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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Llamas on the Lloose

This video isn't really zoo- related, but I still thought it was kind of funny, and since it's been shared everywhere else on the internet, why not here as well.  When I watched the recaptured efforts, all I could think was "Amateurs."  I wondered if it ever occurred to the cops to call in the local zoo for help.

How did these people mss the chance for a double-L pun for "loose"?  Again, amateurs...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Playing God, by Bridie Smith

An excellent article from Australia's The Age... zoos and aquariums love to use the analogy of the Ark, but the fact is, the Ark has limited capacity, limited crew, and limited resources.  The challenge becomes how to decide which creatures to invest our efforts in saving, both in captivity and in the wild.  And so a sort of triage is established - some species which will be fine (probably, at least in the short term) without our help, some who are probably doomed, with or without it, and some for which it makes all the difference.

Playing God, by Bridie Smith

With so many creatures under threat of extinction, and so little money to fund conservation efforts, some say it's time to pick who will survive.

The noise is piercing and poignant. It starts as a determined drill reminiscent of the "tut-tut" of Skippy - but delivered with a bit more chirrup - then accelerates to a pitch and pace rivalling that of a lorikeet. Then it goes quiet. That's it. The last call, made by the last Christmas Island pipistrelle bat. It lasts barely 40 seconds.

Before the Christmas Island pipistrelle left the world for good, he was recorded over three nights as he moved through the rainforest. Using ultrasonic pulses of sound to forage for food, this bat was feasting on the fly: expertly catching and consuming insects mid-air. If he was aware scientists were tracking him, he wasn't obliging them. More than 250 kilograms of equipment had been lugged to the tiny island outpost in the Indian Ocean, 1500 kilometres north-west of the Australian mainland, as part of a desperate attempt to rescue his species.

But he was having none of it. He gave the harp nets and mist nets the slip, zipping over the top, night after night. And he ignored a purpose-built 15-metre-long tunnel trap, despite it being set up in one of his favourite foraging spots, a corridor lined with thick rainforest vegetation. His calls, picked up by detectors, indicated he was active. He flitted between feeding sites and reassured researchers with frequent banter. But on the fourth night, the synchronised detectors planted on his island home met silence. Without intending to, scientists had captured the last call of a species, made on its last night in existence: August 26, 2009.

Read the rest of the article here.

Devil in the detail: Zoos Victoria CEO Jenny Gray watches as keeper Monika Zabinskas holds Milana, a one-year-old - and healthy - Tasmanian devil.

Devil in the detail: Zoos Victoria CEO Jenny Gray watches as keeper Monika Zabinskas holds Milana, a one-year-old - and healthy - Tasmanian devil. Photo: Joe Armao

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

From the News: Why Can't Captive Breeding of Saltwater Aquarium Fish Catch On?

Most of the animals that you see when you visit a zoo were born in captivity; international regulations and concerns about animal welfare have seriously clamped down on the number of wild-caught mammals and birds imported into the country.  For aquariums, on the other hand, the trend is still for many fish to come from the oceans.  What also makes the aquarium fish trade different than the historic zoo animal trade is that very few of Carl Hagenbeck's tigers and elephants found themselves in private homes, which is where many imported saltwater fish end up.

There are tremendous benefits to be gained from increasing our knowledge of producing marine fish in captivity.  It's better for the environment not to take these animals from the wild.  It's better for the fish themselves - captive bred animals tend to be healthier and less-stressed than wild caught ones forced to adapt to captivity.  Lastly, it could be a great economic boon for some communities, producing fish to satisfy the demands of public and privite aquariums.

There are challenges, to be sure, but considering how many now-common zoo animals were once considered impossible to breed, I'm sure that, at least for some species, it can be done.

Barcelona's underwater tunnel aquarium with sharks and visitors in aquarium tunnel underwater scene. Photo by Artur Debat / Contributor, Getty Images

Barcelona’s underwater tunnel aquarium with sharks and visitors in aquarium tunnel underwater scene. Photo by Artur Debat / Contributor, Getty Images

Monday, February 23, 2015

Zoo Review: Adventure Aquarium

The City of Philadelphia has a lot of amazing attractions, including an excellent zoo.  One thing it does not have is an aquarium (at least not since 1962, when the aquarium in Fairmont Park closed).  For that, you have to go across the river to Camden, New Jersey.  It's here that you will find what used to be the unoriginally-named New Jersey State Aquarium, now rebranded as Adventure Aquarium.

