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Conservation

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

boreal toad

boreal toad

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

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

Alaomosa

Alaomosa, Colorado

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

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

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

Sancho

Sancho

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

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

Boreals amplexing

Boreals amplexing

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

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

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

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

 

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Mitigation-driven Animal Translocations Are Problematic – Study Indicates Importance of Science-based Animal Moves to Conservation

Turtles Fitted with Transmitters Released into WildThe use of animal translocations as a means to mitigate construction projects and other human developments is a widespread animal-management tool. A paper published today, produced through collaboration of conservationists from San Diego Zoo Global, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Kent UK, University of Newcastle and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, reviews the success rates associated with these moves from a species-conservation standpoint.

“Mitigation-driven translocations outnumber and receive more funding than science-based conservation translocations,” said Ron Swaisgood Ph.D., conservation biologist for San Diego Zoo Global. “Yet the conservation benefit of the former is often unclear, since outcomes are often poor and rarely monitored. There are other, more strategic, priorities where our limited conservation resources should be allocated.”

The study, available online ahead of print and scheduled for the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment the study estimates that millions of dollars are spent annually on moving animals out of the way of human interference, and may not be meeting the goal of preserving the populations as intended by legislation.

“Because mitigation releases are economically motivated, outcomes may be less successful than those of releases designed to serve the biological needs of species,” said Jen Germano, lead author of the paper. “Evidence suggests that many mitigation-driven translocations fail, although the application of scientific principles and best practices would probably improve the success rate.”

An additional challenge, pointed out by the paper, is the lack of information accompanying many of these translocations.

“Just determining how many animals have been moved and to what effect is challenging, since records are not kept or are difficult to obtain,” said Simon Clulow of the University of Newcastle, Australia. “This documentation is essential if we are to learn lessons and improve our methods.”

Researchers point to successful science-based animal relocations and releases as forming good models for the future.

“We’ve learned a great deal from carefully designed, conservation-driven translocation research over recent years, and this needs to be better applied to mitigation translocations,” said Richard Griffiths of the University of Kent, UK. “Unfortunately, mitigation translocations often do not meet the legislative intent of preventing the decline of protected species. This can be changed in the future to give these species a better chance at long-term survival.”

ARC
Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) is the UK’s leading charity working to help frogs, toads, newts, lizards, snakes and turtles. ARC owns and manages nature reserves, runs dedicated conservation projects across Britain, leads monitoring and science programmes, and presses for stronger policies to help amphibians and reptiles. For more information, see www.arc-trust.org.

The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) is a Research Centre based in the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, UK. DICE focuses on interdisciplinary training, research and conservation implementation around the world. See http://www.kent.ac.uk/dice/

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission is, working with others, to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

The conservation biology group at the University of Newcastle provides biotechnological solutions for global biodiversity and conservation management in collaboration with government agencies, local councils and animal welfare groups.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is made accessible to children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

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What We’re Thankful For

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

California Condor Recovery Program

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

Southwestern pond turtle headstart to recovery program

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

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

African elephants

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

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

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

Tull Family Tiger Trail

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

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

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

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

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World Orangutan Day

Today is World Orangutan Day! On this day, organizations around the globe are highlighting the plight of one of our closest living relatives, the tree-dwelling “person of the forest.” These special creatures are not important just because they are large mammals, or because they remind us of ourselves, but also because they are so integrally connected to the forests they inhabit. With more than 500 known plant species encompassed by their diet, this red ape is a significant factor in seed dispersal in the ancient forests of Indonesia and Borneo.

But the forests, and the orangutans that depend on them, are dwindling. Habitat loss is occurring in Southeast Asia at an alarmingly rapid rate, with Indonesia and Malaysia losing more than 6.5 million hectares (more than 25,000 square miles) in the last few decades. As a result of this habitat loss, the two orangutan subspecies are experiencing a steep decline. The Sumatran Orangutan is critically endangered; the IUCN estimates that no more than 7,300 remain in fragmented patches of forest, primarily in Aceh, Indonesia.

