Conservation

Conservation

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Rocky Mountain High: Boreal toads going to a place they’ve never been before

boreal toad

boreal toad

From the window of a fancy trailer I can see the small town of Alamosa, Colorado, and laying just behind it the base of the Rocky Mountains. A gateway to all the many outdoor splendors that the Colorado wilderness has to offer, this small town bustles with the comings and goings of natives as well as passers through. However, Alamosa hides another interesting little secret. The Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility, known as NASRF, is part of the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife dedicated to the restoration of 10 species of fish native to Colorado. Additionally (and perhaps more importantly for me), NASRF holds one of the largest collections of a single toad species in the US.

The southern Rocky Mountain population (SRMP) of boreal toad (Anaxyrus boreas boreas) is a geographically isolated population of the boreal toad (Anaxyrus boreas). Although the boreal toad is commonly found in the western part of the US, the SRMP is unique due to its limited geographical distribution, which restricts it to high elevations of montane wetland Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and southeastern Wyoming. As part of a comprehensive plan to restore and manage the SRMP, a specialized group known as the Boreal Toad Recovery Team (BTRT) was established in 1995, and a captive population has been housed at NASRF since 2001. Over 600 hundred individual toads from different localities in the wild are held and bred as a genetic assurance colony from which tadpoles are re-introduced annually.

Alaomosa

Alaomosa, Colorado

Amphibians are a curious group of animals. The diversity of physiological adaptations and environmental requirements makes breeding them in captivity difficult. Such is the case with the Boreal toads at NASRF.

One of the most interesting adaptations of the boreal toad is its ability to hibernate. Because they are found at high altitudes and latitudes they have evolved this behavior to cope with long, harsh winters. However, hibernation in amphibians is not exactly the same as in mammals. In fact, the proper term for this behavior in amphibians is brumation. Like hibernating mammals, temperate amphibians lower their metabolic rates in response to falling temperatures in fall and winter. They stop eating and reduce their activity but, unlike mammals, they do not become dormant. At the beginning of spring, as temperatures rise, boreal toads come out of hibernation and immediately begin to breed.

Although temperature appears to be a key factor influencing reproduction in the Boreal toad, we are not sure how important other factors such as light and nutrition affect adult health and reproduction. At NASRF we provide special UV lighting to emulate natural day and night cycles, a diverse diet, controlled water temperature and artificial hibernation during the winter months. In short, we do what we can to replicate the outdoors, indoors.

Sancho

Sancho

In May of 2014 I made the long 1,000 mile drive from San Diego to Alamosa to join the staff at NASRF in preparation for boreal toad breeding season. That’s not me in the photograph, that’s my trusty partner, Sancho. Seventeen hours later we arrived at our new and very swanky home where we would reside for the next 4.5 months. Now I guess I should explain why I told you all about the boreal toad in the beginning, and more importantly, where I fit into the picture. As I mentioned, during the winter months, boreal toads hibernate in the wild. To emulate this at NASRF we use giant refrigerators (the kind you find in restaurants). We box the little toads up with soft, moist sand and peat moss and put them to bed for 5 to 6 months. Odd as this may seem, this period of cold is exactly what these toads need to get them in the mood for love and romance. Emerging from hibernation is like traveling to a sunny beach destination with your partner for a romantic holiday after surviving a long winter.

So where do I come in? I am a reproductive physiologist working for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. About 4 years ago I moved to the US to work on amphibians as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Mississippi. During my post-doc I concentrated on the application of assisted reproductive technologies to promote reproduction in captive amphibians. When natural matings occur in boreal toads we expect to see certain reproductive behaviors such as males amplexing females. This clasping behavior may persist for days while the male stimulates the female to deposit her eggs. When breeding does not occur or a female fails to release eggs naturally, I inject females with hormone treatments designed to elicit egg deposition. I also use the same hormones to induce sperm production in males.

Boreals amplexing

Boreals amplexing

Like in humans, ultrasound helps us monitor female toad reproductive cycles by visualizing the ovary and determining the presence and size of eggs. This helps us know if a female that has not bred is ready to deposit eggs. If so, I would inject her with hormones. Once eggs have been deposited, we count the number of eggs that have been fertilized and are cleaving (dividing). Embryonic development is recorded by looking at embryos every day and cataloging different developmental stages.

