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San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research

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Polar Bear Tatqiq Wears It Well

Tatqiq wears a collar

Tatqiq wears a collar for conservation science.

If you visit the San Diego Zoo’s Polar Bear Plunge these days, you might see something new: Tatqiq is wearing a white collar! While Tatqiq seems to be enjoying both wearing this new accessory and the training involved in putting it on and taking it off every day, our motives for having her wear it are focused on conservation science. Tatqiq will be contributing to research led by the U.S. Geological Survey focused on developing a better understanding of the behavior of wild polar bears in Alaska. These data will help us refine our understanding of how sea ice losses driven by climate change will impact polar bears.

The current configuration of the collar is simple: a thick and flexible plastic strap held together with a pair of zip ties, so Tatqiq can remove the collar easily if she wants to. If the collar is pulled, it will immediately loosen and fall off. However, this collar will soon be instrumented with a small accelerometer (the same technology that allows your smart phone to automatically adjust its screen orientation) that will provide scientists with information regarding the behavior of the bear wearing the collar. Because the polar bear’s Arctic sea ice has historically made it near impossible to make direct observations of polar bear behavior in the wild, the data we gain from the accelerometer will provide new insights into their daily behavior, movements, and energetic needs.

Held together with zip ties, the collar can easily come off if needed.

Held together with zip ties, the collar can easily be removed by Tatqiq if it bothers her.

“Radio-collars” have been used to track wildlife for decades and were initially developed to study the movements and infer the behavior of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. These early studies provided wildlife scientists with data that revolutionized our understanding of how individual bears moved about the landscape, and in so doing, helped us develop a much better understanding of what their habitat needs might be.

Since that time, the technology used to track wildlife has changed quite a bit, but the collar itself is still most commonly used to mount tracking devices and other instrumentation. With the advent of GPS collars (instead of VHF transmitters), the precision and quantity of the data we can collect on a wide array of animals has greatly expanded. The data collected by the instrumentation on these collars can also be downloaded remotely and frequently, allowing scientists and non-scientists alike the opportunity to track animals in the most remote corners of the Earth in real time and from the comfort of their own home or office.

While movement and location data are valuable, they only tell us part of the story. By studying behavior, we gain more insight into how animals interact with their environment and why different degrees of environmental change may differentially influence their chances of successful reproduction or survival. While baseline data can tell us about the range of behaviors an animal may engage in under a range of “normal conditions,” data collected under challenging environmental conditions can tell us much about the limits of a species’ ability to cope with their new environment and help us better predict what their limits might be. This work is part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative.

We hope the collar...

We hope Tatqiq will help us test this new technology for studying wild polar bears.

The polar bear exemplifies the challenges associated with studying and protecting wildlife in our rapidly changing world. The Arctic sea ice, the habitat that the polar bear completely depends on for survival, is disappearing at an alarming rate. These habitat losses are driving population declines across the polar bear’s range, but some subpopulations are being hit harder than others. For example, recent results published from a long-term study of wild polar bears showed that the Alaskan population of bears from the Southern Beaufort Sea had declined by about 40 percent since the year 2000. Forty percent! That is a tremendous decrease and double the level of the most dire estimates that have come out of the last three decades of monitoring.

Tatqiq has always been a great conservation ambassador for polar bears everywhere. Visitors to the San Diego Zoo who have spent time watching Tatqiq (and Chinook and Kalluk) know that she is playful and engaged and demonstrates a range of behaviors that provide insights into the intelligence of these majestic bears. Now, Tatqiq will be helping us better understand how we can apply technology to better understand the behavior of wild bears. She wears it well!

Megan Owen is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi.

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Protected Habitat in Southern California

A Stephen's kangaroo rat is checked out in the field.

Researchers examine a Stephen’s kangaroo rat in the field.

It’s the middle of November, the holidays are approaching, and 2014 is quickly coming to a close. Normally, I would be done with fieldwork by this time of year, since the Pacific and Los Angeles pocket mice that I study are probably already hibernating (see Where are Pocket Mice during Winter?). Since our Southern California winter hasn’t seemed to hit yet (it is still warm here, even by our standards!), I was able to squeeze in one more week to check out a new potential field site for the spring.

This new site is a California State Wildlife Area, a little piece of land next to a State Park but otherwise surrounded by a freeway, cropland, and cattle farms. Over five nights we caught five species of small mammals, including endangered Stephen’s kangaroo rats, from which we collected genetic samples. My field site this summer was a different State Wildlife Area, and in addition to the small mammals I saw badgers (see Badger and Coyote Caught on Camera), bobcats, foxes, and a spotted skunk.

A spotted skunk is "captured" by a camera trap in a State Wildlife Area.

A spotted skunk is “captured” by a camera trap in a State Wildlife Area.

