Conservation

Conservation

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Drought: Reptiles Don’t Like It, Either!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Catching Rock Iguanas: Easier Said than Done!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Understanding Wildlife Trade In Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who Will Catch Johne’s Disease?

Gina Geiselman works with DNA samples in the Genetics Lab.

Gina Geiselman works with DNA samples in the Genetics Lab.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To Fledge or not to Fledge…

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

Su’nan is back in her nest…for now!

That is the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Would a 3-month Course in Remote Amazonian Field Site Change Your Life?

Guest lecturer Dr. Harald Beck explains his research on wallows created by peccaries and used by a variety of wildlife.

Guest lecturer Dr. Harald Beck explains his research on wallows created by peccaries and used by a variety of wildlife.

Would three months living and studying in one of the most remote field stations in the tropical rain forest change your life? At the Cocha Cashu Biological Station’s annual field ecology course in Peru, offered by San Diego Zoo Global, that’s our mission—to change lives. With the support of some generous donors, we were able to recruit and fund this exceptional educational opportunity for 10 bright and motivated Peruvian college students. They arrived at the field station full of potential and ready to soak up knowledge and experience like sponges.

A red howler monkey stretches to reach some ripening figs.

A red howler monkey stretches to reach some ripening figs.

Why should this be such a life-changing experience? First, imagine the remoteness. Deep in the heart of Manu National Park, the Station is set in the midst of primeval forest and has the complete portfolio of Amazonian wildlife. Giant otters and black caimans swim in the lake in front of the Station, catching fish and occasionally harassing each other. Peccaries and tapirs visit the mineral licks at night to eat clay (as a digestive aid and to get valuable nutrients). Macaws of all colors fly overhead, and the river is lined with skimmers, Orinoco geese, and horned screamers. Columns of army ants march across the forest floor and, yes, a few mosquitos and biting insects can also be found…but it’s not that bad. And the trees! The magnificent trees soar majestically skyward. So diverse is this forest that a couple of acres contains more than 150 species of trees. Not least, the instructors are well-seasoned biologists with years of experience in the Amazon with an Amazon-sized devotion to the cause of tropical conservation.

One of the students finds a prize, a tapir skull.

One of the students finds a prize, a tapir skull.

I’m here for a two-week visit to check in on the Station and help with the students. I’m not sure what is more rewarding: exploring the forest and its wildlife or seeing these students’ whole world open up as they see new possibilities. Already the experiences they’ve had are remarkable. I would have made great sacrifice at their age to experience something like this. Over the next three months these students will receive expert tutelage on the natural history and ecology of the Amazon, designing and implementing ecological research, and connecting with the wonderful diversity of life found at Cocha Cashu. It’s bound to change lives.

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D. is the Brown Chair and director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station. Read his previous post, Bagging Tasmanian Devils: Can We Save a Misunderstood Creature?

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Bagging Tasmanian Devils: Can We Save a Misunderstood Creature?

Devils really are quite cute…and have an undeserved reputation for being vicious. Photo taken at the Tasmanian government’s Taroona Wildlife Centre, which breeds devils for reintroduction.

Devils really are quite cute…and have an undeserved reputation for being vicious. Photo taken at the Tasmanian government’s Taroona Wildlife Centre, which breeds devils for reintroduction.

Tasmanian devils are bedeviled with a most hideous disease, and conservationists are having a devil of a time dealing with it. It would be funny, the devil jokes, if it wasn’t so sad. This magnificent animal, still best known as a Saturday morning cartoon, is facing a severe threat in the form of devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). Almost universally fatal, this strange, contagious form of cancer is marching across the pristine habitats of Tasmania, wiping out the devil population like a giant wave of death. How does one tackle such a monumental problem? The job of a conservationist is never easy, but this one is particularly intractable.

An animal caretaker shows onlookers just how “vicious” devils are. No harm done, but, hopefully, they have a shirt replacement program. Photo taken at Trowunna Wildlife Park, an early leader in the conservation breeding program.

