Uncategorized

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

2

Elderly Northern White Rhino Passes Away at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

SafariParkA northern white rhino, Angalifu, passed away in the early hours of this morning, Sunday December 14. The male rhino, who was estimated to be 44 years of age, was under veterinary care for a variety of age related conditions. His death leaves only 5 Northern white rhinos left in the world: one elderly female at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 1 at a zoo in Czechoslovakia and 3 in Africa.

“Angalifu’s death is a tremendous loss to all of us.” said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “Not only because he was well beloved here at the Park but also because his death brings this wonderful species one step closer to extinction.”

Northern white rhinos have been brought to the brink of extinction due to poaching in Africa. Unfortunately only a few have been preserved at zoos and these have been largely non-reproductive.

“More than two decades ago we started working with the species here at the Safari Park.” Said Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive physiology for the San Diego Zoo Institute of Conservation Research. “Unfortunately we only had three rhinos here at the Park and they were all of an advanced age. We were not able to get them to breed and we have been sadly watching their species being exterminated in the wild.”

In the wild rhinos are killed for their horns, a unique physiological feature made up of keratin (the same material in human fingernails). Many cultures believe rhino horn has medicinal value and the black-market in horns taken from poached animals continues to thrive.

Protected from the poaching that has wiped out northern white rhinos in Africa, Angalifu has been living at the Safari Park since his arrival from the Khartoum Zoo in the late 1980s. Although holding out little hope for the species, conservationists at San Diego Zoo Global continue to work to find a way to recover the species. Semen and testicular tissue from the male rhino have been stored in the Frozen Zoo with the hope that new reproductive technologies will allow recovery of the species.

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 onsite 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 important conservation and science work of these entities is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of the Zoological Society of San Diego.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
1

Condors: Feeding Time Manners

Around the corner to the right is where the condors are fed.

The condors are fed around the corner to the right.

After fledging, a growing young condor starts to eat on its own, with the parents continuing to feed the youngster every once in a while. At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we do things a bit differently, as the fledged birds are moved to a remote socialization pen with other young release candidates and a mentor bird or two. We don’t move fledglings to the socialization pen until we’ve made sure they have been seen feeding themselves. The mentor birds do not feed anybody.

This year’s Condor Cam chick, Su’nan, who hatched on April 29, 2014, was starting to eat on her own when she was with her parents. When we saw that she was eating on her own, we were comfortable moving her to the socialization pen with the other young release candidates. We drop all of the food at the same time through a chute in the wall, hiding us from the young birds’ view. The most dominant members of the group (usually the biggest or the most experienced) eat first or displace other birds that may be in their way. The subordinate, younger birds usually wait until the dominant birds finish or let them come and eat with them.

Eventually, as the subordinate birds gain experience, they may move up in the social hierarchy. Currently, Su’nan is near the bottom of the pecking order, as expected, due to her size and age. She is doing just fine, though. Feeding is very competitive, just like it is in the wild. It may look rough and impolite to us, but we must remember that the condors are working under the rules that work best in their social system, not ours. This experience the youngsters are getting will better prepare them for a free-flying life in the wild.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condors Saticoy and Cuyamaca Flying Free.

0

Gaur Game Plan

Indian gaur can be seen in the Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Indian gaur can be seen in the Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

What are those big buffalo in the Asian Savanna field exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park? This is one of the most commonly asked questions on Caravan Safari tours. They are Indian gaur Bos frontalis gaurus, the largest wild cattle species. Gaur live in herds of up to 40 individuals led by a mature bull. An adult gaur can stand 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 2,000 pounds! Coupled with their dark coat and light-blue eyes, this body-builder physique makes gaur very intimidating to predators. Gaur currently live in fragmented evergreen forest habitats in southern Asia and India.

In India, gaur have been domesticated as work animals and hybridized with domestic cattle to create a separate species. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List considers wild Indian gaur “vulnerable” in southern Asia. This is a poorly understood species, so there may be as few as 13,000 left in the world or as many as 30,000. Indian gaur are threatened due to hunting, habitat loss, and domestic cattle diseases, like Johne’s disease. Our researchers are using mathematical models to monitor transmission of these types of diseases to help save Indian gaur (see post Saving Species with Math).

