Jenn Beening is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. See her previous post, DIY Succulent Centerpiece.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, now is a good time to learn about the birds and the bees. Although the wild kingdom doesn’t have the same romantic love approach to reproduction that humans claim, animals follow countless mating rituals that we might not even be aware of. Let’s look at a few.
With their fancy feathers, it’s no surprise that birds take home the prize for most exotic courting routines. It was the peacock’s train that apparently inspired Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and the evolution of esthetic beauty. Male peacocks embody one of the most impressive courting displays of the avian world, and females are rather picky about their mates. In fact, the peacock’s female-attraction power is directly related to the perfection of a male’s spectacular train, including its overall length, the number of iridescent “eyes” that are present, and even the symmetry of their pattern.
Male bowerbirds are avian artists and spend anywhere from one week to a few months building the perfect little retreat for prospective females. These creative engineers decorate their bachelor pads with available resources, like seeds, berries, leaves, and other discarded items they can find. Many have a preferred color scheme and look for items to accommodate. Some species even use their beak or a piece of bark to paint their pad with an extra splash of color to attract a mate!
Shiny feathers on a male hummingbird are thought to indicate good health, so these birds use their brilliant plumage to their advantage. Some species will form a lek, consisting of up to 100 males looking for a match. If a female shows interests in one of the tiny suitors, he then performs a flying dance to win her over.
A variety of horned mammals also exhibit unique performances during courtship. Male impalas, for instance, have a strange way of attracting females or warning off other males: they repeatedly stick their tongue out in a display known as tongue flashing.
Size matters when it comes to the horns on a male goat or sheep. Head-butting clashes become more violent during breeding season, and the winner typically breeds with all the females in a flock or herd. So while fighting over females is frowned upon in human relationships, it’s go big or go home with the bachelor group for these hoofed mammals.
The dominant male in hippo society has the right to mate with all of his herd’s females, but gaining supremacy is a dirty job. Male hippos use their fan-shaped tails to fling their dung to attract a female and remind the herd of his territory.
While humans are concerned about smelling nice when attracting a potential mate, having a strong stench is a good thing for ring-tailed lemurs. During mating season, males compete for females through stink fights that involve smearing scent from glands onto their tail and jerking and swinging the tail to waft the sharp odor toward their opponent.
Chivalry isn’t dead in elephant society. Adult males usually don’t live with the main herd, but during breeding season, albeit short term, these emotive pachyderms spend anywhere from one hour to a few days courting a mate.
In bonobo society, females take charge. Upon entering a new troop, females will breed with all the males and gain permanent membership only after giving birth. These highly intelligent primates have also been observed using sexual behaviors for social reasons other than reproduction, such as conflict resolution.
Do you have any animal mating rituals to add to our list? Share yours in the comments.
Jenn Beening is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 14 Notable Safari Park Births of 2014.
Sure, our species has achieved some pretty amazing things, but some animals can do things that we could never dream of doing. Behold 7 animal life-hacks that will make you extremely jealous.
Seeing in the dark
Many animals can see way better in the dark than we can, but owls take the cake. Owls have the best night vision of any animal and can see up to 100 times better at night than we can. Talk about a sweet life-hack.
Yep, you guessed it, elephants have us beat in the snorkeling department. They don’t need fancy, modern contraptions to breath underwater; all they need is their specially adapted nose. Fun fact: An elephant’s trunk has over 40,000 muscles in it and is nimble enough to pick up a leaf and strong enough to knock down a tree.
Watch out Superman, the rhinoceros beetle might have you beat. Rhinoceros beetles can lift over 800 times their body weight. That’s equivalent to a human lifting a 65-ton M1 Abrams tank. Whoa.
Running as fast as a car
It’s well-known that cheetahs can run up to 70 miles per hour, but did you know that they can go from 0 to 60 MPH in just 3 seconds? That would leave most cars in the dust. I want that.
Okay, well, not “forever,” but Galápagos tortoises live a loooooong time. It’s estimated by some scientists that Galápagos tortoises can live over 200 years. More than double our average lifespan? Yes, please.