Forest loss in orangutan habitat has a number of causal factors: mining operations and tree harvesting for the pulp and paper industry are two of the usual suspects. But one of the most significant reasons for deforestation over the last twenty years was the rampant growth of the palm oil industry. Production of oil palm, an agricultural commodity that grows only in tropical regions, has skyrocketed: between 1990-2010, Indonesia experienced a 600% increase in land dedicated to the crop. To protect and preserve orangutans, and other species dependent on these forests, conservation biologists have been searching for a way to stem the tide of deforestation due to palm oil expansion.

San Diego Zoo Global has joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and has been working with other North American zoos and RSPO stakeholders to strengthen and improve its efforts to move the palm oil industry toward sustainability. Along with other members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting body for North American zoological institutions, we are exploring ways to ensure the preservation of biodiversity in areas impacted by oil palm.

Today, on World Orangutan Day, the AZA has announced its support for the development of a sustainable palm oil marketplace.  AZA member zoos, including San Diego Zoo Global, collectively educate and entertain 180 million guests each year. That is a significant audience that can help push for change that will “break the link between palm oil and deforestation,” a move necessary to preserve orangutans and other wildlife into the future. As RSPO members, SDZG stands alongside the AZA in recommending that North American consumers help to increase the uptake of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) in our supermarkets. Currently, there is more CSPO produced each year than is purchased for consumer goods. Since CSPO is produced in accordance with sustainable principals and criteria as set forth by the RSPO, orangutans would benefit if demand for CSPO were to rise. You can learn more about CSPO, and the product lines containing it, here.

We have a long way to go to ensure that the beautiful, long-haired “person of the forest” remains in wild places in the future. On World Orangutan Day, we ask you to consider how you might actively participate in efforts to preserve our red-haired cousins by beginning your own journey to sustainability. A good first step? Find ways to modify your habits to include more CSPO in your purchases. Together, we can help secure the forest home for the orangutan, and all its jungle brethren.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for 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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On the Palm Oil Path: A Journey to Sustainability

Making informed palm-oil decisions can help Indah and Aisha's wild brethren.

Making informed palm-oil decisions can help Indah and Aisha’s wild brethren.

When you watch the San Diego Zoo’s orangutans brachiating from branch to branch, it’s easy to picture the movement of wild apes through the canopy of those big trees in Borneo and Sumatra. Watching our sun bear Marcella sleep high in her climbing structure, you can envision a wild sun bear resting up in the canopy close to the fruit of a monstrous tree. There are a number of species that depend on the lush forests of tropical Southeast Asia, and these species are now at risk due to rampant deforestation and loss of habitat. As mentioned in a previous post, The Palm Oil Conservation Crisis, one of the major drivers of that deforestation is unsustainable palm oil cultivation.

The palm oil conservation crisis is a highly complex problem that cannot be solved overnight. However, San Diego Zoo Global has waded into the issue and hopes to contribute to a solution that can preserve forests and the wildlife that depends on them. Our first step was to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder organization that has produced a series of criteria aimed at altering the palm oil supply chain to produce a sustainable crop. (See press release Three US Zoos Take Leadership Role in Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil Practices.) The goal of the RSPO is to make certified sustainable palm oil the norm, thus ending the unsustainable practices that endanger forests. The RSPO is a young organization, and though it has made great strides in its 10 years, there is still a long way to go toward ensuring that palm oil is deforestation-free.

This is the reason North American zoos and aquariums are stepping up to address this issue, too. As conservation entities, we want to ensure a wild future for the species many of our guests see at our facilities. I just returned from the first Sustainable Palm Oil Symposium, hosted by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado. Cheyenne Mountain was the first North American zoo to join the RSPO, and in hosting this symposium they helped to facilitate a dialogue among concerned zoos about what we can do, collectively and as individual institutions. We got an on-the-ground perspective from attending NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that work in Malaysia and Indonesia, and this allowed us to have a better understanding of what parts of the industry are likely to be most responsive to our efforts. It was really inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded folks who are as passionate about the palm oil conservation crisis as we are. Zoos around the world are raising awareness of the problem and are trying to encourage the transformation of the palm oil industry to sustainability. At the symposium, we realized that we might wield a powerful voice if we unite in our efforts.

