Animals and Plants

Animals and Plants

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Party Time: Leroy the Giraffe Turns One!

Safari Park keepers created a special celebration for a special giraffe.

Safari Park keepers threw a party for a special giraffe.

January 8, 2015 was a day for celebration at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. After a long bout of illness and recovery, giraffe calf Leroy turned one year old! To celebrate the thriving “Birthday Boy,” we threw him a little party, complete with banana-apple-carrot cupcakes for him and chocolate cupcakes for the staff.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since this very special giraffe calf was born to female Shani. Every one of our giraffes special to us, but this birthday milestone is cause for celebration because while he had a bit of a rough start, he’s doing great today! Although he spent the first few months of his life in and out of our Harter Veterinary Hospital receiving care for multiple health concerns, Leroy remains one of the most cheerful and easy-going giraffe I’ve ever met. He continues to receive excellent follow up care from our veterinary and keeper staff, which is helping him thrive.

After our little party, Leroy spent the rest of the afternoon doing what he loves most—eating acacia leaves from the hands of guests on the back of caravan safari trucks, cruising the exhibit with the rest of the giraffe nursery group, and getting special attention from the keepers who have been there with him every step of the way.

Party Prep: Giraffe treats on the left, keeper treats on the right

Party Prep: Giraffe treats on the left, keeper treats on the right

And in case you’re wondering, the other giraffes let Leroy have all the glory during the party, but were quick to clean up afterwards. Chuku, Leroy’s 20-year-old “auntie”, scarfed down what was left of the “cupcakes” shortly after the festivities ended!

Cheers to Leroy! We wish him a many more years of good health, great fun, and delicious leafy browse!

Amanda Lussier is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous blog Giraffes: A Creche Full of Cuties!

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San Diego Zoo Global Conservationist Flies to China to Examine Rare Turtle Egg

Although the female giant softshell turtle has laid numerous eggs, non have been fertile.

Although the female giant softshell turtle has laid numerous eggs, non have been fertile.

Recognized as the world’s most endangered turtle, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is dangerously close to extinction, being represented by only four known individuals left in existence.  Two males are in Vietnam and there is one breeding pair protected under human care at the Suzhou Zoo in China - both are estimated to be between 80 and 100 years old.  Although the female  – owned by the Changsha Zoo -  has produced thousands of eggs since she was paired with the male in 2008, none have hatched.  The expertise of San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research was requested and, with the support of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society, a reproductive expert was sent this last summer to evaluate a recently laid clutch of eggs.

“Within days of the female Rafetus nesting, I was on my way to Shanghai,” said Kaitlin Croyle, student researcher with the San Diego Zoo  Institute for Conservation Research.  “After almost 36 hours of planes, trains, and automobiles, I arrived in Suzhou and went straight to work, as I only had one full day in China before I needed to take a flight back to San Diego.”

After an extensive examination of eggs using a newly developed technique for assessing the presences of sperm, Kaitlin reported that no sperm were present in the eggs. The new technique, called oocyte membrane-bound sperm detection (OMSD), is being developed for turtle and tortoise species by Kaitlin at the Institute with the hope of assisting in endangered species conservation.  OMSD tests for the presence of sperm in eggs that fail to develop an embryo.  This information, in combination with behavioral observations, reproductive history, and veterinary examination, can be used to make educated decisions about breeding pairs to increase the chance for future offspring.
Although disappointing, the result of the whirlwind trip allows conservationists working with the Suzhou Zoo to make an informed decision with regards to future breeding of the rare turtle.
“With only four giant soft-shelled turtles left in the world it is important to do whatever we can to help this female to reproduce,” said TSA President Rick Hudson.  “Kaitlin’s work has helped confirm the male’s probable infertility and we will work to identify other mechanisms for securing fertile eggs in the future. Our hopes likely hinge on finding another male.”
Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents.  The work of these entities is made accessible to children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide.  The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

 

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Gorilla Mother Shows Off New Hold on Baby at San Diego Zoo

Gorilla Mother Shows Off New Hold on Baby at San Diego ZooA three-week-old Western lowland gorilla observed his surroundings as he was held by his mother this morning at the San Diego Zoo. The infant is quickly growing and already reaching milestones at his young age. Animal care staff noted that experienced mother Jessica has now begun holding her infant in different positions. Jessica can be seen holding her baby facing him outward instead of always keeping him pressed into her chest.

