Search This Blog

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

World Famous. World Best?

The last zoo days, I've reviewed the San Diego Zoo, a facility that is often billed as one of the world's finest.  But is it the best?  Is it even the best in the United States?  Or is that the Bronx ZooToledo ZooCincinnati Zoo?

USA Today wants to ask you!  The paper (is it really still a "paper" since everything is online?) is polling the public to tell them what the best zoo in America is.  They've provided a list of twenty options - some of them pictured below.  I've been to most - but not all - of them, and have reviewed several of them for the blog. 

So if you have an opinion (and let's be honest, everyone has an opinion), cast your vote today!  (As a side note, I really do wish they had a write-in option, but oh, well, what are you gonna do about it?)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Zoo Review: San Diego Zoo, Part II

Today we continue the exploration of the World Famous San Diego Zoo, begun yesterday.

One of the first exhibit areas that many guests encounter are the reptiles.  Most zoos have a reptile house - San Diego has one too.  It also has an entire reptile region.  Walking around the perimeter of the open-air Reptile House, visitors can observe a variety of species, from the familiar - Komodo dragon, Indian cobra - to the more elusive, such as Kaiser newts and Ethiopian mountain vipers.  The Reptile House is actually one of three here at the zoo - there are two others nearby, one featuring native Californian species (I was especially impressed with the horned lizards), another displaying amphibians of the world.  Scattered around the three buildings are outdoor enclosures of larger reptiles (well, not all of them larger than the Komodos) such as Galapagos tortoises, Burmese mountain tortoises, and Cuban iguanas.  A series of crocodilian pools frames out the trail, including Chinese alligators and slender-snout crocodiles.

Near the reptiles is the Children's Zoo, home to a petting barn area, an insect house, and habitats for several small mammals, such as naked mole rats, North American porcupine, and fennec foxes.  Animal encounters abound here - it was here that I was able to see a living pangolin for the first time, though that individual has, sadly, since passed.  There are also playgrounds and a 4D theater.  More animal presentations can be seen nearby in the Wegeforth Bowl.

About half of the zoo grounds are taken up by The Lost Forest, a massive complex of intertwining paths snaking through dense vegetation that features animals of the rainforests.  The entryway lies near the zoo's entrance, passing between two of the zoo's most memorable sights - a raucous flock of nesting flamingos and an enormous, towering Ficus tree, as much a landmark of the zoo as many of the animals that live here.  It's easy to get lost on these winding trails, as they split and regroup unexpectedly.  In part, this occurs when one path goes to follow a ground-level route, while the other takes to the canopy to observe birds and primates among the branches.  This is the heart of the zoo's primate collection, and mandrills, guenons, and capuchins can be seen along the trail.  Non-primates include duikers, Visayan warty pigs, and pygmy hippos, the later sharing their home with cheeky Wolf's guenons who aren't above hitching a ride on the hippos' backs.  The largest primate exhibits are for the great apes.  Gorillas and bonobos (also called "pygmy chimpanzees") can be found on the trails; elsewhere, Sumatran orangutans share a towering climbing structure with a family of siamangs.

I mentioned that it's easy to get lost, but no matter which way you go on these trails, you'll find something.  In my case, I wandered down a side-trail that turned into Tiger River, home to many of Southeast Asia's most spectacular creatures.  Along the water course, I encountered fishing cats peering from within hollow logs, a Malayan tapir splashing in a pool, and gharials bobbing in the water, watching visitors eye-to-eye.  Several bird exhibits also lined the path, including one massive aviary that held rarely-seen Storm's storks.  Another seldom-seen exhibit animal: giant coconut crabs!  It was the tigers that held the attention of most visitors, however, and the big striped cats live in a densely planted yard with a waterfall-fed pool. 

Asia gives way to Africa as the trail leaves the tigers and enters Ituri Forest, featuring animals of the Congo.  Okapi are the first animals that visitors meet, with the path then turning into a overlook of a pool of hippos.  The hippos are visible from underwater viewing windows; they can be a little hard to spot sometimes through the crowds of fish, but as soon as they approach the window, be prepared to be engulfed in an enormous, camera-happy crowd.  Down the path from the hippos is one of the coolest mixed-species exhibits I've ever seen.  African buffalo (of the red forest subspecies) chew their cuds placidly while monkeys and spot-necked otters frolic about.  A bridge cuts through the exhibit, with the buffalo confined to one portion, the monkeys and otters having access to both sides.  Among the primates are Allen's swamp monkeys, which sometimes join the otters in the pool and swim past the underwater windows.  The trail empties out at the bottom of the zoo, near pools patrolled by pelicans and saddle-billed storks.

Scattered among the rainforest exhibits are three walk-through aviaries, ranging from big to gigantic.  Scripps Aviary houses African birds, Owens Aviary featured Australasian ones, and the smaller Parker Aviary has South American species.  Between them are smaller exhibits for other birds, including the zoo's astonishing collection of birds-of-paradise.

Too tired to make your way back to the entrance?  The zoo is willing to give you a lift... literally.  A Skyfari tram sweeps visitors across the zoo, providing panoramic views of the park.  An even more beautiful view of the zoo - and one far less traveled - is in the lushly planted Fern Valley, a winding pathway through a jungle of vegetation.  It can be somewhat steep and there are no animals, so visitors don't wander here as much, but that makes it all the more soothing and peaceful after a hectic day of exploring the zoo.

As if San Diego Zoo didn't have enough to boast about, it's about to get even bigger.  As a 100-Year Birthday gift to itself, the zoo is preparing to unveil Africa Rocks, an exhibit area larger than many zoos.  Among its occupants, visitors will find African penguins (currently in temporary quarters in the Children's Zoo), leopards, red ruffed lemurs, hamadryas baboons, and honey badgers, among other species. 

