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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.

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?