Prior to starting my fieldwork in Southern California, I hadn’t known much about these 600,000 acres of designated wildlife areas in the state. In addition to our state and national parks, these protected areas make up the primary habitat for many of our local threatened and endangered species. San Diego Zoo Global provides a lot of the conservation research and a great opportunity to view some of these species at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, like the Peninsular bighorn sheep (see Bighorn Sheep Roundup Furthers Conservation Research). Only an hour or so from the Safari Park, they are roaming free in Anza-Borrego State Park!

Bighorn sheep lambs frolic.

Bighorn sheep lambs frolic.

Seeing animals in the wild, particularly endangered species that scientists have been working so hard to save, is such a treat. The opportunity to visit areas that are set aside and safe from development and to be able to see these animals in their native habitat is definitely something I am thankful for!

Rachel Chock is a graduate student and volunteer with San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Pacific pocket mouse project. Read her previous post, Pocket Mice Powerhouses.

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Meeting Endangered Birds on a Tropical Island Getaway

The view as we drove the winding road to the Maui Bird Conservation Center was stunning!

The view as we drove the winding road to the Maui Bird Conservation Center was stunning!

As a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo, I always tell our guests that San Diego Zoo Global has dozens of conservation projects worldwide. But until recently I had never gotten to experience any of our off-site programs. While planning a vacation to the islands of Lanai and Maui in Hawaii, I realized “Hey—we have that bird facility over there!” I had heard about the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) and the work they do with critically endangered Hawaiian bird species, and I was lucky to be able to visit the MBCC, even though the facility is typically closed to the public.

At left are the bird holding areas.

At left are the bird holding areas.

My companion and I drove straight from the Lanai ferry up an exceedingly narrow and twisty road with some amazing vistas to the Maui Bird Conservation Center, stopping first to pick up some thank-you donuts for the staff. If there’s one thing I know about zoo folk, they love surprise yummy treats, and the reception the donuts got was very gratifying! The MBCC has only a few permanent staff, supplemented by a handful of post-college interns each year. They do everything themselves, including mowing the lawn and caring for the two back-up generators. The interns live on site and are allowed to borrow the car to go into town just twice per week.

We were met by Michelle Smith, who gave us a fantastic tour of the facility and answered all of our questions. The first thing I learned was that the MBCC’s facility is a former minimum-security prison! Its clinic is located in the prison’s old dentist’s office and is fully equipped with an X-ray machine and a complete stock of medicines regulated and monitored by San Diego Zoo veterinarians. Michelle told us that they are able to contact a vet 24-hours per day, and one visits every six months to do a comprehensive check-up on all the birds. Most of the day-to-day medical issues are handled by the MBCC staff, and they’ve even had emergency procedures narrated to them over the phone by the Zoo’s veterinarians!

An intern prepares bird diets at the MBCC, a task I can relate to!

An intern prepares bird diets at the MBCC, a task I can relate to!

Although it was not breeding season for any of the birds, Michelle was able to show us their old but functional incubators. Eggs are transported from the nest to the incubator in a warm thermos full of millet seed! There is also an intensive care unit, like an incubator for premature human babies, where the young chicks grow. Alala and kiwikiu chicks are fed with a hand puppet so they don’t associate food with humans. Eggs that are hand-incubated are cared for intensively and every change recorded in detail. Rate of water loss is very important to monitor, and a machine called an Egg Buddy can even sense and record the heartbeat of the unborn chicks. Michelle explained the hatching process and some of the interventions that the staff has to do to help chicks hatch.

We peeked in on an intern making diets, a process that I am very familiar with! The birds eat mostly fruits and some insects. The alala get some mice because in the wild they would eat eggs and nestlings, though they eat much more fruit than other species of crows. The birds’ diets are put in bowls and served up on stainless-steel trays left over from the prison!

We saw a handsome adult male and three juvenile palila. In the wild, they eat only the pods and grubs found on the mamane tree and are very tenacious about their territory; that is, you can't move them from a dangerous area, because they'll just go back.

We saw a handsome adult male and three juvenile palila. In the wild, they eat only the pods and grubs found on the mamane tree and are very tenacious about their territory; that is, you can’t move them from a dangerous area, because they’ll just go back.

To actually see the birds, we walked down a dirt pathway past a (nonnative) pine grove. The air was surprisingly cool and fresh, due to our elevation on the northwestern slope of Mount Haleakala above the “cowboy town” of Makawao. The MBCC is on state-owned land, and the developed part is about eight acres. We got to enter “Forest Bird Barn I” to see three small forest bird species. I was interested to learn that the four species at the MBCC are from all around Hawaii, not just Maui itself.