What more can be said about the zoo?  It's extraordinary.  If it has a weakness, it's its own success.  The zoo is so popular that even with its tremendous size, it can get very crowded, which makes it difficult to have the intimate moments with animals that you can experience at smaller zoos.  In the case of its larger mammal residents, it's hard not to draw unfavorable comparisons with the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, located just to the north in Escondido.  There's nothing wrong with the Zoo's exhibits... but if you're going to do both, I would definitely come here first.  After seeing rhinos, giraffes, and other large mammals in sweeping vistas, the somewhat conventional exhibits here may seem somewhat of a let-down. 

When all is said and done, there is nothing to say about the zoo - both the grounds and animals and its place in the world - other than "excellent."  San Diego Zoo Global (the combination of the zoo, the park, and their conservation programs around the globe) is one of the most prominent zoos on earth working to beat back the sixth extinction.  They've been involved in numerous projects around the world, ranging from spear-heading captive-breeding and reintroduction programs (their work with Hawaiian birds has been especially impressive) to restoring habitats to researching ways to lessen human-animal conflict around the globe.  I find their commitment to their own staff to be especially impressive in the fields of employee mentoring, wellbeing, and professional growth.

As San Diego Zoo turns 101 this year, its staff can take pride in knowing that they've fulfilled Harry Wegeworth's dream of creating a world-class zoo that is a leading light for wildlife conservation.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Zoo Review: San Diego Zoo

There are a lot of zoos in the world.  There is only way that is seldom named without the introduction of "World Famous..."

It began, they like to say, with a roar.  In 1916, San Diego physician Dr, Harry M. Wegeworth was driving along the edge of Balboa Park on September day in 1916.  Whatever thoughts were going through his head at that time, they were shattered by an unexpected sound - the roaring of a lion.  The park had been the site of the recent Panama-California Exposition, meant to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.  A variety of animals had been exhibited there, some of which had been abandoned.

Wegeworth turned to his brother, riding in the car with him, and commented, "Wouldn't it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo?  You know... I think I'll start one."

Just over 100 years later, the San Diego Zoo stands out as perhaps the most famous zoo in the world.  Built in the immediate aftermath of the Hagenbeck revolution of zoo design, it was one of the first zoos to pioneer open-air, natural enclosures from its very beginning.  The region's stunning climate allows vegetation from around the world to thrive on zoo grounds, leading to some of the lushest, most well-planted exhibits anywhere (while also providing excellent browsing for herbivorous animals).  That same climate also allows many animals to be exhibited outdoors year round instead of being cooped-up in winter holding barns.  Now located in Balboa Park, the site of the zoo's unanticipated origin, the San Diego Zoo has fulfilled Dr. Harry's (as the staff still refer to him as) dream of a world-class zoo famed around the world.

San Diego has an extraordinary collection, but if there is one animal for which the zoo is best known, it is the koala.  For many years San Diego was the only zoo in the United States to exhibit koalas; joeys produced here have since populated zoos around the country.  To this day, it features the largest collection of koalas outside of Australia.  The marsupials are the stars of the Outback area, nicknamed Koalifornia.  For all of their fame, koalas don't do too much (essentially, they are marsupial sloths), and the koala exhibits (there are several) are basically a row of trees, each with a koala sleeping in it.  Less sought-after but more active exhibits nearby include wallabies, wombats, and Tasmanian devils.  Also found here are several aviaries of gorgeous Australian birds.  Side complaint: San Diego has one of the best bird collections in the world... which made it all the more frustrating to me how hard it was to see any of them clearly, let alone photograph them, through the heavy mesh that their aviaries are built out of.   Hopefully, the zoo will begin the process of switching them out with finer, less visible materials at some point. 

Near the koala building is the zoo's Urban Jungle region, home to some of the most recognizable zoo animals - giraffes, red kangaroos, and Indian rhinoceroses, to name a few.  This is also the permanent home of some of the zoo's animal ambassadors, which are used for meet-and-greets with visitors.  Among the most popular of these are the ambassador cheetahs.  When not out for walks, the cheetahs can be found sprawled out in a grassy yard, sometimes in the company of their companion dogs; signage nearby emphasizes that the dogs are friends, not food, for the spotted sprinters.

Koalas are often erroneously referred to as bears, but the real bears are near by.  Andean bears from South America and grizzly bears from North America inhabit rocky grottos near the zoo's entrance.  These are some of the only original exhibits of the zoo, as much of the rest of the facility is constantly being renovated.  While hardly spectacular compared to many of the newer exhibits, they are still excellent compared to the bear exhibits of many zoos, with rockwork, pools, and even vegetation (how on earth do you keep plants alive in a bear exhibit?  Inquiring minds want to know!).  A third bear species is found further down the trail in Sun Bear Forest with endangered Asian primates - gibbons and lion-tailed macaques - in nearby exhibits.

Yet another bear species is found in Polar Bear Plunge, the big white Arctic bears being perhaps one of the least-expected residents of sunny San Diego.  Don't feel too bad for the bears in the heat, however - they have a vast pool to swim and dive in, with visitors watching them from an underwater viewing gallery.   Caribou occupy a rocky hillside enclosure nearby, while an Arctic marsh aviary is filled with beautiful diving ducks and other birds (also viewable underwater).  What I really enjoyed and appreciated about Polar Bear Plunge, however, was its willingness to explain and explore the leading threat to the animals of display - global climate change.  The phenomena - and what we can do to address it - was highlighted in several fun, easy to understand graphics that encourage interactive learning. 