That is very much our goal now. I hope to share with you some of our efforts and accomplishments over the next several months. In the meantime, you can help by supporting the RSPO’s vision to transform the palm oil industry. Think of this transformation as a journey toward sustainability. Zoos, corporations, and even the RSPO are on a journey, each of us in a different place, but the goal is clear. San Diego Zoo Global supports those companies that are making progress toward a sustainable palm oil industry. We encourage you to support the RSPO and those RSPO-member companies that are taking steps along their journey to sustainability, too.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Yi Lu Ping An (Have a Good Trip), Yun Zi

The time has come to say goodbye to our good-natured young panda, Yun Zi. Yesterday, January 9, 2014. He embarked on his most momentous adventure yet—a move to his homeland. After crating up easily, our boy was loaded into a vehicle for the trip to Los Angeles, where he caught his flight to China. Thanks to the diligence and careful planning of our staff, he is well prepared for his journey.

The keepers worked to ready Yun Zi for all of the transitions he is about to make. He began crate training some weeks ago, getting used to the transport crate he will live in for a few days as he hops across the pond and heads up to the mountains of his ancestral homeland. As anticipated for such a smart and easy-going boy, he adapted to his new crate easily, spending time feeding inside it and accepting treats from his keepers through the openings of the crate.

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Keepers have also been preparing him for the dietary transition he will undergo. In China, the pandas are not fed the low-starch, high-fiber biscuits and kibble they are used to getting in San Diego but instead receive a specially made formulation of bread that is foreign to our bears. Our keepers have access to that bread recipe and for some time have been whipping it up in our on-site kitchen so that Yun Zi could adapt to this new culinary staple. Thankfully, he had taken to the new bread, perhaps better than any of our returnees ever had.  This means dietary changes in China won’t be a big deal for our boy.

Since he is traveling in winter, staff wanted to prepare Yun Zi for the big change in temperatures he will experience. Keepers had been fattening him up a bit, and he has little rolls of flesh that will serve as extra insulation against the cooler mountain air. He looked nice and robust.

Staff has also prepared videos to leave with Yun Zi’s new Chinese handlers that detail aspects of the training he has received. This will help his new keepers to better understand the commands he has been taught, and, hopefully, will enable them to continue to use his training to facilitate future husbandry and veterinary procedures. Our video contains shots of Yun Zi sitting quietly while having his blood drawn, for example; his training allows this procedure without the use of anesthetic. This is a highly desirable, low-stress way to get biomedical data from him, and we wanted to be sure his new handlers are aware of his capabilities.

Yun Zi isn’t traveling alone on this voyage. He is attended by his primary keeper, Jen, who has been with him from birth. She had been actively engaged in his training, both during and prior to his preparation for departure to China. Yun Zi knows and trusts her, and this will be a comfort to him on his journey. In addition, a veterinarian is accompanying our boy on his flight, should there be any medical concerns to address. We anticipate that will be unlikely.

On Wednesday, the keepers began preparing his food bundles for the trip, and I know they were selecting choice bamboo culm to keep him content on the flight. Jen will ensure he receives regular munchies throughout the trip and will regularly refresh his water and clean up his crate to keep him comfortable. All of the plans and preparations are in place.

All that’s left now is to wave goodbye. 

Farewell, Yun Zi. You were a fun and exciting part of our panda research program. Even from far away, you will always be a member of our San Diego Zoo giant panda family. Yi lu ping an.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

 

4

For the Love of Lemurs and Monkeys

Black and white ruffed lemur

Black and white ruffed lemur (photo by Rose Marie Randrianarison)

I recently returned to Madagascar after a five-year hiatus. Even though these days I am steeped in research and conservation work in Asia, I was thrilled when the opportunity arose for me to revisit the island. As a scientist, I am not embarrassed to profess my fondness for lemurs because there is nothing embarrassing about transforming one’s passion into action. And lemurs are the reason why I became a primatologist in the first place.

I still vividly remember my very first lemur encounter. It was with a group of sifakas. In the lush rain forest, enveloped in a shroud of mist and fog and breathless from hiking up what I thought was the steepest trail in the world, I was astounded by the sheer beauty of these animals. There I stood, quietly watching the sifakas move about from tree to tree, so elegant in their posture, like ballet dancers pirouetting across an emerald stage. By the end of my field season, despite all the rain and leeches, I was absolutely hooked on lemurs!

Fast-forward 20 some years: Madagascar still excites me in the same way and my fervor for lemurs has not waned. At Maromizaha, which I visited on this trip, I was enthralled by the myriad of creatures that call this forest home. On my first morning walk, 6 of the 13 species of lemurs greeted me. Maromizaha, like many rain forests along the island’s eastern strip, is a true naturalist’s paradise!

Brown lemurs

Brown lemurs (photo by Zafison Boto)

The most impressive lemur is the indri. Weighing about 17 pounds, it is the largest living lemur species in Madagascar. Indris are known for their operatic singing ability. Often in the morning, male and female indris can be heard singing duets to announce their presence in their territory. There is another lemur in the forest with a well-endowed voice, the black and white ruffed lemur, although its vocalization is more a cacophony than a melody! Lemurs are so interesting to me because of their biology, and through this exploratory trip I hope to learn more about the lemur community in Maromizaha.

North of Maromizaha is a famous national park called Mantadia. Just a little to the west is another well-known preserve called Andasibe (also known as Perinet). These three forest parcels at one time were connected and quite large—but today they appear as isolated specks on a map. Slash-and-burn agriculture, logging, and mining are the main contributing factors to these ever-shrinking forests. From one of the highest points in Maromizaha, I could see where this paradise ends. Beyond is a much different world—a barren landscape devoid of all vegetation and lemurs. How do we protect a paradise like Maromizaha?

Diademed sifaka (photo by Chia Tan)

Diademed sifaka (photo by Chia Tan)

The answer is conservation partnerships with a focus on scientific research, local capacity-building, rural development, and education. So when my colleague, Professor Cristina Giacoma from the University of Torino, Italy, learned about the successes of our camera trap research, in-country training, and education program for schoolchildren in Fanjingshan, China (see posts What Might Monkeys Be Up To?, Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My! and March of the Little Green Guards), she invited me and San Diego Zoo Global to partner with her Biodiversity Integration and Rural Development (BIRD) project in Maromizaha.

This approach to biodiversity conservation is not new but it has been proven effective. Our initial camera trap work in Maromizaha and a survey of Malagasy children’s preferences and knowledge of wildlife have produced very promising (not to mention some surprising!) results. Cristina and I will soon meet in China where our partnership continues, and she will witness firsthand the ongoing conservation and research projects we have with partners in Guizhou and Beijing. There, our labor of love will help conserve leaf-eating monkeys, such as the highly endangered Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys and François’ langurs.

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

 

 

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With a “Headstart,” Local Turtles Make a Comeback

Researchers carefully placed radio transmitters on five western pond turtles to keep track of them after release. (Photo by Ken Bohn)

Researchers carefully placed radio transmitters on five western pond turtles to keep track of them after release. (Photo by Ken Bohn)

Barely bigger than an English muffin, the dark-shelled turtle flails his webbed feet, and cranes his neck to peer at the people carefully applying epoxy to his shell. Usually a reclusive conservation celebrity, this pint-sized reptile is one of five turtles being released into a San Diego watershed to bolster wild populations of California’s only native freshwater turtle species. For western pond turtles (aka Pacific pond turtles) Emys marmorata the team of federal, state, and zoo scientists releasing the juvenile turtles into the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve is a much-needed effort to prevent their extinction.

Three years of collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife, San Diego Association of Governments, and the San Diego Zoo are invested into this pilot project to “headstart” pond turtle youngsters and remove nonnative species from their habitat. “We have raised these turtles at the Zoo to get them large enough to avoid predation after release,” explained Thomas Owens, San Diego Zoo senior keeper. “It’s been like reverse quarantine for them. They are isolated from animals in the collection and we make sure they are handled according to protocol to ensure we will not transmit any diseases to wild populations when we release them.” With a three- and four-year “headstart,” the juveniles are no longer bite-sized morsels for other animals.

Two days before the release, staff gathered at the Reptile House at the Zoo to test and attach the radio transmitters. Clean and dry (unusual for a turtle), each turtle was weighed before the three-gram “radio pack” was attached and then weighed after it was attached. The rule of thumb is that radio packs or GPS devices should not exceed five percent of the animal’s body weight. “Large species like elephants and crocodiles, among others, have been tracked using GPS devices,” said Thomas. “But with these small turtles, which only weigh about 300 grams, it’s necessary to use tiny battery-operated devices like these radio packs. These weigh one to two percent of the turtle’s body weight.” The battery will last about three months. The antenna is carefully glued to the turtle’s scutes to not interfere with its shell growth. After much measuring and trimming of the wire, it was carefully held in place until the epoxy hardened. The first four turtles stayed safely tucked inside their shells throughout the procedure, but the last one was more rambunctious and dared to look around, urinate, and squirm in the scientist’s grasp. “The turtles all have their own personality,” said Thomas. “Some are shy and some are more assertive.” That also explains the significant size difference between them: the oldest is not the biggest, but rather a more aggressive feeder. When they hatch, the pond turtles are about the size of a quarter, so they can be easily predated by a variety of other animals. Now, at three and four years old, these guys are past the appetizer size and appear robust and healthy; they won’t go down without a fight.

Release Day

Brandon Scott (L) and Thomas Owens, reptiles keepers at the San Diego Zoo proudly hold their headstarted turtles. (Photo by the author)

Brandon Scott (L) and Thomas Owens, reptiles keepers at the San Diego Zoo proudly hold their headstarted turtles. (Photo by the author)

We met up with Thomas and two other reptile keepers, Rachel and Brandon. The five pond turtles were secured in a box with a wet towel, ready for their journey to East County. After close to an hour’s drive, the road turned dusty and wound through rustic riparian forest dotted with car-sized boulders: we entered the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve. Staff from our partner organizations joined us at the gate to the reserve. Another short drive and a short hike landed us at a pool with all the things a pond turtle loves: logs and granite rocks for basking, fresh, cool water for swimming, cattails and willows for shade, and plenty of insects and invertebrates to eat. Placed gently on the water’s edge, each turtle swam swiftly into the murky pond to begin its life anew.

USGS Zoologist Denise Clark released a western pond turtle. (Photo by the author)

USGS Zoologist Denise Clark released a western pond turtle. (Photo by the author)

The released turtles will be checked on daily by USGS and Zoo staff will radio track them three times a week. “Once they have established their mircrohabitat, they won’t have to be monitored so frequently,” said Thomas. Shortly before the transmitter batteries run down, scientists will catch the turtles again, give them an exam, and attach a fresh radio pack. Nonnative predators like bullfrogs and sunfish have been removed from the area to improve the turtles’ survival. “It’s exciting to partner with organizations to help restore native species to local watersheds,” said Thomas. For the mysterious western pond turtles, the project is going swimmingly!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global.

4

Birds of the Past Reveal Genetic Secrets

Paquita examines samples of archived bird specimens.

Paquita examines samples of archived bird specimens.

The smell in the collections room immediately brings back very good memories. When I first visited the California Academy of Sciences in 2007, their collection was temporarily housed in a different facility. Now I am standing in a room of a spectacular modern building in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. The location may be different, but the smell hasn’t changed. Ten thousands of bird and mammal specimens from all over the world are stored here.

