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World Giraffe Day

Rothchild's or Uganda giraffes would often just stare at me for hours during my research.

Reticulated, or Somali, giraffes would often just stare at me for hours during my research.

Let’s give giraffes the spotlight they deserve! Saturday, June 21, 2014, will be the first-ever World Giraffe Day. Finally, the importance of giraffe conservation is recognized! We agree with the organizers: the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is the most appropriate day to celebrate the tallest animal! Plans are to have an Open House that day at the San Diego Zoo’s giraffe barn for all Zoo guests from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Keepers will be on hand to answer questions and show you giraffe biofacts.

While I may be biased, giraffes are the best animals there are. Giraffes are up there with elephants, rhinos, whales, and lions in iconic status in the minds of the public. However, compared to those species, we know relatively little about giraffes. They are the forgotten megafauna.

Here are just some of the things we don’t know for certain:

How many types of giraffes are there: 6, 7, 8, or 9 subspecies? Consensus is growing that there are 9.

How do we quantify a giraffe herd?
Giraffes seem to have fission-fusion assemblages, with individuals wandering in and out of groups seemingly willy-nilly, without anyone in charge. By the way, a group of giraffes is called a tower—brilliant!

How do they communicate?
They’re basically silent, although some researchers think giraffes may be communicating ultrasonically, and we just can’t hear it.

Giraffes are also good climbers.

Giraffes are also good climbers.

The greatest mystery of them all: Why the long neck?
This hasn’t been fully answered!

How many are there?
This is perhaps the most important question from a conservation perspective. We don’t know for certain, but the current estimate is that there are perhaps 80,000 left in the wild. That seems like a lot; however, that summation glosses over an ominous truth: giraffes are facing dark days and need our attention, research, and help.

Let’s dissect that 80,000 figure and break it down by giraffe subspecies. Please see Table 1 (below), and you can see it is a mixed story.

Giraffe Population Table

Some giraffes, such as the Masai, seem to have relatively healthy populations, while other giraffes are struggling. Especially startling are the West African, Rothschild’s, and Thornicroft’s subspecies population numbers. And Nubian giraffes, unfortunately, may already be extinct in the wild; we’re not sure. This massive rapid decline has occurred just over the past 20 years or so and with very little notice. Giraffes are slipping away in silence.

There are several reasons, we think, for these declines. We need more data, but the main causes contributing to the extinction of giraffes are habitat loss, poaching for food and mythical medical cures, and trophy hunting, to a lesser extent. Since giraffes are little studied, there are likely additional factors that we need to uncover.

But let’s take what we know. Habitat loss is the number one cause of species declines and extinctions worldwide. It is no different with giraffes. As human populations increase, and traditional livelihood and land uses change to being less conducive to wildlife, less room is available for giraffes to live and find food and water. Layered atop this are the climate-chaos induced changes in rainfall patterns. Unpredictable rainfall cycles result in less food resources for giraffes (and other herbivores), leading to a decline in population.

A male Masai giraffe strolls past flamingos in Tanzania.

A male Masai giraffe strolls past flamingos in Tanzania.

The next large driver toward extinction is also a recent development: poaching. Many poverty-stricken regions of sub-Saharan Africa have a hard time finding sources of animal protein. Growing human populations and a decline in traditionally harvested wildlife species have led people to seek new sources of protein. As such, giraffes are being poached in increasing numbers for their meat. Despite their size, giraffes can be easy to kill if you know what you’re doing. All poachers need is a bit of steel wire. A correctly placed leg- or neck-snare can capture a giraffe that is then killed or may be left to die slowly. Unfortunately, such poaching is having an increasingly devastating effect on giraffe numbers.

A third, and perhaps the most infuriating, driver of giraffe decline is poaching giraffes for mythical medical cures. Somehow, a myth began that, if eaten, giraffe bone marrow and brains will protect against HIV-AIDS infection. This is absolutely not true. But this myth has taken hold and created a black market, such that poachers can get U.S. $140 or more for giraffe marrow. This is heartbreaking on multiple levels. Giraffe are being pointlessly slaughtered to obtain a “medicine” that does not work. Add to this the human tragedy—all those who have taken this “cure” and falsely believe they are safe from infection. Thus, they engage in risky behaviors, become infected themselves, and likely further spread the AIDS pandemic.