The zoo's final bears are the only species in the zoo which could challenge the koalas for the title of "Most Popular Zoo Animal."  San Diego is the only zoo in the country to exhibit koalas AND giant pandas, which are on display in Panda Trek.  The line to see the black-and-white bears can be tediously long, all for an animal which, again I'm biased here, doesn't do too much (if I live to be 100, I'll never understand the hype about pandas over all other species).  I was much more interested by the other animals seen along the way - red pandas, for instance (the more engaging of the pandas), or takin, clambering across a boulder-strewn yard, for instance, or beautiful-but-venomous Mangshan vipers, a species that wasn't even known to science when the zoo was founded.   Snow leopards and Amur leopards occupy a series of enclosures on either side of the visitor pathway; the spotted cats can pass from one to the other through a set of overhead passageways, traveling directly above zoo visitors.

Either the pandas or the koalas may be the biggest stars of the zoo.  The biggest animals period are the residents of Elephant Odyssey.  The zoo bills this exhibit as a time-travel back to the California of the Pleistocene, when the Golden State was filled with wondrous beasts, many of which have since vanished.  Besides native Californians, the trail also features the living-descendants (or close approximates) of the animals that once lived here.  You can encounter pronghorn "antelope" in a desert yard, for instance... which they share with camels.  Or see jaguars, which lived in California until quite recently, historically speaking... and next door are the lions, found here prehistorically.  Other occupants of the trail are rattlesnakes, wild horses, sloths, and secretarybirds, as well as a mixed species habitat of guanaco, capybara, and Baird's tapir, the later two often found lounging in their pool.    The Asian elephants here are stand-ins for mammoths and mastodons, and occupy a sprawling yard with pools, shade-structures, and hanging feeders that encourage them to reach up high for food.  Their barn is nearby; unlike many zoo elephant barns, this one is completely on-display, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes peek in how elephants are cared for.  Also on display are California condors, a highly endangered species that was saved from the brink of extinction in large part due to the efforts of the zoo's sister-facility, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Connections to California's past are highlighted with life-sized statues of mammoths, giant ground sloths, and other Pleistocene beasts; a recreation tar pit furthers the experience, and docents are often on-hand with replica fossils.

Scattered among these regions are exhibits for pumas, maned wolves, zebras, peccary, and various antelope, as well as a series of towering aviaries for massive birds of prey - harpy eagles, Steller's sea eagles, and Andean condors among them.

Well, it took me more than one day to cover the zoo, so it'll have to take a second blog post to the cover the zoo and do it any justice.  More details on exploring San Diego Zoo tomorrow!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Monsters in the Menagerie

I was originally going to title this post, "Welcome to the Freak Show."  I opted not to, in the end, out of a case of sensitivity.  The term, attached to circuses and carnivals throughout the centuries, has always carried with it the stigma of degradation.  Persons born with disabilities and deformities were collected - sometimes willingly, other times not - for display, for the education and amusement of anyone who could pay.  The more striking the deformity, the more popular the attraction.

The same could be said for animals.  Just as many rulers throughout the ages kept menageries, many also kept collections of deformed or unusual people.  The Spanish conquistadors, for example, found an entire section of Montezuma's royal zoo devoted to this purpose.  Perhaps the best known human exhibit was John Merrick, known popularly as "The Elephant Man."  Merrick himself mused that his physical appearance may have been due to his mother being frightened by a menagerie elephant while she was pregnant with him.

Of course, if people were willing to pay to see exotic animals, and people were willing to pay to see deformed humans, you can bet that they were willing to pay to see deformed animals.  Every carnival or fair that could find one would have a chicken with three legs, or hermaphroditic pigs, or a calf with two faces.  If the creature was too maladapted to survive outside its mother's womb, than you could be sure that it would be there in a jar, drifting in formaldehyde.  If a genuine "freak" couldn't be found, one could be produced, as evidenced by the countless monkey carcasses that found themselves grafted with fish tails and presented as "Mermaids."

Such animal curiosities seldom appear in modern zoo collections.  For the most part, a zoo is not considered a profitable venue for the owners of such oddities to sell their creatures.  Most zoos themselves have little interest in such creatures either, preferring to display animals that resemble the natural state, rather than medical abnormalities.  The exception to the rule?  Color morphs.  Zoo and aquarium staff have long had a weakness for abnormally colored animals.  Snowflake the albino gorilla was the star of the Barcelona Zoo for years.  Black panthers are exceedingly more popular than spotted leopards or jaguars.  The white alligators of Audubon Zoo and Audubon Aquarium have become legendary.  And, of course, the most famous zoo oddities of all - white tigers. 

I'm not sure what the rational behind this is.  I suppose it comes down to logistics and aesthetics.  Many physically malformed animals have a hard time surviving, which is part of the reason that they are so seldom encountered (besides the fact that they rarely occur at all).  Apart from their sensitivity to sunlight in some instances, color morphs pose few challenges compared to their normal colored-counterparts.  Also, whereas many visitors find animals with extra (or too few) limbs, eyes, etc to be off-putting or pitiful, white tigers and albino alligators are often seen as beautiful and special.

I will admit, I've also seen a few two-headed reptiles in a few collections.  I've never really enjoyed seeing animal oddities (apart, I'll admit, from color morphs), having felt that they're too much focus on sensationalism and drama, too little contribution to the zoos' serious goals of conservation and education.  In this I feel they resemble hybrids, though the latter are often deliberately produced.

I suppose it's worth noting, however that for people who aren't familiar with animals, there isn't much of a difference between an exotic animal they've never heard of before, one that is the hybrid of two other species, and one that is exhibiting some sort of abnormality.  What they know about the animal is entirely up to the displaying institution's messaging.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sporcle Quiz: Hybrid Animals

I'd always known that there were a lot of strange hybrid creatures out there, but researching yesterday's post was a reminder of just how many there truly are.  Enjoy today's quiz, featuring match-ups of some of the common and uncommon hybrid animals.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Hybrid Vigor

What do you get if you cross an octopus with a spider monkey?  A loss of funding, a PETA protest, and a very stern letter from the university's genetics department.

What do you get if you cross a giraffe with a zebra?  An okapi, apparently.  A cat with a bear?  That gets you a binturong.  What about a pig with an elephant?  That's where tapirs come from.

