Animals and Plants

Animals and Plants

2

Punk Rock Polar Bears?

caption

Polar bears are champion swimmers!

One of the most frequently asked questions during the summer months at Polar Bear Plunge is “Why are the bears green?” The answer may surprise you!

The outer guard hairs on a polar bear’s coat are clear and hollow (like a straw), which means they often take on the color of whatever they happened to roll in. Wild bears mostly have only snow and ice to lie on, so they usually maintain the bright white color that you imagine when you picture a polar bear. Here at the Zoo, we like to provide Kalluk, Tatqiq, and Chinook with as many different substrates in their habitat as we can so that they have options when they choose to rest or roll around. This gives them an opportunity to exhibit species-specific behavior. Throughout their habitat they have access to grass, sand, mulch, dirt, pine needles, hay, and a couple of hammocks made out of used fire hose. You may have seen Chinook masquerading as a brown bear after a prolonged roll in the mulch or dirt.

That brings me back to the original question of “Why are the polar bears green?” Remember those hollow hairs? That tiny space in each hair is a great place for algae to live. The bears’ main exhibit pool is fresh water and during the summer, when the weather is warmer than usual, algae begin to grow on the pool floor. When our bears swim and brush up along the bottom or sides of the pool, they pick up some of the algae, which continue to grow inside the individual hairs! It is not a concern for the bears as we have an elaborate filtration system and excellent water quality team. It is unlikely that they even notice it, but it does give them a bit of a punk rock look. In the winter, around Christmas time, they look downright festive!

The discoloration will last until the bears molt in the springtime. For about two weeks in March to April, our bears glisten with a brilliant white color. Once they start rolling around in all that substrate we provide, they begin to take on the color of their environment and the cycle begins again.

Matthew Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous blog, Springtime for Polar Bears.

5

Devi, Cover Girl

caption

Five-month-old Devi is a bundle of energy with a personality all her own!

Have you seen the August 2015 ZOONOOZ? Hippo calf Devi is the “cover girl”—complete with a model-like, pouty lip. Devi is now five months old and has been growing in both size and personality. It wasn’t that long ago we were straining to get a glimpse of the shy, skittish calf tucked under the chin of Funani, her almost 3,500-pound mom. Nowadays, Devi is doing underwater barrel rolls and cartwheels while Funani tries to keep up! Often, Funani rests her big head on her calf’s back to keep her still, if only for a minute. But if Devi isn’t ready to settle down, she wriggles free to go on to her next adventure.

Some of you might wonder: “When is this happening? Every time I go see them, they are sleeping.” Hippos are naturally nocturnal, meaning they are active at night. Here at the Zoo, the best time to see them active is after they’ve finished breakfast in the barn and go back out to the exhibit—usually right as the Zoo opens—and then later in the afternoon. But keep in mind that, depending on their mood and weather, they can be active anytime.

caption

Devi often likes to get right up to the window to watch the visitors.

If you witness one of their active times, you will see Devi’s personality shine. There is only one word to describe her: sassy. She often ventures up to the glass to gaze at the visitors while Funani gently nudges her to move along. Then, if they pause on a ramp or a rock, she might initiate a play session with mom. Devi will start with a quick head toss that turns into a nibble on her mother’s ear or mouth and then, ever so gently, Funani opens her large mouth (exposing those enormous teeth) and thus begins the session.

These sessions are teaching Devi valuable life lessons on how to maneuver if and when she has to fight, but for us onlookers these sessions are sweet and smile inducing. Their play sessions on land are something to see, too! Mostly, it’s Devi trying to check out everything around her as she head tosses, nose bumps, bounces, and pivots all at a pace much quicker than Funani who is trying to make sure her “little one” doesn’t get into trouble. It is common to see or hear Funani snort at Devi if she needs to reign in the sass. You can “see” the snort when they are in the water—it’s when a rush of large air bubbles suddenly come from Funani’s nostrils. If you watch closely, you’ll see Devi will change her tune after a snort from mom…usually.