My research has focused on giraffes in East Africa, specifically human-livestock-giraffe interactions. I studied how reticulated giraffes forage in the wild (what plants they eat and how high up) and how they co-exist with a newly introduced large livestock species, the dromedary camel. I noticed fewer and fewer reticulated giraffes in areas where camels are grazed. Reticulated giraffes have undergone a horrific decline: 80 percent over the past 15 years alone. Since the turn of the century, they have gone from about 28,000 strong to just 5,000 today. At that rate, they will be extinct by 2019. We have to act.

I dubbed this group of males the Tall Boy Gang.

I dubbed this group the Tall Boy Gang.

The underlying theme here is people-wildlife interactions. Successful conservation requires multidisciplinary and multi-pronged approaches that involve local people. If people do not buy into the conservation effort, then ultimately it is unlikely to succeed. So, in addition to better understanding the giraffe, we need to work in partnership with those communities living alongside giraffes to understand their cultural heritage, needs, desires, and goals. We need to offer poachers alternative, robust, and growing livelihoods and sources of income. We need to offer quality education to local communities. We need to offer sustainable sources of protein, and we need to collaboratively develop land and wildlife management plans. The holy grail? Make a living giraffe worth more to local communities than a dead one. By doing that, the rest takes care of itself.

That is what our team of community-based conservation educators with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research does. So, in short, let’s stick our necks out and stand tall for giraffes! In partnerships with local communities, we’ll roll our sleeves up and get about researching and working to raise awareness and appreciation for the conservation of the majestic giraffe.

You can help us bring giraffes back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe. Let’s do this! Happy World Giraffe Day!

Check out a short film from reticulated giraffe conservation fieldwork in Kenya:

David A. O’Connor, M.Sc., is a consultant with the Conservation Education Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, California BioBlitzin’.

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On the Palm Oil Path: A Journey to Sustainability

Making informed palm-oil decisions can help Indah and Aisha's wild brethren.

Making informed palm-oil decisions can help Indah and Aisha’s wild brethren.

When you watch the San Diego Zoo’s orangutans brachiating from branch to branch, it’s easy to picture the movement of wild apes through the canopy of those big trees in Borneo and Sumatra. Watching our sun bear Marcella sleep high in her climbing structure, you can envision a wild sun bear resting up in the canopy close to the fruit of a monstrous tree. There are a number of species that depend on the lush forests of tropical Southeast Asia, and these species are now at risk due to rampant deforestation and loss of habitat. As mentioned in a previous post, The Palm Oil Conservation Crisis, one of the major drivers of that deforestation is unsustainable palm oil cultivation.

The palm oil conservation crisis is a highly complex problem that cannot be solved overnight. However, San Diego Zoo Global has waded into the issue and hopes to contribute to a solution that can preserve forests and the wildlife that depends on them. Our first step was to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder organization that has produced a series of criteria aimed at altering the palm oil supply chain to produce a sustainable crop. (See press release Three US Zoos Take Leadership Role in Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil Practices.) The goal of the RSPO is to make certified sustainable palm oil the norm, thus ending the unsustainable practices that endanger forests. The RSPO is a young organization, and though it has made great strides in its 10 years, there is still a long way to go toward ensuring that palm oil is deforestation-free.

This is the reason North American zoos and aquariums are stepping up to address this issue, too. As conservation entities, we want to ensure a wild future for the species many of our guests see at our facilities. I just returned from the first Sustainable Palm Oil Symposium, hosted by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado. Cheyenne Mountain was the first North American zoo to join the RSPO, and in hosting this symposium they helped to facilitate a dialogue among concerned zoos about what we can do, collectively and as individual institutions. We got an on-the-ground perspective from attending NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that work in Malaysia and Indonesia, and this allowed us to have a better understanding of what parts of the industry are likely to be most responsive to our efforts. It was really inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded folks who are as passionate about the palm oil conservation crisis as we are. Zoos around the world are raising awareness of the problem and are trying to encourage the transformation of the palm oil industry to sustainability. At the symposium, we realized that we might wield a powerful voice if we unite in our efforts.

That is very much our goal now. I hope to share with you some of our efforts and accomplishments over the next several months. In the meantime, you can help by supporting the RSPO’s vision to transform the palm oil industry. Think of this transformation as a journey toward sustainability. Zoos, corporations, and even the RSPO are on a journey, each of us in a different place, but the goal is clear. San Diego Zoo Global supports those companies that are making progress toward a sustainable palm oil industry. We encourage you to support the RSPO and those RSPO-member companies that are taking steps along their journey to sustainability, too.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Saving the World’s Most Endangered Lizards

rock_iguanaNew Collaboration for Caribbean Island Iguana Conservation

The most endangered group of lizards in the world, Caribbean island rock iguanas, are beginning 2014 with a new coalition of conservation champions resolved to implement bold actions to help save these imperiled species. Governments, academics, nongovernment organizations and private stakeholders will collaborate on more than 20 projects focused on alleviating threats to iguanas, changing public perceptions and ensuring long-term financial, government and public support for iguana conservation.

With one Caribbean island iguana species already extinct and eight of the remaining 11 listed as critically endangered or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, this region-wide effort comes at a critical time for the survival of these species.

“Collaboration is key in this endeavor,” according to Brent Murry, science coordinator for the Caribbean Landscape Conservation Cooperative and representative for the new effort. “The threats to these unique animals are immense and beyond any one organization or agency. A region-wide effort allows each country and organization to tap into regional expertise and resources in order to implement the local solutions iguanas so greatly need.”

Projects range from identifying essential habitat for these lizards’ survival, reducing threats from invasive species and supporting on-the-ground law enforcement efforts to promoting regional art contests. These projects and numerous others stemmed from a workshop held in Puerto Rico this past December that brought together 61 participants from 16 nations, including a representative for Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and a private land owner in the British Virgin Islands. Workshop participants identified the most critical issues for iguana conservation and developed action plans and timelines for projects considered to be of highest priority.

“This workshop was the first regional initiative that has brought together species experts with critical public and private stakeholders,” said Carmen R. Guerrero-Pérez, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and workshop host. “The bar was raised, and now we are committed to implement the agreed-upon recovery actions locally as well as through international collaboration with other countries.”

“December’s workshop was the catalyst for conservation actions that will have an enormous impact on iguanas across the region,” said Bryan Arroyo, assistant director of international affairs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The Service will be an active participant in developing and implementing these projects and supporting Caribbean governments and partners as they endeavor to save a piece of their natural heritage.”

“A key outcome of the workshop was a renewed commitment to coordinated, on-the-ground efforts that will directly benefit iguana conservation, including ‘headstarting,’ restoration and protection of iguana habitats and reintroduction efforts to enhance population recovery,” said Allison Alberts, chief conservation and research officer for San Diego Zoo Global and co-sponsor of the workshop.

Iguana conservation has a proven record of success, and partners are confident these projects will have a lasting impact. In 2002, the Grand Cayman blue iguana numbered fewer than 25 individuals. Today, there are more than 750 blue iguanas on Grand Cayman thanks to a conservation strategy that includes habitat protection, captive breeding and release, research, monitoring and education. The Jamaican iguana — thought to be extinct as recently as the late 1980s — now numbers over 300 individuals as a result of intensive conservation efforts. But even these successes remain at risk when they run up against competing demands for land and resources. Commercial development threatens to wipe out the remaining habitat of the Jamaican iguana. Without vigilant conservation attention, success one day can turn to failure the next.

“Many of these conservation projects comprise tangible on-the-ground actions that will make a real and lasting difference in the protection of Caribbean iguana populations and their habitats,” said Kirsty Swinnerton, Caribbean program manager for Island Conservation. “We are excited to be part of this extraordinary effort to save these flagship species and to lend our expertise and resources in removing invasive species that threaten the survival of these iconic animals.”

