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Monday, October 31, 2016

What's the Difference?

"I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, "He never bungles!"
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
'You mean,' he said, 'a crocodile.'"

- The Purist, by Ogden Nash

Even more common than the "You gonna wrestle them?" line when I service our alligator exhibit is the ever-popular, "Aren't you scared to be in there with them?"   I generally respond in the negative, saying something along the lines that the alligators and I are very used to one another, and I make sure to pay attention and be careful when working around them.  That satisfies many people... but I also get a fair number of people who nod knowingly and then say, "But I bet you wouldn't do that with a crocodile, would you?"

Unless you are in southern Florida (or a zoo or aquarium), it should be easy to know if you are looking at a crocodile or an alligator - that's the only place on earth you'll naturally find both in the wild.

A lot of visitors are a little hazy on the differences between alligators and crocodiles.  Some seem to latch onto the idea that alligators are docile and crocodiles are savage - not necessarily the case.  Sure, the crocodile label encompasses potential man-eating behemoths like the Nile crocodile of Africa and the saltwater crocodile of Asia and Australia... but it also includes several fairly shy, inoffensive species.  Other guests say that crocodiles are bigger... but a full grown American alligator is a giant compared to a African dwarf crocodile, or a Philippine crocodile.

The differences are less exciting.  Alligators have something of an overbite - when their mouths are closed, you see the top teeth, whereas with crocs you might see both.  Also, alligators have a more rounded snout, compared to the more pointed snout of a crocodile.  Alligators tend to be more tolerant of the cold, less tolerant of salt than crocodiles.  Closely related to the alligators are the Central and South American caimans, which differ from the alligators in their belly scales and the absence of a bony septum. 

This is the exact sort of description which makes many zoo visitors nod for a moment, than wander off in mid-sentence to look at the monkeys.

The fact is, it's hard to come up with hard and fast rules to describe what animals are part of which group.  There's over a dozen species of crocodile scattered over five continents (there are, in contrast, only two alligators - the American and the Chinese) - some are big, some are small, some have broad snouts, some have very narrow ones.  It's easy to say that monkeys have tails and apes don't... but Barbary macaques don't, either, and they're monkeys.  Mammals give live birth... except for those pesky echidnas and that irksome platypus.

Ultimately, what defines an animal's place on the tree of life is who it is actually related to, it's common ancestors.  You might not look a thing like your sibling - you may have much more in common with your best friend - but that doesn't change the fact that your sibling is, in fact, who you are more related to, based on the fact that you share parents.

So, Mr. Zoo Visitor, I can give you some generalities on what makes animal A an alligator and animal C a crocodile, but they will just be that - generalities.  Nature never read a rule book... and she certainly never wrote one.

"It's not so hard to tell if it's an alligator or a crocodile.  An alligator will see you later, a crocodile will see you in a while."

Sunday, October 30, 2016

T-Rex vs. Alligator

Okay, so here's another take on the alligator wrestling concept... still not sure if this is absolute idiocy or absolutely brilliant enrichment.  It's amazing how easy it is to get those two confused...

Friday, October 28, 2016

Wrasslin' Gators

About once every three minutes.  That, according to my rough calculations, is the average amount of time I can spend in a crocodile or alligator exhibit on a busy weekend before someone in the audience - almost always, though not exclusively, a middle-aged man - makes a comment about alligator wrestling.  Usually they'll ask jokingly if that's what I'm about to do, sometimes they'll make an offer to do it themselves (thereby impressing their female companionship).  There's no avoiding it.

Perhaps most annoyingly, to me, anyway, is the fact that so many of them say "wrassle" instead of "wrestle."  A small source of irritation, considering other things, but I was raised to be a stickler for correct grammar and pronunciation (hard to believe, considering how many times I have to go back onto the blog each day to correct typos).

As legend has it, the first alligator wrestles were the Native Americans of Florida - the Seminole, the Miccosukee - who hunted alligators for meat and hides; later, alligator products became useful trade objects with European-Americans.  As is the case with so many native skills, it eventually made its way into the tourist trade, performed in attractions across the south.  Crocodile Hunter, Swamp People, and other TV shows greatly enhanced its popularity.

In the strictest sense of the word, I've wrestled alligators and crocodiles before - if by that, we mean that I've gone and captured them bare-handed by myself.  Not especially large ones - my rule of thumb has been not to catch an alligator longer than I am tall without back-up, and the capture of the larger ones usually involve some rope and tape.  Also as a rule, I do it when I have to, not when I want to (which, to be honest, is far less often than I have to).  It's done for husbandry purposes, such as medical treatment, or for emergencies (such as moving animals inside in the face of sudden, severe weather that might compromise the integrity of the exhibit).

In the case of an alligator less than six feet long, it's usually a matter of just grabbing the animal by the back of the neck with both hands, coming up from behind and using my body weight to hold it down.  From there, I can grip the jaws closed (the muscles that open a crocodilian's jaws are pretty weak, and I can easily hold even a big croc's mouth closed) while electrical tape is used to secure it.  Bigger animals need a team effort, maybe using a lasso to secure the jaws, another for the tail, and two or three people to hold the animal down.  It requires a fair bit of coordination, as well as trust in one another's abilities.  When you're rushing to jump on the back of a fifteen foot alligator, you really don't want to be worrying about whether the two people behind you are actually coming or not.

