Animal Stories

Animal Stories

3

Who You Calling “Sloth?”

Curious Sahaasa sniffs out his new surroudings.

Curious sloth bear Sahaasa sniffs out his new surroundings.

This week, I had the opportunity to observe two new additions to the San Diego Zoo’s bear canyon. Sahaasa and Kayla, 2-year-old sibling sloth bears, got busy making themselves at home—and watching each go about it in their own way was quite interesting!

Sloth bears are not well known to many North Americans, but they are really very interesting creatures. Their long, shaggy coat makes them appear quite cute and cuddly, but they are good-sized bears with sharp claws and teeth and can therefore be quite dangerous if provoked. They live in the grasslands and open dry forests of India, where they feed primarily on insects; those extra long claws are particularly useful at shredding rotting wood and hard-packed dirt to gain access to the grubs, termites, and other delicious invertebrates that live beneath. So, too, is their muzzle well adapted to foraging for bugs, with highly mobile lips, nostrils that can close to keep dirt out, and a gap in their front teeth to allow them to vacuum up creepy crawlies. These guys are well suited to play nature’s exterminator.

The sloth bear is so-called because originally it was thought they resembled sloths, the slow-moving tree dwellers. In fact, sloths bears are not related to sloths, but the differences don’t end there.

In three hours yesterday, I watched Sahaasa climb a tree a half dozen times, crawl into the moat just as often, scratch a hole in a 6-inch-thick (15 centimeters) piece of deadwood, dig a hole (that his big body could nearly fit into) in about 10 minutes, dangle from the climbing structure more times than I could count, and sniff out every inch of his new exhibit space. The dictionary defines “sloth” as “habitual disinclination to exertion, laziness.” Apparently Sahaasa didn’t get the memo.

Kayla is a little more shy and reticent than her brother, but she performed her share of mayhem as well: she uprooted a shrub with little effort and dragged it half way across her exhibit. If you’d like to come say “hi” to the newest additions to our bear family, you might want to do it soon. I can’t guarantee any of their exhibit plants or hardware will survive for much longer!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, World Orangutan Day.

0

10 Festive Reindeer Facts

‘Tis the season to be jolly! What could be more merry than Santa’s sleigh? Well, without his dexterous reindeer, Old Saint Nick’s mode of transportation would not get very far. So today, we would like to share a few fun facts about this festive species.

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

1. Reindeer or caribou?
In Europe, they’re known as reindeer. In North America, the term reindeer is used for Eurasian populations, while the name caribou refers to wild populations found in the country. However, both reindeer and caribou are classified as the same genus and species, rangifer tarandus. So for the purpose of simplicity and sticking with the holiday theme, we’ll call them reindeer for the rest of this blog.

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

2. Males AND females grow antlers.
Male antlers may grow twice as long as their female counterparts; still, reindeer are the only deer species to practice gender equality when it comes to their most memorable characteristic. Males begin to grow antlers in February and females start in May. Both stop growing around the same time, but a male’s antlers typically drop off in November, while a female’s remain through winter until their calves are born in spring. If you’re following this logic, our good pal Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was most likely a female, because she was rocking her antlers on Christmas Eve.

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

3. Hard antlers start out soft and fuzzy.
Since antlers fall off and grow back every year, a reindeer is said to be in “velvet” while the new pair of antlers grow. After the velvet dries up, the reindeer unveils its hard antler cores by rubbing its deciduous horns against a rock or tree. Ta-da!

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

4. Reindeer calves are quick learners.
Newborns are able to stand one hour after birth, and they can outrun humans when they reach one day old. Calves are also weaned from their mothers as early as one to six months of age.

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

5. They have hairy feet.
Reindeer are built for subzero temps, so they’re covered in hair from their nose to the bottom of their feet. The hair on their hooves provides an excellent grip when trekking over frozen landscapes. Thus, the hairy hooves of reindeer have adapted into snowshoes for these Arctic animals.

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

6. Reindeer hooves are anatomically noisy.
“Up On The Housetop” and other holiday jingles often imply that the “click, click, click” we hear upon Santa’s arrival is the result of his herd’s stampeding feet. In fact, many hoofed animals make loud noises when their feet meet hard surfaces, but not reindeer. The metallic sound of reindeer hooves is actually due to tendons slipping over their foot bones as they walk.

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

7. They love crowds…
… of other reindeer, of course. Since they are social animals, reindeer live in herds of 10 to several hundred. So Santa was somewhat limiting his holiday herd by having only nine reindeer. Imagine the horsepower his sleigh would have if his herd included 100 fancifully named members!

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

8. Reindeer are good swimmers.
Santa’s exclusive herd might be capable of flying, but the rest of the species is not. However, since reindeer migrate to follow their food supply and avoid harsh conditions, chances are they come into contact with water. Luckily, reindeer use their wide, two-toed hooves like paddles that push water and allow these mammals to swim from four to six miles per hour.

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

9. Their eyes change color in winter.
To adapt to the varying levels of light in their northern habitat, part of a reindeer’s eye changes color and increases their vision sensitivity. The layer of tissue behind the retina that reflects light (tapetum lucidum) turns blue during winter and allows reindeer to see slightly more of their surroundings, even if what they can see is not that sharp or in focus. This seasonal trade-off has its advantages, especially if it improves a reindeer’s ability to spot predators.

Wild & Fun: 10 Festive Facts About Reindeer

10. Like humans, reindeer “wear” layers.
A reindeer has two coat layers: the undercoat is made of soft, fine wool that grows next to the skin, and the top layer consists of long, hollow guard hairs. Similar to a hollow-fill winter jacket worn by humans, the stiff top layer insulates the animal and keeps it warm against the wind and cold. These hollow hairs also help reindeer float. In other words, reindeer have incredible fashion sense.

