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7 Animal Myths You Probably Believed

When it comes to the Animal Kingdom, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and some of it’s downright ridiculous. It’s difficult to know who to trust and where to go for reliable info. That’s where we come in. Even we have been known to make a mistake here and there (gasp!), but we’re here to set the record straight on a few animal myths that are widely believed–but definitely not true. Like really not true.

Koalas are bears

You’ve probably heard the term “koala bear” thrown around casually here and there, but contrary to popular belief, koalas have no relation to bears. While they have an uncanny likeness to teddy bears, they’re actually marsupials. Super cute, teddy bear-like marsupials.

Porcupines shoot their quills

A porcupine’s quills are made up of keratin, which is the same material our fingernails are made of. Can you shoot your fingernails? Didn’t think so. Just as we can’t shoot our fingernails (unfortunately), neither can porcupines shoot their precious defense mechanisms.

Ostriches bury their heads in sand

It’s hard to say where this ridiculous myth came from, but it could have derived from a behavior that ostriches exhibit when they sense danger. To avoid detection by predators, ostriches have been known to lay flat on the ground, placing their heads on the sand. Wherever it came from, let this myth officially be busted.

Mother birds reject babies if touched by humans

This myth probably comes from well-meaning people who fibbed to get other people to let nature take its course and avoid handling delicate baby birds. Actually, most birds have a very poor sense of smell and probably wouldn’t detect human scent. Regardless, handling baby birds isn’t a great idea.

Touching a frog or toad will give you warts

Many species of frogs and toads have wart-like bumps on their skin, and at some point it became widely believed that those bumps are contagious to humans. Truth is, warts are caused by a human virus and have nothing to do with handling frogs or toads. Strike that one down for good!

Camels store water in their humps

It’s known that camels are incredibly well-adapted to survive the harsh desert climates they call home, but their ability to avoid dehydration stems in part from oval-shaped red blood cells, not by carrying giant organic water jugs on their backs. Their humps actually store fat to tide them over on long walks through the desert where there is little to eat.

Lemmings commit suicide

No, lemmings don’t mindlessly follow each other to an untimely demise. This wholly unfounded myth may derive from population fluctuation among lemmings, with frequent die-offs and population booms. The phenomenon is still not well understood, leading to the belief that the small rodents boldly die by mass suicide for the good of the group. This misconception was reinforced by a scene in a 1958 Disney movie, White Wilderness, in which lemmings follow each other off a cliff to their death.

Photo by  Gunnar Pettersson

Photo by Gunnar Pettersson

 

So which myths did you believe? Do you have any more animal myths to share? Let us know in the comments.

 

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous blog, 10 Photos of Galapgos Tortoises Chowing Down.

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From Milk to Solids for Young Giraffe

Leroy enjoys some attention from Mom.

Leroy enjoys some attention from Mom.

Animal babies and human babies often have similar growing pains. For the Safari Park’s giraffe and rhino calves, the challenge is the transition from milk to solid food. Leroy, a Uganda giraffe, was born in a maternity corral on January 8, 2014. At two weeks old, Safari Park veterinarians determined that Leroy suffered from a severe bacterial infection that they treated with antibiotics and IV fluids, making nursing impossible. His human keepers became his surrogate parents and bottle-fed him three to five times a day.

A young Leroy is offered a bottle of milk from the back of a keeper truck.

A young Leroy is offered a bottle of milk from the back of a keeper truck.

After 39 days of hospitalization, Leroy was released into the Safari Park’s East Africa habitat with the rest of the Uganda giraffe herd. Leroy’s recovery was great news for both the keepers and for the endangered Uganda giraffe subspecies as a whole. Only about 700 Uganda giraffes still roam the wild.
But Leroy needed to learn how to be a giraffe. The gangly seven-foot calf touched visitors’ hearts as he cantered toward the keeper trucks at feeding time. A keeper stood on the bed of the pickup truck hidden under a giraffe-patterned blanket and fed the hungry baby from a bottle the size of a dachshund.

By the time Leroy turned seven months, he was sampling giraffe pellets from the feeders. Giraffes are typically weaned by their mothers at around six months old, so Leroy was on target, even though he was raised by humans. Caravan Safari guides ripped acacia leaves in half to create “baby food” and held the leaves firmly for the calf so he would feel like he was plucking leaves from an acacia tree with his prehensile tongue.

Caravan Safari participants, riding in the truck in the background, can now offer Leroy tender acacia leaves.

Caravan Safari participants, riding in the truck in the background, can now offer Leroy tender acacia leaves.