There really is no equivalent of this in mammal keeping.  If you told me that I had to take two or three keepers and go into an exhibit with a polar bear and wrestle it into submission, I'd probably just as soon shoot myself in the head and get it over with - there'd at least be more of a corpse for burial that way.  There are some facilities with lots of crocodilians which are masterful at doing these captures (St. Augustine being the golden example, I suppose).  Some zoos may go years at a time without needing to do this.

Catching alligators and crocodiles is stressful for the animals as well as the staff.  It's best if it is done quickly, quietly, and efficiently by a trained staff.  Whenever given the option, I try to avoid doing it during public hours.  I'd worry too much that I'd be distracted by the public and make a mistake that could result in injury to me, or the animal.  So no random guy in the audience, there won't be any gator wrassling demos today.  Or any day, actually.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

From the News: World's Most Endangered Alligator Making a Comeback - in Shanghai

A recent report by WWF estimates that, by the end of this decade, two-thirds of the wild animals on our planet will be gone.  One-third as many tigers left, one-third as many elephants, one-third as many gorillas... that's pretty depressing stuff (especially when you consider that it's on average - some species will be hit harder than others).

All of this, of course, makes this news from Shanghai so much more enjoyable.  It's fantastic to see that one of the world's rarest reptiles, the Chinese alligator, is still managing to hold its own - even in the most unexpected of places (this, to me, would be like finding that black-footed ferrets have established a breeding group beneath the Hollywood sign in LA... but then again, why not, there are already pumas there).

Chinese alligator hatchling swims in Dongtan Wetland Park in China.  Credit: © East China Normal University

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Zoo Review: Racine Zoo

I visit Chicago fairly frequently, and as such am pretty well-acquainted with the zoos of that city - Lincoln Park, Brookfield, Shedd Aquarium.  On my most recent visit into town, I decided to shake things up a bit and scout a little further afield.  It was that trip which brought to the Racine Zoo for the first time.  I wasn't entirely sure what I was expecting - I know I wasn't expecting to encounter a handful of species which, in my years of zoo-going, I'd never seen before.  Racine has quickly rushed towards the top of my favorite-little-zoo list.

One of the great things about visiting the small, less-famous zoos is that I generally haven't scouted them out so much.  When I visit a well-known zoo, like Omaha, for the first time, I've already heard so much about its famous exhibits or must-see animals that it's like I've already been there.  Not so at Racine.  Wandering inside the gates, I first made my way to the Australian walkabout, where visitors can take a meandering path through a grassy yard grazed by wallaroos, kangaroos, and emu.  Black swans paddle a small pool in the center, while Guam rails inhabit a small side enclosure.  Outside of the exhibit is a feeding aviary for budgies and cockatiels.  A farmyard with domestics and a playground are nearby.

Towering over the zoo is the castle-like Vanishing Kingdom, a red-brick tower that houses the primate and carnivore collections.  Inside its gothic interior, fossa, coati, lemurs, and tamarins line the halls.  A semi-circular glassed-in enclosure houses a hybrid orangutan, while gibbons have access to outdoor enclosures.  Dominating the hallway, however, is the lion exhibit.  On nice days, the lions are more likely to be found outside in a grassy yard (I caught myself wondering about the wisdom of switching out the lions for snow leopards or Amur leopards, which are not only smaller but could comfortably spend more of the year outdoors).  Adjacent to their exhibit are enclosures for Canada lynx and Amur tiger.  Down the path, a small island exhibit is split down the middle into two very different habitats - an arid desert yard, for meerkats, on one side, with a pool for African penguins on the other. 

I was casually enjoying the zoo up until this point... when I walked outside and found myself facing an enormous aviary.  Eagles?  Condors?  I wasn't sure what I'd find until I walked inside... and I'm not being melodramatic, I swear I actually gasped.  I had no idea that Racine is one of only two zoos outside of Asia to exhibit the magnificent lesser adjutant stork, which I observed standing on a platform at the top of the aviary (the other is the Bronx).  The aviary itself was gorgeous, wooded and grassy with meandering streams and shallow pools.  Sharing it with the storks were tufted deer, which approached quiet close to the small wooden deck where visitors could observe the storks from inside the aviary.  Immediately outside the aviary, I had to do another double take - a concrete mountain stood across the path, its top crowned by a handsome goat-like animal with massive horns.  The pair of tur on exhibit at this zoo are, to my knowledge, the only ones in the New World, and I spent about half of my camera battery on the male alone.

Andean bears are far more common than tur or adjutants in zoos, but I will give Racine props for the most attractive habitat for this species I've ever seen.  South America's only bear can be seen from either a high viewing deck or through viewing windows that peer into a cave dwelling. 

