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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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Prodigious Panda Proceedings

Being a panda mother is hard work! Bai Yun takes a well-deserved nap.

Being a panda mother is hard work! Bai Yun takes a well-deserved nap.

Monday was an exciting day for North American zoos holding giant pandas! We are thrilled for our colleagues at Zoo Atlanta, who welcomed not one but two panda cubs as their hero mother Lun Lun gave birth. As a twin birth had not been witnessed in the US in a while, this occasion is especially momentous. We have our fingers crossed that things continue to go well for the Atlanta bears and staff in the next few critical days.

Twinning in giant pandas is an issue of interest to us, because although females give birth to twins nearly as often as they have singletons, the giant panda mother appears unable to successfully care for two cubs simultaneously (see Pandas: Are Two Better Than One?). While there are a few anecdotal accounts of finding panda twins of significant age in the wild, in most cases these reports are not well substantiated. A female in a Japanese zoo several years ago successfully reared twins, but she was the fortunate beneficiary of a lot of support from the zoo staff. Keepers hand-fed her at times or took her cubs to an incubator from time to time to allow her to rest. While her case offers a glimpse into the possibilities for twin rearing in panda mothers, it is not comparable to the solitary effort required by a free-ranging wild panda mother.

Panda mothers in Chinese breeding centers have allowed us to watch a variety of their responses to a twin birth. Many mothers initially do try to care for both cubs, cradling and grooming their twins for a few hours or days before ultimately giving up and rearing only one. Some females don’t put any effort into caring for both cubs and instead focus on one from the very start. It would be interesting to follow those mothers through multiple years to see if their strategy changes with each twin birth or if you can predict that a female who has attempted to rear twins once will do so again in the future. As of this writing, I do not know the answer to that question. What we can say is that at some point, a mother of twins has to make a choice about which cub she will care for and which will be abandoned to its fate.

The San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Conservation Unit has invested considerable time in trying to understand what factors play a role in determining which twin cub a panda mother selects for nurturing. Is it the birth order that matters most? Or do mothers choose larger, more robust cubs? Perhaps they prefer a specific gender of cub? Is the mother’s decision influenced by whether or not she is a first-time mom? Our work is using data compiled from Chinese breeding centers and twin births around the globe throughout the known history of giant pandas in captivity. Soon we will be able to answer several of these questions.

Our Chinese counterparts have demonstrated repeatedly that with twin swapping and good nutrition, a rejected panda twin is not necessarily fated to die but instead can embark on a healthy, productive life. We know that Lun Lun’s offspring will be offered great care, whether from mother bear’s embrace or from their well-trained staff while in an incubator. With a little luck, we may all get to watch a charming pair of panda cubs grow up right here in North America—and that would indeed be a milestone for our panda population.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Xiao Liwu: Meeting those Milestones. Watch our pandas daily on Panda Cam.

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Speaking to Friends about Pandas

Xiao Liwu is just one example of our panda conservation program’s success.

Recently, I had the opportunity to give a presentation to several hundred San Diego Zoo Global donors at a Circle of Friends Holiday Breakfast. I presented an overview of our science-based, collaborative panda conservation program, focusing on both the challenges we’ve faced and the incredible successes we’ve enjoyed over the past 16 years. With hundreds of the Zoo’s friends gathered, we celebrated the birth of Xiao Liwu and the brighter future for pandas that Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Shi Shi have given us.

Of course, the birth of Xiao Liwu was more than a joyous occasion; it was also a historic milestone for giant pandas and the San Diego Zoo. With the birth of Xiao Liwu, Bai Yun became the second-oldest female to have ever given birth in captivity, as well as the most successful panda mom outside of China. And, thanks to Bai Yun, our Giant Panda Conservation Program became the most successful breeding program outside of China. This short list makes me incredibly proud! And I also have to admit that it is simply wonderful to have yet another incredibly cute panda cub to watch every day!

Our giant panda story really began in earnest back in 1996, with the arrival of Bai Yun and Shi Shi. Back then, we really knew very little about giant pandas. At the time, we knew that giant pandas were solitary mammals and that they fed exclusively on bamboo. We knew that pandas were seasonal breeders, and that the females were only receptive to breeding for a few short days during each cycle. We also knew that giant pandas were critically endangered and that the track record for captive breeding was very poor. We knew that we had a daunting task ahead of us and an understanding that because giant pandas garner immense public attention, the world would be watching us as we embarked on this critical conservation mission.

