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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)

Japanese Spider Crab
Macrocheira kaempferi (Temminck, 1836)

Range: Japan's Pacific Coast (Islands of Konshu and Kyushu)
Habitat: Continental Shelves with Sandy or Rocky Bottoms
Diet: Carrion, Small Invertebrates, Kelp, Algae
Social Grouping: Asocial
Reproduction: Mate in the spring (January through March).  Packets of sperm (called spermatohores) are inserted into the female's body.  Females may lay over one million eggs per season, less than 1 millimeter in diameter, which she carriers on her body.  Eggs hatch after 10 days, after which there is no parental care.
Lifespan: 50-100 Years (Speculation)
Conservation Status: Not Evaluated

  • Largest (but not heaviest) living arthropod with longest legspan - up to 4 meters from the tip of one leg to the tip of the opposite.  Pear-shaped body is up to 37 centimeters long.  Females are wider but slightly smaller than males with shorter legs.  Weigh up to 20 kilograms
  • Color is mottled red-orange, usually fading int a cream color on the underside.  Colors tend to be brighter after a molt
  • The long legs are very fragile and somewhat weak.  Most crabs are missing at least one due to predation or getting tangled in nets; legs grow back with molts
  • Folk tales describe spider crabs seizing sailors and dragging them underwater to eat; unlikely to be true, but have have been inspired by sights of crabs scavenging drowned humans
  • Adults have few predators.  As such, they do not camouflage themselves by decorating their shells with sponges and other items as many other crabs due
  • Specimens have occasionally been found at a considerable distance from Japan, as far as Taiwan - it's likely that these individuals were carried there either by fishing trawlers or by extreme weather conditions
  • Considered a delicacy in Japan, though catch has declined significantly in recent years.  Law prohibits fishing for them during the mating season

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Star Power at the Zoo

"New spoiler for Avengers: Infinity War. Hulk vs Sea Lions confirmed. You saw it here first folks!"
- Comment from Georgia Aquarium's Facebook page

On a recent trip to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, I was strolling around behind-the-scenes with a keeper friend of mine.  We rounded a corner and unexpectedly came across country star Brad Paisley and his family, lolling about in the grass with... a cheetah.  "Crap, I forgot they were back here," my friend whispered, "Just act casual and walk on by..."

Those thirty seconds impressed me with yet another huge divide between her big zoo life and my small zoo one.  For me, a major celebrity visit was an unheard of event.  For her, it was a typical weekend, and they had the drill down flat.  The higher ups would take the star for a special tour with lots of animal meet-and-greets.  Everyone not involved tried not to get too much in the way.   Not that Mr. Paisley isn't a nice guy - I'm sure he is.  It's just that no one wants their quiet family outing spoiled by autograph and selfie seekers.  That's what the concert that night is for.

As long as there have been zoos and aquariums, there have been celebrity tours (or how else would you characterize Montezuma II behind-the-scene tour of his royal menagerie for Cortes and his men?  It's a great opportunity to build support for the facility, get some exposure, and who knows, maybe a donation or a spokesperson?  Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson recently spent a day at Zoo Atlanta.  Chris Pratt and his wife Anna Ferris are supporters of the Woodland Park Zoo.   Betty White and Guns n Roses' Slash are spokespeople for Los Angeles Zoo.  Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a huge zoo buff and always makes a point of visiting zoos on his travels.

Sometimes work and pleasure overlap.  Staff at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo got some great exposure to Kevin James as they collaborated on his movie, The Zookeeper.

Of course, sometimes, this special tours can get a bit... awkward.  Sharon Stone's husband, Phil Bronstein, got his foot chomped on by a Komodo dragon during a tour of the LA Zoo.  And an aquarist acquaintance of mine has a pretty embarrassing story about her, Mark Wahlberg, and a giant Pacific octopus.

Mark Ruffalo and Chris Pratt aren't the only Marvel stars to be a zoo fans.  Chris Hemsworth has said that if he wasn't an actor, he'd love to be, you guessed it, a zookeeper.

We'd love to have you Chris.  Feel free to bring the hammer.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: Journey of the Pink Dolphins - An Amazon Quest

"I had followed the dolphins into realms I had never before imagined they might take me - into treetops, inside black waters, though the looking-glass world of the forest's powers.  And now, they had led again to new territory: to the people's understanding of the world beneath the river; to the edge of that thin line between animal and human, water and land, fear and desire."

Over the years I've spent in zoos and aquariums, there is one creature of the Amazon that I've always wanted to see, but have never had the chance.  During my lifetime, only a single zoo specimen has existed in this country - a solitary male at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium known as "Chuckles."  That creature is the Amazon river dolphin, Inia geoffrensis, one of the most enigmatic creatures of an enigmatic river.

In Journey of the Pink Dolphins, nature writer Sy Montgomery has fallen under the spell of the dolphins, and her desire to know them better draws her to the very heart of the Amazon.  Mostly, she is drawn to the unique role that the dolphins play in the folklore of the local peoples.  To them, the dolphin is a shape-shifter, one with the power to take the form of a handsome man or a beautiful woman and to lure unsuspecting humans to Encante, an enchanted world beneath the surface of the river.