The palila is a pretty little gray bird with a yellow head, found only on the high-elevation slopes of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii. The puaiohi or small Kauai thrush is an un-prepossessing brown bird. Puaiohi are easy to raise, and are the species that new staff gets to work with first. The kiwikiu was called the Maui parrotbill until recently, when it was given a Hawaiian name. It’s a really cute little bird with a big bill reminiscent of a parrot’s.

Leaving the Forest Bird building, we went to look at the stars of the MBCC: the alala or Hawaiian crows, which are Extinct In The Wild. I capitalized that because I felt awestruck to get to see these birds. There are only 114 alala on the planet, 42 of which are at the MBCC, and the rest of which are on the Island of Hawaii at MBCC’s sister facility, the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, with one exception. They are strikingly different from regular crows in size, and they made a variety of startlingly loud and odd vocalizations the whole time we were there.

It is considered the only Kauai forest bird with a stable population – even though that population is only 500 individuals. This bird is not being bred at the MBCC very much, because they are stable in the wild - however, observations of the wild birds are very important to ensure that the population is truly sustainable.

The puaiohi is considered the only Kauai forest bird with a stable population, even though that population is only 500 individuals.

The only alala not in Hawaii is Kinohi, who lives in California at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research! He is extremely valuable genetically because his mother, a founder, has no other offspring and neither does he. If we can get babies from Kinohi, it will increase the genetic pool by a whole other crow. The problem is that Kinohe is imprinted and not willing to breed with female crows. Scientists at the Institute have been working to get semen samples from him, but Kinohi has been producing only low concentrations of sperm. (see post Alala: We’re Getting Closer.) Michelle was hopeful that they will one day be able to try artificial insemination with a sample from Kinohi. The odds are stacked against it, but I think that if anyone can do it, our scientists can!

I was very impressed by the facility, which was clean and neat. The staff was so kind and excited about having us, I felt like a VIP! It was really special to get to see the birds and hear all about them, especially since the MBCC is typically closed to the public. At the same time, it was sad to hear about the challenges that these species face across all the islands but heartening to hear the determination and enthusiasm shared by the staff. I would encourage anyone to visit during the MBCC’s annual open house if you find yourself on Maui early next November!

Susan Patch is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.

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A Student’s Day at Cocha Cashu’s Field Ecology Training Course

A local Matsigenka child peers into the classroom to see what we are discussing.

A local Matsigenka child peers into the classroom to see what we are discussing.

Read Ron’s previous post, Would a Three-month Course in Remote Amazonian Field Site Change Your Life?

To convey something of what it’s like for a student participating in our field ecology training course at our Amazonian biological station, Cocha Cashu, in Peru, I’m sharing some of the details of what a typical day might be like for one of the lucky 10 students participating in this three-month crash course in tropical ecology and research methods.

4:40 a.m.
The student awakens to the distant roaring calls of the red howler monkey. If he didn’t know better, he would think he was hearing the roar of some ancient ferocious beast. He stretches and collects his thoughts for the day. What wonders will await him today…and what deprivations might he endure? He’s still tired from the late-night discussions about animal census techniques from last night.

6 a.m.
After conferring with some of his classmates about their to-do list for their group project on measuring mammal abundance and diversity, he pours a cup of coffee and enjoys a breakfast omelet. The topic of conversation is the sighting of the deadly bushmaster on a trail near their tent last night.

Camera trap photos reveal a nocturnal world rich with large mammals such as this giant anteater and her young.

Camera trap photos reveal a nocturnal world rich with large mammals such as this giant anteater and her young.

6:45 a.m.
The class gathers around their charismatic instructor, Cesar, for a briefing of today’s activities. He explains that today they will learn how to establish a vegetation plot to measure forest dynamics. He probes them with questions, asking them to explain how such data could be useful for understanding forest ecology and conservation. Then they begin the 2.5-mile (4 kilometers) trek to the site of today’s exercise. Along the way, he spots five species of monkeys, including the long-armed spider monkey that swings down low for a better look, the contentious capuchin monkey that dares to issue a threat against him, and the passive howler monkey that gazes complacently while it digests its last meal of leaves.

7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The student and his classmates lay out the dimension of the plot, using a measuring tape and a compass. Precision is key, as the size of the plot must be standardized so it can be used to accurately assess the characteristics of the forest for comparison across time and space. Then begins the laborious process of measuring every tree, obtaining measures of “diameter at breast height,” tree height, tree density, and species diversity. The last measure, requiring the assistance of an instructor renowned for his knowledge of tree taxonomy, will fascinate him, as they will find that a single acre (hectare) of this forest will contain about 150 tree species. That’s more species than found in all of California!

1 p.m.
Tired, but full of data and new ideas about how this forest works, the class begins the journey back to camp for a late lunch. Ambling along, feet dragging from weariness, he spies some movement in the leaf litter by the trail. Upon closer inspection, he sees it is a lump of wriggling feathers, golden in hue. Startled, the ball of feathers breaks apart and becomes two birds that fly to a nearby branch. One seems to be courting the other, so he infers that he was witnessing mating. He flips through his field guide and learns that the birds were gilded barbets. I will have to write this in my journal tonight, he thinks, and later he’ll share his observations with the rest of the class.

