Conservation

Conservation

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Seeding the Future

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Plover Hide and Seek

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Frog Nanny

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Tending to tadpoles means carefully monitoring water quality and providing a constant supply of food.

Frog nanny is not an official job title, but it’s been my reality this year. I’m the “nanny” for some 1,176 healthy mountain yellow-legged frog (MYLF) tadpoles.  This iconic California species is one of the most endangered frogs in North America. San Diego Zoo Global has been involved in the MYLF recovery program since 2009, and captive breeding has been an important component of our efforts to re-introduce froglets into their natural habitat in the Sierra Mountains. However, with little information on MYLF life history, the care and reproduction of these frogs in captivity presents many challenges.

I have been working on this project full-time since last October. As I enter the lab and look into the 100-gallon containers holding the result of this years’ extremely productive breeding season, a feeling of excitement and nervousness comes over me. It takes about a month and a half for MYLF embryos to hatch out into free-swimming tadpoles, and in the meantime, they require daily preening. Early in the breeding season, I start my day by counting and cataloging over 1,800 embryos. Something like picking ticks off a chimpanzee, this entails cutting through the surrounding egg jelly and extracting any unfertilized or dead embryos from neighboring healthy ones. Sitting at the dissecting microscope, I examine and record what stage of development each embryo has reached every day. By the afternoon, I am all but cross-eyed. I walk around with constant images of beautifully formed black spheres in my mind’s eye. As the embryos grow and thrive, the stress of getting them through the early stage of development is taken over by concerns for stage two of tadpole rearing.

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These black specks are mountain yellow-legged frog embryos.

So what is stage two? We begin by focusing on what tadpoles need. MYLF tadpoles require cold, clean water, constant feeding, and plenty of space to grow. Like most infants, tadpoles are voracious eaters and require a constant supply of food. If too much food is offered, it accumulates in the tank, causing water quality issues. Too little food, and big brother Jake might start nibbling on his smaller sibling Fred. Cannibalism is not uncommon in amphibian species, so all I can do to stop Jake from eating his brothers and sisters is make sure I feed him enough.

Amphibian nutrition is a work in progress, and little is known of individual species’ requirements. This year, I have gone from reproductive physiologist to dietician. Researching amphibian nutrition is complicated by the specific needs of each life stage. Luckily, I have a supporting team of professional nutritionists and a wealth of knowledge and years of experience, courtesy of Brett Baldwin and David Grubaugh, amphibian/reptile keepers at the Zoo.

Controlling water quality is another daily necessity. The difference between clean and pristine can be subtle, and can affect growth and development in ways that may not be apparent until it is too late (like during metamorphosis). Armed with the HACH colorimeter DR-900, a small team of us (Nicole Gardner, senior research associate; Bryan King, research associate; me; and our weekly volunteers, Jaia Kaelberer, Janice Hale, and Jim Marsh) conduct daily screenings of the water in which our tadpoles live. Based on data we have collected on the water quality in MYLF habitat, we have specific parameters to which we can set our water standards in the lab.

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Helping to raise new generations of mountain yellow-legged frogs is challenging, but rewarding.

They say “be careful what you wish for.” This year, we wished for a handful of MYLF egg clutches to be laid and for a couple of hundred embryos to survive. Instead, we got almost 2,000 eggs! As they grow, we become faced with a new challenge—overcrowding. To my relief, the solution becomes clear; together with our partners at the US Geological Survey and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, we decide to split our bountiful cohort of tadpoles into smaller groups. At the end of May, 711 lucky tadpoles made their triumphant way back to the wild, and 400 of their brothers and sisters stayed here with us. They will be “headstarted” and returned to the wild as froglets.

Everyone involved in this project lives and loves every moment. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a life form grow and thrive under your care. This year’s breeding season has exceeded all our expectations. If we take into account that less than one percent of MYLF tadpoles are estimated to survive to metamorphosis and only an estimated 200 adults remain in the wild, everyone currently involved in this project holds the key to this species’ survival. That can be stressful, but it is also a humbling honor. I am happy to speculate that this is going to be a good year for our MYLF program, and that I will have the chance to be part of their journey back to nature.

