Behavioral Biology


African Elephants in Botswana

Elephants eat and relax along the Chobe River in the Chobe National Park, Botswana.

Elephants eat and drink along the Chobe River in the Chobe National Park, Botswana.

I just returned home after spending two weeks in Botswana with Mike Chase, the Henderson Endowed Research Fellow within the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Mike and Kelly Landen, program manager for Elephants Without Borders, were very gracious hosts, and I am excited to announce that at the end of the year, when Mike’s postdoc with the Institute is over, we will be continuing our collaboration assisting Elephants Without Borders to ensure the conservation of elephants along with many other species.

The first week of my visit was spent in Kasane and the Chobe National Park. Within this area of Botswana is one of the densest elephant populations in the world and one of the last remaining strongholds for elephants on this planet. This is an extremely important population, considering the onslaught of elephant poaching in the northwest and central Africa. Recent estimates suggest that tens of thousands of elephants are poached each year, the highest numbers since the late 1980s.

Elephants Without Borders field staff tracks an elephant using radio telemetry.

Elephants Without Borders field staff tracks an elephant using radio telemetry.

During one of our drives down the Chobe River, we observed approximately 1,000 elephants ranging in herds from 10 to 100. We also visited an artificial waterhole late in the afternoon one day, where we found approximately 80 elephants taking turns drinking. Within 30 minutes, I had observed every general category of behavior that elephants engage in, including play, social affiliation, aggression, feeding, and self maintenance (dust bathing), just to name a few. We were even lucky enough to see multiple young calves nursing; one of them looked to be less than a week old. It was truly amazing and exactly what we strive for with our elephants at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, ensuring they have the opportunities to engage in a diversity of behaviors similar to their wild counterparts.

My second week in Botswana was spent in the Okavango Delta. Although in a different area of the delta, the smell of wild sage reminded me of my first trip there. Wild sage can be found quite frequently and has such a wonderful odor. In the Delta, elephant populations are not as dense as those in Chobe National Park, but you have one of the largest continuous ecosystems virtually untouched by man, with the exception of some small safari lodges. Efforts there are underway to explore relationships between habitat type and large herbivore population abundance. This is important work for determining things like carrying capacity and habitat necessary for different species of wildlife.

A female elephant wears a tracking collar in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

A female elephant wears a tracking collar in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

While in the Delta, we tracked some collared elephants using radio telemetry and collected fecal samples as part of an ongoing study looking at stress in elephants living in different areas. With the continued expansion of human populations, understanding how elephants and people can continue to live together will be vital for the future. Over the next couple of months, we will be looking for funding to start a new project examining the effects of ecotourism on key species such as elephants to ensure future generations have the ability to view these amazing animals.

Lance Miller is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, What is Animal Welfare?

Watch our own African elephant herd daily on Elephant Cam!


What Might Monkeys Be Up To?

The Guizhou snub-nosed monkey’s night life was a secret until recently.

The Guizhou snub-nosed monkey’s night life was a secret until recently.

February 10 marks the beginning of a new year, the Year of the Snake, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. I cannot help but reflect on what I have done in the past year and contemplate what I wish to accomplish in this new year.

Last year, my research project focused on an investigation of wild Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys in China using camera traps. This work was conducted in Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve (FNNR) in collaboration with the reserve’s administration. We set up a network of over 100 camera traps to monitor, in addition to the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey, many hard-to-see wildlife species in the reserve (see post Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My!,). Some of our unexpected captures were images of Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys moving about in the middle of the night (see article in Primates). Although these monkeys are considered daytime active species very much like humans, our camera-trap data provided unequivocal proof that they are routinely active after dark. What might the monkeys be up to?

Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys’ nocturnal habit, we believe, is motivated by the need to acquire as much food as possible. In other words, the monkeys are up at night because they are hungry. To some people, this discovery may seem like a non-discovery, but many great scientific discoveries are inherently simple, and they often start out with a simple observation, like the apple that fell on Newton’s head. But I digress, back to the monkeys.

