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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

From the News: Hundreds of tiny Montserrat tarantulas hatch

Earlier this month Chester Zoo announced the first ever captive breeding of the endangered Montserrat tarantula.  About 200 of the endangered arachnids have hatched out, with more coming.  The breeding was one fraught with risk - as the picture above shows, tarantula mating is not a cuddly, loving affair.  The life of the male is at considerable risk, before, during, and after the process.  This breeding is significant conservation news, and not just for the sake of the spiders.  It turns out that the tarantulas are a favored food item for another endangered Caribbean resident - the mountain chicken frog.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sir Nils Olav Inspects His Troops

Penguins have long been the stars of Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo.  The black-and-white Antarctic birds were first exhibited at the zoo in 1914, captured by a whaling expedition and donated to the zoo.  In 1919, the zoo became the first to breed penguins in captivity with its hatching of a king penguin chick.  In 1950, several penguins escaped and wandered about the zoo, a comical incident which has since been replicated on a (planned) daily basis as the zoo's famous Penguin Parade.

Among the illustrious animals that the zoo has provided a home for over the years is Sir Nils Olav, a former mascot of the Norwegian army, later installed at the zoo.  Sir Nils, who has a bigger-than-life-sized statue on zoo grounds, was promoted every time the corps visited Scotland.  Sit Nils, alas, has since passed away, but he has a successor who has been deemed worthy of his honor and titles.  Just the other day, he was promoted again when the Norwegians came to town.  As befitting a penguin of his rank, he immediately set about inspecting the troops.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Zoo Review: Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

They say that everything is bigger in Texas... and they very well may be right.  But when I think of the word "big" in association with zoos, my mind doesn't go to Texas.  It goes to Nebraska.  More specifically, it focuses on Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, one of the most extraordinary zoos in the country.  It seems like every exhibit there has some sort of "biggest" label (or "formerly biggest", in at least one case) - the world's biggest geodesic dome, the world's biggest nocturnal exhibit, the world's biggest cat complex.  Omaha is an amazing zoo, and the day that I spent there was barely enough to scratch its surface.

Any discussion of Henry Doorly must begin with what was the zoo's flagship exhibit - the Lied Jungle.  Located just inside the entrance, this award-winning 1.5 acre compound was, for many years, the world's largest indoor rainforest.  Exhibits are divided into three galleries - South America, Asia, and Africa - and are viewed from a canopy walkway or meandering trails on the jungle floor.  Spaced throughout the exhibit are habitats for pygmy hippopotamus, Baird's and Malayan tapirs, Asian small-clawed otters, and Philippine crocodiles, while small side displays feature reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals.  The building also houses an extraordinary primate collection - howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, capuchins, gibbons, and the only bearded sakis on display in the United States.  Lots of mixed-species interactions, including a monkey riding a tapir - my camera only took a few blurry shots, but it was hilarious watching the two species interact so casually, so familiarly.   There are also lots of free-flying birds... and bats.  For me, the most memorable experience in the building was having bats flying all around me.  Passing behind a towering waterfall, I watched Egyptian fruit bats feed on hanging slices of fruit.  Later, while walking through a tunnel (featuring underwater viewing windows on the tapirs, hippos, and crocs), a bat almost buzzed me as it zipped by.  Lied Jungle has to be seen to be believed, with its abundant, lush plants and supports shaped like massive trees; an adjacent restaurant offers spectacular views of the Jungle for diners.  I'd been hearing about it for two decades.  It did not disappoint.

If Lied Jungle was the crown jewel of the zoo, there is a new contender to the throne.  Also by the main entrance is the Desert Dome, the world's largest geodesic dome that tours the deserts of Africa, Australia, and North America.  There are fewer large animals than in the Lied Jungle, but the views are much more intimate, whether you are watching rock wallabies bound along a cliff face, klipspringer, meerkat, and rock hyrax observe you from amidst the rocks, or being curiously sniffed at by a pack of coatis.  The three deserts are separated by galleries of reptiles (this is one of the most impressive collections of venomous snakes I've ever seen, especially with regards to rattlesnakes), and free-flying birds flitting over the artificial dunes make for a beautiful sight.