Funani and Devi are scheduled to be in their habitat on Hippo Trail Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends. As always, the schedule is subject to change depending on their needs, but try to come by and see the sassy sweetie soon!

 

Jennifer Chapman is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Hippo Birth: A Private Event.

1

One Step Closer To Fledging

Antiki has moved out of the nest box, spending her time on the ledge outside where her parents groom and feed her.

Antiki has moved out of the nest box and is spending her days on the ledge outside where her parents groom and feed her.

As many Condor Cam viewers have experienced, the rearing process for a California condor can be long and slow. It makes sense, though, for a condor to develop so slowly. She has lots of growing to do. When our chick, Antiki, hatched, she weighed approximately 6.35 ounces (180 grams). When she reaches her fledge weight of 17 pounds (8 kilograms) or more, she will have increased her hatch weight by 44 times! I, myself, have only increased my birth weight by 19 times.

On August 6, at 118 days of age, Antiki took her most recent step toward leaving the nest: she jumped up onto the barrier between her nest box and the adjoining roost area. She later hopped back into her nest, but that’s OK. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet. Her feathers still need time to fill in all of the way. In the meantime, hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles, as well as improve her balance. On August 11, she hopped into the roost area on the other side of the barrier for the first time. Here, she can warm herself in the sun, if she so chooses. While out in the roost, she can also rest or sleep in the shade, perch with her parents (if they are not perched out in the flight pen), or step out to the roost ledge to soak up the sun’s rays for the first time. The ledge is about 8 feet from the ground – high enough to make the parents feel comfortable and secure in their nest, but not as high as a condor nest in the wild. Antiki may get near the edge, but she will be cautious in doing so, so she doesn’t teeter off. It is natural for condor chicks to explore and exercise on the edge of their nest cavities. Rarely do they fall out; in 33 years of raising California condors here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have never seen a chick fall from its nest area prematurely.

The next step of Antiki’s development will be to fledge. When she is ready, she will jump off of the 8-foot-high nest ledge. She will either slow her fall to the ground below the ledge, or fly to a nearby perch. We consider her fledged when she can get up on a perch by herself. The youngest we have seen a condor chick fledge here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is 123 days old. Sometimes chicks have waited until over 165 days. It all depends on the chick.

The parents tend to be very vigilant at this phase of their chick’s development. It might appear over-protective to us, but keep in mind that they have invested an entire breeding season and lots of energy into this one chick. It benefits them greatly to make sure that their sole offspring is safe, healthy, and strong. They usually don’t coax or pressure their chick to leave the nest; on the contrary, we have seen parents make sure that it doesn’t stray too far from the nest if it’s not ready yet. The parents will usually perch and/or roost near the fledgling. They also will join her when she finally starts going to the feeding area of the flight pen. Most of the time, though, they will push her aside and they will eat first, feeding her when they are done. In “condor culture,” the bigger, more dominant birds usually eat first, while the subordinate birds wait their turn. The earlier Antiki learns this from her parents, the better she will assimilate into a wild population after she is released. Don’t worry—Sisquoc and Shatash won’t let Antiki starve. They will continue to feed her even when she is out in the flight pen. Eventually, she will eat more and more on her own.

Depending on Antiki’s development and activity levels, we will try to switch the Condor Cam view from the nest box/roost area to the flight pen. You’ll be able to see the roost area, most of the perches in the pen, the feeding area, shade areas created by plants, and the pool, where she can either drink on her own or bathe (one of my favorite condor activities to observe!). The view will be wide, so detail will be harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen once the chick is large enough to look over the nest box barrier and into the pen. So the pen has lots of plant growth and dried food (animal carcasses) in it. We limit our activities in/near chick pens so as not to expose the chick to humans, thus desensitizing her to our presence. We have found that chicks raised in isolation from humans tend to be more successful once they are released to the wild. The flight pen won’t look as nice as an exhibit you might see at the Zoo or the Safari Park, but Sisquoc and Shatash prefer it that way, if it means we stay away from their precious chick!

