Projects in the Field

Projects in the Field

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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.

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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?

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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!

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World Elephant Day

Christine Browne-Nuñez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

Christine Browne-Nunez admires elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

World Elephant Day, launched on August 12, 2012, is now an annual event intended to celebrate this beautiful and majestic mammal and to bring attention to the plight of Asian and African elephants and the numerous threats they face. Sadly, elephant tusks are one of the major reasons elephants are threatened. Elephant tusks are made into ivory carvings, jewelry, chopsticks, and other such trinkets. Some people in the world believe that elephant tusks fall out, like baby teeth in humans, and, to collect the ivory, all one needs to do is gather those fallen tusks off the ground. The truth, however, is that tusks are permanent and grow throughout an elephant’s lifetime. In order to get the ivory, the elephant is illegally killed. Because of the high demand for ivory, elephants are currently being killed at an alarming rate. According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 35,000 elephants were poached in Africa last year.

My work with elephants began in 1995 as a manager of a volunteer conservation education program at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, where local and international visitors came to see baby elephants and learn about elephant ecology and conservation. It was at the Trust that I witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by poaching, as many of the traumatized orphaned elephants had lost their mothers to the ivory trade. The good news is, individuals, organizations, such as DSWT, and governments around the world are working hard to bring an end to poaching by educating people about the real costs of ivory and by enforcing national and international laws that make it illegal to collect, sell, or buy ivory.

Many values are associated with elephants, which is, in part, why conserving elephants is a complex task. From an ecological perspective, the elephant has important roles in the environment. It is sometimes called an ecosystem engineer, with complex effects on its habitat and species diversity. It modifies its environment through activities such as seed dispersal, tree felling, bark stripping, and the creation of waterholes. From a social perspective, the many elephant lovers around the world appreciate that elephants are intelligent, social animals that communicate with others near and far, maintain strong family bonds throughout their lives, and have life stages parallel to those of humans. Additionally, many elephant behaviors, such as those demonstrated in greeting ceremonies or when standing over and covering a dead body or bones, are interpreted as displays of emotion. Elephants also have economic value at the local and national level by attracting tourists for consumptive and non-consumptive use.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nunez.

An elephant gives itself a dust bath in Amboseli. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

Whereas the elephant is admired by many people around the world, not all people view elephants positively. About 70 percent of the elephant’s range lies outside protected areas on lands often occupied by people, highlighting the importance of maintaining private lands as viable elephant habitat. Therefore, conservation efforts aimed at protecting the elephant and securing habitat for its long-term survival need to be based on both ecological and human-dimensions information.

People and elephants have coexisted for millennia with varying levels and types of interaction, but negative interactions known as human-elephant conflict (HEC) are perceived to be on the rise in some places. Human-elephant conflict can come in many forms and result in property damage and injury and death of both people and elephants. Crop depredation, the most common form of HEC, is a critical issue in elephant conservation, especially as more land is converted to agriculture. In pastoral areas such as Maasailand, where I conducted research, coexistence is threatened as a result of the evolving socio-economic landscape.

The Maasai people living around Amboseli National Park, Kenya, located at the foot of the majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro, are traditionally semi-nomadic livestock herders. This livelihood practice facilitated their coexistence with wildlife, including elephants, in the Amboseli ecosystem for hundreds of years, but changes brought about by government policy, conservation policy, and immigration of peoples from other cultures has had a significant and on-going impact on their way of life. With more land under the plow and increasing competition for resources resulting from population growth, the level of conflict was on the rise.

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

A Maasai elder is interviewed. Photo credit: Richard Nuñez

My research found the Maasai were divided in their willingness to tolerate elephants on their lands. At the core of this division were perceptions about costs, resulting from HEC, versus benefits, namely tourist revenue. Conservationists working in this and other ecosystems are continually working to find solutions to HEC in order to secure long-term habitat for elephants. In Amboseli, such solutions include electric fencing around agricultural areas, compensation payments for loss of human life, consolation payments for livestock killed by elephants on private lands, and ecotourism schemes. My research found only a minority of local Maasai were aware of, or fully understood, these interventions, but of those, attitudes tended to be more positive. Conservation education and communication programs, such as those developed by our Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global, can increase awareness of these types of conservation activities and provide knowledge and skills to empower local people in managing and conserving wildlife.

