Tuesday, August 19
Many of the primates in our collection at Zoo Atlanta are involved in various research projects. These range from behavioral observation, where researchers simply observe the day-to-day activities of our primate groups in their natural settings, to more in-depth cognitive research where individuals actively and voluntarily participate in learning behavior studies.
The goal of all of these studies performed by our research staff, as well as by outside researchers that often times will work with our collection, is to work toward providing better care for the animals we work with, as well as provide information that can help us in the conservation of their wild counterparts.
One study that is underway involves our golden lion tamarin groups. Currently, Zoo Atlanta houses 10 total golden lion tamarins in four separate groups. We are currently working with Brett Frye, a PhD student at Clemson University, who is looking at the effect of novelty, or something new or unique, on the behavior of female golden lion tamarins. Information gathered from this study can then be theoretically used to help predict how female individuals will react to changes in their environment. This study could help us predict how individuals will react to being introduced into new environments and could potentially help us better manage golden lion tamarins.
Golden lion tamarins are endangered in the wild, with around 1,800 individuals remaining. One way to increase this number is to supplement it by reintroducing captive individuals back into the wild. From 1984 to 2000, about 150 golden lion tamarins were reintroduced to Brazil from zoos all over the world, including two groups from Zoo Atlanta. The research we do in zoos can help us better manage the primates in our care and make important contributions to conservation!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, August 14
As the summer begins to wind down, the work in the World of Reptiles certainly doesn’t! Summer is hatching season, and we’ve had a pretty successful one so far this year with dozens of scaly babies.
We’ve continued our success with critically endangered Guatemalan beaded lizards, of which seven hatched this year! In addition, we have also hatched several more Iranian eyelid geckos, a close cousin of the more familiar leopard gecko. And at this point in time, we are making space for lots and lots of baby Burmese black mountain tortoises. Zoo Atlanta has been very successful in the captive breeding of this large tortoise (the fourth-largest in the world) from Asia, and no matter how many we hatch, it is always fun watching these little guys climb out of their eggs.
Aside from our continued successes, 2014 has also been a year of firsts for the Herpetology Department. Back in June, we marked our first litter of sidewinders, and within a few days we had our second, for a total of 15 tiny rattlesnakes! Sidewinders live in the deserts of the southwestern United States, and this small rattlesnake earns its name from its unusual sideways movements, which are extremely efficient at moving across shifting sands. We also had our first successful breeding of Meller’s chameleons, with the hatching of 29 babies. This is the second-largest species of chameleon in the world and can reach lengths of over two feet! Mexican horned pitviper babies also made their appearance on our list of Zoo Atlanta firsts, with two babies born in July.
But of course, we’re not done yet! Eggs are still incubating from three species of critically endangered Asian box Turtles; our female impressed tortoises are showing signs that they will be nesting soon; and our female red-tailed boa constrictor, Luchadora, is due to have her second litter of babies over the next several weeks. Whew!
Robert L. Hill
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
Thursday, August 7
Many of you have already returned to school for the new school year. Can you believe the summer is already practically gone? We keepers are still in full keeper mode to ensure everything runs smoothly here at Zoo Atlanta. No summer break for us! In fact, this summer has been quite an adventure.
The Wildlife Theater and Amy’s Tree Theater shows seemed to be a big hit as we introduced a new theme. With seven staff and seven interns, we were rockin’ and rollin’ seven days a week nonstop. Many of our interns are returning to finish school as well, so things have been tight but exciting. “Summer” shows are still in full swing until Labor Day. If you have not been to see us at Zoo Atlanta this summer, come check us out and laugh at our corny jokes!
After the Labor Day holiday, shows will resume only on weekends, weather permitting, at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. We love to see new faces and Zoo Members at our shows. A lot of new and exciting things have happened over the summer. Some of these we have already shared, some are coming up, and we will be excited to share them with you when the time is right. Stay tuned!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, August 5
Zookeepers take vacations too. As much as we miss our animals at the Zoo, we too need these much-needed breaks. This past month gave me a good 11 days off and when I came back, boy did I have a lot to catch up on! Working every day (with the normal two days off during the week), you see the animals and sometimes cannot notice the subtle changes that occur … like Anaka, the almost 1-year-old gorilla, sprouting up like a weed! I cannot believe that when I came back she was leaving her mom, Sukari, more than I had seen her do just before I left, and she was joining in the play sessions with the other younger ones. She is more independent (as much as Sukari will allow) and has just grown bigger than what she was 11 days ago (to me anyway).
With Anaka turning 1 on August 30, it will be fun to watch her interact more and watch her personality come out. She seems to be gaining some dominance at such a young age. I have seen her bark and chase off 3-year-old Merry Leigh when she wants juice. I have seen her climb over her mother’s head and interrupt training sessions to get at grapes. She is becoming a hellion, and it will be so interesting to see where she will fit in to the group as she gets older.
Along with getting to see the animals I currently take care of, it was great to visit a zoo I had worked at previously. When the animals recognize you from far away in their exhibits and come running up to greet you, it is the best feeling! Three chimpanzees I had worked with eight years ago came to say hi, and two offered me gifts of bamboo leaves. One came up and blew raspberries at me and nodded her head as her greeting. I spent some time with them and saw how they have changed in these last several years. The three chimpanzee kids that I had taken care of have grown so much; it is hard to believe it was that long ago. They didn’t recognize me like the adults did, but I guess that’s okay. When I left the back of the building, I made my way eventually to the front of the exhibit, and one of the same chimps came back up to greet me and offer me bamboo through the glass. I left happy as a clam that I got to see them again.
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, July 31
Summertime in the elephant barn is all about keeping your trunks up. The elephant care professionals at Zoo Atlanta spend hours every day working closely with the elephants, Kelly and Tara. One of the most important aspects of elephant training is establishing manners, or more specifically, keeping trunks up and sometimes down when the situation calls for it. Kelly, a 31-year-old African elephant, and her companion of almost 30 years, Tara, also 31, need to be able to keep their trunks in a safe position when elephant care staff are working closely with them. Daily tasks such as foot care, baths, exercise and Wild Encounters all require that the elephants not only are able to voluntarily comply with what the keepers ask of them, but that they also do it a well-mannered way.