While most people think chameleons change color for camouflage, they actually do so based on mood, health, temperature, and light conditions–but that would still be a pretty sweet life-hack. Imagine everyone knowing not to talk to you because you’re that one color you turn when you’re just not in the mood. Awesome.
This is one thing we’ll never forgive nature for not giving us the ability to do. Humans have looked to birds with envy since the dawn of time for their ability to leap into the sky and soar, and we probably always will. Sure, we have airplanes, but it’s just not the same. :/
Can you think of any other awesome animal life-hacks? Let us know in the comments.
Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post 7 Animal Myths You Probably Believed.
We slowly introduced the produce into their diet by scattering it around the yards at different times of the day to get them used to the idea. Then during our training sessions, we would pair the produce with our alfalfa pellets to see if they would accept it. Sometimes, we would give some cucumber followed by a handful of pellets. Other times, we would put pellets in lettuce and wrap them like a burrito. Musi would eat it while Umngani would eat the pellets inside and let the lettuce drop out of her mouth.
With the younger elephants, we never know what response we are going to get! Luti would take lettuce and then drop it. Ingadze would take it and give it back to us, while Qinisa would just throw hers back at us. The elephants have their preferences too. They like cucumber the best, followed by lettuce and then celery. Emanti doesn’t take lettuce leaves, but he will take a whole head of lettuce and eat it.
Now the whole herd enjoys produce, whether it is scattered in the yard or used in training sessions. On a hot day, cool vegetables are always popular. We keepers always enjoy making things more enriching for them. Giving animals opportunities includes both meeting their nutritional needs and giving them choices. We learn something new about our elephants every day.
Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Training Elephant Qinisa.
I received a call at home from Weston at 3:17 in the morning on Tuesday, August 28; he said he thought Swazi’s behavior was becoming more active. I told him to call me back if labor progressed, because we both thought that a birth might be a few hours away. I wondered (and really wished) if I could get another hour of sleep before I started making phone calls. I contemplated my next move. Lying in bed with my eyes closed while holding onto my cell phone, I received a text at 3:32 a.m. that read “I’d say we are under way.” While getting dressed in the dark, I managed to send out two texts to inform others of Swazi’s sudden change of behavior when, 14 minutes later, Weston texted me “baby is out.” Just like Swazi’s last calf, once she shows she’s in real labor, it’s over quickly!
Two incoming volunteer night watchers missed the birth by five minutes, but two others got to see the whole thing. By the time I rolled in, everything was pretty calm: Swazi and the newborn in our lower holding yard, son Macembe socializing through the cables with Umngani’s clan and Kami and Emanti out in the main yard. Weston said the calf got up within 15 minutes of birth, and Swazi was moving the calf around with her feet quite a bit. (Elephant moms scuff their feet along their newborn’s body to remove the amniotic sac and to get the calf to start breathing. It looks extremely aggressive, to say the least). Weston originally thought it was a boy, but the volunteers thought it was a girl. I didn’t commit either way until some daylight came out and I had personally observed a few urinations. Even when I was 95 percent sure it was a girl, I couldn’t come out and say it right away, because six boys in a row will do that to you! It will take staff many months before we quit saying “he” when referring to the newest calf.
Because it was important that she received the colostrum from Mom’s milk, I decided to separate Macembe into the lower yard and have Mom and new baby in the upper yard. Weston said that even though Swazi was shooing him away, Macembe still managed to sneak in a couple of quick nursings (Kami was the same way when her mother, Umoya, had Emanti). The upper yard is also more level, which would give baby a better chance at nursing.
Well, our new baby definitely isn’t Macembe-size, that’s for sure! As she attempted to nurse, it was obvious that she’d really have to stretch to reach long-legged Swazi’s nipples. We all started to wonder if she even could. Not seeing any success has a way of working on your anxieties. When we decided to try to weigh the baby just after 10 in the morning, we stopped Mom down the hallway, which allowed the calf to get into a great position to nurse. She found it! So, just over six hours after being born, the calf finally nursed (always one of two “huge-relief” milestones we like to see). Eventually, the calf nursed again, each successive nursing getting better and better, and now she’s good to go.
