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About Author: Elise Newman

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An Insider’s Look at the Horticulture Department: Part 2

Plants for animal exhibits are chosen carefully for their association with the species—and durability!

Plants for animal exhibits are chosen carefully for their association with the species—and durability!

I wanted to work with the horticulture department because I love teaching the public about animals and am inspired by San Diego Zoo Global’s conservation work. In a nutshell (or seedpod), I wanted to discover how the flora and fauna departments work together at the Park.

To fulfill common conservation goals, the Safari Park’s animal care and horticulture departments work together to create beautiful, functional, and accurate exhibits. Plants in and around exhibits are often plants native to those animals’ exotic habitats. This exhibit planting improves the public perception of the Park—on a caravan safari, guests will actually feel as though they are in Africa. Endemic plantings also facilitate natural animal behaviors. For example: endemic plants in an aviary means birds can gather the same nesting materials at the Park that they might in the wild. However, this type of habitat-specific planting can be challenging. P.J. Rhodes, lead horticulturist, has to find African plants that are drought-resistant and cold-hardy to withstand California’s challenging climate—and resilient enough to tolerate the animals living among them.

Providing our weaver birds with the right plant material encourages natural nesting behavior.

Providing our weaver birds with the right plant material encourages natural nesting behavior.

For Gail Thurston, lead horticulturist, the most challenging part of her job revolves around integrating plants with both exotic animals in our collection and native California creatures. Most botanical gardens do not display animals, so plants in these settings have fewer threats. Gail says that “here at the Safari Park [we make a] constant effort to protect our plant material from not only the exhibit animals, but native animals as well: rabbits, squirrels, deer, vermin, and vectors…eat [our plants], dig them up, lay on them, or use them for nesting.” Although the local California mule deer are often the biggest problem, exhibit animals like giraffes can also create big—er, tall—challenges as well. The giraffes love eating the bark on the palm trees planted in the African field enclosures, so the horticulture department had to come up with a creative way to deter them. Many of the palm tree trunks are now enclosed in sturdy mesh to stop those pesky 16-inch giraffe tongues.

However, some of the plants at the Park are meant to be food. Thanks to the Browse Department, the Safari Park supplies the acacia, eucalyptus, bamboo, and fig foliage that feed many species at the Park and Zoo, including giraffes, koalas, giant pandas, and elephants, and many primates. The Safari Park annually produces 20 tons of acacia, 200,750 pieces of eucalyptus, 15 tons of bamboo, and 60 tons of fig foliage! Our sustainable forage supply exemplifies San Diego Zoo Global’s conservation-minded approach.

The next time you visit the Park, stop and see the rhinos—but also take the time to appreciate the gorgeous acacia or ficus tree those rhinos are lying under. Most importantly, talk to a horticulturist on grounds. This dedicated team works hard to make the Park beautiful for your enjoyment and would love nothing better than to spend a few minutes sharing their love of plants with you.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, An Insider’s Look at the Horticulture Department: Part 1.

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An Insider’s Look at the Horticulture Department: Part 1

Look among the animals at the Safari Park, and you'll discover an amazing botanical collection.

Look among the animals at the Safari Park, and you’ll discover an amazing botanical collection.

Not only is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park one of the top wildlife breeding and conservation facilities in the world, it is also a world-renowned botanical garden. The Safari Park’s horticulture department cares for 1,750,000 plant specimens spanning 1,800 acres. For the last few months, I have been working with the Park’s horticulture department on a job-share a few days each week. My goodness, these are hard-working people!

The horticulture department, comprised of 35 people, divides the 1,800-acre Safari Park into sections; one staff member’s section may span several acres. Specific teams are responsible for maintaining the plants and gardens in the center of the Park, around the off-exhibit breeding facilities, near the hospital, and in the large African and Asian field enclosures. Specialized arborists, irrigation, and pest control crews also help keep the Park in tip-top shape.

Working with the horticulture department, I’ve met an extremely friendly staff, full of welcoming, encouraging people who are passionate about plants. The horticulture team members came from very disparate backgrounds to work at the Park. Some have degrees in horticulture, irrigation, or arboriculture. Some had long, successful careers in completely unrelated fields and are horticulturists as a second career. For example, some of the horticulturists used to be zookeepers, work for construction crews, or work as gardeners in the private sector.

