7 Animal Myths You Probably Believed

When it comes to the Animal Kingdom, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and some of it’s downright ridiculous. It’s difficult to know who to trust and where to go for reliable info. That’s where we come in. Even we have been known to make a mistake here and there (gasp!), but we’re here to set the record straight on a few animal myths that are widely believed–but definitely not true. Like really not true.

Koalas are bears

You’ve probably heard the term “koala bear” thrown around casually here and there, but contrary to popular belief, koalas have no relation to bears. While they have an uncanny likeness to teddy bears, they’re actually marsupials. Super cute, teddy bear-like marsupials.

Porcupines shoot their quills

A porcupine’s quills are made up of keratin, which is the same material our fingernails are made of. Can you shoot your fingernails? Didn’t think so. Just as we can’t shoot our fingernails (unfortunately), neither can porcupines shoot their precious defense mechanisms.

Ostriches bury their heads in sand

It’s hard to say where this ridiculous myth came from, but it could have derived from a behavior that ostriches exhibit when they sense danger. To avoid detection by predators, ostriches have been known to lay flat on the ground, placing their heads on the sand. Wherever it came from, let this myth officially be busted.

Mother birds reject babies if touched by humans

This myth probably comes from well-meaning people who fibbed to get other people to let nature take its course and avoid handling delicate baby birds. Actually, most birds have a very poor sense of smell and probably wouldn’t detect human scent. Regardless, handling baby birds isn’t a great idea.

Touching a frog or toad will give you warts

Many species of frogs and toads have wart-like bumps on their skin, and at some point it became widely believed that those bumps are contagious to humans. Truth is, warts are caused by a human virus and have nothing to do with handling frogs or toads. Strike that one down for good!

Camels store water in their humps

It’s known that camels are incredibly well-adapted to survive the harsh desert climates they call home, but their ability to avoid dehydration stems in part from oval-shaped red blood cells, not by carrying giant organic water jugs on their backs. Their humps actually store fat to tide them over on long walks through the desert where there is little to eat.

Lemmings commit suicide

No, lemmings don’t mindlessly follow each other to an untimely demise. This wholly unfounded myth may derive from population fluctuation among lemmings, with frequent die-offs and population booms. The phenomenon is still not well understood, leading to the belief that the small rodents boldly die by mass suicide for the good of the group. This misconception was reinforced by a scene in a 1958 Disney movie, White Wilderness, in which lemmings follow each other off a cliff to their death.

Photo by  Gunnar Pettersson

Photo by Gunnar Pettersson


So which myths did you believe? Do you have any more animal myths to share? Let us know in the comments.


Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous blog, 10 Photos of Galapgos Tortoises Chowing Down.


Koala Joeys Are Here!

Burra and his mom, Tonahleah, get weighed.

Burra and his mom, Tonahleah, get weighed.

After months of anticipation, the two koala joeys are out of the pouch and on the move at the San Diego Zoo’s Australian Outback! Like typical young boys, they are eager to venture out from Mom and start exploring the outside world. Their mothers, Tonahleah and Cambee, don’t seem to mind the short breaks from carrying them around. Recently, Tonahleah was seen babysitting Cambee’s joey and had both joeys on her at once! They have also been seen a couple of times sitting with the wrong mom altogether, and we (the keepers) have had to give them a little assistance in getting them back to their rightful owner.

Both joeys are healthy and getting bigger by the day. The joeys were born only two days apart, but we are definitely observing their unique qualities and can tell them apart fairly easily. We are already starting to see traits of their little personalities forming, too.

Tonahleah’s joey now has a name: Burra, which means big fellow. Burra is a much darker gray and is quite a bit bigger than his best mate. He was born on August 3, 2013. As of today, he weighs 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilogram). Burra is rather curious and seems very relaxed and laid back for a koala. He is very patient and tolerant of us when we weigh him or handle him for check-ups.

Cambee’s joey now has a name, too: Coedie, which means boy. Coedie is a lighter gray with a very white bum and is a bit more on the petite side. He was born on August 1, 2013, and weighs 2.8 pounds today (1.3 kilograms). Coedie is good natured but a little more on the shy side.

Both joeys and their moms can be seen in the female koala enclosure that is closest to the koala building, visible to our Koala Cam. We have separated them from the rest of the group so that we can keep a closer eye on what everybody’s eating and making sure they get very good eucalyptus, suitable for nursing moms and growing babies. Both joeys have been observed eating little pieces of eucalyptus already.

Amy Alfrey is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


A Koala Kwest, Part 2

A koala on St. Bees Island sits peacefully in a bag while being fitted for a GPS collar.