An animal caretaker shows onlookers just how “vicious” devils are. No harm done; hopefully, they have a shirt replacement program. Photo taken at Trowunna Wildlife Park, an early leader in the conservation breeding program.

Exploring answers to the question “How can we do something to help the devil?” was the goal of my recent trip to Tasmania, where I met with the biologists leading the charge to save the devil. One approach is to study the disease and devil genetics, and a number of scientists are doing just that, including a postdoctoral fellow from San Diego Zoo Global. But I’m an ecologist and reintroduction biologist, so I met with the field team biologists working for the Tasmanian government. A talented and passionate group, they opened my eyes to these bedeviling problems.

Dr. Samantha Fox, Team Leader, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has found what she’s looking for: a devil in one of her baited traps.

Dr. Samantha Fox, Team Leader, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has found what she’s looking for: a devil in one of her baited traps.

First on my agenda was to visit the breeding centers. The idea here is to breed a “clean” population free of disease to reintroduce back to the wild. That program is doing well and already has a population of 600 plus.

Next, I visited Maria Island, where the first group of devils was reintroduced a year ago. This place is “devil heaven,” so full of prey that devils would be hard-pressed to go hungry. With no vehicular traffic and only an on-foot tourist industry, human interference is minimal. I then visited the Tasman peninsula, slated to receive devils next year. Here, it will be a little messier. There are people, roads, and potential conflict with farmers, and it’s a peninsula, not an island. To minimize the chance of reinfection, a fence is being built across a narrow isthmus to keep DFTD devils from entering and spreading disease.

Dr. Fox bags a devil and gently extracts it, teeth and all.

Dr. Fox bags a devil and gently extracts it, teeth and all.

My last stop was the site of the monitoring program to meet with the Tasmanian government’s Dr. David (Doozie) Pemberton and team heading up the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. This team is trapping and studying devil populations all over Tasmania, and I caught up with them on the northern part of the island. We set traps, and a few devils trickled into them, but it was clear DFTD had wreaked its havoc here already.

The whole process was an eye-opener for me, and I gained a whole new perspective on these devils. At the breeding centers I had seen and heard the ungodly commotion they make when fed a tasty wallaby. It was just what you would expect of an animal named devil (so named by early European settlers listening to the eerie sounds of the Tasmanian night). But these wild, trapped devils were a whole different animal. I watched in amazement as the biologist gently dumped her catch into a burlap sack. Now, I’ve done this with quite a few animals, and all of them go ballistic when they hit the bag. The bag looks like, well, like it’s got a devil in it. But these devils just go keplunk! The biologist gently rolled down the bag, lifted the devil’s head, opened its mouth, and examined its teeth. Yes, examined its teeth, the teeth of the animal with one of the strongest bites for its size in the Animal Kingdom. The devil just stared wide-eyed and put up no struggle at all. These devils were…so sweet.

The gape of the Tasmanian devil, displayed here in threat, seems a wonder of nature. But it’s the closing of the mouth that you have to worry about.

The gape of the Tasmanian devil, displayed here in threat, seems a wonder of nature. But it’s the closing of the mouth that you have to worry about.

This experience gave me a whole new perspective on devils and no small amount of respect for them and the biologists working to save them. We exchanged ideas, and I shared a few lessons learned from reintroducing other species. We’re planning on following up and working together more in the future. I can only hope that Tasmania can save this iconic species, and that our Zoo can play a small part. And, yes, I do have sympathy for the devil.

Ron Swaisgood is the Brown Endowed director of Applied Animal Ecology, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Titi Monkeys and Me.

4

The World for a Desert Tortoise

Tortoise Montana shared some attitude with Paul.

Tortoise Montana shared some attitude with Paul.

While working at San Diego Zoo Global’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, I have handled over a thousand desert tortoises. All of them are important to me. One function of my job is to find tortoises and bring them in for medical check-ups, evaluations, and preparation for relocation into the wild. Most desert tortoises are calm, curious, and easy to handle if you are nonthreatening. One tortoise, however, stands out among them all.

