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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 antelope, 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 marine mammal in the world. The vaquita marina Phocoena sinus, a type of porpoise, 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 senior research technician with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Across the Pacific in 60 Days.

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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.

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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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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

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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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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.

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9 Culturally Haunting Animals

Since Halloween is around the corner, it’s time to learn about some creepy critters that have been haunting cultures around the globe. It’s also time to separate fact from fiction, the latter being partially responsible for some bad reputations surrounding some incredibly innocent creatures. It’s important to note that just because certain species are portrayed as terrifying monsters in the media or fancy folklore doesn’t mean that said animals are, in fact, flesh-eating freaks of nature. In other words, the expression “don’t believe everything you hear” exists for a reason.

So without further ado, keep reading for some animal-inspired myth busting.

Satanic leaf-tailed gecko

One look at the satanic leaf-tailed gecko and you’ll understand why this demonic reptile made the list. This master of disguise has a body that mimics a dead leaf, which protects the gecko in its native Madagascar. To trick predators, the satanic leaf-tailed gecko can also flatten its body like a pancake and deliberately shed its tail. Despite how scary this tiny reptile appears to be, it’s irrational to denounce the species for its kooky characteristics.

Aye-aye

The Safari Park’s Lemur Walk demonstrates how curiously cute these prosimians can be. Yet the Malagasy people of Madagascar believe that lemurs embody the souls of their ancestors. In fact, the word lemur stems from the Latin word lemures, which translates to “ghosts” or “nocturnal spirits.” In Roman mythology lemures weren’t just spirits—they represented lethal, vengeful spirits, the kind nightmares are made of. This misunderstanding has threatened the lives of one subspecies in particular, the aye-aye, which is often killed on sight because it’s perceived as a bad omen. The only bad omen here is the fact that lemurs status was recently moved from vulnerable to endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species this year.

Tasmanian devil

The Tasmanian devil got its moniker for its dark color and fierce temper. These nocturnal marsupials let out spine-chilling screams while feeding together at a carcass. When they feel threatened or excited, their little ears change to bright red. While their name appears to suit their style, what’s even scarier is the fact that Tasmanian devils are critically endangered. In other words, Loony Tunes’ exaggerated portrayal of Taz as a voracious lunatic may have done more harm than good. Currently, the San Diego Zoo is one of just two facilities in North America to house these little devils.

Snow leopard

As elusive as they are stunning, snow leopards have been creatures of Nepalese myths and Buddhist culture for centuries. Luckily for them, their reputations tend to be more positive than the aforementioned animals. Their shy and mystifying ability to almost disappear in their native habitat has established snow leopards as shape-changing mountain spirits to the local people of Central Asia, who know them as “ghost cats.”

Jaguar

Another mysterious big cat that’s earned a prominent place in local legends is the jaguar. These cool cats are depicted in ruins throughout Central and South America, but instead of symbolizing a spooky species, jaguars represent beauty, strength, and unparalleled intelligence in the New World. In fact, some tales suggest that jaguars move between worlds because they’ve adapted to life in the trees as well as on the ground. Their ability to hunt during the day and night is equally impressive.

Vultures

Most vultures depicted in cartoons, comics, or films reinforce that one-dimensional image we all have: a symbol of impending doom or death. Even though the entertainment industry has deemed this winged species as wickedly horrid, once you get past their harsh appearance, you’ll learn that some cultures actually idolize vultures. Aside from ancient mythology and rituals, vultures are crucial to habitats, as they remove dead carcasses without spreading disease. So instead of fearing vultures, we should thank them for taking care of at least one dirty job.

Crow

Another bird that’s been doomed by ancient legends and modern Hollywood is the crow. Despite the fact that the comic book series and subsequent action movie was based on a brutal story of murder and vengeance, Edgar Allan Poe’s preceding works in the mid-1800s further expanded the crow’s negative connotations. Perhaps its slick, dark plumage is to be blamed for the crow’s lack of love, but in nearly every culture’s mythological past– from Ireland to Islam–this species was associated with war, death, murder, and other terrifying nouns that keep us awake at night.

Gila monster

With a name like Gila monster, it’s no surprise that this species has one of the worst reputations in the reptile world. Native to northern Mexico and our southwestern states, this lizard is feared by humans for a bevy of false reasons. For starters, some people think the Gila monster can spit deadly venom, sting with its tongue, and even kill people with its poisonous breath. While the Gila monster is, in fact, venomous, a bite from one of these scaly creatures rarely causes death…in humans. Nothing to fear here.

Komodo dragon

The Komodo dragon is another victim of bad publicity. While it wins the prize for largest-living lizard in the world, people have feared the dragon because it’s believed that its saliva contains a deadly bacteria. The jury is still out on this one, so stay tuned for another blog that addresses this topic.

Join the Halloween fun! Share your spooky species or animal legends in the comments below.

 

Jenn Beening is the social media specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 7 Animals You Didn’t Learn In School.

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13 Animals That Are So Over Being Awake

Let’s face it, sometimes being awake is overrated, and it seems like these critters agree. Enjoy these 13 animals who are so over being awake, and try not to catch a yawn…

Koalas are the sleeping beauties of the animal kingdom. They subsist on nutrient-deficient eucalyptus leaves, so they sleep 18-22 hours a day to conserve energy—and look adorable while doing it.

Photo by Ion Moe

Photo by Ion Moe

The king of the Safari Park, Izu, is also the king of naps. Over the course of 24 hours, lions have short bursts of intense activity, followed by long bouts of lying around that total up to 21 hours.

Photo by Bob Worthington

Photo by Bob Worthington

 

Red pandas, like Lily here, sleep through the hottest part of the day and are most active at dawn and dusk, a strategy adopted by many animals to conserve energy. Sensing a theme?

Photo by Ion Moe

Photo by Ion Moe

 

The mountain lion (aka puma, cougar, panther, catamount) is no different than other cats. It sleeps away most of the day to save up energy for hunting. It’s a rough life.

Photo by Darrell Ybarrondo

Photo by Darrell Ybarrondo

 

Meerkats aren’t necessarily known for sleeping, but they’re known for doing so in luxury. A meerkat mob has several burrow systems, complete with toilet and sleeping chambers, within its territory and moves from one to another every few months. Ahh the finer things.

Photo by p.b. fletch

Photo by p.b. fletch

 

The King of the San Diego Zoo, M’bari, puts his best foot forward when it comes to napping.

Photo by Ion Moe

Photo by Ion Moe

 

Animal Fact: Zebras yawn in black and white.

Photo by Nathan Rupert

Photo by Nathan Rupert

 

Polar bears hibernate like other bears, right? Wrong. Despite the long, harsh winter, polar bears don’t hibernate. In fact, most of them (except pregnant females) continue to hunt seals throughout the winter. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t sleep A LOT. If you watch Polar Cam you know what I’m talking about.

 

Tasmanian devils take shelter during the day, and are more active after the sun goes down. In fact, they were actually named for the eerie, devilish sounds they make at night.

 

D’aww…..just d’awww

No words for this photo Jaguar cubs Tikal and Maderas, born at the San Diego Zoo, 2012. Photo by Ion Moe

Jaguar cubs Tikal and Maderas born at the San Diego Zoo, 2012. Photo by Ion Moe

 

Another koala sleepyhead, because cute.

Photo by Ion Moe

Photo by Ion Moe

 

 

Most epic yawn ever. Ok Izu, we get it, you’re pretty good at this sleepy-time thing.

Photo by Darrell Ybarrondo

Photo by Darrell Ybarrondo

 

We have to hand it to Flynn the red panda though, we’ve never seen anyone hammock this good. Bravo sir, bravo.

Photo by Penny Hyde

Photo by Penny Hyde

 

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo global. Read his previous post, 11 Animal Hairdos Humans Should Aspire To.

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Orangutan Aisha is One!

We hope Aisha and her mother have a wonderful birthday celebration!

We hope Aisha and her mother have a wonderful birthday celebration!

The past year has flown by! Our little orangutan Aisha is celebrating her first birthday on Saturday, October 25, 2014, at the San Diego Zoo. Aisha’s growing confidence is evident every day. She is very active on exhibit now, climbing and hanging around the tree structures. We even see her move away from Indah to a different tree to play. A few months ago her personality really became apparent. She plays with the enrichment in her room by throwing it up in the air, forages just like her mom, Indah, practices nest building, and eats everything she can get her little hands on.

Orangutan babies grow very slowly. Aisha weighs only about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) and will be considered a baby for 4 years. Even though she has 12 teeth now and eats solid food from her mom’s diet, she will continue to nurse that entire time. There continues to be little interaction between Aisha and the other orangutans.

We will be celebrating Aisha’s birthday with extra enrichment for the whole group: painted boxes, gourds, treats, and more. Since Aisha is still staying on Mom when they are on the ground, Aisha will have to wait until Indah gets the treats and shares with her! Stop by the exhibit first thing Saturday morning to see everyone enjoying Aisha’s birthday, or watch the action on Ape Cam!

Tanya Howard is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Orangutan: 10 Teeth and Counting.

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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.