None of this is remotely true, of course, but they are all things that I've heard from visitors before.  Show people an unfamiliar animal, and they will instantly liken it to something familiar, saying that it looks like a cross between an A and a B.  I think some guests think that there are only a few dozen species of animal in the world, and that the diversity of life that we see is the result of endlessly cross-breeding and mixing them.  Of course, this belief goes back to ancient times - the earliest name of the giraffe, for instance, was Camelopard ("Camel-Leopard"), a fact which is immortalized in the species Latin name.

None of this, of course, is to say that hybrids don't happen - sometimes in the wild, far more commonly in captivity.  And few things make zookeeping more complicated than hybrids.

A hybrid can occur on one of several levels.  It can be the cross between two subspecies, such as an Amur tiger crossed with a Bengal tiger.  It can be between two species, such as a lion with a tiger.  Sometimes it can even be across genera, such as a puma crossed with leopard.  Some hybrids are sterile, such as those between horses and donkeys.  Others are fertile, such as those between brown and polar bears.

There are several reasons why people might produce a hybrid. 

Sometimes they happen by accident.  At one zoo where I worked, green tree pythons and carpet pythons shared an exhibit.  The two closely-related species bred and produced a clutch of babies which were stunningly beautiful and horrifyingly irascible (we were forbidden to take pictures of them - the curator didn't want to publicize our mistake).  Such roommate-pairings can occur in many mixed-species exhibits, with waterfowl and pheasants being notorious for hybridizing.  Often, if there are suitable partners of the correct species, animals will still choose to match with their correct mate.  While our babies were "whoopsies", some breeders breed them on purpose to create novel color patterns.

Sometimes it is done deliberately for a specific purpose  Gyrfalcons, the largest of the falcons, are prized by falconers for their ability to capture larger prey.  Being an arctic species, however, they tend to be susceptible to diseases when kept in temperate climates.  Falconers have been known to cross them with other falcon species, such as peregrines and sakers, to produce a bird that is large but disease-resistant.  Or you could look at the most famous hybrids in the world - mules and hinnies, the cross between donkeys and horses, used as work animals for millennia.

All too often, it's done just for the heck of it.  No animal exemplifies that better than the liger or its counterpart the tigon.  Crosses between lions and tigers are often larger than both and retain a slight mane (the legacy of one parent) and faint striping (from the other).  Ligers are commonly produced in private collections, maintained for their "wow" factor.  Some zoos then like to hybridize their hybrids - let's see how many of the big cats we can get in one!  Zebras crossed with domestic equines - horses and donkeys - are another commonly encountered hybrid.

A small number of hybrids occur naturally - though often humans show their hand in the mix somehow, whether by modifying the environment or by introducing species.  With the disappearance of wolves over much of North America, coyotes are filling the vacuum.  Sometimes wolves, unable to find a mate of their own species, will pair up with coyotes.  Genetic "swamping" with coyotes is one of the leading threats to the last remaining red wolves.  Similarly, endangered Cuban crocodiles increasingly find themselves mating with the American crocodiles that are encroaching on their range; ditto for spotted owls and barred owls.  Lately, polar bear/grizzly bear hybrids have been in the news, serving as another warning about global climate change.

From the perspective of a reputable zoo, it's hard to see any value in hybrids.  Our goal should be to showcase and conserve animals as they are, not as we imagine they might be, and certainly not just tampering with gene pools for a giggle.  This is especially true in the face of future reintroductions.  A hybrid between two species is often less well-suited to life in the wild than either of the parent species. 

Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, however.  For example, in Tears of the Cheetah, Stephen O'Brien recounts how, in a last-ditch effort to save the rapidly disappearing Florida panther, conservationists decided to add fresh blood to the gene pool in the form of Texas cougars, another puma subspecies.  Though controversial (some critics asked if the resultant animals could still count as Florida panthers), the decision is credited with saving the panther.

Of course it's not a hybrid's fault that it is a hybrid, and most keepers will maintain that the animal needs to be given care for the rest of its life, ideally being neutered or spayed first to keep it from contaminating a population (sorry, that sounded more eugenics-y than I intended).  Doing so is admirable animal welfare, but comes at a cost.  A hybrid animal takes up space, resources, and keeper time that could go to other animals that are far more useful for conservation purposes.  In the case of long-lived, labor-intensive species, such as orangutans (lots of Bornean-Sumatran hybrids back in the day), the commitment can be extraordinary.

Once hybrid genes are in a population, they can stay there, hidden, unless a telltale trait emerges, or if someone thinks to do genetic screening.  With hybrids, it really can be said than an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure... and by "a pound of cure", I mean "Twenty years of care, thousands of dollars in food and vet bills, and a perfectly good enclosure that's been held up for that animal's entire life."

One last note about hybrids.  The two species involved have to be at least somewhat related to cross-breed, though it varies how closely based on the situation.  You can cross a leopard with a jaguar, or a camel with a llama.  You cannot cross an African elephant with a gorilla, or a walrus with a kangaroo.  (Though I'm sure that out there, there's someone who'd love to try...)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Chinese Crocodile Lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus)

Chinese Crocodile Lizard
Shinisaurus crocodilurus (Ahl, 1930)

Range: Southeast China, Northeast Vietnam
Habitat: Evergreen Bamboo Forests, Mountain Streams
Diet: Insects, Small Fish, Tadpoles
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Breeding season is July and August.  2-7 young are born live after a gestation period of 8-12 months.  Young are independent at birth.  Sexually mature at 2-3 years old
Lifespan: 10 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length up to 45 centimeters.  Most prominent features are the enlarged, bony scales on the back and tail, making the lizard resemble a crocodile
  • Upper surfaces are mottled grey and brown, turning into yellow or tan on the understand with some distinctive bright orange markings, especially on the sides, throat, and the side of the head.  Males tend to be more colorful than females, especially in the breeding season
  • Locally known as "the Lizard of Great Sleepiness" due to its ability to remain motionless for hours at a time, even underwater (it is capable to reducing its breathing rate).  This tendency towards inertia is responsible for a native belief that it can cure insomnia
  • Though primarily solitary, with one lizard usually occupying each pool, several individuals will share a winter den in a rock crevice from November through March
  • Spends most of its time on rocks and branches overhanging waterways, will take to the water quickly if disturbed
  • Habitat loss and disturbance has resulted in the drying up of pools; loss of plant cover leaves lizards more vulnerable to predators.  Also collected for the pet trade and for its role in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Zoo History: Mapping the Family Tree

"A little more than kin and less than kind."