We raise tadpoles in captivity until they reach a certain size and have developed back legs before transporting them to the Rocky Mountain National Park for release into the wild. This final stage of the adventure is managed and monitored by the dedicated staff at NASRF and the National Park. Saving the SRMP boreal toad is a collaborative project with the ultimate goal restoring these animals in their natural habitat.

(I’d like to thank all the staff at the Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility for their help).

Natalie Calatayud is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

 

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Sweet, Juicy Papaya‚—for the Birds!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Amazon’s—and Cocha Cashu’s—Youngest Ambassadors

The enthusiastic participants of the first-ever Tropical Ecology and Field Techniques course held in 2013—where are they now?

The enthusiastic participants of the first-ever Tropical Ecology and Field Techniques course held in 2013—where are they now?

In his blog A Student’s Day at Cocha Cashu’s Field Ecology Trainning Course, Ron Swaisgood, scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, wrote : “Our mission includes the goal of recruiting some of the best and brightest emerging young scientists, and sending them off on a life trajectory better suited and more motivated to tackle the problems of understanding and conserving Amazonian ecosystems.”

In order to assess whether we are on track to achieving this goal, we asked some of the Peruvian students who participated in our first three-month Tropical Ecology and Field Techniques Course in 2013, what they have been up to since their Cocha Cashu experience.

Cindy Hurtado, a Biology student at San Marcos University, Lima, carried out a camera trap study at Cocha Cashu, looking into the use of clay licks by large mammals. She tells us that after completing our course she traveled to Costa Rica to work as a teaching assistant on the Tropical Biology Field Course of the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS). She is now working toward a Masters at Towson University, Maryland, with Harald Beck (a fervent ‘Cashu nut’) as her mentor, and will be working on peccary reintroductions in Iberá, Argentina.

Maite Aranguena was given the opportunity to work within the Peruvian Institute for Oceanographic Studies (IMARPE). She also participated in the 7th International Otter Congress in Brazil where she presented the results of her study at Cocha Cashu: “Habitat use by the giant otter in Cocha Cashu, Manu National Park, during the dry season (August – September 2013).” Maite is currently beginning her graduation thesis with the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) on the behavior of birds using biologging, and is also conducting environmental education workshops.

Nicole Mitidieri enrolled in the Center for International Forestry Research, within the Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program; she is studying the effect of the degradation of tropical tubers in the lower Peruvian Amazon (Loreto) on emissions of greenhouse gases at the soil level. She is simultaneously preparing to start her Masters research next year, financed by CIFOR. In September 2014, Nicole returned to Cocha Cashu as a teaching assistant for this year’s field course. She hopes to find funds to carry out a long-term study into the impact of gold mining on ecosystem services provided by wetlands, using Manu National Park as her control site.

Jorge Cabellero is currently working on no fewer than three research projects, including his thesis, entitled “Evaluation of deforestation and carbon emission resulting from land use changes from primary forests to oil palm plantations in the northern Peruvian Amazon.”

Adrian Torres has also been very busy. Not only was he a teaching assistant for this year’s field course at Cocha Cashu (during which he developed the pilot stage of a personal research project looking into the ecology of the Triplaris – Pseudomyrmex system), he was also field assistant in Kirstie Hazelwood’s and Harald Beck’s project on seedling ecology, led by Timothy Paine, another ‘Cashu nut’. He says that acting as T.A. in our course has furthered his interest in bioacoustics and landscape ecology, and he may be hatching a plan on this subject for next year.

Viviana Ramos is a park guard in the Alto Purus National Park and tells us that our course has helped to orientate her ideas towards addressing the problems of biodiversity conservation and management in tropical ecosystems. She is currently working on her thesis project, entitled “Density of mammals hunted by the Amahuaca and Sharanahua ethnic groups, Alto Purus watershed.”

Last but not least, David Chang also returned to Cocha Cashu this year as a teaching assistant, and is now finishing his thesis on stress markers in wild bird populations in Lomas de Lachay, while looking forward to starting a Ph.D. in Ecology.

So, let’s, for a moment, break our mission down into its components. Did we recruit some of the brightest and the best? Most certainly. And are they motivated to continue on a path of exploring, understanding and conserving Amazonian ecosystems? We believe so, judging by their dedication to their ongoing research and the fact that no fewer than three of the course graduates returned to Cocha Cashu in 2014 as teaching assistants. We are proud of our new generation of ‘Cashu nuts’ and will continue to follow their careers with interest.