The next milestone was Mom passing her placenta. We could see that Swazi was still having contractions, and she looked great physically and behaviorally, so it became a waiting game with much worrying on our part. According to our data collections on 12 births, the placenta passed by the ninth hour or it didn’t. Swazi passed her placenta at 6:48 p.m. So doing the math, that’s over 16 hours. Who cares? It’s out! It looked completely intact, so we shoveled it into a plastic-lined trash can, double-bagged it, and put it in one of our extra refrigerators. Now it’s in the hands of our pathologists, who just love dissecting and studying these things.
Now it’s back to new-baby-normal for all of us. Macembe is back with Mom as well. He sure got the message this time around: as far as milk is concerned, it’s over! He vocalized his displeasure at Momma’s disciplining ways, and for now, keeps his distance. If all continues to go well, Swazi’s clan will meet the other moms and calves today. We’ll have Msholo join the gang on Sunday.
So keep your fingers crossed that all continues to go well, and hey, it’s a GIRL!!!!!
Curtis Lehman is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Elephant Vus’Musi.
The average gestation period for African elephants is 649 days or 22 months. A newborn calf averages 200 to 268 pounds. Our newest calf weighs 205 pounds. She is mother Swazi’s second offspring. Her first born, 2 1/2-year-old Macembe, was present at the time of his sister’s birth. Later that morning, “Mac” was separated from Swazi and his newborn sister to give mother and daughter a chance to bond and nurse. Mac stood close watch in an adjacent yard with two other young elephants to keep him company. All of the youngsters were very curious about the new addition. They gently reached their trunks out to touch and smell the calf.
Swazi and her calf will continue to bond in a separate yard from the rest of the herd while the newborn gets steady on her feet and learns to follow her mother closely. Mom is positioning herself as a good mom would to allow calf to nurse, and the youngster is now nursing!
The Safari Park is now home to 13 elephants: 4 adults and 9 youngsters. The adults were rescued in 2003 from the Kingdom of Swaziland, where they faced being culled. A lack of space and long periods of drought created unsuitable habitat for a large elephant population in the small southern African country. Swaziland’s Big Game Parks officials felt they had two options: kill this group of elephants or export them to a zoo willing to care for the pachyderms.
At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, elephant studies are underway on nutrition, daily walking distance, growth and development and bioacoustic communication. In Africa, a San Diego Zoo Global scientist is studying human-elephant conflicts as well as habitat range and use. In 2004, the nonprofit organization committed to contributing $30,000 yearly to Swaziland’s Big Game Parks though 2014 to fund programs like anti-poaching patrols, improved infrastructure and the purchase of additional acreage for the Big Game Parks. In addition, San Diego Zoo Global supports other elephant conservation through donations to the International Elephant Foundation, an organization that funds elephant conservation projects around the world.
The family can be seen daily at the Safari Park’s elephant habitat or via Elephant Cam or Safari Park iPhone app.
The Safari Park’s African elephant herd continues to thrive, and we are all eagerly awaiting the arrival of Swazi’s second calf, which is due late July or early August. Look for physical changes in our matriarch as she prepares to welcome her baby. Will son Macembe (Mac) be a good big brother? Time will tell, of course, but so far Mac is one super cool, laid-back kid. Like his mom, Mac has long legs and is a quick-learning and confident two year old.
You’d think that Umngani, mother of three, would have her trunk full taking care of her brood. Yet she has been spending her time lately enticing Msholo, our lone bull, to come hither! He, of course, is happy to play along, and there may be breeding between the two soon. Luckily for Umngani and her raging hormones, daughter Khosi, who is almost six years old, is more than willing to babysit younger brothers Ingadze and Neepo, freeing her mom to flirt with the handsome Msholo. Ingadze is now three years old and has been the kindest big brother to little brother Inhlonipho. Keepers describe Neepo as a wild, high-energy boy who will have his first birthday in September. Neepo loves to sound his little trumpet and chase the keepers along the exhibit’s fenceline. He has recently taken up a new talent: hopping!