Summer is a fantastic time to visit the elephants at the Zoo. On any given day, you can find them rolling in the mud, playing in a fire hose, or being bathed by the caretakers. Both elephants have a daily allotment of produce that they each receive. This produce is essential to the training process and is used as a reinforcer, meaning the elephants are rewarded for presenting their feet, shifting in and out of the barn, being bathed, and keeping their trunks up and down. The specific timing of the delivery of the produce, in correlation with a training whistle, increases the likelihood that the elephants will repeat the requested behavior again.
Next time you find yourself in the Zoo, stop by the elephant barn. While the elephants do not have scheduled training demonstrations, they occur every day and are always worth a look.
Elephant Lead Keeper
Tuesday, July 29
Hatching day for flamingos: it’s going on right now!
As I type at 1.30 p.m., we have future members of our flamingo flock hatching in the incubators. The eggs were all laid on the same day by different parents and have been incubated in our incubators for the last 28 days.
As of yesterday morning, four chicks were hatching in our incubator room. They had gotten to the stage where the tips of their beaks had just created a small hole in the eggshell, and they were all calling loudly. It’s quite an experience to listen to a squeaking egg.
Now, as of 1.30 p.m. today, one chick has hatched and the other three are in process. The hatching chick has chipped off the cap of its egg and is lying with its head out on the hatcher floor resting. The next stage will be to kick itself out of the egg, and we will have a new baby to raise. We expect the other chicks to be out by tomorrow morning.
Late tonight this first chick will get its very first meal of egg formula, heavily diluted with water to keep him going. The chick probably doesn’t need feeding till tomorrow morning, but we have a tendency to nanny them! The egg yolk is still inside the chick, and that is its primary food source for the next 24 hours.
Unfortunately we do not a have place to rear flamingo chicks where they can be seen by guests, but they will certainly be visible on Members Only Night on September 6. Look for them in Flamingo Plaza that night. A 5-week-old flamingo is pretty darn cute!
Curator of Birds
Thursday, July 24
I’m sure you’ve all noticed our little construction project happening on the backlot of the Zoo—our exciting new reptile and amphibian complex! With opening still scheduled for spring 2015, you can be sure that the Herpetology Department is scrambling getting everything “just right” for this great opportunity.
Aside from state-of-the-art exhibits and conservation breeding spaces, the new facility will have modern educational graphics that will allow us to tell so much more of the stories and fascinating biology behind the animals we work with. So this is what I have been working hard on all summer long: creating the informational text files that will eventually be displayed on various digital screens throughout the new facility.
It is no mean feat, let me tell you, to summarize so much information for over 150 species of reptiles and amphibians that will be featured, at various times, for our guests. I feel like I have spent the summer writing a textbook on reptiles and amphibians! Hopefully, our guests will also feel like they have access to as much information as they wish to pursue among our snazzy new graphical displays. We want our new complex to be a lovely aesthetic experience, highlighting some of the most diverse and spectacular animals in the world, while also serving as a launching point for inquiry into their biology and conservation. So while the contractors labor on the new buildings, you can be sure that the Herpetology Department is laboring on all of the contents.
Meanwhile, our existing World of Reptiles will remain open for our guests until the big opening day arrives, and we hope to see you there this summer, fall and winter. But we especially look forward to seeing you in the spring as we all join to enjoy the newest feature of Zoo Atlanta.
Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Herpetological Research
Tuesday, July 22
When visiting the Monkeys of Makokou habitats, you'll notice that our drill monkeys are separated into two groups. Although they would ideally live as a single cohesive family group, the monkeys had other plans. In order to keep the peace, the drills were separated into two groups based on the hierarchy they naturally developed: a group of one male and female, Bobby and Inge, and a group of three females, Lucy, Achi and Drew.
With the hopes of eventually reuniting the two groups, Zoo staff decided to move Drew from the female group to Bobby’s group back in March. It was successful! Drew went from being the lowest-ranked female in the female group to a higher rank in the male group. Drew can often be spotted grooming Inge or playing around with the juvenile Schmidt’s guenon, Kibali.
Drew and her older group still have a social connection, and they can be heard vocalizing to each other, especially in the mornings. Keepers hope this bond will aid in future reintroductions. Recently, a wall was taken down between the two exhibits. This wall acted as a visual barrier between the two drill groups.
Once the wall was removed, keepers monitored the drills to make sure there weren’t any negative or aggressive behaviors between the two groups now that they could see each other. And to our surprise, the opposite occurred! All four females, although separated by mesh, will sit close to each other and groom, as though they are a single group.
This is a step in the right direction. And although a successful reintroduction is a slow, dynamic process, we are hopeful they will continue to have positive interactions and become a cooperative family group.
Seasonal Keeper, Primates
Thursday, July 17
This past Wednesday here at the Wieland Wildlife Home was a day of grief, and at the same time, a day of celebration. One of our beloved education animal ambassadors, Opus the Virginia opossum, passed away. Opus arrived at Wieland three years ago and spent his life as an educational ambassador teaching thousands of visitors about Virginia opossums.
When working with an animal for as long as three years, keepers are bound to develop some type of attachment. Opus was no different. Opus had a unique personality which quickly made him a favorite among keepers and handlers alike. On the day of his passing tears were shed, but we were also able to recognize the fact that Opus was able to give so much throughout his life here at Wieland, and that is what we celebrated. Throughout his life, Opus educated many children and adults about opossum behavior; he debunked many myths surrounding opossums, and even made clear that there is in fact a difference between an Opossum and a Possum. Opus will be missed dearly here at Wieland Wildlife Home and will always be remembered as serving as an extraordinary animal ambassador to his wild counterparts. Thank you, Opus, for all that you have done!
Keeper II, Program Animals
Tuesday, July 15
Outback Station has been a busy place this summer! After the arrival of our newest red kangaroo, Rory, we welcomed three new Saanen goats to the barn. Now approaching 4 months old, Wembley, Bogart and Tobias are weaned off of milk and ready to begin meeting the rest of the goat herd in the petting zoo! They have had introductions with several of our goat girls, who are the most important herd members for the boys to win over, but not for the reason you may think.