Natalie Calatayud is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous blog, Rocky Mountain High: Boreal Toads Going to a Place They’ve Never Been Before.

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Condor Chick: Getting Big!

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There she grows! Antiki is feathering out nicely.

Antiki, our California condor chick featured on this year’s San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam, is now over 100 days old and starting to get her “big bird” feathers! As many of our regular viewers have noticed, her flight feathers are growing in. Some of the first feathers that start to grow are the wing feathers. It is easy to see the feathers growing through the chick’s down—the down feathers are gray, but the new flight feathers are black. The long feathers that grow from the tip of the wing are called “primary feathers” and the feathers from the wrist to the armpit are “secondary feathers.” Primary and secondary feathers are the giant feathers that make the California condor’s wing so large and impressive; an adult can have a wingspan of up to 9 ½ feet! We are estimating our chick’s wingspan to be around 5 feet right now—between the size of a red-tailed hawk’s and a bald eagle’s. Her tail feathers are also starting to grow. They’re a little harder to see on camera, but you should be able to spot them soon.

After the wing and tail feathers fill in, the feathers on the chick’s back will start to grow, as well as the small feathers on the top of the wing (called “coverts”). Even though many new, black feathers will be covering parts of her body, she will still have lots of gray down showing, making it easy to differentiate her from her parents. Eventually, her light-colored skin will turn dark grey or black and be covered with fine, fuzzy feathers, but this won’t happen until well after she leaves the nest. Her skin will stay dark until she reaches maturity at 6 years and it turns pink-orange, just like her parents’, Sisquoc and Shatash.

The chick had her second health exam on June 25 during which our veterinary staff were able to administer her second, and final, West Nile virus inoculation. A blood sample was obtained and she weighed in at 13 pounds, 7 ounces (6.1 kilograms), over half of her projected adult weight. Even though our little girl is getting big, she still has room to grow!

The adult condors normally are fed four days per week. The other three days of the week, they are fasted. They often will not eat every day in the wild, sometimes fasting for up to two weeks, so our nutritionists recommend not feeding them every day to prevent obesity and food waste. Their diet, depending on the day, can consist of rats, rabbits, trout, beef spleen, or ground meat. We offer two to three pounds of food per bird per feeding day. When the condors are raising a chick, in addition to their normal diet, we offer extra food every day: 1 rat, 1.5 pounds of beef spleen, 1 trout, and half a pound of ground meat. They don’t end up feeding all of this food to the chick, but we want to be sure that they have enough for the growing baby. It’s difficult to calculate exactly how much food the chick is eating each day, but we estimate that she could be eating 1.5-2.5 pounds of food per day.

Many Condor Cam viewers have seen some rough-looking interactions between the chick and her parents. What may have been happening was a form of discipline. As the chick has gotten bigger, her begging displays and efforts have gotten more vigorous. These efforts can sometimes be bothersome or problematic for parents that just want some peace and quiet. The parents have two ways to make sure that the chick does not cause too much trouble while begging. They can leave immediately after providing food, which is what we’ve seen a lot of on Condor Cam; or they can discipline the unruly chick. This discipline can come in the form of the parent sitting or standing on the chick, or the parent may nip or tug at it. Either of these behaviors results in the chick being put in its place by the dominant bird in the nest, thus ending the undesired behavior. Sometimes, this discipline may occur before the chick acts up. Be mindful that this is perfectly normal for condors to do, even though it would be cruel for us to treat our own babies like that! When condors fledge, or leave the nest, they need to know how to interact with dominant birds at a feeding or roost site. This seemingly rough behavior from the parents will benefit the chick later when it encounters a big, unrelated bird that might not be as gentle.