Under the leadership of Don Lindburg, we put together a Panda Team that included scientists, animal care specialists, and educators. Ron Swaisgood made incredible inroads at the Wolong breeding center in China and initiated more than a decade of invaluable scientific discovery regarding giant panda behavior and communication. Throughout this period, numerous people from the Giant Panda Team visited Wolong to do conservation research (including myself), and members of the Wolong team visited us here. These exchanges proved invaluable for scientific research and for improving how we managed giant pandas, during the breeding season and beyond.

Since the birth of Xiao Liwu, I have spent much time thinking about how much we have achieved in the past 16 years, as well as about how much we still need to learn about these amazing animals. The plight of giant pandas has improved in some ways since 1996, but they are still critically endangered, and so, through our conservation research program, and with the support of our many friends, we continue to work toward a brighter future for giant pandas.

After I gave my presentation to our Circle of Friends, I spent a great deal of time speaking to people in the group. It was incredible to experience the outpouring of interest in giant pandas and the support for the conservation work that we do. As I looked around the tent, I saw a number of people who had been volunteers in support of our conservation programs over the years: volunteers who had been part of our panda research team in San Diego, and volunteers who have helped us connect our giant pandas to the public at large. I feel a deep debt of gratitude to all of our supporters, without whom we could not have achieved everything that we have, for giant pandas and the other species and habitats we work with.

Thank you all for your support, and I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons!

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Polar Bears and Climate Change.

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Panda Cub: Exam 6

Hello, world!

Today our little panda boy had his sixth exam. This was especially exciting for me, as it was MY first panda cub exam. Our chubby cubbie weighed in at 5.8 pounds (2.64 kilograms)—almost a pound more than last week. It is amazing how quickly this little guy is growing!

Our little buddy was a teeny bit fussy at the beginning of the exam, but a few chin scratches later he was sleeping like a baby. Baby panda boy received his first vaccination today as well. He was a super star and didn’t make a sound during the injection.  What a brave little man he is!

Holding the cub for the first time was a truly amazing experience for me- he is so fluffy and strong!  Although he may look helpless and fragile in the den, let me assure you that this baby panda is a little tank. Mom and baby are bonding more and more every day. Mom Bai Yun plays with her little baby, spinning him around and carrying him out to her bedroom on a regular basis now.  Although this play can look rough at times, this is perfectly normal for a panda mom and baby.  Our little guy is strong, and Bai Yun is an experienced mother who has successfully raised five cubs already. Soon enough our little guy will be up and running around. In fact, we have seen him practicing his crawling skills recently!

I can’t wait to see our little star out on exhibit this winter.

Elizabeth Simmons is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

More images can be found in our Panda Gallery.

Click to enlarge chart.

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New Additions: Monkeys, Otters, Pigs

Spot-nosed guenon Indi hanging out on the swing in the lower exhibit

I just wanted to update everyone on some of the changes that are happening in Lost Forest at the San Diego Zoo. If you remember reading my older posts, Monkeys, Otters, and More and More about Monkeys and Otters, some of the same animals are still monkeying around in their current exhibits.

In the lower mixed-species exhibit, we still have our Allen’s swamp monkeys: Kinah, Deriai, Layla, Shaba and Nub. Our little juveniles are growing up so fast and still love to hang out with our spotted-necked otters from time to time. The spotted-necked otters currently in the lower exhibit are Mzee and Lila; however, you are not going to see them together. Mzee is Lila’s father, and we keep them separate so they don’t breed. Consequently, we rotate the two otters on exhibit, so one day you will see Mzee going down the water slides and Lila wrestling with the swamp monkeys the next. The otters don’t seem to mind at all!

You might also see some new faces in the lower exhibit, ones with blue faces, white cheeks, and white spots on their noses. These are our three, new spot-nosed guenon siblings: Indi, Chi-Chi, and Tiko. The first few weeks on exhibit, they were inseparable. They were like three monkeys in one. Wherever one went, the other two followed. You will see this close-knit behavior on exhibit. Indi and Chi-Chi are the two females. Indi has a little more meat on her bones. You will most likely see her try to take over any food situation. Chi-Chi, the smaller female, lets Indi eat her portions to keep their hierarchy balanced. But don’t worry, everyone gets enough food on and off exhibit. Tiko is the larger male spot-nosed guenon and loves to be groomed by the females. You will see him stretched out on one of the platforms with his legs and arms hanging down in such bliss. Every once in a while they interact with the swamp monkeys, but they definitely like to stay close to one another.