Be sure to read A Koala Kwest (Part 1).

Be it the jetlag or the excitement of the adventure (perhaps both), I woke the following morning at 4 a.m. Looking outside I saw that it was still dark and managed to stay in bed for another hour. Around that time I could see a slight glow behind the hills of St. Bees Island. As the distant glow became a full sunrise, the resident cockatoos and a black-and-white bird called a pied currawong (looks kind of like a crow with white on wings and tail) started their morning calls and flights between the two islands.

We had been informed that the other part of our group coming from the University of Queensland was going to be delayed. This gave us the day to settle in and get our internal clocks caught up. Of course, for me that also meant time for some exploring—a walkabout! It wasn’t long before I found myself at the top of the portion of Keswick we were staying on. From there, almost all of St. Bees to the east and a few other surrounding islands to the north could be seen. The sky was clear enough that the city of MacKay on the mainland was visible off to the distant west. The real treat was being able to watch (albeit at a great distance) two humpback whales out in the open water slowly making their way by the islands.

By that evening the rest of the team arrived on Keswick. The complete team now consisted of eight San Diego Zoo Global employees and three members of a research team from Queensland, Australia, and A LOT of equipment.

We are staying on Keswick Island each night, but the study site is on St. Bees Island. That means each and every day we travel between the two islands via a small motorboat. Though this form of travel may be less than enjoyable for some, I loved it! You see, the islands are in the Coral Sea, and the Coral Sea got its name because of all the rich undersea life in the area. During low-tide crossings, my eyes were trained on the waters below—truly spectacular life right there, just under the surface.

We reach one of the knolls on St. Bees Island.

On our first day on St. Bees Island, we were immediately introduced to the rough terrain that would be our daily environment. Initially the hike was all up hill. Then down, then sideways and so on and so on. St. Bees and the surrounding islands were formed by ancient volcanic activity, so hills are steep and footing questionable at times. I was really fascinated by the different environments we encountered: ankle-to-hip-high grasses, dry forest, and tropical forest.

We hiked into the study site, a south-facing knoll covered in eucalyptus and tropical trees. About 40 minutes into our hike we spotted our first koala. As luck would have it, she had a “back joey” on her, meaning her joey is old enough/large enough to ride on her back. A “belly joey” is usually younger and small enough to fit on the belly but too large to stay in the pouch.)

How do you get a wild koala out of a tree? Interestingly enough, they naturally get down out of a tree if there is perceived danger. Thus, long poles with noisy plastic bags at the end are used. First we establish a small catch team at the base of the tree and discuss the options the koala may take once it is down from the tree. Then the noisy plastic is raised above the koala, to which it responds by making the descent out of the tree and right to the catch team.

A koala undergoes an ultrasound procedure in the field.

Once down, the koala is placed in a soft canvas bag for its safety and ours. Another interesting note: when placed in the bag, they completely relax. Some researchers believe the bag triggers a natural response based on the sensation of being in a pouch. This makes it very easy and safe to get the koala from the tree to the spot we have set up to anesthetize the koala and do a full veterinary work-up on it.

That first female we found was in good health and the first one we did a complete work-up on. This included temperature reading, pulse monitoring, blood draws for studies back in the lab, swabbing mucus membranes for disease assessment, radiographs (x rays) on hips, and ultrasound to view and measure key internal organs. Dental checks, including radiographs of the teeth and photos of the molars, were taken, too. Once the medical work is done, an ear tag and collar that is both radio and satellite collar, are placed on the koala. The radio frequency allows for tracking on the ground and the satellite data will show the koala’s movement over the next six to eight months.

Our first day on St. Bees was quite successful. We covered an estimated 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of rough terrain, and we documented 6 koalas: 5 adults received their own tracking collar, and 1 joey too young for a collar got a nice ear tag that will help document her age in the years to come.

Rick Schwartz is a keeper and San Diego Zoo Global ambassador.


Name the Koala Baby

G’day, mate! We’re getting ready to go on a walkabout during San Diego Zoo Discovery Days: Koalapalooza, presented by Outback Steakhouse. The four-day event runs Friday, February 18 to Monday, February 21. The Zoo has the largest colony of koalas outside of Australia—and it keeps growing. For the third year in a row, we are naming a koala joey (baby) as part of the Koalapalooza festivities.

This year the naming is a bit more challenging. Why? We don’t know if the joey is a boy or a girl. The joey was born on July 21, 2010, and took its first peek out of the pouch the last week of January. So, to work around the gender issue, we’ve asked the Koala Team to look up some Aboriginal words that could serve as a name for a male or a female, which is tougher than it might sound.