- William Shakespeare Hamlet, Act I, Scene II

For most of their history, zoos and aquariums were able to replenish their exhibits from the seemingly inexhaustible stores of the wild.  In the decades following the end of World War II, however, the doors to the wild began to slam shut, one by one.  Newly independent nations of Africa and Asia began imposing limits of the export of their wildlife.  New national laws and international treaties regulated the trade of species.  Public opinion began to turn against the idea of capturing wild born animals for zoo displays.  And, finally, it began to become apparent that the wild maybe wasn't as inexhaustible as it once seemed.

For zoo curators and collection managers, the choice was stark.  Either stop displaying certain species... or learn to breed your own.

Many of the more positive trends in zoo husbandry began to develop as a result of this trend.  In order to breed species, zoos began to move towards large exhibits that allowed for the expression of more natural behaviors.  Collections moved from single-specimen "stamp collections" (one white rhino, one black rhino, one Indian rhino, one Sumatran rhino...) to species-specific social groups.  Then came the realization that mental health was just as important as physical health, resulting in the adoption of more behavioral enrichment.

The work began to pay-off.  Animals began to breed.  Sometimes the babies thrived.  Other times... not so much.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, National Zoo biologists Katherine Rawls and John Ballou began a study of the survival rates of mammals in zoos.  They started with ungulates, but also looked at small mammals, primates, and other taxa.  In each case, they made the same discovery.  The more closely the parents were related - the more inbred a young animal was - the less likely its chances of future survival.  Inbreeding led to reduced fertility and greater infant mortality.

Like many genetic developments, this seems old news now, but was pretty serious stuff back in the day.  After all, while direct incest - mother to son, brother and sister - was frowned upon in human society, a lot of royal families, such as those of Europe in the 1700s and 1800s, were basically a bunch of family trees with seriously intertwined branches.  Even among the middle class, marrying cousins was normal; heck, Charles Darwin married his.  And Cleopatra was the product of who knows how many generations on inbreeding.  And that's just people!  Look at our domestic animals, such as purebred dogs if you want to see some murky genetic issues.

The solution in this case was pretty straightforward.  Stop inbreeding.  That became the tricky part, however.  Zoo populations tend to be small ones, especially when you are dealing with very endangered species which have seen a tremendous loss in their numbers.  The Arabian Oryx World Herd, for example, started with NINE animals.  Plus, how do you keep track of how related all of these animals are?

Out of the work that Rawls and Ballou published came changes that reshaped the zoo world.  The international zoo community worked to create a registry of all the animals (as many as possible, anyway) in their collections.  The International Species Information System, or ISIS (for reasons I can't begin to imagine, they recently changed their name, opting for Species360 instead) keeps track of what animals are in what collections around the globe.  On a more specific scale, Rawls and Ballou saw their work lead to the development and adoption of the studbook program.

I saw this sign at the San Diego Zoo, and thought that it summed the concept up pretty nicely.

A studbook is essentially a biography of a population.  It keeps track of what animals, both current and historic, are born and die, where they lived, who their parents and offspring are, and how they fit into the population as a whole.  Studbook keepers (the biographers of the populations, if you will), help maintain the genetic health of the population by making sure it retains as much diversity as possible by deciding who breeds with who.

The Rawls and Ballou papers never achieved much fame or glory.  I doubt that's what they were looking for, but they deserve it nonetheless, having helped crack open one of the greatest threats to maintaining animals under human care for several generations.  Their research and insights into the dangers of inbreeding also have important consequences for the study of wild populations, especially those trapped in small and increasingly isolated patches of protected habitat.  When the first of their papers were published, biologists were worried about zoos being the "small" populations.  Today, for several species in zoos, the zoo population is getting bigger.  The wild ones, however, are getting smaller and smaller.

Friday, February 17, 2017

"The Zoo" Series Premiere

Late last year, I first heard about an upcoming miniseries, one that would take viewers behind-the-scenes and into the lives (human and animal) behind the Bronx Zoo.  Well, that series is now here!The first episode of Animal Planet's new series, unimaginatively titled "The Zoo" debuts tomorrow night at 10 PM. 

Seriously, though, 10PM on a Saturday night?  Don't they know that all of us zookeepers have to work the next day?!? 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: Tears of the Cheetah - The Genetic Secrets of Our Animal Ancestors

"HIV, Ebola, and hepatitis.  Could other animals reveal natural genetic defenses to these same diseases?  Without such defenses, they will go extinct.  These species have no health insurance, no HMOs, no emergency rooms - only natural selection."

Today, genetics is such a constant topic in the news - in politics, science, and in culture - that it can be hard to remember just how new the field really is.  Although humans have been dabbling in genetics for millennia - ever since we began to domesticate our first plants and animals through artificial selection - our understanding of the science really dates back to the last few decades.  It's use in the study and conservation of animals is, in a sense, still brand new.

In the earliest days of conservation genetics, Dr. Stephen O'Brien was on that cutting edge.  Head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), O'Brien and his colleagues were among the first to study the genetics of wild animals, including some of the most charismatic species on the planet, and unravel the hidden histories of their genome.  O'Brien shares many of these stories in Tears of the Cheetah: The Genetic Secrets of Our Animal Ancestors. 