But wait... there's more...

Lurking beneath the Desert Dome is another world class exhibit - the Kingdoms of the Night.  In darkened hallways, aardvarks, porcupines, fossa, night monkeys, and even more bats can be encountered, as well as Japanese giant salamanders.  The salamanders herald the entrance to the Wet Cave, a boardwalk leading over a dark swamp patrolled by beavers, bullfrogs, and, of course, alligators.  As a rule I tend to be skeptical of nocturnal exhibits, as I feel that you rarely actually see anything more than a dark shape shuffling against a dark background.  This one shut me up.

Completing the zoo's trifecta of buildings around the entrance complex is the Scott Kingdom of the Seven Seas Aquarium.  It's a typical zoo aquarium, meaning it hits the required notes - a shark exhibit, an Amazon tank, sea turtle, jellyfish, and, of course, penguins and puffins.  Of special interest to the zoo connoisseur are the weedy and leafy sea dragons and the Japanese spider crabs.  Nearby is an Insectarium, including a butterfly walk-through habitat and a jungle exhibit with giant arthropods from around the world.  The zoo is very involved in the conservation of the endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle, though none are on display.

So extraordinary are many of Omaha's exhibits that displays that would be world-renown at other facilities, I'm just getting to describing now.  Consider the great ape exhibits - the Hubbard Gorilla and Orangutan Forests.  The apes are the stars, of course - the gorillas have a grassy rolling lawn while the orangutans share a towering outdoor climbing structure with siamangs - with indoor viewing also available for both species.  Surrounding the apes are habitats for other Asian and African species, such as ground hornbills, red river hogs, and Francois langurs.

Even more primates are seen in the indoor/outdoor Expedition Madagascar. Nearly a dozen species of lemurs call Omaha home, from the ubiquitous ring-tailed lemur to the rarely exhibited aye-aye.  The building goes beyond lemurs, however, also housing rarely seen small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians from the island continent, such as radiated tortoises, jumping rats, and Madagascar teal.  During the warmer months, many of the lemurs can be viewed in an outdoor enclosure.  Also outdoors is a habitat for their arch predator, the fossa.  Madagascar is rarely highlighted as a geographic area by zoos, but for Omaha, it is more than appropriate - the zoo is extremely involved in Malagasy field conservation, and has even been responsible for the discovery of new lemur species.

And if all that weren't enough, there's a special events hall which doubles as a small animal house, a sea lion pool, and, oh yeah, a FOUR ACRE aviary, the third largest in the world, with flamingos, cranes, swans, and storks.  There is also an IMAX theater, a train, an Alaska-themed splash park, and a skytram, just in case you actually manage to get tired of looking at all of the amazing animals the zoo has to offer.

The zoo's excellence on-exhibit is matched by it's excellence off-exhibit.  The conservation efforts mentioned already, from beetles to lemurs, are the tip of the iceberg.  The zoo maintains an off-exhibit breeding complex for critically endangered amphibians. A  research department works to reduce human-wildlife conflict around the globe.  The zoo's involvement with assisted reproduction for exotic felines is legendary.  The list goes on.

So that's the good.  The bad?  A much shorter list.

The zoo is famed for its work with big cats, especially tiger artificial insemination.  Which really makes me wish I could say that the Cat Complex wasn't awful.  But it is... awful, I mean.  Tiger, puma, leopard, jaguar, and snow leopard (and Komodo dragon, for some reason)... too many cats in too little space.  Is it really necessary to have as many subspecies of tiger as possible on display for viewing?  The bear grottos down the hill - sun, Andean, American black, and polar bears, the later with underwater viewing - aren't that much better.  To be fair, the zoo certainly acknowledges the limitations of its current exhibits, and signage in the Cat Complex calls attention to the new, improved habitats which are planned.

