Uncategorized

Conservation

200

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.

 

 

1

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.

5

It’s (Almost) Black Tuesday for Bees

The damaging effects commercially managed bees experience from pesticides are also suffered by native bees.

The damaging effects commercially managed bees experience from pesticides are also suffered by native bees.

Yes, I mean the catastrophic crash of the stock market in 1929 and the economic Great Depression that followed. As I listened to today’s stock market gains and losses on PBS’s “Marketplace,” I was struck by how closely our society follows this information. We pay attention because it affects our lives directly. The situation with pollinator decline is no less critical yet is barely on the radar of most. Since we have not hit bottom yet, it seems like a problem for another day—and there is no index to tell us how close we are.

Still, the warning bells are ringing. Pollinators like bees, butterflies, beetles, and flies are in crisis worldwide, suffering from pesticide exposure, habitat loss, and disease. Pollinators make fertilization possible for many plants; without them, food as we know it would simply not exist: no fruits, veggies, peanut butter, or chocolate—and that’s just a start.

If this suddenly sounds like the same old story you hear about humans and nature, stay with me a little longer. It’s more than another wildlife-in-crisis story, and I can guarantee that it will affect you personally—and definitely financially—if we keep the current course.

So, in the spirit of “Marketplace,” let’s do the numbers!

Visit the San Diego Zoo’s Pollinator Garden.

30% of the food we eat results from insect pollination.
This includes everything from cucumbers to squash, coffee to basil, strawberries to cantaloupes, cashews, and everything in between. It doesn’t include the insect-pollinated foods like alfalfa and clover that we feed to our livestock (where we get milk, eggs, and meat), so the percentage is likely much higher.

There is a 59% decline in overwintering monarch butterflies in the Central Mexican butterfly preserves since 2012.
75% of the Earth’s flowering plants depend on insect pollination to set seed or produce fruit.
The value of insect-pollinated crops in the US is $27 billion.

US beekeepers experienced a 30% decline of managed honeybee colony winter losses in the 2012-2013 year.
This number is far greater than the acceptable range of losses and only represents winter loss, not total loss. There are only about 2.5 million commercial honeybee colonies in the US. For perspective, it takes 1.6 million colonies to pollinate the annual almond crop alone.

THREATS TO POLLINATORS
Pesticides
All insects are affected by contact with insecticides. In particular, a newer class of systemic insecticides called neonicotinoids has been shown to severely affect bee health. In agriculture, this type of insecticide is most often applied as a seed coating, and the insect nerve poison is subsequently expressed in every tissue as the plant grows; leaf, stem, pollen, and nectar.

As a result, though the insecticide is targeted at “pest” insects, there can be serious consequences for any insect that visits the plant for nectar or pollen. Some need only be present when the planting occurs, as some of the chemical seed coating is released in a crop “dust” in agricultural plantings. The effects of these pesticide exposures include immediate death by contact, but some are sub-lethal, meaning that the animal does not die right away but experiences disorientation, loss of navigational ability, paralysis, and even memory loss as the result of contact.

Though there are federal regulations governing the concentrations of these poisons in agriculture, there are none for home use. Many products containing this type of insecticide can be found in local home improvement stores for landscaping use. Consumers often do not follow the instructions for application, and the concentrations can be many times higher than federal regulations allow. This means more of the poison will find its way to bees and other insect pollinators through gardens and runoff from irrigation.

It is important to note that the majority of research on pesticide effects in pollinators has been conducted in honeybees, because they are managed commercially and are thus more accessible and measurable. Since their biology is very similar to that of native bees, it is safe to assume that the damaging effects they experience from pesticides (and other sources) are also suffered by native bees.

Habitat loss
As human populations grow, less space remains for native pollinators. Overgrown spaces with wildflowers, weeds, and nesting sites are disappearing, making way for manicured lawns that eliminate key nectar and pollen sources like dandelions and encourage pesticide use. Agricultural practices claim land that was once suitable pollinator habitat with a diversity of nectar and pollen sources and replace it with insecticide and herbicide-laden monocultures.

Genetically modified (GM) crops
Two types of GM crops are routinely used in agriculture. One is an insect-resistant type, where a bacterium that is lethal to certain insects is incorporated into the genome of the plant, and the target insect species are killed upon feeding on the plant.