The zoo's newest habitat is the Land of Giants trail, home to giraffe, black rhinoceros, and mountain zebra.  It looked like more construction was in process, so I'm not sure if more exhibits are to come.

I almost missed the tiny reptile, amphibian, and fish collection, tucked into what I thought was a supply closet near the bathrooms at the entrance.  This didn't dazzle me too much - I think it might have been better suited just doing one or two larger exhibits than a clutter of tanks (many of which held juveniles of species that there would be no room to house as adults).  Featured in this room was a darkened display case of fruit bats.

One extraordinary asset that Racine Zoo has is its location.  It lies smack up against Lake Michigan, which forms a beautiful backdrop to the education stage.  On a quiet, drizzly day like the one I visited on, with no visitors in sight, it was possibly to walk though the park and hear only the gentle lap of the waves on the beach.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Zoo History: Gomek the Great

“Far more sinister, the natives said that the crocodile had killed a number of village people.  They had a name for the reptile: ‘Louma Whalla Coremana Dikana,’ which described his evil nature, size, and ferocity.  Crocodiles may all look alike, but Gomek they could tell apart from others.”

- The Legend of Gomek, William Adams

Throughout the history of zoos and aquariums, there have been certain, individual animals who have enjoyed a unique celebrity status.  Just as with human celebrities, the cause for their fame may vary.  Maybe they were the first member of their species to be seen outside their homeland.  Maybe they were just an unusually large or strangely colored individual.  Or perhaps they had some sort of unique history. 

Whatever their cases, almost all of them have one thing in common – they are mammals.  Almost all.  There is a very tiny clique of other animals who have achieved star status.  Among those, the one with the most striking life story might be Gomek.

The life of the saltwater crocodile who would one day be known as Gomek began in the jungles of New Guinea, possibly as early as the 1930s.  The crocodile would have reached adult size by the time World War II touched the island.  There’s not much we can surmise about Gomek’s early life, but by the 1960’s, he had started to earn something of a reputation among the natives of the Fly River.  There were probably three reasons for this.  One was that he was very black.  A second was that he was very big.  And third, and most importantly, was that he had taken to killing and eating them.  In their eyes, he wasn’t just a crocodile – he was Louma, a crocodile possessed by an evil spirit.

Eventually, the rumors reached the ears of an Australian crocodile hunter (not that Australian crocodile hunter) named George Craig, who was operating out of eastern New Guinea (what is now the nation of Papua New Guinea, then overseen by the Australian government).

After catching the croc with a harpoon to the back, Craig (and the twenty men it took him to tow the beast), Gomek was transported to an enclosure on nearby Daru Island.  It was then that he was given his name, Craig’s backhanded compliment to a stingy colleague of his.  In contrast to his savage reputation on the river, the captive Gomek was a rather placid, easy-going animal… though still capable of exploding into action at the sight of a food pail.  When Australia granted Papua New Guinea (including Daru Island) independence, Craig moved back to Australia.  He took Gomek with him, installing him at Marineland Melanesia, an aquatic theme park on Australia’s eastern seaboard.  There, Gomek was bigger and bigger audiences… and he got bigger and bigger himself.

It was Gomek’s size which brought him to the attention of American adventurer and animal-dealer Arthur Jones, who purchased the big croc in 1985.  Jones was accompanied by film star Bo Derek when he flew down to Australia to meet his new acquisition that year; soon, Gomek was bound for the United States.  For four years, Gomek was housed at the Jones ranch, before making one final move – to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, in 1989.

Gomek lived at St. Augustine until his death in.  The Farm’s goal was to acquire living representatives of every species of crocodilian in the world, and Gomek was their crown jewel.  Housed in a special tank with underwater viewing and an adjacent grassy lawn, the saltwater crocodile was featured on billboards and radio ads across the south.   Feeding demonstrations were packed as horrified guests watched the giant hurl himself towards keepers offering nutria and other treats.  With the possible exception of the first white alligators to be discovered and exhibited, I can think of no crocodilian to ever rival Gomek’s star  power.

In April of 1997, Gomek was found lying at the bottom of his pool, having suffered a heart attack in his sleep.   He was between 60 and 80 years old, measured seventeen and a half feet long, and weighed nearly a ton.  Even in death he would retain his celebrity status; following his necropsy, his massive body was stuffed and installed in a customized pavilion, furnished with New Guinea tribal artifacts (I always wondered what Gomek’s human victims would have thought if they’d see what became of their killer). 

St. Augustine would eventually acquire a new giant saltwater crocodile – Maximo – and that is who I found grinning at me through the glass during my first visit to the park.  He was the first saltwater crocodile I’d ever seen in the flesh, and I was incredibly impressed.  Still, there was only one Gomek. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Happy Croctoberfest!

I should have done this post much earlier this month... depending on where you are in the country, it may now be too late.  For this year, at least...

Anyway, do you like beer?  How about crocodiles?  If the answer to both is "yes", great news!  There's an exciting new opportunity at many US zoos to enjoy the former while contributing to the conservation of the later.  If the second question is no, focus instead on the liking beer part.  If, as is my case, the answer to the first question is no, suck it up and do it anyway, for croc's sake.

