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San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research

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Female Northern White Rhino Dies in Czech Republic: Only Four of These Rhinos Remain Worldwide

Global_logo_color webThe Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic has announced that an elderly northern white rhinoceros, Nabiré, has passed away. The female rhino was born in 1983 and died July 27, 2015 from complications with a pathological cyst. Her death leaves only four northern white rhinos remaining in the world: an elderly female at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, named Nola; and three under human care at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the African nation of Kenya: a male, Sudan; and two females, Najin and Fatu.

“Our condolences go out to the Dvur Kralove Zoo for this particularly difficult loss,” said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “Watching this wonderful subspecies move one step closer to extinction breaks the hearts of all of us who have worked with and love rhinos.”

Northern white rhinos are at the brink of extinction because of poaching in Africa. Only a few have lived in zoological settings, and those animals have been largely non-reproductive.

San Diego Zoo Global is working to save the genome of this rhino subspecies through the collection of genetic material. Samples of 12 northern white rhinos are currently preserved in the Frozen Zoo® at the San Diego Zoo Global Institute for Conservation Research.

San Diego Zoo Global just received a $100,000 grant from the Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation to continue this research and rescue effort.

“After hearing about the plight of the northern white rhino, I shared San Diego Zoo Global’s plan for a genetic rescue of the species with the Scripps family,” said Doug Dawson, executive director of the Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation. “Instantly, we unanimously and enthusiastically agreed this is where we wanted to commit Miss Ellen’s philanthropic investment this year!”

In addition to the genomic research at the Institute for Conservation Research, a rhino rescue facility is being built at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to house a colony of white rhinos, to ensure the preservation of the species. Those who want to contribute toward San Diego Zoo Global’s work to end extinction of the white rhino can visit www.sandiegozoo.org/rhino.

In the wild, rhinos are killed for their horns—a unique physiological feature made up of keratin, the same material that forms human hair and fingernails. Many cultures erroneously believe the rhino horn has medicinal value, so sadly, the illegal market in horns taken from poached animals continues to thrive.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the mission of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is made accessible to children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

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

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Frog Nanny

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Tending to tadpoles means carefully monitoring water quality and providing a constant supply of food.

Frog nanny is not an official job title, but it’s been my reality this year. I’m the “nanny” for some 1,176 healthy mountain yellow-legged frog (MYLF) tadpoles.  This iconic California species is one of the most endangered frogs in North America. San Diego Zoo Global has been involved in the MYLF recovery program since 2009, and captive breeding has been an important component of our efforts to re-introduce froglets into their natural habitat in the Sierra Mountains. However, with little information on MYLF life history, the care and reproduction of these frogs in captivity presents many challenges.

I have been working on this project full-time since last October. As I enter the lab and look into the 100-gallon containers holding the result of this years’ extremely productive breeding season, a feeling of excitement and nervousness comes over me. It takes about a month and a half for MYLF embryos to hatch out into free-swimming tadpoles, and in the meantime, they require daily preening. Early in the breeding season, I start my day by counting and cataloging over 1,800 embryos. Something like picking ticks off a chimpanzee, this entails cutting through the surrounding egg jelly and extracting any unfertilized or dead embryos from neighboring healthy ones. Sitting at the dissecting microscope, I examine and record what stage of development each embryo has reached every day. By the afternoon, I am all but cross-eyed. I walk around with constant images of beautifully formed black spheres in my mind’s eye. As the embryos grow and thrive, the stress of getting them through the early stage of development is taken over by concerns for stage two of tadpole rearing.

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These black specks are mountain yellow-legged frog embryos.

So what is stage two? We begin by focusing on what tadpoles need. MYLF tadpoles require cold, clean water, constant feeding, and plenty of space to grow. Like most infants, tadpoles are voracious eaters and require a constant supply of food. If too much food is offered, it accumulates in the tank, causing water quality issues. Too little food, and big brother Jake might start nibbling on his smaller sibling Fred. Cannibalism is not uncommon in amphibian species, so all I can do to stop Jake from eating his brothers and sisters is make sure I feed him enough.