An important outcome of our camera-trap study, besides showing the behavioral flexibility the monkeys have to cope with living in a highly seasonal environment, is the need for researchers to rethink methodological designs that minimize observer bias. If we habitually observe diurnal primates during the daytime we, of course, have data that only show them being active during the hours we observe them. Camera traps, therefore, are excellent devices to augment our data collection. And, because of the amount of photographs we have, you can count on me spending much of my time this year uncovering more secrets about the animals in Fanjingshan.

My research collaborators, from left: Duoying Cui (Beijing Zoo), Marco Gamba (University of Torino), me, Yeqin Yang (FNNR), and Kefeng Niu (FNNR)

My research collaborators, from left: Duoying Cui (Beijing Zoo), Marco Gamba (University of Torino), me, Yeqin Yang (FNNR), and Kefeng Niu (FNNR)

An intrinsic part of what I do as a scientist is to assist students with their professional development. Through mentorship of students, I help foster future colleagues and, in turn, expand my network of collaborators. This past year several of my students completed their research thesis, attained a higher degree, received scholarships, and/or launched new projects. James Dopp is a graduate of the University of Vermont who worked with me in Fanjingshan in 2010 through 2012. He has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to further sharpen his research skills in primate conservation in China.

Kefeng Niu, a resident biologist of FNNR, continued to benefit from my coaching. In August, he successfully delivered a paper in English at the International Primatological Society Congress. The Congress also provided Kefeng a chance to meet other professionals, among them, Dr. Marco Gamba, my Italian colleague from the University of Torino. I introduced Marco and his research on primate vocal communication to Kefeng. We later invited Marco to join us in Fanjingshan to resume our wonderful discussion about snub-nosed monkey biology with China’s renowned primate expert, Yeqin Yang (see post Saving Monkeys Takes a Team). And the rest, as they say, is history, because when Marco left Fanjingshan, he had already signed a five-year research agreement with the reserve administration and gained a prospective PhD student, Kefeng Niu. Mama mia!

Cameron makes her debut as “Yi Jie Jie”

Cameron makes her debut as “Yi Jie Jie”

Recently, my mentorship pool of students included a junior from High Tech High International. Her name is Cameron Ishee, and though only 16, she is well on her way to transforming how people perceive and treat animals. Because of Cameron’s ability to speak Chinese (Mandarin), I asked her to help me create a series of bilingual video lessons for the children in the Little Green Guards program in Guizhou (see post March of the Little Green Guards). Each episode stars Cameron as Yi Jie Jie (or Big Sister Yi) teaching an English alphabet letter and about half a dozen animal-related words associated with the featured letter. To make learning memorable and fun, we segue from the classroom lessons into video segments of our Zoo and Safari Park animals. In doing so, we are achieving several objectives: introducing a world-class animal collection to underprivileged children who would otherwise never have the opportunity to travel to San Diego, and enhancing the school curriculum by teaching these children a highly valued foreign language that only children living in the more affluent urban areas of China are learning.

Our pilot episode is almost complete. Cameron and I will continue making more episodes this year. Just a little spoiler alert here, snake will be featured in our upcoming episode: “S is for Snake.”

Chia Tan is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Citizen Science

Zoo Corps volunteers helped the Institute’s Applied Plant Ecology Division plant cactus to restore coastal sage scrub environment.

Zoo Corps volunteers helped the Institute’s Applied Plant Ecology Division plant cactus to restore coastal sage scrub environment.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend one of the first meetings of the newly formed San Diego Citizen Science Network. A multitude of stakeholders attended including educators, university graduate students, local government officials, and researchers from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (“the Institute”). It was very exciting to be with people from so many different backgrounds and institutions who all shared the same vision: to increase and streamline the potential for citizen science opportunities throughout San Diego County.