There have been many questions regarding the chick being able to jump up on the nest box barrier. She hasn’t jumped up yet, but she may soon. Stay tuned for our next blog that will discuss this next big milestone!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Say Hello to Antiki!

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No Ligers Here

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San Diego Zoo Global is dedicated to helping to preserve—physically and genetically—endangered species like these Malayan tigers.

“What are you drawing?”

“A liger.”

“What’s a liger?”

“It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed…bred for its skills in magic.”

Napoleon Dynamite

I began working for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in the Reproductive Physiology department in 2003. After about a year, I noticed the most commonly asked question from kids touring the lab was: “Do you make ligers here?” I think we can thank the hit movie Napoleon Dynamite for that, but as the years have gone by, the question still arises often in many different forms. I think we all are fascinated to hear about animal hybrids—the mixing of two animals of different breeds, species, or genera—but what do hybrids mean to conservation and why do we not use our advanced reproductive technologies to create them in the lab?

There are many types of hybrids that exist such as intrasubpecific hybrids between two animals of different subspecies (like Bengal and Siberian tigers), interspecific hybrids between two animals from different species (for example, lions and tigers, resulting in a “liger” or “tigon”), and intergenic hybrids between animals of different genera (as happens when sheep and goats breed, resulting in a “geep” or “shoat”). While hybridization is often thought of as a man-made phenomenon, natural hybridization does occur. Most of us are familiar with mules, which are the product of a female horse mated with a male donkey. Mules are prized for their great strength and endurance, but all male mules and most female mules are incapable of producing offspring. This is common in hybrids because their genetic material is not perfectly matched. There is also a hybrid animal called the beefalo (prized for its meat) that is the offspring of a North American bison and a cow.

Those last two examples are domestic animal hybrids that possess traits valued by humans, yet there are many issues that occur when non-domestic animals hybridize. Wild animals have evolved over millions of years through natural selection, a process that increases the probability of survival and reproduction. Hybridization, however, can result in the loss of a morphological or behavioral trait that may be necessary for survival.

An example of this is when a mule deer that uses a “stotting” escape strategy breeds with a white-tailed deer, which employs a galloping escape strategy. The hybrid offspring inherits a slow and inefficient gait, making it vulnerable to predation. And in cases where domestic cats that have gone feral breed with wild cats, the offspring are not as genetically strong and this can affect their resistance to disease.
As climate changes occur and humans modify animal habitats, wild hybridization may become common. One such example is the “grolar bear”—the offspring of a grizzly and polar bear—that was seen in Canada. This hybrid could occur more frequently as polar bears, driven from their typical range due to melting sea ice, spend more time in grizzly territory.

If hybridization sometimes seems to create a more “fit” animal or occurs in the wild occasionally, why don’t we use our laboratory skills to create them? We have the ability to inseminate the egg of one animal with sperm from another closely related species and grow an embryo that could be placed into a host female of either species. But we don’t, simply because San Diego Zoo Global’s mission is to save species worldwide by combining our expertise in animal care and conservation science with our dedication to inspiring passion for nature. We are in the business of saving species not creating new ones.

There are exceptions to this rule, such as when a population becomes so small that it can no longer sustain itself. In this case, scientists may agree that hybridization with a closely related subspecies is the only chance for survival. This has been attempted with the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit and its close cousin, the Idaho pygmy rabbit. The Florida panther population was brought back from the brink of extinction by releasing female Texas cougars into the habitat for hybridization—the result was a three-fold increase in the number of Florida panthers, and the hybrid offspring were genetically healthy, stronger, and longer-lived.

So, I am afraid you will not see any ligers or grolar bears being created in our lab but that is because we are working hard to help tigers, lions, polar bears, and grizzly bears maintain or grow their populations. We think they are pretty amazing just the way they have evolved.

Nicole Ravida is a research laboratory technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous blog, No Scientist is an Island.