Spot-nosed guenons Indi, Chi Chi, and Tiko

In the upper exhibit, our adorable Allen’s swamp monkey pair, Jaribu and Ota, are doing great. Patty and Abu, the spot-nosed guenons who were in the lower exhibit last year, are now in the upper exhibit to accommodate our new arrivals. You’ll see Patty and Abu way up top in the trees where they like to hang out. Haraka and Spike, the spot-nosed guenons who used to be in this area, are now in the mixed-species area of Lost Forest with the mandrills and Angolan colobus.

And do you remember our charismatic Congo buffalo, Helen? She is still striding around the exhibit checking on what everyone else is doing or just relaxing in the back catching some Zs. Some of you might recall our spot-necked otter Khalil. He was paired with a female to start his own family and now resides at a different zoo. His mother, Pori, now inhabits the upper exhibit side. Mother otters in most cases isolate out the older daughter, and fathers isolate their sons after maturity due to competition for breeding. This is why Pori is housed alone as of now. If we get a breeding recommendation to breed Pori, then she may be paired with a male. For now, we wait and enjoy her company with the rest of the animals in the upper exhibit.

African spot-necked otter Pori grabs a fish in the deep pool while Jaribu watches.

Last but not least are our red river hogs! Helen’s red river hog friend from last year, Oboi, was transferred to breed with females at another zoo. Now Helen has some new friends to snuggle with. Our new additions include Hamela and Amy. A little shy at first, they warmed up to our older red river hog residents of a couple of months, Tarzan and CT. Talk about an inseparable foursome! You will love seeing this cuddle fest in the back of the exhibit. All four pigs and Helen took to each other rather quickly. Even behind the scenes, Helen and the pigs share the same beds, making it a cute group of “red” sleeping together. Helen is such a mom figure to these piggies!

(Clockwise) Helen the Congo buffalo, red river hogs CT, Hamela, Amy, and Tarzan

Well, hopefully you can come down and enjoy the new company of animals as much as I do. I randomly toss treats to the critters in the late morning/early afternoon, so come by and say hi!

Jasmine Almonte is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Panda Pregnancy Watch in Full Force

Bai Yun has been sequestered behind the scenes at Panda Trek for some time now in order to provide her the solitude and environment most conducive to a successful pregnancy and cub-rearing experience. Surely many of you are wondering: is Bai Yun showing any signs of pregnancy? Until about a week ago, the answer was “no.” During most of the time since breeding in spring, she has been her normal, hungry, and active self.

We have been tracking many behavioral and physiological parameters that could give us a clue as to her pregnancy status, one of which is her appetite for bamboo. A decline in bamboo feeding is one of the first reliable behavioral indicators that something is happening with Bai Yun. When we see that she has begun leaving the leafy greens behind at a meal, we know that we are about three to four weeks from a potential birthing window.

Guess what? She started falling of her bamboo feeding late last week.

But hold on. Bamboo feeding generally gives us a broad idea of a birthing window, but it does not actually tell us if she is pregnant. Pseudopregnant females also experience similar changes in feeding patterns. So while we might have a picture of when a birth might occur, we cannot say for sure that a cub is on the way.

Bai Yun has been sitting for regular ultrasounds and thermo-imaging procedures, and we are collecting urine for hormone assays as well. I can tell you that her hormone profile is in full swing, and the ultrasounds have shown some positive changes indicating the hormones are having the desired effect on Bai Yun’s uterus. But again, all of this is consistent with pseudopregnant females as well.

As a result of these changes, we have given her access to her birthing den. In it, she has begun building her nest with bits of bamboo. She occasionally takes short naps in the den. She is showing us more positive pregnancy—and pseudopregnancy—behavior.

And so we wait. The days ahead will be telling. If we are able to visualize a fetus via ultrasound, we will know this is a true pregnancy. Keep your fingers crossed!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, The Bears Thank You.