Thanks so much to all of our faithful and dedicated Condor Cam viewers. Soon, your support and devotion will be rewarded when our “little big girl” spreads her wings and takes that next step. Rest assured, though, that Antiki’s story will be far from over!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Condor Chick: Getting Big!

78

Summer Pandas

caption

Xiao Liwu got a swing for his birthday—the perfect gift for this active young bear!

The end of the Zoo’s longer summer hours is in sight, and our animals are getting hit with another big heat wave. This year has been a more mild summer as a whole, but we have had some small sprints of heat. Many of you, visiting or watching, have noticed that Gao Gao has spent many of his summer days in the air conditioning. While this has been frustrating for our guests visiting, please know how much we appreciate your cooperation while we get Gao Gao bear through summer.

While Gao Gao has been relaxing most of the day, Xiao Liwu has been quite a character to watch! Throughout the day we have observed him having random energy bursts, and showing off to our guests. Remember this is normal for a panda as they go through their first hormone shift at three years of age! For those of us that have been watching him since birth, up close, it’s great to see him really exhibit these bear behaviors.

I have had the amazing opportunity to watch five of our panda cubs go through their first hormone shift, and it NEVER gets old. Right now I can honestly say that there is no perfect time to come visit the pandas for good activity levels; there are mornings where Mr. Wu is entirely on FOOD mode, there’s SLEEP mode, and then there’s DEMO mode! Right now, he has been eating for several hours a day, no specific time, and there is almost always a time where he is running, rolling around, and jumping on stuff in his enclosure.

Bai Yun is still in our behind-the scenes-area. As many of you know, our vets have come to the conclusion that she is not pregnant. While we are of course disappointed, we are glad that she is healthy and doing well. Our keepers will be working with her on a daily basis, and getting her out of her den and outside into her garden room. This is a process in itself. Making sure she’s comfortable is their number one priority and they are easing her back into her normal routine.

So thank you again for your understanding and helping us keep our animals comfortable—remember that in the heat of the day none of our bears are really going to want to be up and about! And this coming week, drink lots of water while you’re visiting us at the Zoo!

2

Learning What We Can Learn From Camera Trap Photos: Part 2

caption

Can an Andean bear’s nose be a way to determine its age?.

I recently wrote about how we’ve determined that, with caution, researchers can identify individual Andean bears in camera trap photos. Researchers should therefore be able to answer some basic questions that have big implications for Andean bear conservation. However, there are many other important questions for which we still don’t have answers. For example, does the population in this watershed have an age structure that will be stable over the long-term?

How do you figure out how old an animal is when it was born in the wild years ago – 2 years ago, 8 years ago, or 14 years ago? Field researchers often use characteristics of mammals’ teeth to estimate their ages, but those methods require capturing the animals and it is definitely not easy to capture Andean bears. It turns out that we can use camera traps.

I might not have seriously considered using camera trap photos to investigate these kinds of questions except for a conversation with a field researcher from our collaborator, the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. When I showed him a photo of an Andean bear living at the San Diego Zoo, he said “Wow, that’s an old bear!” He was correct, but how did he know that? He couldn’t describe exactly what it was about the photo that suggested that the bear was old, but I remembered that several years earlier some researchers had documented that the nose color of African lions changes as they age. Might the same thing happen in Andean bears?

Using photos of known-age bears from various zoos, we’ve determined that although the changes in nose color aren’t as predictable as we’d like, they’re consistent enough to provide some information about the age of the individual bear. And, using photos of captive- and wild-born cubs, we’ve verified that it’s possible to estimate the ages of young cubs from camera trap photos. Since fewer than a dozen Andean bear birth dens have ever been found in the wild, this could be really helpful in determining when female bears give birth to cubs. That information, in turn, is the first step in determining why females give birth then, and not at other times of the year.

caption

Notice the changes in Tommy’s nose from when he was  (left to right) 2, 17, and 23 years old.