Jessica also occasionally will let go of her grip on the baby as she forages, and keepers say the baby can already support his own body weight. The baby, who weighs just a few pounds, will grasp tightly to his mother’s hair and hold on by himself when Jessica lets go to look for food. Keepers at the San Diego Zoo place food items in different areas throughout the exhibit to encourage the animals to search for food (or forage) in a way that mimics what they’d do in the wild, providing them with an opportunity to express species-specific behavior.

This infant, born on Dec. 26, is part of a troop that includes silverback leader Paul Donn, 26, mother Jessica, 34, and another female, Ndjia, who is 20 years old. Since the new baby has been born, Paul Donn has been showing extra affection with Jessica and will sleep next to her and the baby. The troop is expected to have access to the outdoor exhibit as long as weather permits.

Photo taken on Jan. 14, 2015, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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One Day in Suzhou for the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle

With great skill, the author carefully opens a turtle egg to remove a sample for examination under the microscope.

To uncover clues to the mystery of the lack of Rafetus hatchings, the author removes a sample from an egg to view under a microscope. Photo: Gerald Kuchling

With the last remaining breeding pair in captivity, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle Rafetus swinhoei is one of the world’s most critically endangered species. Housed together at China’s Suzhou Zoo, the pair’s breeding success is crucial to the survival of their species.

Although the female has laid hundreds of eggs since 2008, none of her eggs have hatched and the lack of Rafetus hatchlings over the last several years has raised more questions than answers. My involvement in the Rafetus breeding program at the Suzhou Zoo began this past summer with the trip of a lifetime to help save the Yangtze giant softshell turtle from extinction.

As part of my Master’s degree, I am working in the Reproductive Physiology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, developing a technique for oocyte membrane-bound sperm detection (OMSD) for use in the management of endangered turtles and tortoises. OMSD tests for the presence of sperm in eggs that fail to develop an embryo. This information, in combination with behavioral observations, reproductive history, and veterinary examination, can be used to make educated decisions about breeding pairs to increase the chance for future offspring. For example, an egg containing sperm indicates that the male is producing functional sperm capable of progressing up the female’s oviduct to the oocyte. Sperm absence, on the other hand, can point toward a reproductive problem.

Although the female giant softshell turtle has laid numerous eggs, non have been fertile.

Although the female giant softshell turtle has laid numerous eggs, none have been fertile.

With the help of the Turtle Conservancy’s Behler Chelonian Center, we tested OMSD on a variety of turtle and tortoise eggs. This exciting innovation led to a whirlwind trip, organized by the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society, to fly me to the Suzhou Zoo so I could examine eggs of the critically endangered Rafetus. Within days of the female Rafetus nesting, I was on my way to Shanghai. After almost 36 hours of planes, trains, and automobiles, I was greeted in Suzhou by turtle conservationist and my personal hero, Dr. Gerald Kuchling. We went straight to work, as I only had one full day in China before I needed to take a flight back to San Diego. We picked up the eggs at the Suzhou Zoo, where I got a quick glimpse of the female Rafetus, then drove straight to Suzhou University and I spent the afternoon examining as many Rafetus eggs as possible. After several hours hunched over a microscope, I made the disheartening announcement that I was unable to confirm the presence of sperm.

So what is happening between the pair of Yangtze giant softshell turtles? My results indicate that the male Rafetus is either not capable of successful copulation and insemination of the female, not producing sperm, or that he is making low quality sperm that cannot fertilize the female’s oocytes. Although discouraging, this new piece of information provides valuable insight into the potential cause of past reproductive failure. What’s next for the Rafetus pair in Suzhou? First and foremost, a comprehensive reproductive exam is needed to evaluate the fertility status of the male Rafetus. If the male is producing viable sperm, but is not capable of breeding with the female, collection of his sperm followed by artificial insemination could be used to circumvent the problem. In the event that the male Rafetus is deemed infertile, the female will require a new breeding partner.

At this point, it appears that the greatest chance of bringing another male Rafetus to the Suzhou Zoo lies in the hands of Dr. Kuchling, who has been working with the Kunming Institute of Zoology to locate other Yangtze giant softshell turtles in the wild. In the meantime, we continue to hold our breath as we wait for the results of the male’s reproductive exam. Although the odds seem stacked against the Rafetus, only time will tell whether this species can be saved.

Kaitlin Croyle is a research assistant with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous blog, When an Egg Won’t Hatch.

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Sweet, Juicy Papaya‚—for the Birds!

