In light of the new babies born at the San Diego Zoo, we thought we would share how the unique adaptations inherited by these young Zoo representatives can inspire new inventions. This process of taking inspiration from nature’s forms and functions is called “bioinspiration” or biomimicry.
The first 2011 baby born (hatched!) at the Zoo was a tiny satanic leaf-tailed gecko. Along with the morpho butterfly and the lotus leaf, geckos are ranked among the icons of biomimicry. For years people couldn’t figure out how geckos stuck to surfaces: they don’t create a vacuum with suction cups like some frog species, and they don’t leave a sticky residue like snails. It was finally figured out that geckos have millions of tiny hairs on their footpads; these hairs then split into millions of tinier hairs. It’s these teeny tiny hairs that form a weak interaction, called van der Waals forces, with the surface. These weak interactions add up to a super-strong adhesive force that allows the gecko to stick to almost any surface. Working together, scientists and engineers have created a robot that is able to climb walls using a synthetic gecko foot pad.
Another new member of the Zoo family includes a baby takin named Wushi. Takins, like the okapi, seem to be a mix of a bunch of different animals: horns like a wildebeest, a nose like a moose, and a body like a bison. Of course, all these “borrowed” body parts are all part of the takin’s evolutionary history. Takins can offer many clues as to how to protect from the cold. They have not just a primary but also a secondary coat that keeps them nice and insulated. That moose-like nose contains large sinus cavities that warm up the cool air before it passes to the lungs. They also secrete an oily substance from their skin that prevents water from being absorbed, keeping takins warm and dry in their snowy mountain habitat. With all of these inspiring adaptations, perhaps Wushi will be the face of the next big heating and insulation company!
Our most recent big (and I mean big) baby is the child of river hippos Otis and Funani. He has inherited the capability to secrete what is known as “blood sweat.” Hippo blood sweat, despite being secreted from the skin and having a rosy pigmentation, is actually neither blood nor sweat. This “mucous” substance is capable of absorbing ultraviolet light to act as a natural sunscreen. It also serves to keep the hippo moist and infection-free, even in dirty river water. This unique adaptation could provide clues to improving sun protection and antibiotics.
Zoos provide a wonderful setting for practicing bioinspiration. Plants and animals from all over the world are represented within zoo gates, with new members being added constantly! Next time you’re at the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park, pay a visit to our babies and think, “What can I learn from you?”
Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Biomimicry History: 19th Century Spain. Be sure to visit the Biomimicry section of our Web site for more information about this exciting field of study.
After a rocky first start to their relationship (see Hippos: Big Love), river hippos Funani and Otis are now proud parents! On January 26, 2011, at about 11:30 a.m., Fu gave birth to a bouncing, baby…hippo. Hippos are a notoriously bellicose species, especially mothers with calves. Fu is no exception; therefore, we have been unable (as of yet) to definitively sex the little one. San Diego Zoo veterinarians have gotten a good visual and determined that our newest addition is healthy and doing well. This comes as no surprise, since this is Funani’s fourth offspring. It is, however, her first calf with Otis. The genetic pairing is a boon to the zoological population.
While motherhood is old hat for Funani, this is my first opportunity to work with a hippo calf and a chance for the two of us to learn a lot together. After just a few days, the little one has already learned tons. Unlike other neonates, hippo calves need to learn how to walk AND swim. In fact, this youngster was born in the shallow water of our river hippo exhibit, in front of a very excited audience of guests and employees, and immediately swam around to mother’s loving face. Soon, mother Fu was nudging the little one up onto the beach to take its first wobbly steps.
Nursing is another tricky task. They can, of course, nurse on land like other youngsters of the African wilderness, but they can also nurse underwater. Hippo calves can’t hold their breath for very long, though, and must come up for air pretty often.
