Animals and Plants

Animals and Plants

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Drought: Reptiles Don’t Like It, Either!

A cell phone photo taken of the habitat at the Safari Park Reserve in August 2014 shows just how devastating the drought has been on our local habitats.

A cell phone photo taken of the habitat at the Safari Park Reserve in August 2014 shows just how devastating the drought has been on our local habitats.

The drought has been awful for Southern California residents: dry, hot days, water restrictions, and a brown landscape. These are things we can all live with, but for our resident native reptiles and amphibians, drought can be a life-or-death situation. I have been working in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Biodiversity Reserve (a 900-acre area adjacent to the Safari Park) for 15 years studying the reptile and amphibian species that call it home. This year I began a project studying a relatively rare coastal sage scrub species, the coastal patch-nosed snake Salvadora hexalepis virgultea. My plan was to capture at least 10 animals and implant them with radio transmitters so I could follow their movements and study their ecology. On normal rainfall years I see an average of eight of these wonderful snakes, so I figured that if I actively searched for them, I would be able to get a good sample size to study. However, I did not count on the drought being so intense.

Snakes get most of their water from the food they eat, and when there is no water, the food disappears as well. Many of our small, native animals tend to stay underground during such “tough times” and await better weather. Not only did many of the prey species disappear over the spring and summer, but the snakes also stayed deep underground to conserve moisture. Some snakes and other reptiles came to the surface for a brief period during the breeding season (April through June), and I was able to find a couple of patch-nosed snakes for my study. Unfortunately, reptile activity ceased altogether soon after. On a good spring day in a year with normal rainfall, I can find up to 20 snakes belonging to 8 to 10 different species in a single day. This year, in stark contrast to normal expectations, my best snake day yielded just two snakes. In addition, I spent nearly every day in the field for seven weeks in May and June and only saw two rattlesnakes. As the summer progressed and the habitat became more and more dry, very little lizard and snake activity was observed.

A red diamond rattlesnake found during a cover board array survey in 2010 at the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve shows how lush and green the hills were that year.

A red diamond rattlesnake found during a cover board array survey in 2010 at the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve shows how lush and green the hills were that year.

August is often our driest month, so we rarely see many animals in the field at that time. We often wait until late September before we start seeing hatchlings and juveniles along with occasional adult animals. This year, the young snakes have been virtually nonexistent, and that makes sense. If the adult female snakes and lizards cannot gain enough body mass, they generally will not reproduce. Since most of our wild animals stayed underground for much of the year, they probably did not feed and therefore were unsuccessful in breeding.

Last week I saw firsthand how difficult the drought has been on our native snakes. While walking through the coastal sage, I found a large, female red diamond rattlesnake Crotalus ruber. She was very thin and could barely move. I presume she had recently given birth (rattlesnakes in San Diego County give birth to live young in August and September) and just did not have enough body mass to make it through her pregnancy. No baby snakes were found in the vicinity, and I can only hope this female pulls through. If she had babies, they will, hopefully, be able to hold out until the rains eventually arrive.

A cell phone photo shows an emaciated red-diamond rattlesnake at the Reserve in September, 2014. Many of our local reptiles and amphibians are suffering from the recent drought.

A cell phone photo shows an emaciated red-diamond rattlesnake at the Reserve in September, 2014. Many of our local reptiles and amphibians are suffering from the recent drought.

In over 30 years of field “herping” (searching for reptiles and amphibians), I have not experienced drought conditions worse than those seen in 2013 and 2014. In fact, the North American Field Herping Association has shown just how bad the drought has been on Southern California snakes. When comparing non-drought year data from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2012, with drought year data from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2014, for snakes found in Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, 4,971 snakes (1,055 hatchlings) were found between 2010 and 2012 whereas only 2,888 snakes (680 hatchlings) were found from 2012 to 2014. It is also interesting to note that there were more contributors to the database in the latter years, so roughly half the snakes were found by considerably more field herpers in the drought years than in the normal rainfall years, and roughly half the hatchling snakes were found in the drought years than in the normal years.

Here's a portrait of a healthy long-nosed snake in the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve in 2009.