We also conserve Indian gaur in two other ways. Indian gaur are protected under the umbrella of Asian elephant and tiger habitat conservation programs that San Diego Zoo Global supports around the world. Additionally, the Safari Park has a herd of Indian gaur that are part of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ bison and wild cattle taxon advisory group (TAG).

Very few zoos currently house gaur because they are large, territorial, and require the same amount of space as rhinos, which are often more exciting to visitors. In the past, the Safari Park successfully bred over 200 gaur, but the breeding program stopped because there was no longer anywhere to send the offspring. Through the TAG, individuals are loaned and traded to other zoos for breeding programs and conservation initiatives to increase the genetic diversity of many different species. Without other facilities involved in the TAG, we would quickly become saturated with gaur. Now, the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans has expressed interest in a herd of Indian gaur. As a result, the Safari Park welcomed two new females and a young male to our Asian field exhibit. The young male will, hopefully, dominate the resident castrated male in the herd and begin breeding.

Female Indian gaur typically give birth to one calf between December and June after a 275-day gestation. It’s amazing to think that a female gaur and a human female have the same pregnancy length! Stay tuned. Hopefully, the Safari Park will have new Indian gaur calves by next year to bolster the fight for conservation of this unique species.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, It’s Alive! Look Inside our Giant Pandas’ Favorite Food.

51

Taking Care of Tusks

A screen shot from our Elephant Cam taken on November 11 shows 10 of our elephants. Can you find them all?

A screen shot from our Elephant Cam taken on November 11 shows 10 of our elephants. Can you find them all? Click to enlarge.

As you know, there have been a lot of things going on with our African elephant herd this year at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. For instance, you may have seen our trainers working with the elephants in different areas. You may have wondered what they doing with the elephants’ faces! Well….

Some members of our herd have broken or chipped their tusks, and our veterinary staff has had to perform pulpotomies (think root canal) to clean out any infected pulp. All of our elephants are pretty active, especially the little ones, so we have had to put extra protection on the tusks that have fillings. This protection is in the form of a gray material called Technovit (pronounced Techno–vite), and you may have seen us putting it on the tusks of Musi, Macembe, and Luti periodically. Swazi recently broke off a small part of her tusk. No pulp was exposed, and you may see us filing the jagged end of her tusk.

Unfortunately, Khosi and Emanti’s tusks broke and exposed too much pulp, and we were not able to save their broken tusks. For them, we have been flushing their sulcus (skin and cavity surrounding a tusk) to keep the cavity clean and to aid in the healing process. We use a diluted mixture of anti-bacterial solution and water sprayed out of a one-gallon sprayer. Our trainers have worked patiently with Khosi and Emanti to make them comfortable with this process. I am happy to report that they are doing well and healing nicely.

Our elephants are also given vitamin E every day. We’ve trained our elephants to perform a swallow behavior so that they will be able to swallow any medication or vitamin supplements as needed. Because they have such a well-developed sense of smell and taste, we give them their vitamin E followed by mango juice, as the vitamin E doesn’t taste very good!

Qinisa and Inhlonipho are growing up and asserting themselves. Qinisa’s milk tusks are starting to come in. Inhlonipho is wrestling with Emanti and Ingadze any chance he gets. He even charged Msholo (who was quietly eating hay). Msholo looked at him and then went back to eating the hay. When Inhlonipho gets older, he will be wrestling with the big boys.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the herd, either in person or on Elephant Cam!

Laura Price is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Elephant Qinisa Turns 2.

4

Condors Saticoy and Cuyamaca Flying Free

Saticoy wears his new GSM unit on his wing tag. Photo credit: Geoff Grisdale, USFWS

Saticoy wears his new GSM unit on his wing tag. Photo credit: Geoff Grisdale, USFWS

While observing this year’s Condor Cam chick, Su’nan, many of our regular viewers have been inquiring about the status of the two previous years’ Condor Cam chicks, Saticoy (from 2012) and Cuyamaca (from 2013). Recently, we have received updates from the field biologists that are monitoring and caring for the young birds, and we are excited to share the updates with you!

Saticoy was the first California condor to hatch on Condor Cam. He was released to the wild in November 2013 at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Southern California. Now 2½ years old, we are happy to report that he is thriving and still flying free. Most recently, the field crew was able to trap him in the flight pen at Bitter Creek for a routine health check and to change his transmitters. The field biologists periodically catch the free-flying condors to monitor levels of lead in their blood, since lead poisoning is still their #1 threat.

The condors—and any other carnivore, for that matter—can get lead poisoning from eating an animal that has been shot with lead ammunition. When an animal is shot, the lead bullet fragments and embeds itself throughout the meat. Those fragments are then swallowed as the meat is consumed. Lead is a toxic, heavy metal that is easily absorbed by the digestive system into the bloodstream, resulting in painful and damaging lead poisoning. Any animal that ingests lead can suffer lead poisoning, including eagles, vultures, wolves, coyotes, bears, skunks, snakes, and humans. The California Condor Recovery Program and its partners encourage people to use non-lead ammunition during activities like hunting, pest control, and ranching to help reduce the amount of lead available for consumption by humans and wildlife.

Devon Lang Pryor, Santa Barbara Zoo, hold Saticoy during a blood draw. The blood is taken from the leg. You can see his leg between Devon's knees. Photo credit: Katie Chaplin, USFWS

Devon Lang Pryor, Santa Barbara Zoo, hold Saticoy during a blood draw. The blood is taken from the leg. You can see his leg between Devon’s knees. Photo credit: Katie Chaplin, USFWS

Happily, when Saticoy’s blood was tested during his exam, his field blood lead level was below the threshold for treatment! His original tracking devices stopped working during the summer, so he needed some new transmitters. He received a small telemetry transmitter that was attached to one of his tail feathers , as well as a new GSM GPS transmitter on each wing tag. The GSM transmitters collect a location every 15 minutes during daylight hours, giving us a more complete range map than other GPS units that collect a location every hour. As you can see on his range map, he has been spending the majority of his time this autumn around the Tejon Ranch area, 40 to 60 miles (60 to 100 kilometers) away from his release site in Bitter Creek.

Cuyamaca, the 2013 Condor Cam star, was released in northern Arizona at the Vermilion Cliffs, just north of Grand Canyon National Park, in June 2014. After release, she demanded minimal maintenance from the field biologists. She was flying and feeding well, as well as finding safe and proper roost sites. She blended into the wild population easily! She has yet to range too far from the release site, making the 50-mile (80 kilometers) radius around the site her favored territory. She regularly takes multi-day trips to the Colorado River corridor of Marble Canyon as well as some regular foraging trips to the Kaibab National Forest adjacent to the Vermilion Cliffs. The field crew did observe her being chased by a competing golden eagle. The eagle hit her in the air, and they both tumbled to the ground, but she rebounded immediately and showed no signs of injury. Other than that, Cuyamaca has had a fairly stress-free transition to the wild.

Saticoy's fall 2014 range map was provided by Laura Mendenhall and Joseph Brandt of the USFWS.

Saticoy’s fall 2014 range map was provided by Laura Mendenhall and Joseph Brandt of the USFWS.

Many thanks to our partners in the California Condor Recovery Program for providing these updates, photos, and maps! Devon Lang Pryor of the Santa Barbara Zoo provided Saticoy’s photos and update information. Laura Mendenhall and Joseph Brandt of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided Saticoy’s range map. Eddie Feltes of The Peregrine Fund provided Cuyamaca’s update information.

As you can see, it takes a lot of time, effort, and people to prepare young condors for a release program. Without help and enthusiasm from people like you, none of this would be possible. All of us at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (including all of the condors!) thank you so much.

You can follow the Arizona condor population, which is monitored by The Peregrine Fund, on Facebook via the “Condor Cliffs” page, as well as The Peregrine Fund’s website. You can follow the Southern California condor population, which is monitored by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, on Facebook via the “Condor Cave” page.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Moving Day for Condor Su’nan.

1

Moving Day for Condor Su’nan

Su'nan has left the nest.

Su’nan has left the nest.

A lot has happened this month at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s condor breeding facility. This is the time of the year when we are preparing for the next breeding season: cleaning nests, conducting routine health exams, and providing maintenance to flight pens that were previously off-limits to keepers because of the presence of our young chicks slated for release to the wild. Also, this year we are pleased to report that we are setting up three new breeding pairs here at the Safari Park. But the most exciting piece of news is that our youngest chick and star of this year’s Condor Cam, Su’nan, has finally fledged!

Su’nan left the nest and was able to fly up to the high perches in her pen on October 17 at the age of 172 days. The youngest condor to fledge at the Park was 123 days old, which makes Su’nan a bit of a late bloomer, but that is OK. Her feathers are in beautiful shape, and she has put on a decent amount of weight, measuring in at a petite 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms). When she flew up to the perch, after sunning herself on a low stump, proud papa Towich perched calmly next to her as she preened. It was a view well worth the wait!

Here's a sneak preview of the remote socialization pen where Su'nan now lives.

Here’s a sneak preview of the remote socialization pen where Su’nan now lives.

A few days later, on October 23, it was time to move Su’nan out of her parents’ pen and into our remote socialization pen approximately one mile from the main part of the Safari Park. There, she will be isolated from any human activity and socialized with other fledglings her age. In the wild, condor chicks stay with or around their parents for up to 18 months. We don’t let them stay that long here at the Park. If we did, the next breeding season would probably be compromised; the presence of the fledgling may prevent the parents from breeding the next year, or the parents may turn aggressive to the chick if they try to nest again.

Before her move, we affixed a wing tag to Su’nan’s right wing for identification purposes. She is now wearing wing tag Blue 49. She is sharing this large pen with eight other condors:

Cachuma (ca-CHOO-ma): Female, 31 years old, wearing no wing tags
Xananan (ha-NA-nan): Female, 10 years old, wearing tag Blue 21 (left wing)
Wesa (WAY-sah): Female, 1½ years old, wearing tag Yellow 76 (right wing)
Pshan (puh-SHAWN): Male, 1½ years old, wearing tag Yellow 91 (right wing)
Ostus (OH-stuss): Male, 1½ years old, wearing tag Blue 2 (right wing)
Napay (na-PIE): Male, 7 months old, wearing tag White 24 (right wing)
Qawaq (ka-WAWK): Female, 7 months old, wearing tag Red 26 (right wing)
Issuy (ee-SOO-ee): Female, 6 months old, wearing tag Yellow 43 (right wing)

California condors that are expected to be released to the wild are called release candidates. We raise all of our condor chicks as if they are release candidates until we hear otherwise from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the California Condor Recovery Program. We have yet to hear if and/or where any of this year’s fledglings will be released. Release candidates are isolated from humans. We offer their food through a chute in the wall. The pools are drained and rinsed from the outside of the pen. We don’t pick up any of their old food. The only time the birds see us is during a medical procedure: affixing wingtags, pre-shipment examinations, or West Nile Virus inoculations. These generally are not enjoyable experiences for the young condors, and that is what we want them to learn from us before they are shipped to the wild. We don’t want them to associate humans with anything beneficial. We are hoping to foster behaviors that wild condors would have: avoiding human activity and hazardous, artificial situations. Survival rates for condors that become accustomed to humans and human activity are very low.

Two of Su’nan’s new penmates have a very important role. Cachuma and Xananan, the adults, are acting as the young birds’ new mentors. The mentor’s job is to facilitate the socialization of the fledglings. Condors are very social and, like us, need to learn the rules of how to interact in a group. The parent condors started this process when the chicks hatched and continued it as the youngsters eventually fledged. Now that they are no longer living with their parents, Cachuma and Xananan will further the fledglings’ education. They will be the dominant birds in the pen, often displacing the fledglings from perches or roost sites or pushing them from the food until they have eaten first. The dominant birds at a site are usually the biggest ones and often the most experienced. The young condors need to learn how to interact with these dominant and pushy birds to be successful in the wild.

The socialization pen is very large with lots of space to fly around and exercise wings. There are several large oak snags on which to perch or roost. Also, there are two pools from which to drink or bathe. There are several ground-level perches and boulders to hop around on as well. It is interesting to see the social development of each bird. They can choose to perch next to whichever bird they wish, so they really get to know each other well. We have learned that young condors that aren’t well-socialized tend not to be successful once they are released to the wild.

So far, Su’nan is taking a very subordinate role in the group, as expected. As she gets more experience, she will gain confidence and assert herself as a competent member of her group. She flies very well in the pen and interacts appropriately with the older birds. Her parents, Towich and Sulu, have done a great job preparing her for the big, wide world!

This is the first year that the Condor Cam is able to broadcast our socialization pen. We are very excited to provide this unique view to all of our dedicated viewers. We plan on starting this camera on Monday, November 3. Enjoy! Feel free to post any comments or questions, and we’ll try to get them answered as soon as we can!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, To Fledge or Not to Fledge.

1

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?

10

Gorilla Joanne: Little Miss Personality

Joanne enjoys some kale with her father, Winston.

Joanne enjoys some kale with her father, Winston.

Now seven months old, gorilla Joanne is starting to develop her own little personality at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. These days she can be seen spending more and more time on her own two feet (and hands), investigating her world. An expert at clinging to her mother, Imani, while traveling about the exhibit, little Joanne rarely stays in one position. Everything Mom is doing, Joanne wants to get a good view.

You can see her riding on Imani’s back, hip, arm, leg, upside-down, right-side up, and everything in between. As soon as Mom sits down, Joanne lowers herself to the ground and is off exploring. The little girl has started to notice her older brothers wrestling nearby and seems eager to participate. Still a bit too small to get into the fray, you can often see Joanne watching intently or bouncing around by herself in the background.

Joanne is always very interested in eating anything Imani has collected; her favorites are lettuce, tomatoes, and acacia browse. While Mom will usually share her meals, it may be asking too much to expect Winston to share his favorite food—kale!

Jami Pawlowski is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Gorilla Frank Turns 6.

Update: We’ll be celebrating gorilla Vila’s 57th on Thursday, November 6, starting at 9 a.m. at the Safari Park. We hope you can come wish her well1

4

Giraffes: A Creche Full of Cuties!

Here's our creche of cuties!

Here’s our creche of cuties!

About every 18 months, something very exciting happens in the East African field enclosure at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park: we have newborn giraffes! When these big babies are born after a 15-month gestation period, they stand 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and weigh up to 150 pounds (68 kilograms). This year we welcomed four more to our herd: two boys and two girls. Right now they range in age from 3 to 10 months and can still be seen hanging out together in their nursery group or creche. Giraffe herds are very fluid, and females often switch off as babysitters for each others’ calves. As these youngsters age, they start to head off on their own adventures, and we see their personalities begin to take shape.

Acacia holds her own with the adults.

Acacia holds her own with the adults.

Little Acacia is the most cautious of the calves and feels more comfortable when she has backup from the other kids. Within the last few weeks she’s started breaking out of her shell and becoming bolder. She will roadblock our keeper trucks, preventing us from going about our day, and begin giving us a car wash with her tongue! While the saliva doesn’t help improve visibility through our windshield much, we do appreciate the sentiment.

Kamali is daring. He walks right up to the Caravan Safari tour vehicles to eat the acacia leaves our guests hand-feed the giraffes. He also excites easily, which causes him to jump around and kick his legs out. This kid really knows how to have a good time!

Mchumba, who is the youngest of the bunch, still likes to stick close to her mom, 20-year-old Chuku, the matriarch of our herd. Her easygoing nature seems to be a family trait that she also shares with her older sister Chuchumia.

Kamali nibbles on a tasty twig.

Kamali nibbles on a tasty twig.

Leroy is a love. He is always seeking out attention from keepers, Caravan Safari guests, and his older giraffe brothers. When Leroy was a few weeks old, he suffered from multiple infections that led to him being hospitalized and hand-reared (see post From Milk to Solids for Young Giraffe). Because of this, he is extremely comfortable around people and serves as an amazing giraffe ambassador!

You can visit the East African giraffe herd during an Africa Tram tour, feed them from our Caravan Safari truck, or take in views of their 60-acre field enclosure from the Park’s Kilima Point.

Amanda Lussier is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

0

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.