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Leeches and Wild Tigers: Randy Rieches’s Indonesian Adventure For Tiger Conservation

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s curator of mammals, Randy Rieches, has had a fruitful career breeding, protecting, and conserving wildlife here at home as well as in the wild. His latest project to help establish a tiger field conservation project led him all the way to Indonesia, where the situation for tigers is grim. I was able to ask Randy a few questions about his adventure and quickly learned that it was no walk in the park, proving once again that wildlife conservation, while incredibly important, isn’t always glamorous work.

1. What was the purpose of your trip?

I was sent to attend a meeting with Sumatran tiger and rhino conservationists working in Indonesia to find out who we could best partner with in Sumatra on our Sumatran tiger conservation work, which includes setting camera traps to monitor the tiger and rhino populations and studying behavior to better understand where to focus our efforts.

Camera Trap

Camera traps that we are placing in the forest to monitor the Sumatran tigers and the Sumatran rhinos as well as the prey base for tigers. They have to have the metal framework on them to protect them from elephants.

2. What kind of wildlife did you encounter on your trip?

Most of the trip was in the city, however, when we flew to Sumatra we went out to SRS and saw the Sumatran rhinos at the center, which was incredible. In the mornings as we walked on the edge of the forest we were serenaded by primates watching us from the tree tops and even had a very spooky encounter with a Sumatran tiger. As we walked down a path at 6:30 in the morning, we heard a low, guttural growl, which stopped all three of us in our tracks. We listened for a little while when we heard it again right off of the path in the forest. We started backing away very slowly all the while listening to see if it was following us. Luckily, it was not, and we moved off quite quickly. Most likely it was a female with cubs that was telling us not to come any closer, otherwise I am sure we would have had a worse encounter.

We took a boat on the river to Get out to the sites in the forest where we will be setting camera traps. Unfortunately, it started raining while we were out hiking which brought out all of the leeches. I stopped counting at 30 leeches on me during the hike. Not one of my favorite things on the trip. Fortunately, as they say with leeches it means that it is a healthy forest as the leeches must have wildlife to live on, and I must say the leeches are thriving.
The bird and primate life is doing very well in the forest as well as the deer and reptiles.
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Out on the river going to check camera traps with the rangers

3. What kind of challenges did you face in the wild of Sumatra?

It is quite hot and humid and when it rains in Sumatra, it’s like someone turned a garden hose on you. However, I still think the leeches were the most challenging part of the trip.

4. What was the most memorable moment of the trip?

Seeing the Sumatran rhinos at SRS was incredible, but I will never forget the encounter with the tiger on our morning walk.

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Sumatran rhino out in wild habitat at SRS (Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas)

5. What did the trip accomplish, or what do you hope it will accomplish in the future?

We met some dedicated conservationists working in the field that we will be working with us to set camera traps to look at the number of Sumatran tigers, the prey base that they feed on, and also get a count on rhinos as well. Overall, the best accomplishment was meeting tiger people and building relationships with them which will streamline our efforts in the region.

Randy & friends at SRS

Randy and the staff that are doing the tiger work in Sumatra

 

Matt Steele is senior social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous blog, Myths About Rhino Horn That Need to Go Away.

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Breeding Strategies: Secretive Plovers & Gregarious Terns

Presenting food to a mate potential  mate is part of the least tern's courtship ritual.

Presenting food to a mate potential mate is part of the least tern’s courtship ritual. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG on MCB Camp Pendleton)

Both least terns and snowy plovers are ground-nesting birds that nest on barren to sparsely vegetated beaches, but they employ quite different breeding strategies. Over the past couple of months, I have been able to observe and compare these strategies while searching for and monitoring their nests.

Least terns are colonial nesters, using a “safety in numbers” approach, whereas snowy plovers use a strategy of nesting separately and being physically cryptic and secretive in behavior. Unlike the least terns, which have bright yellow bills and prominent black caps on their heads, snowy plovers have pale brown upper parts and blend in far better to their sandy surroundings making their nests less conspicuous and less likely to be discovered by predators. This also makes it much harder for us to find snowy plover nests!

If they didn't occur in such concentrations, least tern nests would be a challenge to find.