Goat herds are usually matriarchies, with a dominant female in charge of the herd. This means our three little boys need to be accepted by the alpha female, Nessie, and her best buddy Bella in order to be peacefully accepted into the herd. As you can imagine, this process involves a lot of head-butting! Goats use head-butting and climbing onto things like the benches in the petting zoo to establish who is dominant. Keepers are always present during introductions to ensure no animals injure each other.
Wembley, Bogart and Tobias had their first introductions with females Cinderella and Snow White, who have a lower rank in the petting zoo herd’s pecking order and thus are going to be less forceful in putting the goat kids in their place. Some slight head-butting and posturing on goat furniture occurred, but the big show was from Tobias, who immediately started engaging in courting behaviors like wagging his tongue at the girls. What a little ladies’ man!
Overall, the introduction went well and they have gone on to meet the remainder of the herd out in the petting zoo. It’s going to take a few more monitored play dates before they’re ready to be out on their own in the herd, but we are excited that they are well on their way. And don’t forget to be on the lookout for even more new arrivals around the barn in the coming weeks as our other new petting zoo animals move in!
Keeper I, Mammals
Thursday, July 10
Right now is my favorite and most exciting time to be a reptile keeper, as most of our turtle species are laying eggs or have eggs in the incubators. The year’s time, energy, and thought is surrounded around producing these little white pearls. As Wade mentioned in a previous update, our Burmese mountain tortoises were the first to go, with both females building nests and producing over 100 eggs. Our flowerback box turtle, one of my focus species, was next laying one enormous egg that is already showing signs of development. Two of our McCord’s box turtles have laid a clutch so far, and the other should lay any day now. We also have a gravid Pan’s box turtle who should be laying any day now, as she has been digging for a week or so. Lastly, we have a fingers crossed for impressed tortoise eggs coming in the next few weeks.
One cool strategy that we work on with many our turtle species at Zoo Atlanta is putting them through a yearly climate cycle, as they come from temperate climates similar to Atlanta. A current hallmark of these efforts has come with the Pan’s box turtle that is gravid right now. We got the Pan’s box turtles last year from a zoo that kept them inside all year long and got no reproductive success. After only one year in Atlanta, hibernating at the bottom of a pond we built for them during the cold season, she is gravid with a clutch of eggs! These moments make me proud to work at Zoo Atlanta!
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, July 8
Once you walk into The Living Treehouse, you will notice a huge mound of leaves, sticks, twigs and maybe even a map or two. That “thing” is a nest! It belongs to the male and female hammerkop, and they have been diligently working on it since they moved out into the aviary two months ago.
Hammerkops are small, brown wading birds thought to be closely related to the storks (in the Order Ciconiiformes), although recent DNA evidence places them closer to the herons and flamingos (in the Order Charadriiformes). You can often find them shuffling through shallow water raking up aquatic insects, small fish and frogs with their feet.
Lifespan of individuals in the wild is not well known. Hammerkops can live at least into their 20s in zoological settings, but this species was not common in zoos until recently, so their true longevity is not yet known.
One of the coolest aspects of the hammerkop’s behavior is the extremely large nest that these relatively small birds build. This nest of sticks, mud and grass can weigh more than 100 times the weight of the bird and may be one of the largest nests of any bird. Hammerkops are compulsive nest builders, although we don’t know exactly why they build such a big nest. One theory is that protection within the large cavity formed in the middle may be a factor. A pair of hammerkops may build multiple nests each year on their territory. This is good news for many other animals such as Egyptian geese, speckled pigeons, barn owls and honeybees, all of which been known to use abandoned hammerkop nests.
Hammerkops appear to breed year-round in east Africa and breed primarily during the dry season in other locations. After building their large nest, a pair will lay three to six eggs inside the central chamber. The eggs will hatch in 28 to 32 days, and the chicks will fledge from the nest about 50 days later.
Come to The Living Treehouse and check out these awesome birds building their huge nest. Just don’t let go of your map, or your hat, or your wallet, or your stroller, or your loved one. They may end up in the hammerkop nest!
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, July 3
Rats, rats, rats! Rats are very important animal ambassadors for the Program Animals Team. Our older group has been named the Royal Rats: Liz, Kate, Mary and Diana, all named after British royalty. They are the rats you will see running across the stage backdrop at the Wildlife Theater shows. This behavior required a lot of training and repetitions.
We also have four new rats living at the Wildlife Theater. At only about 3 months old, they are being socialized for animal encounters and are in the beginning stages of training in preparation for their future show behavior. They’re the Creature Rats: Fossa, Coati, Sifaka and Bear! This younger group of rats gets handled every day so we will be able to take them on animal encounters and safely handle them for health checks. The more we handle them, the more they will feel comfortable. Based on their natural behavior, a larger “creature” (humans in this case) is perceived as a predator. Their natural response is bite or flight! Regular handling will let them know that we humans are not trying to eat them. They are also learning to voluntarily kennel for some of their favorite treats so that we won’t have to physically remove them from home. We will be able to give them the option to participate or not. Eventually, they will learn a similar behavior as the Royal Rats have, and they’ll participate in the Wildlife Theater show.
Additionally, during animal encounter programs we like to talk about how they are keystone species, meaning they are a very important part of our environment. They are a great food source for other animals we enjoy watching from afar, such as birds of prey, some exotic birds like crows and kookaburras, snakes and other meat-eating animals. Rats are also great diggers to help them find food and to dig their homes. This helps aerate the soil. On the other hand, they also poop a lot, fertilizing the soil. We can also consider rats our natural garbage disposal. As much as I’m sure we all try to get our trash to a proper trash receptacle, they’re also willing to help clean up our pizza and sandwich leftovers.
The Royal Rats and the Creature Rats are safe and sound at the Wildlife Theater, and we are excited to have the “younguns” in shows as soon as they are ready! For now, come to the Wildlife Theater to see the animals who are in the show. We will be here tomorrow, July 4, and look forward to seeing you there!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, July 1
Recently we decided to “spruce up” one of our gorilla habitats that is not on public view. What goes into redoing an animal habitat? Number one, we look into things such as human and animal safety. Next, we start looking at what the animals need for comfort, such as hiding spots, sleeping areas and access to water and food. Then, we can think about promoting natural behaviors and encouraging exercise and play to keep the animals mentally and physically fit.