The team came up with seven names, and we’ve posted them here for you to vote on:

Cambee (“blankets”)

Jumbunna (“talk together”)

Gummy (“spear”)

Cuddelee (“dog”)

Andi (“who”)

Aroo (fan made of emu tail feathers)

Panda (“heart”)

Yes, our newest koala could be named “Panda.” That might be awfully confusing….

Your online vote will help us narrow the names down to the top three name choices, and then that’s where the fun begins—we’re going to let the mother, Yabber, pick her joey’s name! How’s that, you ask? Well, we’ve been working with the Koala Team to figure this out, and this is what we’ve decided to do. On the opening day of Koalapalooza, the three names will be placed on three different “trees” inside Yabber’s habitat. Then, at about 10:30 a.m., a keeper will gently set Mom (with the joey in the pouch) on the ground of the exhibit, and the tree she chooses to climb will be the name for the joey in her pouch.

This is the first time—that I know of—when one of our animals has had a chance to name their own baby! We’ll report back and let you know how it turns out.

If you’re able to make it for the naming ceremony, you’ll want to stick around for the other exciting activities at Koalapalooza. The whole Zoo will be brimming with Aussie-themed entertainment, including keeper talks, scavenger hunts, plush koala tracking with Zoo researchers, and live music from the land Down Under. You’ll even have the chance to meet a koala and the other animals that share their habitat up close. Hope to see you there!

Jenny Mehlow is a public relations representative for the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Elephant Encounters of the Cute Kind.


Koala Fieldwork: Helping Hands

Bill is studying wild koalas on St. Bees island off the coast of Australia. Read his previous post, Koalas Get High-tech Support.

It is not always easy for me to convince people that what we are doing is hard work. Our island site is warm and pleasant at this time of year, surrounded by beautiful ocean and inhabited by wonderful koalas. Fortunately, I am having many visitors to my study site, which means I have many more hands on deck, which means we can do even more!

Last month it was Geoff Pye, D.V.M., and Brian Opitz from the San Diego Zoo who helped with catching, collaring, and (most importantly) taking X rays of all the koalas. This month I had Jen and Jen from the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research on board, and we worked just as hard. Jen Tobey is a specialist studying the sounds koalas make (see her post Koala Field Project: Meet Jackaroo); Jen Roesler is a keeper at the Zoo who is also an expert in handling koalas, so I expected big things from this pair.

Professor Paul Roe from Queensland University of Technology, who has designed and built the sensor network that eavesdrops on our koalas, and Ben Charlton, an expert in animal communication who has recently turned his skilled hands to koalas, joined us on St. Bees. Rounding out the team was Dr. Sean FitzGibbon, an expert in koala ecology, capture, and handling, with whom I spend a lot of my time in the field.

Our target for this trip was to record the bellows of as many male koalas as we could find so that we could compare the features of each male’s bellows to his size, age, and behavior. We had three microphones and spent every night sitting under the trees of the koalas or running through the bush following their bellows. By day, we tracked the animals, checked on their position so that we knew where to go at night, and caught any new animals that we hadn’t found. We removed the GPS collars that we had deployed in September and also removed some standard vhf collars from animals that we are not going to follow this summer. We were pushed for time, so we even went catching at night, which made for extra-long days.

Luckily, we found several of the females we had caught in September that now had joeys on their backs (many of these were still in the pouch on our last trip). Little Pickle is now a fully fledged mother, and she resides up near Elizabeth, the oldest mother we are tracking. Both of these koalas are raising healthy and good-looking babies this year: Pickle’s baby is named Onion (not my choice of name), and Elizabeth is raising baby number nine, Ginger. We also found some new males; we managed to record the bellows from two of them (Eddie and Jeremy).

It was an exciting and tiring trip, with everyone’s sleep routine totally wrecked by the end. We recorded more koalas that I thought we would, we recovered all the collars we needed to (including Leaper’s, who had crossed the island!) and we even saw two males fighting one afternoon.

We are now starting to put the pieces of the koala–bellowing jigsaw puzzle together. We know that not all the males bellow all the time, but we are not 100-percent sure what makes them decide when it is their turn. We also found bellowing to be concentrated in parts of the island and absent elsewhere, making us wonder whether the males really call to attract the females or whether the females attract the males, who then bellow.

I am sure that as we plan our next trip, we are a step closer to understanding this interesting behavior in koalas; but in the meantime, I am catching up on sleep. Luckily for me, unlike my visitors from the Zoo and the Institute for Conservation Research, I didn’t have an 18-hour plane flight back to San Diego to look forward to when I returned from the island. There are some advantages to living close to your study animals!