What do cheetahs have to cry about, you may wonder?  If you follow the theory that Dr. O'Brien postulates, following his examination of their genetic codes, a lot (although the title is also a play reference to the black, tear-like stripes cheetahs have under their eyes).  According to the research that the NIH team conducted, wild cheetahs suffer from an astonishing lack of genetic diversity, the result of having their population wiped out until only a tiny handful of animals survived, from which the entire (relatively inbred) species we know today is descended from.  This brush with extinction was not human-caused, but rather a natural occurrence, which forced cheetahs through a genetic bottleneck - they survive, but in a somewhat compromised position due to their reduced diversity.

While what happened to cheetahs is a natural occurrence, a similar fate potentially awaits (or is befalling) other species as human activities - habitat loss, hunting, disease - destroy their populations and lower their diversity.  Dr. O'Brien takes his show on the road, so to speak, working with field biologists to study the genomes of humpback whales, lions, and orangutans.  With reduced gene diversity, the potential for species to adapt and evolve in the face of new environmental pressures is seriously threatened.  Taking a break from doom and gloom, he also sets off to answer what was one of the great taxonomic questions of the day - what is a giant panda - a bear... or a raccoon?

When not poking around in conservation genetics, Dr. O'Brien broadens his scope to look at the genetic pasts of humans, seeing what the genome can tell us about our own murky past as a species.  He also examines the history of our own diseases, from the bubonic plague of Medieval Europe to the HIV endemic which claimed the life of one of his family, all while explaining how the secrets of salvation may lie in our genomes (or in other genomes... he spends an instructive amount of time fiddling around with disease-ridden mice, searching for genetic anomalies which may represent cures for diseases).

And if none of that interests you, consider this - the author and his colleagues were the first scientists ever to use DNA evidence for an animal to help solve a murder case.  Ever NCIS or Bones episode you've ever watched that's used a strand of hair from the victim's cat to collar a killer?  They should be writing royalty checks to Stephen O'Brien.

Reading stories like that, it's hard not to be staggered by how far the science of genetics has come in the last few years.  When O'Brien testified that genetics proved that the hair found in a crime scene could only have come from one cat, the opposing attorneys loudly denounced it as "theoretical bullshit" and tried to convince the jury that it was pseudoscience.  Few laypersons understood such things back then, and few would be willing to accept them.  Genetic testing is now commonly carried out for medical, conservation, commercial, and legal purposes. 

The boundaries of our knowledge are continually being pushed.  And, as O'Brien and his colleagues came to realize as their scientific pursuits brought them in contact with some of the world's most imperiled species, the more we learn, the more responsibility we find ourselves with - both to ourselves, to our society, and to the natural world.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Pangolin Valentine

Happy Valentine's Day!

There's lots of ways to celebrate everyone's favorite crass-commercialist-romantic holiday.  Flowers.  Chocolates.  Pangolins.  Adult Toys.  Wait, what?  Since when did pangolins become a Valentine's Day thing?

Since yesterday, so it seems.  That's when Google made its Valentine's Day doodle a link to a game that features amorous pangolins navigating perilous obstacles (and let's be honest, when you're a pangolin, everything is pretty perilous) in order to be together.  Four levels are set in range countries in Africa and Asia inhabited by pangolins, and all feature pangolin activities like rolling in balls, swimming, and whipping out a super long tongue (though the purists among us may mention that pangolins don't actually swing from their tongues).

Hopefully, at least 1% of the people playing this game will pause long enough to say, "Wait, what is that thing?" and google pangolin.  At this point, any awareness for these loveable, endangered little goombas can only help.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Genetic Jungle

A few years back, a pair of pheasants at our zoo had produced a clutch of eggs.  We ourselves had no capacity for more birds of that species, nor were they part of a managed Species Survival Plan.  Before pulling the eggs from the hen, I put out a question on a zoo list-serve asking if anyone was interested in offspring.  I received a fairly prompt reply from one zoo saying that would be interested in eggs, but only in eggs that would hatch out as females. 

Would I please do a quick in ovo egg sexing and incubate two female eggs for them.  My reply: "... we can do that?"  I felt like an idiot, but I was way too surprised to care.

It turns out, yes, yes you can.  You simply shave off a tiny piece of the eggshell, using either a Dremel or belt sander, without damaging the membrane inside.  Then, you delicately take a blood sample from the inside of the egg, send it out for testing (or run your own gel electrophoresis, if you are so inclined and so capable), and voila.  You can tell if the egg is going to be a male or female.  Then, take the eggs and - after carefully sealing up the tiny patch of shell you removed - place it back under the parent or in an incubator.

The science of egg-sexing has major implications in small zoo populations.  San Diego Zoo Global had been trying to establish a breeding program to save Storm's stork, a gorgeous dark blue stork from Southeast Asia.  The problem was that they kept producing surplus males - males that they would have to house and feed and spend time and resources caring for, but that were of no use to the population since there were no females around to pair with them.  A little in ovo sexing and soon only female eggs were being incubated.

It's a testament to any science that it goes quickly from being an unheard of possibility to a tried and true daily staple that we can't imagine doing without.  Few developments have rocked modern zookeeping more than the application of genetics to the field. 

I'd gone thus far in my career without ever coming across genetic testing of egg embryos, but I had used genetics in other areas.  For example, I'd often relied on blood tests to identify whether birds were male or female.  In some bird species, like pheasants, ducks (but not swans and geese), and many songbirds, the males and females look very different, often with the males having bright, beautiful plumage.  In others, such as raptors, males and females are different sizes - though with some overlap.  For others, however, the sexes look very similar.  Without DNA testing, a keeper could easily have two males languishing in an aviary together, wondering forever why they just won't breed.