Amphibian nutrition is a work in progress, and little is known of individual species’ requirements. This year, I have gone from reproductive physiologist to dietician. Researching amphibian nutrition is complicated by the specific needs of each life stage. Luckily, I have a supporting team of professional nutritionists and a wealth of knowledge and years of experience, courtesy of Brett Baldwin and David Grubaugh, amphibian/reptile keepers at the Zoo.

Controlling water quality is another daily necessity. The difference between clean and pristine can be subtle, and can affect growth and development in ways that may not be apparent until it is too late (like during metamorphosis). Armed with the HACH colorimeter DR-900, a small team of us (Nicole Gardner, senior research associate; Bryan King, research associate; me; and our weekly volunteers, Jaia Kaelberer, Janice Hale, and Jim Marsh) conduct daily screenings of the water in which our tadpoles live. Based on data we have collected on the water quality in MYLF habitat, we have specific parameters to which we can set our water standards in the lab.

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Helping to raise new generations of mountain yellow-legged frogs is challenging, but rewarding.

They say “be careful what you wish for.” This year, we wished for a handful of MYLF egg clutches to be laid and for a couple of hundred embryos to survive. Instead, we got almost 2,000 eggs! As they grow, we become faced with a new challenge—overcrowding. To my relief, the solution becomes clear; together with our partners at the US Geological Survey and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, we decide to split our bountiful cohort of tadpoles into smaller groups. At the end of May, 711 lucky tadpoles made their triumphant way back to the wild, and 400 of their brothers and sisters stayed here with us. They will be “headstarted” and returned to the wild as froglets.

Everyone involved in this project lives and loves every moment. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a life form grow and thrive under your care. This year’s breeding season has exceeded all our expectations. If we take into account that less than one percent of MYLF tadpoles are estimated to survive to metamorphosis and only an estimated 200 adults remain in the wild, everyone currently involved in this project holds the key to this species’ survival. That can be stressful, but it is also a humbling honor. I am happy to speculate that this is going to be a good year for our MYLF program, and that I will have the chance to be part of their journey back to nature.

Natalie Calatayud is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous blog, Rocky Mountain High: Boreal Toads Going to a Place They’ve Never Been Before.

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No Ligers Here

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San Diego Zoo Global is dedicated to helping to preserve—physically and genetically—endangered species like these Malayan tigers.

“What are you drawing?”

“A liger.”

“What’s a liger?”

“It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed…bred for its skills in magic.”

Napoleon Dynamite

I began working for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in the Reproductive Physiology department in 2003. After about a year, I noticed the most commonly asked question from kids touring the lab was: “Do you make ligers here?” I think we can thank the hit movie Napoleon Dynamite for that, but as the years have gone by, the question still arises often in many different forms. I think we all are fascinated to hear about animal hybrids—the mixing of two animals of different breeds, species, or genera—but what do hybrids mean to conservation and why do we not use our advanced reproductive technologies to create them in the lab?

There are many types of hybrids that exist such as intrasubpecific hybrids between two animals of different subspecies (like Bengal and Siberian tigers), interspecific hybrids between two animals from different species (for example, lions and tigers, resulting in a “liger” or “tigon”), and intergenic hybrids between animals of different genera (as happens when sheep and goats breed, resulting in a “geep” or “shoat”). While hybridization is often thought of as a man-made phenomenon, natural hybridization does occur. Most of us are familiar with mules, which are the product of a female horse mated with a male donkey. Mules are prized for their great strength and endurance, but all male mules and most female mules are incapable of producing offspring. This is common in hybrids because their genetic material is not perfectly matched. There is also a hybrid animal called the beefalo (prized for its meat) that is the offspring of a North American bison and a cow.

Those last two examples are domestic animal hybrids that possess traits valued by humans, yet there are many issues that occur when non-domestic animals hybridize. Wild animals have evolved over millions of years through natural selection, a process that increases the probability of survival and reproduction. Hybridization, however, can result in the loss of a morphological or behavioral trait that may be necessary for survival.

An example of this is when a mule deer that uses a “stotting” escape strategy breeds with a white-tailed deer, which employs a galloping escape strategy. The hybrid offspring inherits a slow and inefficient gait, making it vulnerable to predation. And in cases where domestic cats that have gone feral breed with wild cats, the offspring are not as genetically strong and this can affect their resistance to disease.
As climate changes occur and humans modify animal habitats, wild hybridization may become common. One such example is the “grolar bear”—the offspring of a grizzly and polar bear—that was seen in Canada. This hybrid could occur more frequently as polar bears, driven from their typical range due to melting sea ice, spend more time in grizzly territory.