Bill Ellis is the Clarke Endowed Postdoctoral Researcher for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation.


Monkeying Around…with Marsupials!

A wombat investigates a palm roll tunnel.

A wombat investigates a palm roll tunnel.

Have you ever seen big plastic toys in polar bear pools? How about mirrors, swings, or other objects with gorillas and monkeys? But what about marsupial exhibits: have you ever seen interesting objects in with these animals? Probably not very often. Unlike bears, large cats, and primates, we don’t always think about enrichment items for marsupials because they are thought not to be as interested in these items. However, we can’t forget about these guys! Marsupials are curious creatures, and I don’t mean because of their pouch.

My name is Lauren Kline, and I am a behavioral biology summer intern for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. I will be a senior this coming fall at The College of Idaho, where I am a biology major with psychology and crime in society minors. After I graduate, I hope to go to graduate school to further study animal behavior. Let me tell you a little bit about what I will be doing all summer.
My goal is to find out if marsupials, which are pouched mammals such as kangaroos, wombats, and koalas, will interact with different enrichment items if they are presented to them and, if so, how they interact with these items. With the help of the awesome Outback keepers at the San Diego Zoo, we will be presenting four different types of enrichment to three different species (Parma wallabies, Buerger’s tree kangaroos, and the southern hairy-nosed wombats) and monitoring the way they interact with the items.

A tree kangaroo plays with a palm frond.

A tree kangaroo plays with a palm frond.

Enrichment can be a variety of things, from puzzle feeders to different ways that food is presented to novel objects, such as large branches or plastic barrels. These enrichment items will allow the animals to perform behaviors that would be necessary in the wild, such as foraging for food, but are not always performed in their enclosures at the Zoo. However, zoos are always trying to make life comfortable for the animals, and giving them novel items to play with and explore should promote their health and well-being.

Although my project has just started, I’ll give you a sneak peek into what I’ve found out so far. The first enrichment the marsupials experienced was different parts of the palm, such as big fronds, a ‘tunnel’ made of palm sheets, and a ‘roll’ made of palm sheets. And…they liked it! They seemed a little unsure of what to do at first, but they were definitely interested and have been spending time around the items, checking things out.

So, if you find yourself at the San Diego Zoo in the Outback near any of these animals and see a young lady with a stopwatch and a clipboard, that’s me! Make sure to look for the enrichment, and ask me if you have any questions! In the coming weeks the marsupials will be provided with dirt and mulch piles, puzzle feeders, and scent markings. Check back here later this summer for another post, and I’ll let you know what new information I’ve discovered about just how curious some marsupials can be!

Lauren Kline is a Bonner Summer Student Intern in the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.


Koalas of St. Bees Use Cell Phones

Hello again from St. Bees Island, off the coast of Australia, where it seems the koalas have taken a break from their nightly ritual of bellowing. Not many people actually get to hear a koala bellow in the wild, but our San Diego Zoo Conservation Research team has found a way to do it all day, every day. Actually, koalas call mostly at night, but just in case, we have been listening in 24/7. We have been using mobile phone technology to listen and transmit the sounds from St. Bees to our computers, with some interesting results.

We have a male koala bellow for you to listen to: [audio:http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/sounds/koala_male_bellow.mp3]

This project began in earnest at the start of the breeding season on St. Bees Island, which is at the start of September. We are very interested to know what is the purpose of the bellows male koalas make during breeding times. It could be a cue for other males to stay away or may be some form of advertising for females, but it turns out that, like a lot of aspects of koala biology, there is plenty to learn about this behavior.

We have placed three solar-powered remote listening stations on St. Bees Island. These microphones record sound onto a mobile smart phone for two minutes, every half hour, throughout the day and night. Once recorded, the sound is transmitted directly to a server in Brisbane and uploaded onto a Web site, managed by our partner in this project, Queensland University of Technology. We can usually analyze each recording within 10 minutes of it being captured, so we have some very up-to-date information on what is going on at St. Bees, even when we are not there.

So far we have found that koalas do indeed do most of their bellowing at night; bellows during the day are very uncommon. We have found that the average length of a call is around 40 seconds, with some lasting up to nearly 2 minutes. Although at first we found more calls occurring around midnight, as the season has progressed this trend has been less apparent, and it seems that the calls change in structure as the season progresses.
We have also been fortunate enough to capture some interactions between males and females, where we have heard both animals vocalizing while they are interacting.

What we will be doing in the coming weeks is downloading the GPS data from all of the radio collars worn by the koalas. This way we will know whether males, or females, move more when we hear the most calls. This should indicate whether males are talking to other males or to females.