Students share a meal with famed conservationist John Terborgh.

Students chat with famed conservationist John Terborgh. Photo credit: Dano Grayson

2:30 p.m.
Following lunch, he wishes he had time for a nap, but there is no rest for the weary. The class gathers into small groups to discuss their mammal data collect during their “line-transect” exercise last week. A report on the conclusions is due tomorrow. They have heated discussions about what the data mean and select the proper method for analyzing their data, occasionally getting assistance from one of the instructors.

5:30 p.m.
Satisfied with their conclusions, the group members break up, and he heads for the cocha (oxbow lake) for a quick dip to cool off, first scanning the water for caiman and hoping the piranhas are not hungry.

6:30 p.m.
Dinner time. The food is simple but wholesome and after the day’s efforts tastes better than it would at home. During dinner, he listens with fascination as one of his instructors tells stories of her time studying monkeys in faraway Indonesia and another student recounts her time spent studying birds in another part of the Amazon. Something resonates with him, and he makes a mental note: I want to do something like that for my independent research project. He’ll need to choose carefully, because he will invest more than two months of his life collecting data to answer his question of choosing.

Cocha Cashu staffer Fortunato shares a meal with local children in the Maizal Matsigenka community.

Cocha Cashu staffer Fortunato shares a meal with local children in the Maizal Matsigenka community.

8 p.m.
After cleaning his dishes, he settles in for the night’s lecture. In the past two weeks he’s heard from six different scientists. Most of them have told about their research experience here at Cocha Cashu, but some visiting scientists bring research tales from as far away as the North American arctic and China (the latter being from my own research experience with giant pandas). Tonight, he will learn about the scientific method: how to develop research questions, articulate hypotheses, and design studies to test them. To him, it’s a bit of a yawner, but he knows it’s important to learn if he is going to develop and test his own hypotheses.

10 p.m.
Finally, it’s bed time. Exhausted but excited about the day’s events, he heads down the little trail toward his tent, scanning with his headlamp for snakes, eyes glowing in the forest, or something else of interest. It doesn’t take him long to drift off to sleep, serenaded by a host of cicadas, crickets, frogs, and occasional unknown and eerie sounds of the night. Tomorrow, he knows, will be another big day.

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D., is the Brown Chair/Director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru.

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Helping Vaquita Porpoises

We are working with teachers and students in San Felipe, Mexico, to address the human dimension of conservation.

We are working with teachers and students in San Felipe, Mexico, to address the human dimension of conservation in an effort to help save the vaquita.

What do Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, and California condors have in common? They are threatened, priority species for San Diego Zoo Global conservation initiatives in Baja California, Mexico, and are united under a new community-based conservation initiative of the Conservation Education Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

The extraordinary Baja California peninsula contains a unique array of biodiversity that is a nature lover’s paradise. However, much of the biodiversity is threatened due to increasing human activities, and we must place ever-more importance on working with the local people to become protectors and stewards of the land. You may have caught wind of the program “From the Ridge to the Reef” (Del mar a las montanas in Spanish) in the September 2014 issue of ZOONOOZ, as we are excited to team up with researchers working all over Baja to help address the human dimension of conservation of these important species.

Teachers work together to review a curriculum designed specifically for the region with their help and with priority species in mind.

Teachers work together to review a curriculum designed specifically for the region with their help and with priority species in mind.

There is one species, in particular, so close to extinction that we felt compelled to begin work with communities immediately. On the eastern side of the Baja peninsula in the northern Gulf of California (or Sea of Cortez) exists the most endangered porpoise in the world. The vaquita marina Phocoena sinus is inadvertently caught in nets intended for fish and shrimp, including a lot of illegal fishing, and recent population estimates are at fewer than 100 individuals.

We have begun working with teachers and students in San Felipe, BC, and our last trip to San Felipe was a huge success. Our new postdoctoral fellow, Jenny Glikman, and I conducted a teacher-training workshop with 15 teachers from 4 different schools. This involved brainstorms and discussions on current and future implementation of environmental education activities, the adaptation of curriculum developed specifically for the Ridge to Reef program, and teacher-led creation of conservation project proposals that their students will implement and share with the community. We have also begun collaborating with local organizations already on the ground and part of the community, including the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans.

Teacher attendees of the Ridge to Reef workshop pose with facilitators while sporting a parting gift:  "Del Mar a las Montanas" hats.

Teacher attendees of the Ridge to Reef workshop pose with facilitators while sporting a parting gift: “Del Mar a las Montanas” hats.