The second is an herbicide-resistant variety and is definitely of concern for pollinators, especially butterflies and bees. In herbicide-resistant GM crops, the plants are engineered to be resistant to applications of certain herbicides. As a result, the crop can withstand repeated applications of herbicide, which in turn kills all the flowering weeds surrounding the planted area.

This is of particular concern for monarch butterflies, whose larval host plant is milkweed, which thrives in disturbed habitats and has historically been found adjacent to crops. Most people are familiar with the epic migration of the monarch butterfly to the oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico. This year, the count of overwintering monarchs in the protected reserves revealed a catastrophic drop—down an incredible 59 percent from that of 2012 and standing at an all-time historical low since the migration was discovered in the 1970s. Lack of available host plants due to GM-related herbicide application has been identified as a significant contributor to this staggering decline.

Diseases
There are a great many parasites and pathogens that burden pollinators such as bees, and the ones causing the most damage are introduced species. Native bumblebees suffer from a nonnative fungal disease, while honeybees struggle with introduced ectoparasites such as Varroa mites and fungal infestations from Nosema spores.

A combination of all these and probably other factors has created the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder, which is decimating honeybee colonies in the US. The precise cause is unknown, because the bees simply disappear, thus taking the evidence with them. But one thing is clear—life is hard for commercial honeybees these days.

Pollinator gard_1

A native bee house for mason and leafcutter bees in the Pollinator Garden provides holes to make nests.

WE ARE HERE FOR THEM
At the San Diego Zoo, we are committed to helping pollinators recover:

Providing a safe haven
We have a pollinator “way station” at the Pollinator Garden, located at the entrance to Elephant Odyssey. This space is dedicated to helping sustain pollinators by providing a steady supply of pesticide-free nectar and host plants, as well as suitable living spaces for native bees. We have a large section of milkweed available for monarch butterflies to lay eggs on from spring through fall, helping to boost the West Coast population.

Educating our guests
Our Education Department is working with Zoo Corps kids to help raise native milkweed for monarch butterflies in our Pollinator Garden. Staff have also incorporated the garden as a teaching tool for various curricula.

Live and let live
Where possible on Zoo grounds, we allow honeybee swarms to move on in their own time and only actively remove established hives when either human or collection animal health is clearly at risk.
National Pollinator Week awareness
The Entomology Department participates every year in National Pollinator Week, with the help of many departments. During the entire week, the insect keepers are giving daily presentations on bees and other pollinators at the honeybee display in the Insect House at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 pm.

HOW ABOUT YOU?
A steady wave of small choices can help turn the tide. Here are a few ways you can help:

Buy organic
If you don’t currently buy any organic foods or clothing, think about picking even one item the next time you visit the store. For one, you could potentially lower the demand for crops produced using pesticides and reduce the overall application (over one MILLION pounds yearly) of these chemicals in the US. This alone will help pollinators.

Secondly, even if you don’t care about whether or not you eat GM crops, buying crops that are genetically modified supports the practice of widespread herbicide application in agriculture and the decimation of pollinator habitat that results. Organic items cannot intentionally include GM crops; those labeled “No GMO” have been positively determined not to contain them. One item in your basket is a small step in the right direction for pollinators.

Build your own way station
Plant some milkweed! Create a habitat in your yard, garden, or flowerbox that invites pollinators. Some great planting information can be found at www.xerces.org, along with more details on the status of pollinators and insect conservation in general.

Avoid pesticide use at home
If you really, truly must use pesticides, read the manufacturer’s instructions on recommended concentration, and only use it at or below that level.

Let part of your lawn go wild for pollinators
Long, overgrown grasses create a perfect habitat for nesting and overwintering native bees, and flowering weeds are a staple nectar and pollen source for bees and butterflies alike. Keep in mind that most native bees are solitary and do not sting readily. They are good, safe neighbors—especially if you have a garden.

Tell your friends
Most people have no idea that the sustainability of food as we know it is so tightly linked with the health of pollinators. Share what you know!

UNDERWRITE THE FUTURE FOR POLLINATORS
This week, June 17 through 23, is National Pollinator Week. It is the perfect time to visit the Zoo’s Pollinator Garden and spend some time watching monarch butterflies laying eggs, and bees and hummingbirds finding a nectar or pollen meal in a beautiful flower.