Another set of conservation research questions can only be answered with information on the genetic structure of a population, or information on how individuals are related to one another. Does the population in this mountain range have a functional connection to other populations or is it isolated and inbred? What traits affect the probability that a female, or male, will have surviving offspring? Who knows which cub was sired by which male? Do cubs look like their parents? In other words, do the facial markings of cubs look like the facial markings of their parents? The only Andean bears with known mothers and fathers are the cubs born in captivity, so I worked with collaborators to test whether the markings of related captive-born Andean bears looked more similar than the markings of unrelated captive-bear Andean bears. They don’t. Sometimes bears that are closely related look alike, but sometimes they don’t. On the other hand, sometimes bears that look alike are closely related, but sometimes they’re not related at all. So, although it might be tempting to say that a cub which looks like an adult male is the offspring of that male, that’s a potentially misleading conclusion. We’ll just have to wait for the development of good genetic tools before we can answer questions about the genetics or kinship structure of Andean bear populations.

After thorough review and discussion by other scientists, this work has been published online in PeerJ, where you can read the details and see more photos.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous blog, Learning What We Can Learn from Camera Trap Photos: Part 1.

0

Terns, Plovers, and People: Living in Harmony

caption

This beach on Naval Base Coronado is one site where field biologists are studying California least tern and snowy plover populations (U.S. Navy photo by S. McLaughlin, SDZG)

As field biologists, we are lucky to have some of the most beautiful offices in the world. Every day, my coworkers and I get to enjoy long walks on the beach, warm sunshine and the occasional passing dolphin pod. Of course with views like the one in the photo, we are working alongside many other people enjoying a day at the Pacific Ocean. It’s wonderful to see people appreciating the beach habitat we all love so much, especially when it’s done in a respectful and responsible way. So, here are a couple of thoughts from a field biologist.

Both the California least tern and western snowy plover are sensitive to human disturbance. While some bird species will remain on their nest until you are very nearly upon it, terns and plovers seem to hop off at the first sign of danger. Plovers can be seen in the vicinity of the nest, performing the broken-wing display to draw perceived predators away from their nest. Terns take a more aggressive approach, screeching at and dive-bombing anyone that approaches their nest; sometimes several members of the colony will join in to drive the threat away. With the numbers of terns and plovers at critically low levels, it’s important that the birds are able to spend their energy caring for their young, instead of chasing off disturbances.

caption

With chicks this cute and helpless, it’s easy to see why we want to protect California least tern populations. (U.S. Navy photo by S. McLaughlin, SDZG)

The most common instances of disturbance we see out in the field are people walking through the colony and dogs being allowed off leash in areas with nesting birds. In addition to upsetting the adult birds, these types of disturbances can result in trampled eggs and chicks, and stressed-out young. Luckily for all the recreational beach users out there, avoiding creating a disturbance is very easy! The most important step to take is observing and abiding by posted signs. If you are ever approached by a game warden or field biologist, don’t be afraid to ask questions. We love to talk about the terns and plovers, and outreach is an important part of our jobs!

The beaches of southern California and the birds that live there offer amazing opportunities for people to engage with nature. If we enjoy these resources respectfully and responsibly they will hopefully be here for many more years to come.

 

Stephanie McLaughlin is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

1

Learning What We Can Learn from Camera Trap Photos: Part 1

caption

Andean bears are sometimes called spectacled bears because of the rings of lighter colored fur around their eyes.