In her pursuit of the dolphin, known locally as the boto, Montgomery and her friends meet up with various researchers who study the dolphins and other creatures of river.  Many of them describe their frustrations with studying the elusive dolphins, hidden in the murk and only visible in patchwork glances.  Even the most basic questions - Are they endangered? Do they migrate? - prove difficult to answer.  Among the researchers that she encounters is, to put it lightly, a bit of a new-age hippie, who's research seems largely to consist of determining if the dolphins like Pink Floyd more or less than other bands.

If Journey of the Pink Dolphins has one major failing, it's the narrator.  As compelling as the botos are, I have a hard time getting past my personal irritation with Montgomery.  She often comes across as rather sappy, other times plaintive and whiny, seeming more like a spoiled tourist than a naturalist,  All of her descriptions are too drippy, too misty-eyed; for all of her mocking of the new-age naturalists that she encounters periodically, she doesn't seem that much more grounded in science.  It's almost as if the botos aren't extraordinary enough as they are, and she feels as if they need to be dressed up in hyperbole.

Montgomery offers readers a few into a life that few would otherwise see - the life of a traveler on the world's largest river.  She meets many extraordinary people who share their stories of dolphins and other creatures of the Amazon.  Unfortunately, we only ever see things through her eyes, and, for me at least, she's a hard writer to enjoy.  But, for a special peek into the life of an animal that I've always wanted to encounter, I'm willing to read on with just the occasional eye-roll.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Celebrating Our Week

This week is National Zookeeper Week, which means... what exactly?

That was the question posed recently by Penny Jolly, the President of the American Association of Zookeepers.  In an open letter to the leadership of her organization, Ms. Jolly suggests that, like every other holiday, National Zookeeper Week has lost its way.  It is not, she argues, an excuse for us to get gift baskets or donuts.  It's not an opportunity for everyone to pat us on the head and tell us what good boys and girls we all are.

Instead, it's our chance to show the communities that we serve who we are and what it is that we do.

That being said, someone offers me some donuts (especially whatever Krispy Kreme has as it's seasonal cake flavor), I'm not saying "no."

Monday, July 17, 2017

Life, Death, and Social Media

At least for the keepers of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, National Zookeeper Week got off to a pretty awful start.

The giraffe keepers at Baltimore had spent the last month in a desperate struggle to save the life of Julius, a male calf who had failed to obtain necessary antibodies from his mother and was fading fast.  The keepers at Baltimore engaged in Herculean efforts.  They were supported by two other facilities - Cheyenne Mountain and Columbus - who rushed them plasma for transfusions.  They did everything possible.  In the end, "everything possible" just wasn't enough.

This weekend, the decision was made to euthanize Julius.  It was a heartbreaking tragedy for the team.  What perhaps made it more difficult than many struggles to save a fading animal is that it all played out almost live on social media.  Aside from the keepers and vets, the heroes here are the folks who have to man Maryland Zoo's facebook page, patiently answering the same questions over and over again with good grace, acknowledging condolences, dealing with a few self-proclaimed experts, and dealing with the odd keyboard-warrior who feels the need to express an anti-zoo sentiment at the expense of a tragedy.

Birth and death are a cycle than all keepers become familiar with, in varying degrees.  If you work with a large collection of small, short-lived animals (and I'm not even talking about invertebrate keepers here), birth and death may be a weekly or even daily occurrence.  If you work with apes, elephants, or other large, long-lived species, you may go years without either.  That just means that when it does hit you, it's that much harder.

An ongoing debate in recent years has been on how much to let the public in on these comings and goings.  Traditionally, zoos have waited a few days to announce the birth of a new animal.  An animal's first few days are fragile and precious, and so much can go wrong.  Was it born healthy?  Will its mother care for?  If it's a mammal, will the mother produce milk?  Will the baby suckle?  What about accidents and illness in those vulnerable first few days?  Better, in the minds of many zoo administrators, to quietly focus on the baby and see what will happen before going public.

I'm inclined to agree with the benefit of privacy.  Birth is a stressful time for mother and young in many species, and there is no sense in letting folks from the outside badger the poor family when they're just trying to get to know one another in peace.  At one zoo, a baby bear was born - and before the birth was announced (but after it had become common knowledge), we were constantly dealing with folks trying to sneak a peak behind-the-scenes.

The new trend - which I can understand - is full disclosure.  Even if the baby doesn't make it, let everyone know about it, being as open and honest as possible.  If the baby is healthy, let the public celebrate with you and join in your happiness.  If it doesn't, let them mourn with you, let them see the sadness and realize how deeply keepers and other staff truly care about the animals.  Look at Cincinnati Zoo's uncrowned princess - Fiona.  I seriously doubted that that little hippo would make it - so premature, so little known about hand-rearing hippos (compared to, say, giraffes).  And yet, they pulled it off, and Fiona's struggles, triumphs, and eventual reintroduction to her family played out in front of an adoring audience of millions.