But it is an even better time to act. If we can all make one small change in our habits this week, we could make a big difference for pollinators. To bring it back to our financial analogy, it has been said that if more people knew the current status of pollinator decline, they would be more concerned with that than with the ups and downs of the NASDAQ or S&P 500.

So now you know the stakes—and you are definitely a stakeholder. Will you invest in the solution?

Paige Howorth is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, The Queen Will Not Be Denied!

165

Panda Cam Brings Healing

Our animal cams aren’t just for fleeting entertainment. As a wildlife conservation organization, our mission is to connect people to wildlife and conservation, and our live cams are incredibly powerful tools that allow us to connect people to wildlife worldwide in real time. With the birth of our sixth panda, Xiao Liwu, Panda Cam has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. We get comments from people all over the world about Panda Cam, but one in particular touched us, and we wanted to share it with you. Enjoy.

“My sister and I began watching these bears when our little gift was born. Then I took them to the hospital where I work and began sharing. For all of my patients and our nursing staff from Sutter Cancer Center in Northern CA, I say THANK YOU to all at SDZ. Your Panda cams and blogs have made a difference in how our very ill patients cope and get through their medical processes.

I am an Integrated Therapist & Medical Aromatherapist. The first thing I do for a new patient who will be staying for awhile is show them how to log on to the Panda Cam. We have all watched our “little gift” be born and grow & now make his debut. He is a wonderful deterrent to pain, depression, loneliness and hopelessness. We all thank you so much for providing this wonderful gift for us and our patients. It speaks to the Quality of their Life as they go through treatments.

This is something that should be put in all hospital long-term care and critical-care units. In the love of this little fuzz ball, my patients need less medication for coping and sleeping. I have been known to turn off their computer as they fall asleep with Xiao Liwu sleeping quietly on the screen in their lap. [All hospitals] should consider using this in their critical care and long-term care facilities.

We all love you Bai Yun and our little healing bear, “little Wu.” Happy anniversary to Gao Gao! Forever fans, Robin Gayle & Dixie Lee.”

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global.

276

Starting the New Year Healthy: 20th Exam

Giant panda cub Xiao Liwu was a very busy boy during his weekly exam at the San Diego Zoo. When brought from his den, the rambunctious cub went straight to his toys, climbing headfirst into a doughnut-shaped plastic ring, playing with a ball, and frolicking in a tub while chewing bamboo. He quickly indicated, by running off and squirming from his keepers, that he wanted to play versus being weighed and measured.

The cub’s 20th exam showed the five-month-old panda is healthy and developing well. He is stronger, more agile, and continues to erupt baby teeth and is mouthing, chewing, and teething a bit. The young cub weighed in at 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms) and measured just over 30 inches (76.5 centimeters) in length from nose to tail tip.

 

 

“Xiao Liwu was very active, very strong, and very exploratory during his exam this morning,” said PK Robbins, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo. “He is moving about very quickly and exhibiting great confidence in his strength and climbing abilities. At this rate, I think we will see him venturing into more areas of the giant panda habitat very soon.”
Click on chart to enlarge.

Click on chart to enlarge.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global.
6

The World’s Rarest Cats: Growing Up

There is estimated to be about 30 Amur leopards left in the wild.

It’s been over three months since our trio of Amur leopard siblings debuted (watch the video) on Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. Personally it has been very rewarding to work with these cats, both because of their extreme rarity and because at this young age they are always very engaging!

With an estimated wild population of only 30 animals, the Amur leopard is literally on the razor’s edge of extinction. For comparison, our beloved and also endangered giant pandas have a wild population of approximately 1,500 individuals. The current plight of the Amur leopard makes our job of both breeding this species and raising awareness of its conservation that much more important. With hard work, it is hoped that the Amur leopard can follow in the footsteps of the California condor, a species who’s numbers were at one time equally as low but through dedicated work have now risen to become a conservation success story.

We have many reasons for hope for this species. Early this year, after urging from various conservation organizations, Russia established a new national park specifically for the purpose of protecting the Amur leopard. These rare cats have also recently been seen during camera-trap surveys in China, the first time they have been observed in China in recent history. If nothing else, viewing our youngsters’ escapades is sure to bring a smile to your face.