Early April. I had to go into Pen #362, find tortoise #17894, and bring her in for medical check-up. The tortoise was in an artificial burrow. I got on the ground, flipped on my flashlight, and prepared for the rough work of trying to coerce a well-dug-in tortoise to come out. Suddenly, one fierce reptile charged out! She scampered all the way from the back of the burrow, legs swimming through dirt and pebbles. She ran at me as if she wanted to fight! All I could think of was Al Pacino, as Tony Montana in the movie Scarface, confronting me. She seemed to be saying “You want to mess with me!? O-kay! You think you’re tough!? O-kay!” I picked up the tortoise, her legs flailing while trying to get at me. From now on, #17984 is Tortoise Montana!

She's now more relaxed around him.

She’s now more relaxed around him.

After her check-up, she was placed back into pen #362. I fed her in the mornings, and over time she became more agreeable to my presence. By June, my route had changed and others fed Tortoise Montana, but I would occasionally go visit her whenever I could. Instead of charging out, she would calmly walk out of the burrow to come near me. Sometimes, if I had extra food, I would make a special trip to her pen to let her have it. One morning, I watched her drink from a puddle of water created by the irrigation drip system. During the heat of summer she usually slept in the back of her burrow. I asked a colleague about her status. She was healthy and would soon be translocated to the desert!

September: Translocation Week. Many tortoises were brought into the lab for their preparation. My job is to put translocation ID tags on the tortoises’ shell. I scanned the lab. There she was! A plastic box tote labeled 17894 362! I opened the tote. While sitting on her bed of hay, she was relaxed and stayed still as I applied the tag.

Paul attaches a translocation ID tag on a desert tortoise.

Paul attaches a translocation ID tag on a desert tortoise.

The next day I traveled with my colleagues out to Eldorado Valley. I knew Tortoise Montana was in the last pickup truck of our convoy. After we arrived at the release site, while gathering the tortoises, I found her tote and placed her at the front of the line for fluids. Afterward, I picked up her tote and walked into the desert with her. I eventually found a shady spot that had lots of desert flora and grass. I lifted Tortoise Montana, looked into her eyes, and gently placed her on shady ground. I filled out her data sheet, made my observations, and said “good-bye” as she looked around at her new home.

Whenever I walk by pen #362 I feel a little sad. The pen is empty now. But I feel good, too, because I know Tortoise Montana has what I know she needs: “The world…and everything in it.”

Paul Griese is a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read his previous post, Burrowing Owl: Who Are You?

3

Mangrove Finch: Chick Transfers

Anita Carrion (Charles Darwin Foundation) and Paula Castaño (Island Conservation) load mangrove finches into transport crates for their voyage to Isla Isabela.

Anita Carrion (Charles Darwin Foundation) and Paula Castaño (Island Conservation) load mangrove finches into transport crates for their voyage to Isla Isabela.

Be sure to read the previous post, Mangrove Finches: Hand-rearing Chicks.

Nearly 40 days after the first mangrove finch eggs and chicks were harvested from their nests at Playa Tortuga Negra, it was time to send them home. Ever since they had arrived at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos as young chicks or embryos yet to hatch, we had spent all of our time hovering over them and attending to their every need with one goal in mind: to send healthy mangrove finches back to Isabela Island for release. It was an exciting and hectic time as we prepared to transfer the oldest chicks while the younger chicks were still being fed every hour!

Pre-release aviaries had been constructed in the mangrove at Playa Tortuga Negra by local builders and awaited the arrival of the seven oldest chicks that would make up the first release cohort. After the remaining eight were grown and feeding themselves, they would join the first cohort in the aviaries.