DNA analysis can also be helpful in determining parentage.  This is most helpful when you have a lot of members of the same species sharing an enclosure.  Even in species which are reported to be monogamous, there can be some sneaky cheaters out there, and knowing proper parentage is needed for making future breeding recommendations.  Otherwise, you could easily end up pairing a female off with an animal who is really her father, having snuck by and visited her mother while her presumed father had his back turned.  DNA analysis at the Bronx Zoo, for example, revealed a whole lot of cheating going on in their scarlet ibis aviary. 

Birds aren't the only ones undergoing paternity tests.  When Ling Ling, the National Zoo's first female giant panda was paired with male Hsing Hsing, she was bred with him naturally AND artificially inseminated.  Her cub did not survive, but researchers were able to determine that Hsing Hsing was the father, not the AI donor. 

It is increasingly becoming common to do DNA testing to determine what species an animal is.  Two-toed sloths, we now realize, are represented by two species.  They look a lot alike superficially, but genetically are distinct.  A zoo that has a male Linne's two-toed and a female Hoffman's two-toed might not realize why their pair is failing to produce.  Similar problems plagued zoo populations of night monkeys, small nocturnal primates from the Neotropics, which we know realize are a hodgepodge of different species.  Or look at the recent revelations about the slender-snouted crocodile, recently carved into two species.

The future of genetics in zoos is full of possibilities.  We could look out for markers that would serve as warning signs of harmful traits, allowing us to filter those out of the population by not breeding those individuals.  Not to be too Frankenstein-ish, but at some point it may become necessary to genetically "tweak" some species in order to improve their survival.  For example, encouraging a species start breeding earlier in the year in response to global climate change, should that species ever be restored to the wild. 

The future is full of possibilities.... lots of questions, yes, but possibilities nevertheless.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Species Hidden In Plain Sight

I really should be writing about Packy, today.  The famous, 54 year old Asian elephant, a life-long resident of the Oregon Zoo, passed away today.  He was euthanized after vets decided that his years-long struggle with tuberculosis was degrading the quality of his life.  I just couldn't make myself do a FOURTH famous zoo animal celebrity obituary already, it being only mid-February (though I guess I kind of just did).  I'm sending my best wishes and condolences to the good folks at Oregon Zoo in what I know must be a hard time for them, having just made one of the most difficult decisions a zoo can make.

Anyway, I thought I'd shoot for some happier news.  At least, happier than the death of a beloved elephant.

So there's nothing "new" per se about the West African slender-snouted crocodile.  I mean, it's not like the people in Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire just looked down one day and said, "Huh.  Honey, did you ever notice that there were crocodiles here?"  What is "new" however is the realization that they are a separate species from the slender-snouted crocodiles of Central Africa.  What that also means is that, instead of one large population, slender-snouts are now two smaller ones.  In the case of the West Africans, only 1500 remain.

An effort is underway to save the species, and captive-breeding and reintroduction is going to be a vital part of the strategy.  The zoo that is leading the charge to save these reptiles, however, isn't an enormous western facility with a huge budget and lots of staff.  It's a small local zoo that, until very recently, was smack dab in the middle of a warzone.

A West African Slender-snouted Crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus) is pictured in its enclosure at the zoo of Abidjan, Ivory Coast September 9, 2016 (Reuters, Luc Gnago)

When I say "middle of a warzone", I'm not being overdramatic.  Active gun battles were raging in the streets around the Abidjan National Zoo, located in the capital of Cote d'Ivoire.  Only a handful of staff members were able to weather the civil war, and equipment and supplies were in short supply.  The war ended, however, and the zoo has survived and is rebuilding... and is rebuilding the population of crocodiles.

The world's largest captive colony of West African slender-snouts is here at the zoo, and more are being bred constantly - 40 so far, which is a heck of a lot when you consider that only 1500 are found wild in the whole of Africa.  The zoo, supported with funds and expertise from zoos abroad, is planning a reintroduction program, both in Cote d'Ivoire and across the species range.

The story of the slender-snout is still in the early stages.  It's a great reminder, however, of why zoos and aquariums have a role to play in countries around the world, not just rich westernized ones.  It's also a great testament to what even a small, poor facility can accomplish with a dedicated staff.

Seriously, I want to go to work tomorrow and ask my coworkers, "A few keepers fresh out of a warzone are saving a species on a shoestring budget.  What have we done lately?"... and then do something.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Mourning an Aquatic Institution

Well, it looks like 2017 really is shaping up to be the 2016 of zoo animal celebrities.  First Tilikum.  Then Colo.  Now we've lost Granddad.

"Granddad" was the name given to the Queensland lungfish at the Shedd Aquarium - not only was he the oldest zoo animal in the Chicago area, but he was believed to be the oldest aquarium fish in the world.  AT 4 feet long and 25 pounds, he was hardly the biggest or showiest resident of the aquarium, but his endurance - his tenure at the Shedd covered the administrations of 13 US Presidents -  made him a legend.  Granddad was there before World War II, before the Space Race, and before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Being a lover of obscurities, it's always a pleasure for me to watch one of the less-famous species in a zoo or aquarium achieve rock star status.  Every zoo has a famous elephant, or chimp, or bear, or tiger.  Those are the animals that the public knows best and, as a result, those are the animals that it is the easiest to rally support for the conservation of.  A fish, though?  A fish who gets his own obituary in the international news?  That's a new kind of fame and popularity.

Hopefully, some of it'll rub off on the other fish at the Shedd.

Australian lungfish,
Neoceratodus forsteri, Granddad, 1982. | Patrice Ceisel/Shedd Aquarium photo

Australian lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri, Granddad, 1982. | Patrice Ceisel/Shedd Aquarium photo

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Zoos - Saving Species

Reputable zoos and aquariums are all linked by one shared mission - saving species and the habitats that support them.  It's a compelling mission, and one that has a lot of great stories behind it, some of which I've tried to share here on this blog. 