Jessica Groenendijk is the education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru. Read her previous post, Welcoming Students to Cocha Cashu.

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California Condors: Little Things, Big Effects

Condors have excellent vision, but some threats are too small for even these birds to see.

Condors have excellent vision, but some threats are too small for even these birds to see.

In spring of 2011, I served as a summer research fellow at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Here I learned that I could contribute to the conservation of endangered species in a way I never dreamed possible: on a molecular level! To say this was a stretch for me is an understatement. Freshman year of undergrad I distinctly remember the shock when I was handed back my first BIO 101 exam: it was the first “D” I ever received at any time as a student. I turned to my friend and proclaimed, “I will NEVER work with something I cannot see,” (referencing biological materials such as DNA, RNA, and proteins), conclusively announcing “All I want to do is work with animals.”

Despite my initial frustration, I stuck with the biology major, tagged on an animal science minor, and got a keeper internship at my local zoo. The internship turned into a part-time job working hands-on with exotic animals, a dream come true! While zookeeping was a very gratifying job, reproductive physiology had caught my attention not only in the classroom but through my experience at the zoo. I was amazed at how reproductive techniques such as semen collection, artificial insemination, and hormone monitoring could inform animal managers and scientists of a broader picture not always seen by the naked eye. My interest and enthusiasm landed me an internship in the Reproductive Physiology Division at the Institute and, eventually, a permanent position as a research technician. We work on traditional gamete preservation, hormone monitoring, and the exciting new field in the zoo world: environmental toxicology. This research combines molecular techniques and endocrinology to explore the effects of chemicals found in the environment on the development and reproduction of captive and wild animals.

I am now a graduate from the University of Missouri’s animal science master’s program with a thesis describing the molecular interactions of environmental chemicals and hormone receptors of a critically endangered species, the California condor. Needless to say, I have changed my stance on working with biological materials that are not visible to the naked eye!

HEK cells (seen here at 100 times their actual size) are used as concor receptor factories to study the effects of environmental contaminants on reproduction. Photo by Rachel Felton

HEK cells (seen here at 100 times their actual size) are used as condor receptor factories to study the effects of environmental contaminants on reproduction.

In the Lab
In my previous post DDT: Another Challenge for California Condor, I explained our first investigations of the effects of environmental chemicals on California condor reproduction. In the lab, we were able to develop an assay to screen condor estrogen receptors (ERs) with chemicals found circulating in the blood of condors living along California’s coast to detect activation of these hormone receptors. Determining which chemicals mimic (activate ERs) or block (deactivate ERs) signaling of the endogenous hormone estrogen will be an important step in better understanding the endocrine-disrupting potential of chemicals found in the condor’s coastal environment.

Chemical concentrations circulating in condor blood activated condor estrogen receptors in the lab. This discovery lead us to speculate that in the wild, coastal condors are being exposed to levels of chemicals that may cause developmental and/or reproductive harm. The chemical load in condors today is similar to that found in other birds of prey along the California coast such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon. These species have experienced eggshell thinning in the past. Unfortunately, eggshell thinning is already compromising the coastal condor population.

Relocating California condors to coastline habitats reduces chances of lead poisoning but may pose other risks.

Relocating California condors to coastline habitats reduces chances of lead poisoning but may contain other, unseen threats.

In the Field
What does this mean for free-flying condors? The cliffs along the Southern California coast may not be the ideal escape from the threats of lead poisoning. If chronic exposure and the production of thin eggshells continue in the population, there is the potential for long-term effects since coastal condors are sensitive at the molecular level to contaminants found in their diets. In Oregon and Washington, condor reintroduction was put on hold due to elevated levels of chemicals in the blubber of marine mammals.

In Baja California, Mexico, the wild condor population may have to be moved to the coast of Mexico. Conservation managers are hoping to wean condors off expensive supplemental feedings and toward a diet composed of beached marine mammals. But before relocation of this population occurs, chemical compositions of beached marine mammals at the potential release sites will be evaluated in the lab for endocrine-disrupting capabilities. Our goal is to move condors away from lead and intensive management practices, but not into another health-compromising situation.

Rachel Felton is a senior research technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Condors: Feeding Time Manners

Around the corner to the right is where the condors are fed.

The condors are fed around the corner to the right.

