Conservation at the Zoo

Conservation at the Zoo

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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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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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Upcycling: Recycling at its Finest

These colorful critters are made from upcycled flip flops!

These colorful critters are made from upcycled flip flops!

Upcycling reduces waste by using existing resources to create products rather than harvesting new raw materials. Think of it as converting trash into environmentally friendly products or art. How is this relevant to San Diego Zoo Global? We are a conservation organization dedicated not only to protecting wildlife and plants, but natural resources as well.

For instance, our gift shops promote upcycling and sustainability by carrying Ocean Sole’s statues of rhinos, elephants, and giraffes made from upcycled flip-flops. Ocean Sole collects 400,000 discarded flip-flops per year that litter Kenya’s coastline and refashions them into colorful, hand-made statues. Ocean Sole reduces oceanic pollution AND fosters a connection between Kenyans and their surrounding marine ecosystem. Ocean Sole also improves the quality of life for the women who make the statues. By earning their own incomes, they can afford to send their children to school. Some even save money to start their own businesses.

It's amazing what crafters can make with old aluminum soda and beer cans!

It’s amazing what crafters can make with old aluminum soda and beer cans!

Similarly, our gift shops sell animal statues made of upcycled beer and soda cans as part of a GreenZoo initiative. Every ounce of aluminum recycled is an ounce of bauxite, an ore in aluminum, that doesn’t have to be mined. Bauxite mines are located in prime wildlife habitat in South Africa, South America, Russia, the West Indies, and the United States. The mines disrupt wildlife habitat, and chemicals from the mines often pollute waterways. The GreenZoo animal statues available in our gift shops were hand-made in South Africa by local artisans.

My favorite example of upcycling is elephant PooPooPaper. An adult elephant eats up to 300 pounds of roots, grasses, and bark each day. That’s a lot of fiber. Most of it passes undigested into 100 pounds of poop per elephant per day. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park sends the bulk of its manure to a farmer across the street who grows hay for the animals at the Park. The PooPooPaper we sell in our gift shops is made from elephant droppings in Thailand. PooPooPaper processes the fibers in elephant poop into paper with environmentally friendly methods to clean, boil, mix, blend, color, screen, dry, and cut the fibers. Poop has actually been upcycled for centuries as fertilizer, fuel, building material, and insect repellent. PooPooPaper takes this idea to the next level, upcycling waste materials and supporting our involvement with Elephants Without Borders, an organization dedicated to studying the migration routes of the 220,000 endangered elephants in southern Africa. Buying paper made of elephant poop saves both natural resources and elephants! Gift shops at the San Diego Zoo also sell giant panda PooPooPaper that upcycles and help saves giant pandas.

These whimsical animals are made from snare wire.

These whimsical animals are made from snare wire.

Upcycled products are often colorful, creative, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly. But you don’t have to shop at a zoo to upcycle. You can save the planet’s resources by upcycling at home. Turn old glass bottles into hanging lamps. Use an old computer tower as a mailbox. Make a bookshelf out of a ladder. Turn an old musical instrument into a fountain. Or create a recycling can from old water bottles. The next time you get ready to throw something away, ask yourself if that trash can be turned into treasure.

For more information about upcycling, and for additional creative upcycling inspirations for your home, school, and community, visit the following websites:

Our gift shops also sell items made to support South America's only bear species.

Our gift shops also sell items made to support South America’s only bear species.

1. San Diego Zoo Global Green Practices
2. Upcycling Re-values and Re-purposes Trash
3. Upcycle That—Upcycling Ideas and Inspirations
4. Here are 30 Brilliant Ways to Use Old Stuff You’re About to Throw Away
5. 10 Ways to Reduce Ocean Plastic

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Hide & Seek: Followers and Tuckers.