If they didn’t occur in such concentrations, the least tern’s well-camouflaged nests could be a challenge for us to find. (Photo courtesy Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

On a good day my crew members and I might find about a dozen snowy plover nests, whereas during the peak of least tern nesting we can—and have—easily found over 200 least tern nests in one day! On a particularly busy day this season, we could hardly walk more than 20 feet without discovering a new least tern nest. Calling out the nest count sounded a bit like we were bidding at an auction; sometimes several nests were found almost simultaneously with one crew member exclaiming “I’ve got nest 500!” only to be quickly followed by “501!” and a few seconds later by “502!”

Because least terns nest in large colonies of up to several hundred individuals, their nests are much more obvious, but there is a lower probability of a particular individual’s nest becoming the victim of a predator. Being in a colony also offers the additional protection of having many adults present that can mob predators. Having walked through an active least tern nesting colony, I can personally attest to the protective nature of the adults. They have threatened me with their harsh “zwreep” alarm calls, flown inches from the top of my head while dive-bombing me, and even defecated on me and my data sheets in an attempt to drive me away from their nests!

Monica Stupaczuk is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. You can learn more about this project by reading A Day in the Life of a Beach Biologist.

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A Successful Giant Panda Workshop

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Dr. Megan Jones (left) and the author (right) had a chance to see how San-Diego-Zoo-born Yun Zi is doing. (Answer: Fantastic!)

Unlike many of my San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) colleagues that have traveled to China, I wasn’t sent there to accompany one of our young pandas on their journey home. Mine was unlike any other China trip. Situated in the heart of China lies a small city with just over 600,000 people. The city of Dujiangyan is in the Sichuan Province, just 45 miles from Chengdu, the country’s 7th largest city by population. The Sichuan province is best known for their extremely spicy food, and one other thing, the giant panda!

This connection was obvious from the moment I stepped off the airplane. Littered throughout the airport are panda souvenir shops, mock habitats filled with plush giant pandas, and tourists decked out in panda garb. Several street corners in Dujiangyan are decorated with oversized giant panda statues arranged in various “panda-like” postures. Just about anything you can imagine has a panda on it. You want a panda pot holder or shower curtain? You got it—you can even pick up panda green tea and panda cigarettes.

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The workshop was held at the Dujiangyan Panda Base hospital in Sichuan.

Late last year, Dr. Megan Jones, a SDZG veterinary pathologist, and I set off to China to teach a Giant Panda Pathology International Exchange training workshop in Dujiangyan. Working with the recently built Dujiangyan Giant Panda Rescue and Disease Control and Prevention Base, which aims to rehabilitate sick and geriatric giant pandas and red pandas, we were tasked with teaching the first of a series of workshops intended to share knowledge and skills in wildlife disease surveillance, investigation, and research.

The beautiful and green-certified facility is located on 125 acres along the foothills of the bamboo forest and currently houses almost 30 giant pandas. The facility also contains a public education center filled with many creative and unique hands-on activities, including a real giant panda skeleton and—my favorite—a digital, interactive, panda necropsy table complete with an overhead surgical lamp!

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The beautiful facility was just the right venue for participants to sharpen their necropsy skills.

The pathology workshop was comprised of 25 Chinese veterinarians, managers, and technicians from 18 different panda facilities throughout China, as well as 4 interpreters and 9 instructors from various international facilities. The main focus of this workshop was developing necropsy, or post-mortem exam, skills through a series of lectures and hands-on wet labs. Necropsies are an essential tool for making accurate diagnoses and ultimately determining the cause of death, just like a human autopsy. The lab portion of the workshop enabled the participants to hone their necropsy skills using rabbits. These skills include taking accurate measurements and photos, practicing proper tissue sampling techniques for histology and future testing, and ensuring all gross lesions are accurately described and recorded in the final report.