We are working with UCSD’s Engineers for Exploration (E4E), who are developing technologies to take photo and video of vaquitas, as we have nearly none. In September, David O’Connor of Conservation Education collected water visibility measurements to get an idea of clarity where the cameras will be deployed. Read more about this in a special blog by the E4E crew themselves!

This is still the beginning of what is shaping up to be an exciting collaboration between a variety of scientists and local teachers, students, and those who make a living from fishing, and there is hope for the future of the vaquita and Baja’s treasures. You can help by sharing information about the plight of the vaquita (find out more here), supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy, and purchasing products coming from sustainable fisheries (the United States is one of the largest markets for Mexican fish and shrimp). With less than 100 of these beautiful, mysterious, and ecologically important porpoises left, urgent action is required, and culturally conscious, grass roots, community-based conservation—whether local to San Diego or international—is how we’re going to make a stand against disappearing species.

Samantha Young is a research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Across the Pacific in 60 Days.

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Northern White Rhinos in Peril

Nola is one of two northern white rhinos living at the Safari Park and one of just six in the world.

Nola is one of two northern white rhinos living at the Safari Park and one of just six in the world.

Rhino-lovers worldwide suffered a tragic loss last week. It is with a heavy heart that I report the passing of Suni, a male northern white rhino living at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Suni died a natural death at age 34 on October 18, 2014, leaving only six northern white rhinos in the world. This subspecies is critically endangered and is extinct in the wild: three remain at the conservancy in Kenya, a zoo in the Czech Republic houses one, and two live at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Northern white rhinos are in peril because of poaching. Some cultures believe that rhino horn is medicine, which drives the price per ounce higher than that of gold. Rhino horn is actually made of keratin, which is the same substance that your nails and hair are made of. In addition, there are sustainable, FDA-approved medicinal alternatives to rhino horn, such as aspirin and Viagra. But that has not stopped the terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates who use poaching as a means to fund their illicit activities.

Northern white rhinos have had an exceptionally troublesome history. Their cousins, the southern white rhinos, are also highly poached for their horns. However, in 1929, the South African government interceded on behalf of these rhinos and hired the poachers as game wardens to protect the rhinos. The poachers at the time were impoverished farmers, so offering them an alternative source of income meant that they no longer needed to poach to supplement their livelihoods. This strategy worked: 40 years later, the number of rhinos in South Africa increased tenfold. North Africa was unable to employ a similar strategy to help the northern white rhinos because North African countries at the time were fraught with civil war, poverty, and disease. Governments were so worried about keeping their citizens alive that they had little time or money to spare for the rhinos. And, until recently, scientists thought northern and southern white rhinos were the same species, so this lack of funds did not seem important.

Our Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos.

Our Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos.

Dr. Oliver Ryder at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research discovered that northern white rhinos are a separate subspecies by examining mitochondrial DNA. Even though this subspecies will go extinct in our lifetime, the Institute for Conservation Research has created a ray of hope for the future in its Frozen Zoo®.

The Frozen Zoo contains viable cell cultures from many different species that have been cryogenically frozen in liquid nitrogen (think Han Solo in Star Wars). The Frozen Zoo houses the genetic material of 12 northern white rhinos; from these samples, scientists like Dr. Ryder can generate pluripotent stem cells. These cells can be triggered to create any tissue in the body. Such technical advances make southern white rhino surrogacy and cloning possibilities for the future of northern white rhinos.

In the meantime, guests can visit two of the world’s remaining six northern white rhinos at the Safari Park. Nola, a female born in 1974, lives in the South Africa field exhibit; Angalifu, a male born in 1972, lives in the Central Africa field exhibit. Both of them are past breeding age, so they are living quiet lives of retirement with the other wildlife in their field habitats. Guests can see these two unique rhinos by taking the Africa Tram tour, a Cart Safari, or a Caravan Safari.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide. Read her previous post, Who Likes Rain: Giraffes, Rhinos, or Elephants?

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Pandas Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi

Do you remember when Yun Zi turned 3?

Do you remember when Yun Zi turned 3?

Many of you have been wondering how some of our San Diego Zoo-born pandas are doing since their arrival in China. We are happy to report that both Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi are doing very well!

Zhen Zhen, now 7 years old, lives in Wolong’s Bi Feng Xia panda base. She gave birth back on August 24, her first surviving cub (she gave birth to a stillborn cub in 2013). Mother and cub are both doing great. Her cub, born at 6.9 ounces (194.5 grams) now weighs a healthy 6.6 pounds (3,000 grams)! The behavior of Zhen Zhen and her cub has been normal, and the increase in body weight certainly tells us that this young panda is getting plenty to eat! Wonderful job, Zhen!