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World Elephant Day

Christine Browne-Nuñez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

Christine Browne-Nunez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

World Elephant Day, launched on August 12, 2012, is now an annual event intended to celebrate this beautiful and majestic mammal and to bring attention to the plight of Asian and African elephants and the numerous threats they face. Sadly, elephant tusks are one of the major reasons elephants are threatened. Elephant tusks are made into ivory carvings, jewelry, chopsticks, and other such trinkets. Some people in the world believe that elephant tusks fall out, like baby teeth in humans, and, to collect the ivory, all one needs to do is gather those fallen tusks off the ground. The truth, however, is that tusks are permanent and grow throughout an elephant’s lifetime. In order to get the ivory, the elephant is illegally killed. Because of the high demand for ivory, elephants are currently being killed at an alarming rate. According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 35,000 elephants were poached in Africa last year.

My work with elephants began in 1995 as a manager of a volunteer conservation education program at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, where local and international visitors came to see baby elephants and learn about elephant ecology and conservation. It was at the Trust that I witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by poaching, as many of the traumatized orphaned elephants had lost their mothers to the ivory trade. The good news is, individuals, organizations, such as DSWT, and governments around the world are working hard to bring an end to poaching by educating people about the real costs of ivory and by enforcing national and international laws that make it illegal to collect, sell, or buy ivory.

Many values are associated with elephants, which is, in part, why conserving elephants is a complex task. From an ecological perspective, the elephant has important roles in the environment. It is sometimes called an ecosystem engineer, with complex effects on its habitat and species diversity. It modifies its environment through activities such as seed dispersal, tree felling, bark stripping, and the creation of waterholes. From a social perspective, the many elephant lovers around the world appreciate that elephants are intelligent, social animals that communicate with others near and far, maintain strong family bonds throughout their lives, and have life stages parallel to those of humans. Additionally, many elephant behaviors, such as those demonstrated in greeting ceremonies or when standing over and covering a dead body or bones, are interpreted as displays of emotion. Elephants also have economic value at the local and national level by attracting tourists for consumptive and non-consumptive use.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nunez.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

Whereas the elephant is admired by many people around the world, not all people view elephants positively. About 70 percent of the elephant’s range lies outside protected areas on lands often occupied by people, highlighting the importance of maintaining private lands as viable elephant habitat. Therefore, conservation efforts aimed at protecting the elephant and securing habitat for its long-term survival need to be based on both ecological and human-dimensions information.

People and elephants have coexisted for millennia with varying levels and types of interaction, but negative interactions known as human-elephant conflict (HEC) are perceived to be on the rise in some places. Human-elephant conflict can come in many forms and result in property damage and injury and death of both people and elephants. Crop depredation, the most common form of HEC, is a critical issue in elephant conservation, especially as more land is converted to agriculture. In pastoral areas such as Maasailand, where I conducted research, coexistence is threatened as a result of the evolving socio-economic landscape.

The Maasai people living around Amboseli National Park, Kenya, located at the foot of the majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro, are traditionally semi-nomadic livestock herders. This livelihood practice facilitated their coexistence with wildlife, including elephants, in the Amboseli ecosystem for hundreds of years, but changes brought about by government policy, conservation policy, and immigration of peoples from other cultures has had a significant and on-going impact on their way of life. With more land under the plow and increasing competition for resources resulting from population growth, the level of conflict was on the rise.

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

My research found the Maasai were divided in their willingness to tolerate elephants on their lands. At the core of this division were perceptions about costs, resulting from HEC, versus benefits, namely tourist revenue. Conservationists working in this and other ecosystems are continually working to find solutions to HEC in order to secure long-term habitat for elephants. In Amboseli, such solutions include electric fencing around agricultural areas, compensation payments for loss of human life, consolation payments for livestock killed by elephants on private lands, and ecotourism schemes. My research found only a minority of local Maasai were aware of, or fully understood, these interventions, but of those, attitudes tended to be more positive. Conservation education and communication programs, such as those developed by our Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global, can increase awareness of these types of conservation activities and provide knowledge and skills to empower local people in managing and conserving wildlife.

It is evident that people have and will continue to determine the fate of the elephant. African savanna elephants will become extinct by 2020 if the threats to elephants are not adequately addressed. A vital component of conservation is understanding and influencing human actions. Ongoing ecological and social science research is needed in the varied settings in which people and elephants coexist in order to provide information for developing, monitoring, and adapting methods for protecting both species. Developing community-based conservation programs that include conservation education and communication is one of the many things we do here at the Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global.

Support the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy in its efforts to conserve elephants and elephant habitat. With your help, we can bring elephants back from the brink of extinction!

Christine Browne-Nuñez, Ph.D., is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Panda Collaboration

A delegation from the Sichuan Forestry Administration and China Wildlife Conservation Association met with members of our staff.

A delegation from the Sichuan Forestry Administration and China Wildlife Conservation Association met with members of our staff.

The San Diego Zoo’s giant panda conservation program has greatly benefited from our long-term collaboration with colleagues in China. The exchange of knowledge regarding the best husbandry practices to ensure the highest-possible level of care for giant pandas has been a hallmark of this international program. We have learned much over the years from our Chinese colleagues, and we have shared what we have learned with them as well.

This summer, we hosted a delegation from the Sichuan Forestry Administration and China Wildlife Conservation Association as its members began their inspection tour of the zoo housing giant panda in the United States. Members of our executive team and staff from our departments of Collections Husbandry Science, Applied Animal Ecology, Reproductive Physiology, and Veterinary Services shared details of our giant panda conservation program and our panda facilities at the Zoo.

A focus of the day’s discussions was the continued international collaboration toward the optimal husbandry care for older giant pandas, as well as the continuation of the collaborative and successful relationship we have developed over the past years. All who participated would agree that is was a successful day, and we are looking forward to continuing our collaboration in support of giant pandas well into the future!

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Bug Safari: Time to Get Outside!

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Condor Chick: Name is Chosen!

Su'nan peeks over the ledge at Dad, left, and Mom.

Su’nan peeks over the ledge at Dad, left, and Mom.

The naming poll results are in: the name of the California condor chick featured on San Diego Zoo Global’s Condor Cam is Su’nan, Chumash for “to continue to, to keep on”! She is now over 90 days old and is starting to get her big-bird feathers. Some of the first feathers that start to grow are the wing feathers.

It is easy to see the feathers growing through Su’nan’s down: the down feathers are gray, but the new flight feathers are black. The long feathers that grow from the tip of the wing are called primary feathers, and the feathers from the wrist to the armpit are secondary feathers. Primary and secondary feathers are the giant feathers that make the California condor’s wing so large and impressive. An adult can have a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet (2.9 meters)! We are estimating Su’nan’s wingspan to be around 5 feet (1.5 meters) right now, between the size of a red-tailed hawk and a bald eagle. Her tail feathers are also starting to grow. They’re a little harder to see on camera, but you should be able to spot them soon.

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

Su’nan had her second health exam on July 14, during which our veterinary staff administered her second, and final, West Nile virus inoculation. A blood sample was obtained, and she weighed 11 pounds (5 kilograms), over half of her projected adult weight. Even though our little girl is getting big, she still has room to grow!

The adult condors are fed four days a week. The other three days they are fasted. They often don’t eat every day in the wild, sometimes fasting for up to two weeks, so our nutritionists recommend not feeding them every day to prevent obesity and food waste. Their diet, depending on the day, can consist of rats, rabbits, trout, beef spleen, or ground meat. We offer 2 to 3 pounds (1 to 1.3 kilograms) of food per bird per feeding day. When the condors are raising a chick, we offer extra food every day: 1 rat, 1.5 pounds (0.7 kilograms) of beef spleen, 1 trout, and 0.5 pounds (0.2 kilograms) of ground meat. They don’t end up feeding all of this food to Su’nan, but we want to be sure they have enough for the growing baby. It’s difficult to calculate exactly how much food Su’nan is eating each day, but we estimate that she could be eating 1.5 to 2.5 pounds (0.7 to 1.1 kilograms) of food per day.

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

Su’nan hasn’t jumped up on the nest box ledge yet, but she may soon. Stay tuned for our next blog that will discuss this big milestone! Also, we would like to thank all of the Condor Cam viewers for their patience while we had camera difficulties for a week or so in July. Our technician replaced the power supply and the camera with very minimal disturbance to the condor family.