The first of these habitats is on the way with the new African Grasslands.  The lions will leave the crowded confines of the Cat Complex to join cheetahs, African wild dogs, white rhino, giraffe, and more in a brand new habitat.  Headlining the project are six of the famous (or infamous) African elephants shipped over from Swaziland earlier this year.  If Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo does half as good of a job with Africa as it did with all of its other exhibits, it's going to be incredible.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Satire: Tiger Always Checked Out Of Local Zoo

Earlier today, I had a visitor come up to me and ask me where our jaguar was.  So, I gave them directions to the exhibit, but he shook his head.  "No, I didn't see him there.  I thought that maybe he was at the fair today."  (Today being our county fair, our zoo did send some staff and some animals... no big cats, though).

I've also gotten a chuckle over the years from people who seriously misunderstand the whole "Adopt an Animal" concept, with some people even showing up with dog crates to pick up the animal that they wanted to "adopt"... now we call them sponsorships.  Put those two together, and you get this story from The Onion.

SAN FRANCISCO—Complaining that another patron always seems to have borrowed the animal before he gets a chance to take it home, frustrated local man Scott Gardner told reporters Monday that the sole Siberian tiger at his local zoo is checked out every time he visits. “No matter when I head over there, the woman at the tiger habitat tells me the Siberian is checked out but that I can get it once it’s returned in a few weeks,” Gardner said, noting that the same person seemed to repeatedly renewing the 350-pound cat and that he was always relegated to taking home “some leopard that’s not nearly as good.” “I looked it up online, and they’ve got a Siberian available at another location,but I’m not about to drive all the way out to Oakland.” When pressed, Gardner admitted that the availability of the tiger was a moot point, as his borrowing privileges had been suspended until he paid for the tiger he lost a few years ago.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

From the News: Potawatomi Zoo curator jumps into flooded exhibit to rescue animal

Zookeeping - you're doing it right.  Potawatomi Zoo isn't the only member of our community which has been hit by the deluge lately - Baton Rouge has also been hit pretty hard by floodwaters this last week.  Whether it's flood, fire, hurricane, or any other disaster, zookeepers are on the job, doing whatever is necessary to keep their charges safe.

Hats off to Mr. Sisk for a heroic save.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Who Are You Feeding Now?

It was uncharitable of me, I'll admit, to include Item #4 on my "Ten Things I Never Want to Here From Zoo Visitors Again" list.  For those of you who haven't memorized my blog entries from the last three years, that would be "Look, they're feeding it!" as I carry a can of paint... or am dragging the power washer... or do any number of other, non-food related tasks.  It especially baffles me that I find myself often being asked the question "Hey, are you about to feed the (insert animal here)" as I am walking away from that exhibit.

I'm hard pressed to say why that one irks me so much.  In part it's because the whole "Feeding Time!" thing is usually announced very loudly and garners a lot of attention, so I feel like I'm being a meanie by not feeding anything, even though I'm not the one that got everyone's hopes up in the first place. 

Secondly, and this is a little more obscure, I sometimes resent the implication that our animals are solely motivated by food, and that's what makes them tick.  When I walk past the otters, or the monkeys, or any of the other intelligent, curious animals and they come up to the front of the exhibit to say "Hello," visitors always make comments like "They think you're gonna feed them" or "Oh, they know who you are."  To which I always want to reply, "Wow, you have such an amazing insight into animal behavior.  Should I get you a job application while you're here?"  But I don't... and instead remind myself that there is a reason I choose to work with animals instead of people.

The animals know when they are going to get fed.  They know their routines, and more importantly, they can tell the difference between the sight (and smell) of me coming with a food pail versus me coming with a bottle of bleach, a hammer and nails, a roll of garbage bags, or nothing at all.  They will react accordingly... just as they would react a hell of a lot differently if they saw me coming with a net, a crate, and a pair of super-heavy duty gloves.