Others have said it before and it’s true: New forms of technology such as camera traps make it possible for field researchers to collect information we could previously only dream about. Technology advances so quickly that we’re still evaluating what we can do with these tools and what questions we can and cannot answer by using them. We have many basic questions that are still unanswered even for species as large as the Andean bear. Here are two of the most basic: How many are there? Are the populations increasing, stable, or decreasing? The answers to these questions and others would help researchers, conservationists, and governments decide how much of their limited resources to invest in research efforts and conservation actions, in the hopes that 100 years from now there will still be bears roaming the forests of South America. Unfortunately, there are still no answers to these questions.

How would you answer these questions? How do you count animals that live in dense forests in rugged habitat, when those animals avoid contact with humans? It’s been said for decades that the markings of individual Andean bears vary so much that you can identify each individual bear just by looking at it. If that’s true, then maybe we could use camera traps to identify individual Andean bears in photographs and then estimate population sizes and densities. However, how do you test whether individual bears can be reliably identified in photographs? In order to test this you’d need photos of a lot of different bears whose identity you definitely knew. That means you can’t just use photos of wild bears from camera traps, because you don’t know how many bears walked in front of the camera traps.

caption

Compare the markings of this bear, Tommy, with the bear above (named Turbo) and notice the differences.

The only way we could think of to test this was to take photos of different bears from captivity, so we’d know the identify of the bears, ask people to compare those photos, and keep score of whether bears were correctly identified, or not. When a group of international collaborators and I did this we were surprised to discover that people were initially not very good at this task. In fact, they would have done just as well if they’d flipped a coin! That’s really not the kind of result we were expecting, or hoping, and it led us to consider whether we were over-confident in our own abilities to identify individual bears. However, it turns out that with a little practice and training, participants became better at identifying bears from their photographs. After thorough review and discussion by other scientists, this work has been published in the journal Wildlife Biology and you can read all the details and see more photos here.

So, the good news is that, if we’re careful, we and other field researchers can use photos from camera traps to identify individual Andean bears, estimate the sizes of their populations, and compare populations densities. Now, we “just” need to get the cameras into the forests where there are bears!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous blog, Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow Receives a New Posting.

3

Seeding the Future

caption

Transplanting fragile seedlings is a delicate but rewarding task.

As a kid growing up on a ranch in rural Colorado, I never enjoyed sowing seeds or weeding in my mom’s vegetable garden. Ask me to feed the chickens, okay. Fix barbed wire fence? Sure! Do anything involving a horse? You bet! But spend an afternoon with a hoe and unending rows of potatoes? No way. I often reflect on that now when I’m working in the nursery at the Beckman Center leading a team of dedicated volunteers in propagating 20,000 native shrubs over the course of two years. Somehow a switch flipped in my thinking about tending to plants as soon as I started growing natives for restoration. Now I see time spent sowing, transplanting, and watering seedlings as some of the most enjoyable and relaxing aspects of a job that I love. The volunteers and I began propagating almost 20 species in April, and we’ll spend the summer and fall nurturing just over 10,000 plants to grow into half-gallon pots by the winter planting season.

caption

Native plant seeds are sprouted and raised in the nursery area at the Beckman Center for Conservation Research.

The plants that we’re growing here will be the foundation of restored habitat for myriad plants, animals, invertebrates and fungi that depend on quality Coastal Sage Scrub (CSS) habitat. I often find myself enchanted by the tiny, miniature versions of California sagebrush Artemisia californica, bladderpod Peritoma arborea, and white sage Salvia apiana growing in neat rows of pots, just waiting to get big enough to get transplanted into our restoration site at Lake Hodges. I’m excited about this project, which is a mix of applied restoration and theoretical research. We’re restoring over 20 acres of degraded CSS habitat that is part of a critical corridor of preserved land in San Diego County. CSS is declining throughout its narrow range in southern California, so we’re doing all we can to preserve and restore the CSS vegetation at Lake Hodges that was burned in 2007. Lake Hodges is the centerpiece of the San Dieguito River Park, a patchwork of open space extending from the coast near Del Mar up into the mountains of Julian. The Park is home to many of the rare species that contribute to San Diego County’s astounding level of biodiversity.

caption

These seedlings will be used to help restore Coastal Sage Scrub habitat at Lake Hodges.