The term “citizen science” is a reference to public engagement opportunities in scientific investigations. Even though participants often have limited or no scientific background, they can still play a crucial role in asking questions, collecting data, and interpreting results that support meaningful scientific research. These types of programs provide an opportunity to increase public scientific literacy and involve individuals in various components of the scientific process. This can prove especially useful for answering scientific questions that require data to be gathered or processed over long periods of time and large geographic areas.

Citizen science is an extremely vital component of the work that we do here at the Institute. Without our many passionate volunteers who assist with data collection and entry, we would not be able to conduct research at the same magnitude that we currently realize. Improvements in technology (and its associated decreasing costs) have led to an exponential increase in the amount of data we are able to collect (a single camera trap can generate thousands of images a week!). Trained volunteers able to identify species and individual animals in photos have substantially helped our efforts to evaluate the survival and overall success of translocated squirrels and to monitor western burrowing owl nests. Volunteers also participate in surveys for coastal cactus wrens, observe giant panda behavior, help with planting of cacti to restore local habitat, and help us collect feedback from guests about their experiences at the Zoo and Safari Park.



The acoustic structure of a gibbon “duet call” becomes longer and more complex over time. Recordings made by guests can provide researchers with a better understanding of how and why these changes occur and how they can be studied to estimate population numbers in the wild:

Public participation in scientific data collection can also serve to enhance the guest experience at our facilities where guests can have opportunities to engage and connect with wildlife in novel ways. For example, the Institute’s Behavioral Biology Division plans to create a smartphone/tablet application that will allow guests to collect valuable biological data on the animals they are enjoying while visiting the Zoo or Safari Park. Such observations (including both behavior and associated vocalizations) can provide us with a greater understanding of how animals utilize their enclosures and how individuals interact with each other. This level of interaction also gives the guest the chance to be a direct participant in the scientific process and learn more about how we collect and use data.

The creation of this local citizen science network is really exciting. It will serve as a great tool to bring researchers, educators, and the general public together—a sort of match-making service for individuals and organizations wanting to be involved. This kind of collaboration allows researchers to help educators develop scientifically rigorous protocols for data collection and serve as mentors for students. Participating land managers and institutions can also provide property access, different groups can collect data for the same project across a large landscape over multiple years, and all teams collectively build an essential dataset to answer a research question.

Everyday people across the world help collect scientific data, from studies in museums where individuals are examining specimens that have been in storage for years to activities in cities and parks where counting and identifying birds provides much-needed data on avian populations. People are looking in their own backyards and recording when flowers bloom and when leaves fall to contribute to our understanding of changing climates and environments. There are so many ways to get involved as a citizen scientist, and I encourage you to participate in any way you can. As a researcher here at the Institute, I can truly testify to the invaluable contributions that volunteers make to our projects. Get involved as a volunteer with San Diego Zoo Global or another organization that interests you and begin your own adventure as a citizen scientist!

Susanne Marczak is a research technician with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Muddy Days in the Soil Lab.


Is Our Cheetah Pregnant?

CheetahThat’s the big question: did female cheetah Lindiwe successfully breed, and is she currently pregnant? Just last month we saw strong interest between Lindiwe and one of our proven breeder males, Noka. Lindiwe is a young cheetah, and this would make her a first-time mom, which is very exciting! From our point of view, the most important thing about getting a naïve female cheetah to breed is that once she breeds, she tends to continue having litters throughout her reproductive years. So the question remains: was Lindiwe actually in estrus and did not allow breeding, or did she simply not come into estrus during our breeding attempts? To answer the question, follow me into the Behavioral Biology Endocrinology Lab.

This lab offers us an opportunity to test hormone levels in a variety of exotic species. Hormone research adds an additional dimension to our research projects by providing another tool for unraveling the mysteries of animal behavior. When we are trying to test reproductive hormone levels in cheetahs, our preferred method involves non-invasive hormone sampling, a technique where the animals are unaware that we are testing their hormones. Blood collection can be a stressful procedure, which often results in adverse affects on reproductive hormones and/or behavior, so we usually sample urine, feces, and sometimes saliva and hair instead. The cheetahs go about their normal daily routine having no idea that we are testing their hormones levels!