Iguanas are the largest native vertebrates left on many of the Caribbean islands. As seed dispersers, they are vital to the ecosystem and help to maintain healthy native plant communities. Several iguana species exist as single populations with no more than a few hundred individuals. Invasive, introduced mammalian predators such as feral cats and dogs, as well as pigs and goats, are the greatest threat to many iguana species and their habitats. Other significant threats include habitat destruction by charcoal production and land development, collection for the pet trade, hunting, vehicular mortality, and competition and interbreeding with the introduced, invasive common green iguana.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS AT 619-685-3291.

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San Diego Zoo Kids Channel Brings World of Animals to Patients at Rady Children’s Hospital

sdz_kids_logoToday two well-known San Diego organizations announced a unique partnership designed to entertain and educate patients and their families about wildlife around the world and serve as a model for children’s hospitals nationwide. Funded by a generous gift by businessman and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego and San Diego Zoo Global announced the launch of San Diego Zoo Kids, a television broadcast channel that features programming about unique and endangered animal species and is available in every patient room and waiting area.

“Caring for sick and injured children goes beyond providing excellent medical care,” said Dr. Donald B. Kearns, acting president of Rady Children’s. “With programming that is both entertaining and educational, San Diego Zoo Kids enhances our patients’ experience and contributes to an environment that promotes healing. Rady Children’s is thrilled to be the first children’s hospital in the nation to launch the new channel, which will soon be made available to other children’s hospitals across the country.”

The channel features video from the Zoo’s famous Panda Cam as well as other live, online cameras, fun and educational pieces about a variety of animals and up-close video encounters of popular animals with the Zoo’s national spokesperson, Rick Schwartz.

“We have always believed in the importance of putting people in touch with animals as a way to conserve species,” said Doug Myers, president and CEO of San Diego Zoo Global. “What we have heard from medical care professionals is that animal interaction and animal stories can also help promote well-being. San Diego Zoo Global has a wealth of animal stories and, through the generosity of Denny Sanford, we are able to make these stories available to the families at Rady Children’s Hospital.”

About Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego:
Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego is a 475-bed pediatric care facility providing the largest source of comprehensive pediatric medical services in San Diego, Southern Riverside and Imperial counties. Rady Children’s is the only hospital in the San Diego area dedicated exclusively to pediatric healthcare and is the regions only designated pediatric trauma center. In June 2013, U.S. News & World Report ranked Rady Children’s among the best children’s hospitals in the nation in all ten pediatric specialties the magazine surveyed. For more information, visit www.rchsd.org and find us on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and YouTube.

CONTACT:
Ben Metcalf, Rady Children’s Hospital, 858-966-8579
San Diego Zoo Global Public Relations, 619-685-3291

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San Diego Zoo Global Joins Cheetah Breeding Coalition

Photo taken on Dec. 3, 2013, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo.

Photo taken on Dec. 3, 2013, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo.

National Coalition Includes Eight Other Organizations

Noka, a 13-year-old male cheetah, is perched in a tree investigating the exhibit of a female cheetah. This is one of the first steps in introducing male and female cheetahs for breeding. Noka is one of 16 cheetahs in an off-exhibit breeding facility at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

San Diego Zoo Global, which has been breeding cheetahs for more than 40 years, yielding more than 130 cubs, has recently joined the national cheetah Breeding Center Coalition (BCC) to create a sustainable cheetah population that will prevent extinction of the world’s fastest land animal. In addition to the nine breeding facilities, it is expected that more than 100 other organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that already house cheetahs will also join this coalition in a nonbreeding capacity.

The nine-member coalition’s goal is to achieve a sustainable zoo population of cheetahs within 10 years. To achieve this goal, the facilities have set a target of 15 cheetah cub litters to be born each year. A typical cheetah litter has about three cubs, which would total 45 cubs per year among the nine breeding centers.

CONTACT: San Diego Zoo Global Public Relations, 619-685-3291

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Bighorn Sheep Roundup Furthers Conservation Research

BigHornReleaseOn October 31, a bi-national team of biologists and veterinarians started a two-day effort to capture over a dozen Peninsular bighorn sheep in the Sierra Juarez mountains just south of the US-Mexico border. The collaborative effort included the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, government agencies in Mexico, The Nature Conservancy, and San Diego Zoo Global with the goal of better understanding the movement, health status and genetics of the Sierra Juarez bighorn sheep populations.