The biggest stars at Adventure - in just about every sense of the word - are the hippos.  Adventure is one of two facilities in the northeast to still exhibit Nile hippos, and the only aquarium to do so.  The hippos can be seen from above or underwater in a twilight gallery (leading to amazing close-up views), an interesting twist because I'd never seen a nocturnal display of these animals.  Hippos in the wild are generally active at night, and I will admit that the hippos here were more active than any I'd seen at any other zoo.  The land portion of the exhibit is shared with African crested porcupines, and when the hippos swim they do so amidst schools of beautiful African cichlids.  It's an awesome exhibit, but the same time, I'm not positive how I feel about such large mammals in an indoor-only exhibit - it would be nice if they had an adjacent outdoor pen.

There are plenty of more traditional aquarium animals at Adventure as well.  In the submarine-like Jules Verne Gallery, visitors travel down an ornate hallway to encounter denizens of the ocean depths, such as giant isopods, Pacific octopus, nautilus, sea dragons, and jellyfish.  Up next is the shark, where a series of interactive exhibits introduce visitors to the ocean's most famed predators.  The highlight here is the tunnel that leads through the tank patrolled by sandbar, sand tiger, and nurse sharks.

More sharks can be seen in the Shipwreck display, which is home to the only great hammerhead shark on display in America, as well as zebra sharks, silky sharks, and bonnetheads. Green and loggerhead sea turtles join several other fish species in this tank as well.  The sharks and turtles can be viewed from several vantage points (which is great, because it's a huge tank and animals are often out of view from one window or another), including an educational theater that faces the largest viewing window.  A very different aquatic predator is found down the hallway, where Orinoco crocodiles are displayed, along with various Caribbean fish.  Nearby, the aquarium's only outdoor exhibit displays a colony of African penguins.  Special kid-themed galleries nearby focus on frogs and turtles.

There is a strong emphasis on interaction at Adventure Aquarium, and guests get many opportunities to meet the residents up close (and not just through glass).  A series of touch tanks allows visitors to handle (under aquarist supervision) stingrays, horseshoe crabs, starfish, and even small sharks.  Special behind-the-scenes encounters are also available, allowing special visitors to swim with sharks, care for penguins, or tour a sea turtle rehabilitation center.  There are also constantly changing exhibits, including those without live animals - at the time of publishing, the new display is "Dinosaurs of the Deep", featuring models of prehistoric marine reptiles (none of which were actually dinosaurs, truth be told).

Like many American aquariums, Adventure is relatively new, opening its doors in 1993.  Unlike many other presitgious aquariums, however, it opened to terrible reviews.  The new aquarium doubled-down and reinvented itself, and the reviews of the newly redone facility have been fantastic.  Unique animals, innovative exhibits, and lots of interaction have made Adventure Aquarium one of the most popular aquariums in the nation.  Hopefully, its fortunes will continue to improve.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind

"The foreseeable outcome is that... alpha predators will have ceased to exist - except behind chain-link fencing, high-strength glass, and steel bars... people will find it hard to conceive that those animals were once proud, dangerous, unpredictable, widespread, and kingly, prowling free among the same forests, rivers, estuaries, and oceans used by humanity.  Adults, except for a few recalcitrant souls, will take their absence for granted.  Children will be startled and excited to learn, if anyone tells them, that once there were lions at large in the very world."

There are celebrities at every zoo, the animals that everyone wants to see.  People want to see elephants and monkeys, they want to see giraffes and zebras.  Perhaps more than any other group of animals, however, they want to see the predators... especially the big ones.  Big cats, bears, crocodilians, sharks... these are the creatures that fascinate our visitors, leaning against the railings of the moats or pressed up against the viewing windows.  Sometimes, you here someone muse what would happen if the glass wasn't there.

Celebrated nature write David Quammen answers that question in Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind.  Quammen takes the reader on a travel around the world, entering the domains of four alpha predators - the Indian lion, the saltwater crocodile of Australian, the brown bear of Romania's Carpathian Mountains, and the Amur tiger.  Exploring the biology and history of each species and interviewing the people who share the landscape with them, he sets out to answer the question - what does it mean to be prey?