Saharan cypress

Among the Park’s plant collection is a North African cypress, one of the most drought-tolerant and frost-resistant conifers known—and a critically endangered species, having been exploited for centuries for its wood.

Let me set the record straight. If you’re picturing an arthritic 90-year old planting petunias in his front garden on a lazy Sunday, then you’re not seeing the Safari Park’s horticulture team. These horticulturists are fit, efficient women and men who face risks every day. In addition to working outdoors in 100+ degree Fahrenheit temperatures, they operate heavy machinery including chain saws, wood chippers, and dump trucks. They avoid rattlesnakes, thorns, bugs, sunburn, dehydration, and rainstorms. And they do it all with (amazingly) positive attitudes. Gail Thurston, the lead horticulturist of the Field section, says that “my favorite part is the daily creativity and the ability to have every day be different and fulfilling…every day we work in a beautiful garden.”

In addition to beautifying the Park, the horticulturists’ work augments San Diego Zoo Global’s mission. Plants are important in their own right, therefore San Diego Zoo Global is working to conserve not only endangered animals, but endangered plants as well. In fact, the Safari Park houses many endangered plants, including Catalina mahogany Cercocarpus traskiae native to Santa Catalina Island, Wollemi pine Wollemia nobilis indigenous to Australia, and Saharan cypress Cupressus dupreziana from Algeria. These plants are endangered in their native habitats, so growing them in botanical collections like the Safari Park helps increase their population numbers. Additionally, the horticulturists cooperate with San Diego Zoo Global’s Seed Bank and Institute for Conservation researchers to preserve endangered San Diego County habitat.

The horticulture team members are as dedicated to the Safari Park’s botanical conservation mission outside of work as they are in uniform. When they are not working at the Park, many of the horticulturists can be found at botanical conferences, re-planting coastal sage scrub in fire-damaged habitats in Southern California, or studying trees in the Amazon.

Stay tuned for the second part of this blog: how the Park’s flora helps the Park’s fauna!

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Wild Romance.

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Wild Romance

Anytime is the right time for "romance" among rhinos.

Anytime is the right time for “romance” among rhinos.

“There’s a rhyme and reason to the wild outdoors,” sings Elton John in The Lion King. Disney’s Simba and Nala aren’t the only ones who “can feel the love tonight” during the Valentine’s Day season. Perhaps you want to know about the wacky, wild, and sometimes familiar romance rituals of the Safari Park animals? During this season of love, now’s your chance.

Some of the largest lovers at the Safari Park are southern white rhinos. Instead of mating seasonally like deer, breeding females can go into estrus any time of the year. Solitary, territorial males horn-wrestle one another for the privilege of mating with an estrus female. The winner approaches his intended mate with a wheezy, hic-throb noise—kind of a “Hey baby. How you doin’?” a la Friends character Joey Tribbiani. In an attempt at seduction, the male rests his head on the female’s rump. If she’s willing, mating lasts about 30 minutes. Over the years, “love” has definitely been in the air among the southern white rhinos at the Safari Park: they have produced 93 calves and counting.

Get the Party Started: Once their courtship ritual is rolling, all the flamingos in this flock will have their wings out.

Get the Party Started: Wing-spreading is one part of a flamingo flock’s courtship ritual.

In contrast to the rhinos’ cumbersome courtship, greater flamingos look like a precision drum line during their elaborate courtship rituals. The flamingo colony, or flamboyance, marches together in shallow water while honking, abruptly switching directions. The birds also head-flag, rhythmically turning their heads side-to-side, and salute each other with outstretched wings to display their contrasting colors. When a female finds a desirable male, she leaves the flamboyance and heads to slightly deeper water. The male vaults onto the female’s back and plants his feet on her wing joints, followed by an acrobatic dismount over her head. After mating, the pair begins building a volcano-shaped mud nest. Females lay a single egg, and both parents take turns incubating it for 28-32 days. Flamingo mating is seasonal, occurring during the rainy season to take advantage of the abundant food and mud.