It is evident that people have and will continue to determine the fate of the elephant. African savanna elephants will become extinct by 2020 if the threats to elephants are not adequately addressed. A vital component of conservation is understanding and influencing human actions. Ongoing ecological and social science research is needed in the varied settings in which people and elephants coexist in order to provide information for developing, monitoring, and adapting methods for protecting both species. Developing community-based conservation programs that include conservation education and communication is one of the many things we do here at the Conservation Education Division at San Diego Zoo Global.

Support the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy in its efforts to conserve elephants and elephant habitat. With your help, we can bring elephants back from the brink of extinction!

Christine Browne-Nuñez, Ph.D., is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Rare Frogs Holding Their Own Despite Drought Conditions

mountain yellow-legged frogA recent survey of mountain yellow-legged frogs released into the wild by San Diego Zoo Global wildlife conservationists indicates that the populations are showing signs of stress related to drought conditions in California. The juvenile frogs, released into the San Jacinto mountains in two protected sites, are representatives of a species brought to the brink of extinction by the threat of wildfire, habitat destruction and chytrid fungus. The young frogs hatched at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and were introduced as tadpoles into the wild in 2013.

“When we released these frogs into the wild, we knew they would be facing natural challenges to their survival, like predation,” said Frank Santana, a research coordinator with the Institute for Conservation Research. “The drought is adding an additional challenge to their survival, but we are still finding a significant number of frogs that are healthy and growing.”

Of the 300 tadpoles that were released, researchers believe about 25% continue to survive. The species is believed to number less than 200 individuals in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains, where they once thrived. Institute for Conservation Research conservationists, working in collaboration with government partners – U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game and University of California – are working to repopulate Southern California with these rare frogs.

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

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New Generation of Rare Turtles Released into San Diego Reserve

Pond turtle releaseFive juvenile western pond turtles were released into the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve today by a team of federal, state and zoo scientists. The released turtles are part of the “headstart” program, which involves raising hatchlings at the San Diego Zoo to a large enough size and then releasing them into the wild, giving them a better chance of surviving and fending off natural predators.

The western pond turtles are California’s only native freshwater turtle species, a species that was once widespread in California, Oregon and Washington. They are now uncommon, especially in southern California, due to habitat loss and invasive, nonnative predators like bullfrogs and largemouth bass, which eat up the tiny hatchling turtles that are no larger than a quarter.

“Along with USGS we’re able to monitor these turtles with their radio transmitters and check on them periodically to see how they’re doing,” said Tommy Owens, senior keeper with the San Diego Zoo’s Department of Herpetology. “It’s really important here at the beginning of the release, because the turtles might not stay put and we want to be able to find them easily. Through radio tracking we can see the use of habitat, their behaviors and check on their overall well being.”

The five turtles released this morning were each fitted with a miniature radio transmitter prior to the release. Researchers attached these tiny antennae to the juvenile turtles’ shells so they can regularly check on the turtles’ growth, physical health and behavior. The transmitters were applied with a silicone sealant that allows the young turtle’s shells to grow and expand, even with the transmitter device attached to it.

Since the first generation of “headstart” turtles was released over a year ago, researchers monitoring the program have noticed progress and have been able to catch those turtles periodically to gather their measurements. After examining the turtles and checking their transmitters, researchers release them back into the same watershed.

The Sycuan Peak effort is a joint project of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), San Diego Zoo Global, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). The project is testing conservation strategies to help western pond turtles and other native species, since many California ecosystems are being impacted by invasive, nonnative species accidentally or intentionally introduced by humans. The SANDAG TransNet Environmental Mitigation Program (EMP) funded the USGS’ initial work to support the restoration of the western pond turtle.

Photo taken on July 31, 2014, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo.