Yun Zi, now 5 years old, is also making us proud. He is currently at Wolong’s panda base in Dujiangyan, where he continues to exemplify a robust, energetic, and healthy young male panda. He has settled in just fine to his new surroundings. We still miss him, though, but are thrilled to hear that he is thriving!

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Collaboration.

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Drought: Reptiles Don’t Like It, Either!

A cell phone photo taken of the habitat at the Safari Park Reserve in August 2014 shows just how devastating the drought has been on our local habitats.

A cell phone photo taken of the habitat at the Safari Park Reserve in August 2014 shows just how devastating the drought has been on our local habitats.

The drought has been awful for Southern California residents: dry, hot days, water restrictions, and a brown landscape. These are things we can all live with, but for our resident native reptiles and amphibians, drought can be a life-or-death situation. I have been working in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Biodiversity Reserve (a 900-acre area adjacent to the Safari Park) for 15 years studying the reptile and amphibian species that call it home. This year I began a project studying a relatively rare coastal sage scrub species, the coastal patch-nosed snake Salvadora hexalepis virgultea. My plan was to capture at least 10 animals and implant them with radio transmitters so I could follow their movements and study their ecology. On normal rainfall years I see an average of eight of these wonderful snakes, so I figured that if I actively searched for them, I would be able to get a good sample size to study. However, I did not count on the drought being so intense.

Snakes get most of their water from the food they eat, and when there is no water, the food disappears as well. Many of our small, native animals tend to stay underground during such “tough times” and await better weather. Not only did many of the prey species disappear over the spring and summer, but the snakes also stayed deep underground to conserve moisture. Some snakes and other reptiles came to the surface for a brief period during the breeding season (April through June), and I was able to find a couple of patch-nosed snakes for my study. Unfortunately, reptile activity ceased altogether soon after. On a good spring day in a year with normal rainfall, I can find up to 20 snakes belonging to 8 to 10 different species in a single day. This year, in stark contrast to normal expectations, my best snake day yielded just two snakes. In addition, I spent nearly every day in the field for seven weeks in May and June and only saw two rattlesnakes. As the summer progressed and the habitat became more and more dry, very little lizard and snake activity was observed.

A red diamond rattlesnake found during a cover board array survey in 2010 at the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve shows how lush and green the hills were that year.

A red diamond rattlesnake found during a cover board array survey in 2010 at the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve shows how lush and green the hills were that year.

August is often our driest month, so we rarely see many animals in the field at that time. We often wait until late September before we start seeing hatchlings and juveniles along with occasional adult animals. This year, the young snakes have been virtually nonexistent, and that makes sense. If the adult female snakes and lizards cannot gain enough body mass, they generally will not reproduce. Since most of our wild animals stayed underground for much of the year, they probably did not feed and therefore were unsuccessful in breeding.

Last week I saw firsthand how difficult the drought has been on our native snakes. While walking through the coastal sage, I found a large, female red diamond rattlesnake Crotalus ruber. She was very thin and could barely move. I presume she had recently given birth (rattlesnakes in San Diego County give birth to live young in August and September) and just did not have enough body mass to make it through her pregnancy. No baby snakes were found in the vicinity, and I can only hope this female pulls through. If she had babies, they will, hopefully, be able to hold out until the rains eventually arrive.

A cell phone photo shows an emaciated red-diamond rattlesnake at the Reserve in September, 2014. Many of our local reptiles and amphibians are suffering from the recent drought.

A cell phone photo shows an emaciated red-diamond rattlesnake at the Reserve in September, 2014. Many of our local reptiles and amphibians are suffering from the recent drought.

In over 30 years of field “herping” (searching for reptiles and amphibians), I have not experienced drought conditions worse than those seen in 2013 and 2014. In fact, the North American Field Herping Association has shown just how bad the drought has been on Southern California snakes. When comparing non-drought year data from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2012, with drought year data from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2014, for snakes found in Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, 4,971 snakes (1,055 hatchlings) were found between 2010 and 2012 whereas only 2,888 snakes (680 hatchlings) were found from 2012 to 2014. It is also interesting to note that there were more contributors to the database in the latter years, so roughly half the snakes were found by considerably more field herpers in the drought years than in the normal rainfall years, and roughly half the hatchling snakes were found in the drought years than in the normal years.

Here's a portrait of a healthy long-nosed snake in the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve in 2009.

Here’s a portrait of a healthy long-nosed snake in the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve in 2009.

So what does this all mean? Nobody can be certain right now. We do know that our climate has boom and bust years and drought and rainfall totals are very cyclical for most areas of the world. However, our findings to date do suggest that climate change is occurring at a rapid pace, and we all need to do our part to protect the environment and our natural resources, especially the snakes!

Jeff Lemm is a senior research coordinator in the Behavioral Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Catching Rock Iguanas: Easier Said than Done!