After fledging, a growing young condor starts to eat on its own, with the parents continuing to feed the youngster every once in a while. At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we do things a bit differently, as the fledged birds are moved to a remote socialization pen with other young release candidates and a mentor bird or two. We don’t move fledglings to the socialization pen until we’ve made sure they have been seen feeding themselves. The mentor birds do not feed anybody.

This year’s Condor Cam chick, Su’nan, who hatched on April 29, 2014, was starting to eat on her own when she was with her parents. When we saw that she was eating on her own, we were comfortable moving her to the socialization pen with the other young release candidates. We drop all of the food at the same time through a chute in the wall, hiding us from the young birds’ view. The most dominant members of the group (usually the biggest or the most experienced) eat first or displace other birds that may be in their way. The subordinate, younger birds usually wait until the dominant birds finish or let them come and eat with them.

Eventually, as the subordinate birds gain experience, they may move up in the social hierarchy. Currently, Su’nan is near the bottom of the pecking order, as expected, due to her size and age. She is doing just fine, though. Feeding is very competitive, just like it is in the wild. It may look rough and impolite to us, but we must remember that the condors are working under the rules that work best in their social system, not ours. This experience the youngsters are getting will better prepare them for a free-flying life in the wild.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condors Saticoy and Cuyamaca Flying Free.

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The Python Challenge

Burmese pythons are an invasive species in Florida's Everglades.

Burmese pythons are an invasive species in Florida’s Everglades.

When a male reptile in the San Diego Zoo collection passes away, it is my job to freeze his sperm. Unfortunately, there has been so little research done on freezing reptile sperm that there are no guidelines in the scientific literature. So, we have to develop the protocols for ourselves, which requires a great deal of research and a lot of sperm samples. This scenario plays out all too often in the Reproductive Physiology Lab of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. We always need more samples! How could we know how to freeze golden lancehead sperm without any practice on this or any related snake species?

Our lab group has struggled with this problem for years and has come up with some creative solutions to the sperm shortage problem. My colleagues Nicole Ravida, Dr. Barbara Durrant, and I began scouring the Internet to find a way to collect large numbers of reptile sperm samples in a short period of time to use as models for endangered reptile species. That’s when we learned about the Python Challenge in the Everglades.

Carly and Barbara got an early start in the Everglades.

Carly and Barbara got an early start in the Everglades.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) launched the Python Challenge to raise awareness about Burmese pythons and how this invasive species is a threat to the Everglades ecosystem and its native wildlife. The Burmese python is one of the deadliest and most competitive predators in South Florida. With no known natural predators, population estimates for the python range from the thousands to hundreds of thousands. A severe decline in a variety of mammal populations in the Everglades over the last eight years coincides with the proliferation of the invasive Burmese python. Necropsies on the captured snakes reveal what pythons are eating, their reproductive status, and location data from the hunters that will help scientists figure out where the snakes are living—valuable data for researchers working to stop their spread.

The Python Challenge was a month-long harvest open to anyone, and we knew this would be our opportunity to collect many snake sperm samples. We immediately contacted the Invasive Species Program staff at the University of Florida, one of the Python Challenge partners, and the project all started to fall into place. Barbara and I arrived in Florida and immediately collected all the supplies and equipment we had sent ahead to Zoo Miami and then purchased thick sheets of dry ice. Lining a large Styrofoam box with the cold sheets, we fabricated a minus 112-degrees-Fahrenheit (-80 degrees Celsius) freezer for one of our freezing protocols. With everything we would need piled into our rental car, we finally made it to the hotel room and organized our temporary lab.

The Python Challenge check-in station was simple but effective.

The Python Challenge check-in station was simple but effective.

The next day we drove to the Python Challenge check station, which consisted of a pickup truck and a tent. Hunters came to the check station to have their snake(s) measured and documented by the Invasive Species Program staff. Prizes were awarded to the hunter who harvested the longest snake and the one who brought in the most snakes. We anxiously waited with the people from the University of Florida for a male snake to be brought in. Unfortunately, the first snake to arrive had been frozen the previous day. We needed fresh, cooled samples, not frozen, so we continued to wait for another snake, which came in a few hours later. We dissected out the vas deferens, where the sperm is stored, on the back of a pickup truck as the sun set over the Everglades. We immediately put the tissue in saline in a cooler and raced back to the hotel to process the sample. But it was a bust—no motile sperm. We just had to hope for better luck the next day.