My mission is also almost the same. I am here for the Galápagos mockingbirds, the birds that have been the center of my scientific interest for many years now. Moe Flannery, the collections manager, guides us through the narrow hallway lined with massive cabinets. I am accompanied by my friend and colleague Tandora Grant. We need to find a very specific drawer, one that carries the tag ‘Mimus parvulus’ and contains the specimens of the two Galápagos mockingbird subspecies ‘wenmani’ and ‘hulli’. Moe successfully locates a few ‘Mimus parvulus’ drawers, but as we look through the nametags of the specimens inside, we read ‘personatus’, ‘barringtoni’, ‘bauri’… Not the right ones. I am still delighted by their sight; it feels a little bit like seeing old friends.

When I came here in 2007 as a Ph.D. student, I spent a few days with these birds, working on 349 of them. Some of them look different from each other. Millennia of living on isolated islands have shaped these birds into different species and subspecies – like the Darwin’s finches that have become a textbook example in evolutionary biology. But it was actually the mockingbirds’ distinct look on different islands that gave Charles Darwin his first vital clue for his theory of speciation under natural selection.

Tandora helps sleuth out  genetic mysteries of the birds of the Galapagos.

Tandora helps sleuth out genetic mysteries of the birds of the Galapagos.

The birds we are looking at, lined up side-by-side, belly-up and legs crossed, are all well over 100 years old. The nametag on their legs specifies their origin and species’ name. Because the taxonomic knowledge has changed since their collection, many actually carry two or three tags with updated information. We can’t see ‘hulli’ or ‘wenmani’ anywhere. “Every once in a while we get unlucky,” Moe says before she takes off to get a tall ladder on wheels that resembles a portable staircase. She climbs to the very top and pulls out the top drawer. Back down on safe ground she asks, “Is Culpepper what you’re looking for?” I feel immediately embarrassed—I’ve forgotten the islands’ old names! Like the birds, the islands were renamed several times over the last century. Tandora grabs her iPhone and Google’s Culpepper. Yes, it is Darwin Island, and birds from Wenman, now called Wolf Island, lie in the same drawer. We found what we came for!

Darwin and Wolf islands are the most remote of the Galápagos Islands, separated from the rest of the archipelago by a stretch of almost 100 miles of open ocean. For a somewhat flight-lazy bird, like the mockingbirds, such vast open water with no other islands in sight is probably quite an effective deterrent to emigration. That’s at least my hypothesis and the reason why these specimens, now neatly placed in front of us, are of so much interest to me.

Galapagos mockingbird species from 100 years ago awaiting sampling.

Galapagos mockingbird species from 100 years ago awaiting sampling.

I’ve studied these birds for many years now. I spent many months in the Galápagos and visited almost all islands to collect blood samples from the different mockingbird species and populations. A little drop of blood from a couple of dozen birds from each island was all I needed to let them tell me about their interisland traveling habits. The birds’ genetic information gave me insights into their population sizes and their relationship between different islands. The analysis of the historic specimens that I sampled at the Academy in 2007 added an interesting timely perspective; it revealed which island populations have changed the most over the last century.

I take out my sample collection material. These specimens from Darwin and Wolf escaped my scalpel blade last time. At the time, it was uncertain whether I would be able to obtain contemporary samples of their subspecies. Now their time has come. I pick up the first specimen and cut a tiny piece of tissue sample from one of the toe pads. One specimen down! The spot on the foot where the sample was taken is barely visible. Minimal damage to the specimen, but lots of new information to be gained.

The historic samples we’ve just collected are the first step in the discovery of the genetic secrets of these two remote populations. Together with collaborators, I am planning to climb onto Darwin and Wolf islands early next year to collect blood samples from living birds. The islands are infamous for their inaccessibility, but we’ll have an excellent team at hand. Let the adventure begin!

By Paquita Hoeck, Ph.D., San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.