Members of the first cohort were fitted with a unique combination of color bands on their right leg for identification from a distance as well as a silver, numbered band on their left leg. A drop of blood was drawn from under the wing of each bird (just like pricking a finger) for DNA sexing. Transport crates were inspected by the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency to ensure that quarantine conditions would be maintained during the chicks’ transfer. The gear the field team would take with them was sprayed with insecticide and put into quarantine before it was allowed to leave for Isabela.

Mangrove finches relax in their transport crates aboard the Galápagos National Park boat "Guadalupe River."

Mangrove finches relax in their transport crates aboard the Galápagos National Park boat “Guadalupe River.”

The evening of our departure, we transferred the chicks from their fledging cages to mosquito-proof travel crates that we then covered with black sheets. Keeping the birds in the dark while traveling helps keep them calm as it simulates nighttime, when they are typically inactive. A small crowd of staff members from the research station and their children gathered outside of the lab to catch a glimpse of the chicks as we carried them to the truck that would take us to the dock. This group had supported us throughout the project, but due to the quarantine conditions in the lab, this was their only opportunity to see the chicks. The public turnout for the chick transfer was a touching reminder of the support we had received from so many to make the project a success. We loaded the chicks in their crates into a truck for the short ride from the lab to the dock where we took a small boat, or panga, to the Galápagos National Park boat Guadalupe River. The finches got their own bunk on the boat, and we were underway for Isabela.

We sailed overnight and awoke in the morning in the shadow of Volcan Darwin off the west coast of Isabela. After a rushed breakfast, we loaded the finches back into the panga and headed for the beach. The mangrove forest here is protected by a wide, black sand beach, but the porous lava bedrock lets the forest flood at high tide. Navigating the thick tangle of roots and branches is downright treacherous when the forest is flooded, so we were fortunate to land at low tide when the walk from the beach to the pre-release aviaries was relatively easy.

A wild mangrove finch visits the chicks in the pre-release aviary in the mangrove forest at Playa Tortuga Negra, Isla Isabela.

A wild mangrove finch visits the chicks in the pre-release aviary in the mangrove forest at Playa Tortuga Negra, Isla Isabela.

The first step toward getting the chicks used to their new surroundings was transferring them from their travel boxes into fledging cages identical to those they had lived in at the lab. These cages were hung inside one of the three large aviary chambers and allowed the chicks to have a look at their new home while still keeping them confined to a smaller space in case the novelty was too scary or overwhelming. They settled in quickly, and we spent the afternoon watching them while finishing up the fine details of the aviaries and filling in gaps.

Both of the local snake species had been spotted at the aviary site, and we hadn’t gone to all of the work raising these finches for them to be snake food! Rather than snakes, though, the chicks attracted the attention of two wild mangrove finches that came down to the aviary to check out the new arrivals! The wild visitors were the cherry on top of an exciting day that had gone almost precisely as planned. We bid the babies goodnight and went to set up our camp. I was only going to be at the field site for about a week, but the rest of the team would be there for two months, and there was a lot of food, water, and gear to be hauled and organized.

Chick #1 forages in the pre-release aviary on Isla Isabela.

Chick #1 forages in the pre-release aviary on Isla Isabela.

The next morning we let the chicks out of the fledging cages to explore the full aviary. We had furnished their new home with rotten logs, strips of bark, and trays of leaf litter—all places that they would find food in the mangrove forest after their release. They set about busily exploring these new things. It was entertaining for the field crew to watch them interact and learn to navigate in the larger space and to see their foraging instincts kick in.

The next several days were mostly spent observing the chicks in the aviary, finishing the aviaries in preparation for the arrival of the second cohort of chicks, and watching wild mangrove finches at their nests. We even managed to trap and band one of the wild finches that kept coming around the aviaries to check out the chicks! The days were hot, and one afternoon as I was having a combination bath/swim in the ocean, a Park boat showed up out of the blue with instructions to take me to a cruise ship that would take me back to Puerto Ayora. I had to bid goodbye to the field crew, pack up my gear, and go with them right away because the ship was already underway, and we would have to catch it sailing down the coast of Isabela. It was an abrupt ending to a really special part of my Galápagos experience. I got to bring the first of our hand-raised mangrove finches back to their home forest and spend a week camping on a beautiful, remote beach flanked by volcanoes and surrounded by the spectacular wildlife of the Galápagos.