Here’s a portrait of a healthy long-nosed snake in the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve in 2009.

So what does this all mean? Nobody can be certain right now. We do know that our climate has boom and bust years and drought and rainfall totals are very cyclical for most areas of the world. However, our findings to date do suggest that climate change is occurring at a rapid pace, and we all need to do our part to protect the environment and our natural resources, especially the snakes!

Jeff Lemm is a senior research coordinator in the Behavioral Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Catching Rock Iguanas: Easier Said than Done!

Corinne PisacaneThis year I traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands to study wild rock iguanas. The Turks and Caicos rock iguana Cyclura carinata is endemic to this Caribbean country and is critically endangered. Our team flew to the island of Providenciales, the main hub for tourist travel. From there we continued in a much smaller plane across the beautiful and shallow waters of the Caicos Bank to our final destination, Big Ambergris Cay. This island, located about 40 miles east of Providenciales, is diminutive in size, measuring about 4 miles (6 kilometers) long and only 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) wide. Its highest point is less than 100 feet (30 meters) above sea level. In addition to the iguanas, this secluded island hosts a number of private residences, and there are plans for a large housing development, which poses a potential threat to iguana habitat on the island.

During my time on Big Ambergris Cay, I was involved with a graduate student’s dissertation project involving iguana capture, relocation, and the subsequent examination of homing abilities (among a number of other iguana-related activities!). Every day we set out after it warmed up enough for iguanas to come out of their nooks and holes. Once we located individuals of interest, we set about stalking them. A number of our team members then attempted to catch iguanas of interest with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the lizards were just too fast and would elude our attempts with ease!

Once caught, our next challenge was to try to take a blood sample from each iguana to measure baseline stress hormones. From the moment we caught each iguana, we had exactly three minutes to successfully collect the blood. Any time over three minutes meant that stress hormones (or glucocorticoids) had already reached the iguana’s circulation, meaning we were measuring its stress response to the capture, which was not our goal. As you can imagine, this made for a very exciting three minutes!

If we were not successful, the iguana would be released and not considered as part of the study. If we did succeed, the iguana was then numbered using a system of color-coded beads strung through Spectra line and placed on both sides of the iguana’s dorsal crest between the shoulder blades. This dorsal skin is similar to that of our earlobes, and the stringing of the beads is thought to feel much like piercing one’s ears. Once we were finished marking individuals with beads, each iguana was also fitted with a small radio transmitter to enable future tracking of their movements on the island.

After the identification beads and radio transmitter were secured, iguanas were released at their point of capture and tracked for two weeks to determine their home range. Then they were recaptured and relocated to a different study site just under a mile away to determine if relocation might be used to successfully mitigate future development. As soon as they were released, the race was on! Equipped with radio-receiver equipment, researchers tracked the movements of the iguanas daily to investigate where they went. It appears that adult iguanas can usually find their way home, although how they do so is still not fully understood. By contrast, the homing skills of juvenile iguanas don’t appear to be as developed, and they usually stay put in their new home. For this reason, juvenile iguanas make better candidates for relocation than adults.

Alongside all the capturing and relocating of iguanas, our team also processed all the blood samples collected. This was no small task, as the logistics of processing blood on a small Caribbean island are very involved and time sensitive. Samples had to be frozen immediately, which required transferring them from a portable mobile cooler, carried by each researcher, to a larger cooler on a golf cart (the only mode of transportation around the island!) and then, finally, back to one of our rooms where we’d set up a mobile laboratory. Overall, this was quite an operation! Picture at least half of a dorm room set up as a temporary lab with collection tubes, a centrifuge, slide-staining equipment, and blood-draw needles.

Having traveled to a number of tropical places, I had expected the Turks and Caicos landscape to be all soft sand and friendly flora, with iguanas living in a beach environment. How wrong I was! All this capturing, relocating, and tracking takes place on volcanic-like ground that can quickly tear up ordinary shoes. The ground is also uneven and makes capture and tracking a slow and strenuous process. In addition, the small shrubs and trees are full of thorns and are quite abrasive. As a result, we always wore long pants and covered up at all times, making the work more challenging as it got extremely hot outside. Thick-soled shoes were also critical if we were to move around quickly enough to capture iguanas and avoid large thorns entering the soles of our feet. While we find it difficult to deal with this kind of environment, the iguanas have evolved to be perfectly suited to it.