The habitat already had a large wooden climbing structure, several concrete platforms of varying heights and two smaller wooden towers to climb on or use as visual barriers. So in this case, we decided to add some hammocks and lots of (hopefully) indestructible toys, a large plastic culvert pipe to hide in, fire hose swings and climbing ropes. We also plan on constructing some extra shade structures that can double as lookout platforms in the habitat in the next couple of weeks.
It has been a fun project to work on with our department as we all try to think up ways to make the habitat a place the gorillas will enjoy spending time in!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, June 26
Tuesday at the otter exhibit, I overheard a young boy ask one of the keepers if the animals that he was looking at were the same otters that he had seen before. The boy was asking because the otters that he was looking at were very large. Some might even say that they were giants. Yes, our giant river otters were introduced to not only each other yesterday, but to the exhibit as well. Yzma, the female, and Bakairi, the male, have been living in adjacent dens inside the otter building during the past 30 days while they completed their quarantine period. During this time, we saw lots of positive behaviors between the two, including rubbing on the mesh that separates the two dens. Tuesday we gave Yzma access to the exhibit and after a few minutes, she ventured out to do a bit of exploring. When we gave Bakairi the opportunity to join her, Yzma went back inside, where the two otters officially met for the first time. We left them together for the morning, during which they played most of the time and took periodic breaks to check out the yard. After a few hours of this, they curled up together in their nest box for a nap. We’ll continue to increase the amount of time that the giant otters spend together, and on exhibit. If you’d like to be one of the first people to catch a glimpse of them, your best bet is to stop by in the mornings. I can guarantee that you’ll be entertained!
Megan Wilson, PhD
Curator of Mammals
Tuesday, June 24
Summer is here, and breeding seasons in the Bird Department are well underway! It seems that almost every exhibit has birds displaying and nesting. If you find yourself down near the Canopy Climber in the next few weeks, take a good close look at the birds nearby!
Our Victoria crowned pigeons have been dutifully working on their nest platform. It may not be the prettiest nest in the world, but it does the job! They mostly use shredded leaves and twigs to build their nest, and both parents will take turns sitting on the egg to keep it warm.
The Fischer’s lovebirds have also been very busy lately! As parrots, lovebirds are very social birds with bright green and orange feathers and very loud voices. They spend a lot of time with their family groups, and those social bonds are very important. We have three adult lovebirds. I specify adult because we also have one brand-new chick! Our little lovebird baby has the undivided attention of all three adults, and as a result, he (or she) is growing fast! We expect our new arrival to be venturing out of the nestbox by the end of the month, so next time you find yourself walking through the KIDZone, stop on by and see our little lovebird flock!
(Photo by Molly Desmet)
Keeper I, Birds
Thursday, June 19
This summer we have been working on a lot of projects to improve the habitats in the Program Animal Department. We are very proud and excited about some additions to our birds of prey “lookouts” at the Wildlife Theater. These are basically raised sections of their roofs with some creative perches that allow the birds to get a 360-degree view of their surroundings. In the wild, these birds would normally spend a large portion of their day perched in trees watching for prey to pursue, and our aim with these additions is to enrich the lives of our theater birds by simulating that natural behavior. Currently, our red-tailed hawk, Nate, spends most of his days watching Zoo guests and keepers from his lookout overlooking the spine, and we have also added this feature to the area where our hooded vultures, Baobab and Acacia, currently live. We have plans to add these lookouts to several more areas as the summer goes on, and we are excited to see how it enhances the birds’ lives.
Another project we are excited about is the movement of our kinkajou, Maya, into an outdoor habitat that can be viewed by the public; look for Maya between the Aldabra tortoise yard and the Wieland Wildlife Home. Since she’s extremely nocturnal, we gave her a sleeping box adjacent to her habitat that she can relax in during the day, and while she’s there, we can let other animals use the habitat. This gives her the ability to be outside and have access to a larger play area when she is up and about at night, and we are very excited to be able to share her with the public.
Seasonal Keeper, Program Animals
Tuesday, June 18
Zoo Atlanta hosted approximately 180 veterinarians, gorilla caregivers, managers, researchers and field biologists from all over the world at the 2014 International Gorilla Workshop last week to share the most current information on husbandry, conservation and emerging issues pertaining to zoo-housed and wild populations of gorillas.
This conference played an important role in advancing the well-being of captive gorillas through lectures, panels and roundtable discussions on innovative husbandry techniques. So much knowledge was shared during the workshop, and we continue to receive great feedback about the success of it. We’re excited that so many attendees left with many ideas to implement at their facilities and are eager to start. The attendees (nine countries were represented!) are some of the most amazing and talented people that I know, and it was such an honor to host them!
Senior Keeper, Primates
Thursday, June 12
The World of Reptiles is busy as usual. Both Burmese black mountain tortoises have laid their eggs (located on exhibit in front of the World of Reptiles), and we now have over 100 eggs in the incubator … good thing we only have two females of this large tortoise species. Several other turtles and tortoises are getting ready to lay eggs. Two of our McCord’s box turtles are gravid and will be laying soon.
We are preparing for the new reptile and amphibian complex already; just yesterday, 12 new snakes were released from quarantine, with more on the way. In a way it’s like Noah’s Ark: We received two Cape cobras (now on exhibit in the World of Reptiles), two fer-de-lance, two Sri Lankan pit vipers, two Mexican lance-headed rattlesnakes, two Timor pythons, and two sharp-nosed vipers. While only the Cape cobras are on exhibit in the current World of Reptiles, all of these species will be on exhibit when the new complex opens, along with many others.
Be sure to come see us at the World of Reptiles during your next visit to Zoo Atlanta.