What's on the menu? Egg, commercial diet, and juicy, sweet papaya!

What’s on the menu? Scrambled egg, commercial diet, and juicy, sweet papaya!

As people recover from their holiday feasting, now is a nice time to reflect on feeding Hawaiian birds in a captive breeding program.

One of the biggest challenges of managing a captive propagation center for Hawaiian birds is providing a nutritionally balanced diet replicating foods the birds would eat in the wild. Ideally, a captive diet is composed of the exact same natural fruits, nectars, and animal and insect proteins birds forage on while wandering in native Hawaiian forests. But collecting the exact food items these birds eat in the wild is impossible!

Although wild diets cannot be perfectly recreated, we strive to fashion a representation offering the same nutritional components. Prior to working with any new bird species, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) staff review data on a species’ nutritional requirements and foraging behavior in the wild, to create diets for the birds in captivity. For instance, wild alala historically consumed many native fruits, and supplemented their fruit-heavy diet with invertebrates as well as the occasional egg and nestling of other bird species.

For birds in managed care, we replicate what is contained in wild alala diets by providing apple, melon, mixed veggies, and papaya in place of native fruits. The alala also receive scrambled egg, mealworms, and bird pellets that offer a balance of carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. As you can see, these captive diets heavily feature food items available from commercial retailers.

Unfortunately, even commercially available foods can be difficult or expensive to obtain. This is where we benefit from close relationships with generous local supporters in our communities. For example, Kumu Farms in Wailuku, Maui, regularly donates organic, GMO-free papaya for the birds at the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC). Although the MBCC is a relatively small facility, providing enough papaya for all almost 70 birds (representing 4 species) being bred in captivity is no small feat—but Kumu Farms donates papaya to help make this possible. And all the birds at MBCC eagerly devour Kumu Farm’s sweet, juicy gift!

Joshua Kramer is a research coordinator at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, operated by San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Maui Bird Conservation Center: Open House 2013.

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Happy Anniversary, Gao Gao!

Celebrating a dozen delightful years with Gao Gao!

January 15, 2015 marks a dozen delightful years with Gao Gao at the Zoo!

Gao Gao’s 12th anniversary (he arrived in San Diego Jan. 15, 2003) is coming up at the San Diego Zoo and what a glorious time it has been. He has been the perfect mate for Bai Yun and has fathered five cubs (Mei Sheng, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Yun Zi, and Xiao Liwu). He may be small but he has a huge personality and presence among his keepers. As he always enjoys and demands his daily scratches from us.

This Thursday, Gao Gao will have a quiet anniversary celebration in the Classroom Exhibit with some special enrichment throughout the day that will include his favorite scents: cinnamon spice, ginseng root perfume, and rubbing alcohol!. He does not get an ice cake anymore due to his old teeth, but he will get extra apples and honey, and my favorite part of the day—extra scratches from his keepers.

Lately, Gao Gao has preferred the quiet life of living in the classroom exhibits with access to his bedroom whenever he desires. His exhibit is not open to the public and only gets visits by early morning tours and special behind the scenes events. You can see him on Panda Cam Daily from 6:30a.m. until 2:30p.m. PST.

Jennifer Becerra is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Panda Party for Mr. Wu.

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Happy Birthday, Zoo Elephants!

Shaba celebrated her birthday with a specially made "cake."

Shaba celebrated her birthday with a specially made “cake” stuffed with treats.

The beginning of every year is a time for celebration at the Elephant Care Center at the San Diego Zoo—it’s when we mark all of our elephants’ “birthdays.” Because we do not know the exact days that any of the elephants were born on, it makes it easy for us to keep track of their ages by having everyone “roll over” at the same time.

Shaba demonstrates that one CAN have her cake and eat it, too!

Shaba demonstrates that one CAN have her cake and eat it, too!

This year we are celebrating a milestone with Shaba, our youngest elephant who just turned 35 years old! Shaba is a female African elephant that has lived at the San Diego Zoo for more than three years. For her birthday, a dedicated group of Zoo volunteers crafted a giant cake out of cardboard and tasty produce for Shaba to consume on her own, and it didn’t take long for her to break apart the cake to reach the goodies inside. A group of more than 200 volunteers, guests, and zoo staff sang ‘Happy Birthday’ while she enjoyed her special treat. Before too long, we let elephants Mary and Mila join Shaba at the buffet, and it was completely devoured by the end of the day!

The Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center was designed to care for aging elephants. All seven elephants in our herd are past reproductive age and will live out the rest of their lives with us at the Zoo. Mary, our most dominant female elephant, turned 51 this year, while Sumithi, the second-most dominant, turned 48. Here’s how old the rest of the “girls” are now: Tembo is 44, Mila is 42, and Devi just turned 38. Our bull elephant Ranchipur is now 49 years old, making him the fifth-oldest male elephant in North America.

An elephant-size thank you to the Zoo volunteers and keepers that created Shaba's marvelous cake!

An elephant-size thank you to the Zoo volunteers and keepers that created Shaba’s marvelous cake!

We want to especially thank the Zoo volunteers who took the time to create the cake for Shaba this year. It is always fun not only for the elephants, but for the keepers as well to enjoy these special moments. We appreciate all of the time and dedication you give the Zoo each and every day of each and every year.

Robbie Clark is keeper at the San Diego Zoo. REad his previous blog, Elephants Mila and Mary Meet.

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Animals Who Totally Own Winter

With a lot of the US experiencing record cold, and all this talk of another “Polar Vortex,” I thought it would be fun to explore how certain animals deal with extreme cold. Nature has concocted some pretty awesome ways to thrive in cold weather, often involving stylish winter coats, cozy fat insulation, and other clever mechanisms to overcome extreme cold. Check out these animals who absolutely own winter.

Takins have some pretty cool adaptations that help them stay warm and dry during the bitter cold of winter in the rugged Himalayan Mountains. A thick, secondary coat is grown to keep out the chill, which they shed for the summer. Their nose also plays a role in keeping them warm. A takin’s large, moose-like snout has big sinus cavities to warm up the air inhaled before it gets to the lungs. Without this adaptation, takins would lose a large amount of body heat just by breathing.

Polar bears have an outer coat of long guard hairs that stick together when wet and protect a dense, thick undercoat of fur. On land, water rolls right off of the guard hairs. Even though polar bears look white, their hair is really made of clear, hollow tubes filled with air. Scarring or residue on the fur can cause the “white” fur to appear to human eyes as cream colored, yellow, or even pink in the Arctic light. Fat also plays a major role in a polar bear’s ability to survive cold. Fat acts as energy storage when food can’t be found and may provide the ability to generate heat to help insulate polar bears from the freezing air and cold water. This 2-4 inch think layer of fat may also help the bears float in water. Big is beautiful!

Native to the Arctic region of the Northern Hemisphere, the Arctic Fox has a dense, multi-layered coat that provides excellent insulation against the cold. It also has an impressive layer of fat that provides extra insulation, as well as a a specialized body shape that minimizes exposure to cold. This cleverly adapted canine also has fur on its feet to help it walk on snow and ice without issue.

 

Snow leopards move to different altitudes along with the summer and winter migrations of their prey animals, so their coats vary from fine in the summer to thick in the winter. Snow leopards have a relatively small head with a short, broad nose that has a large nasal cavity that passes cold air through and warms it. Their huge paws have fur on the bottom that protects and cushions their feet for walking, climbing, and jumping. The wide, furry paws also give the cat great traction on snow.

 

Reindeer originally inhabited the tundra and forests of Scandinavia and northern Russia and were then introduced into Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. They are covered in hair from their nose to the bottom of their feet, and have two coat layers: an undercoat of fine, soft wool that stays right next to their skin, and a top layer of long, hollow guard hairs. The air trapped inside the guard hairs holds in body heat to keep the animal warm against wind and cold. The hollow hairs also help the reindeer float, allowing it to swim across a river, if needed.

 

Sea lions have a thick, slick, waterproof coat that allows them to glide through cold water with ease and comfort. Their flippers also serve to regulate the sea lion’s body temperature. When it’s cold, specially designed blood vessel in the thin-skinned flippers constrict to prevent heat loss, but when it’s hot, blood flow is increased to these surface areas to be cooled more quickly.

Sea Lion

Incredibly adaptable, wolves have inhabited, at one point, virtually all of North America, northern Europe, eastern Africa, and Asia. Employing a wide range of adaptations, wolves tolerate a massive range of temperatures, from -70 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 to 48.8 degrees Celsius). All of their senses are keen, and they can run, climb, lope, and swim incredibly well.

 

Lastly, here’s an animal that not only doesn’t wear a winter coat, but is a natural nudist. Yeah, naked mole-rats wouldn’t do so well in extreme cold. Be glad you’re not one of these guys this season. Happy winter everyone!