“The Peninsular bighorn sheep is an endangered species whose two major populations could be permanently separated unless we protect its habitat and key bottleneck connections throughout the Peninsular Range. Smaller, isolated populations are more susceptible to diseases and predation and are less resilient to climate change,” said Bill Tippets, San Diego Project Director with The Nature Conservancy. “This effort will provide us with critical information about how to improve the survival of this species and help manage its habitat now and as the climate changes, and while meeting the realities of continued development in the region.”

Bighorn sheep populations in southern California and northern Mexico have long been assumed to be isolated but recent field surveys carried out by San Diego Zoo Global and California Department of Fish and Wildlife have indicated that bighorn sheep do use the border areas and likely move between the two countries. However, to successfully move from north to south sheep would have to cross four lanes of traffic on two major highways (I-8 in San Diego and MX-2 in Baja California).

“Roads are important barriers preventing the movement of many animal species including the bighorn sheep. With our data we hope to initiate a discussion on landscape connectivity and cross-border species conservation both in the US and in Mexico,” said Lisa Nordstrom, scientist with San Diego Zoo Global.

For the next two years, bighorn sheep equipped with GPS collars will provide scientists with important data on the movement of the animals in relation to habitat features such as roads, human settlements, and oases. The biological samples collected by the team will also help to describe the genetic structure and connectivity of the population and will be used to test for different diseases. The recent pneumonia epidemic among bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert shows the importance of health studies like these to better understand disease outbreaks and interactions of wild bighorn sheep populations with domestic livestock.

“While Peninsular bighorn sheep have been intensively studied in southern California and large efforts were put into habitat conservation and population recovery programs, very little information is available on the populations in Baja California, just south of the border,” said Mathias Tobler, a wildlife ecologist with San Diego Zoo Global.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.

CONTACT: PUBLIC RELATIONS, SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL, 619-685-3291

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Three US Zoos Take Leadership Role in Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil Practices

San Diego Zoo Global logoAs part of an effort to encourage sustainable palm oil production, San Diego Zoo Global, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the Indianapolis Zoo joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and will attend the RSPO conference (RT11) in Indonesia next week. During the conference, the Zoo’s representatives will be involved in strategic planning and reviewing of RSPO criteria for certification. Additionally, they will visit RSPO-certified and non-certified palm oil plantations to further their knowledge of industry sustainable and non-sustainable practices.

“Palm oil is used in more than 50% of the manufactured items we find in the grocery store every day,” said Allison Alberts, Ph.D., chief conservation and research officer for San Diego Zoo Global’s Institute of Conservation Research. “The largest threat to orangutans and other tropical wildlife around the globe is deforestation due to agriculture, primarily the production of palm oil.”

The zoos’ memberships in the RSPO add to a growing movement among zoos to become an active voice in the palm oil crisis. Last month, a resolution was unanimously passed at the 68th annual conference of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in support of the RSPO and encourages all zoos to promote certified sustainable palm oil.

“The vision of the RSPO — to drive the sustainable palm oil agenda forward to protect our environment, wildlife and communities — is a transformative journey that involves the cooperation of an extensive group of players,” said the RSPO’s secretary-general, Darrel Webber. “We welcome the San Diego, Cheyenne Mountain and Indianapolis zoos, whose combined annual visitors exceed 7.5 million, to the RSPO and look forward to working closely with them in helping to educate the broader community about the need to support the sustainable production of palm oil,” Webber added.

Conservationists point to the increasing challenges faced by wildlife in Asia and particularly to the effect of palm oil production on high profile species like Sumatran and Bornean orangutans.

“The current generation of wild orangutans could well be the last unless we can find workable solutions for the Indonesian economy, its government and the orangutans,” said Rob Shumaker, Ph.D., the Indianapolis Zoo’s vice president of conservation and life sciences and one of the world’s foremost authorities on orangutan cognition. “RSPO and programs focused on the reforestation of orangutan habitat are critically important to saving orangutans in the wild.”

The Indianapolis Zoo will open a $25 million International Orangutan Center in May 2014.