Msholo has integrated very well with the herd. He is gentle with the little ones and attentive to the ladies. Even Ndula will occasionally interact with him, and she never interacted with Mabu (except during estrus and would then make him work!) Perhaps it’s because her oldest son, Vus’musi, has become best buddies with Msholo. The two play wrestle often, especially in the pool. Although he is much larger than Musi, now 8 years old, Msholo gets on the younger elephant’s level to help make the wrestling matches more even. What a guy! Ndula’s other son, Luti, is 2½ years old and has replaced his big brother as a momma’s boy. Keepers say Luti is shy and cautious about learning new things, although when he gets real excited, he hops on his rear legs, too!
Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Elephants Emanti and Kami.
With the passing of elephant Connie at the San Diego Zoo, we know that many of our guests are concerned about her companion, Shaba (see post Elephant ICU Loses a Member). I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the things we’ve observed from her that give us hope that she will adjust to life without her long-time companion and thrive in her new herd.
After their quarantine period ended, Connie and Shaba were given opportunities to explore some of the yards and come out into the Elephant Care Center stalls for their daily treatments. Shaba took to these new areas with eagerness. She has been curious about each new place, exploring every area that could possibly have a treat hiding in it (and usually there is something good to find). She has also been very outgoing when it comes to meeting new elephants. She is the first to want to approach the fence and interact with them. She is gentle when she reaches through to smell and touch the others, and not frightened or put off when they are a little less gentle with her. From the beginning, we have seen signs that she will integrate beautifully into our herd.
Yesterday, the keepers and veterinary staff had the difficult but necessary task of relieving Connie of her pain and discomfort by euthanasia. It was emotional for everyone involved. Foremost in our minds was the uncertainty of how Shaba would react when we would bring her in to say goodbye. We know from various studies that elephants have some understanding of death, so when an elephant passes in our care, we give their herd mates a chance to see and touch the body. After we knew that Connie was gone, we cleared the area and stood silently as Shaba was lead into the special-needs facility. At first she was focused on all of the people, but after a moment she saw her friend. It was a solemn and precious experience to be in that room. Shaba approached Connie with some hesitation. She reached out and touched her trunk. She backed away for a moment and vocalized, but kept her eyes on Connie, came back, and touched her again. There was a keeper nearby with treats and an open door to the yard so Shaba could decide how long to stay and when to go. She walked over to her keeper for a treat and then back to Connie a couple of times before deciding to leave the area. In total the interaction lasted only a short time, but we believe it was a significant step in helping her to deal with her loss.
For the rest of the day Shaba was outside being introduced to Mary, our dominant female Asian elephant. They had a very good interaction. They touched and smelled each other through the fence on and off throughout the afternoon. Mary asserted her dominance from time to time, and Shaba behaved exactly the way a more submissive elephant should. We are confident that when the time comes to put them together in a yard, the process will go smoothly. Shaba spent the night in our biggest yard for the first time last night. It was also her first night without Connie, so we had a keeper here to observe her. She did very well. She spent a good amount of time near Mary at the fence and the rest of the time either sleeping or exploring. She has a very secure and independent personality.
We will continue to watch Shaba closely to make sure that she is coping with this difficult change as well as possible. We are grateful that Shaba had Connie with her to help her with the adjustment to her new home and that we had the wonderful opportunity to know Connie and to work with her. She will be missed not only by Shaba but by all of the staff and our guests who love and care for each of the animals here at Elephant Odyssey.
Nora Kigin is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Connie and Shaba Out and About.
We met Connie, a 45-year-old female Asian elephant from Reid Park Zoo, in February 2012 when she arrived at the San Diego Zoo destined for integration into our middle-aged and geriatric elephant herd. We received her medical records six months prior to her transfer and, in discussion with Reid Park Zoo veterinarians, began preparations for her ongoing health care at the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey (EO). Monitoring her urine on a regular basis was on our agenda as we noted several bouts of urinary tract infections (UTI) over the past few years, a condition not uncommon in middle-aged to geriatric females, animal or human.