Unlike flamingos, African lions don’t have a breeding season. Instead, mating usually occurs when a male assumes control of a pride. Lionesses only have a four to seven day estrus window, and the male makes the most of it. Although lions are world-renowned for their marathon sleep sessions, they also break records in the mating category. Lions usually mate for eight to 68 seconds at a time every 25 minutes over a four-day period; pairs may mate up to 100 times in one day! During this time, the male guards the female to keep the competition away. If the mating is successful, three and a half months later the female delivers a litter of one to four cubs. The females in a pride communally nurse their cubs for about seven months.

It may look like he's blowing a kiss, but this male is checking to see if the female is ready to mate.

It may look like he’s blowing a kiss, but this male is checking to see if the female is ready to mate.

While lions have some of the longest mating sessions in the animal kingdom, giraffes have some of the shortest. Copulation lasts barely a second, but it’s no “stretch” to say that giraffes are foreplay nerds. Interested males practically do a litmus test to evaluate females! A male closely follows an estrus female, waiting for the right moment to nudge her hind leg—her cue to urinate. Next, he sips a sample of the urine and curls his upper lip, opening the Jacobson’s organ on the roof of his mouth in a behavior called the Flehmen response. This allows him to test the female’s hormone levels to see if she is ready to breed—picture a connoisseur sampling a fine wine.

This year, forget the fancy dinner and flowers for Valentine’s Day. Come to the Safari Park and marvel at wild romance. Maybe you’ll even imagine strains of Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” playing in the background…

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Gaur Game Plan.

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Gaur Game Plan

Indian gaur can be seen in the Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Indian gaur can be seen in the Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

What are those big buffalo in the Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park? This is one of the most commonly asked questions on Caravan Safari tours. They are Indian gaur Bos frontalis gaurus, the largest wild cattle species. Gaur live in herds of up to 40 individuals led by a mature bull. An adult gaur can stand 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 2,000 pounds! Coupled with their dark coat and light-blue eyes, this body-builder physique makes gaur very intimidating to predators. Gaur currently live in fragmented evergreen forest habitats in southern Asia and India.

In India, gaur have been domesticated as work animals and hybridized with domestic cattle to create a separate species. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List considers wild Indian gaur “vulnerable” in southern Asia. This is a poorly understood species, so there may be as few as 13,000 left in the world or as many as 30,000. Indian gaur are threatened due to hunting, habitat loss, and domestic cattle diseases, like Johne’s disease. Our researchers are using mathematical models to monitor transmission of these types of diseases to help save Indian gaur (see post Saving Species with Math).

We also conserve Indian gaur in two other ways. Indian gaur are protected under the umbrella of Asian elephant and tiger habitat conservation programs that San Diego Zoo Global supports around the world. Additionally, the Safari Park has a herd of Indian gaur that are part of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ bison and wild cattle taxon advisory group (TAG).

Very few zoos currently house gaur because they are large, territorial, and require the same amount of space as rhinos, which are often more exciting to visitors. In the past, the Safari Park successfully bred over 200 gaur, but the breeding program stopped because there was no longer anywhere to send the offspring. Through the TAG, individuals are loaned and traded to other zoos for breeding programs and conservation initiatives to increase the genetic diversity of many different species. Without other facilities involved in the TAG, we would quickly become saturated with gaur. Now, the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans has expressed interest in a herd of Indian gaur. As a result, the Safari Park welcomed two new females and a young male to our Asian field exhibit. The young male will, hopefully, dominate the resident castrated male in the herd and begin breeding.

Female Indian gaur typically give birth to one calf between December and June after a 275-day gestation. It’s amazing to think that a female gaur and a human female have the same pregnancy length! Stay tuned. Hopefully, the Safari Park will have new Indian gaur calves by next year to bolster the fight for conservation of this unique species.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, It’s Alive! Look Inside our Giant Pandas’ Favorite Food.

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It’s Alive! Look Inside Our Giant Pandas’ Favorite Food

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun this morning demonstrating her bamboo-eating skills.

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun this morning demonstrating her bamboo-eating skills.