Corinne PisacaneThis year I traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands to study wild rock iguanas. The Turks and Caicos rock iguana Cyclura carinata is endemic to this Caribbean country and is critically endangered. Our team flew to the island of Providenciales, the main hub for tourist travel. From there we continued in a much smaller plane across the beautiful and shallow waters of the Caicos Bank to our final destination, Big Ambergris Cay. This island, located about 40 miles east of Providenciales, is diminutive in size, measuring about 4 miles (6 kilometers) long and only 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) wide. Its highest point is less than 100 feet (30 meters) above sea level. In addition to the iguanas, this secluded island hosts a number of private residences, and there are plans for a large housing development, which poses a potential threat to iguana habitat on the island.

During my time on Big Ambergris Cay, I was involved with a graduate student’s dissertation project involving iguana capture, relocation, and the subsequent examination of homing abilities (among a number of other iguana-related activities!). Every day we set out after it warmed up enough for iguanas to come out of their nooks and holes. Once we located individuals of interest, we set about stalking them. A number of our team members then attempted to catch iguanas of interest with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the lizards were just too fast and would elude our attempts with ease!

Once caught, our next challenge was to try to take a blood sample from each iguana to measure baseline stress hormones. From the moment we caught each iguana, we had exactly three minutes to successfully collect the blood. Any time over three minutes meant that stress hormones (or glucocorticoids) had already reached the iguana’s circulation, meaning we were measuring its stress response to the capture, which was not our goal. As you can imagine, this made for a very exciting three minutes!

If we were not successful, the iguana would be released and not considered as part of the study. If we did succeed, the iguana was then numbered using a system of color-coded beads strung through Spectra line and placed on both sides of the iguana’s dorsal crest between the shoulder blades. This dorsal skin is similar to that of our earlobes, and the stringing of the beads is thought to feel much like piercing one’s ears. Once we were finished marking individuals with beads, each iguana was also fitted with a small radio transmitter to enable future tracking of their movements on the island.

After the identification beads and radio transmitter were secured, iguanas were released at their point of capture and tracked for two weeks to determine their home range. Then they were recaptured and relocated to a different study site just under a mile away to determine if relocation might be used to successfully mitigate future development. As soon as they were released, the race was on! Equipped with radio-receiver equipment, researchers tracked the movements of the iguanas daily to investigate where they went. It appears that adult iguanas can usually find their way home, although how they do so is still not fully understood. By contrast, the homing skills of juvenile iguanas don’t appear to be as developed, and they usually stay put in their new home. For this reason, juvenile iguanas make better candidates for relocation than adults.

Alongside all the capturing and relocating of iguanas, our team also processed all the blood samples collected. This was no small task, as the logistics of processing blood on a small Caribbean island are very involved and time sensitive. Samples had to be frozen immediately, which required transferring them from a portable mobile cooler, carried by each researcher, to a larger cooler on a golf cart (the only mode of transportation around the island!) and then, finally, back to one of our rooms where we’d set up a mobile laboratory. Overall, this was quite an operation! Picture at least half of a dorm room set up as a temporary lab with collection tubes, a centrifuge, slide-staining equipment, and blood-draw needles.

Having traveled to a number of tropical places, I had expected the Turks and Caicos landscape to be all soft sand and friendly flora, with iguanas living in a beach environment. How wrong I was! All this capturing, relocating, and tracking takes place on volcanic-like ground that can quickly tear up ordinary shoes. The ground is also uneven and makes capture and tracking a slow and strenuous process. In addition, the small shrubs and trees are full of thorns and are quite abrasive. As a result, we always wore long pants and covered up at all times, making the work more challenging as it got extremely hot outside. Thick-soled shoes were also critical if we were to move around quickly enough to capture iguanas and avoid large thorns entering the soles of our feet. While we find it difficult to deal with this kind of environment, the iguanas have evolved to be perfectly suited to it.

This type of research is critical to gain a thorough understanding of the biology and behavior of the Turks and Caicos rock iguana. As with most endangered species, we need to be diligent about setting aside the necessary habitat for these amazing reptiles. Rock iguanas throughout the Caribbean are in danger of losing their habitat as a result of human-related pressures. I learned a great deal while on Big Ambergris Cay and am very grateful that I could be involved with iguana conservation in such an amazing habitat!

Corinne Pisacane is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, ISWE: Cheetah Pseudopregnancy?

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Understanding Wildlife Trade In Asia

A sign outside a store in Luang Prabang, Laos, advertises ivory for sale.

Typing this from a café in Laos, I am thinking about and facing one of the greatest threats to biodiversity: the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts. I’m looking at a sign in a shop across the road, advertising elephant ivory for sale. Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horns, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, and wild pig tusks, among others, for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door. Thankfully, the cub was rescued and is now being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horn, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, wild pig tusks among others for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh, where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door (see photo). Thankfully the cub was rescued and is now safe and being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

A three-week-old Asiatic black bear cub is one of a pair of cubs rescued from the wildlife trade and now being cared for at the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia. It is destined for a wonderful life in the forest.