Keeper II, Herpetology
Tuesday, June 10
What a baby boom we’ve had in the Mammal Department! You may be wondering what our new, and not-so-new, babies are up to. Jabari the rhino, who was born in August of 2013, is now so big that it’s hard to remember that he’s still a baby. He currently weighs around 1,000 pounds. The first weight that we got on him, about a month after he was born, was 190 pounds. Since then, he’s learned to participate in regular checks on his weight and also received his vaccinations by hand! With a little food and some scratches, he is happy to sit still for this, which is quite an achievement for not only him, but for the keepers as well. On a related note, Jabari has grown so much that we can no longer weigh him on his personal “baby” scale, but instead we need to weigh him on the same scale that we use for his mom and dad.
The male bongo calf, Lawson, has also done some growing. He was born in April of this year and already weighs about 100 pounds. I know this doesn’t seem like much, considering how big Jabari has gotten, but Lawson put on about 50 pounds in one month. Pretty impressive! He’s currently on exhibit with his mom on a regular basis and is living next door to his dad. It won’t be long before dad Tambo officially meets Lawson, at which point they will live as a family.
Finally, the warthog piglets. I’m not sure what to say about them, except that if you haven’t come to visit them, you really should. These pint-sized cuties, Lex and Eleanor, are almost 8 weeks old and are pure energy. Although they do rest, they’re having a great time exploring their exhibit and playing, playing, playing! The entire warthog family is now back together. Vern has proven, once again, to be a patient and doting father. And Shirley, after her initial period of protectiveness, is content to let the piglets play with each other, or their dad, while she enjoys a cooling mud bath.
These aren’t the only mammal babies that you’ll see that the Zoo this summer, but you’ll have to wait a bit for an update about them. But here’s a hint: You’ll want to visit Outback Station next month, but only if you like to be surrounded by adorable animal babies that you can actually pet. There’s going to be some major cuteness in that area, trust me!
Assistant Curator of Mammals
Thursday, June 5
Summer’s upon us! That means, as the Zoo gets a lot busier, so do the animals. As the weather changes in the Zoo world, a lot of animals you didn’t see in the winter are more likely to be on exhibit. At the same time, if we see temperatures reach closer to 90-100 degrees, the animals may have the option of choosing to be outdoors or inside. Each animal area has guidelines to follow when it comes to extreme temperatures, rain, and, of course, inclement weather.
Different species from different parts of the world have different preferences when it comes to seasons and temperatures. An animal originating from South America is less likely to be comfortable on a cold winter day in Atlanta, Ga., than is a Georgia native such as an eastern indigo snake. In order to keep our animals as comfortable as possible, we ensure they are provided with shady areas to cool off, areas to relax in the sun, and water to drink or cool down in. On chilly and hotter days, some animals may have access to their indoor housing.
There are a few animals we are seeing more activity from as well. The lesser Madagascar hedgehog tenrecs will go through periods of torpor, which is similar to hibernation but different in that it only lasts for a few hours during the day. With torpor, animals do not metabolize their food as quickly, so we begin to see a reduction in the amount of food they are eating. We continue to monitor them daily throughout the winter to make sure they are still healthy. We also began to see some snakes eating less, as well as the American Alligators Grits, Chomper and Okefenokee. This week, in fact, we have begun to see an increase in food consumption from these animals.
On the other hand, other animal species will use their ability to lighten or darken their coloration to cool off or stay warm. For example, Saphira the bearded dragon will adjust her scales to a darker color in order to attract sunlight if she is feeling cool. She will do the opposite and lighten her color of she is feeling too warm and wants to cool off. She can also move to a shady spot in her home environment! Cairo the spiny-tailed lizard will “pancake” his belly out, which is very similar to how we lay out on a towel at the beach. He is allowing the sun to hit as many points on his body as possible. When he is ready to move under a rock or tree, as we would move under our beach umbrella, he has that ability. Other animals, like alligators, might hang out in the water to cool down. That is also a nice spot to find dinner. I like to call that multitasking!
It is really interesting to see how animals function differently throughout the year in order to survive temperature changes in their environments. As you walk throughout the Zoo, think about the temperature. Stand in the sun; then stand in the shade. Do they feel different? Where are the tigers hanging out? Is your favorite bird spreading his or her wings out while sitting in the sun? We call that sunning! Is the Komodo dragon lying out in the sun or chilling in a shady spot? Is there an Aldabra tortoise taking a nap in the pond? Is your friend who might be wearing a black shirt sweating a little bit more than your friend wearing a white shirt? It’s amazing how that works, huh?
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, June 3
If you walk down the main spine of the Zoo, you might see our brand-new birds, the crested couas, or you might not! Why? While they are mostly grey with a white breast and bright blue skin around their eyes, you might think that they could be easily spotted. However, these characteristics actually help them blend into the shadows of the trees and bushes of their native habitat in Madagascar.
The crested coua is found in the forests, savannas and brush lands of Madagascar. It is found from sea-level to an altitude of 900 meters. Their diet consists mainly of various insects, fruits, berries, seeds, snails and chameleons.
Crested couas are cuckoos, but unlike cuckoos, crested couas build their own nests out of twigs, and incubate their own white-colored eggs. The nests are usually well-hidden in trees or bushes. A clutch usually consists of two eggs. They also raise their own young. Coua chicks try to make it easy for the parents to feed them: They have bright red-and-white markings inside their mouths that look like bulls-eyes. It gives the parents the perfect target!
Couas are not particularly great fliers. While they can fly and do often make short flights from one tree to another, they prefer to walk and hop along the tree branches. They use their long tails for balance and a reversible third toe to grab onto perches!
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, May 29
Our new amphibian and reptile complex is really coming out of the ground now! It seemed like just last week the building was all still underground, but now the walls are up, the lower roof is almost complete, and the steel girders that will support the iconic glass dome are being craned into position. On the inside, some of the larger exhibits are getting rockwork and are actually taking form. They look great, and it’s very exciting.
We can’t wait for everyone to experience this with us when the complex opens in spring!
Brad Lock, DVM
Curator of Herpetology
Wednesday, May 28
A special Keeper Blog update from the Bird Department: Two gold-breasted starling chicks have recently hatched, probably on Sunday, May 25, and Tuesday, May 27, at our Bird Propagation Center. These eggs hatch one day apart, so based on the size difference between the two chicks, they are likely from the first and third eggs of the clutch. The remaining unhatched egg was likely the second egg.