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

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Not So Blue: Blue Mountain Koalas

This male was located just on the western edge of the Blue Mountains. Photo credit:  John Eggenhuizen

This male was located just on the western edge of the Blue Mountains. Photo credit: John Eggenhuizen

For the past few years my research with koalas in Australia has expanded to focus on koalas living in the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW). These regions are south of Queensland, where St. Bees Island is located, and are at the middle to lower portion of the koalas’ home range. We are studying koalas in these parts to further our knowledge of this species and to really start comparing them across their entire habitat. Their entire home range is about 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers), and with every new project and section that we venture into we get more data on the interesting lives of koalas.

This past November I had the pleasure of heading off to Australia again to meet with colleagues studying koalas in the wild and to see one of these new locations for our koala research, the Blue Mountains in NSW. The Blue Mountains are a World Heritage Site and historically were home to abundant koala populations prior to the fur trade in the early 1900s. Today, koalas in this region are harder to find but may be a significant and genetically valuable population (and, no, the koalas are not blue!). The rough terrain and sweeping vistas that make this area a wonder to behold also make it difficult to track koalas in traditional ways.

The Blue Mountains are located in New South Wales, Australia. Photo credit: Kellie Leigh

The Blue Mountains are located in New South Wales, Australia. Photo credit: Kellie Leigh

In order to get in and find koalas, we are developing less traditional methods to track them. I went out to the area with Dr. Kellie Leigh of Science for Wildlife Inc so that we could assess the area and see where there would be potential spots for koala research. We didn’t see koalas while I was there, but what we did see were some signs of koalas, like claw marks on trees. On the heels of our trip there was a koala count: they have an app for that—Great Koala Count! This citizen science survey gives locals and visitors alike, in areas such as the Blue Mountains, the ability to record the presence of koalas. Some very interesting results came in with sightings of koalas in areas where koalas were thought to no longer be found. These sightings have helped Dr. Leigh narrow her search of where to begin in this vast koala habitat.

With my collaboration with Dr. Leigh, we hope to use all our knowledge of koalas’ behaviors as well as their scent to start training a koala-tracking dog to further our efforts to find these potentially elusive koalas in the Blue Mountains. This will take the help of our San Diego Zoo colony of koalas, as we are hoping to use their chemical profiles to facilitate the choice scents in order to train this dog to assist researchers in the Blue Mountains. Once we find koalas, they can be fitted with satellite GPS collars so the fieldwork that Dr. Bill Ellis and his team have done on St. Bees and continue to do in the Brisbane Valley area can be expanded. Through this research we are able to further our commitment to ensuring that koalas are around in their natural habitat for everyone to experience for generations to come.

Jennifer Tobey is a behavioral biologist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, A Koala Career.

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Climate Change: Polar bears, Sea Ice, and Beyond

Kalluk enjoys last year's snow day at the San Diego Zoo.

Kalluk enjoys last year’s snow day at the San Diego Zoo.

Climate change is back in the news and, unfortunately, the news has not been good. A number of recent reports indicate that carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has reached unprecedented levels. At over 400 parts per million, we have reached a number that would have seemed unimaginable just decades ago. But while the scale of this problem is immense, the real power for changing the current trend is within each of us. The choices we make—what we buy, how we spend our time—can lead to dramatic differences in our carbon footprint. It is possible to reverse the current trend if we all commit to changing our daily habits.

There is a vast array of information now available that outlines the many-faceted ways that the changing climate will impact people and ecosystems all over the world. From extreme weather to climate warming, the reach of climate change is broad. And the reason our climate is changing is known: human activities have driven the release of unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that effectively blankets the Earth, increasing the amount of heat that stays in our atmosphere. And while we typically associate carbon dioxide emissions with the burning of fossil fuels, such as gas and coal, there are other sources as well that are not as well known. One of the largest contributors to atmospheric carbon is deforestation. Each year, the burning and clearing of tropical forests contributes over 2 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere.

At the San Diego Zoo, our mission is to connect people to wildlife because that connection can be a powerful force for conservation. I can speak from personal experience as to the power of that connection. Destined for medical school, my career path shifted dramatically because of a chance connection with wildlife. For me, that connection started with the polar bear, a species whose plight has provided some of the defining images associated with climate change, a species whose future we hold in our hands.