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Jennifer Parsons, an associate nutritionist at the San Diego Zoo. Although she manages diets for all of the animals at the Zoo, her specialty is a particular diet for a highly specialized species: bamboo makes up 99 percent of a wild giant panda’s diet.

A wild giant panda may roam the bamboo groves of China all day eating 25 species of bamboo, but not a zoo panda. The San Diego Zoo’s Horticulture Department grows bamboo for the giant pandas in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s parking lot. Every day, the horticulturists harvest the bamboo with chain saws coated in peanut oil, which is edible, unlike grease. After harvesting, they truck it to the Zoo’s panda exhibit, where it’s put in large coolers to wait for panda mealtime.

The keepers feed the giant pandas three times per day. At each feeding the pandas are offered twice the amount of bamboo that they will actually eat. This allows the pandas to selectively “sniff test” the bamboo, as they would in the wild. The pandas spend the entire interval between feedings processing and eating bamboo.

Bamboo is a colonial organism. An entire bamboo grove behaves likes one organism, which presents challenges for the Horticulture Department. Bamboo is actually a type of grass, and it’s the fastest-growing plant on Earth. Bamboo can grow up to 98 inches (249 centimeters) in 24 hours!

Bamboo has a seasonal cycle that determines where the plant’s nutrients are stored. This cycle may drive a giant panda’s preference for the leaves or the culm, the woody central stalk of the plant. In the winter and spring, when temperate bamboo produces shoots, nutrients are stored in the culm, so giant pandas favor this protein-packed stalk. When bamboo grows new leaves in the summer and fall, photosynthesis stores sugar and protein in the leaves; therefore, the giant pandas prefer the nutrient-rich leaves.

In the wild, pandas only eat temperate bamboo, so a wild giant panda’s home range is larger in the winter, giving the panda access to more food. But zoo pandas cannot seasonally change their territories, so the keepers feed both tropical and temperate bamboo species to the pandas at the San Diego Zoo. These bamboo species have opposite reproductive cycles, so the pandas can eat leaves and culm year-round. Strangely, however, both adult giant pandas at the Zoo, Gao Gao and his mate Bai Yun, prefer to eat the hard culm year-round instead of the easily digestible leaves. Pandas are a puzzle!

Pandas aren’t the only ones that use bamboo. In the bamboo forests of China (and at the San Diego Zoo) red pandas, takins, and golden monkeys also eat bamboo. Asian cultures use bamboo for food, medicine, construction, clothing, paper, musical instruments, bicycles, and fishing rods. Bamboo is also being used as a green resource all over the world. For example, the building housing the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is built from sustainable bamboo.

Take a shoot out of a giant panda’s book and buy environmentally friendly bamboo products. And be sure to say hello to giant pandas Gao Gao, Bai Yun, and juvenile Xiao Liwu at the San Diego Zoo or on Panda Cam.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Northern White Rhinos in Peril.

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Northern White Rhinos in Peril

Nola is one of two northern white rhinos living at the Safari Park and one of just six in the world.

Nola is one of two northern white rhinos living at the Safari Park and one of just six in the world.

Rhino-lovers worldwide suffered a tragic loss last week. It is with a heavy heart that I report the passing of Suni, a male northern white rhino living at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Suni died a natural death at age 34 on October 18, 2014, leaving only six northern white rhinos in the world. This subspecies is critically endangered and is extinct in the wild: three remain at the conservancy in Kenya, a zoo in the Czech Republic houses one, and two live at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Northern white rhinos are in peril because of poaching. Some cultures believe that rhino horn is medicine, which drives the price per ounce higher than that of gold. Rhino horn is actually made of keratin, which is the same substance that your nails and hair are made of. In addition, there are sustainable, FDA-approved medicinal alternatives to rhino horn, such as aspirin and Viagra. But that has not stopped the terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates who use poaching as a means to fund their illicit activities.