This type of research is critical to gain a thorough understanding of the biology and behavior of the Turks and Caicos rock iguana. As with most endangered species, we need to be diligent about setting aside the necessary habitat for these amazing reptiles. Rock iguanas throughout the Caribbean are in danger of losing their habitat as a result of human-related pressures. I learned a great deal while on Big Ambergris Cay and am very grateful that I could be involved with iguana conservation in such an amazing habitat!

Corinne Pisacane is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, ISWE: Cheetah Pseudopregnancy?

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Pandas On and Off

Xiao Liwu takes a stroll.

Xiao Liwu takes a stroll.

Changes are happening at the San Diego Zoo, and all for the better, of course! Ground was broken for our new Asian leopard habitat, to be located next to Panda Trek in our Panda Canyon (see NEWS blog dated October 9). With the preparation and construction of this wonderful new home for our snow leopards and Amur leopards comes noise. We try to keep noise to a minimum in our giant panda area.

Bai Yun seems to take almost all construction noise in stride—she’s had years of experience at the Zoo! Her son Xiao Liwu has been the least bothered by noise of all six cubs Bai Yun has raised. Still, as construction progresses, panda keepers may take “Mr. Wu” off exhibit from time to time or move him to the north yard if they find he is bothered by the noise. He could still be seen by our Panda Cam viewers but not by Zoo guests. Gao Gao will continue to remain off exhibit during this time.

Where there's 'boo, there's bliss!

Where there’s ‘boo, there’s bliss!

But the good news is that a television monitor tuned to Panda Cam has been installed in our main gift shop! If you come to the Zoo, you can check on Panda Cam to see who is visible before making your way down to Panda Trek. And our wonderful volunteer Panda Cam operators will always strive to give you the best possible view of one of our pandas.

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Well, Chinook?

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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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Understanding Wildlife Trade In Asia

A sign outside a store in Luang Prabang, Laos, advertises ivory for sale.

Typing this from a café in Laos, I am thinking about and facing one of the greatest threats to biodiversity: the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts. I’m looking at a sign in a shop across the road, advertising elephant ivory for sale. Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horns, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, and wild pig tusks, among others, for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door. Thankfully, the cub was rescued and is now being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horn, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, wild pig tusks among others for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh, where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door (see photo). Thankfully the cub was rescued and is now safe and being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

A three-week-old Asiatic black bear cub is one of a pair of cubs rescued from the wildlife trade and now being cared for at the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia. It is destined for a wonderful life in the forest.

Of all the species we work with at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, by far the most complex and dynamic are humans! Numbering over 7 billion, with countless cultures, motivations, and world views, humans are an extremely complex, yet central element in conservation initiatives. Successful conservation requires a multipronged approach, tackling the biochemical, ecological, and behavioral aspects of wildlife and the cultural and economic countenance of humans.Our Conservation Education Division focuses on the socio-ecological aspects of conservation across three main themes: conservation education, conservation social science, and community-based conservation. As a community-based conservation ecologist, I focus on the intersection of wildlife and humans, using both ecological and sociological research methods to inform our projects, which is why I am in Southeast Asia.

Three of the 20 Souphanouvong University students who, after participating in our training workshop, partnered with us to conduct wildlife surveys in Laos. They are conducting surveys at the Tat Kuang Si Reserve in Laos.

With its dense, tropical forests, rich biodiversity, and large human populations, Asia is a center of wildlife trade. Despite many countries having made capturing, poaching, killing, and exporting of wildlife illegal, poaching and consumption of wildlife still abounds. The history of wildlife use in Asia is a long and ingrained one, where for over 3,000 years wildlife has been used for food, traditional medicine, entertainment, and decoration. It’s embedded in many cultures here.

Couple that history to the rapidly developing economies and expanding middle class here, and it has meant a continued (and growing) demand for wildlife products, many of which are regarded as status symbols. Tackling such normative aspects of culture to try to curb this tide of wildlife use, and to eliminate demand, is a big challenge!