These tools and techniques will help the Chinese determine the best conservation strategies for the giant panda populations in China. This workshop has been in the making for over 20 years! Thanks to the hard work of many experts in the field, including SDZG’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories Director, Dr. Bruce Rideout, as well as the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda, disease investigation will become an integral part of panda conservation, a necessity for any conservation plan.

This is just another great example of how the San Diego Zoo is helping the fight against extinction globally.

 

Megan Varney is a research technician with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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The Art of the Western Snowy Plover’s Nest

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Some snowy plover nests are a simple scrape in the sand, adorned with shells. (Photo: Anjanette Butler, SDZG on MCB Camp Pendleton)

Unlike most beach-nesting shorebirds, the western snowy plover has taken nesting to the level of an art form. I have been monitoring this threatened species during the nesting season as part of my job as a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Previously, I primarily searched for snowy plover nests along the Oregon Dunes, as well as California beaches with dune habitat. Our current study site at Marine Corps Base (MCB) Camp Pendleton offers a more diverse habitat.

Because of their nesting strategy, I become more intrigued with snowy plovers the more I get to work with these resilient birds. Before the eggs are laid, the male creates some nests by making various circular scrapes in the sand and the female selects the one she likes best. I have seen some of these simple nests adorned with decorative shells, others that incorporate the available vegetation along the dunes, and even quite a few containing woody debris that can be found concentrated along the creeks.

I’ve been impressed by how well the plovers use the resources—both natural and manmade—available to them. Last year, lobster traps sometimes washed up on beaches we were studying in Ventura, California and a plover used one of them as a nest site. The lobster traps looked very much like the mini-exclosures we use to protect nesting birds from predators. Made of wire mesh and shaped like a square (with small openings so the adult plovers can exit when needed); we place an exclosure over a plover nest until the chicks hatch. Apparently, the plovers there had gotten used to the protection offered by the exclosures, and the nesting pair that used the lobster trap did indeed successfully hatch and raise their chicks.

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Western snowy plovers are adaptable, using available resources when nesting. (Photo: Anjanette Butler, SDZG on MCB Camp Pendleton)

In contrast, our study site at MCB Camp Pendleton is more remote, so the birds there must rely on the available natural resources when selecting a nesting site. This year, we have some birds nesting along a creek. I could not believe how well one of the nests blended in with the woody debris and rocks around it—I almost did not see it at first! I feel so good when the birds’ hard work pays off and we get to see their chicks hatch. Hopefully, they will survive and continue in their parents’ footsteps.

Western snowy plovers face many challenges each day. Predators like crows and ravens, intelligent birds that are great problem solvers, are a constant threat to the plovers. It is possible that the plovers are sometimes testing out ways to keep these and other predators from locating their nests. This might seem like an obvious observation, but shrinking habitat availability in critical plover habitat can create the need for the plovers to find new ways to adapt to disturbances. It is vitally important for us as individuals to respect these birds during this busy nesting season on the beach.

I look forward to more discoveries while monitoring the western snowy plovers and their chicks on the beach.

Anjanette Butler is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Saving Kauai’s Honeycreepers

Akikiki eggs

To start a captive breeding flock to help save the critically endangered akikiki, we collected two eggs each from a number of  nests.

Since it began in 1993, the San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) has worked with over a dozen native bird species found only on the Hawaiian Islands. The conservation status of these birds ranges from non-endangered surrogate species to critically endangered species that are on the brink of extinction.

The past decade has seen a precipitous decline in two species of Hawaii honeycreepers, the akikiki and akeke‘e. These two small species of forest birds are found only in a remote area on the island of Kauai and the wild population has been monitored for years. Due to the declines of both species in the wild, bird experts determined these two species should be raised in captivity as a safeguard against extinction. Based on that decision and with funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as a grant from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, our HEBCP team began planning the techniques and protocols to safely and successfully add these two new species to our facilities on both the Big Island and Maui.