Northern white rhinos have had an exceptionally troublesome history. Their cousins, the southern white rhinos, are also highly poached for their horns. However, in 1929, the South African government interceded on behalf of these rhinos and hired the poachers as game wardens to protect the rhinos. The poachers at the time were impoverished farmers, so offering them an alternative source of income meant that they no longer needed to poach to supplement their livelihoods. This strategy worked: 40 years later, the number of rhinos in South Africa increased tenfold. North Africa was unable to employ a similar strategy to help the northern white rhinos because North African countries at the time were fraught with civil war, poverty, and disease. Governments were so worried about keeping their citizens alive that they had little time or money to spare for the rhinos. And, until recently, scientists thought northern and southern white rhinos were the same species, so this lack of funds did not seem important.

Our Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos.

Our Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos.

Dr. Oliver Ryder at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research discovered that northern white rhinos are a separate subspecies by examining mitochondrial DNA. Even though this subspecies will go extinct in our lifetime, the Institute for Conservation Research has created a ray of hope for the future in its Frozen Zoo®.

The Frozen Zoo contains viable cell cultures from many different species that have been cryogenically frozen in liquid nitrogen (think Han Solo in Star Wars). The Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos; from these samples, scientists like Dr. Ryder can generate pluripotent stem cells. These cells can be triggered to create any tissue in the body. Such technical advances make southern white rhino surrogacy and cloning possibilities for the future of northern white rhinos.

In the meantime, guests can visit two of the world’s remaining six northern white rhinos at the Safari Park. Nola, a female born in 1974, lives in the South Africa field exhibit; Angalifu, a male born in 1972, lives in the Central Africa field exhibit. Both of them are past breeding age, so they are living quiet lives of retirement with the other wildlife in their field habitats. Guests can see these two unique rhinos by taking the Africa Tram tour, a Cart Safari, or a Caravan Safari.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide. Read her previous post, Who Likes Rain: Giraffes, Rhinos, or Elephants?

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No Hakuna Matata for this King

Little Evelyn finds that her father makes a fun chew toy!

Little Evelyn finds that her father makes a fun chew toy!

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s king celebrated Father’s Day on October 2, 2014, but the father in question wasn’t too happy about this. Izu, the Park’s male African lion, met his four newest cubs for the first time on exhibit before the Park opened to the public. Cubs Ernest, Evelyn, Marion, and Miss Ellen were born on June 22, 2014, to mother Oshana. The cubs were named for Ernest and Evelyn Rady, Marion Wilson, and Ellen Browning Scripps, all major benefactors of San Diego Zoo Global.

To prepare for the introduction, Izu and his cubs had been eyeing each other through protective barriers for the last month. Animals thrown together at random often don’t do well; keepers carefully plan introductions in stages to get the animals used to one another. Before the morning meeting on exhibit, Izu and his cubs met face to face through a “howdy door,” a door made of heavy steel mesh so they could see, smell, and hear one another. According to keeper Amy Whidden-Winter, the cubs swatted Izu’s tail, and he jumped up on a bench to get away from them. The King of the Jungle is a scaredy-cat!

On October 2, 2014, I arrived at the Park early and was lucky enough to see the lion family introduction. The keepers let Oshana and her four cubs into the outdoor exhibit first, followed immediately by Izu. He eyed the cubs and tried to sidle away from them along the edge of the exhibit. Evelyn led her siblings, with little Ernest bringing up the rear, on a stalk-and-pounce chase of Izu. Evelyn and Marion snuck up behind Izu when his back was turned and retreated as soon as he looked around. Occasionally, the bravest cubs ran up and tagged his back. Izu swatted them away like flies, and even tried spraying to mark his territory. Unfortunately for Izu, cubs don’t care about territory boundaries, and these cubs are particularly persistent and precocious.

As the morning wore on, the cubs got more and more daring. Oshana would occasionally look up from her nap when a cub hissed or Izu roared particularly loudly, but she wasn’t perturbed by the cubs’ antics. They were clearly Izu’s problem now, and it was her turn for a long-overdue catnap. According to the keepers, the four cubs have been keeping Oshana awake constantly; for a lioness used to sleeping up to 20 hours per day, that’s not desirable. Izu eventually succumbed to fatherhood: the cubs rolled on him, bit his ears, and swatted at his mane. With only an occasional roar of protest, and some hilarious facial expressions, Izu became the new babysitter. I could swear Oshana smiled in her sleep.