The Free the Bears team designs and refines the survey instrument for Cambodia.

Since the beginning of September, I’ve been in the field collaborating with our partners at Free the Bears. They are dedicated to conserving Southeast Asian bears, specifically the Asiatic black bear Ursus thibetanus and the sun bear Helarctos malayanus. These species are poached from the forest and killed for their gall bladders. The cubs are captured and placed in bile-harvesting farms where, confined in small cages, bile is periodically withdrawn from their gall bladder using a large needle over the next 10 years or so. Both species are also killed for their paws, which are used in bear paw soup and bear paw rice wine, and for their claws and teeth, which are used for decoration. Lastly, cubs of the killed parents are taken for the pet trade.

A recently rescued sun bear is in quarantine before being released to the forest enclosures in the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia

Free the Bears staff patrol for and remove snares from the forest and actively rescue bears from confinement. We are supporting this work by developing and conducting human dimension surveys about wildlife in Cambodia and Laos. Our collaborative project employs a novel approach to understand people’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs toward wildlife and to learn about their usage of bears for parts and pets. Understanding how people think about and view wildlife is vital for developing conservation interventions, especially when tackling wildlife consumption. It will also form the foundation of future communication and education efforts about wildlife. People’s attitudes often drive their behaviors; by better understanding attitudes, we can more effectively affect behaviors.

A sun bear does what it does best: living a free life in its native habitat.

In Cambodia, we are conducting face-to-face interviews with people about their knowledge and attitudes toward wildlife. We are using a randomized response technique (RRT) to ask about wildlife usage. Why? When you ask people about illegal activities (such as drug-use, DUI, etc.), they may not answer truthfully, so data may be biased or unreliable. RRT uses a randomizing device (such as dice or coin flip) that allows the respondent to answer truthfully while maintaining anonymity. Even the interviewer does not know their response! For Cambodia, we are basing our RRT around a local dice game called khla-kluk.

Students at Souphanouvong University in Laos are excited to help out conservation after our workshop.

In Laos, we’re using a different approach. We’re asking people to complete a self-administered questionnaire, which we have translated into several languages (see images). We partnered with the Women’s Union and Souphanouvong University students, whom we trained to conduct surveys. With this wonderful team of 30 citizen scientists, we have collected over 700 surveys. By the end, we will have over 1,000. This is a fantastic response and the first of this scale in Laos.

We are grateful to the governments of Cambodia and Laos for their bold action around making wildlife trade illegal and for allowing us to conduct these surveys. We are also grateful to our many local partners, who are doing the hard work of administering the surveys in the coming months. It is hoped that we can adapt this survey for use across Southeast Asia and India in a comprehensive assessment of wildlife usage.

David gives a lecture (via a translator) about conservation in Laos.

It is through efforts like this, and the incredible work of the Institute, San Diego Zoo Global, Free the Bears, and others that I can stay hopeful, even as I look at wildlife products for sale. Why? Because we’ve not given up, and we are working in smart, complementary, and sustainable ways to tackle these threats so that humans and wildlife can co-exist.

Thanks to you for your continued support, which makes this work possible.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, World Giraffe Day.

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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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7 Animal Facts You Didn’t Learn In School

You don’t have to be an animal expert to appreciate the natural world. In fact, simple short cuts like the fun facts listed below, can be very conducive to gaining a better understanding of the Animal Kingdom. Enjoy!

Monkeys have tails and apes don't.

1. Monkeys have tails and apes don’t.
Since we have more in common with our great ape cousins than we do with monkeys, a good way to remember this fact is to simply look at your rear end.

There’s no such thing as a poisonous snake.

2. There’s no such thing as a poisonous snake.
Contrary to pop culture and older versions of Encyclopedia Britannica, snakes are venomous, not poisonous. If they were poisonous, touching or licking a serpent would be the more appropriate fear than death by snakebite. And that’s even debatable, since statistics show that out of 7,000 to 8,000 snakebites per year in the U.S., only 5 or 6 are fatal. Call it semantics, but the truth is only 10 percent of the 3,000 species of snake are venomous, meaning they inject toxins into their prey (biting or stinging). The difference is skin deep.

