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Biomimicry: Hope for the Future

Meerkats have dark hair around their eyes to protect them from the sun.

We live lives of convenience and ease. Our forefathers and mothers would be astonished at the technological and scientific advances we have made in the last 100-plus years. Diseases have been cured and communication has become instantaneous. In this short time, we have gone from using horses and boats for transportation to cars, trains, airplanes, and even spaceships to take us even further. It is unprecedented that we can now get to the other side of the world in less than a day. If we could go back in time and show people in the 1800s what life is like today, we would probably be laughed out of town. Yet all these achievements have come at a cost. Much of our planet’s flora and fauna have become endangered, and in many cases extinct, because of the depletion of natural resources and environments. Even our medicines today are becoming less and less effective as viruses are building resistances to them. The tide of thinking has changed for the better, recently, in solving tomorrow’s problems as the idea of using the natural world as our teacher has replaced our drive to contain and alter it. We call this “new science” biomimicry, and it is undoubtedly going to be the next major element toward shaping our future in a sustainable and responsible manner.

The idea of using certain desired characteristics of plants, animals, and organisms is not new. In fact, if you go back in history you will see many examples of this, from using palm fronds, which repeal water, as roofing on shelters to Leonardo da Vinci observing birds in flight and developing his concepts of “flying machines.” Even today such simple examples of biomimicry exist, and we probably don’t make the connection to the natural world. Just look at football and baseball players on sunny days: many of them put black grease under their eyes to protect them from the sun, as the black color absorbs the sunlight, giving them better vision. Dark colors around eyes can be observed in many diurnal animals, most famously the meerkat. Meerkats need this protection, for they spend a good part of their days with their eyes to the sky on the lookout for predatory birds; in southern Africa, where they are from, the sun is plentiful.

Looking back, we have a clearer picture of the damage we have done to our environment. The common consensus is that we need to move in a different direction toward tomorrow or lose everything. Using the natural world as our classroom makes perfect sense. Plants, animals, and organisms have been hard at work for a few billion years, perfecting solutions for problems. Why would we need to look anyplace else? Biomimicry offers us a whole new world of possibilities and answers. It is a step in the right direction; actually, it’s the “natural” choice.

Seth Menser is a senior horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo. He will be contributing periodical blogs on biomimicry, with an emphasis on the botanical world. Read his previous post, Caudiciforms: Botanical Camels.

Learn more about the exciting field of biomimicry.

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Meerkat Moving Day

Our meerkat group on Elephant Mesa at the San Diego Zoo has seen a lot over its three years. It has grown to 16 members, with many births and non-stop digging. Last week was one of the biggest days of all: moving day. I knew it was coming for months and had been thinking about it constantly. How do I move 16 meerkats in crates to another exhibit without them hurting each other or themselves?

If you have read any of my blogs, you know that meerkats are quite aggressive with each other and there is almost always one with an injury (read Laura’s previous blog, Meerkats: A Hospital Trip). I wanted to move them quickly enough so they wouldn’t forget their mob mates. They seem to have a very short memory!

The move morning arrived and it was raining. Not usually a good sign. Meerkats mostly stay underground when it rains, so I wasn’t expecting much success. All of them are trained to come into the back area for meatballs, so I figured I should just give it a try. Amazingly, 14 came in! I did not want to move less than 16 that day, so I was determined to get the last 2. They were outside and it started pouring, which actually helped because they ran inside!

Now the process of nabbing each one and deciding who their travel partners would be. All three babies went together, Ngami and Ghanzi, Seronga had her own crate, Marula and Damara in another. In the end I had 12 crates ready for the short drive to their new, much larger exhibit next to the Zoo’s Kopje habitat. The meerkats that were living there had been moved to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.

We decided to release them all at the same time so no one would have any advantage or try to defend their new territory. Immediately all of them raced out of their crates and ran around the exhibit like mad. They were sniffing, scent marking, digging, and exploring every last inch. This exhibit is at least three times the size of their old one and smelled like another mob of meerkats. They had a lot of work to do to make it their own. I thought they would run out of scent marking smells before the day was done.

Then they noticed two meerkats in the small exhibit next door. Kasane, their former mob mate, and Leo. They spent a large portion of the day and night trying to get to Kasane and Leo. And it was not to give a friendly hello, either. Thankfully, Kasane and Leo were transferred to their new home at Elephant Mesa the next day.