Visitors to the Safari Park can see Izu and Oshana on exhibit with the four cubs every morning. In the afternoon, 10-month-olds Ken and Dixie, Oshana and Izu’s first litter this year, might be on exhibit. Or Mina, the other adult female lioness in the pride, might be on exhibit with Izu to give him a well-earned respite from fatherhood. Hang in there, Izu!

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Who Likes the Rain: Giraffes, Rhinos, or Elephants?

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Who Likes Rain: Giraffes, Rhinos, or Elephants?

Giraffes come to a Caravan Safari truck to see if tasty acacia leaves are being handed out.

Giraffes come to a Caravan Safari truck to see if tasty acacia leaves are being handed out.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s weather patterns parallel those in our animals’ native African habitats: hot, dry, and sunny for most of the year with a rainy season from October through April. Like California, East Africa is prone to flash floods, droughts, and fires. So most of the animals in the African field exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park feel right at home.

Our animals also display seasonal preferences. Safari Park giraffes are most active during the summer months. Six giraffe calves were born this summer! The giraffes range across their entire 60-acre habitat and chow down on acacia leaves offered by guests on Caravan Safari tours. Frankly, it’s difficult to manage more than one giraffe feeding at a time on a Caravan Safari truck. Acacia leaves are the giraffes’ favorite part of their diet. The giraffes are so excited to eat from the guests’ hands that during the summer they descend on the trucks en masse and can get a little pushy with each other—but it’s quite fun for our guests!

If it’s raining, the giraffes huddle together under palm trees or man-made shelters and refuse to approach the Caravan Safari trucks for acacia leaves. My observations indicate that giraffes don’t like rain and prefer the dry, summer months.

A mud wallow hits the spot for this white rhino.

A mud wallow hits the spot for this white rhino.

Rhinos and elephants are a different story. Southern white rhinos and African elephants are the Safari Park’s largest animals and need to stay cool in the summer. Some of our rhinos also spent this past summer pregnant, with 150 pounds of added weight. You can imagine how uncomfortable that was. To stay cool, they rest in the shade or wallow in man-made watering holes. When the mud from the watering holes dries on their skin, it acts like sunscreen and insect repellent to help protect their hairless skin from the harsh African or Escondido sun.

But when a storm first breaks over the Safari Park, the rhinos and elephants race around their exhibits, vocalizing to each other. I have never seen rhino and elephant calves as playful as they are during a rainstorm. Typically, only about one third of Caravan Safari tours get to feed the greater one-horned rhinos. During a rainstorm, the probability increases. That is, if the rhinos stop frolicking in the rain long enough to eat apples!

Unfortunately, California has been experiencing one of its severest droughts on record, which has impacted the Safari Park in innumerable ways. A lack of rainwater to irrigate the African field habitats is one. The majority of the grass in these habitats is African kikuyu grass, a hardy, water-wise species. However, it does need to be watered occasionally, because many of the ungulates in these habitats are grazers and depend on the grass for food. The keepers supplement the animals’ diets with hay, alfalfa, and pellets multiple times per day, but most of the ungulates are nature’s lawnmowers and instinctively perform natural grazing behaviors.

Additionally, the southern white rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo enjoy a gooey mud wallow. Without rainfall to restock the wallows, water recycled from the Safari Park’s water treatment plant and ponds fills the void. In this way, the Safari Park animals experience the advantages of a wet season without adding pressure to the California water shortage.

Hopefully it will rain in San Diego soon! Does anyone know a rain dance?

Elise Newman is a Safari Caravan guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Personable Petunia.

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Personable Petunia

greater 1-horned rhinos Petunia and TanayaPetunia, the newest greater one-horned rhino calf at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, was born to Tanaya on August 1, 2014. The keepers heaved a collective sigh of relief when she and Tanaya were released from the maternity corral into the 40-acre Asian Plains exhibit with the other greater one-horned rhinos. When Petunia was born, she was diminutive by rhino standards, weighing only 128 pounds (58 kilograms) instead of the usual 132 to 176 pounds (60 to 80 kilograms). Additionally, Tanaya was having trouble producing milk for Petunia, so the keepers treated her with a drug to increase milk production. As a result, the concerned keepers kept 24-hour surveillance on Tanaya and Petunia in the maternity corral for the first few weeks of Petunia’s life.