The problem is that there are a LOT of stories out there and a lot of content, on all sorts of subjects.  Some of it is real.  Some of it is not.  A lot of it is sort of a blended mess.  It can be hard to get any message across in the muddle.

Recently, an enterprising keeper decided to simplify the message with a series of memes, each highlighting a different case study in how zoos and aquariums are saving species.  Each is linked with sources so that readers can learn more, or find out how they can get involved to make a difference. 

These are a work in progress, with more being produced as time goes by.  Already I've seen them pop up on a few different sites online, linked by the hashtag #zoossavespecies (with its own facebook page as well).  Hopefully, they'll be effective at getting the word out about why zoos and aquariums need the continued support of the public so that they can continue to protect endangered species around the globe.

Learn More about how zoos are saving the black-footed ferret

Learn More about how zoos are saving the Arabian oryx

Learn More about how zoos are saving the Puerto Rican crested toad

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Department of Secrets

In all of the commotion surrounding the new administration in Washington, there are lots of things which have slipped past quietly, overshadowed by the debates over immigration, health insurance, and the wisdom of having guns in schools to protect students from rampaging grizzly bears.

One of those has been a decision quietly made by the United States Department of Agriculture - the entity that inspects, among others, all facilities that exhibit mammals to the public, from your neighborhood petting zoo to the San Diego Zoo.  The results of those inspections had been available online.  On more than one occasion, I'd heard a colleague trying to gain information about another facility, one that they had never heard of, to determine if it was reputable and provided suitable animal care.  One of the easiest ways to do so was read their USDA inspection reports online.

Without warning, USDA has since removed that information.  It can now only be obtained with a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

Some keepers are very happy about this.  Too often in the past, Animal Rights groups have been able to denounce zoos by saying that there have been "USDA violations"... maybe without specifying that those "violations" were cobwebs in the kitchen and some hay that no one had gotten to sweeping up yet.  Others are highly skeptical of this new law.  In a surprising new twist, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Humane Society of the United States - two organizations that are usually in some degree of opposition - have come out in opposition to the rule change.  AZA's position?  We have nothing to hide, so why make it seem like we do?

To be clear, zoos and aquariums were probably not the entities that this rule change was made for.  The blackout covers government labs that engage in animal research... which does make you wonder what is motivating the change.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Chinese Three-Striped Box Turtle (Cuora trifasciata)

Chinese Three-Striped Box Turtle
Cuora trifasciata (Bell, 1825)

Range: Southern China, Southeast Asia
Habitat: Montane Evergreen Forests, Streambeds
Diets: Earthworms, Crustaceans, Fish, Frogs, Fruit
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Breeding is usually very aggressive, with males fighting fiercely for access to females. Nesting normally takes place in May (captives may breed year round).  2-6 white eggs, long and tappered at one end, are incubated for 80-85 days.  Female become mature when they reach 1 kilogram in weight (farmed turtles breed at about 8 years of age)
Lifespan: 50 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix II

  • Shell length up to 20 centimeters, weight 300-400 grams.  Males have slightly indented plastron (bottom part of shell), thicker tail than female.  Plastron is hinged, allowing the turtle to close up the head, tail, and limbs inside if threatened.
  • The carapace (top part of the shell) is long, flat shell is red-brown with three long, black longitudinal stripes, some orange on the side.  Plastron is black but with yellow border.  Face is yellow or olive green with orange patches behind the eyes,  black line on side of face.  The skin at the base of the front legs is red or orange.
  • Semi-aquatic, capable of swimming well, but frequently being encountered on land
  • May hybridize with other related species in the wild and in captivity - there was once speculation that many of the Asian box turtles were hybrids of just a few species.  Genetic evidence now suggests that they are separate species.
  • Sometimes known as the "Golden Coin Turtle", since a local belief holds that possessing one will bring the holder wealth and luck
  • The species has been harvested for centuries, largely for food.  These turtles are now under pressure due to being heavily collected, both for meat and for medicinal value (the plastron is believed to cure cancer in some cultures).  This species is also very valuable in the exotic pet trade
  • This species is being farmed on some Chinese turtle farms, though consumers consider wild-caught turtles to be superior, more valuable than farmed ones.  Many farmed turtles are hybrids, making them useless for conservation programs.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Let Sleeping Groundhogs Lie

Happy Groundhog Day!  Or, perhaps more accurately, Happy Badger Day!  The tradition of Groundhog Day was brought to the United States by immigrants from Germany, where folklore held that a badger (sometimes a bear) would emerge from the ground at this time to help people predict whether or not winter would be ending soon.  When the Germans came to America, they found no badgers, and settled on the groundhog.

To think, if they'd only waited until they'd made their way a little further west before giving up, the holiday might be Badger Day still.

For a groundhog (or badger) to emerge from its hole, it first has to be in one... and that's what most groundhogs are doing this time of year.  Hibernating - taking the long sleep to get through the food-scarce winter.  Managing hibernating animals in a zoo is really easy.  You don't.  You provide a shelter suitable to the species, and they let you know when they expect to be fed again by reappearing in the spring.

Seriously, I haven't seen one of our prairie dogs for weeks.

The rational behind Groundhog Day is simple - if it's warm enough for hibernating mammals to start emerging from their burrows, spring can't be too far off.  It's not infallible, but it kinda works,

And by that, I mean that they're right about as often as the TV meteorologists...

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Ollie the Bobcat, Safe and Sound

Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in... or, more accurately, look who dragged in the cat.  After a few days on the lam, escaped bobcat Ollie from the Smithsonian National Zoo is back, safe and sound.  She was captured in a Have-a-Heart trap near the zoo's Bird House (all birds are accounted for) earlier today.  Hopefully, the Virginia Zoo red panda won't be too far behind.