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What’s the haps on the Herps?

Zoo Intern Quest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors.  Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about jobs, and then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

markWhat exactly is a herp? Well, “herp” is short for herptiles, the group of animals known as reptiles and amphibians. That’s why people who study reptiles and amphibians are known as herpetologists. The San Diego Zoo’s herpetology collection is huge, containing over 1,300 animals! Sadly, many of the world’s reptiles are now under threat of becoming endangered or worse, extinct. We met with Peter Gilson, one of the Zoo’s educators, part-time keepers, and conservation researchers to learn more about what the San Diego Zoo has done to prevent that from happening.

Mr. Gilson gave us our first behind-the-scenes look with the Galapagos Tortoise exhibit. While handing out carrots and giving neck massages to the enormous reptiles, he explained to us the history of tortoise conservation, both here in San Diego and in the wild. The Galapagos tortoises here at the Zoo have been busy, having hatched 96 babies since they arrived in 1928, making them a real success story. Breeding programs for these gentle giants is essential, as most of the 14 subspecies in the wild are listed as vulnerable or endangered. In the wild, tortoise populations have been severely affected by habitat encroachment and human conflict. However, new laws and conservation programs have helped educate people around the islands, helping ensure the vitality of their species

Another major conservation issue that has the herpetology community scrambling for solutions has to do with amphibians. After being introduced to the Zoo’s amphibian collection, Mr. Gilson told us about chytrid fungus, a new species which is exterminating amphibians worldwide. The fungus works by digging into its victims’ skin, causing it to thicken. Since most amphibians breathe through their skin, this swelling prevents them from taking in the oxygen and other nutrients they need to survive. The scientific community currently hasn’t found a cure yet, but it is believed to be linked to the use of pesticides. The disease has spread fast, already covering most of the world’s prime amphibian habitat. According to Mr. Gilson, chytrid fungus has the potential to wipe out over a third of the amphibians on earth, and that is with generous estimates. Such a loss would be devastating, not just for the natural world, but for ours too. Amphibians are the world’s pest control, eating all the mosquitoes, locusts, and just about every insect that has ever caused humanity trouble. Without frogs and toads to keep them in check, pest populations could grow out of control.

Here at the Zoo, there are breeding programs in place to help save some of the most threatened amphibians before its too late. For instance, the Panamanian golden frog is extinct in the wild, and the Zoo has been working since 2003 to bring them back from the brink. As of right now, 20 individuals have been born at the Zoo. Unfortunately, these new frogs cannot return to the wild because their native habitat is still too toxic. On the bright side, because of the alarming speed at which chyrid fungus has spread, conservation teams have been forced to act fast. Organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (or ICUN) has declared over 6,000 species of amphibians as vulnerable or endangered, and are dedicated to finding a solution as fast as possible.

Despite the success of the Galapagos tortoises and Panamanian golden frogs, one of the Zoo’s most impressive achievements in reptile conservation is probably the Caribbean rock iguana. Mr. Gilson explained to the interns how he was fortunate enough to work with the rock iguana breeding program, which has been going on for over 18 years. There are three species of rock iguana which San Diego Zoo Global has been working to protect: the Grand Cayman Blue, the Anegada, and the Jamaican. They are all threatened, but the Grand Cayman and Jamaican iguanas are some of the most endangered reptiles in the world. In their natural environment, these huge lizards play a very important role in seed dispersion. Iguanas carry seeds from the fruit they eat across their island homes, and then deposit them to new areas in the form of iguana dung. In order to demonstrate how important the relationship between the iguanas and the plants that they eat, Mr. Gilson told us that many of the Sea Grape plants here in the San Diego Zoo were actually planted from Iguana poop! In their habitat, Rock Iguanas are threatened by invasive species like dogs and rats, which eat their eggs and young hatchlings. With the help of captive breeding, over 700 individuals have been released into the wild, significantly boosting rock iguana population. This, along with efforts to control invasive species has helped to keep these fascinating creatures from dying out.

As a lover of all things reptilian, this experience was truly memorable. Not only was I able get a hands-on view of what goes on with these creatures behind closed doors, but I also had the opportunity to really learn about the pressing issues regarding their survival outside of the Zoo. Having seen what good work is being done for these animals around the world, I strongly recommend to anyone interested to donate to San Diego Zoo Global’s Wildlife Conservancy (endextinction.org). Whatever amount, no matter how small, will make a difference. As for myself, after seeing what Mr. Gilson and others like him are doing for reptile conservation, I can only say that I want in.