Zeya, the little girl, is the troublemaker of the bunch. She is most likely to start a playful tussle with one of her brothers, often using her patented “death from above” move. Primorye is the most affectionate of the group, often soliciting attention from the keepers. He’s also a bit of a goof ball and is the most likely to randomly fall off of something, with or without the help of one of his siblings. Koshka has a classical “cat attitude,” which some might consider grumpy or aloof, but he still has a playful side. During behind-the-scenes tours, he often hangs back until the antics of his siblings have the tour group totally engrossed. Then he springs forward, pounces, and hangs from the side of the exhibit for a while, just like a house cat on a screen door.

A lot of this play behavior is actually training for behaviors they would need to be successful living as adults in the wild. When the youngsters are play fighting, you may notice that they most commonly bite at each other’s necks. The neck is the most vulnerable spot on prey and a leopard’s preferred method of dispatching a future meal. You can also see them lugging around and stashing over-sized burlap bags stuffed full of hay. In the wild, a smart leopard goes to great lengths to conceal its kill, which often outweighs the leopard. Other predators such as the Amur tiger wouldn’t hesitate to steal away the meal the leopard worked so hard for.

These rambunctious felines are growing by leaps and bounds and are soon approaching the age that they would naturally disperse away from both their mother and siblings. I hope they will eventually be paired with mates to produce a next generation. Make sure to stop by and see these extraordinary cats while they are still in rare form.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Snow Leopards: Love at Second Sight?

1

Biodiversity at Cocha Cashu

Early morning on the lake at the Cocha Cashu Biological Field Station

As someone interested in nature, and as a scientist with San Diego Zoo Global, over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to see four of the world’s eight bear species in the wild. Often these sightings occurred in circumstances that left my heart pounding with wonder, although I admit that once or twice I’d have preferred to know beforehand that all would end well. How many bear species can you list, without referring to a reference? Similarly, how many primate species can you list? They may be big charismatic mammals, but both bears and primates are a tiny fraction of the biodiversity in our world. On a recent trip to the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in southeast Perú, I gained a much better appreciation for the biodiversity of the lowland Amazonian rainforest. You’ve probably heard that tropical rainforests have incredibly biodiversity, but it’s one thing to ‘know’ in your head that the rainforest features amazing biodiversity, and it’s something else to ‘know’ it from experience.

A white-fronted capuchin monkey at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station

Jessica Groendijk, education and outreach coordinator for the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, has written about how she and I began a morning at the field station. We saw giant river otters in the wild! Thus began a truly memorable day in the field. After returning to camp, I quizzed Jessica over breakfast on her interpretation of the otters’ behavior, and various aspects of their ecology. Patiently she explained what was known and not known about giant river otter behavior, ecology, and conservation. She politely refrained from reminding me that most of this information was included in the book on giant river otters she co-authored with her husband. I did read the book, honest! It’s just that I read it a few years ago, and I hadn’t yet had my first cup of coffee…

After fueling up, we grabbed our gear and left camp with Cesar Flores, director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, and Luis Ramirez and Samantha Young, both of San Diego Zoo Global’s Conservation Education division, to become more familiar with the habitat and animals surrounding the field station. I’ve spent much more time in the cloud forest, and the tropical dry forest, than in the lowland Amazon rainforest, so the Amazon is like a different world to me. In my humble opinion, it is truly wonderful, in the full sense of that word.

The forest canopy at Cocha Cashu Biological Station

By the end of this day at Cocha Cashu, Jessica and I had not only seen giant river otters (!) and numerous bird species, we’d also seen seven species of wild primates: white-fronted capuchin monkeys, brown capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, common squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys, saddleback tamarins, and emperor tamarins. My heart got a decent workout.

Cocha Cashu has long been known as a great place to conduct biological field research, to better understand how things work in the lowland Amazon rainforest. After seeing the improvements Cesar and his staff have made since I last visited the station, and talking to these folks about their vision and goals, I’m hopeful that Cocha Cashu will continue to be a source of knowledge, and that this knowledge will help guide efforts to conserve the lowland rainforest and its diverse components.

Thanks again, Jessica, for allowing me to share a wonderful morning on the lake at Cocha Cashu, and thanks to Cesar and all the other people in Perú and in the US who made our visit, and our involvement at Cocha Cashu, a possibility.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Are Wild Areas a Luxury?