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

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Condor Cam Chick Needs Name

Name the Condor ChickHatched on April 29, a small condor chick emerged into the world observed closely by animal care staff at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Adding to the more than 180 condors hatched at the Safari Park since the breeding program began in 1982, the little chick was placed with adult condors Sulu and Towich so they could raise it to adulthood. Its growth has been watched by thousands of people through a live Condor Cam placed in the nest box. Now animal care staff are asking these interested watchers to help choose a name for the young female bird.

Viewers can go online at http://bit.ly/condorname to vote for one of five suggested names. In keeping with the tradition of the condor program, the names have been selected from the Kumeyaay language. The name receiving the most votes will be used for the chick for the rest of its life. Voting closes at end of day on July 20.

“California condors are an important native species in the western United States and hold a special place not only in the ecosystem but in the culture of the people native to this area,” said Michael Mace, curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “By giving condors names from the Kumeyaay language, we hope to honor the role of condors in human culture throughout history.”

At more than 2 months of age, the condor chick is covered with fluffy, gray feathers and is still closely cared for by its foster parents. The young bird will continue to grow and mature over the next couple of months until its flight feathers grow in and it is ready to leave the nest. Animal care staff at the Safari Park hope that the chick will be able to take its place among the wild populations that have been released in California, Arizona and Mexico.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

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Condor Chick Fostering: 30 to 45 Days

The growing chick has lots of feathers to play with.

The growing chick has lots of feathers to play with.

At a little over 1 month of age, our California condor chick should weigh around 4.5 pounds (2 kilograms) (see previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: 1 Week to 1 Month). The foster parents, Towich and Sulu, have started leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather is still cool or it’s raining, the parents may brood overnight until the weather improves. Even though the parents are increasing their time away from the chick, they remain VERY vigilant and protective of their nest and, especially, their chick. Some field biologists have even seen wild condor parents chasing black bears away from the nest area!

Up until now, the chick has been scooting around the nest on its tarsal joints—we call it the tarsal crawl. It’s not uncommon, at this age, to see the chick standing all the way up on its feet, teetering around the nest, holding its wings out for balance. As its legs get sturdier, the chick may even approach the parent, begging for food. The wing-begging behavior we’ve been seeing gets more pronounced: lots of wing-flapping, head-bobbing, and trying to position itself in front of the parent.

It is possible that the parents, who are offering larger quantities of food per feeding session, might be providing a small amount of fur/hair in the chick’s diet. (Part of the adults’ diet includes mammals, like rats and rabbits.) Condors can digest just about every part of the animals they eat, except for fur. This fur accumulates in the digestive tract and is eventually regurgitated as waste. We refer to this as casting. A condor’s cast is composed of predominantly fur, whereas a cast from an owl has fur and bones; owls can’t digest bones, but condors can. We have seen condor chicks cast hair pellets as young as three weeks of age. When the chick casts, it throws its head forward several times, mouth open, until the pellet is ejected from its mouth. It can look like the chick is in trouble, but it is perfectly normal, and good for the chick.

At 45 days of age, or around June 12, the chick will get its first health exam. We will obtain a blood sample for the lab to make sure it is healthy and to determine if the chick is male or female. Also, during the exam, we will weigh the chick—it should weigh between 7.7 and 8.8 pounds (3.5 and 4 kilograms)—and inject a transponder chip as a form of identification. It’s the same kind of chip you can get for your dog or cat. Most importantly, this exam allows us to administer a vaccine for West Nile virus, a disease that originated in Africa and was accidently introduced to North America by humans. North American wildlife, including condors, usually doesn’t have a natural immune response to West Nile virus, so we are trying to give the chicks as much of a head start as we can.

This exam will be the first time that the chick will see humans, so it will naturally be disturbing for it. We try to be quick (9 to 10 minutes) to minimize the disturbance. Additionally, we will keep the chick covered with a towel to reduce its exposure to humans and to provide it a bit of security. Towich and Sulu are usually away from the nest when we perform the procedure, to keep them as calm as possible as well. We don’t want the chick to become accustomed to or feel reassured by our presence; we want it to be a wild condor, uninterested and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico.

The chick will look very large at this age compared to how big it was at hatch, but remember that it is still less than half of its adult weight. There is much more growth and fun to come on Condor Cam!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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Condor Chick Fostering: 1 Week to 1 Month

The condor chick is staying cool today!

The condor chick is staying cool today!

At two to three weeks of age, the real fun of condor chick-viewing begins! (See previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: Week 1) Our Condor Cam chick is getting bigger, weighing between 17 and 42 ounces (500 and 1,200 grams), and can often be seen poking its head out from under a parent’s wings. Towich and Sulu might be spending less time sitting on their foster chick, weather permitting, leaving it unattended for longer periods of time, possibly 30 minutes or so. Never fear! They are nearby, often just out of the camera’s view, just a few feet away.

It is usually easier to observe feeding behavior at this age, as well. Sulu or Towich stand a little to the side of the chick now, so you may catch a glimpse of food actually being transferred from parent to chick. The chick’s crop may be visible as a bald patch of skin when it’s full. It is between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. You will also witness a very common behavior called wing-begging; the chick is begging for food, flapping one or both of its stubby little wings and bobbing its head excitedly. This behavior can persist until after the chick fledges, or leaves its nest, at four to five months.

The chick hatched wearing a fluffy coat of white down feathers. The main function of down is insulation; it can either keep a bird cool or warm, whatever its body needs. At this stage, the chick’s white down is starting to transition to gray. Sometimes this can make the chick look dirty or scruffy, but it is still as healthy as it ever has been. It and the parents are frequently grooming the feathers to make sure they are working the way they should be. These dark feathers also help the chick blend in with the substrate and the nest cave walls, since Towich and Sulu are not covering the chick as much as they were.

You may have noted that the chick looks like it has scabs on its head/neck or has wounds on its body, matting its down feathers. This is actually regurgitated food stuck to its face or body. Feeding can be quite exciting for the chick, and some food doesn’t always end up in its mouth! The chick obviously can’t take a bath at this age, but the food will dries up, gets crusty, and flakes off, a major benefit of having a bald head! Anyone who has seen the adult condors eat on exhibit at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo can attest to the condors’ ability to keep clean after a messy meal. Also, the presence of flies in the nest is nothing to worry about. Keep in mind that condors are carnivores, feed their chicks via regurgitation, and nest in cavities (caves, crevices, etc.) that are often sheltered from the wind. All of these components add up to a very comfortable environment for flies as well as condors. Yet condors have excellent immune systems and are only mildly annoyed by the flies!

As of this writing, our Condor Cam chick is a little over two weeks old. At three weeks of age, it can start to thermo-regulate, or control its own body temperature. This is when its devoted foster parents can start leaving the chick on its own during the day. Depending on the ambient temperature, the chick may be seen shivering or panting in an effort to warm or cool itself. Also, on warm days, the chick may inflate the air sacs in its chin and neck to cool down. Air sac inflation can also occur after a particularly filling meal. Often, Sulu or Towich may spend time in the nest with the chick, but they may not necessarily sit on the chick.

The chick is more mobile, scooting around the nest on its haunches, or tarsal joints. We refer to this as a tarsal crawl. It’s not quite standing up on its feet, but it can move about, following the parents and investigating different parts of the nest. You may see the chick start to gather items (feather, scraps of old food) from around the nest and move them to one corner. The chick likes to sit or sleep on this pile and play with the different items. These feathers and old food scraps are often brought to the nest by the parents. Birds replace their feathers molting, similar to when mammals shed their hair/fur. We don’t know if the parents are bringing these items to the nest specifically for the chick or if it’s just happenstance, but the chick loves to investigate and play with them!