The calf has learned to strictly obey mother’s rules and warnings. This is crucial for survival in the wild. When something strikes Mom as suspicious or dangerous, she communicates with the young one using short, but stern, grunts. You can bet there is also a great deal of infrasonic (ultra low-frequency) communication as well. The Zoo’s okapis (which also communicate through infrasound) have been paying a lot more attention to their neighbors these days. One could surmise the new voice of the calf is what has got them rapt.
Most recently, mother and calf have started venturing into the hippo barn. After three days on exhibit, there was quite a bit of clean up for us. But soon we had the pair back out for our guests to enjoy.
Funani has demonstrated herself to be a very dedicated and gentle mother. She can maneuver the kid around with the slightest of prodding from her huge snout and is very careful to know exactly where baby is before taking a step or lowering her massive frame.
So, what about dad? Unfortunately, male hippos are not the most trustworthy of parents. So, to be safe, we went ahead and separated Otis and Fu well before we determined she was due to give birth. For now, Otis is being held off-exhibit in our barn, where he has his own pool to laze around in.
We have yet to get a weight on this calf, but newborn hippos can weigh between 50 and 100 pounds (23 and 45 kilograms). Generally, they are fully weaned after six to eight months. So, come get a glance quickly, for it won’t be long before the youngster is a multi-ton leviathan like its parents!
Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Hippo Photo Goes Global.
Find a very large crate.
Get the hippo used to being in the crate.
At first, Jabba was a little uncertain about entering the crate, and who could blame him? But with the sparkling water tempting him on the other side, it wasn’t long before Jabba braved the first step and finally walked through the crate. After several days, going through the crate was of no consequence.
Add sturdy bars to one side of the crate.
Now that Jabba was used to passing through the crate, it was time to up the ante. The metal bars that would help secure him during shipment were put in place. Jabba’s diet (a mixture of hay and herbivore pellets) was placed inside the crate. After little hesitation, Jabba entered and began happily munching away.
Close the door.
Once Jabba got used to the idea of spending time in his crate instead of just passing through it, it was time to see how he dealt with losing the option of exiting on his own volition. At this point, Jabba entered the crate and began eating his meal, per usual. Then, the hydraulic door was closed behind him. Jabba hardly noticed. He was steadily left in the crate for longer and longer periods, until he was comfortably remaining in there for as long as 1½ hours (nearly as long as the trip to Los Angeles would be).
We spent about two months readying Jabba for his move. At the same time, the dedicated keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo worked diligently alongside our efforts to ready Otis for his trip. However, there was little we could do to prepare either hippo for the sensation of being raised into the air and loaded onto a flatbed truck. In spite of this, the loading process went relatively smoothly. Lead Keeper Harold Steyns, Senior Keeper Aimee Goldcamp, and I joined Jabba on his trip. During the transport, Jabba showed little, if any, signs of distress.Once at the Los Angeles Zoo, Jabba was hoisted, by crane, up and over the wall into his new enclosure. The procedure went incredibly well! Once released, he immediately took to the water, doing several laps, exploring his new environs. For a brief moment, he stepped out of the pool for a quick snack, but soon returned to the water. It seemed apparent that Jabba was going to enjoy his new home. Jabba has been a staple of the San Diego Zoo for a long time. (Read his profile, Hooray for Hippos!) During his stay, he has entertained thousands of people with his antics and shared a lot of love with his keepers. He has even sired three offspring. So, one might wonder, why move him? Animal moves are a common thing in the zoo world. There are many reasons, but probably the most common reason is to promote genetic diversity among the zoo population. As I said earlier, Jabba has already fathered a few babies. His genes are well represented. But Otis does not have any surviving offspring, so his genes have not yet been introduced to the zoo population. We have an opportunity to potentially mate him with Funani and stoke the managed-care gene pool for the entire species!
We have a long way to go before this can happen, though. Otis has undergone a period of quarantine and is now slowly been introduced to Funani (through a protective barrier). The next step will be a face-to-face meeting, and we hope they hit it off. If they do, there is still an eight-month gestation period. But never fear; I will keep you abreast every step of the way!
Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.