Mark, Conservation Team
Week One, Fall Session 2014

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Northern White Rhinos in Peril

Nola is one of two northern white rhinos living at the Safari Park and one of just six in the world.

Nola is one of two northern white rhinos living at the Safari Park and one of just six in the world.

Rhino-lovers worldwide suffered a tragic loss last week. It is with a heavy heart that I report the passing of Suni, a male northern white rhino living at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Suni died a natural death at age 34 on October 18, 2014, leaving only six northern white rhinos in the world. This subspecies is critically endangered and is extinct in the wild: three remain at the conservancy in Kenya, a zoo in the Czech Republic houses one, and two live at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Northern white rhinos are in peril because of poaching. Some cultures believe that rhino horn is medicine, which drives the price per ounce higher than that of gold. Rhino horn is actually made of keratin, which is the same substance that your nails and hair are made of. In addition, there are sustainable, FDA-approved medicinal alternatives to rhino horn, such as aspirin and Viagra. But that has not stopped the terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates who use poaching as a means to fund their illicit activities.

Northern white rhinos have had an exceptionally troublesome history. Their cousins, the southern white rhinos, are also highly poached for their horns. However, in 1929, the South African government interceded on behalf of these rhinos and hired the poachers as game wardens to protect the rhinos. The poachers at the time were impoverished farmers, so offering them an alternative source of income meant that they no longer needed to poach to supplement their livelihoods. This strategy worked: 40 years later, the number of rhinos in South Africa increased tenfold. North Africa was unable to employ a similar strategy to help the northern white rhinos because North African countries at the time were fraught with civil war, poverty, and disease. Governments were so worried about keeping their citizens alive that they had little time or money to spare for the rhinos. And, until recently, scientists thought northern and southern white rhinos were the same species, so this lack of funds did not seem important.

Our Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos.

Our Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos.

Dr. Oliver Ryder at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research discovered that northern white rhinos are a separate subspecies by examining mitochondrial DNA. Even though this subspecies will go extinct in our lifetime, the Institute for Conservation Research has created a ray of hope for the future in its Frozen Zoo®.

The Frozen Zoo contains viable cell cultures from many different species that have been cryogenically frozen in liquid nitrogen (think Han Solo in Star Wars). The Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos; from these samples, scientists like Dr. Ryder can generate pluripotent stem cells. These cells can be triggered to create any tissue in the body. Such technical advances make southern white rhino surrogacy and cloning possibilities for the future of northern white rhinos.

In the meantime, guests can visit two of the world’s remaining six northern white rhinos at the Safari Park. Nola, a female born in 1974, lives in the South Africa field exhibit; Angalifu, a male born in 1972, lives in the Central Africa field exhibit. Both of them are past breeding age, so they are living quiet lives of retirement with the other wildlife in their field habitats. Guests can see these two unique rhinos by taking the Africa Tram tour, a Cart Safari, or a Caravan Safari.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide. Read her previous post, Who Likes Rain: Giraffes, Rhinos, or Elephants?

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Gorilla Joanne: Little Miss Personality

Joanne enjoys some kale with her father, Winston.

Joanne enjoys some kale with her father, Winston.

Now seven months old, gorilla Joanne is starting to develop her own little personality at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. These days she can be seen spending more and more time on her own two feet (and hands), investigating her world. An expert at clinging to her mother, Imani, while traveling about the exhibit, little Joanne rarely stays in one position. Everything Mom is doing, Joanne wants to get a good view.

You can see her riding on Imani’s back, hip, arm, leg, upside-down, right-side up, and everything in between. As soon as Mom sits down, Joanne lowers herself to the ground and is off exploring. The little girl has started to notice her older brothers wrestling nearby and seems eager to participate. Still a bit too small to get into the fray, you can often see Joanne watching intently or bouncing around by herself in the background.

Joanne is always very interested in eating anything Imani has collected; her favorites are lettuce, tomatoes, and acacia browse. While Mom will usually share her meals, it may be asking too much to expect Winston to share his favorite food—kale!

Jami Pawlowski is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Gorilla Frank Turns 6.

Update: We’ll be celebrating gorilla Vila’s 57th on Thursday, November 6, starting at 9 a.m. at the Safari Park. We hope you can come wish her well1

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Pandas Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi

Do you remember when Yun Zi turned 3?

Do you remember when Yun Zi turned 3?

Many of you have been wondering how some of our San Diego Zoo-born pandas are doing since their arrival in China. We are happy to report that both Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi are doing very well!

Zhen Zhen, now 7 years old, lives in Wolong’s Bi Feng Xia panda base. She gave birth back on August 24, her first surviving cub (she gave birth to a stillborn cub in 2013). Mother and cub are both doing great. Her cub, born at 6.9 ounces (194.5 grams) now weighs a healthy 6.6 pounds (3,000 grams)! The behavior of Zhen Zhen and her cub has been normal, and the increase in body weight certainly tells us that this young panda is getting plenty to eat! Wonderful job, Zhen!

Yun Zi, now 5 years old, is also making us proud. He is currently at Wolong’s panda base in Dujiangyan, where he continues to exemplify a robust, energetic, and healthy young male panda. He has settled in just fine to his new surroundings. We still miss him, though, but are thrilled to hear that he is thriving!

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Collaboration.

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Giraffes: A Creche Full of Cuties!

Here's our creche of cuties!

Here’s our creche of cuties!

About every 18 months, something very exciting happens in the East African field enclosure at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park: we have newborn giraffes! When these big babies are born after a 15-month gestation period, they stand 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and weigh up to 150 pounds (68 kilograms). This year we welcomed four more to our herd: two boys and two girls. Right now they range in age from 3 to 10 months and can still be seen hanging out together in their nursery group or creche. Giraffe herds are very fluid, and females often switch off as babysitters for each others’ calves. As these youngsters age, they start to head off on their own adventures, and we see their personalities begin to take shape.

Acacia holds her own with the adults.

Acacia holds her own with the adults.

Little Acacia is the most cautious of the calves and feels more comfortable when she has backup from the other kids. Within the last few weeks she’s started breaking out of her shell and becoming bolder. She will roadblock our keeper trucks, preventing us from going about our day, and begin giving us a car wash with her tongue! While the saliva doesn’t help improve visibility through our windshield much, we do appreciate the sentiment.

Kamali is daring. He walks right up to the Caravan Safari tour vehicles to eat the acacia leaves our guests hand-feed the giraffes. He also excites easily, which causes him to jump around and kick his legs out. This kid really knows how to have a good time!

Mchumba, who is the youngest of the bunch, still likes to stick close to her mom, 20-year-old Chuku, the matriarch of our herd. Her easygoing nature seems to be a family trait that she also shares with her older sister Chuchumia.

Kamali nibbles on a tasty twig.

Kamali nibbles on a tasty twig.

Leroy is a love. He is always seeking out attention from keepers, Caravan Safari guests, and his older giraffe brothers. When Leroy was a few weeks old, he suffered from multiple infections that led to him being hospitalized and hand-reared (see post From Milk to Solids for Young Giraffe). Because of this, he is extremely comfortable around people and serves as an amazing giraffe ambassador!

You can visit the East African giraffe herd during an Africa Tram tour, feed them from our Caravan Safari truck, or take in views of their 60-acre field enclosure from the Park’s Kilima Point.

Amanda Lussier is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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13 Animals That Are So Over Being Awake

Let’s face it, sometimes being awake is overrated, and it seems like these critters agree. Enjoy these 13 animals who are so over being awake, and try not to catch a yawn…

Koalas are the sleeping beauties of the animal kingdom. They subsist on nutrient-deficient eucalyptus leaves, so they sleep 18-22 hours a day to conserve energy—and look adorable while doing it.

Photo by Ion Moe

Photo by Ion Moe

The king of the Safari Park, Izu, is also the king of naps. Over the course of 24 hours, lions have short bursts of intense activity, followed by long bouts of lying around that total up to 21 hours.

Photo by Bob Worthington

Photo by Bob Worthington

 

Red pandas, like Lily here, sleep through the hottest part of the day and are most active at dawn and dusk, a strategy adopted by many animals to conserve energy. Sensing a theme?

Photo by Ion Moe

Photo by Ion Moe

 

The mountain lion (aka puma, cougar, panther, catamount) is no different than other cats. It sleeps away most of the day to save up energy for hunting. It’s a rough life.

Photo by Darrell Ybarrondo

Photo by Darrell Ybarrondo

 

Meerkats aren’t necessarily known for sleeping, but they’re known for doing so in luxury. A meerkat mob has several burrow systems, complete with toilet and sleeping chambers, within its territory and moves from one to another every few months. Ahh the finer things.

Photo by p.b. fletch

Photo by p.b. fletch

 

The King of the San Diego Zoo, M’bari, puts his best foot forward when it comes to napping.

Photo by Ion Moe

Photo by Ion Moe

 

Animal Fact: Zebras yawn in black and white.

Photo by Nathan Rupert

Photo by Nathan Rupert

 

Polar bears hibernate like other bears, right? Wrong. Despite the long, harsh winter, polar bears don’t hibernate. In fact, most of them (except pregnant females) continue to hunt seals throughout the winter. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t sleep A LOT. If you watch Polar Cam you know what I’m talking about.

 

Tasmanian devils take shelter during the day, and are more active after the sun goes down. In fact, they were actually named for the eerie, devilish sounds they make at night.

 

D’aww…..just d’awww

No words for this photo Jaguar cubs Tikal and Maderas, born at the San Diego Zoo, 2012. Photo by Ion Moe

Jaguar cubs Tikal and Maderas born at the San Diego Zoo, 2012. Photo by Ion Moe

 

Another koala sleepyhead, because cute.

Photo by Ion Moe

Photo by Ion Moe

 

 

Most epic yawn ever. Ok Izu, we get it, you’re pretty good at this sleepy-time thing.

Photo by Darrell Ybarrondo

Photo by Darrell Ybarrondo

 

We have to hand it to Flynn the red panda though, we’ve never seen anyone hammock this good. Bravo sir, bravo.

Photo by Penny Hyde

Photo by Penny Hyde

 

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo global. Read his previous post, 11 Animal Hairdos Humans Should Aspire To.

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San Diego Zoo Safari Park Home to 2 of 6 Remaining Northern White Rhinoceroses

Nola, northern white rhinoSan Diego Zoo Global was notified this weekend that Suni, a 34-year-old northern white rhinoceros at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, had died. While the cause of death hasn’t been determined, it is not believed to be an incident of poaching. The death of this male northern white rhino adds another challenge in the fight to prevent this critically endangered species from going extinct.

There are now just six northern white rhinos left on Earth. Three remain in the care of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, one lives at Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic and two are in the African plains exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, a male named Angalifu and a female named Nola (pictured).

“This is a big loss, but we’ve been very successful with species in similar situations and we are hopeful that with a lot of the work we’re doing here, we can turn the situation around,” said Andy Blue, associate curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “Arabian oryx were down to very few animals in the late 1960s and have since been bred back up at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We have had over 400 of them born here and have reintroduced them back into the wild.”

San Diego Zoo Global has also had great success with breeding the California condor. When the organization first began its breeding program, there were only 22 California condors left in the world. Today, there are more than 400, 232 of which fly free in California, Arizona and Baja California, Mexico. Many of the now-wild condors were hatched in breeding facilities and then introduced into their native range habitats, but some have been hatched to those introduced condors and have lived their entire lives in the wild, which is good news for their ecosystem.

The loss of one animal in a species as rare as the northern white rhino can have a significant impact on the ability to save it from extinction. Despite this challenge, the animal care staff at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and researchers and scientists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research remain hopeful and continue to work toward saving the northern white rhino through ongoing research of the reproductive system of this species, collecting and saving genetic material from animals that have died and looking into alternate breeding methods for this species.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has the most successful captive breeding program for rhinoceroses in the world. There have been 92 southern white rhinos, 67 greater one-horned rhinos and 13 black rhinos born at the Safari Park since it opened 42 years ago. While the northern white rhinos at the Safari Park were never able to successfully breed, this was most likely due to their age when they arrived at the facility. Guests at the Safari Park can see the two northern white rhinos when they take the African Tram tour, which is included with admission to the Park.

Photo taken on October 21, 2014, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo

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

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Pandas On and Off

Xiao Liwu takes a stroll.

Xiao Liwu takes a stroll.

Changes are happening at the San Diego Zoo, and all for the better, of course! Ground was broken for our new Asian leopard habitat, to be located next to Panda Trek in our Panda Canyon (see NEWS blog dated October 9). With the preparation and construction of this wonderful new home for our snow leopards and Amur leopards comes noise. We try to keep noise to a minimum in our giant panda area.

Bai Yun seems to take almost all construction noise in stride—she’s had years of experience at the Zoo! Her son Xiao Liwu has been the least bothered by noise of all six cubs Bai Yun has raised. Still, as construction progresses, panda keepers may take “Mr. Wu” off exhibit from time to time or move him to the north yard if they find he is bothered by the noise. He could still be seen by our Panda Cam viewers but not by Zoo guests. Gao Gao will continue to remain off exhibit during this time.

Where there's 'boo, there's bliss!

Where there’s ‘boo, there’s bliss!

But the good news is that a television monitor tuned to Panda Cam has been installed in our main gift shop! If you come to the Zoo, you can check on Panda Cam to see who is visible before making your way down to Panda Trek. And our wonderful volunteer Panda Cam operators will always strive to give you the best possible view of one of our pandas.

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Well, Chinook?

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Who Likes Rain: Giraffes, Rhinos, or Elephants?

Giraffes come to a Caravan Safari truck to see if tasty acacia leaves are being handed out.

Giraffes come to a Caravan Safari truck to see if tasty acacia leaves are being handed out.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s weather patterns parallel those in our animals’ native African habitats: hot, dry, and sunny for most of the year with a rainy season from October through April. Like California, East Africa is prone to flash floods, droughts, and fires. So most of the animals in the African field exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park feel right at home.

Our animals also display seasonal preferences. Safari Park giraffes are most active during the summer months. Six giraffe calves were born this summer! The giraffes range across their entire 60-acre habitat and chow down on acacia leaves offered by guests on Caravan Safari tours. Frankly, it’s difficult to manage more than one giraffe feeding at a time on a Caravan Safari truck. Acacia leaves are the giraffes’ favorite part of their diet. The giraffes are so excited to eat from the guests’ hands that during the summer they descend on the trucks en masse and can get a little pushy with each other—but it’s quite fun for our guests!

If it’s raining, the giraffes huddle together under palm trees or man-made shelters and refuse to approach the Caravan Safari trucks for acacia leaves. My observations indicate that giraffes don’t like rain and prefer the dry, summer months.

A mud wallow hits the spot for this white rhino.

A mud wallow hits the spot for this white rhino.

Rhinos and elephants are a different story. Southern white rhinos and African elephants are the Safari Park’s largest animals and need to stay cool in the summer. Some of our rhinos also spent this past summer pregnant, with 150 pounds of added weight. You can imagine how uncomfortable that was. To stay cool, they rest in the shade or wallow in man-made watering holes. When the mud from the watering holes dries on their skin, it acts like sunscreen and insect repellent to help protect their hairless skin from the harsh African or Escondido sun.

But when a storm first breaks over the Safari Park, the rhinos and elephants race around their exhibits, vocalizing to each other. I have never seen rhino and elephant calves as playful as they are during a rainstorm. Typically, only about one third of Caravan Safari tours get to feed the greater one-horned rhinos. During a rainstorm, the probability increases. That is, if the rhinos stop frolicking in the rain long enough to eat apples!

Unfortunately, California has been experiencing one of its severest droughts on record, which has impacted the Safari Park in innumerable ways. A lack of rainwater to irrigate the African field habitats is one. The majority of the grass in these habitats is African kikuyu grass, a hardy, water-wise species. However, it does need to be watered occasionally, because many of the ungulates in these habitats are grazers and depend on the grass for food. The keepers supplement the animals’ diets with hay, alfalfa, and pellets multiple times per day, but most of the ungulates are nature’s lawnmowers and instinctively perform natural grazing behaviors.

Additionally, the southern white rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo enjoy a gooey mud wallow. Without rainfall to restock the wallows, water recycled from the Safari Park’s water treatment plant and ponds fills the void. In this way, the Safari Park animals experience the advantages of a wet season without adding pressure to the California water shortage.

Hopefully it will rain in San Diego soon! Does anyone know a rain dance?

Elise Newman is a Safari Caravan guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Personable Petunia.

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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.