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Who Will Catch Johne’s Disease?

Gina Geiselman works with DNA samples in the Genetics Lab.

Gina Geiselman works with DNA samples in the Genetics Lab.

Wild animals can be endangered for many different reasons, most of them related to habitat loss, poaching, climate change, and pollution. However, disease outbreak in wild and captive animals has also been a factor of major concern to conservationists. Diseases such as Johne’s (pronounced yo-nees) disease have been reported in hoofed mammals at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, jeopardizing valuable animals designated to specific breeding programs or exhibits. This disease is a bacterial infection that causes wasting and chronic diarrhea, eventually leading to death.

Because of the potentially disastrous effect of Johne’s disease on captive wildlife health and conservation, it is vital to identify those individuals at higher risk or more susceptible to the disease and prevent mortality. This summer, I had the opportunity to work in the Genetics Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research exploring genetic markers potentially associated with species susceptibility to Johne’s disease in various hoofed mammals in our collection, including springbok, water buffalo, and various goat species.

Above is sequenced white-tailed gnu DNA from the gene SLC11A1.

Above is sequenced white-tailed gnu DNA from the gene SLC11A1.

I examined genetic variation in genes that have been used to study Johne’s disease in cattle and a similar disease in humans, Crohn’s disease. These so-called “candidate genes” for Johne’s disease did not show evidence of being associated with susceptibility to Johne’s, as patterns of genetic variation were not correlated with levels of incidence across species. This result was disappointing but somewhat expected, given that genes associated with disease susceptibility are typically very hard to identify, especially among animals in managed care with small population size and related individuals.

Nonetheless, this study was a great opportunity for me to learn new genetic techniques. It opened up a new possibility for evaluating more genes and also additional animals in future studies. Animal care and well-being is a San Diego Zoo Global priority, and using genetics as a tool may help improve the management of these precious and endangered animals.

Gina Geiselman is a 2014 summer fellow at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

3

To Fledge or not to Fledge…

Su'nan is back in her nest...for now!

Su’nan is back in her nest…for now!

That is the question.

Fledging is the process in which a young bird leaves the nest. We consider a California condor chick to be fledged when it can fly to the higher perches in the flight pen, approximately 10 feet off the ground. When condor chicks fledge, they tend to be 140 to 150 days old. The youngest bird to fledge here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park was 123 days old. Su’nan in now 162 days old, but she has yet to fledge.

Many viewers have been worried about this Condor Cam chick’s health and/or development. First of all, let me assure you that Su’nan is very healthy and safe. We are not concerned that she is a “late bloomer.” Although she may be a little behind compared to some of our condor chicks, we have had birds fledge even later than this.

Our condor nest boxes are on the second floor of the condor breeding facility. The nests have one entrance that leads to the roost area. The entrance has an 18-inch barrier at the base to prevent young hatchlings from wandering out of our camera’s view. This barrier also provides exercise for the chick when it is big enough to start jumping up onto the barrier. The roost area is open to the flight pen and has a ledge that is about 8 feet above the ground. There is a 5-inch-diameter pole leaning from the ground to the ledge; we call this the “pole ladder.” The condors can walk up or down this pole ladder to get to or from the nest; they can, of course, fly to the nest as well.

Early in the day on September 24, at 149 days of age, Su’nan walked down the pole ladder into the flight pen for the first time. Her parents, Towich and Sulu, kept a close eye on her as she investigated her new surroundings. She drank from the pool, even dunking her head in the water. She picked at old food from the ground. She had a fun time hopping around and flapping her wings. Towich and Sulu watched nervously, making sure their chick was safe and didn’t stray too far from the nest. At one point, when she did move to where her parents were uncomfortable, they corralled her back toward the nest. Frustration ensued and some firm discipline followed. Please note that Towich and Sulu were merely trying to protect their chick, their “investment,” you might say! Su’nan did not take kindly to this, and she stayed on the ground, hiding behind a sumac bush for the remainder of the day. Towich and Sulu made attempts to try to get her back up the pole ladder and back into the nest, but Su’nan did not comply. Su’nan spent that night out of the nest, on the ground in the pen. Her parents perched nearby to watch over her.