The vas defrens were taken back to the makeshift lab in the hotel room for processing.

The vas defrens were taken back to the makeshift lab in the hotel room for processing.

The next morning we got a call from our colleagues at the University of Florida saying that they had two live snakes. This was fantastic news, because we would be able to obtain fresh sperm samples. During the snakes’ necropsies, we collected the vas deferens and drove an hour back to our hotel room to process the samples. Fortunately, both males had motile sperm. More sperm, in fact, than we had ever seen and certainly more than we could ship back to San Diego. After several hours of freezing the sperm in our homemade dry-ice box or in liquid nitrogen vapor, we received a call that another male snake was available. We drove back to the Check Station, arriving after dark. We removed the vas deferens in the back of the truck using my phone as our light source. We made it back to the hotel room for another five hours of processing and freezing, falling into bed at 1a.m. It was a very long day but a successful one, with sperm from three snakes safely stored in our shippers.

Our luck continued the next day, with an interesting twist. This time the live snakes had been brought to another checkpoint, and we would need to transport them to the University of Florida lab. It was a bit surreal to be driving down the highway with three large pythons in snake bags in the trunk. We wondered if we had violated the rental agreement when we promised not to carry pets in the car. It was worth the risk; snakes and humans arrived safely at the university, and we froze three more sperm samples back in our hotel room lab.

Overall, it was a successful trip to the Python Challenge in the Everglades. We froze 130 vials of sperm, shipping them back to San Diego. Then began the long process of thawing and evaluating each sample, comparing three different freezing protocols to determine which one resulted in the best post-thaw viability. We have analyzed the data, and we have an early winner among the protocols we tested. However, we will need to repeat the experiment with improved protocols to maximize sperm motility and membrane integrity, both of which are essential for potential fertility.

Although we will never use the sperm of this invasive species for artificial insemination (we certainly don’t want more Burmese pythons in the United States!), we have taken a big step forward in the development of sperm-freezing methods for its endangered relatives such as the Indian python and the Cropan’s boa.

Carly Young is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Polar Bear Tatqiq Wears It Well

Tatqiq wears a collar

Tatqiq wears a collar for conservation science.

If you visit the San Diego Zoo’s Polar Bear Plunge these days, you might see something new: Tatqiq is wearing a white collar! While Tatqiq seems to be enjoying both wearing this new accessory and the training involved in putting it on and taking it off every day, our motives for having her wear it are focused on conservation science. Tatqiq will be contributing to research led by the U.S. Geological Survey focused on developing a better understanding of the behavior of wild polar bears in Alaska. These data will help us refine our understanding of how sea ice losses driven by climate change will impact polar bears.

The current configuration of the collar is simple: a thick and flexible plastic strap held together with a pair of zip ties, so Tatqiq can remove the collar easily if she wants to. If the collar is pulled, it will immediately loosen and fall off. However, this collar will soon be instrumented with a small accelerometer (the same technology that allows your smart phone to automatically adjust its screen orientation) that will provide scientists with information regarding the behavior of the bear wearing the collar. Because the polar bear’s Arctic sea ice has historically made it near impossible to make direct observations of polar bear behavior in the wild, the data we gain from the accelerometer will provide new insights into their daily behavior, movements, and energetic needs.

Held together with zip ties, the collar can easily come off if needed.

Held together with zip ties, the collar can easily be removed by Tatqiq if it bothers her.

“Radio-collars” have been used to track wildlife for decades and were initially developed to study the movements and infer the behavior of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. These early studies provided wildlife scientists with data that revolutionized our understanding of how individual bears moved about the landscape, and in so doing, helped us develop a much better understanding of what their habitat needs might be.

Since that time, the technology used to track wildlife has changed quite a bit, but the collar itself is still most commonly used to mount tracking devices and other instrumentation. With the advent of GPS collars (instead of VHF transmitters), the precision and quantity of the data we can collect on a wide array of animals has greatly expanded. The data collected by the instrumentation on these collars can also be downloaded remotely and frequently, allowing scientists and non-scientists alike the opportunity to track animals in the most remote corners of the Earth in real time and from the comfort of their own home or office.