Since Christmas, there has been a marked decline in the number of bellows we have heard on the island. This is interesting, because although we know the bellowing is a seasonal phenomenon, no one really is sure what triggers the start or end of it, or how important it is to breeding for koalas. These are the sorts of questions we are trying to answer through our research at St. Bees Island.

We expect that fewer and fewer bellows will be heard as the koala breeding season in Australia comes to an end during March. Fortunately for visitors to the San Diego Zoo, this signals the start of the Northern Hemisphere breeding season, so although there might be few calls from St. Bees, there are likely to be plenty coming from the koalas at San Diego!

Bill Ellis is a Conservation Research postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo.

Read Bill’s previous blog, Koala Tracking with GPS.


Koalapalooza: A Joey Is Named

After months of anticipation and careful planning, San Diego Zoo Discovery Days: Koalapalooza finally arrived: These four exciting days were filled with news interviews and keeper talks featuring not only koalas but our other special marsupials as well, including tree kangaroos, wallabies, and the closest relative to the koala, the wombats. We were so excited to have a long weekend dedicated to our favorite animal, the koala, but I must admit we were a little nervous!

The guest turnout was amazing and topped expectations. Other departments crucial to our koala program had booths set up. One booth featured our conservation researchers, who shared the important work they are doing to help us learn more about koalas and aid in conservation efforts in Australia; kids could even learn how to radio track and locate stuffed koalas around the Zoo, just like we would when looking for wild ones in Australia. Another booth highlighted our extremely important browse department, which grows all the eucalyptus, the only food a koala will eat. This is not an easy job, because our koalas eat a lot of eucalyptus! Guests could also speak to our veterinary staff about koalas; these are very specialized animals are different from other mammals when it comes to veterinary care, but our staff is excellent!

Our educators and animal trainers brought out more animals, and keepers in other areas of the Zoo gave special talks. There were different opportunities to donate to koala conservation, including an online auction, fun activities for kids, as well an Aussie barbeque meal and music. I even got a koala painted on my face!

One of the highlights of the event was our Name the Joey contest. Our almost 10-month-old joey needed a name! We thought it was definitely time to stop calling her our own personal nicknames (like Sweetheart and Cutie pie) and give her a permanent identity. It was tough decision making, but we narrowed down the long list of great submissions from Zoo guests and supporters to five beautiful choices. “Sooky”, meaning “soft” or “tame,” won by a fairly large margin. Thank you all so much for submitting names and voting at Koalapalooza. Now our precocious little girl has a name!

Kuna and Amy

Kuna and Amy

My absolute favorite part of the event was taking a koala to the Zoo’s front plaza where guests could see him up close. It is so extraordinary for me to be able to share with people what I have learned from the koalas I have worked with for about seven years now. As Kuna did what he does best (munch away on leaves and look totally adorable), I got to share all kinds of koala facts and answer questions. I also shared little personality traits and amusing attributes that make us laugh, sometimes cry, and grasp the individuality and specialness that each koala possesses. Kuna helped, too. As most koalas are too shy and reserved to be comfortable in a crowd, Kuna showed his individuality and kind spirit with a relaxed and curious personality, which I’m sure made most guests develop a soft spot for koalas (if they didn’t have one already). It’s these qualities that ultimately give us the never-ending passion we have for our job as well as our dedication to doing everything we can to help this irreplaceable species in the wild.

In the end, Koalapalooza was a huge success! Not only did we raise $5,200 for conservation, we were able to interact with Zoo guests directly. The koala keepers would like to thank every guest who attended Koalapalooza or participated in the online voting. On a personal level, your involvement means so incredibly much to us! We know that these are trying times for many people, and I really want to let participants know how much we appreciate any and all of your support. We couldn’t do it without you! I sincerely hope everyone had a wonderful time at Koalapalooza. We would love to see you again at our next Discovery Days event, Bear Bonanza, in March!

Amy Alfrey is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Read a blog and watch an interview with Amy

Read the latest blog from a koala researcher


The Koala in the Hat

Oh me. Oh my!! What can I do?
My koala bag is torn right through.

No worries, mate. Your hat is great.
We’ll use it to weigh the baby joey today!

So, let’s catch the baby. We won’t say maybe.
Put her into my hat. And that’s that.

We grab little Gigi, who does a tiny wee-wee
Cuddles into my hat, weighing less than a rat.

Our work is now done. We put her back with her mum.
Up the tree they go. What a cute duo!!

~ With homage to Dr. Seuss

Fred Bercovitch is head of the San Diego Zoo’s Behavioral Biology Division. He is currently doing koala field research in Australia.