In 2010, nearly 90% of global palm oil production occurred in Malaysia and Indonesia, and more than half of plantations established since 1990 in those two countries have occurred at the expense of natural forest. Species like orangutans depend on the Asian forests for survival. Conservationists estimate that over the last 60 years more than half of all orangutans in these countries have disappeared. The decline of the species is predicted to continue at this rate, primarily because of forest loss.

“By joining the RSPO we are leading by example and are encouraging other North American zoos to make this same commitment,” said Tracey Gazibara, vice president, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. “Together we can raise awareness about the complex issues surrounding palm oil production and fight against extinction of animals and habitats created by unsustainable practices.”

About Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoological Society was founded in 1926. Today, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, America’s ONLY mountain zoo, offers comprehensive education programs, exciting conservation efforts and truly fantastic animal experiences. It is Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s hope that guests fall in love with animals and nature, and take action to protect them. Of the 224 zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is one of just nine operating without tax support. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo depends on admissions, membership dues and donations for funding.

About Indianapolis Zoo
Located in White River State Park downtown, the Indianapolis Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the American Association of Museums as a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden. The mission of the Indianapolis Zoo is to empower people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation.

About Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
The RSPO is a not-for-profit association that brings together stakeholders from all sectors of the palm oil industry – oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, social and developmental NGOs, and environmental and nature conservation NGOs. The RSPO seeks to transform the market to make sustainable palm oil the norm.

About World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA)
World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is the unifying organization for the world zoo and aquarium community. Our more than 300 members are leading zoos, aquariums, associations, affiliate organizations and corporate partners from around the world. With more than 700 million visitors annually, together we are ‘United for Conservation.’

CONTACT: PUBLIC RELATIONS, SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL, 619-685-3291

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San Diego Zoo Global Hosts 4th Annual Bioinspiration Conference

San Diego Zoo Global logoXconomy, Athena San Diego and USD Center for Peace and Commerce added to Roster of Sponsors

On November 6 and 7, 2013, San Diego Zoo Global’s Centre for Bioinspiration is holding its fourth conference focusing on nature-inspired innovation. The two-day conference, themed “Accelerating the Development of Nature’s Solutions,” will link biological discoveries with efficient industrial development, financing and business licensing.

“Bioinspiration’s adoption in future product cycles is undeniable,” stated Paula Brock, chief financial officer, San Diego Zoo Global. “Leading experts and organizations in the field will convene this week to share the latest data and newest thinking. Participants will leave with a distinct advantage in understanding and responsibly deploying bioinspiration within their organizations and for their customers.”

Lynn Reaser, Ph.D., chief economist, Point Loma Nazarene University will speak at the conference, offering insight to how bioinspiration can have a positive impact on local economies.

At the conference, corporations (including Sprint, Burt’s Bees, Chrysler, Steelcase and Bank of America) and research institutions (including Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley) will share their bioinspired practices. Other sponsors include the University of San Diego’s Center for Peace and Commerce, and Athena San Diego, a professional growth community for women executives and rising managers in science and technology. Xconomy, a national media outlet that covers the high-tech economy, is the Bioinspiration Conference media sponsor.

The Centre for Bioinspiration is committed to generating, sharing, and applying scientific knowledge vital to the conservation of animals, plants, and habitats worldwide. To learn more about the Centre’s programs and mission, please visit bioinspiration.sandiegozoo.org.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL, PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

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Global Zoo Leaders to Convene for Conservation Psychology Institute

San Diego Zoo Global logoSan Diego Zoo Global is joining forces with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Antioch University New England to explore psychological theories and strategies for environmental conservation. The four-day Conservation Psychology Institute Workshop will bring almost 40 zoo leaders from around the world to San Diego today through October 18, 2013. Participants will be exploring how environmental worldviews and individual personalities influence the effectiveness of conservation messages.

“Successful pursuit of environmental conservation requires the cooperation and involvement of diverse community members. We need to recognize the need for effective communication of conservation messages. As such, participants in this workshop will discuss how to best work with diverse communities and organizations to reach their goals and spread their message,” said James Danoff-Burg, Ph.D., Director of Conservation Education for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “This is an opportunity to pool together a wealth of knowledge from experts throughout the world and use it to become better stewards of progress in conservation.”