While movement and location data are valuable, they only tell us part of the story. By studying behavior, we gain more insight into how animals interact with their environment and why different degrees of environmental change may differentially influence their chances of successful reproduction or survival. While baseline data can tell us about the range of behaviors an animal may engage in under a range of “normal conditions,” data collected under challenging environmental conditions can tell us much about the limits of a species’ ability to cope with their new environment and help us better predict what their limits might be. This work is part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative.

We hope the collar...

We hope Tatqiq will help us test this new technology for studying wild polar bears.

The polar bear exemplifies the challenges associated with studying and protecting wildlife in our rapidly changing world. The Arctic sea ice, the habitat that the polar bear completely depends on for survival, is disappearing at an alarming rate. These habitat losses are driving population declines across the polar bear’s range, but some subpopulations are being hit harder than others. For example, recent results published from a long-term study of wild polar bears showed that the Alaskan population of bears from the Southern Beaufort Sea had declined by about 40 percent since the year 2000. Forty percent! That is a tremendous decrease and double the level of the most dire estimates that have come out of the last three decades of monitoring.

Tatqiq has always been a great conservation ambassador for polar bears everywhere. Visitors to the San Diego Zoo who have spent time watching Tatqiq (and Chinook and Kalluk) know that she is playful and engaged and demonstrates a range of behaviors that provide insights into the intelligence of these majestic bears. Now, Tatqiq will be helping us better understand how we can apply technology to better understand the behavior of wild bears. She wears it well!

Megan Owen is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi.

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What We’re Thankful For

Giving thanks is certainly in season, but our gratitude for the support of our members, donors, sponsors, and partners extends far beyond the holiday. Plus, we thank our dedicated volunteers for their efforts in connecting our visitors to wildlife and conservation. So while we continue to give thanks to all the people and organizations that contribute to our goal of saving species from extinction, there are a few special shout-outs we would like to emphasize this Thanksgiving.

California Condor Recovery Program

They are one of the largest flying birds and one of our greatest continuing success stories. We’ve come a long way since 1985, when California condors were 22 birds away from extinction. Today, more than 400 California condors are alive, with over half flying free in California, Arizona, and Baja California, Mexico. This year we’re especially grateful for our international partners in Baja California, Mexico and at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City. With a renewed cross-border commitment to the California Condor Recovery Program, our mounting achievements will result in even more condors spreading their wings and flying free in the wild.

Southwestern pond turtle headstart to recovery program

Don’t let their tough shells fool you! According to Conservation International, 40 percent of turtle species across the globe are at immediate risk of extinction. In 2013, we gave California’s only native freshwater turtle species, the southwestern pond turtle, a “headstart” toward recovery with the help of the U.S. Geological Survey, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the San Diego Association of Governments. Five more turtles were released into the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve this summer, so a special thanks goes to our local conservation partners for the swimming success and enduring research.

The first full breeding season for Hawaii’s native palila was a success at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Six healthy chicks were produced with the help of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program and our local partners. Watch the video to learn about a few other bird species we’ve been working with on the Hawaiian Islands.

African elephants

We are thankful to receive the 2014 Edward H. Bean Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for the African bush elephant program, along with Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. We’ve also had success with our satellite herd of this species at the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson. The birth of our most recent calf, Nandi, contributed to the population of these gentle giants, and we are pleased to work with animal care staff in Arizona to further this mission.

San Diego Ronald McDonald House Tunes into San Diego Zoo Kids Network

Introducing people to wildlife is crucial for the conservation of all species. In addition to four hospitals across the United States, this year we were able to bring the San Diego Zoo Kids channel to the patients and families at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Furthermore, the educational channel was implemented into Ronald McDonald House Charities of San Diego, where children can enjoy hours of animal stories from the comfort of their own rooms.

Tull Family Tiger Trail

The opening of the Tull Family Tiger Trail was the culmination of years of planning, design, fund-raising, and construction, all made possible through the contributions of our community and the amazing generosity of the Tull Family. This adventure is proof that when we come together, we can accomplish great things for endangered species like the Sumatran tiger.

Highlighting every species and conservation success we’ve shared this year is impossible. However, on behalf of everybody at San Diego Zoo Global, our organization would like to thank all of our members, volunteers, donors, partners, and the overall community for the ongoing support and dedication. Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is our ultimate goal, but we can’t do it without you.

Join the conversation: What are you thankful for this year?

Jenn Beening is the social media specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 9 Culturally Haunting Animals.

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Protected Habitat in Southern California

A Stephen's kangaroo rat is checked out in the field.