Do you have any reindeer facts to add to this list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

 

Jenn Beening is the social media specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, What We’re Thankful For.

30

Lazy Gao Day

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun enjoying some treats on her "plate."

Panda Cam caught Bai Yun enjoying some treats on her “plate.”

We don’t get to see much of our senior panda, Gao Gao, on Panda Cam. But rest assured he is looking good, eating well, and, in the words of San Diego Zoo keeper Karen Scott, he seems “happy.” Gao is even at his ideal weight: 170 pounds (77.2 kilograms).

So why can’t guests view Gao Gao these days? Well, as Karen explained, Gao Gao and his son, Xiao Liwu, are “like peas in a pod,” personality-wise. “Mr. Wu” doesn’t like the construction noise as we build our new Asian leopard habitat, and neither does his dad! They are much more comfortable farther away from the intermittent noise. Xiao Liwu is currently in the off-exhibit north yard, where he can sometimes be seen on Panda Cam, and Gao Gao has access to another off-exhibit yard. Bai Yun, our matriarch, remains in her normal exhibit, where guests can admire her munching contentedly on bamboo. Nothing fazes this panda mama!

Although Gao Gao can go in his outside yard whenever he wants to, he sometimes prefers to have what Karen calls a “lazy Gao day.” He has a large rubber tub that he uses as a comfy bed. Keepers fill the tub with a flake of excelsior hay, and Gao likes to stretch out in it, resting on his back, his legs straight out and his forelimbs dangling over the edge. The other day, Karen put FOUR flakes of hay in the tub and fluffed up some of it to make a pillow for Gao. Panda heaven! With his pile of bamboo nearby, Karen says all he really needed was a TV to watch a football game or two.

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, How to Take a Panda’s Blood Pressure: 8 Easy Steps.

3

Talkin’ about Takins

Closely related to sheep, takins are native to China.

As guests walk through Panda Trek at the San Diego Zoo, they are always surprised at our “cool goats” on the hillside. Indeed, the takins have been amazing to watch and work with over the years and have been a huge success for the zoological community here in the United States. Currently, we have a female herd of five individuals ranging in age from 14 to almost 2. They each have their own personalities, and society in the takin world can be a little dramatic!

Summer is our matriarch and the boss of the younger females. She is also the largest and very good with the younger females. As keepers, we do not go in with the takins, so we have to move the girls either into the barn or up onto the hillside yard. Our typical goal is to always move Summer first and the rest will follow her. Behind her is her sister, Eve, who is the bossy one and has the biggest attitude. She likes to throw her weight around and act like she’s in charge until her sister, Summer, tells her that’s enough. Summer and Eve have a younger sister named Duli, who is several years younger but who also likes the idea of being in charge of someone. These three females are the daughters of the last matriarch, Blondie, and challenge each other on a fairly regular basis about who is next in line.

The two youngsters in the herd are named Mei and Mu. Mei is the daughter of Summer and is in the awkward teenage phase where she is unsure of herself. She does her best to stay close to Mom for her protection, although Summer is starting to make Mei take care of herself and will even push her away to get her to an independent point. Mu is a bit of a stinker; she likes to pick fights with Duli and Mei but have her mother finish them. She is full of energy and has a very sweet disposition toward her keepers. One of her favorite things to do is go to the top of the hillside exhibit and wait for a clear path down the hill so she can run and jump the entire way down!

Female takins can live into their late teens, but being such a large animal, we do tend to see arthritis develop in their joints. Luckily, we have an amazing vet staff who are always ahead of the game, making sure we are as proactive as possible with possible medical issues.

Takins are found in the high mountains of the Sichuan Province of China and are used to climbing, jumping, and running on uneven terrain. As keepers, we have a blast watching them chase each other and play on the hillside. We also like to hang browse for them in high positions so that they stand on their hind legs and stretch to get those leaves.

These girls are wonderful ambassadors for their species, and as keepers and educators we are always so happy to hear guests get excited about these ladies. We think they are quite special and are always happy to share our stories and knowledge with our guests.

Click here to learn more about takins.

Anastasia Horning is a keeper and educator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Wish List: Enrichment for All.

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.

15

Polar Bear Tatqiq Wears It Well

Tatqiq wears a collar

Tatqiq wears a collar for conservation science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hope the collar...

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

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

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

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

4

Silvered Leaf Langurs: Active Monkeys

Watch the antics of the Zoo's silvered leaf langurs!

Watch the antics of the Zoo’s silvered leaf langurs!

If you have yet to see our silvered leaf langurs, make sure to view them on your next visit to the San Diego Zoo. This group of 13 monkeys moved into its exhibit in June. They can be found in the glass building next to the orangutans.

Silvered leaf langurs are native to Southeast Asia and get their name from their long, gray-white hair that gives them a silver appearance and from their leaf-based diet. Interestingly, baby langurs are born bright orange and don’t turn gray until they are three to five months old. This langur species is only found in six accredited zoos in the United States.

With 13 individuals, the San Diego Zoo houses the largest group of silvered leaf langurs in the country. It is a very dynamic group, with ages ranging from 10 months to 31 years old. Four of the monkeys are less than three years old, and they can frequently be seen playing, chasing each other, wrestling, and swinging from the tails of the adults. The group members spend their days alternating between rest periods and feeding and playing.

If you walk by and the exhibit appears empty, be sure to look up. Their favorite place to sleep is at the very top of their climbing structures. If you catch them while they are sleeping, be sure to visit again later. The antics of these playful langurs are not to be missed!

Julie Krajewski is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

0

Protected Habitat in Southern California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bighorn sheep lambs frolic.

Bighorn sheep lambs frolic.

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

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

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.

48

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.