Petunia is now a spunky, vibrant part of our greater one-horned rhino crash. She and Tanaya were released into the Asian Plains exhibit with the rest of the rhinos when Petunia was four weeks old. Tanaya took Petunia on a tour of her new home and has been the model protective rhino mom, never straying from Petunia’s side. But Tanaya’s strides are so large that Petunia trots to keep up with her. To escape the heat, Petunia has been exploring the mud wallows throughout the exhibit. She is still so tiny that she sometimes sits on top of Tanaya’s feet to keep her head above water!

As Petunia gets more comfortable in her new habitat, she gets braver. I have even seen Petunia surreptitiously investigate Parvesh, the seven- month-old greater one-horned rhino calf (see post Rhino Calf Makes Own Rules). When Tanaya catches her straying toward the toddler, she quickly ushers Petunia away. Petunia is a bit too small to play with Parvesh right now, but as she continues to gain weight, she will be big enough to romp around the exhibit with her half brother. She may even catch up to him in size, as rhino calves gain about 100 pounds (45 kilograms) per month during their first year of life. Watch out, Parvesh! Petunia might be the new boss in the exhibit.

Petunia is the 67th greater one-horned rhino calf born at the Safari Park, making the Park the principal breeding center in the world for this species. The Safari Park officially celebrated World Rhino Day on September 22, but guests who love Petunia and the other rhinos as much as I do celebrate World Rhino Day every day!

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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Luke, a Leucistic Waterbuck

Little Luke would normally be brown like his mother.

Little Luke would normally be brown like his mother.

Luke, a leucistic ellipsen waterbuck calf, was born in the South African exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on September 6, 2014. What in the world is that, you ask?

An ellipsen waterbuck is a 400-pound (180 kilograms), shaggy African antelope. Waterbuck are grazers and escape into lakes and rivers to avoid predators. Lions and hyenas are not good swimmers, but the waterbuck’s oily coat is water repellent and makes them buoyant as they swim away from these carnivores. Ellipsen waterbuck are distinctive because they have white rings on their rump, like a bulls-eye. This “follow-me” mark allows a waterbuck to identify its herd members.

Luke is unique because he is leucistic. Leucism is a genetic condition where pigment cells don’t develop properly. The word leucism comes from the Greek word leukos, meaning white. Albinism is often mistaken for leucism, but albino animals are only missing the melanin pigment. Leucistic animals are missing all pigments in either patches or over the entire surface of their bodies. Albino animals commonly have red eyes because they lack the melanin to color the irises and turn them opaque, so the blood vessels show through the translucent irises. Leucistic animals have normally colored eyes. Leucism is a well-documented phenomenon. Piebald horses are partially leucistic. The white tigers seen around the world in zoos in the 1980s and1990s demonstrate recessive genes for leucism.


Luke is not alone. His condition is rare but not unheard of, and it shouldn’t affect his development in any way. Luke’s mother, a traditionally colored ellipsen waterbuck, was pregnant for eight months before giving birth to Luke in the exhibit. Luke looks like the negative of his mom: instead of a chestnut-brown coat, Luke’s is bright white. Instead of a white bull’s-eye ring on his rump, Luke has a black ring. Instead of white eyebrows, Luke’s are black. In fact, if you look at a photo negative of Luke and his mom, Luke would look normal and his mom would look leucistic.

Initially, keepers were worried that Luke’s mom would reject him for looking different. Instead, she has been fiercely protective of him. Ellipsen waterbuck calves are “tuckers” for two to four weeks, meaning the mother tucks her offspring in a hiding place so she can forage. Luke’s mom has been hiding him in various spots throughout the Safari Park field exhibit. But she has been more attentive than the mothers of most tuckers and has isolated herself from the rest of her herd to spend time with him. She even chased away the curious herd of Cape buffalo that came to investigate her unusual baby.

The next time you visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, see if you can spot Luke and his mom during an Africa Tram tour.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Rhino Calf Makes Own Rules.