Researchers examine a Stephen’s kangaroo rat in the field.

It’s the middle of November, the holidays are approaching, and 2014 is quickly coming to a close. Normally, I would be done with fieldwork by this time of year, since the Pacific and Los Angeles pocket mice that I study are probably already hibernating (see Where are Pocket Mice during Winter?). Since our Southern California winter hasn’t seemed to hit yet (it is still warm here, even by our standards!), I was able to squeeze in one more week to check out a new potential field site for the spring.

This new site is a California State Wildlife Area, a little piece of land next to a State Park but otherwise surrounded by a freeway, cropland, and cattle farms. Over five nights we caught five species of small mammals, including endangered Stephen’s kangaroo rats, from which we collected genetic samples. My field site this summer was a different State Wildlife Area, and in addition to the small mammals I saw badgers (see Badger and Coyote Caught on Camera), bobcats, foxes, and a spotted skunk.

A spotted skunk is "captured" by a camera trap in a State Wildlife Area.

A spotted skunk is “captured” by a camera trap in a State Wildlife Area.

Prior to starting my fieldwork in Southern California, I hadn’t known much about these 600,000 acres of designated wildlife areas in the state. In addition to our state and national parks, these protected areas make up the primary habitat for many of our local threatened and endangered species. San Diego Zoo Global provides a lot of the conservation research and a great opportunity to view some of these species at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, like the Peninsular bighorn sheep (see Bighorn Sheep Roundup Furthers Conservation Research). Only an hour or so from the Safari Park, they are roaming free in Anza-Borrego State Park!

Bighorn sheep lambs frolic.

Bighorn sheep lambs frolic.

Seeing animals in the wild, particularly endangered species that scientists have been working so hard to save, is such a treat. The opportunity to visit areas that are set aside and safe from development and to be able to see these animals in their native habitat is definitely something I am thankful for!

Rachel Chock is a graduate student and volunteer with San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Pacific pocket mouse project. Read her previous post, Pocket Mice Powerhouses.

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Gaur Game Plan

Indian gaur can be seen in the Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Indian gaur can be seen in the Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

What are those big buffalo in the Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park? This is one of the most commonly asked questions on Caravan Safari tours. They are Indian gaur Bos frontalis gaurus, the largest wild cattle species. Gaur live in herds of up to 40 individuals led by a mature bull. An adult gaur can stand 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 2,000 pounds! Coupled with their dark coat and light-blue eyes, this body-builder physique makes gaur very intimidating to predators. Gaur currently live in fragmented evergreen forest habitats in southern Asia and India.

In India, gaur have been domesticated as work animals and hybridized with domestic cattle to create a separate species. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List considers wild Indian gaur “vulnerable” in southern Asia. This is a poorly understood species, so there may be as few as 13,000 left in the world or as many as 30,000. Indian gaur are threatened due to hunting, habitat loss, and domestic cattle diseases, like Johne’s disease. Our researchers are using mathematical models to monitor transmission of these types of diseases to help save Indian gaur (see post Saving Species with Math).

We also conserve Indian gaur in two other ways. Indian gaur are protected under the umbrella of Asian elephant and tiger habitat conservation programs that San Diego Zoo Global supports around the world. Additionally, the Safari Park has a herd of Indian gaur that are part of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ bison and wild cattle taxon advisory group (TAG).

Very few zoos currently house gaur because they are large, territorial, and require the same amount of space as rhinos, which are often more exciting to visitors. In the past, the Safari Park successfully bred over 200 gaur, but the breeding program stopped because there was no longer anywhere to send the offspring. Through the TAG, individuals are loaned and traded to other zoos for breeding programs and conservation initiatives to increase the genetic diversity of many different species. Without other facilities involved in the TAG, we would quickly become saturated with gaur. Now, the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans has expressed interest in a herd of Indian gaur. As a result, the Safari Park welcomed two new females and a young male to our Asian field exhibit. The young male will, hopefully, dominate the resident castrated male in the herd and begin breeding.

Female Indian gaur typically give birth to one calf between December and June after a 275-day gestation. It’s amazing to think that a female gaur and a human female have the same pregnancy length! Stay tuned. Hopefully, the Safari Park will have new Indian gaur calves by next year to bolster the fight for conservation of this unique species.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, It’s Alive! Look Inside our Giant Pandas’ Favorite Food.