Of all the species we work with at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, by far the most complex and dynamic are humans! Numbering over 7 billion, with countless cultures, motivations, and world views, humans are an extremely complex, yet central element in conservation initiatives. Successful conservation requires a multipronged approach, tackling the biochemical, ecological, and behavioral aspects of wildlife and the cultural and economic countenance of humans.Our Conservation Education Division focuses on the socio-ecological aspects of conservation across three main themes: conservation education, conservation social science, and community-based conservation. As a community-based conservation ecologist, I focus on the intersection of wildlife and humans, using both ecological and sociological research methods to inform our projects, which is why I am in Southeast Asia.

Three of the 20 Souphanouvong University students who, after participating in our training workshop, partnered with us to conduct wildlife surveys in Laos. They are conducting surveys at the Tat Kuang Si Reserve in Laos.

With its dense, tropical forests, rich biodiversity, and large human populations, Asia is a center of wildlife trade. Despite many countries having made capturing, poaching, killing, and exporting of wildlife illegal, poaching and consumption of wildlife still abounds. The history of wildlife use in Asia is a long and ingrained one, where for over 3,000 years wildlife has been used for food, traditional medicine, entertainment, and decoration. It’s embedded in many cultures here.

Couple that history to the rapidly developing economies and expanding middle class here, and it has meant a continued (and growing) demand for wildlife products, many of which are regarded as status symbols. Tackling such normative aspects of culture to try to curb this tide of wildlife use, and to eliminate demand, is a big challenge!

The Free the Bears team designs and refines the survey instrument for Cambodia.

Since the beginning of September, I’ve been in the field collaborating with our partners at Free the Bears. They are dedicated to conserving Southeast Asian bears, specifically the Asiatic black bear Ursus thibetanus and the sun bear Helarctos malayanus. These species are poached from the forest and killed for their gall bladders. The cubs are captured and placed in bile-harvesting farms where, confined in small cages, bile is periodically withdrawn from their gall bladder using a large needle over the next 10 years or so. Both species are also killed for their paws, which are used in bear paw soup and bear paw rice wine, and for their claws and teeth, which are used for decoration. Lastly, cubs of the killed parents are taken for the pet trade.

A recently rescued sun bear is in quarantine before being released to the forest enclosures in the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia

Free the Bears staff patrol for and remove snares from the forest and actively rescue bears from confinement. We are supporting this work by developing and conducting human dimension surveys about wildlife in Cambodia and Laos. Our collaborative project employs a novel approach to understand people’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs toward wildlife and to learn about their usage of bears for parts and pets. Understanding how people think about and view wildlife is vital for developing conservation interventions, especially when tackling wildlife consumption. It will also form the foundation of future communication and education efforts about wildlife. People’s attitudes often drive their behaviors; by better understanding attitudes, we can more effectively affect behaviors.

A sun bear does what it does best: living a free life in its native habitat.

In Cambodia, we are conducting face-to-face interviews with people about their knowledge and attitudes toward wildlife. We are using a randomized response technique (RRT) to ask about wildlife usage. Why? When you ask people about illegal activities (such as drug-use, DUI, etc.), they may not answer truthfully, so data may be biased or unreliable. RRT uses a randomizing device (such as dice or coin flip) that allows the respondent to answer truthfully while maintaining anonymity. Even the interviewer does not know their response! For Cambodia, we are basing our RRT around a local dice game called khla-kluk.

Students at Souphanouvong University in Laos are excited to help out conservation after our workshop.

In Laos, we’re using a different approach. We’re asking people to complete a self-administered questionnaire, which we have translated into several languages (see images). We partnered with the Women’s Union and Souphanouvong University students, whom we trained to conduct surveys. With this wonderful team of 30 citizen scientists, we have collected over 700 surveys. By the end, we will have over 1,000. This is a fantastic response and the first of this scale in Laos.

We are grateful to the governments of Cambodia and Laos for their bold action around making wildlife trade illegal and for allowing us to conduct these surveys. We are also grateful to our many local partners, who are doing the hard work of administering the surveys in the coming months. It is hoped that we can adapt this survey for use across Southeast Asia and India in a comprehensive assessment of wildlife usage.

David gives a lecture (via a translator) about conservation in Laos.

It is through efforts like this, and the incredible work of the Institute, San Diego Zoo Global, Free the Bears, and others that I can stay hopeful, even as I look at wildlife products for sale. Why? Because we’ve not given up, and we are working in smart, complementary, and sustainable ways to tackle these threats so that humans and wildlife can co-exist.

Thanks to you for your continued support, which makes this work possible.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, World Giraffe Day.