There are a lot of books that start off in the direction that Quammen goes in, only to devolve into a series of bloody anecdotes of people being killed by big predators.  Yes, this book includes a smattering of those.  More importantly, however, it takes a look at our relations with the natural world from the opposite direction that we normally do - not as humans dominating the world and subjugating the wilderness, but humans as another flavor of meat, another link in the food chain.  For the vast majority of our species history on this planet, we have been regularly preyed upon by big cats, bears, and other large carnivores - in some parts of the world, we still are.  How did this impact us as as a species, what impacts does it have on us today?  Quammen's search for an answer transcends biology - he explores the role of super-predators throughout mythology, religion, and popular culture, relating it to a wide array of creatures, from The Bible's Leviathan to Beowulf's Grendel to the titular monster of the science-fiction series, Alien.

Quammen gives equal - probably more - attention to the people who share their lives with large predators, be they the Maldahari of India's Gir forest, tending their herds in the presence of lions or Romanian foresters, reminiscing about the Communist-era, when Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu slaughtered untold bears (many raised by these same foresters) to bolster his image with his people.  It is the local people, Quammen reasons, that have to live with predators and pay the price of sharing space with them - competition for prey, loss of livestock, sometimes loss of lives.  Typically, it is the poorest, most isolated, least influential members of society who are most likely to be negatively impacted by these animals.  Is it fair, he asks, for the rest of the world to ask for so great a sacrifice, and receive nothing in return?

Major predators aren't just popular zoo animals; in their own ways, they are protectors of the wild, even of those species which they kill and eat.  As iconic animals, equally admired and feared, their conservation serves as a rallying cry for conservationists - "Save the tiger!" has a better ring to it, and is more likely to draw support, than "Save the Siberian musk deer!"  The importance of large carnivores in regulating their environment has long been understood, giving us an ecological incentive to protect them.  For some species - Quammen focuses on the skin trade for saltwater crocodiles - their is an economic incentive as well.  Perhaps most importantly, Quammen offers an equally compelling, though far more nebulous argument for saving wild large carnivores - these animals, and their occasional depredations on us, helped shape humanity as a species.  They made us who we are.  If we lose them, we lose an important part of our past and our identity.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How Low Can You Go?

Today was miserable.  Tomorrow isn't looking that much better, either.  Every year, it seems like winter meanders erratically through December and January, but when it hits late February, it's like it realizes that its time is almost over.  It's then that we get the worst of the cold.

On nights like tonight, listening to the wind scream outside, throwing up armloads of snow, I can't help but worry about the animals at the zoo right now, hoping that they are all cozy and snug inside.  No reason that they shouldn't be fine - I checked the heat lamps, added tons of bedding, and put up wind-blocks - but it's still easy to worry.

This being an unusually brutal winter for us, we've had to respond accordingly.  Some of our animals who faced winter outdoors for the last several years began to quake in the face of this one; animals that hadn't seen the inside of a building for years were caught, crated, and transported inside for the worst of the season.  This has led to a little grumbling and bickering among the staff, especially with some of the older members grousing about how unnecessary all of the effort it.  In their (not uninformed) opinions, the animals will make do outside, as they have for years past.

I agree... to a point.

Few aspects of animal care are as subjective as temperature guidelines.  At one zoo where I worked, the alligators went outside in the beginning of March and they came in after Thanksgiving... that was it.  There were mornings when I came in and found the layer of their pool covered with a film of ice, with only the tips of their noses frozen above the surface (this is what wild American alligators will do in some of the colder parts of their range).  At another zoo, it was considered inconceivable for the gators to go out if there was a chance of temperatures below 50 Fahrenheit.

There aren't only differences between institutions, but between animals, even those of the same species.  I once worked with two birds, both males of about the same age and same species, housed in side-by-side exhibits.  One faced winter with calm indifference every year.  The other had feet ravaged by frostbite.  No one could explain why the one bird was so cold hardy, while the other - after his ill-fated first winter outside - had to be bundled indoors every December.