Diversity is the focus of the research we’re growing plants for. We’re interested in how diversity affects the success of restoration efforts, so we’ll be planting in blocks that vary in number of species. If a block dominated by, say, Eriogonum fasciculatum (California buckwheat) performs better than a mixed block of eight different native shrub species, we may be able to refine our planting methods for future work accordingly. It’s this mix of working closely with native plants while trying to figure out what makes the system in which they’re embedded tick that makes me love restoration. The last eight years of so of growing native plants for work has also made me revisit my childhood dislike of vegetable gardens—I guess I better tell my mother I’ll help her weed those potatoes next time I’m home!

Emily Howe is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

0

Plover Hide and Seek

caption

A snowy plover chick’s cryptic coloring helps it hide from predators. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

Well it’s finally here, SUMMER! As a born-and-raised San Diegan, I know that one thing is for certain this time of year: the beaches become a popular place to visit for some fun in the sun. Besides having to share the sometimes-crowded beaches with other humans, we need to remember that there are other animals that also live on the beach. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with two of those wonderful animals, the threatened western snowy plover and the endangered California least tern.

The snowy plover can be seen year round in San Diego, but the California least tern only comes to our shores during the breeding season, which is April through August. I’m sure if you’ve been anywhere near the tern breeding colonies, you will have seen these small white birds flying around like fighter pilots chasing one another and sounding like storm trooper ray guns. The plovers are small, sandy brown shorebirds with gray legs that hang out in the wrack line of kelp, eating as many bugs as they can get in their bills.

caption

Can you spot the snowy plover chick hiding in this vegetation? Click on the image to enlarge it. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

During the summer at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the beaches are full of plovers and terns nesting and raising their chicks. For both terns and plovers, it takes about four weeks for chicks to be able to fly. Thus, they have to rely on camouflage to evade the eyes of predators; as biologists and monitors, this camouflage can make it challenging for us to locate them. Plover chicks are particularly good at hiding. First off, for lack of a better description, they are adorable. They look like freckled gray cotton balls with legs. Those legs come in handy when evading land predators, especially as the chicks get closer and closer to fledging (meaning they can fly). Their first defense is hiding, especially when they are young, and these little guys are experts at hide and seek.

chick revealv1

There it is! Click on the image for a better look. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

We are always keeping an eye out for them, looking for clues based on the behavior of the adult plovers (especially adult males) but we don’t always find them. It’s amazing how well the chicks blend into the sand and vegetation. They practically disappear and you often have to be right over them to see them. Often, our best chance of seeing the chicks when we are out monitoring is using our truck as a makeshift blind to watch for them out foraging around in the dunes and along the water’s edge. Amazingly, the birds do not perceive the truck as a threat and we can get much closer when we are inside the truck than outside of it.

Another technique we use is to blend in by staying a long distance away and using a spotting scope or binoculars to watch the behavior of the adult male (who does the rearing of the chicks) to find out where the chicks are hanging out. Watching these chicks grow up to become fledglings is a real treat, especially when I see them trying out their wings and getting a little air for the first time. It just puts a smile on my face knowing they have made it and are pretty much all grown up.

So, while I’m out with my fellow biologists doing our part to help protect these amazing animals, you as beach goers can do your part by respecting closed beach areas even when it is crowded, and keeping the beaches clean not only for each other but for all the animals that live there too. By doing this you can be a hero for wildlife and go home happy knowing that you are giving plovers and terns a safe place to grow up for future generations to enjoy.

Rachel Smith is a senior research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

0

10 Tiger Vines for Global Tiger Day

You can be a hero for wildlife by visiting the Zoo or Safari Park, or by joining the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy, which supports our tiger project in Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia.

For more fun animal videos, follow the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Jenn Beening is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 21 Terrific Tiger Facts.