Connie seemed to adjust well to her keepers and life at our Elephant Care Center during her quarantine. She learned the touch and smell of the veterinary team. She gently put her trunk up to the mesh at breath level, curious to know who was visiting. Excited to build a good relationship with her, I’d place a few food pellets or produce in her trunk and meet her eyes, hoping she would know that all the things I would do or ask her to do were an effort to keep her healthy in her golden years. As time passed, and with the heightened observation period of quarantine, keepers did notice some of the same things as her Reid Park Zoo keepers that signaled concern for recurrent UTI: urine dribbling and discharge along with changes in attitude and food and water intake. I requested a sample of urine. How to get that, you might wonder? The keepers have a collection cup resting inside a loop of zip-tie on a telescoping pool-cleaning pole that they sneak under the elephant for a mid-stream catch. The samples supported evidence of infection from either the urinary or reproductive system. We treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics, and Connie seemed to feel much better over the next 10 days.
As other blogs mentioned, Connie and Shaba moved on to the next stage of EO life: meeting new elephants and exploring new places. Our veterinary minds did not move on quite as quickly; we want to know why medical events occur and place great emphasis on preventing problems. We began discussion for additional procedures and diagnostics to evaluate Connie and initiated regular urine monitoring.
Unfortunately, just two months later, Connie had a marked decrease in appetite and output. Whenever Connie chose not to eat medicine cleverly disguised in all sorts of food items and then chose not to eat or drink much of anything, we moved quickly to investigate.
Our special-needs facility (SNF) was designed to ease diagnostic evaluation and intensive care for our middle-aged to geriatric elephants. How? What is so special there? The elephant restraint device (ERD) has big, wide straps that we can wrap from the axillary (armpits) and inguinal (groin) regions up to steel beams on a hydraulic system that will support the weight of a leaning, weak, or sedated elephant. In addition, the ERD articulates to allow a mesh wall with windows and doors to come close to different parts of the body, giving RVTs (veterinary technicians, aka nurses) and veterinarians a chance to safely examine and access body parts, collect blood samples, place intravenous catheters, administer medications, and provide overall intensive care for a sick elephant.
Test results returned, and we were quite disappointed to learn that Connie was severely leukopenic [leuko=white blood cells; penic=decreased], suggesting that the immune system was fighting disease somewhere in the body. We instituted several antibiotics and transformed the SNF into an ICU unit and initiated more intensive treatment for Connie. After intramuscular injections of medications did not ‘fix’ her abnormal blood results or her overall attitude and appetite, we chose to sedate Connie for placement of IV catheters (back of the ear and inside of the back leg), administration of fluids (120L = 30 gallons for a 3,000 kg patient), and administration of medications both intravenously and into the colon (absorption occurs here as well). Connie was not keeping herself hydrated with her water intake (or electrolytes or nectar or other undercover tactics) nor was she taking in enough food for long-term sustenance, not to mention her lack of interest in taking any foods ‘doctored’ sneakily with medications.
We invited a reproductive and overall elephant specialist to join us in evaluation of her bladder, kidneys, and uterus to uncover any cause for the previously seen thick urinary discharge and/or the work of the immune system to combat her disease process. Unfortunately, we identified another serious problem atop the other ones—a lot of fluid floating in her abdomen. Fluid like this can cause problems with breathing and a full feeling in the belly and can come from some challenging diseases (heart or liver disease, cancer, vasculitis, ulcers), no matter what age or creature. None of the possible explanations suggested a good prognosis for Connie’s health. This examination did not reveal the root cause of her illness, but it confirmed that without intensively supporting her system, she would not survive.