Croctoberfest is an autumn celebration that many zoos and aquariums have kicked off to raise funds for crocodilian conservation around the world.   The actual content of the event may vary widely from institution to institution.  At most, however, it's a combination of beers, food trucks, and animal demonstrations, perhaps combined with raffles or live auctions, all working to raise money to protect crocodilians in their natural habitat. 

As I said, I should have posted this at the beginning of the month, or late September, ideally.  Many institutions have already celebrated this month; some, such as Clyde Peeling's Reptiland, as early as the first.  Check out your local zoo or aquarium to see if they celebrate Croctoberfest.  If you missed it this year, it just means you have to get an early start for 2017!

Friday, October 21, 2016

There May Be Blood. There Won't Be Sleep

Due to a collective lack of imagination, every military macaw I've ever encountered, regardless of sex, has been given a military rank for a name.   Usually "Sarge" or "Major", maybe a "General" or two.  As it was, the bird that I was dealing with at the moment was named "Sarge."  I was currently coming up with a few other choice names for him.

You see, Sarge had escaped, and was now perched on a fence rail just a few feet from me.  I could either call for backup, have someone bring me a net (an object which Sarge knew and loathed on sight), and try to scoop him up before he took off... or I could grab him by hand.  No gloves, mind you - just four fingers and a thumb, up against a beak that could crack nuts with a twitch.  Oh, and I should mention... I wasn't one of Sarge's favorite people.

I had just been promoted to Senior Keeper, and my now-direct supervisor was not a forgiving sort.  Granted, I wasn't the one who'd let Sarge fly out of his holding pen, but the person who did was a direct report to me, which made it my fault, in the eyes of the boss.  Confronted with the possible loss of a finger on one hand (ha ha ha) and certain loss of position on the other, I made a decision.

Edging close to Sarge, I wiggled the fingers of my left hand provocatively in his face.  "Bite me, bite me" they seemed to scream.  Sarge watched them with greedy eyes as they got closer and closer... and didn't watch my right hand, snaking around from behind.  With one snatch, I caught him by the back of the neck.  I don't remember much of the hundred-yard dash back to his enclosure, holding a screaming, thrashing, macaw that was hell-bent on revenge.  I just remember the satisfaction of hearing the door click shut behind me as I tossed the bird back in.

It was something of a letdown that night when I recounted that day's triumph to my girlfriend.  I don't know if I was expecting an "Oh my God, you're my hero" or "Wow, that was so brave."  Instead I got a sixteen-and-a-half minute lecture on safety and the relative value of my fingers compared to military macaws (I'd made similar calculations, but came up with a different answer than her).  The bird had to be grabbed, I insisted, if only to save it from a certain death on the lam.  Okay, she replied... but why did I have to be the one to grab it?

I've gotten a few variations on that question since from various people who I know mean well.  Okay, there's a hurricane coming, or three feet of snow... I get it that the animals need to be taken care of, but why do you have to be the one out in the storm?  Okay, there's a fight between two alligators... why do you need to break it up?   Okay, so this animal needs to get on a 2AM flight at the airport... why do you need to be the one to drive it there?

The first animal escape I was present for, as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed volunteer of age thirteen, was a crane.   I thought I'd catch it single-handedly, thereby winning the admiration and respect of the entire keeper staff, who would then be so impressed with me that they'd hire me on the spot, sparing me the waste of high school or college.  Instead, I was gently but firmly banished from the scene until the bird was recaptured by hands far more competent than mine.  Those hands, if truth be told, already had some scars, and at least one of them I knew was missing a finger.

When you are a volunteer, or an intern, or are new on the job, there's always someone more experienced out there... sometimes, lots of someones.  That's the person/people who will make the sacrifices, take the risks.  It's expected of them, the product of their experience, their knowledge, and their demonstrated commitment to the job.  They get in some pretty crappy situations... sometimes literally, like getting bathed in diarrhea while nursing a sick animal.  They get hurt sometimes, like getting taloned by a wounded eagle that's been found on the side of the road and needs to be rescued.  And they get a lot of sleepless nights, as anyone who has ever had to hand-rear a rejected baby animal can attest.  There are times when it really, really sucks... say, after waking up after an awful night of sleep on the commissary floor, listening to a hurricane rage outside, and knowing that you will soon be soaked to the bone.

Still, I get a sense of pride sometimes when these things happen to me... well, not the diarrhea one.  There is no pride to be had there.  When these times come, and I look behind me and see volunteers, interns, and new keepers, it makes me feel like I've made it.  Like after a lot of years of being a kid pretending to be a zookeeper, I actually made it, and now there are young people who look to me to see how I'll handle a situation, so that they might do the same some day.  And it's my job to take risks, and make sacrifices, so they don't have to.