The next morning, after Towich and Sulu again tried to move her toward the nest, she finally climbed back up the pole ladder and quickly hopped back into the nest box. She stayed in there for several days, eventually warming back up to her parents’ company. Regular feeding bouts were reestablished. She has been a little standoffish with Towich, but he is the one to do most of the disciplining and preening—two necessary activities that the chicks don’t seem to appreciate. Sulu usually just comes into the nest to feed; naturally, Su’nan is more excited to see her! It’s important to note that BOTH parents are still heavily invested in this chick and are trying their best to ensure her success.

When condor chicks fledge in the wild, it can be a long process as well. They often walk around the mouth of their nest cave, hopping about, testing their wings. They may hop or climb into nearby shrubs or trees to get a better vantage point. Very seldom do chicks just spring forth from their nest into the wild, blue yonder. They usually need to exercise and build their abilities before embarking on such a dangerous venture. Mom and Dad are always present to escort or protect the chicks, too. Parent condors can be very vigilant and defensive of their chicks. After all, much energy and many resources went into producing just this one chick, so they try very hard to ensure success for their only nestling. One pair of condors in California actually chased a black bear away from the nest!

Su’nan is starting to come back out into the roost and onto the ledge. She has been seen testing her wings on the ledge in the morning sun. Her wings are looking nice and full. Hopefully soon, she will take that next step and fledge into the flight pen. When she does, we will be sure to switch the Condor Cam view to the pen view so you can watch her.

So what’s next for Su’nan once she fledges? She’ll stay in the pen with her parents for a little while longer. She is still learning from them. In the wild, condor chicks stay with or around their parents for up to 18 months. We don’t let them stay that long here at the Park. If we did, the next breeding season would probably be compromised; the presence of the fledgling may prevent the parents from breeding the next year, or the parents may turn aggressive to the chick if they try to nest again. Soon, Su’nan will be removed from her parents so they can prepare for the next breeding season, and she will be introduced to other birds her age and an adult bird to act as a behavioral mentor.

And on that note, we have some exciting news! This year, we were able to install some cameras at our remote socialization pen at the Safari Park. Once Su’nan is moved up there with the other young condors, we will be able to provide a view from those cameras, so you will be able to watch Su’nan for much longer than you were able to watch the previous Condor Cam chicks, Saticoy and Cuyamaca.

The interest and enthusiasm over the hatch and growth of Su’nan have been wonderful. We really appreciate all of the comments and questions we have received throughout her development. Thanks again for all of your patience and support. We couldn’t do it without you!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: Close to Fledging.

15

Well, Chinook?

I snapped a photo of this bear from the Polar Cam. Any guesses as to who looks so relaxed?

I snapped a photo of this bear from the Polar Cam today. Any guesses as to who looks so relaxed?

Polar bears have, what seems to us, a long gestation period. A fertilized polar bear egg doesn’t implant or develop right away. Instead, it implants when triggered by the female’s body condition and environmental factors, most often between September and November. This is known as delayed implantation, an adaptation that ensures cubs are born to healthy mothers at a time of year when their chances for survival are greatest. We are in the middle of that time zone right now with our female bear, Chinook. If a fertilized egg were to implant, the actual fetal gestation would be about 60 days.

Keeper Samantha Marino explained that Chinook is starting to be come interested in using bedding materials and desires more “alone time” from Tatqiq and Kalluk on a more regular basis. Keepers are offering Chinook denning/nesting materials, such as Bermuda grass, burlap, and palm fronds, and allowing her to spend the afternoon away from the other bears. They will continue to monitor this behavior and give Chinook what she needs for a possible pregnancy.

Chinook’s urine and feces are collected and sent to our Endocrinology Lab several times a week to determine if there are any changes in her hormone levels that might indicate that hoped-for cubs are on the way. And currently, Chinook is just on exhibit in the morning; in the afternoon and evening, she gets to enjoy the privacy of the off-exhibit polar bear yard, which includes access to the bedroom area.

We will certainly let polar bear fans know if anything changes, but for now it’s just a waiting game. Paws crossed!

Watch the bears daily on Polar Cam…

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Pandas Keep Cool.