Their favorite nesting materials? White feathers, coconut fiber and The New York Times.
Look at the size of the larger chick. Just three or four days ago, he or she would have fitted into an egg. The chicks will leave the nest at about 16 days old, close to the size of the parents. Now, that’s growth!
For comparison, you can see an adult gold-breasted starling on exhibit next to the milky eagle owls. His name is Buddy, and he thinks he’s human …
Curator of Birds and Program Animals
Tuesday, May 27
With summer starting and the temperatures beginning to rise here in Atlanta, one question we get frequently is, “How do the animals deal with the heat?” In the Primate Department, we have many different ways to help keep the animals cool on the hot days.
First, all the primates have temperature restrictions. If the temperatures get too hot, they are able to come into their indoor areas and cool off in the air conditioning. They are given access to their exhibits so often the animals venture in and out on very hot days.
Also, we make healthy ice treats for them to enjoy. We will freeze some diluted juice and fruit in paper cups and toss them into the habitats to help keep the primates cool. They really seem to enjoy these, and even the littlest orangutans, Pongo and Pelari, try and get a taste of the ice treats. As an added benefit, the cups are safe for the primates to play with, so you can frequently see Blaze filling her cup up with water from her water lixit to drink later.
In addition, just as children love to play in the sprinkler and the hose, so do the orangutans. We will set up either a sprinkler or hose above the exhibit or through the mesh keeper doors and allow the orangutans to splash and play as they wish. Satu, Bernas and Dumadi are the most exuberant about playing in water and will get themselves completely soaked by running through the water and splashing in puddles. It is also fun to see the most stoic, mature adult orangutans become completely silly and play like kids when they encounter running water. The orangutans really enjoy playing in water, but they probably don't realize this is also a technique used by the keepers to make sure they are cool and comfortable.
Make sure to stop by the orangutan exhibits on your next visit to the Zoo -- you may just see them splashing and playing in a sprinkler or enjoying a refreshing ice treat.
Keeper III, Primates
Thursday, May 22
Memorial Day weekend begins our summer-long show season. We’re super-excited to show off some new behaviors for Zoo guests. With new behaviors come new show themes. Be on the lookout for some bloopers the first couple of weeks, as this weekend we will debut the new show! As always, make sure to ask any questions, take plenty of pictures, and don’t be shy about responding to questions asked by the show’s host.
During the summer you will see some of our lovely (and handsome) faces: Briel, Georgette, Rebecca, Christina, Tommy and Kaya (that’s me!). We are very excited about all the hard work we have put into this show season. The Wonders of Wildlife Show at Amy’s Tree Theater will be Wednesday through Sunday at 2 p.m. The Wildlife Theater show will be 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Mondays we will have training demonstrations to better explain the training process that goes into getting animals ready for shows! Tuesdays we will not have shows to give the birds and their trainers a break and a chance to re-group, but the Reptile Team will be hosting their Snakes Alive! program inside the Wildlife Theater, so check that out! Double-check your schedules as you enter the Zoo for this information and other scheduled happenings. Don’t forget to check out the exhibits at Wieland Wildlife Home. Many of the program animals live there, and you can see them through the windows or soaking up the sun outside.
You may also see a lot of new faces around the Zoo wearing bright blue shirts with the word “intern” on the back. They will be learning a lot of the responsibilities that come along with being a zookeeper and earning certain privileges along the way, including animal handling for animal encounters out in the Zoo. It is always fun to watch them grow during their time at Zoo Atlanta, some of them branching out to other animal-related jobs, while others take their experiences with them as they finish undergrad. Many of the areas throughout the Zoo offer these programs. Keep an eye out for them as you walk around the Zoo, and if you are a Member, you may be able to see their progress throughout the summer. Public speaking is a major part of the job, so you will be helping us train them!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, May 20
The Bird Department at Zoo Atlanta sees a lot of baby birds each year. Most of the time, we’re on the sidelines watching Mom and Dad raise their chicks. However, there are times when we need to help out the parents. We watch the birds closely and assist if the birds are not incubating their eggs properly. This happens more often with new bird parents. If the eggs aren’t being incubated properly, we put the real eggs in an artificial incubator and place pretend eggs under the parents. The egg is given back to Mom and Dad once it starts to hatch.
Sometimes, the parents never incubate the eggs and abandon the nest. Bird Department staff has to hand-rear the chicks when this happens. This occurred recently with our pair of Malayan great argus pheasants. Their egg spent 23 days in the incubator and hatched on May 18. While the chick is very cute, we take extra precaution not to cuddle or talk to the little guy in order to prevent imprinting. But don’t worry, he’s got everything an argus pheasant chick needs: a heated bedroom, a mirror (he thinks his reflection is his sibling), and a feather duster to snuggle under (he thinks it’s Mom). We will try to house the chick next to his parents once he gets a little older so he can learn what it takes to be an argus pheasant.
(Photo by James Ballance)
Lead Keeper, Birds
Thursday, May 15
Well, we’re almost ready for summer here in the World of Reptiles. All of our turtle and tortoise species have been moved out of their winter holding areas, and most of the outdoor exhibits around the Zoo have animals in them. We have radiated tortoises back in our savanna exhibit, Burmese star tortoises behind the storefront exhibit on Trader’s Alley, and, once renovations are complete, we will be introducing impressed tortoises to our other Trader’s Alley exhibit.
This is also the time that a very special annual event takes place. One of our female Burmese black mountain tortoises has begun building a nest in her exhibit next to the World of Reptiles entrance. Unlike some other turtle and tortoise species who bury their eggs in the ground, these animals construct huge organic nests using the surrounding leaf litter. Females will often spend hours or even days collecting leaves with their front legs while packing and compressing them with their hind legs. Once satisfied, she will dig out a cavity in the middle of the mound, deposit her eggs, and then cover them back over with more leaves. In the wild, this would create a natural incubator that would stay nice and warm due to the heat generated by the decomposition of the leaves. Here at the Zoo, however, we actually remove the eggs and transfer them to indoor incubators so that we can monitor temperature, humidity, and development of the eggs. We encourage you to come and experience this event with us, and to see other renovated exhibits that will be opening soon in the World of Reptiles!