It can feel like quite a responsibility some times... but at least I still have all my fingers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Shield-Tailed Agama (Xenagama taylori)

Shield-Tailed Agama
Xenagama taylori

Range: Northeastern Africa
Habitat: Scrubland, Desert
Diet: Insects, Fruits
Social Grouping: Small Groups (One Male, Several Females)
Reproduction: Females lay eggs after rainfall, 5-8 small white eggs buried in short tunnel.  Eggs incubated for 45-50 days.  Capable of having multiple clutches per year.  Sexually mature by the end of their first year.
Lifespan: 5 Years
Conservation Status: Not Evaluated

  • Body length 10 centimeters, weight 20 grams; males smaller than females
  • Coloration varies from tan to red, often with some black speckling; juveniles may have white speckling, but this tends to fade with age
  • Breeding adult males display bright blue color on their chin when exciting; sometimes present in females too, to a lesser degree
  • The small, flat tail of the agama is used to block up the entrances of the burrows that it uses at night to shelter from predators
Zookeeper's Journal: It's always struck me as amazing, over the years, which animals are the one's that really stick with you.  When I first started working with reptiles, of course I was the most excited about the crocs, the Komodos, the big constrictors... and with an eye towards working with venomous snakes in future.  Years later, the reptiles that I remember the most fondly, however, were the little lizards that I'd never even heard of before I found myself working with them.  The shield-tails (sometimes given the adorable nickname "turnip tails") are one of my absolute favorites.  They were so low maintenance, and yet I could lose lengthy stretches of time watching them scurrying around, popping in and out of crevices (I loved to rearrange their rock pile every week), displaying to one another, and then zipping around again, maybe in pursuit of a cricket.  So many visitors bustled through our reptile house focusing on the big, spectacular (and often immobile) animals.  So much excitement, action, and (occasionally) drama was there waiting for them, if only they'd looked at the smaller displays!

Monday, October 17, 2016

From the News: Hurricane Matthew and Sea Turtles

A sea turtle from the Georgia coast floats in a tank at the Georgia Aquarium. The aquarium is tending to turtles brought to the aquarium from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island last weekend. The Jekyll Island facility was evacuated as both staff and turtles escaped the threat of Hurricane Matthew. Photo: courtesy Georgia Aquarium

Earlier this month, the zoo and aquarium community was watching with bated breath as Hurricane Matthew bore down on the Florida coast.  Naturally, most of our collective attention was focused on zoos - the staff, the animals, and the facilities - that were in the path of the storm.  Thankfully, the damage was relatively minimal, especially considering what might have been.

A nice reminder in the news today - not all of the animal victims of the storm are zoo animals or pets.  Wild animals are impacted as well.  Among other news items, I saw that hundreds of sea turtle nests were destroyed by the storm, while many baby turtles were thrown ashore, weak and confused.  It's fantastic to see that, even as they clean up their own storm damage, zoos and aquariums throughout the south are still chipping in to help save as many of the affected sea turtles as possible.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Satire: Gorilla returns to Zoo enclosure after spending five minutes with British public

Earlier this week, a gorilla briefly escaped his enclosure at the London Zoo.  Unlike the Harambe incident in Cincinnati earlier this year, there was no immediate danger to any visitors.  This is (not really) his story... but it's probably not that far off.  Most times when a zoo animal gets out of its enclosure, its first reaction is "Man this stinks, how do I get back in?"

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Karma Chameleons

When I was little, visiting the reptile house of the local zoo was one of my favorite parts.  I'd go down the row, exhibit by exhibit, and not move on until I'd found the animal displayed.  It got to the point where, after enough visits, I knew the hiding spot of virtually every animal by heart.  In fact, I got to be so good at spotting the animals that I was sometimes able to pick out hidden animals that didn't even have signage yet.

Even at a pretty young age, though, it always amused me that some of easiest animals to find were the supposed masters of camouflage - the chameleons.

Even if you aren't that into lizards - which I'm willing to assume that you aren't, seeing as the vast majority of the world is - you've probably heard of chameleons.  If you can't tell a gecko from a varanid from an iguana, you'll never mistake a chameleon for any other lizard.  With their curling tails, pincer-hands, and crazy eyes, each on its own turret and capable of independent movement, the 200-odd species of chameleon stand out as species - and that's also without taking into account that yo-yo of a tongue, capable of snatching up insects... or small birds from a distance.  Oh, and if that wasn't weird enough, many species have horns, making them look like little dragons.

(Confession: I once had an asshole - hilarious, mind you, but still asshole - of a boss who convinced me that, if I put crickets between my lips, our panther chameleons would tongue-zap them out from my lips, thereby dazzling crowds of zoo visitors and making me some sort of zoo celebrity.  Instead, I stood for ten minutes with a bug in my mouth, while chameleons and guests alike looked at me like I wasn't playing with a full deck.  I later found out he did this to all new keepers.  Well played, sir.  Well played.)

Of course, if chameleons are famous for anything, it's their color.  Unfortunately, this is one of the those times when pop culture has gone on to make an animal's adaptation an exaggerated parody of what they really are.  No, you can't put a chameleon on a checkerboard and watch it instantly turn into red and black squares.  They're camouflaged, not invisible. 