The first release cohort of hand-reared mangrove finch chicks gather together in the pre-release aviary.

The first release cohort of hand-reared mangrove finch chicks gather together in the pre-release aviary.

I arrived back in Puerto Ayora the following morning and was immediately back in preparation mode. It was nearly time for the second cohort of chicks to be transferred to the release site. We went through the entire process once more, and a week later, Michelle Smith with the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program and Anita Carrion of the Charles Darwin Foundation sailed for Playa Tortuga Negra with the second cohort of chicks.

With all of the chicks grown and moved back to Isabela, there was nothing left for me to do but clean and pack up the lab and wait to hear from the field team. I could do that from San Diego, so I headed home, excited by what we’d accomplished but still nervous about how the chicks would fare after their release.

Beau Parks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Mangrove Finch Eggs Hatch: A World First!

5

Condor Chick Ready to Fledge

The Condor Cam caught Su'nan perched on the ledge.

Su’nan is perched on the barrier between the nest box and the roost area.

As many Condor Cam viewers have experienced, the rearing process for a California condor can be long and slow. It makes sense, though, for a condor to develop so slowly. She has lots of growing to do! When our chick, Su’nan, hatched on April 29, she weighed approximately 6.3 ounces (180 grams). When she reaches her fledge weight of 17 pounds (8 kilograms) or more, she will have increased her hatch weight by 44 times! In contrast, I have only increased my birth weight by 19 times.

On August 27, at 121 days of age, Su’nan took her most recent step toward leaving the nest: she jumped up onto the barrier between her nest box and the adjoining roost area. She quickly hopped back into her nest, but that’s okay. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet. Her feathers still need time to fill in. Hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles, as well as improve her balance. She has since started hopping into the roost area on the other side of the barrier. Here, she can warm herself in the sun, if she chooses.

Su'nan stretches out one of her fast-growing wings.

Su’nan stretches out one of her fast-growing wings.

While out in the roost, she can also rest or sleep in the shade, perch with her parents (if they are not perched out in the flight pen), or step out to the roost ledge to soak up the sun’s rays for the first time. The ledge is about 8 feet (2.4 meters) from the ground—high enough to make the parents feel comfortable and secure in their nest but not as high as a condor nest in the wild. Su’nan may get near the edge, but she will be cautious in doing so, so she doesn’t teeter off. It is natural for condor chicks to explore and exercise on the edge of their nest cavities. Rarely do they fall out; in 32 years of raising California condors here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have never seen a chick fall from its nest area.

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

She's made it to the other side!

She’s made it to the other side!

The parents tend to be very vigilant during this phase of their chick’s development. It could appear overprotective to us, but keep in mind that they have invested an entire breeding season and lots of energy into this one chick. It benefits them greatly to make sure that their sole offspring is safe, healthy, and strong. They usually don’t coax or pressure their chick to leave the nest; on the contrary, we have seen parents make sure a chick doesn’t stray too far from the nest if it’s not ready yet. The parents will usually perch and/or roost near the fledgling.

They also will join her when she finally starts going to the feeding area of the flight pen. Most of the time, though, they will push her aside and eat first, feeding her when they are done. In condor culture, the bigger, more dominant birds usually eat first, while the subordinate birds wait their turn. The earlier Su’nan learns this from her parents, the better she will assimilate into a wild population after she is released. Don’t worry: Towich and Sulu won’t let Su’nan starve. They will continue to feed her even when she is out in the flight pen. Eventually, she will eat more and more on her own.

Her foster parents keep her company in the roost area.

Her foster parents keep her company in the roost area.

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

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

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick Foster: Name is Chosen!