As a graduate student, my first field season was spent working out of a remote field camp on the western Hudson Bay, about 15 miles east of Churchill, Manitoba (a.k.a. the Polar Bear Capital of the World). This area, so nicknamed because of the large number of polar bears that congregate there in the fall, was also home to an incredible array of wildlife, including Arctic nesting birds, large herds of caribou, and beluga whales. While polar bears are most numerous and visible during the fall, the bears actually start coming ashore during the summer as the ice on the Bay begins to melt out, and the bears are forced ashore to begin a long fast.

Our field research was primarily done on foot, with miles and miles of walking over the course of the long Arctic summer days, and the possibility of bumping into a polar bear meant that safety measures were taken seriously and practiced regularly. The most basic and important safety measure we had while walking in the field was to scan the horizon with binoculars every few minute, in hopes of spotting any polar bears in the vicinity while they were still a good distance away. On the day I saw my first bear, it was relatively early in the season for polar bears, but the ice had begun to break up on the Bay, a harbinger of polar bears to come. Scan after scan, I saw nothing and continued with my work. And then suddenly, I looked up, and saw a young male bear easily without binoculars, less than 50 feet away. How long had he been following me? Luckily, I was able to make my way safely back to camp. And while it was truly scary to see a bear so close, it was also an event that left an enormous impression on me. It initiated my love of the species and cemented my passion for conserving wildlife and wild places.

Around that same time (the mid-1990s), biologists studying polar bears in the Canadian Arctic documented changes that were occurring within that population of polar bears. These scientists found that reductions in reproductive parameters were correlated with the warming air temperatures that had been documented between 1950 and 1990 and, most importantly, with an increasingly long period where the Hudson Bay was ice free. Because polar bears are completely dependent upon the sea ice for their survival, the directional trend toward less and less ice was of great concern. Twenty years later, I am happy to say that the polar bear is one of the species that I get to study, but saddened to say that the Earth’s CO2 emissions have continued to increase and that the impacts of climate change on polar bears have intensified. No other species better illustrates the impact of climate change on wildlife. Like a real-life version of the game “Break the Ice,” the polar bear’s habitat is disappearing, the ice literally melting at their feet. Their fate is in our hands.

Chinook and Kalluk have been breeding for the past couple of weeks, and we are hopeful, as in years past, that this breeding season will result in the birth of a polar cub in the fall. We will monitor Chinook closely for behavioral and physiological signs of pregnancy and learn as much as we can about the reproductive biology of these amazing animals. Keepers, researchers, and visitors alike have an amazing opportunity to observe our bears in the water and on land at the San Diego Zoo, and in so doing, learn about climate change and the impact that this human-driven change is having on wild polar bears and the Arctic sea ice environment. Polar bears exemplify the role of “conservation ambassadors,” and it is hard to deny the impressive nature of their strength, intelligence, and adaptations to life on the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Climate change may sound like old news to some. Images of polar bears stranded on ice floes were once a common sight in the popular press, but like most news stories, many people have moved on. Unfortunately, climate change has not gone away, and the negative impacts of sea-ice losses on polar bears continue to eke away at their once-pristine Arctic home. I am hopeful that the reemergence of climate change into the news cycle will invigorate people’s interest in doing their part to reverse the trends in CO2 emissions. I am hopeful also that we all seek those connections to nature and wildlife that are so important for engaging us in conservation issues. We can all make a difference.

For those who love our polar bears, and for those who are interested in learning more about how climate change is impacting the species’ Arctic sea ice habitat, I recommend visiting the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) website. This page provides daily updates on sea ice conditions in the polar regions, as well as year by year interactive graphics of the dynamic changes in sea ice extent.

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

11

Bear Courtship

This camera-trap photo shows a male Andean bear, left, being rebuffed by a female Andean bear.

This camera-trap photo shows a male Andean bear, left, being rebuffed by a female Andean bear.

To improve giant panda captive breeding programs, researchers have carried out numerous investigations of how male and female giant pandas communicate with each other, and how their hormone profiles change independently, and in response to each other. Applying this knowledge has contributed to the success of giant panda captive breeding efforts, which are now based on more information than is available for any of the other bear species.