Sometimes I get unfairly exasperated with mourners on social media.  The endless comments about "the rainbow bridge" irritate me.  If we really thought that there was some sort of paradise awaiting all of our animals, we might as well euthanize them all now and get them there faster... wait, I think that actually is PETA's mentality.  And whenever an anti-zoo troll rises from the muck and says in a sanctimonious fashion, "Well, he/she is FREE now," I want to yell at my screen, "No, they are DEAD.  Which is not anyone's desired outcome."

It's very sad what happened with the loss of Julius the giraffe calf.  Still, Maryland Zoo keepers, as keepers everywhere, know that they have to pull themselves together and get back to work.  There are other animals that are counting on them.  Especially in this case.  You see, Julius has a big sister, born just a few months before him.  Her name is Willow, and she was the first giraffe born at the zoo is several years.

Which makes her birth - announced over social media - cause for extra celebration.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Ocean in the Jungle

"There is a river that runs from the mountains,
That one river is all rivers, all rivers are that one...
It is the song of life, it is the flower of faith,
It is the tree of temptation, it is the river of no regret."

- John Denver, Amazon

If you asked any ten zookeepers to create a short-list of the places around the world that they would love to see before they die, I'm sure there would be a fair bit of overlap.  I'm sure many would say the Serengeti Plains, and the Australian Outback, the Galapagos, and perhaps the Himalayas.  I'm also sure that most, if not all, would say the Amazon.

I know I would.

For many people - zoo staff and zoo visitors alike - the Amazon is the quintessential, paragon rainforest in our collective imagination.  And that rainforest is defined by its the river for which it is named.  Spanning five countries, the Amazon isn't the longest river in the world, but it is the largest, pushing out more water into the ocean than the next seven largest rivers combined.  It freshens the sea for miles from its mouth.  Its waters are home to some of the most extraordinary freshwater creatures on the planet, from anaconda and caiman to manatees and river dolphins, to say nothing of the thousands of species of fish, with more being discovered annually.

For all of their many positive traits, zoo and aquarium directors tend not to be an especially imaginative lot, and you tend to see a lot of repetition among zoo designs.  Someone comes up with an idea, it blooms at their zoo, and then you can sit back and watch it spread like wildfire throughout the community.  Sometimes the fad burns out, sometimes it doesn't.  Amazon River displays are one of those which have shown no signs of burning out.

National Aquarium in Baltimore has its Amazon River Forest.  Shedd Aquarium has Amazon Rising. Audubon Aquarium of the Americas has its Amazon Rainforest. Dallas World Aquarium devotes most of its collection to the Orinoco River, which shares many of the same fish species.  The National Zoo has Amazonia, Zoo Miami has Amazon and Beyond (including a river-life building), Milwaukee and Pittsburgh devote large chunks of their zoo aquariums to the Amazon.. even the tiny, now-closed DC aquarium was basically divided in half between oceans and Amazon.

I don't think that it would be an exaggeration to say that about 90% of the freshwater exhibit space I've seen at zoos and aquariums has been devoted to the fishes of the Amazon.  Apart from a few displays of Rift Valley cichlids (an endangered group of beautiful little East African lake fishes), almost the entirety of the remainder has been devoted to native freshwater habitats (Baltimore gets some points for originality with their Australian river display).

You certainly can't blame them. Ichtyologically speaking, the Amazon is the stuff of legends.  You have some of the most massive freshwater fish in the world, such as the pacu, red-tailed catfish, and the arapaima.  You have the notorious red-bellied piranha, nowhere near as savage as the stories claim, but still a major crowdpleaser.  You have the electric eel, a predator with a power that defies imagination.  Bull sharks and sawfish are known to make appearances.  You have a host of gorgeous fish, from the tiny neon tetra to the handsomely striped tiger oscars.  Throw in the reptiles - crocodilians, twenty-foot long snakes, and turtles the size of coffee tables - and you have an amazing collection of aquatic life.

The advantage of having many zoos and aquariums working with the same set of fish species is that expertise can be developed and better husbandry will result.  The downside is that allowing one habitat to monopolize our aquarium collections can lead us to overlook other, equally fascinating habitats.  Do you know how many fish species from the Congo River I can name?  Zero.  The Mekong?  Maybe one or two.  It would be beneficial for education and research purposes to start focusing a little more on other imperiled freshwater habitats around the world.  Those species may not have the star power of the Amazonian fishes, but could still benefit from our help and understanding.

I do hope to see the Amazon someday, though I doubt I'll see too much of its fishlife, unless someone has hooked it and pulled it onto dry land.  I've said before, I'm not a diver, and even if I was, I've been told that it's almost impossible to see anything in the murky waters of the Amazon - literally anything could be in there with you.  Which is one of many reasons that I'll always have a major softspot for aquariums.  They've shown me - shown all of us, really - a world that we would otherwise not be able to even imagine.