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, May 13
Keepers have been busy getting four very special residents moved into their new homes down at Outback Station. We've recently introduced a new red kangaroo, Rory, to our mob. This lovely little lady is a little over a year and a half old and is related to our young kangaroo Adeline, who joined our little mob last year.
Kangaroos are social animals, living in groups called mobs. Introductions with new members are usually pretty quiet, and the mob has easily accepted Rory into the group. Getting to know new individuals is always exciting because each kangaroo has a different personality. Rory is no exception! She has proven to be a very sassy little kangaroo both with her new roommates as well as her keepers. It'll be fun to watch the young girls grow up together, and we're excited to watch Rory continue to grow and become more accustomed to her new home.
Our petting zoo herd is also in the process of meeting three handsome boys. Wembley, Tobias and Bogart are three male Saanen goats and are a new breed for our petting zoo. Saanen goats are a domestic dairy breed from Switzerland. They are large, white or cream in color, and have long, erect ears. Normally, we plan for our petting zoo animals to live with us permanently, but these three boys are a special case. They are just visiting us and will return to their farm in a couple of years. Nevertheless, we're excited they're here and are enjoying getting to know them.
The goat kids are still very young (they're only 2 months old!), but when they're fully grown in a few years, they'll weigh up to 160 pounds. These three are sweet as sugar, super active, and love climbing and interacting with their enrichment. They’re in the early stages of meeting our herd, so we don't expect guests to meet them for a few more weeks. While you won't get to meet our Saanen boys quite yet, you will be able to hear them (they're vocal and quite loud) and possibly catch glimpses of them in the next week or two.
These four won't be our only additions this summer. We're expecting a few more new arrivals to the petting zoo in the next couple of months. Next time you're at the Zoo, be sure to give all of our new guys a warm welcome – we’re very excited to share them with you!
Keeper I, Mammals
Thursday, May 8
As Mother’s Day approaches, the Zoo’s team of enrichment extraordinaires has been busy creating enrichment items to be placed on exhibit with our motherly animals. Thanks to the enrichment team, there will be scheduled enrichment on the back of the Zoo maps so you can make sure to see some of your favorite animal mothers play the animal way. The enrichment items will be on exhibit at the listed times for Zoo Atlanta animals who have given birth or laid eggs at any point during their lives. This includes animals who may have had animal children while at Zoo Atlanta and at other locations. While some of our animal babies have grown up and made their way to other places, as do human babies, we are celebrating motherhood as a whole. Come out to the Zoo this Sunday, May 11, to see our animal moms receive their Mother’s Day enrichment gifts.
Stay tuned for info on future enrichment day events, including Father’s Day, Play the Animal Way, Halloween and more. While you are checking the back of your maps for Mother’s Day happenings, also pay attention to the listed keeper talks, public feedings, Wild Encounters, Amy’s Tree shows, and the Wildlife Theater’s free-flighted bird show. Fingers crossed that the weather stays as beautiful as it has been all week so you human mothers and family can enjoy all of the activities Zoo Atlanta has planned for Mother’s Day. Enjoy!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, May 6
Part of the care we provide our animals here at Zoo Atlanta is making sure they have access to habitats that are enriching and dynamic. Part of this process with our orangutan collection involves moving groups to a different habitat every few months. This provides them with new surroundings that they are able to explore.
We recently performed one of these habitat rotations, which we call "yard switches.” Alan, our 43-year-old Sumatran male, can now be seen in Habitat Three, resting high up in the hammocks looking out over the entire Zoo. Blaze and Pongo are now busy exploring the large Yard Two habitat along with Pongo's father, Benny. It took Benny a little bit longer to get used to his new surroundings, since he has a more cautious personality, but he has finally come around. In Habitat One, you will now find Madu with two of her surrogate sons, Bernas and Remy, both of whom love using the ropes to travel from one platform to another.
Speaking of ropes, in addition to rotating our orangutans through our four habitats as a way of changing up their environment, we also from time to time install new ropes in our habitats to provide different pathways in which the orangutans can travel. With the help of Downey Trees Inc., we just added new rope pathways to Habitats Two and Three, with plans to finish Habitat One later this year.
Zoo Atlanta is fortunate to have partnerships with many organizations. Four volunteers from Downey Trees donated their time to climb platforms and install the new rope for our orangutans to brachiate on, travel to platforms on, and just hang around on. In all honesty, I believe they probably had just as much fun installing the ropes as the orangutans now have using them. They were able to hang almost 500 feet of rope in one morning. Pretty impressive!
Environmental enrichment such as rotating habitats and adding new ropes is just a portion of the enrichment program our animals enjoy. Come visit us the next couple of weekends for a couple of special events where the orangutans will be getting some enrichment surprises. This Mother’s Day, May 11, we will be providing our animal moms with fun activities throughout the day. Then the following weekend, we’ll celebrate Endangered Species Day on May 17. This event is put on to create awareness for the 60-plus species in Zoo Atlanta's collection that are considered endangered in the wild.
So come out soon and see the orangutans in their new settings!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, May 1
A couple of weeks ago, Curator of Herpetology Dr. Brad Lock and I traveled to the annual meeting of the Herpetology Taxon Advisory Group (also called the Herp TAG) held in San Antonio, Texas. And if you were wondering, there are TAGs for pretty much every animal group or species held in AZA zoos, ranging from gorillas to insects. It’s always great to travel and see new places, but meetings like this allow us time to connect or re-connect with colleagues from all over the country. There were numerous talks from the various TAG groups, and I even presented on the gopher grog head-start project that Zoo Atlanta has been a partner in.