In the dry forest of northwest Peru, where we’ve been working with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society, there appear to be some relatively predictable cycles. Food for the Andean (spectacled) bears appears to be scarce for most of the year, so some of them turn to eating pasallo trees, and all of them gradually lose weight. Then, when the fruit of the sapote is available, the bears focus on that fruit and gain weight. We’ve suspected that the bears mate during that same season.

Although there isn’t much information on what courtship looks like among wild Andean bears, we suspect that males crisscross the landscape, looking for females that are in estrus and so may be willing to mate, or which will be ready to mate in the near future. Once a male locates a female, probably through some sort of olfactory communication that is similar to but different from the means used by giant pandas and polar bears, we think a male will then follow that female, trying to determine when it’s safest to approach her, while chasing off any other males that might also try to mate with her.

Like all bears, Andean bears are not social as adults, but obviously a male and female have to respond positively toward each other in order to mate. We believe that in Andean bears, like giant pandas, the coordination of reproductive readiness (and willingness!) is influenced by hormones, chemical cues, and behavioral interactions. A male has to get the timing right. If he approaches the female at the wrong time, she’s likely to vocalize loudly at him, box his ears, run away, or any combination of those alternatives. We’ve recently retrieved photos from a camera trap in the dry forest that suggests that one male, at least, didn’t quite time his approach correctly!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Bear Ambassador Learns Importance of Plants.

4

Saticoy Flies into the Wild!

Saticoy (purple #36) receives his transmitters before his release.

Saticoy (purple #36) receives his transmitters before his release. Photo credit: Devon Lang Pryor, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

We have some exciting news: Saticoy, everybody’s favorite California condor who hatched and grew up on the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam in 2012, has finally been released to fly free in the wild! Saticoy was the first California condor to hatch, on March 10, 2012, while thousands of excited viewers watched live on Condor Cam. His parents (father Sisquoc and mother Shatash) did an amazing job raising him for over five months until he left the nest.

On April 11, 2013, we transported him to the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in southern California with two other young condors to be socialized in a pen before being released. The young birds were kept in this flight pen throughout the summer and into the autumn so that they could become familiar with their surroundings before they were released. They were able to acclimatize to the weather and wind. Also, the 60+ other condors already flying free in this region were allowed to meet the new, young release candidates through the flight pen’s wire. When the young birds were released, they weren’t complete strangers to the free-flying residents.

The two condors who accompanied Saticoy from the Safari Park (Nechuwa, #637, and Sukilamu, #643) were the first two birds released from the flight pen. They were released on October 22, 2013. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service field biologists observed these two for a while to make sure they were socializing well into the wild flock before releasing any of the other young birds. After these two youngsters were okay, it was Saticoy’s turn.

Saticoy feeds at a carcass with other condors; one is Sukilamu (purple #43), another Safari Park condor.

Saticoy feeds at a carcass with other wild condors. Photo credit: Devon Lang Pryor, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Saticoy (#636) and a young female (#628) from the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho (another of our valuable partners in the California Condor Recovery Program) were released together on November 20, 2013, and flew away from the flight pen. Then some bad weather hit the area for the next two days. By November 23, 2013, the fog had cleared, and the sun was shining. That afternoon, both #628 and Saticoy had found their way back to the flight pen and began feeding with the free-flying condors. One of the field biologists said that the two young condors may have set a record in returning to the release site and fitting in with the wild birds so quickly!

Saticoy was also observed perching and roosting in big snag trees with other birds those first few days. Usually, the field biologists find newly released birds on the ground or perched in small trees or shrubs before they make it up to the roost snags.

As you can see, it takes a lot of time, effort, and people to prepare young condors for a release program. Without help and enthusiasm from people like you, none of this would be possible. All of us at the Safari Park (including all of the condors!) thank you so much. It appears that Saticoy is off to a great start at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge and is learning his way around. We couldn’t be happier for him!

Many thanks to Devon Lang Pryor, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Biological Science technician, for providing us with an update and photos of the release!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, The Condors Next Door.