Matt Steele is the senior social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, 5 Turkey Myths Busted.

 

 

 

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Pandas in Winter

Cold temperatures? Extra bamboo? Works for Bai Yun!

Cold temperatures? Extra bamboo? Works for Bai Yun!

For the first time in a long time, our pandas are actually getting some truly winter weather. We’ve had some rain recently, and temperatures in the first week of the new year were really low for our region. And the geography of the Zoo means some parts of the grounds feel the chill more than others; Panda Canyon is usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the main entrance (where temperatures were in the mid-50s). Although the staff is feeling a bit chilly, the bears are loving this weather!

Giant pandas have a very thick, dense fur coat and like most bears they will try to gain as much weight as possible for winter, but they do not go into torpor (commonly called hibernation). Unlike their counterparts in China and zoos in colder parts of the world, our pandas don’t usually have much of a winter to deal with, but rest assured they are all doing just fine with this cold snap!

We always offer more food than what the bears will actually eat. This allows them to have variety in their diet but also giving them access to extra calories should they so desire. Our pandas do not weigh as much as other pandas that go through more severe winters, because they don’t need the extra insulating fat layer here in San Diego.

As someone who has worked both directly and indirectly (as a Panda Narrator) with the bears, I can honestly say that I love watching them in cold weather. You get to see them eat more and the younger pandas get a little more hop to their step. Yun Zi was one of my favorites to watch in winter. He was always an active fellow, but when it was cold or raining he’d roll in the mud and really tear his exhibit apart. Not always fun to clean up after, but a blast to observe!

No matter what the weather, Bai Yun tends to do her normal thing—eat till she’s tired, then take a nap. I often joke that she’s been here in San Diego for so long nothing much can surprise her anymore. Gao Gao will remain off exhibit in the North Exhibit, with regular access to his bedroom. The perk about having the back area to himself is that he can pretty much run his day however he wants. Inside or out he’s got full reign of the area in the back. Mr. Wu will be on exhibit, and I’m looking forward to watching him and see how he reacts to this cold snap. I know it’s not cold compared to where a lot of you are from, but for these bears, and us, it’s definitely a change!

Happy New Year and hope you are all well! Come see us soon in 2015!

Anastasia Horning is a panda narrator and keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Dealing with Noise in Panda Canyon.

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Nature’s Excellent Engineering Feat: The Egg

This kagu egg is just one example of nature's egg-cellent engineering feats.

This kagu egg is just one example of nature’s egg-cellent engineering feats.

Have you ever wondered why eggs are shaped the way they are? Or why egg shape varies with the species? Most eggs have one tapered and one wider end to ensure they roll only in a circular pattern. This ensures that the eggs do not roll out of the nest when they are turned by the parents. Some species lay eggs with a more pronounced small end, which make them roll in a tight circle. For example, seabirds like murres nest strictly on rocky cliffs and use no nest material at all. The elongated shape of their egg makes it less likely to roll off the cliff edge. Birds that make deep cup-shaped nests typically have rounder eggs, because there is less risk that the eggs will roll out of the nest when turned. Nature’s exquisite engineering continues inside the egg, too!

The egg itself is a self-contained home, supplying all the nutrients and safety for the growing chick inside. The duration of incubation varies, but all chicks will grow until there is so little space inside that it is difficult to move. When it is time to hatch, the chick has to get into the proper position, with the head under the right wing and the beak pointed upwards toward the larger end of the egg (being in the wrong position can be fatal). The large end of the egg has an air-filled space called the air cell. The chick must use its beak to pierce the air cell membrane so it can start breathing the air inside. As CO2 builds up in the air cell, it triggers the yolk sac to retract into the chick’s abdominal cavity, getting the bird ready for life outside the egg. The next step is to break out of the shell.

The beak has a hard, sharp, triangular shaped structure, called an egg tooth, on the top of the beak that assists in breaking through the eggshell. The chick uses its legs to rotate as it pecks through the shell until a hole is large enough to break out of completely. Once outside the shell, the chick can rely on its yolk sac for energy and nutrients until it is getting enough food from its parents, or is feeding on its own.

With such a complicated process there are bound to be occasional problems with completing the incubation and hatching process. But when these problems arise, we can learn from them and provide helpful feedback for our animal care staff, enabling them to make management adjustments that will maximize the reproductive success of the many amazing species of birds we have in our care.

April Gorrow is a Senior Pathology Technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.