But, as I said at the beginning, I was being unfair.  Of course people want to see the animals feed.  In some cases, it's not too exciting - a bowl of chow gets put down and the animal picks at it as their hunger so moves them.  Others will only eat at night, or in off-exhibit holding areas, used to shift animals safely to and from exhibits.  That being said, other feedings are just plain awesome to watch.  Otters and penguins leaping and diving into the water after thrown fish, or pelicans catching fish with their beaks.  A herd of ungulates galloping over for grain.  Monkeys and apes swinging across the exhibit to get some fruit.  What zoo doesn't celebrate Halloween by throwing pumpkins to hippos, bears, big cats, and elephants? Maybe even a seemingly fake python suddenly rocketing to life as it uncoils to seize a proffered rabbit.  

A feeding demo can make even the most reclusive of zoo animals active and extraordinary.  The most memorable feeding of my childhood took place at the now-closed Invertebrate House at the National Zoo.  We'd gone in there as an afterthought, but watching the giant Pacific octopus emerge from her cubby hole and drift to the front of the tank was hauntingly beautiful.  And that was before I saw a keeper toss a handful of shrimp into a jar... and then screw the lid on it before sending it to the bottom of the tank.  The octopus took the jar in its arms and opened it, extracting the meal inside.  When I turned around, I found myself surrounded by a huge crush of visitors, all spellbound, most of them seeing the octopus for the first time ever... or at least for the first time as something more than a pink mass in the corner of the tank.

Other feedings are for more select audiences... maybe not suitable for kids.  Some zoos have taken to feeding whole carcasses - goats, road-killed deer, whatever - to their predators.  The aforementioned python will swallow its rabbit in one go.  A pack of African wild dogs, on the other hand, will tear their goat into pieces.  That stays with you for a while.

If you are going to the zoo and interested in what feedings can be observed, it's always good to check the website.  If you are a regular to a certain zoo, check with staff there to see if there's a usual time.  I'm a creature of habit myself, and if you were to name a random time during my work day tomorrow, I'd probably be able to tell you exactly what I'd be doing.  I've had visitors show up - waiting for me, in fact - because they were expecting me to be there to feed certain animals which they had seen before.

There's a lot more that goes into caring for zoo animals than feeding them.  In fact, that - the act of physically giving food to the animals - probably takes maybe an hour total of my workday... probably less.  Still, they are the part of the day that gives a zookeeper the best chance to bring the visitor and the animal together, share some stories, and start a conversation that could change the visitor's experience altogether.

Just stop asking me who I'm feeding the paint to..

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked Mole Rat
Heterocephalus glaber (Ruppell, 1842)

Range: East Africa
Habitat: Savannah
Diet: Roots, Tubers
Social Grouping: Colonial (20-300 members)
Reproduction: Breeding limited to usually one (sometimes more) queens, who produce all of the offspring in the colony. She only breeds with a few select males, so all members of the colony are very closely related.  Breed year round, average of five litters a year.  Gestation 70 days, average of 7 pups per litter.  Females mature in 7 months, males in 12 months.
Lifespan: 30 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Body length 14-17 centimeters long, weigh 30-80 grams.  Males and females are similar in size; the queen and breeding males are the largest members of the colony
  • Skin is brown or pink; young often possess dark spots, which fade with age.  Very little hair on the body; what is present is very short and very sensitive
  • The teeth, used for tunneling, protrude through their lips, allowing the naked mole rats to dig without getting a mouth full of soil
  • Although the eyes are well developed, naked mole rats are functionally blind - their brains have lost the ability to process what they see
  • Longest known lifespan of any rodent species
  • Store food in underground chambers; useful because their ability to forage is hampered during the rains, as they have difficulty moving through wet soil.
  • Primary predators are snakes, which can move easily through the tunnels
  • Cannot control their body temperatures internally, thermoregulate like reptiles - when they are cold, they bask, when they are hot, they retreat to the cooler parts of their burrows
  • Of considerable scientific interest, not only because of their unique social structure, but because of their resistance to cancer and their perceived immunity to pain