Whenever possible, the best scenario for bringing a species into captivity is to collect eggs from nests out in the wild. There are many reasons why this is the preferred method. By collecting eggs, you eliminate the chance of bringing in a disease that an adult bird might have into the captive flock. It can also be very difficult to teach an adult bird from the wild to eat from a food pan and acclimate it to a captive diet. Another reason we didn’t want to start our captive flock by collecting adult birds out of the wild is that there are so few akikiki and akeke‘e left in Kauai’s forests and we didn’t want to negatively affect the wild population. When you collect a wild female’s eggs she almost always builds a new nest and lays a second clutch. Thus, you can build a captive flock without reducing the number of wild chicks produced.

One of the first decisions made by our team was to setup an egg house on Kauai instead of trying to transport eggs from there to our facilities on Maui or the Big Island. Akikiki and akeke‘e eggs are incredibly tiny, weighing between 1.2 and 2.5 grams. As a comparison, two plain M&Ms weigh 1.8 grams! These eggs are so delicate that they could become damaged during transport if they were flown to another island. With generous help from Jesse Fukushima from Kauai Realty, Inc. as well as Bryan and Tanya Tanaka, we rented a house on Kauai and shipped over all the equipment and tools we would need to care for the eggs and chicks we hoped to obtain. This included everything from incubators and brooders for the eggs and chicks to the food items that we would eventually be feeding.

Our next task was to decide what incubation, hatching, and rearing methods to use for these two new-to-us species. We had to think of everything from what temperature we would use to incubate the eggs to what food items we would feed the chicks. Fortunately for us, the akikiki and akeke‘e are insectivores (meaning most of their diet comes from insects) which are very similar to two other honeycreeper species that we have already worked with, the Hawaii creeper and the Hawaii akepa. Thus, with some small adjustments, we adopted successful protocols we had used with the Hawaii creeper and Hawaii akepa to use with our new species.

ladder

Out on a limb: Akikiki nest on terminal branches, so accessing the nests requires scaling great heights!

We had the house, we had the supplies, we had the protocols…the only thing left to do was to collect the eggs! Unfortunately, this was much easier said than done. Akikiki and akeke‘e nest in the remote Alakai Swamp on Kauai. There are no roads into this habitat, it can only be reached by a long, arduous seven-hour hike through the rainforest. Yet, getting to the birds’ territory is the easy part. Akikiki and akeke‘e build their nests at the ends of branches, sometimes 40 feet up in the air! The big question was: how would we reach the nests to harvest eggs? The State of Hawaii’s Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP) team identified a technique where a 40-foot ladder is raised to almost vertical and, instead of leaning against something, is then tied off onto anchors behind the ladder. This setup would allow our HEBCP staff to gain access to the nests that were previously too remote to collect from.

On March 26, 2015, after spending the previous day practicing the ladder techniques and transporting the ladder to the nest site, we set the ladder up and, with assistance from the KFBRP team, collected two eggs from an akikiki nest. The eggs were placed in a thermos and lowered from the nest by rope before being transferred into a battery-powered incubator. The ladder was then moved to a second akikiki nest and two more eggs were harvested and placed into the portable incubator, then carried back to camp on foot. A helicopter that was on standby was notified of our successful harvest and began flying to the landing zone near the camp. We carefully brought the eggs to the waiting helicopter and flew out of the swamp. The strenous hike into the location translates into a 20-minute helicopter ride to a landing zone just a few miles from the egg house. At the house, the eggs were weighed and candled. Candling the eggs is a process in which a bright light is shone through each egg to see which ones are fertile and how far along they are in development. With bated breath we candled our first egg. Inside, we saw active blood vessels and an embryo moving around—it was fertile! We candled the other three eggs and discovered the same thing. All four akikiki eggs were fertile and looked to be a few days away from hatching. We carefully put the eggs back into the incubator and let out a sigh of relief. We had successfully collected four fertile eggs from a brand new species of endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper, and if all goes well we should have four chicks in a few days time!

Check back regularly for more blogs to complete the story!

Jeremy Hodges is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo and seasonally participates as a research coordinator with the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.