As it turns out, however, camouflage is only a small part of why chameleons change their color.  Typically, they do it to convey their status and emotions; think of them as scaly mood-rings.  They use their coloration to impress mates and intimidate rivals.  Brighter colors are for showing up.  Darker colors are signs of submission.  It also has the ability to help them absorb more sunlight (many lizards can lighten or darken themselves to soak up the sun, usually in a more subdued fashion). 

I'd love to explain the exact mechanism which allows a chameleon to change color, but I'm not very good at it.  My expertise with animals ends at the cellular level, and when I start to read about nanocrystals and pigment-organelles, I have a regrettable tendency to go blank.  That being said, not understanding how something happens doesn't make it any less remarkable that it does.

Chameleons aren't as well represented in zoo and aquarium collections as many other groups of lizards.  They tend to be somewhat delicate in terms of their temperature, humidity, and ventilation requirements.  They also get stressed easily, and males especially have to be kept visually segregated.  Most zoos that display chameleons keep a member of a small handful of species which are especially hardy - the veiled chameleon of the Middle East, for example, or Madagascar's panther chameleon.  Madagascar, incidentally, is the hub of chameleon diversity, with a whopping half or so of the world's species found there.

Visitors to a zoo reptile house are unlikely to be treated to a light show of rapidly changing colors.  An undisturbed chameleon is apt to stay its basic, background color.  The lucky guest may be treated to the sight of a chameleon climbing in the branches, its unusual, jerky walk mimicking a leaf trembling in the breeze.  The very lucky guest may even see a chameleon hunting, stalking its prey, sizing it up, and then seizing it with a harpoon-like tongue. 

If you see some dumb keeper with a still twitching cricket held between his or her lips, you'll know my old boss has gotten himself a new hire.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Slipperiest Escape

I was coming back from lunch one day when I met a coworker frantically coming down the path towards me.  The news, to put it lightly, wasn't the best - a cobra had escaped.  No, the crisis was already over - it had been found and recaptured.  Sort of.  Actually, it been recaptured then found... Another keeper in another department had found the snake slinking about.  She'd thought it had been a wild snake, albeit of a species that she'd never seen before.  She brought it to the Reptile Curator.  That's how we all found out that the cobra had been loose.

That was about ten years and three zoos ago for me.  Yet every time I remember that incident, my stomach drops to my feet. 

If I had to name the ultimate escape artists of the zoo, I'd have to call it a tie.  On one hand you have the monkeys - so fast, so agile, and so quick to notice when you aren't paying attention or if you've made a mistake.  On the other are the snakes - quiet, fluid, and incredibly capable of disappearing through the tiniest of holes.  Whereas an escaped monkey tends to run around and create a commotion, however, a snake slithers out of sight and, for all practical purposes, vanishes.

Looking at all of the zoo memoirs I have, I'm amazed at how many of them prominently feature escape snakes and the pursuit thereof.  Sailing with NoahMan in a Cage.  Probably the most exciting chapter of You Belong In A Zoo!  details the search for an escaped king cobra in the Bronx Zoo's World of Reptiles, a hunt which stretched out for several days. 

For as little as they really seem to move, snakes are incredibly adept at escaping.  They are extraordinary flexible and can fit into surprisingly small holes (which, it turns out, is how our wayward cobra got out).  They also tend to be excellent climbers.  Their natural history consists largely of exploring and probing tunnels and cavities for prey, so they are naturally inclined to look for crevices to slip through.  For as much as people say about how unintelligent reptiles are, I've also found them to be fairly curious, and they will readily investigate their enclosures.

Even more of a nightmare, however, is what happens once they get out.  Snakes don't move too much, so once they've found a new hiding space, they're apt to stay there.  Nor do they eat much, so good luck luring them out for food.  They're silent, so good luck hearing them.  And again, they can find the smallest nooks and crannies to hide in.  The king cobra that Brazaitis sought was eventually found lurking in the ceiling of the reptile house... directly above the crocodile pool.

I distinctly remember one young python which vanished at a zoo where I worked.  It had been housed in a tank in an off-exhibit holding area, along with several other reptiles.  We found it... but not before x-raying every single monitor lizard and crocodilian in that holding area to make sure none of them had found it first and eaten it.

I've heard of a lot of methods used to recapture an elusive snake.  Sprinkle flour or other powder on the floor so you can see if they slithered by when you aren't around.  Put up little hide boxes for them, check later to see if they've moved in.  Turn the temperature down, then put up a heat lamp for them in a prominent place.  Ultimately, it comes down to a lot of patience and even more luck.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Floods and False Alarms

Well, the storm has passed and the zoos and aquariums of Florida and the rest of the south have weathered the hurricane, largely incident free.  Largely...

You know what the only thing worse than sheltering and caring for hundreds of animals, many of them potentially dangerous, during a hurricane is?  Trying to do so while fighting back rumors that said animals have escaped and are on the lam, devouring children as they rampage through the town.  Such a practical joke was played on the Central Park Zoo in an 1874 incident.  Social media has just made such rumors easier to spread quickly.