A big part of the confusion comes to differing opinions as to what temperature guidelines are supposed to achieve.  Some people think that it's simply what the animal can survive without signs of injury or illness.  Most animals can tolerate temperatures considerably colder than what they would experience in the wild, provided that they are given shelter from the cold to use as they desire.  The problem with this is that it simply comes down to endurance and survival; the goal shouldn't be for the animal to survive, it should be for it to thrive.  I could survive a 40 degree night if I were locked outside naked... but I wouldn't be very happy in the morning (nor, I suspect, would my neighbors).

I don't want to make the "leave 'em outside" crowd seem heartless.  They have their reasons for wanting to keep the animals outside.  For one thing, it's less stressful on the animals, especially if the indoor area in question is a building on the other end of the zoo. (A way to mitigate this is to have indoor holding areas attached to outdoor enclosures - it can be more expensive, but does allow animals to be moved back and forth with less stress, and allows you to move animals quickly based on sudden changes in weather, like hurricanes). For another, indoor areas are almost always smaller, and no one likes being locked in a smaller area.  Thirdly, temperature shocks can be hard on an animal.  If you pull a bird inside for the winter, you might need to keep said bird inside for quite a while, until the indoor-outdoor difference isn't so great.

My current zoo tends to be a little more conservative with temperatures than I am on some species, a little laxer on others.  I spent much of my early career working for a director who seemed determined to push every animal in the collection as far as he could on the path towards cold-tolerance.  As a result, I've seen some of his failures in that regard.  Having seen the impact the extreme cold can have on animals, I'm always inclined to error on the side of caution these days.

Not to anthropomorphize, but if I'm cold, I usually figure they're cold.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus)

Sphenodon punctatus (Gray, 1842)

Range: Off-Shore Islands of New Zealand
Habitat: Coastal Forests Scrub
Diet: Insects, Spiders, Snails, Worms, Lizards, Eggs, Small Birds, Carrion
Social Grouping: Solitary, Territorial During Breeding Season
Reproduction: Mate January through March, but female does not lay eggs until October or December.  18-19 eggs laid in a shallow hole; the female guards the nest for a few days before abandoning it.  Incubation is 11-16 months (longest of any reptile), sex is determined by incubation temperature (higher temperatures produce males, lower temperatures produce females).  Sexually mature at 9-13 years old.  Eggs laid every 4 years on average (in some locales, only every 9 years).
Lifespan: Over 100 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix I

  • Males grow up to 61 centimeters and weight 1 kilogram; females measure 45 centimeters and weight 500 grams.  Males also have a more triangular head and less pear-shaped body. 
  • Skin is olive-green, gray, brown, or sometimes pinkish, marked with pale speckles that are brighter in juveniles than adults.  A row of spines runs down the length of the body ("tuatara" is Maori for "peaks on the back").  
  • Though they look like lizards,tuatara are the only members of an ancient order to reptiles, the Rhynchocephalia ("Beak Heads").  Tuataras differ from lizards in their dentition, lack of external ear-openings, lack of a penis (males mate by holding their cloaca up to that of the female, in the manner of birds), and a primitive, light-sensitive "third-eye" on top of the head, beneath the skin
  • Voice is a harsh croak, sometimes likened to the call of a frog
  • Nocturnal, live in burrows either dug themselves or shared with seabirds; may emerge during the day to bask
  • If seized by a predator, the tuatara can shed its tail and grow a new one
  • Very low metabolic rate, which allows it to be active at cool temperatures, sometimes as low as 5 degrees Celsius
  • Prominent in native folklore as messengers of god Whiro, Maori women would get tattoos of tuatara as signs of fertility
  • There are three subspecies of tuatara, one of which (Brothers Island tuatara, S. p. guntheri) is sometimes described as a full species
  • Major threat to the survival of tuatara has been the introduction of rats, which raid nests and eat eggs and small hatchlings (tuatara are very slow breeders, making it difficult to rebuild their populations), as well as the tuataras' food sources.  Once found throughout mainland New Zealand, but disappeared after the arrival of humans.
  • Conservation efforts include the eradication of rats, as well as the introduction of wild and captive-bred tuatara onto rat-free islands
  • Very rare in American zoos, captive breeding has so far only occurred in New Zealand