Leroy is a quick study. He has figured out that the Caravan Safari trucks are like the ice cream truck! Guests now feed him on Caravan Safari tours. Normally, guests look up at a 16-foot-tall giraffe’s face as they hand feed, but Leroy munches at eye level. When I ask guests for their favorite parts of the tour, they normally say, “Feeding Leroy!”

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Upcycling: Recycling at Its Finest.

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Fishing Cats: It Takes Two

Fishing cats are native to southern Asia.

Fishing cats are native to southern Asia.

The San Diego Zoo has welcomed the birth of 34 fishing cats over the years, but we have not had a successfully breeding pair of endangered fishing cats since 1999. Our current fishing cat female, Parvati, gave birth to one kitten at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. But our male, Bullet, is unproven and underrepresented, genetically speaking. It has been keeper Aimee Goldcamp’s sincere desire to see that Bullet has a chance to father some young. Bullet, on the other hand (or paw), isn’t quite as motivated.

You see, Bullet was hand raised at another facility before coming here, and, although he is larger, he is a bit intimidated by his potential mate, Parvati. I was surprised, therefore, when Aimee called me the other morning to say that Parvati was chittering, making the sound an adult female fishing cat makes when she is in estrous and wants the attentions of a male. I dashed over to record this unique sound to share with our blog readers. Yes, I’m always thinking of you!

When I arrived, Parvati was walking around the exhibit, emitting her call now and then. Rather than sounding inviting, the chitter seemed a little angry to me. Guests strolling by the exhibit thought she was telling her keeper it was time for food! But Aimee assured us all that Parvati only makes this sound when she is “in the mood,” and we all felt lucky to hear it. Unfortunately, our gibbon pair living nearby decided this was the time to make their morning territorial hoots and whoops, so it was difficult to record Parvati’s chitters without also getting some gibbon-speak!

Here’s an extremely short audio clip of Parvait’s chitter call:

Still, it was fascinating to watch Parvati pull out all the stops to entice Bullet to come out of the bedroom area and join her in the exhibit. In addition to calling and strolling by the bedroom door, Parvati rubbed her scent on rocks and logs and rolled around provocatively in the sand. Bullet did come to the door to watch her lolling beneath him, but he was unmoved to take action.

It is said that timing is everything, and that is true for cat courtship as well. I learned that the fishing cat exhibit had been closed for some remodeling, with new logs, vegetation, and fencing installed. Bullet had been surprised and a bit unnerved by the changes to his home of six years. Wouldn’t you know it? The day after the exhibit re-opened was the day Parvati felt her maternal calling!

Bullet may still come through for Parvati. After all, “romance” can happen in the off-exhibit bedroom areas as well. There are cameras mounted back there to record any happenings of interest. Who knows—we may yet hear the pitter-patter of little fishing cat paws again!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Scents for Polar Bears.

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Panda Bai Yun’s Tooth

 

Dr. Sutherland-Smith used a light to seal a dental composite during a restorative dental procedure on Bai Yun.

Dr. Sutherland-Smith used a light to seal a dental composite during a restorative dental procedure on Bai Yun.

Yesterday morning, September 10, a dental procedure on giant panda Bai Yun was performed by a team of veterinary service staff. I was fortunate enough to attend and watch! The whole experience was fascinating to observe, and I was impressed at how diligently the San Diego Zoo’s veterinary team cared for and treated our beloved Bai Yun.

The reason for the procedure was that keepers had noticed there was a chip in one of Bai Yun’s lower canines. As most of you know, giant pandas use their teeth to chew and break apart bamboo, tearing apart the stalks to look for the culm (soft, inner tissue of the bamboo). A chip such as the one in Bai Yun’s canine isn’t uncommon, especially for a panda of her age. Remember: she just turned 23!

In order for the veterinary team to get a close look and perform a dental exam, Bai Yun needed to be taken to the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Once Bai Yun was anesthetized at the Giant Panda Research Station, she was carefully transported to the on-grounds veterinary hospital so staff there could get a closer look at the canine in question. They performed a dental exam and took some X-rays of the chipped canine tooth, after which they concluded that a restorative procedure could be done to fix the tooth. A warming blanket kept Bai Yun’s body temperature at a comfortable level. Surrounded by all of the vet team members and their equipment, I was surprised that she seemed smaller to me than when I see her in her exhibit. Crazy, huh?

Dr. Meg Sutherland-Smith, who is our associate director of veterinary services,  filled in the chipped part of the tooth with a dental composite and then used a special light to cure the composite. Dr. Sutherland-Smith noted that originally they had some concerns that the pulp canal of Bai Yun’s chipped canine had been compromised, but she was happy to report that it wasn’t compromised after all, and she noted that the restorative procedure should help prevent any further chipping or deterioration.