Fecal (or poop) samples are collected by our cheetah care staff, promptly frozen, and brought to the lab for hormone testing. The first thing I do is dry the samples on a lyophilizer, a really big, fancy freeze drier that removes all the water from the fecal samples. I then crush and sift the dried fecal samples before weighing out a specific amount. I now have dried, weighed fecal material in a test tube and am ready to extract the hormones held within. There are many ways to do this, and they usually involve using a solvent in combination with some type of force. In our cheetah samples, I add solvent to the fecal material and mix (vortex) or heat the samples. At the end of this extraction process I am left with a test tube full of solvent that contains not only extracted hormones but also other extracted compounds. The trick is for me to find an appropriate laboratory procedure (or assay) that I can use to examine the concentrations of the specific hormones in question (in this case, female reproductive hormones). In humans, hormone assays are generally routine, but in exotic animals, extractions and assays can vary both between species and within species, depending on the hormones of interest and what biological sample they are from (fecal, urine, or saliva).

So back to the original question: was Lindiwe physiologically in estrus during the time she was showing the appropriate female sex behaviors? To answer this question, I needed to test her fecal samples for the hormone estradiol (a specific form of estrogen). In most species I could usually determine if the animal in question is cycling by looking at progesterone levels. But cheetahs are more complex as they are induced ovulators (see Cheetah Breeding Excitement). As such, their progesterone levels remain low unless a follicle, or egg, has actually been released from the ovary. To complicate matters further, when we study hormone levels in urine or feces, we usually only see metabolized hormones because we are looking at a waste product of the body. These are different from the hormones moving around in the bloodstream (known as parent or non-metabolized hormones) that are much easier to measure. Examining the concentrations of estradiol metabolites can be complicated and tricky because different animal species often metabolize hormones uniquely. These are the types of challenges we face in our endocrinology lab when studying hormones in exotic species.

After testing Lindiwe’s samples for hormones to see if she was truly in estrus during our breeding attempts, it appears that her rolling and tail flicking behaviors were somewhat misleading. Her hormone levels were quite low on the days she showed such estrus behavior. Interestingly, her hormone levels did go up, indicating a mild, short estrus, after we had stopped our breeding attempts. Welcome to the frustrating world of cheetah breeding!
We see a wide range of estrus behaviors varying from “silent” to “clear,” and some of our continual challenges include trying to decode the differences in behaviors between the females in our collection. We had very high hopes that Lindiwe was truly in estrus and would allow breeding by Noka, but alas, they did not end up breeding. We will continue our breeding attempts between the two, so please cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Corinne Pisacane is a senior research technician in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


What Do Primates Do?

Primate volunteers help us collect data on orangutan behavior.

Primate volunteers help us collect data on orangutan behavior.

Much of my time has been spent focusing on koala research both at the San Diego Zoo and overseas in koala habitats in Australia. However, that is not all that I do or am interested in! A few years ago, I decided to go back to focusing some of my efforts on primate research. Most of my previous work with koalas focused upon mate choice and factors that influence it, but with primates, the research opportunities at the Zoo are more focused on the social interactions within groups of different primates. Specifically, this entails undertaking a lot of behavioral observation work, otherwise known as standing in front of exhibits and recording behaviors for many hours.

As I’m involved with several different research projects, time for me is not always plentiful, as I am sure you can all relate to. In order for me to accomplish this expansion of my work, I either needed to clone myself or enlist the help of a dedicated group of individuals. For me, the choice was easy: I decided on the latter! Who are these people, you ask? They are our very own primate observation volunteers. They all come with unique backgrounds and personalities but share a singular goal: to watch primates and record their behaviors to help expand the behavioral knowledge we need to maximize welfare and bolster breeding success.

