrick's Day we'll keep, his color can't be seen,
For there's a cruel new law against the Wearin' of the Green"

The day before yesterday was, of course, St. Patrick's Day, when everyone pretends to be Irish.   Like many people, I spent part of the evening at a bar, where I engaged in one of my favorite past-times, people watching.  One of the first things I noticed was that a lot of people were wearing green.  It was then that something kind of odd dawned on me.

There really aren't many green animals.

This isn't going to be a profound question with a profound answer.  I just realized that there aren't many green animals.  Which is odd, if you think about it - plants tend to be green, and animals tend to spend a lot of time among plants, so you think there would be a lot of green camouflage out there.

As near as I can tell, there are no green mammals... I mean, bright green (or, to be fair, blue or purple).  You've got a few that have kind of an olive hue, but no green.  The closest I can think of would be sloths, and that's not even a birth-color; sloth hairs, in the wild, anyway, tend to turn green with algae, providing camouflage in the tree-tops.  A great adaptation, but how have none of the other rainforest mammals - monkeys, anteaters, squirrels - evolved green fur?

There are some green birds, but in a way that makes less sense than no green mammals.  Birds, with their ability to fly away from danger, tend to be a lot more garish than mammals, since they don't need to hide as well.

Reptiles and amphibians are the ones that surprise me the most.  Ask someone - not looking at a picture - what color a crocodile is, and they'll say green.  No - they're really grey or brown, and alligators tend to be a bluish-black.  Same about snakes - green.  Of the dozen odd species of snake found in my area, I can only think of one which is actually green.  The others are black, brown, orange, or some combination thereof.

"It's not easy being green... so I decided not to even bother."

Maybe there is some disadvantage to being green that I don't recognize.  Maybe a green animal would be well camouflaged in the trees, but would stand out too much if it were on the ground.  Certainly in the northern hemisphere it makes sense, since leaves fall off trees for much of the year.  Maybe it's just that some species don't have the genes present for green coloration, and that if such a mutation ever did occur, they'd all have it.

I don't know.  I really have no idea.  What I do know is that it's very hard to work around animals and not feel your head fill with a lot of questions "Why?", "How come?", "What If?"  You can spend a lifetime around animals and still not know more than the basic facts about them.  There are certain things we will probably never know for sure.  Trying to find out is where the fun lies.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Zoo Joke: Hitchhikers

A doctor, a reporter, and a congressman are driving down the interstate together.  Suddenly, their car breaks down.  None of them knows how to fix it, and none of them has any cell phone reception, so they're forced to sit by the road with their thumbs out, waiting for a ride.

A few minutes later, a massive truck pulling a huge trailer pulls off the road right next to them.  Emblazoned on the side of the truck is the word "Zoo", and the man in the cab is wearing a zoo uniform.  Quickly, they explain their predicament to the zookeeper, who then scratches his chin thoughtfully.

"Well," he says, "I've got room for two of you in the cab with me.  I can take the third person also, but they'll have to ride in the trailer.  The only problem is, I've transporting a rhinoceros to another zoo, so whoever it is, they'll have to ride in the back with him."

Well, the three stranded passengers are pretty desperate, so they agree.  The doctor volunteers to ride in the back, and she jumps in while the reporter and the congressmen get in the cab.  After driving for about half an hour, they hear some banging from back in the trailer and pull over and check it out.  Out stumbles the doctor - she's white as a sheet and shaking like a leaf.

"I'm sorry, but I can't do it," she gasps.  "That thing has me terrified!"

The reporter then volunteers to take her place, and off they drive again.  They don't make it too far when they hear the banging again.  Pulling over, they open the trailer door and out comes the reporter - holding his nose.

"It stinks back in there!" he exclaims.  "I can't handle the stench.  Someone else ride back there, please!"

Reluctantly, the congressman is persuaded to get in the back of the trailer, and they continue their drive.  Again, they're only driving for a few minutes when they hear banging again, this time louder, more desperate than before.

"What now?" mutters the zookeeper as he opens the back of the trailer.  Out stumbles the rhino - white as a sheet, shaking like a leaf, and holding its nose.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Red-Bellied Piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)

Red-Bellied Piranha
Pygrocentrus nattereri (Kner, 1858)

Range: Northern and Central South America
Habitat: Rivers, Streams, Lakes, Flooded Forests
Diet: Fish, Aquatic Invertebrates, Fruits, Aquatic Plants, Carrion
Social Grouping: Large Schools
Reproduction: Breed during rainy season, female lays 5,000 eggs on aquatic vegetation, often in a nest built by the male; they are externally fertilized by the males.  Eggs hatch 2-3 days later.  The young are sexually mature at 1 year old
Lifespan: 10 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: Not Classified

  • Body length 28-33 centimeters, weigh up to 3.5 kilograms; the body is grey with silver flecks and some blackish spots.  The belly is red, but a deeper, more intense red in the males than females
  • Sharp, triangular teeth interlock when the mouth is closed which, combined with its blunt face, gives the piranha a powerful bite (the name "Piranha" is from the Tupi for "razor" or "cut the skin")
  • For its body size, a piranha has a bite three times as powerful as a great white shark
  • Piranhas communicate through a series of sounds, such as squeals, low, drumming sounds, and jaw clicks (most of these sounds are heard by researchers when the fish are removed from water)
  • Occasionally piranhas due engage in feeding frenzies, where large numbers will attack a large prey animal and strip it to the skeleton, but these are less common than depicted in popular fiction
  • School of piranhas occasionally prey on humans, but more often, humans prey on piranhas; they are a common food-fish across much of South America.  Other predators of piranhas include caiman, crocodiles, giant otters, river dolphins, and larger fish
  • Common over most of its range; collected extensively for aquarium tried, with its popularity largely due to its fearsome reputation.  Piranhas are illegal to own as pets in several United States; released pets have been found in some souther US rivers