4

Homecoming in Cocha Cashu

This is Theo (or Thea?), a young otter born last year in Cocha Cashu. The giant otter habit of periscoping allows us to document their unique throat patterns.

The howler monkeys wake me up before my alarm clock does. For a moment, I’m disorientated. Oh, right, I’m in Cocha Cashu in Peru. As I dress, I try to decide how I would describe the howlers’ epic serenade to my kids. Like a train roaring through a tunnel? A powerful wind rushing through the tree canopy? Awesome in the true sense of the word?

The day is just beginning when I meet Russ at the lake. We collect our gear and gingerly step into the wooden canoe. It sits low in the water. Any sudden movement risks an early bath. The trick is to smoothly fold yourself into a cross-legged position on the bottom. We eventually manage this (not so smoothly), and gently push ourselves off. The canoe, shaped like a hollowed-out needle, slides soundlessly from the shore. Sitting in the stern, I grip my crudely carved paddle and push against the water, accidentally knocking against the boat and causing Russ to clutch the sides. But soon I fall into a rhythm, five strokes to starboard, five to port, and the canoe stabilizes. We relax. The paling sky, the murmur of our passage, the darkly sleeping forest, it all seems so familiar. It is as though I’ve never been away.

A juvenile striated heron pretends to be invisible as we approach.

Almost immediately, we glide past a tree in which white-fronted capuchins are feeding. There is still not enough light for photography, so I take pleasure in simply watching. Russ does not speak, for which I am grateful. The beauty around us is enough. We slowly drift on. Howlers on one shore of the lake begin their unearthly concert, and a group on the opposite shore answers. The forest is quickening. Far off, I hear the soulful hiccupping of crying babies; correction, dusky titi monkeys. A hoatzin shuffles in overhanging branches, rasping softly. Sunlight now gilds the trees, and their leaves turn a luminous green. A striated heron stands frozen at the edge of a patch of floating grass. I touch the water with my paddle, and the canoe whispers forward. Russ and I take photos of the heron until, losing heart, it flies off.

Then I hear them. I hold my breath. Yes, there it is again. Unmistakable. Now I’m tense with anticipation. I know what to look for and scan the water’s surface ahead. It reflects the tree line perfectly, such is its stillness. But at the grass edge to the left I see it distort and shimmer. Then I hear a sharp exhalation, and a wave bulges toward us. They’re chasing fish. Russ and I see the small head simultaneously. Two. No, three giant otters! I reach for my camera and wait. Sure enough, they soon spot us and head directly toward us. As they come closer, they begin to zigzag, studying us from all angles. One exhales explosively and ducks under. Another propels its upper quarters straight out of the water—periscopes—and I quickly take a photo of its throat pattern. To my delight, I recognize this male. I knew him as a demanding cub in 2002, in nearby Cocha Salvador, Manu National Park’s best-known oxbow lake. I named him Diablito—Little Devil. Now, a decade later, we meet again.

The third otter also snorts loudly and periscopes. This individual was born in Cocha Cashu in 2009 and is Diablito’s daughter or son. Soon I have the throat patterns of all three. Gently, quietly, I paddle backward, letting the otters know that we mean no harm. The important business of hunting soon distracts them, and they continue foraging along the grassy shore.
I take a deep breath. I love seeing giant otters, the subject of seven years of conservation work, but actually recognizing an individual from my former life is thrilling. And I’m happy that the lake still harbors a resident giant otter group as it has done for as long as research has been carried out at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station.

As we make our way back to the station, a pair of macaws flies overhead and a cormorant croaks rudely. My paddle dips into a large clump of fat, squirming tadpoles. They fan out, bobbling the water surface. The lake is humming with life, including biting beasties. I’ve been so caught up with the otters that only now do I feel the burning itch of several bites on my arms and neck. But it’s not worth stopping for repellent—our breakfast is calling us.
The canoe nudges the station’s jetty, and Russ pulls us along it. He climbs out, stretches, and turns to face me. “That was wonderful. Thank you,” he says. Pleased, I beam at him. As he walks off for his coffee, I take a last, long look across the lake and sigh contentedly. I’ve come home.

Jessica Groenendijk is an education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru.