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Bagging Tasmanian Devils: Can We Save a Misunderstood Creature?

Devils really are quite cute…and have an undeserved reputation for being vicious. Photo taken at the Tasmanian government’s Taroona Wildlife Centre, which breeds devils for reintroduction.

Devils really are quite cute…and have an undeserved reputation for being vicious. Photo taken at the Tasmanian government’s Taroona Wildlife Centre, which breeds devils for reintroduction.

Tasmanian devils are bedeviled with a most hideous disease, and conservationists are having a devil of a time dealing with it. It would be funny, the devil jokes, if it wasn’t so sad. This magnificent animal, still best known as a Saturday morning cartoon, is facing a severe threat in the form of devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). Almost universally fatal, this strange, contagious form of cancer is marching across the pristine habitats of Tasmania, wiping out the devil population like a giant wave of death. How does one tackle such a monumental problem? The job of a conservationist is never easy, but this one is particularly intractable.

An animal caretaker shows onlookers just how “vicious” devils are. No harm done, but, hopefully, they have a shirt replacement program. Photo taken at Trowunna Wildlife Park, an early leader in the conservation breeding program.

An animal caretaker shows onlookers just how “vicious” devils are. No harm done; hopefully, they have a shirt replacement program. Photo taken at Trowunna Wildlife Park, an early leader in the conservation breeding program.

Exploring answers to the question “How can we do something to help the devil?” was the goal of my recent trip to Tasmania, where I met with the biologists leading the charge to save the devil. One approach is to study the disease and devil genetics, and a number of scientists are doing just that, including a postdoctoral fellow from San Diego Zoo Global. But I’m an ecologist and reintroduction biologist, so I met with the field team biologists working for the Tasmanian government. A talented and passionate group, they opened my eyes to these bedeviling problems.

Dr. Samantha Fox, Team Leader, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has found what she’s looking for: a devil in one of her baited traps.

Dr. Samantha Fox, Team Leader, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has found what she’s looking for: a devil in one of her baited traps.

First on my agenda was to visit the breeding centers. The idea here is to breed a “clean” population free of disease to reintroduce back to the wild. That program is doing well and already has a population of 600 plus.

Next, I visited Maria Island, where the first group of devils was reintroduced a year ago. This place is “devil heaven,” so full of prey that devils would be hard-pressed to go hungry. With no vehicular traffic and only an on-foot tourist industry, human interference is minimal. I then visited the Tasman peninsula, slated to receive devils next year. Here, it will be a little messier. There are people, roads, and potential conflict with farmers, and it’s a peninsula, not an island. To minimize the chance of reinfection, a fence is being built across a narrow isthmus to keep DFTD devils from entering and spreading disease.

Dr. Fox bags a devil and gently extracts it, teeth and all.

Dr. Fox bags a devil and gently extracts it, teeth and all.

My last stop was the site of the monitoring program to meet with the Tasmanian government’s Dr. David (Doozie) Pemberton and team heading up the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. This team is trapping and studying devil populations all over Tasmania, and I caught up with them on the northern part of the island. We set traps, and a few devils trickled into them, but it was clear DFTD had wreaked its havoc here already.

The whole process was an eye-opener for me, and I gained a whole new perspective on these devils. At the breeding centers I had seen and heard the ungodly commotion they make when fed a tasty wallaby. It was just what you would expect of an animal named devil (so named by early European settlers listening to the eerie sounds of the Tasmanian night). But these wild, trapped devils were a whole different animal. I watched in amazement as the biologist gently dumped her catch into a burlap sack. Now, I’ve done this with quite a few animals, and all of them go ballistic when they hit the bag. The bag looks like, well, like it’s got a devil in it. But these devils just go keplunk! The biologist gently rolled down the bag, lifted the devil’s head, opened its mouth, and examined its teeth. Yes, examined its teeth, the teeth of the animal with one of the strongest bites for its size in the Animal Kingdom. The devil just stared wide-eyed and put up no struggle at all. These devils were…so sweet.

The gape of the Tasmanian devil, displayed here in threat, seems a wonder of nature. But it’s the closing of the mouth that you have to worry about.

The gape of the Tasmanian devil, displayed here in threat, seems a wonder of nature. But it’s the closing of the mouth that you have to worry about.

This experience gave me a whole new perspective on devils and no small amount of respect for them and the biologists working to save them. We exchanged ideas, and I shared a few lessons learned from reintroducing other species. We’re planning on following up and working together more in the future. I can only hope that Tasmania can save this iconic species, and that our Zoo can play a small part. And, yes, I do have sympathy for the devil.

Ron Swaisgood is the Brown Endowed director of Applied Animal Ecology, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Titi Monkeys and Me.

2

The World for a Desert Tortoise

Tortoise Montana shared some attitude with Paul.

Tortoise Montana shared some attitude with Paul.

While working at San Diego Zoo Global’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, I have handled over a thousand desert tortoises. All of them are important to me. One function of my job is to find tortoises and bring them in for medical check-ups, evaluations, and preparation for relocation into the wild. Most desert tortoises are calm, curious, and easy to handle if you are nonthreatening. One tortoise, however, stands out among them all.

Early April. I had to go into Pen #362, find tortoise #17894, and bring her in for medical check-up. The tortoise was in an artificial burrow. I got on the ground, flipped on my flashlight, and prepared for the rough work of trying to coerce a well-dug-in tortoise to come out. Suddenly, one fierce reptile charged out! She scampered all the way from the back of the burrow, legs swimming through dirt and pebbles. She ran at me as if she wanted to fight! All I could think of was Al Pacino, as Tony Montana in the movie Scarface, confronting me. She seemed to be saying “You want to mess with me!? O-kay! You think you’re tough!? O-kay!” I picked up the tortoise, her legs flailing while trying to get at me. From now on, #17984 is Tortoise Montana!

She's now more relaxed around him.

She’s now more relaxed around him.

After her check-up, she was placed back into pen #362. I fed her in the mornings, and over time she became more agreeable to my presence. By June, my route had changed and others fed Tortoise Montana, but I would occasionally go visit her whenever I could. Instead of charging out, she would calmly walk out of the burrow to come near me. Sometimes, if I had extra food, I would make a special trip to her pen to let her have it. One morning, I watched her drink from a puddle of water created by the irrigation drip system. During the heat of summer she usually slept in the back of her burrow. I asked a colleague about her status. She was healthy and would soon be translocated to the desert!

September: Translocation Week. Many tortoises were brought into the lab for their preparation. My job is to put translocation ID tags on the tortoises’ shell. I scanned the lab. There she was! A plastic box tote labeled 17894 362! I opened the tote. While sitting on her bed of hay, she was relaxed and stayed still as I applied the tag.

Paul attaches a translocation ID tag on a desert tortoise.

Paul attaches a translocation ID tag on a desert tortoise.

The next day I traveled with my colleagues out to Eldorado Valley. I knew Tortoise Montana was in the last pickup truck of our convoy. After we arrived at the release site, while gathering the tortoises, I found her tote and placed her at the front of the line for fluids. Afterward, I picked up her tote and walked into the desert with her. I eventually found a shady spot that had lots of desert flora and grass. I lifted Tortoise Montana, looked into her eyes, and gently placed her on shady ground. I filled out her data sheet, made my observations, and said “good-bye” as she looked around at her new home.

Whenever I walk by pen #362 I feel a little sad. The pen is empty now. But I feel good, too, because I know Tortoise Montana has what I know she needs: “The world…and everything in it.”

Paul Griese is a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read his previous post, Burrowing Owl: Who Are You?

8

Luke, a Leucistic Waterbuck

Little Luke would normally be brown like his mother.

Little Luke would normally be brown like his mother.

Luke, a leucistic ellipsen waterbuck calf, was born in the South African exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on September 6, 2014. What in the world is that, you ask?

An ellipsen waterbuck is a 400-pound (180 kilograms), shaggy African antelope. Waterbuck are grazers and escape into lakes and rivers to avoid predators. Lions and hyenas are not good swimmers, but the waterbuck’s oily coat is water repellent and makes them buoyant as they swim away from these carnivores. Ellipsen waterbuck are distinctive because they have white rings on their rump, like a bulls-eye. This “follow-me” mark allows a waterbuck to identify its herd members.

Luke is unique because he is leucistic. Leucism is a genetic condition where pigment cells don’t develop properly. The word leucism comes from the Greek word leukos, meaning white. Albinism is often mistaken for leucism, but albino animals are only missing the melanin pigment. Leucistic animals are missing all pigments in either patches or over the entire surface of their bodies. Albino animals commonly have red eyes because they lack the melanin to color the irises and turn them opaque, so the blood vessels show through the translucent irises. Leucistic animals have normally colored eyes. Leucism is a well-documented phenomenon. Piebald horses are partially leucistic. The white tigers seen around the world in zoos in the 1980s and1990s demonstrate recessive genes for leucism.


Luke is not alone. His condition is rare but not unheard of, and it shouldn’t affect his development in any way. Luke’s mother, a traditionally colored ellipsen waterbuck, was pregnant for eight months before giving birth to Luke in the exhibit. Luke looks like the negative of his mom: instead of a chestnut-brown coat, Luke’s is bright white. Instead of a white bull’s-eye ring on his rump, Luke has a black ring. Instead of white eyebrows, Luke’s are black. In fact, if you look at a photo negative of Luke and his mom, Luke would look normal and his mom would look leucistic.

Initially, keepers were worried that Luke’s mom would reject him for looking different. Instead, she has been fiercely protective of him. Ellipsen waterbuck calves are “tuckers” for two to four weeks, meaning the mother tucks her offspring in a hiding place so she can forage. Luke’s mom has been hiding him in various spots throughout the Safari Park field exhibit. But she has been more attentive than the mothers of most tuckers and has isolated herself from the rest of her herd to spend time with him. She even chased away the curious herd of Cape buffalo that came to investigate her unusual baby.

The next time you visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, see if you can spot Luke and his mom during an Africa Tram tour.

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Rhino Calf Makes Own Rules.

5

7 Animal Life-Hacks That Will Make You Jealous

Sure, our species has achieved some pretty amazing things, but some animals can do things that we could never dream of doing. Behold 7 animal life-hacks that will make you extremely jealous.

Seeing in the dark

Many animals can see way better in the dark than we can, but owls take the cake. Owls have the best night vision of any animal and can see up to 100 times better at night than we can. Talk about a sweet life-hack.

Built-in snorkel

Yep, you guessed it, elephants have us beat in the snorkeling department. They don’t need fancy, modern contraptions to breath underwater; all they need is their specially adapted nose. Fun fact: An elephant’s trunk has over 40,000 muscles in it and is nimble enough to pick up a leaf and strong enough to knock down a tree.

Freakish super-strength

Watch out Superman, the rhinoceros beetle might have you beat. Rhinoceros beetles can lift over 800 times their body weight. That’s equivalent to a human lifting a 65-ton M1 Abrams tank. Whoa.

Running as fast as a car

It’s well-known that cheetahs can run up to 70 miles per hour, but did you know that they can go from 0 to 60 MPH in just 3 seconds? That would leave most cars in the dust. I want that.

Living forever

Okay, well, not “forever,” but Galápagos tortoises live a loooooong time. It’s estimated by some scientists that Galápagos tortoises can live over 200 years. More than double our average lifespan? Yes, please.

Changing color

While most people think chameleons change color for camouflage, they actually do so based on mood, health, temperature, and light conditions–but that would still be a pretty sweet life-hack. Imagine everyone knowing not to talk to you because you’re that one color you turn when you’re just not in the mood. Awesome.

Flying

This is one thing we’ll never forgive nature for not giving us the ability to do. Humans have looked to birds with envy since the dawn of time for their ability to leap into the sky and soar, and we probably always will. Sure, we have airplanes, but it’s just not the same. :/

Can you think of any other awesome animal life-hacks? Let us know in the comments.

 

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post 7 Animal Myths You Probably Believed.

Animals that are active at night usually have large eyes that let them make use of any available light. With owls, the eyes are so big in comparison to the head that there is little room for eye muscles, meaning owls can’t move their eyes. Instead, owls must move their entire head to follow the movement of prey. However, having fixed eyes gives owls better focus, with both eyes looking in the same direction. And even though it seems that owls can twist their head completely around, most owls turn their head no more than 270 degrees in either direction. – See more at: http://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/owl#sthash.yTtEd37V.dpuf
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Rhino Calf Makes Own Rules

Parvesh trots proudly beside his mother, Alta.

Parvesh trots proudly beside his mother, Alta.

Leroy the giraffe calf isn’t the only baby commanding lots of guest attention at the Safari Park these days (see post From Milk to Solids for Young Giraffe). Parvesh, a greater one-horned rhino calf, was born to Alta on February 25, 2014. Like Leroy, he was born in a maternity corral. He gained the expected 100 pounds (45 kilograms) per month and was released into the Asian Plains habitat with Alta when he was a month old. Now he weighs about 600 pounds (270 kilograms)!

Parvesh still nurses and will continue to do so for another year and a half, but he also experiments with solid foods. As Alta browses through grass, hay, pellets, and fruit, Parvesh stands alongside to nibble her food. Caravan Safari participants sometimes feed the rhinos apples. An adult rhino eats about 100 pounds of food per day. Each caravan truck carries only ten apples, so this snack is like a box of raisins to an adult rhino. Tour participants can’t hand-feed Parvesh yet. He is too short to reach over the truck slats, which are 7 feet (2.1 meters) off the ground, and his digestive system isn’t developed enough to process the sugar in 10 apples. If we feed him too much sugar, it will ferment in his stomach and make him sick. So it will be a few more weeks before we can hand-feed baby Parvesh.

In the meantime, he makes his own rules. He stands underneath Alta with his mouth open and catches the apples she drops!

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

61

Pandas Keep Cool

Xiao Liwu dines next to his refreshing pool.

Xiao Liwu dines next to his refreshing pool.

It’s been warm in San Diego lately, and some of you may be wondering how our giant pandas are kept comfy. Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk filled me in on the hot-weather protocol used in the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Trek.

There are thermometers in shaded areas of each panda enclosure, and if the temperature reaches 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 degrees Celsius), the pandas are given access to their air-conditioned bedrooms. The panda station has its own ice-making machine, so keepers can fill tubs with ice to make ice beds for some cool lounging, or they can make an ice-cube pile for flopping on (the pandas, not the keepers!). Sometimes food treats are added to the ice to encourage use.

Bai Yun knows how to relax on a warm day!

Bai Yun knows how to relax on a warm day!

You may have seen the mist fans in each yard. These fans mix water and air to blow a cooling mist into the enclosure. Kathy said the pandas really seem to enjoy the shrouded mist the fans create. Ice treats or popsicles made with applesauce or other panda delights are offered as both enrichment and as another way to keep cool. And, of course, each enclosure has a pool to soak in.

Xiao Liwu rests after a big meal, the mist fan blowing on his sweet face.

Xiao Liwu rests after a big meal, the mist fan blowing on his sweet face.

Kathy emphasized that anytime there is high humidity, no matter the actual temperature, the pandas are pulled off exhibit. Keepers are pro-active about avoiding any signs of early heat stress with these precious bears, and all three are closely monitored.

Thank you, panda keepers, for always taking such good care of these black-and-white bears. Your work is much appreciated!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Fishing Cats: It Takes Two.

3

Mangrove Finch: Chick Transfers

Anita Carrion (Charles Darwin Foundation) and Paula Castaño (Island Conservation) load mangrove finches into transport crates for their voyage to Isla Isabela.

Anita Carrion (Charles Darwin Foundation) and Paula Castaño (Island Conservation) load mangrove finches into transport crates for their voyage to Isla Isabela.

Be sure to read the previous post, Mangrove Finches: Hand-rearing Chicks.

Nearly 40 days after the first mangrove finch eggs and chicks were harvested from their nests at Playa Tortuga Negra, it was time to send them home. Ever since they had arrived at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos as young chicks or embryos yet to hatch, we had spent all of our time hovering over them and attending to their every need with one goal in mind: to send healthy mangrove finches back to Isabela Island for release. It was an exciting and hectic time as we prepared to transfer the oldest chicks while the younger chicks were still being fed every hour!

Pre-release aviaries had been constructed in the mangrove at Playa Tortuga Negra by local builders and awaited the arrival of the seven oldest chicks that would make up the first release cohort. After the remaining eight were grown and feeding themselves, they would join the first cohort in the aviaries.

Members of the first cohort were fitted with a unique combination of color bands on their right leg for identification from a distance as well as a silver, numbered band on their left leg. A drop of blood was drawn from under the wing of each bird (just like pricking a finger) for DNA sexing. Transport crates were inspected by the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency to ensure that quarantine conditions would be maintained during the chicks’ transfer. The gear the field team would take with them was sprayed with insecticide and put into quarantine before it was allowed to leave for Isabela.

Mangrove finches relax in their transport crates aboard the Galápagos National Park boat "Guadalupe River."

Mangrove finches relax in their transport crates aboard the Galápagos National Park boat “Guadalupe River.”

The evening of our departure, we transferred the chicks from their fledging cages to mosquito-proof travel crates that we then covered with black sheets. Keeping the birds in the dark while traveling helps keep them calm as it simulates nighttime, when they are typically inactive. A small crowd of staff members from the research station and their children gathered outside of the lab to catch a glimpse of the chicks as we carried them to the truck that would take us to the dock. This group had supported us throughout the project, but due to the quarantine conditions in the lab, this was their only opportunity to see the chicks. The public turnout for the chick transfer was a touching reminder of the support we had received from so many to make the project a success. We loaded the chicks in their crates into a truck for the short ride from the lab to the dock where we took a small boat, or panga, to the Galápagos National Park boat Guadalupe River. The finches got their own bunk on the boat, and we were underway for Isabela.

We sailed overnight and awoke in the morning in the shadow of Volcan Darwin off the west coast of Isabela. After a rushed breakfast, we loaded the finches back into the panga and headed for the beach. The mangrove forest here is protected by a wide, black sand beach, but the porous lava bedrock lets the forest flood at high tide. Navigating the thick tangle of roots and branches is downright treacherous when the forest is flooded, so we were fortunate to land at low tide when the walk from the beach to the pre-release aviaries was relatively easy.

A wild mangrove finch visits the chicks in the pre-release aviary in the mangrove forest at Playa Tortuga Negra, Isla Isabela.

A wild mangrove finch visits the chicks in the pre-release aviary in the mangrove forest at Playa Tortuga Negra, Isla Isabela.

The first step toward getting the chicks used to their new surroundings was transferring them from their travel boxes into fledging cages identical to those they had lived in at the lab. These cages were hung inside one of the three large aviary chambers and allowed the chicks to have a look at their new home while still keeping them confined to a smaller space in case the novelty was too scary or overwhelming. They settled in quickly, and we spent the afternoon watching them while finishing up the fine details of the aviaries and filling in gaps.

Both of the local snake species had been spotted at the aviary site, and we hadn’t gone to all of the work raising these finches for them to be snake food! Rather than snakes, though, the chicks attracted the attention of two wild mangrove finches that came down to the aviary to check out the new arrivals! The wild visitors were the cherry on top of an exciting day that had gone almost precisely as planned. We bid the babies goodnight and went to set up our camp. I was only going to be at the field site for about a week, but the rest of the team would be there for two months, and there was a lot of food, water, and gear to be hauled and organized.

Chick #1 forages in the pre-release aviary on Isla Isabela.

Chick #1 forages in the pre-release aviary on Isla Isabela.

The next morning we let the chicks out of the fledging cages to explore the full aviary. We had furnished their new home with rotten logs, strips of bark, and trays of leaf litter—all places that they would find food in the mangrove forest after their release. They set about busily exploring these new things. It was entertaining for the field crew to watch them interact and learn to navigate in the larger space and to see their foraging instincts kick in.

The next several days were mostly spent observing the chicks in the aviary, finishing the aviaries in preparation for the arrival of the second cohort of chicks, and watching wild mangrove finches at their nests. We even managed to trap and band one of the wild finches that kept coming around the aviaries to check out the chicks! The days were hot, and one afternoon as I was having a combination bath/swim in the ocean, a Park boat showed up out of the blue with instructions to take me to a cruise ship that would take me back to Puerto Ayora. I had to bid goodbye to the field crew, pack up my gear, and go with them right away because the ship was already underway, and we would have to catch it sailing down the coast of Isabela. It was an abrupt ending to a really special part of my Galápagos experience. I got to bring the first of our hand-raised mangrove finches back to their home forest and spend a week camping on a beautiful, remote beach flanked by volcanoes and surrounded by the spectacular wildlife of the Galápagos.

The first release cohort of hand-reared mangrove finch chicks gather together in the pre-release aviary.

The first release cohort of hand-reared mangrove finch chicks gather together in the pre-release aviary.

I arrived back in Puerto Ayora the following morning and was immediately back in preparation mode. It was nearly time for the second cohort of chicks to be transferred to the release site. We went through the entire process once more, and a week later, Michelle Smith with the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program and Anita Carrion of the Charles Darwin Foundation sailed for Playa Tortuga Negra with the second cohort of chicks.

With all of the chicks grown and moved back to Isabela, there was nothing left for me to do but clean and pack up the lab and wait to hear from the field team. I could do that from San Diego, so I headed home, excited by what we’d accomplished but still nervous about how the chicks would fare after their release.

Beau Parks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Mangrove Finch Eggs Hatch: A World First!

8

7 Animal Myths You Probably Believed

When it comes to the Animal Kingdom, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and some of it’s downright ridiculous. It’s difficult to know who to trust and where to go for reliable info. That’s where we come in. Even we have been known to make a mistake here and there (gasp!), but we’re here to set the record straight on a few animal myths that are widely believed–but definitely not true. Like really not true.

Koalas are bears

You’ve probably heard the term “koala bear” thrown around casually here and there, but contrary to popular belief, koalas have no relation to bears. While they have an uncanny likeness to teddy bears, they’re actually marsupials. Super cute, teddy bear-like marsupials.

Porcupines shoot their quills

A porcupine’s quills are made up of keratin, which is the same material our fingernails are made of. Can you shoot your fingernails? Didn’t think so. Just as we can’t shoot our fingernails (unfortunately), neither can porcupines shoot their precious defense mechanisms.

Ostriches bury their heads in sand

It’s hard to say where this ridiculous myth came from, but it could have derived from a behavior that ostriches exhibit when they sense danger. To avoid detection by predators, ostriches have been known to lay flat on the ground, placing their heads on the sand. Wherever it came from, let this myth officially be busted.

Mother birds reject babies if touched by humans

This myth probably comes from well-meaning people who fibbed to get other people to let nature take its course and avoid handling delicate baby birds. Actually, most birds have a very poor sense of smell and probably wouldn’t detect human scent. Regardless, handling baby birds isn’t a great idea.

Touching a frog or toad will give you warts

Many species of frogs and toads have wart-like bumps on their skin, and at some point it became widely believed that those bumps are contagious to humans. Truth is, warts are caused by a human virus and have nothing to do with handling frogs or toads. Strike that one down for good!

Camels store water in their humps

It’s known that camels are incredibly well-adapted to survive the harsh desert climates they call home, but their ability to avoid dehydration stems in part from oval-shaped red blood cells, not by carrying giant organic water jugs on their backs. Their humps actually store fat to tide them over on long walks through the desert where there is little to eat.

Lemmings commit suicide

No, lemmings don’t mindlessly follow each other to an untimely demise. This wholly unfounded myth may derive from population fluctuation among lemmings, with frequent die-offs and population booms. The phenomenon is still not well understood, leading to the belief that the small rodents boldly die by mass suicide for the good of the group. This misconception was reinforced by a scene in a 1958 Disney movie, White Wilderness, in which lemmings follow each other off a cliff to their death.

Photo by  Gunnar Pettersson

Photo by Gunnar Pettersson

 

So which myths did you believe? Do you have any more animal myths to share? Let us know in the comments.

 

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous blog, 10 Photos of Galapgos Tortoises Chowing Down.

4

From Milk to Solids for Young Giraffe

Leroy enjoys some attention from Mom.

Leroy enjoys some attention from Mom.

Animal babies and human babies often have similar growing pains. For the Safari Park’s giraffe and rhino calves, the challenge is the transition from milk to solid food. Leroy, a Uganda giraffe, was born in a maternity corral on January 8, 2014. At two weeks old, Safari Park veterinarians determined that Leroy suffered from a severe bacterial infection that they treated with antibiotics and IV fluids, making nursing impossible. His human keepers became his surrogate parents and bottle-fed him three to five times a day.

A young Leroy is offered a bottle of milk from the back of a keeper truck.

A young Leroy is offered a bottle of milk from the back of a keeper truck.

After 39 days of hospitalization, Leroy was released into the Safari Park’s East Africa habitat with the rest of the Uganda giraffe herd. Leroy’s recovery was great news for both the keepers and for the endangered Uganda giraffe subspecies as a whole. Only about 700 Uganda giraffes still roam the wild.
But Leroy needed to learn how to be a giraffe. The gangly seven-foot calf touched visitors’ hearts as he cantered toward the keeper trucks at feeding time. A keeper stood on the bed of the pickup truck hidden under a giraffe-patterned blanket and fed the hungry baby from a bottle the size of a dachshund.

By the time Leroy turned seven months, he was sampling giraffe pellets from the feeders. Giraffes are typically weaned by their mothers at around six months old, so Leroy was on target, even though he was raised by humans. Caravan Safari guides ripped acacia leaves in half to create “baby food” and held the leaves firmly for the calf so he would feel like he was plucking leaves from an acacia tree with his prehensile tongue.

Caravan Safari participants, riding in the truck in the background, can now offer Leroy tender acacia leaves.

Caravan Safari participants, riding in the truck in the background, can now offer Leroy tender acacia leaves.

Leroy is a quick study. He has figured out that the Caravan Safari trucks are like the ice cream truck! Guests now feed him on Caravan Safari tours. Normally, guests look up at a 16-foot-tall giraffe’s face as they hand feed, but Leroy munches at eye level. When I ask guests for their favorite parts of the tour, they normally say, “Feeding Leroy!”

Elise Newman is a Caravan Safari guide at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Upcycling: Recycling at Its Finest.

5

Fishing Cats: It Takes Two

Fishing cats are native to southern Asia.

Fishing cats are native to southern Asia.

The San Diego Zoo has welcomed the birth of 34 fishing cats over the years, but we have not had a successfully breeding pair of endangered fishing cats since 1999. Our current fishing cat female, Parvati, gave birth to one kitten at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. But our male, Bullet, is unproven and underrepresented, genetically speaking. It has been keeper Aimee Goldcamp’s sincere desire to see that Bullet has a chance to father some young. Bullet, on the other hand (or paw), isn’t quite as motivated.

You see, Bullet was hand raised at another facility before coming here, and, although he is larger, he is a bit intimidated by his potential mate, Parvati. I was surprised, therefore, when Aimee called me the other morning to say that Parvati was chittering, making the sound an adult female fishing cat makes when she is in estrous and wants the attentions of a male. I dashed over to record this unique sound to share with our blog readers. Yes, I’m always thinking of you!

When I arrived, Parvati was walking around the exhibit, emitting her call now and then. Rather than sounding inviting, the chitter seemed a little angry to me. Guests strolling by the exhibit thought she was telling her keeper it was time for food! But Aimee assured us all that Parvati only makes this sound when she is “in the mood,” and we all felt lucky to hear it. Unfortunately, our gibbon pair living nearby decided this was the time to make their morning territorial hoots and whoops, so it was difficult to record Parvati’s chitters without also getting some gibbon-speak!

Here’s an extremely short audio clip of Parvait’s chitter call:

Still, it was fascinating to watch Parvati pull out all the stops to entice Bullet to come out of the bedroom area and join her in the exhibit. In addition to calling and strolling by the bedroom door, Parvati rubbed her scent on rocks and logs and rolled around provocatively in the sand. Bullet did come to the door to watch her lolling beneath him, but he was unmoved to take action.

It is said that timing is everything, and that is true for cat courtship as well. I learned that the fishing cat exhibit had been closed for some remodeling, with new logs, vegetation, and fencing installed. Bullet had been surprised and a bit unnerved by the changes to his home of six years. Wouldn’t you know it? The day after the exhibit re-opened was the day Parvati felt her maternal calling!

Bullet may still come through for Parvati. After all, “romance” can happen in the off-exhibit bedroom areas as well. There are cameras mounted back there to record any happenings of interest. Who knows—we may yet hear the pitter-patter of little fishing cat paws again!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Scents for Polar Bears.