Since her arrival in San Diego, veterinarians, technicians, keepers, and managers have worked extensively with Connie to manage her health concerns. We saw improvements, but this time the response was not the same. Over the last couple of weeks, her condition continued to deteriorate and severely affect her quality of life. She was drinking about 1.5 gallons of water when she needs 75 gallons daily to live. Connie’s immune and organ systems simply were not keeping up with her disease. This morning, we made the heartbreaking decision to euthanize her when it became apparent that Connie would be unable to sustain herself. We know many of you will share in our loss as we say goodbye to Connie and hope that you know she will be greatly missed.
Tracy L. Clippinger is a senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo.
Cameroon is a relatively densely populated Central Africa country, and much of its original forest has long since been converted into farmland—vast commercial plantations of bananas, rubber, palm oil, or logging concessions. I first came to work in Cameroon in 2002, after spending two years in a remote coastal rain forest in Gabon, miles away from any human settlement. Here I encountered large, wild animals on a daily basis, and often in very close proximity (I even had to construct a rope fence around my tent to deter inquisitive forest elephants). But Cameroon is a different kettle of fish, with far more pressure on the land, and I soon realized that even finding a good field site to study my target species was going to be a challenge.
I spent weeks, and then months, scouring Cameroon forests for indications of drills–-large, elusive primates with colorful faces and large social groups. But more often than not, I just encountered more signs of human presence. The “empty-forest syndrome” was very disheartening. Many species were locally extinct, and the forest itself cannot survive without animals dispersing the seeds of hundreds of plant species. The entire rain forest system is a complex web of interdependencies that we humans are only slowly beginning to understand.
But then, while spending two weeks in a relatively unknown area called the Ebo forest with a local hunter, Jonas, I found what I had been looking for. After a night disturbed by several thunderstorms and flooded tents, we were awakened by the distinct sound of hollow, low-frequency beating noises on the other side of the river valley. The previous days had been spent finding indisputable evidence of drills in the area (footprints, turned logs, and smashed crabs), and we had heard chimpanzees distinctly on several occasions. I knew that this beating noise indicated the presence of something even more special-–gorillas.
After an hour scrambling up the other side of the valley, we eventually came across the gorillas. We spent an hour quietly watching a group of 11 individuals, until the large male silverback noticed our presence and made it patently clear that he wanted his family to be left alone by charging us noisily. We moved away slowly and left them to continue eating. But I had hit the field-site jackpot!
This two-week exploration led to the establishment of our two research stations in the forest, permanently manned by trained local ex-hunters, including Jonas, who now revel in the pride that comes with knowing that their forest is exceptional not only within Cameroon but within Africa.
Now well established, the Ebo Forest Research Project is garnering interest from a broad range of scientists. Ebo is home to an amazing scope of creatures like Goliath frogs, the largest in the world, dwarf crocodiles, chameleons, the incredible rockfowl, which build clay nests against rocky overhangs, crowned eagles and hornbills, forest elephants (we are currently conducting our fourth annual forest-wide elephant survey), a myriad of monkey species, and the two great ape species, gorillas and chimpanzees. The Ebo gorillas are unique in being a “halfway house” between two different gorilla subspecies, while the Ebo chimpanzees are among the healthiest populations of these species remaining anywhere.
My role has slowly changed over the years from physically leading all the forest research work to training, supporting, and assisting our wonderful national staff to do this work, including maintaining a higher-education program. This “capacity building” of national staff is the only sustainable, long-term approach to conservation. Our program goals are to encourage local people to conduct research, as well as to work with the local communities, traditional authorities, and government to develop the Ebo National Park.
I still relish spending time in the forest, and I am still struck by the wonder of such a complex environment that we humans can barely understand. From the flowering of a tree species new to science (and of unknown benefit to humankind) to an army ant attack on our tents (terrifying but awesome!) to watching a gorilla family peacefully enjoying a morning snack, I think that conserving places like the Ebo forest should be a priority for all of us. We have much to learn from these few remaining wilderness places and their inhabitants.
Bethan Morgan is head of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Central Africa Program. Read her previous post, Elephant Survey: Frogs and Primates.