After the dental procedure was completed, a veterinary technician performed a dental cleaning on all of Bai Yun’s teeth and then assisted as Dr. Sutherland-Smith took a few images inside Bai Yun’s mouth with a specialized dental camera. Bai Yun was then transferred into a panda transport cage, which allowed her to wake from the anesthesia while still being in the veterinary hospital’s treatment room. Veterinary staff closely watched as Bai Yun woke up, monitoring her breathing and vital signs throughout the process. I checked in with our panda team a few hours later to get an update on Bai Yun. The team reported that Bai Yun was doing great and was comfortably resting back in her own bedroom suite.

Watching this dental procedure was such an incredible experience. It showed me firsthand how hard our animal care teams work to care for our animals at the San Diego Zoo.

Ina Saliklis is a public relations representative for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Planning a Panda Snow Day.

Note: We hope to include a video with this post soon.

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Fossa: Madagascar’s King of the Jungle

Here is a fossa.

The fossa is Madagascar’s King of the Jungle.

When you typically think of animals at the top of the food chain, you envision large, dominating predators like the tiger, wolf, or polar bear. A new apex predator has moved in along the Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. It is only the size of a large house cat, but it still dominates the environment it is native to. The fossa is Madagascar’s top predator, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in unusual and interesting adaptations.

Evolution often works in unusual ways in the confines of an island. With limited space and a limited cast of characters, island ecosystems tend to evolve very unusual and unique organisms. The fossa is a prime example of this. For years, scientists have struggled to classify the fossa; is it a cat, a civet, or something else? The best answer is that a fossa is a fossa, although science now tells us that their closest relative is the mongoose. The fossa specializes in hunting another animal indigenous to only Madagascar, the lemur. To catch highly agile and intelligent prey like lemurs, the fossa must excel in those exact same skills.

Gandalf and Miles are the fossa pair you will currently find on Big Cat Trail. The two usually solitary animals have proven to be very compatible, and we hope that they will breed and produce a litter of pups in the future. Although they eat and spend their time exploring their exhibit separately, they return to each other and cuddle up together to sleep. We have hung perches with rope that will sway so that they can put their super agility to work. They have extraordinarily long tails to balance, and they also have a “wrist” of sorts in their ankle that helps them grip with their rear legs just as well as they do with their front. I’ve observed a fossa who wanted to get a better look at something below it grab hold of a ledge with its rear legs and lower itself down in sort of a reverse chin up. Once its curiosity was satisfied, it simply raised itself back up to the ledge!

The fossa also has an amazing variety of weird vocalizations. It can hiss, snarl, cluck, and make an extremely high-pitched squeal, just to name a few. It must seem like the woods are haunted if you happen to be camping in the woods of Madagascar with a chatty fossa nearby. Listen to the amazing sounds they made during a visual introduction:

Unfortunately, the fossa, like most of Madagascar’s wildlife, has rapidly declining populations. Deforestation in Madagascar is rampant as the human population grows. A balance between the humans and wildlife of Madagascar needs to be found for the fossa and the rest of Madagascar’s unique animals to continue to survive.

Don’t miss your chance to see one of the world’s most unique top-shelf predators. Stop by and visit Gandalf and Miles and see the amazing abilities of these one-of-a-kind animals.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Two Little Pigs.

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Cheetah Cub at San Diego Zoo Safari Park Doing Well After Surgery with Support of Puppy Companion

Cheetah Ruuxa, RainaRuuxa, a male cheetah cub who recently underwent surgery to repair growth abnormalities in his front limbs, showed great signs of improvement as he took a walk with his trainers and puppy pal, Raina, earlier today at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The young cheetah is on limited activity to allow his limbs to heal but he is showing no signs of slowing down. After the therapeutic walk, Ruuxa and Raina found time to engage in play behavior with some jumping, pouncing and wrestling.

The young cub was diagnosed with a growth abnormality in his forelegs where the growth plate in the ulna stopped growing before the radius, causing a bowing of the limbs. He underwent surgery to correct the abnormality on Sept. 3 at the Safari Park’s Harter Veterinary Medical Center and has been recovering, with Raina, a Rhodesian ridgeback puppy, never far from his side.

Ruuxa and Raina, now just over four months old, were placed together at four and five weeks of age, respectively, to be raised as ambassador animals after the cheetah cub was rejected by his mother and had to be hand raised by keepers. Safari Park ambassador cheetahs are paired with a domestic dog for companionship, and the dog’s body language helps communicate to the cheetah that there is nothing to fear in new or public surroundings, which relaxes and calms the cheetah.

Visitors to the Safari Park may see Ruuxa and Raina on a Behind-the-Scenes Cheetah & Friends Tour, or guests may possibly see them on one of the training sessions around the Park.