St. Augustine Alligator Farm was the subject of rumors that its alligators and crocodiles had swum their way to freedom and were loose in the streets.  Thankfully the sheriff's office was quick to reassure the public that everything was okay.  I don't know if the story was spread deliberately or if someone happened to see an alligator (in Florida, no less) and drew their own conclusion.  Either way, I'm glad it settled quietly.  The last thing anyone needed during the hurricane was a panicky public going gator hunting.

© 2016 Cox Media Group.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Tomistoma (Tomistoma schlegelii)

Tomistoma (False Gharial, Malayan Gavial)
Tomistoma schlegelii (Muller, 1838)

Range: Southeast Asia, Indonesia
Habitat: Freshwater Wetlands, Peat Swamps
Diet: Fish, Turtles, Monkeys, Deer
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Females construct mound-nests of leaves and peat, lay 20-30 eggs (sex of egg is determined by incubation temperature).  Eggs hatch after 90-100 days.  Unlike other crocodilians, tomistoma do not care for their young after hatching.  Sexually mature when body length of 2-3 meters is reached.
Lifespan: 60-80 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • Maximum body length 5-6 meters, adult weight 90-200 kilograms.  Males larger than females
  • Dark red-brown coloration with black banding on the tail and dark patches near the jaws; belly is cream-colored.
  • Often likened to the gharial because of its slender snout, but uncertain as to whether it is more closely related to the gharial or to crocodiles.  Slender snouts usually denote fish-eating in crocodilians, but tomistoma will also take larger mammals, such as deer or pigs
  • Threatened by habitat loss (deforestation, construction of dams).  Also harmed by local fishing practices, either becoming entangled in nets or poisoned by chemicals used to catch fish.  The hide is not considered valuable, so they are not hunted for the skin trade
  • There are reports of at least three fatal attacks on humans by tomistoma
  • "Tomistoma" comes from the Greek for "Sharp Mouth"

Saturday, October 8, 2016

From the News: Zoo celebrates hatching of dozen baby tomistomas

The global population of one of the world's rarest crocodilians got a boost recently from the San Antonio Zoo, where 12 tomistoma hatched out.  San Antonio has been the nation's leader in breeding this species, and this is their largest clutch so far.  It's fantastic news that offers hope for a rare reptile that's proven challenging to maintain in the past.  Congratulations to San Antonio!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

In the Path of the Storm

Photo from Saint Augustine Alligator Farm's Facebook page.  A marabou stork is temporarily housed in a bathroom building for safety as Hurricane Matthew approaches.

This weekend, Hurricane Matthew prepares to strike the southeastern United States, starting with Florida.  From there its path will be unclear.  It could bounce back out to sea, it could move inland, or it could head up the coast.  Regardless of who else will get hit, it is certainly coming from Florida, and Floridians are (or should be) preparing.  For many, that means evacuation. 

You can't really evacuate a zoo, however.  Instead, keepers at facilities around the Sunshine State are preparing their facilities as best as they can, giving their animals as much shelter as possible, and then hunkering down for what promises to be a wild, wet, windy ride.

St. Augustine, Brevard, Palm Beach, Jacksonville, Miami - please know that the rest of the keeper community is thinking of you and wishing you the best.  We'll see you when the storm passes.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Joys of Herping

 “These foul and loathsome animals are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale color, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom; and so their Creator has not exerted his powers to make many of them.”

- Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturae

Here's a great tip - never tell your non-animal friends that, in response to their inquiries as to your weekend plans, you'll be going herping this weekend.  At the best you can expect a concerned stare, at the worst, a few unwanted assumptions about your life behind closed doors.  After failing to make the connection between "herp" and "herpes" a few times, something eventually clicked, and I began answering with the longer - if less trendy - "searching for reptiles and amphibians."

Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, and those animals are often given the nickname of herps, their aficionados herpers.  Biologically, the two groups aren't really that close - reptiles have more in common with birds than amphibians - but the two have historically been lumped together and tend to share a fan-base.  This especially is true in the activity of searching for these animals in the wild, or herping.

Compared to birdwatching (or birding), herping is a more rough and tumble, active sport.  Birds tend to be colorful, they sing, and they fly.  They also tend to be active, and exceedingly wary of people tramping around their home.  As a result, the best way to find many birds is to find a likely spot, wait, and watch.  It's with that thought in mind that many of us install birdfeeders, birdbaths, and birdhouses in our yards.  Reptiles and amphibians, on the other hand are cryptically colored, generally inactive, and (except for frogs) typically silent.  Finding them often takes a little direct involvement - flipping stones, rolling logs, checking crevices, and generally poking your nose into every hiding spot available.  It means cruising roads late at night or early in the morning for snakes soaking up the heat from the asphalt.  It means dip-netting for frogs and turtles.

One of the coolest herping moments I ever had - with a group of friends discovering three species - three genera, actually - of snake under a single rock!

Herping, frustratingly, tends to have much lower yields than birding does.  On my morning walk to work, I can usually spot at least a half dozen species of birds - about as many herps as I encounter in a really good day of herping.  Again, birds are just easier to spot... that and there are a lot more of them than snakes and salamanders.  Unlike birding, herping also has more of a hands-on component, with many herpers not being content until they've actually gotten their hands on their quarry, possibly positioning it for some photographs or taking some measurements.  It's a recipe for the occasional bite - or at least musking, from some snakes - neither of which happens terribly often in birding.