This incredible team of volunteers has helped to reach this goal by tirelessly collecting data, sometimes in the rain, and, in return, they have seen some wonderful animal behavior. Any one of them can tell you who likes to hang out with whom in the bonobo world, which, they can tell you, changes daily and sometimes even hourly! They also can tell you about the orangutan soap opera that continues day to day with Satu’s ladies vying with each other for his attention. They can even tell you which capuchins will gladly come to the front of the exhibit for a chance that someone walking by will give them attention!

These volunteers get to do what is one of my favorite things about my work: really focus upon what animals do on a daily basis. And for me, it’s particularly exciting, as I get to expand my ability to collect more data on more species of primates. Without their help, these studies would not be possible, and for that I am grateful to all of them.

If you’re at the Zoo or the Safari Park and you see someone in front of any of these exhibits with a clipboard and stopwatch, they might be one of these primate volunteers.

Jennifer Tobey is a behavioral biologist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Koala Headlines.


Cheetah Breeding Excitement

I couldn’t wait to get to work this morning! My excitement surrounded yesterday’s developments at the cheetah breeding facility at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our young, inexperienced female cheetah, Lindiwe, has been showing signs of estrus, and at long last our experienced male cheetah, Noka, has taken an interest in her. This is a very exciting development in the world of cheetah breeding!

I grab my raincoat and notebook and head over for more cheetah watching. Our breeding facility is not accessible to guests. After arriving, I try to control my excitement and optimism about the possible outcome of today’s breeding attempt. I’m pretty sure today is the day that Lindiwe and Noka will breed successfully.

My hopefulness increases as I view a short video recorded by our animal care staff just hours earlier, showing positive signs of interest between Lindiwe and Noka. These include both cheetahs laying down next to each other in their adjacent enclosures and touching noses through the fence. Noka then proceeds to make a vocalization called a stutter-bark in Lindiwe’s direction. The stutter-bark is a rarely heard vocalization primarily used by male cheetahs in breeding situations. We believe the stutter-bark plays a significant role in a male cheetah’s attempt to breed a female.

Listen to a cheetah stutter-bark:


To better understand the possible role of the stutter-bark vocalization, a little background on cheetah reproduction is needed. In most mammals (including humans), the release of eggs happens spontaneously and predictably (with cycles of varying length). However, there are a number of species that possess a different type of reproductive strategy where eggs are released from the ovaries after some sort of stimuli but not on a predictable cycle. The stimuli could include the physical act of mating, among many other possibilities.

In cheetahs, the stimuli that lead to egg release are not clearly understood. In the wild, female cheetahs are predominantly solitary, so we think that when a male encounters a female, the stutter-bark vocalization may be part of the reproductive strategy to help bring a female cheetah into estrus.

Our team moves Lindiwe to a neighboring enclosure while Noka is brought into Lindiwe’s enclosure, which he thoroughly investigates by patrolling the area, sniffing, and spraying. While he is investigating, we record details about both cheetahs’ behavior. We are hoping for a “strong” behavioral response from them, including both cats being very focused on each other, the female rolling on the ground and flicking her tail. Most of all, we are hoping that she won’t be aggressive toward him and that Noka will stutter-bark while pacing her fence line.

The breeding attempt continues for approximately 30 minutes, during which time we see the positive signs we are hoping for from both cheetahs. We decide to attempt an introduction between Noka and Lindiwe. At this point we’re also considering the possible downsides of an introduction with a female cheetah that may not be in estrus and, as a result, can be unpredictable and aggressive. This is definitely something we do not want in a breeding situation! Having weighed the costs and benefits, we move forward with our introduction: a keeper opens a fence separating Lindiwe and Noka while I continue observing and taking notes.

The breeding attempt begins positively, with no aggression from the male or female. Lindiwe is active and moving while the male stutters quietly toward her. He begins to follow her but occasionally gets a little too close, resulting in Lindiwe turning and moving toward him slightly. Then she turns and continues to walk around the enclosure. Noka is somewhat focused on her but is also not responding very strongly and appears to be somewhat distracted. After some time, we decide that the male’s response is not adequate and reluctantly separate the cats in the hope for a better response tomorrow.