If hybridization sometimes seems to create a more “fit” animal or occurs in the wild occasionally, why don’t we use our laboratory skills to create them? We have the ability to inseminate the egg of one animal with sperm from another closely related species and grow an embryo that could be placed into a host female of either species. But we don’t, simply because San Diego Zoo Global’s mission is to save species worldwide by combining our expertise in animal care and conservation science with our dedication to inspiring passion for nature. We are in the business of saving species not creating new ones.

There are exceptions to this rule, such as when a population becomes so small that it can no longer sustain itself. In this case, scientists may agree that hybridization with a closely related subspecies is the only chance for survival. This has been attempted with the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit and its close cousin, the Idaho pygmy rabbit. The Florida panther population was brought back from the brink of extinction by releasing female Texas cougars into the habitat for hybridization—the result was a three-fold increase in the number of Florida panthers, and the hybrid offspring were genetically healthy, stronger, and longer-lived.

So, I am afraid you will not see any ligers or grolar bears being created in our lab but that is because we are working hard to help tigers, lions, polar bears, and grizzly bears maintain or grow their populations. We think they are pretty amazing just the way they have evolved.

Nicole Ravida is a research laboratory technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous blog, No Scientist is an Island.

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Breeding Strategies: Secretive Plovers & Gregarious Terns

Presenting food to a mate potential  mate is part of the least tern's courtship ritual.

Presenting food to a mate potential mate is part of the least tern’s courtship ritual. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG on MCB Camp Pendleton)

Both least terns and snowy plovers are ground-nesting birds that nest on barren to sparsely vegetated beaches, but they employ quite different breeding strategies. Over the past couple of months, I have been able to observe and compare these strategies while searching for and monitoring their nests.

Least terns are colonial nesters, using a “safety in numbers” approach, whereas snowy plovers use a strategy of nesting separately and being physically cryptic and secretive in behavior. Unlike the least terns, which have bright yellow bills and prominent black caps on their heads, snowy plovers have pale brown upper parts and blend in far better to their sandy surroundings making their nests less conspicuous and less likely to be discovered by predators. This also makes it much harder for us to find snowy plover nests!

If they didn't occur in such concentrations, least tern nests would be a challenge to find.

If they didn’t occur in such concentrations, the least tern’s well-camouflaged nests could be a challenge for us to find. (Photo courtesy Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

On a good day my crew members and I might find about a dozen snowy plover nests, whereas during the peak of least tern nesting we can—and have—easily found over 200 least tern nests in one day! On a particularly busy day this season, we could hardly walk more than 20 feet without discovering a new least tern nest. Calling out the nest count sounded a bit like we were bidding at an auction; sometimes several nests were found almost simultaneously with one crew member exclaiming “I’ve got nest 500!” only to be quickly followed by “501!” and a few seconds later by “502!”

Because least terns nest in large colonies of up to several hundred individuals, their nests are much more obvious, but there is a lower probability of a particular individual’s nest becoming the victim of a predator. Being in a colony also offers the additional protection of having many adults present that can mob predators. Having walked through an active least tern nesting colony, I can personally attest to the protective nature of the adults. They have threatened me with their harsh “zwreep” alarm calls, flown inches from the top of my head while dive-bombing me, and even defecated on me and my data sheets in an attempt to drive me away from their nests!

Monica Stupaczuk is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. You can learn more about this project by reading A Day in the Life of a Beach Biologist.

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A Successful Giant Panda Workshop

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Dr. Megan Jones (left) and the author (right) had a chance to see how San-Diego-Zoo-born Yun Zi is doing. (Answer: Fantastic!)

Unlike many of my San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) colleagues that have traveled to China, I wasn’t sent there to accompany one of our young pandas on their journey home. Mine was unlike any other China trip. Situated in the heart of China lies a small city with just over 600,000 people. The city of Dujiangyan is in the Sichuan Province, just 45 miles from Chengdu, the country’s 7th largest city by population. The Sichuan province is best known for their extremely spicy food, and one other thing, the giant panda!

This connection was obvious from the moment I stepped off the airplane. Littered throughout the airport are panda souvenir shops, mock habitats filled with plush giant pandas, and tourists decked out in panda garb. Several street corners in Dujiangyan are decorated with oversized giant panda statues arranged in various “panda-like” postures. Just about anything you can imagine has a panda on it. You want a panda pot holder or shower curtain? You got it—you can even pick up panda green tea and panda cigarettes.

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The workshop was held at the Dujiangyan Panda Base hospital in Sichuan.

Late last year, Dr. Megan Jones, a SDZG veterinary pathologist, and I set off to China to teach a Giant Panda Pathology International Exchange training workshop in Dujiangyan. Working with the recently built Dujiangyan Giant Panda Rescue and Disease Control and Prevention Base, which aims to rehabilitate sick and geriatric giant pandas and red pandas, we were tasked with teaching the first of a series of workshops intended to share knowledge and skills in wildlife disease surveillance, investigation, and research.

The beautiful and green-certified facility is located on 125 acres along the foothills of the bamboo forest and currently houses almost 30 giant pandas. The facility also contains a public education center filled with many creative and unique hands-on activities, including a real giant panda skeleton and—my favorite—a digital, interactive, panda necropsy table complete with an overhead surgical lamp!

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The beautiful facility was just the right venue for participants to sharpen their necropsy skills.

The pathology workshop was comprised of 25 Chinese veterinarians, managers, and technicians from 18 different panda facilities throughout China, as well as 4 interpreters and 9 instructors from various international facilities. The main focus of this workshop was developing necropsy, or post-mortem exam, skills through a series of lectures and hands-on wet labs. Necropsies are an essential tool for making accurate diagnoses and ultimately determining the cause of death, just like a human autopsy. The lab portion of the workshop enabled the participants to hone their necropsy skills using rabbits. These skills include taking accurate measurements and photos, practicing proper tissue sampling techniques for histology and future testing, and ensuring all gross lesions are accurately described and recorded in the final report.

These tools and techniques will help the Chinese determine the best conservation strategies for the giant panda populations in China. This workshop has been in the making for over 20 years! Thanks to the hard work of many experts in the field, including SDZG’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories Director, Dr. Bruce Rideout, as well as the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda, disease investigation will become an integral part of panda conservation, a necessity for any conservation plan.

This is just another great example of how the San Diego Zoo is helping the fight against extinction globally.

 

Megan Varney is a research technician with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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The Art of the Western Snowy Plover’s Nest

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Some snowy plover nests are a simple scrape in the sand, adorned with shells. (Photo: Anjanette Butler, SDZG on MCB Camp Pendleton)

Unlike most beach-nesting shorebirds, the western snowy plover has taken nesting to the level of an art form. I have been monitoring this threatened species during the nesting season as part of my job as a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Previously, I primarily searched for snowy plover nests along the Oregon Dunes, as well as California beaches with dune habitat. Our current study site at Marine Corps Base (MCB) Camp Pendleton offers a more diverse habitat.

Because of their nesting strategy, I become more intrigued with snowy plovers the more I get to work with these resilient birds. Before the eggs are laid, the male creates some nests by making various circular scrapes in the sand and the female selects the one she likes best. I have seen some of these simple nests adorned with decorative shells, others that incorporate the available vegetation along the dunes, and even quite a few containing woody debris that can be found concentrated along the creeks.

I’ve been impressed by how well the plovers use the resources—both natural and manmade—available to them. Last year, lobster traps sometimes washed up on beaches we were studying in Ventura, California and a plover used one of them as a nest site. The lobster traps looked very much like the mini-exclosures we use to protect nesting birds from predators. Made of wire mesh and shaped like a square (with small openings so the adult plovers can exit when needed); we place an exclosure over a plover nest until the chicks hatch. Apparently, the plovers there had gotten used to the protection offered by the exclosures, and the nesting pair that used the lobster trap did indeed successfully hatch and raise their chicks.

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Western snowy plovers are adaptable, using available resources when nesting. (Photo: Anjanette Butler, SDZG on MCB Camp Pendleton)

In contrast, our study site at MCB Camp Pendleton is more remote, so the birds there must rely on the available natural resources when selecting a nesting site. This year, we have some birds nesting along a creek. I could not believe how well one of the nests blended in with the woody debris and rocks around it—I almost did not see it at first! I feel so good when the birds’ hard work pays off and we get to see their chicks hatch. Hopefully, they will survive and continue in their parents’ footsteps.

Western snowy plovers face many challenges each day. Predators like crows and ravens, intelligent birds that are great problem solvers, are a constant threat to the plovers. It is possible that the plovers are sometimes testing out ways to keep these and other predators from locating their nests. This might seem like an obvious observation, but shrinking habitat availability in critical plover habitat can create the need for the plovers to find new ways to adapt to disturbances. It is vitally important for us as individuals to respect these birds during this busy nesting season on the beach.

I look forward to more discoveries while monitoring the western snowy plovers and their chicks on the beach.

Anjanette Butler is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Condor Cam Chick’s First Health Exam

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The Condor Cam chick is currently about the size of a bowling ball!

 

On Tuesday, May 26, our California condor chick received its first health exam. We normally conduct this exam at around 45 days of age. The goal was to obtain a blood sample for our labs, administer a vaccine for West Nile virus, inject a microchip for identification, and weigh the chick.

The first step in this process is to separate the parents from the chick. Of course, the parents—father Sisquoc and mother Shatash—don’t want any invaders in the nest and do their best to defend the chick and keep it safe, as all good parents will do. Adjacent to the flight pen, we have a shift pen. Shift pens are used to safely and calmly move large or dangerous animals from one area to another. Other animals at the Safari Park that are moved with shift pens include lions, gorillas, bighorn sheep, and others. That’s why you never see any keepers in the exhibits at the same time with these animals. We offer all of the condors’ diet in the shift pen, so Sisquoc and Shatash are very comfortable entering this spot for every meal. On the day of the exam, we shifted Sisquoc into the pen and kept him there until after the health check was completed. From the shift pen, he cannot see the nest area so he was unaware that we were even in his nest, thus keeping him very calm. He ate and waited patiently until he had access back into his flight pen.

Shatash was not shifted, but instead was able to see us go into her nest. We posted one keeper in the nest entryway to keep Shatash out, while another keeper entered the nest and covered the little chick with a towel. This is the first time that the 46-day-old chick had ever seen a person, and it was understandably nervous and defensive—hissing and lunging at the intruder. Yet once under the cover of the towel, the chick could not see and calmed down. It was then brought into the adjoining vestibule where our veterinary staff was waiting.

First, the veterinarian obtained a blood sample from the chick’s leg. This sample will be sent to the lab to make sure that the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research can use the sample to determine if the chick is male or female.

Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered. West Nile virus is disease that originated in Africa and was accidentally introduced to North America by humans. North American animals, including condors, usually don’t have a natural immune response to West Nile Virus, so we are trying to give the chicks as much of a head start as we can.

Then a microchip was injected under the chick’s skin. This chip is a form of identification, the same kind you can get for your dog or cat at the veterinarian.

The veterinarian then did a quick health assessment, checking the chick’s eyes, nares (nostrils), beak, feet, legs, wings, and abdomen.

Lastly, we weighed the chick to make sure it was growing on schedule.

While the exam took place, a third keeper was able to enter the nest to clean the camera domes and make sure there were no hazards in the nest cavity. The whole exam, from capture to release, took approximately 16 minutes.

Once the exam was over, the chick was returned to the nest and Shatash was allowed to approach and check on her baby. As previously mentioned, the chick was rightfully disturbed by this process, despite our best intentions to minimize stress. Although we feel bad that the chick was so nervous, it is actually good that it was not comfortable in our presence. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want the young condor to become accustomed to or feel reassured by humans; we want it to be a wild condor, uninterested in and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico. Condors that show an affinity for humans seldom survive in the wild.

For several minutes, the chick showed defensive posture, hissing at everything it saw, even its mother. Shatash slowly approached her chick and calmly preened it, eventually soothing it. That is the reason we shifted only one parent; we wanted the other parent present to calm the chick after the exam. After only about two minutes, the chick was showing proper begging behavior, resulting in a feeding session from Shatash. With everyone appearing calmer, Sisquoc was let out of his shift pen. Approximately five minutes later, he approached the nest to peek in on the chick and then returned to the shift pen to eat some more. Afterwards, he went back to the nest and fed the chick.

So far, the health exam looks to have been successful. Hopefully, the blood work will show that the chick is healthy. The veterinarian’s initial inspection looked great; the chick’s eyes and nares were clear, the feet, legs and wings were solid, and vitality was very strong. The chick weighed  7 pounds (3.16 kilograms) and was approximately the size of a bowling ball. We hope to receive the sex results from the Genetics Lab soon. When we do, we’ll let you know if the chick is a male or a female.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, California Condor Chick: 30 to 45 days of Age.

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Tiny Backpacks on Small Owls Helps Conservation

Global_logo_color webConservationists working with the San Diego Zoo Global Institute of Conservation Research are using pint-size data tracking systems to monitor the movements and social systems of burrowing owls in San Diego County.  The tracking mechanisms are placed in tiny backpacks carried by each owl.

“The backpacks are small enough that they are not affecting the birds,” said Colleen Wisinski, lead researcher for San Diego Zoo Global. “The information we are collecting will be critical to scientific management of this species through adding to our understanding of social structure and movement.”

Burrowing owls are small diurnal birds that live in burrows in the ground throughout much of the southwestern United States.  Predatory in nature but small in stature, the cute owls catch insects and small rodents for food.  In recent years, conservationists have become increasingly concerned as populations appear to be shrinking.  San Diego Zoo Global researchers are working to understand the species’ lifestyle so that future conservation efforts can be most effective.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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100-Year-Old Turtle Given Last Chance to Breed; Only 4 Left of Giant Turtle Species

Global_logo_color webA female Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) – potentially the last female of her species – has been artificially inseminated at the Suzhou Zoo in China. The procedure, an international effort, brought together top scientists from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), San Diego Zoo Global, Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Bronx Zoo, Changsha Zoo, Suzhou Zoo and the China Zoo Association, and provides a ray of hope in a continuing effort to save the world’s most endangered turtle.

WCS China Reptile Program Director and coordinator of the Rafetus swinhoei breeding program, Dr. Lu Shunqing, mediated the program agreement among the partners and has coordinated the program during the past eight years.

“We had to find out if the last known male in China no longer produces viable sperm due to old age or an inability to inseminate the female,” said Dr. Gerald Kuchling, organizer of the artificial insemination effort and Rafetus breeding program leader for the TSA.

There are four Yangtze giant softshell turtles remaining in existence – two in Vietnam (both thought to be males) and two in China at the Suzhou Zoo (a male and female). The male and female—both believed to be greater than 100 years of age—were brought together in 2008 as part of a captive breeding program designed to recover the species. Although the two turtles have displayed courting behavior, eggs laid by the female were infertile.

To determine the cause of the infertility, Suzhou Zoo, Changsha Zoo, and the China Zoo Association requested TSA assemble a team of scientists to conduct a reproductive evaluation of the male, collect semen, determine if he had viable sperm, and, if viable sperm could be demonstrated, artificially inseminate the female.

During the process, the male was determined to have damaged sex organs, perhaps due to a fight with another male decades ago. For this reason, the scientists believe the male incapable of inseminating the female, and therefore, fertilizing the eggs.

“Normal semen parameters for Rafetus are unknown as this was the first attempt to collect and examine sperm from this species,” said Dr. Barbara Durrant, Director of Reproductive Physiology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “The semen evaluation revealed that approximately half of the sperm were motile.”

This attempt marks the first time artificial insemination has been tried with any softshell turtle species and, based on results of insemination attempts with other turtles, the odds are not good for success. With natural breeding unsuccessful however, the scientists felt it was time to explore this option. Both turtles recovered from the procedure in good condition.

“This was a great exploration to advance the conservation of Rafetus swinhoei, however, we can not yet determine if the exploration was successful or not,” said Director Chen Daqing of Suzhou Zoo. The female will lay the eggs in a few weeks and in a couple of weeks after that, the scientists will know if the eggs are fertile.

Listed at the top of the World Conservation Union’s Red List, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the most critically endangered turtle in the world. Its status in the wild has long been recognized as grim, but extinction risk now is believed higher than ever. Much of its demise has been attributed to over-harvesting and habitat degradation.