The program will consist of lecture presentations, hands-on learning and interactive sessions, applied and scenario-based activities drawn from faculty and participant experiences, and one-on-one mentoring with experts. Workshops will feature instructors such as Corrin LaCombe of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, Wesley Schultz, Ph.D., from California State University, San Marcos, and Thomas Doherty, Ph.D., of Antioch University.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

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What’s in Your Backyard?

A scorpion is caught under UV light.

A scorpion is caught under UV light. Photo credit: Dr. David Aveline

The school year has started, and I’m back to student life in Los Angeles, where I’m starting the third year of my Ph.D. at UCLA. It really isn’t too far from the costal sage scrub in San Diego County where I’ve spent the last few months in the field studying the Pacific pocket mice (see Up All Night with Pocket Mice), but it feels worlds apart. For starters, I’m back on a normal schedule—I’m awake during the day and get to sleep at night! What a luxury. But being up during the nights, and hiking around outside, is a very different experience than anything I had been used to.

I have always been a little afraid of the dark—and extremely afraid of spiders!—so doing nocturnal fieldwork was never something I envisioned. Actually, it wasn’t something I had ever even thought about existing, let alone doing. But when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped right in and have become fascinated with what is happening when most of us are normally sleeping!

Many mammals are active at night. There are about eight species of rodents I regularly see in the coastal sage scrub along with tons of rabbits. Coyotes are also very busy at night; we hear them yipping and howling so often it has become a normal part of the sound landscape. Other carnivores like bobcats and mountain lions are up during the night. I haven’t spotted any myself, though I have caught a few deer in my headlamp. They have huge eyes that appear to glow bright green when the light hits them. Most nocturnal vertebrates have this eyeshine, which is caused by a reflective layer called the tapetum in their eye behind the retina. This allows light to hit the visual censor twice; once when it passes into the eye and once when it reflects off this extra layer, which lets them take maximum advantage of the available light. Humans do not have the tapetum layer, though cats and dogs do, allowing them to see much better in the dark—and sometimes giving them crazy eyes in photos taken with a flash!

In addition to mammals, owls are around during the night. They hunt rodents, so we often see them in areas where we are working. Owls have unique feathers and a wing structure that allow them to fly silently. I don’t often think of birds making a lot of noise with their wings, but it is very startling when an owl passes close by and there was nothing to warn you it was coming. This stealth tactic helps them hunt unsuspecting prey!

A tarantula hawk carries away its latest catch: a tarantula!

A tarantula hawk carries away its latest catch: a tarantula!

There are also plenty of creepy crawlies out at night. So many scorpions! We quickly discovered that scorpion burrows look a whole lot like pocket mouse burrows. Scorpions fluoresce under a UV light (black light), which we carry around with us to help identify tagged mammals. It’s amazing how much more visible they are when they are glowing bright green! Another fun fact about scorpions is the mothers give live birth to the young (called scorplings!), which then ride around on her back until their first molt, when they gain some protection from predators and can regulate their body moisture.

The most bizarre and (warning!) terrifying creatures I’ve encountered, though, are tarantula hawks. Tarantulas themselves are fairly common at certain times of year, and, while they can have a painful bite, are not particularly dangerous to humans and not at all a problem unless provoked, like being picked up or handled. Tarantula hawks are parasitic wasps that have glossy black bodies, bright orange wings, and a very menacing stinger. The female wasp captures and stings a tarantula, paralyzing but not killing it, and drags it back to her burrow. She lays an egg on the spider’s abdomen, and when the larva hatches, it burrows into the spider and feeds on it, leaving the vital organs so the spider stays alive. After a few weeks, the wasp larva pupates and eventually becomes an adult and emerges from the spider’s abdomen. I actually witnessed a tarantula hawk dragging a paralyzed tarantula toward her burrow!

These are things I imagine in the tropics, in exotic places far away. But this all goes on nightly, right here in southern California! After all these months in the field, I’m much more comfortable being outside at night, but I also appreciate nature for being both more fascinating and horrifying than ever before.

Rachel Chock is a graduate student and volunteer with San Diego Zoo Global’s Pacific pocket mouse project.