Like birding, the data collected by a knowledgeable herper can have great scientific value.  Some zoos have even helped organized volunteers into "citizen scientist" brigades to survey their local herp populations, especially sensitive towards amphibians in decline.

I don't go herping nearly as often as I used to.  Partially it's because I currently live in a somewhat snake-deprived corner of the country, where the pickings of reptiles and amphibians are slim (that and I've encountered almost all of them already).  Partially it's that I don't have a like-minded group to go with anymore, which is probably the real reason - you need someone to egg you on (not literally) and keep up enthusiasm as you scour the landscape.

One major benefit of herping is for helping to introduce young people to nature.  Birdwatching may be too passive, require too much patience, for some kids.  The act of searching for herps, however, can fascinate children, and as long as they are properly supervised (so no one sticks their hand in a hole which may contain, say, a timber rattlesnake), a great time can be had by all.  The excitement of a group of students finding and examining their first red-backed salamander, or box turtle, or black rat snake, it's not just a specimen - it's an extraordinary discovery, a special interaction with the natural world.  Many kids will want to take their find home as a pet, but by returning it unharmed right back where they find it, they can also learn empathy for the natural world, and maybe discover a little sense of stewardship for it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book Review: Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds

“Increasingly, she seemed to depend on that rush she got from seeing new birds.  She was probably also becoming dependent on the recognition she got for being one of the top listers, and for playing the game how it was meant to be played.”

Whenever I visit a new zoo for the first time, I often make a beeline for the birds.  That’s not because I’m not super-interested in mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  It’s because bird collections – even at relatively small zoos, such as Brandywine and Cape May – usually offer me my best chance of seeing a species that I’ve never encountered before.  Part of it is that there is an enormous world of private breeders for bird curators to obtain unusual specimens from (such as Sylvan Heights).  The other is the simple fact that there are a lot of birds out there.  Over 10,000 species (depending on who you ask), which is more than double the number of mammal species in the world.

I compile a photo record of all of the species I’ve seen in captive collections, and right now the bird count is hovering at about 550.  While I keep my zoo-bird-list, however, thousands of people around the world are engaged in a different hobby – observing birds in the wild, traditionally called “birdwatching”, now usually referred to in the more active form as “birding.”  The great thing about birding is that you can do it anywhere, for the simple reason that there are birds just about anywhere.  You can sit in your backyard or a city park with binoculars and a field guide and pick out migrating warblers.  On the other extreme, you can launch expeditions to the farthest-flung corners of the world in search of species so elusive that they might not even still be around.

For many years, the unofficial queen of the world’s birders was Phoebe Snetsinger.  Her story, told in Olivia Gentile’s Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, is a tale of perseverance and triumph over extreme adversity, while at the same time a case study of perhaps unhealthy obsession.

Phoebe was perhaps born in the wrong decade; extremely intelligent, ambitious, and observant, she felt trapped in the world of housekeeping and child-rearing, her college degree hanging uselessly on the wall.  The one outlet that she did find to keep herself from going stir-crazy was birdwatching – first in her small town, then in trips around the country, either on family vacations or accompanying her husband on business trips.  When a cancer diagnosis leaves her with an estimated life-expectancy of one year, she decides to make the most of it and go birding abroad while she still can.  When the cancer slips into remission, she continues to bird – with a single-mindedness that inspires and terrifies her friends and comes to alienate her family.

Life List is the story of Phoebe’s expeditions, from New Caledonia, in search of the mysterious kagu, to the rebel-held jungles of Colombia, to the high plateaus of the Himalayas.  Along the way, she suffers injuries and near-fatal (non-cancerous) illnesses, is taken prisoner by Ethiopian tribesmen, and almost drowns in a boating accident.  She faces a savage assault in Papua New Guinea, one which led her family to beg her to stay home.  She missed weddings and funerals of her family.  Still, on she birded, eventually becoming the first person in the world to see over 8,000 species of bird in the wild.  Some of the species that she sought out had only been described by science a year or two before.

Phoebe Snetsinger’s round-the-world bird trips weren’t just about her – preserving her sanity (possibly her health) by taking her mind off of her illness.  The knowledge that she obtained in her incredibly detailed notebooks greatly expanded ornithology’s understanding of the distribution, behavior, and variation of the world’s birds.  In another life – one in which her passions had been nurtured, rather than tolerated, at an early age – she might have become the world’s foremost ornithologist.  At any rate, she had the satisfaction of traveling to dozens of countries and encountering worlds (and birds) that few people could ever dream of.   She obtained the recognition for her intelligence and determination that she’d always dreamed of.

Life List isn’t just a description of what she gained however, but also of what was lost. Even as someone who loves to observe animals in the wild – I keep a life list myself -  I have a hard time reading Ms. Gentile’s biography of Phoebe Snetsinger with too much envy.