The Turtle Survival Alliance is transforming passion for turtles into effective conservation action through a global network of living collections and recovery programs.  The Turtle Survival Alliance envisions a future with zero turtle extinctions.  To achieve our mission, the Turtle Survival Alliance is restoring populations in the wild, where possible, building capacity to resolve, secure and conserve species within their range country, and securing species in captivity through breeding programs, both in and outside the range country.

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. WCS envisions a world where wildlife thrives in healthy lands and seas, valued by societies that embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on Earth. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in more than 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Bones on the Beach

The team repositions the whale skull for better access for cleaning, measuring, and sample collection.

The team repositions the whale skull for better access for cleaning, measuring, and sample collection.

The Wildlife Disease Laboratories of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) have had a long-time working relationship. So when Scott Tremor, the mammologist at SDNHM and a long-time friend of mine, called me in March to tell me about his latest adventure and make an interesting proposition, we were intrigued. A 30-foot-long juvenile humpback whale had died, and the carcass had washed ashore at Pelican Point, on the tip of Point Loma. Humpback whales are relatively rare off San Diego’s coastline, so the museum wanted to preserve the specimen for its collection. It had laid on the beach in the sun for over a month, and Scott was collecting volunteers to help clean the bones.

Having never necropsied a whale and being unfamiliar with the anatomy, I thought it would an amazing experience. This rare opportunity also enticed a few coworkers and two pathologists (Dr. Jenny Bernard, Dr. Andrew Cartocetti, Megan Varney, and Rachael Keeler) to put on their Tyvek® suits and boots and help out. With the warning that the carcass may have washed away overnight and may not be there when we arrived, we met up with other volunteers at the San Diego Natural History Museum and headed to the beach.

Pelican Point is a relatively narrow beach surrounded by a high cliff. This beautiful spot, part of Cabrillo National Monument, is closed to the public—the only way to reach it is down a cliff wall using a knotted rope. We timed our excursion to coincide with low tide, so we could access the beach and the whale. There, we were met by Southwest Fisheries Science Center employees, who are responsible for testing tissues and collecting measurements on all beached cetaceans. Dr. Thomas Deméré, curator of paleontology at the SDNHM, led us through the process. One of his areas of expertise and interest is in the evolutionary history of baleen whales, also known as the mysticetes. He explained that baleen species (humpback, fin, blue, minke, right, and grey whales) are filter feeders, but have all evolved different feeding strategies. Fossil evidence shows that all baleen species evolved from toothed whales. In studying today’s mysticetes , scientists have discovered that baleen whale embryos develop upper and lower teeth that simply never erupt. At some point the teeth are reabsorbed and baleen is formed. Because baleen is made of keratin, it rarely fossilizes and has not been studied much—making it important on this excursion to comb the beach in search of the sloughed baleen in addition to recovering the whale’s bones.

When we arrived, the whale looked like a white-grey mound. The goal of the day was to disarticulate the skull from the body and move it to the base of the cliff. Naturally, the tide washing over the carcass had removed some of the flesh exposing some bone, but there was still a lot of work to be done. The soft, rubbery flesh was hard to cut through and the sand dulled our knives immediately. Tom was amazing at directing us the best way to maneuver the skull so we could cut away the muscles. In the end, the strength and endurance of so many people accomplished our goal; we separated and lifted the 300-pound skull to a safe place on nearby rocks. All the while, a pleasant breeze of fresh ocean air kept the smell away. It wasn’t until later in the car ride home we realized we smelled like the hold of a fishing boat!

As you would expect, Scott and his volunteers made many more trips to the beach to recover as many bones as possible, stacking them at the base of the cliff. On April 14, the skull was placed in a sling, and the U.S. Coast Guard airlifted it first to a nearby parking lot, then on to a spot where it was buried so local insects could finish cleaning the bones. All of the other bones were carefully moved assembly-line style by a group of volunteers. It was front-page news in the local media that day! What a great opportunity we had collaborating with our neighbors at the San Diego Natural History Museum to turn a tragedy into valuable learning experience.

 

April Gorrow is a senior pathology technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous blog, Nature’s Excellent Engineering Feat: The Egg.