If Lindiwe is truly coming into estrus, we expect to see a much stronger response from Noka. We do not currently have a scientific test that will tell us if Lindiwe is in estrus on the day of the introduction. If we attempt a blood draw, the possible stress associated with the procedure could affect the female’s reproductive hormones. Our current approach is to noninvasively examine Lindiwe’s reproductive hormones by collecting her fecal samples and determining her hormone levels back at the Behavioral Biology endocrinology lab. Stay tuned for my next blog post detailing the laboratory approaches I use to determine reproductive hormone levels in cheetahs and my determination (via hormone levels) of whether Lindiwe was truly in estrus during this breeding attempt.

Corinne Pisacane is a senior research technician in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Cologne, Perfume Needed for Cats!

A tiger sniffs scent left by a cub.

Environmental enrichment is utilized within zoological institutions to ensure animals are physically and psychologically healthy. The goal of an enrichment program is to promote species-typical behavior while allowing some control for animals within their environment. The Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is currently conducting a research project examining individual and species enrichment preferences for large felids (lions, tigers, and cheetahs) at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (see post, Big Cat Preferences, Part 2). Based on some preliminary results, we are interested in learning more about different scents (perfumes) that attract the animals and promote the behavior of exploration.

The research project will include examining the behavior of our large felids when presented with a variety of colognes and perfumes. The goal of these scents is to increase our cats’ exploration and activity levels. At the same time, we will send samples of these scents to a chemist to determine their chemical make-up to learn the properties that animals respond to the most. Through this research, we hope to discover the elements of these scents that encourage species-typical behavior so that we can continue to enrich the lives of the animals within our facilities. In addition, information gained from this study can be used to enrich felids at other zoological institutions. With the link between animal welfare and reproductive success, it is important to ensure the highest levels of care for the animals within zoological institutions as many of these species are conservation dependent.

We can’t do this alone. We’re once again calling upon the generosity of our fans and fellow conservationists to help us in this cause by donating old or unused cologne and perfume. If you have colognes and perfumes that you would like to donate to the study, please send them to:

San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research
Attn: Lance Miller
15600 San Pasqual Valley Road
Escondido, California 92027

Thanks so much for your support. Your generosity will improve the lives of our animals and help us work for a better future for the wildlife of our planet!

Lance Miller is a scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Update: You may also bring your perfume and cologne donations to the Zoo or the Safari Park! Just take them to our Guest Services window. We are also accepting monetary donations for the study through our Animal Care Wish List.

Update from Lance, January 31, 2011: I would like to say thank you again to everyone in the San Diego region and throughout the United States who has sent in perfumes and colognes.  The cats will ultimately benefit from all your kind donations as we continue to learn more about environmental enrichment for these amazing animals.


Big Cat Preferences

Hmmm. Sweet or salty?

Do you have a sweet tooth, or do you prefer treats like pretzels? Just as people have individual preferences, so do animals. Here at the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research we are interested in determining individual preferences for some of our animals. Specifically, we are involved in a study examining enrichment preferences for our larger species of felids (lions, tigers, and cheetahs).

Why is this important? Providing environmental enrichment for animals helps keep them both physically and psychologically healthy by promoting species-appropriate behavior and providing the animals some control within their environment. Through assessment of enrichment preferences, we can determine not only what the animals prefer, but also how those enrichment items affect their behavior. Currently, we have eight different objects (for example, gourds and Boomer Balls®) and eight different scents (for example, mint and lavender) that we are assessing to figure out individual and species differences. This will allow us to provide the highest quality of care for the felids at both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park by providing preferred items to animals and also items that promote species-typical behavior.

A young cheetah with a Boomer ball.