Photo taken on Sept. 9, 2014, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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

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Pouncing, Playful Fennec Fox at San Diego Zoo

fennec_fox_pupA 3-month-old fennec fox is full of energy and ready to play in the Children’s Zoo Nursery at the San Diego Zoo. The young male, who weighs just 1.5 pounds, is in quarantine before training to serve as an animal ambassador for his species.

The nocturnal fox pup has spurts of energy, so animal care staff have been giving him lots of toys and food puzzles to help keep him busy. For example, mealworms are hidden in cardboard boxes or in his sand mound, which encourages the fox to use some of his natural searching and digging behaviors. The fox’s favorite toys to play with are small, plush toy mice.

“Fennec foxes are great hunters, and in order to foster those natural behaviors, we will give him some stuffed mice that he’ll toss around and pounce on as if he’s practicing hunting,” said Becky Kier, senior Neonatal Assisted Care Unit keeper at the San Diego Zoo. “In the wild he would normally dig for insects in the sand, so we provide him with something to dig through to encourage that behavior as well.”

The fennec fox weighs about three pounds when full grown, making it the smallest fox in the world. Large, bat-like ears provide extraordinary hearing that can help locate prey underground or up to 1.5 miles away. Another fennec fox adaptation is long, insulated fur (even on their feet) that protects the animal from sun and hot sand, which the fox would encounter in the Sahara Desert.

Guests visiting the Zoo can see the fennec fox in the Children’s Zoo nursery in the Zoo’s Discovery Outpost.

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

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Elephant Qinisa Turns 2

Swazi encourages Qinisa to explore her birthday cake.

Swazi encourages Qinisa to explore her birthday cake.

There was a lot of anticipation before little Qinisa’s second birthday on August 28. The keepers had prepared a five-layer cake made of ice infused with an alfalfa pellet and soaked beet-pulp mixture. What a treat for an elephant girl on a hot day!

Oooh! It's nice and cool!

Oooh! It’s nice and cool!

The cake was set up in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Tembo Stadium during the 1:30 Keeper Talk, so that Park guests could celebrate with her. Qinisa’s mother, Swazi, was brought into the arena with her. At first, they didn’t seem to notice the cake because they were concentrating on their keepers, who had them run through some husbandry behaviors. When Qinisa had finished her training session, everyone in the audience loudly sang “Happy Birthday.”

Ice cakes are tasty!

Ice cakes are tasty!

Qinisa then explored the arena and investigated her birthday cake. She wasn’t sure what to make of the cake, so she waited until her mom joined her and knocked it over. Satisfied that it was okay, Qinisa then took her time eating little bits of her cake.

The keepers eventually moved all of the elephants back into the main yard and shared the rest of Qinisa’s birthday cake with the herd. What a fun day for everyone!

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephants: Eat Your Vegetables!

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Galapagos Tortoise Arrives at Toledo Zoo from San Diego

San Diego Zoo logoEmerson, a male tortoise approximately 100 years old and weighing about 400 pounds, arrived at the Toledo Zoo from the San Diego Zoo late on Aug. 27 and is scheduled to be on exhibit at the zoo’s Tiger Terrace area. The species is native to the Galapagos Islands, near Ecuador and off the western coast of South America. Galapagos tortoises can live for 150 or so years, with males measuring up to 6 feet long and weighing as much as 500 pounds (females are smaller).

This species was among the animals that Charles Darwin observed when he traveled to the Galapagos Islands in 1835. The information Darwin gleaned from that trip helped shape his resulting theory of evolution by natural selection, which has become the cornerstone of modern biological science.

While the species is thought to have numbered in the tens of thousands before pirates and whalers started hunting them, four of the Galapagos tortoise’s 14 subspecies have gone extinct. The surviving species face competition for resources from nonnative animals humans have introduced to the islands. Although few animals could kill a full-grown tortoise, many animals eat the tortoises’ eggs, decimating reproduction rates. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as vulnerable.

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

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Xiao Liwu’s First 2 Years

Here he comes. Watch out, snow!

Here he comes. Watch out, snow!

We’ve put together a fun video showing some of panda Xiao Liwu’s milestones (see below). The video was made for our San Diego Zoo Kids channel, a television broadcast channel featuring programming about unique and endangered animals species designed to entertain and educate guests about wildlife around the world. It is shown in select children’s hospitals on their in-room televisions. The channel features video from our famous Panda Cam as well as other live, online cameras, fun and educational pieces about a variety of animals, and up-close video encounters of popular animals with our national spokesperson, Rick Schwartz.

The San Diego Zoo Kids channel is funded by a generous gift by businessman and philanthropist Denny Sanford. We thought “Mr. Wu’s” many fans would like to see this video, too. Enjoy!