As the parents start leaving the chick alone for longer periods of time, it will be easier to watch the chick when it sleeps. Just like all growing youngsters, condor chicks sleep A LOT. With longer legs and gawky bodies, they often are sprawled out, wings askew, in odd positions when they sleep. Do not worry! The chick is perfectly fine.

At approximately 1 month of age, the chick should weigh around 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms). The parents may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather turns cool or it’s raining, the parents may continue to brood overnight. Even though the parents are increasing their time away from the chick, they remain VERY vigilant and protective of their nest and, especially, their chick.

Happy viewing, and thanks so much for your support!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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Pathologist’s Report on Gao Gao’s Tumor

On the left is the paraffin wax block containing the processed tumor tissue, which is then cut into thin slices (about the width of a human hair) by our histotechnologist. These thin sections are then stained by several different methods to allow microscopic evaluation of the cells in the tumor.

On the left is the wax block with the processed tumor tissue, which is then cut into thin slices (about the width of a human hair). These thin sections are then stained by different methods to allow microscopic evaluation of the cells in the tumor.

As most of you know, giant panda Gao Gao had surgery May 6, 2014, to remove his right testicle after a tumor was discovered by our veterinary staff (see Surgery for Gao Gao). Since that time, we have received a lot of questions about how Gao Gao’s diagnosis was made and what the findings mean for his long-term prognosis. In this blog I’ll tell you about our analysis of the tumor in the Wildlife Disease Laboratories of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and what we know about the tumor in giant pandas and other animals.

After we received Gao Gao’s testicle in the laboratory, parts of the tumor were processed and stained for examination under a microscope. From this, the veterinary pathologists gathered clues from the arrangement and distribution of tumor cells, features of individual tumor cells, and the frequency of tumor cell division and invasion into adjacent normal tissues.

This photomicrograph (taken through a microscope) shows the tumor on the right-hand side compressing the normal testicular tissue on the left.

This photomicrograph (taken through a microscope) shows the tumor on the right-hand side compressing the normal testicular tissue on the left.

We also used a specialized technique, immunohistochemistry, to determine if the tumor was making substances characteristic of one particular cell type or another. All of this information was synthesized to determine the tumor cell type and if the tumor was completely removed.

In Gao Gao’s case, the evidence supports a diagnosis of seminoma, which is a tumor arising from the germ or sperm-producing cells. In addition, there was no evidence in the surgically removed tissues of tumor spread beyond the testicle. In domestic animals, seminomas are common in older dogs, and they are usually completely cured by surgery. However, in other species such as humans, a higher percentage of seminomas will metastasize (spread) to other organs without additional treatment such as chemotherapy.

This high magnification photomicrograph shows a single tumor cell undergoing mitosis (cell division), a characteristic that indicates tumor growth. The dark purple material at the center of the cell is the nucleus beginning to divide.

This high magnification photomicrograph shows a single tumor cell undergoing mitosis (cell division), a characteristic that indicates tumor growth. The dark purple material at the center of the cell is the nucleus beginning to divide.

So what does this mean for Gao Gao? The answer is that we can’t tell for certain if his tumor has been cured by surgery or if there is a small chance that it could reoccur at a later time. This is a common problem for pathologists who work with endangered animals, because very few tumors will ever be observed in these species, whereas it is easy to gather information on tumor behavior in dogs and humans where thousands of cases can be studied over time.

Despite this uncertainty, we are very hopeful that Gao Gao’s tumor will behave more like a seminoma in dogs. In 1997, a seminoma was found in 26-year-old giant panda Hsing Hsing, from the National Zoo, and treated by surgical removal. Hsing Hsing died two years later from kidney disease, and there was no evidence of any remaining tumor at his necropsy. We have had an opportunity to compare the microscopic sections of Hsing Hsing’s tumor with the samples from Gao Gao, and they are very similar.

Allan Pessier, D.V.M., Diplomate, A.C.V.P., is a senior scientist (veterinary pathologist) for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, The Last Ones?

Update May 23, 2014: Gao Gao seems to be enjoying his keepers’ attention in his bedroom suite as he continues his recovery. He has even been soliciting neck scratches from them.