The assessment preferences involve pairing up the different items (for example, Boomer Ball versus a cardboard box) and looking at different measures such as time until they interact with each object and total duration of time each animal interacted with both objects. Over time, with enough trials we will be able to determine preferences for each of the cats in the collection. As of now, thanks to the hard work of our dedicated animal care staff, we have successfully completed all of the enrichment assessment trials with our lions and are working to finish the rest of the trials with the tigers and cheetahs. After we have completed the trials, I will update everyone with some of the preferences we are observing with our wonderful felid collection.

Lance Miller is a scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
Read more about enrichment in the post Enrichment: Fun for Everyone.


Wild CSI: Pandas! Part 2

A Wild CSI camper practices doing enzyme immunoassay tests.

Be sure to read Part 1, Wild CSI: Pandas!

On day three, the students were back in the lab learning about behavioral biology and a very important tool used in this discipline, the ethogram. An ethogram is a detailed list of behaviors and activities of a particular species. As a panda behaviorist, I use our panda ethogram on a daily basis. It’s an invaluable tool that can help us understand why an individual animal is engaged in a particular behavior, as well as understanding the general behavioral patterns of a species as a whole.

I created a scaled-down version of our panda ethogram for the students and put together two different video clips for them to observe and decode. Video A contained footage of Bai Yun during the breeding season, and Video B contained footage of her during a non-breeding time of year. The task for the students was to decode Bai Yun’s behavior, using their ethograms, and determine whether or not she was in estrus.


Marsupial Nightlife

A female wombat looks into a palm roll

A female wombat looks into a palm roll

While doing marsupial observations at the San Diego Zoo, I often hear people really excited to see the wombats. They rush over, looking from the deck at the tree kangaroos. Nope, no wombats in sight… maybe they are in the front! Rushing to the front, the wombats are consistently found doing one thing and one thing alone: sleeping. This is usually disappointing for many zoo visitors; however, they are doing exactly what they would be doing in the wild. Wombats are nocturnal, which means they spend the day sleeping but wake up in the evening to forage, travel, and perform other necessary behaviors.

I realized this, too, in my enrichment study (see post, Puzzles for Tree Kangaroos). On the days that enrichment was provided in the morning, I would be more likely to observe interaction than if the enrichment was set out in the afternoon. However, most of the interaction with the enrichment items took place when I wasn’t even around. How do I know this? Well, before I would leave after a day’s observations, I would take a mental note of what the enrichment item looked like and where in the exhibit it was located. Then, as soon as I returned to the Zoo in the morning, for another day of observation, I would check out the wombat exhibit to see what the enrichment looked like after being left in the exhibit overnight.

A mulch pile with wallaby footprints in it after being left in the exhibit overnight

A mulch pile with wallaby footprints in it after being left in the exhibit overnight

What I would usually find is that the enrichment item had not survived the night. In other words, the palm rolls would be in pieces spread throughout the exhibit, and the mulch piles would be decimated to a thin layer. I heard similar reports from keepers about the wallabies. I would observe little interaction during the day; however, overnight the wallabies would eat all of the food out of puzzle feeders and leave evidence (usually in the form of lots of poop) that they were spending quite a bit of time around the enrichment items.

A wombat walks on a palm roll after breaking it apart.

A wombat walks on a palm roll after breaking it apart.

What does this mean for my enrichment study? I can confidently say that our marsupials ARE interacting with the enrichment. BUT, it is very important that we keep the nocturnal nature of these creatures in mind when providing them with these enrichments or challenges and give them the opportunity to have access to the items when they will be awake and ready to interact.

So, if you find yourself at an exhibit with sleepy animals, don’t be upset or discouraged! It would be very stressful for them to be pulling lots of “all day-ers,” so it is best for them to be active at similar times to when they would be in the wild.

I know it is disappointing, but this is the last marsupial enrichment post from me. I’m finishing up my internship and will be headed back to Idaho to finish my degree and graduate! Wish me luck, and don’t forget to visit the marsupials next time you venture to the San Diego Zoo!

Lauren Kline is a Bonner Summer Student Intern in the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. We wish her the best of luck as she continues her studies!