Both groups ended the week with a much larger exhibit and plenty of digging to do. I was so happy that everyone not only survived but actually acclimated wonderfully. I will miss caring for this group and all of their tales!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Meerkats: 8th Litter

It is good to know there are always constants in life. I just finished reading through all of my meerkat blogs, and I am amazed at what has happened in the three short years we have had this group! (See previous blog, Meerkats: Heat Seekers) Ngami, never one to disappoint, had her eighth litter on Tuesday, February 3. And as part of doing things her own way, she brought the pups out on day one. Of course, this is not normal meerkat behavior, but I have grown used to the way this mob raises its pups. We have all adapted to their methods and have been quite successful.

This week was a tough time to be born and out in the elements so quickly. It rained most of the time and was quite chilly for a small pup with barely any hair. I saw three pups the first day and have seen three every day since then. Ngami has been bringing them out, leaving them in the dirt and then heading off to dig a hole. After eight litters, I am not surprised. But somehow this group makes it work (with a little help from their keepers, of course).

With past litters I have been able to “tell” Ngami, our dam, to put the babies back and she has listened. This week being so cold, I needed to assist a bit more. The meerkats have been using their heated, dry nest box as a den for the pups, which is a great improvement over past choices. But I have still encountered some cold, muddy, and wet pups out of the den. On Friday, February 6, for about 30 minutes, I had put the pups back into the nest box quite a few times only to have them removed and left in the mud somewhere. I had to take all three pups into the back and warm them up under the heat lamp. I also cleaned off the mud and dried their fur. I locked the rest of the group out for about five minutes to give the pups a chance to warm up. Once they had been separated from Ngami for this period of time, she was concerned. I was glad to see that when I gave her access to the pups she took each one and placed it back in the nest box.

Over the last few days they have been keeping the pups warm and dry in the nest box, which makes all of us keepers very happy. I am hopeful that the pups will make it through these very important first three weeks and will start coming out on their own. As always, it is never quiet in the meerkat exhibit, and soon there will be 16 barking, chirping, and growling diggers basking in the sun.

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Meerkats: Heat Seekers

This time of the year is my favorite with the meerkats. Our group is getting along well and all of the kids are growing nicely (see Laura’s previous blog, Meerkats: Scent-Marking). The weather is cold and sometimes wet, which means the meerkats don’t do as much digging. Most of their day is spent basking in the sun and standing on their tippy toes trying to get their bellies warm.

They are always interested in me and what I am doing in the exhibit, be it shoveling dirt, cleaning up, or bringing food. At this time of year they are most interested in my lap. I will sit cross-legged in the cement moat and allow them to climb around on my legs. They recognize my lap as a warm place and soon enough almost all of them will be piled on. Unfortunately, Seronga, our subordinate female, is always left out. She is left to sentry duty while the others snuggle together. Even if she tried to come down, Ngami, our dominant female, would growl and vocalize at her to go away.

The group gets so comfortable on my lap that most of them will fall asleep. The guests enjoy watching the ball of meerkats, and it makes for a good photo. Some of the younger ones also enjoy biting at my fleece jacket and digging on my socks and pants. They are so curious that they are always investigating something.

So if you stop by Elephant Mesa at around noon on a cool day, take a look in the moat. You might see a mob of meerkats asleep in my lap!

I know some of you have been wondering about Kasane and her little friend, Leo. Kasane was our adult female who was always trying to be the dominant one. Since Ngami would not allow it, she would pick on Seronga. We moved her out of the exhibit earlier this year and placed her into a holding area. A couple of weeks ago she was moved next to our other meerkat group near the Kopje exhibit. There is a glass wall separating her and Leo from a group of eight meerkats. As you know, meerkats do not take well to anyone not in their mob. When the new group saw her, they came running toward the glass. Kasane was so scared she tried to climb the walls. I guess she isn’t so tough when eight meerkats are coming after her!

Once she figured out they could not get to her, she became brave again. She now spends a lot of time scratching at the glass to get them. But of course it is all just a show. It is great to see her in a dirt exhibit where she can dig, be in the sun, and hang around some other meerkats.

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.