In addition to attending the lectures and program updates (the Chelonian aka Turtle and Tortoise TAG has about 50 species programs on its own!), we got to spend some time at the San Antonio Zoo. If you ever find yourself in San Antonio, it would be a shame not to visit the zoo. The herpetology collection was top-notch, and they had some pretty amazing exhibits. There were several cool things, but to me a handful really stood out. The first was their exhibition of several species of Abronia. These arboreal alligator lizards are found mainly in Mexico and Guatemala. The exhibits looked fantastic and did an awesome job showing off an uncommon and fairly reclusive group of lizards. Brad has been working with preserving several species in their native habitats in Guatemala through Project Abronia. Their anaconda exhibit was pretty incredible too, as it was contained in its very own building! The largely underwater exhibit was very well done, and aside from their large anaconda, it included a number of beautiful South American fish. And, being the total salamander geek that I am, I was blown away by their giant Japanese giant salamander exhibit. The world’s second-largest salamander species behind the Chinese giant salamander, these animals can reach lengths of over four feet and weigh nearly 100 pounds! San Antonio had four large adults in a large viewing area.
After five days of networking with colleagues and seeing how things are done at another institution, Brad and I definitely returned with a bunch of new ideas that we’re ready to get rolling on!
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
Tuesday, April 29
Although we don’t yet have as big of a baby boom as we did last year, we are proud to welcome a new baby in the hoofstock area, a male eastern bongo calf. His parents are Matilda and Tambo. These two parents have been very successful at reproducing; this is our third calf from them. The first calf was a boy (Beauregard), and we loved him dearly. He’s now making his own family at a zoo in New Jersey. Our second calf (Betty Jean) was sent to San Francisco Zoo to spread her genes and create her own offspring as well. This third calf doesn’t have a name yet, but we are thrilled to have him in our barn.
His mom, Matilda, is a professional now at calf-rearing. We saw her go into labor around 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 5, and followed her progress carefully, calling vet staff and our Assistant Curator to come up to help monitor. At 3:21 p.m. she gave birth. By 4:04 p.m. the calf was standing, and by 4:15 p.m. he was actively nursing. This is exactly how births should happen, with no intervention needed from us. It was very exciting to witness such a perfect process and have this cute little guy with ears-out-to-there come into this world.
The calf will stay with Matilda off-exhibit for awhile to get used to his long legs and learn what it is to be a gorgeous bongo calf. But soon, he will be on exhibit in the bongo habitat adjacent to the African Plains exhibit. So be sure to keep an eye out for him! He’s pretty amazing.
Eastern bongos are critically endangered. Each eastern bongo birth is import to maintain a self-sustaining zoological population. Bongos born in North American zoos have been reintroduced to the wild in Kenya. Zoo Atlanta has contributed to reintroduction efforts through the Reeder Conservation Endowment Fund.
Keeper II, Mammals
Thursday, April 24
Spring seems to have finally settled in! It was a long winter for keepers and animals alike. The colder weather put the Program Animals Department a little behind schedule in terms of getting shows ready for the summer, but we’re finally back on track and are really excited for the show season to start on Memorial Day.
We have a brand-new Wonders of Wildlife show set to debut at Amy’s Tree Theater, featuring some of our awesome animals that reside in the Wieland Wildlife Home. Pesto the imperial pied pigeon has been learning how to pay attention to keepers in different indoor locations throughout the Zoo. She should have her first chance to fly at Amy’s Tree Theater within the week.
We also have some new things in store for the Wildlife Theater. Lupe, our toco toucan, has been working hard on basic behaviors like going into and staying calm in her kennel. She is doing really well flying from one keeper to another during training sessions, and we think she’ll make her first flights outdoors in the next couple of weeks. Baobab and Acacia, our hooded vultures, are also working hard on their kenneling behaviors. They have a lot more work to do before they’re flying outdoors, but you can watch their training sessions inside their exhibit across from the bounce house. Soren, our 2-year-old barn owl, has started flight training again, and he seems to be finally ready to fly for a crowd. The past two years he’s had a chance to strut his stuff in front of the public, but he wasn’t 100 percent comfortable, so he’s still not in shows consistently. We are offering him the chance to wow audiences during our weekend shows, flying him on a safety line called a creance, and he seems to be just fine with the masses watching him. Maybe this summer he’ll let us know he’s finally ready.
Spring also means the addition of new animal handlers for our education programs. We’ve been busy teaching our new summer camp counselors about all of the animals at Wieland Wildlife Home so they’ll be ready to share that information with the campers. Summer Safari camp is a great chance for kids of all ages to see some really cool behind-the-scenes stuff at the Zoo.
Time to get back to all those training sessions! Be sure to stop by Amy’s Tree Theater and the Wildlife Theater on your next visit. You just might get to catch some new training in progress!
Assistant Curator of Birds and Program Animals
Tuesday, April 22
Well, it looks like spring is finally here, and it certainly has affected most of the animals here at the Zoo. A couple of the birds in our collection, the Malaysian Great Argus pheasants, have been showing obvious signs of being breedy, specifically our male, Farkus. Male argus pheasants are known to put on magnificent feather displays when courting a female, or in Farkus’s case, any of the keepers.
Lately, when any of the bird keepers walk into the Argus exhibit, Farkus will come straight over and start stomping in circles around the keeper, finally stopping to bow down and fan out all of his long display feathers.
All of these things are great to see, except for the fact that Farkus is doing this toward the keepers and not toward his female counterpart Agnes. Agnes, on the other hand, is not interested in Farkus at all and sometimes can be seen chasing him around out in the exhibit yard. Of course we did not anticipate this kind of relationship between the two of them, but bird politics will always be somewhat of a mystery!
Keeper II, Birds
Thursday, April 17
Hello, again, I have returned to the Herpetology Department after a year-long venture with the Turtle Survival Alliance in South Carolina at their new Turtle Survival Center. I had many great experiences working there, but am thrilled to be back home at Zoo Atlanta. Since I have been back, I have been getting used to my new routine, the few changes while I was gone, and working on some exhibits, especially the impressed tortoise exhibit on Trader’s Alley.
We have some exciting new arrivals, besides me, including a couple Arakan forest turtles and Guatemalan beaded lizards hatching from the incubators. These species lay their eggs in fall and hatch in spring as opposed to most of the reptile species we have here, which will be breeding and laying their eggs in the next couple months. It is an exciting time for our turtle collection at the Zoo as tropical species go outside and temperate species are waking up from their hibernacula as spring comes in. This is the time of year for us to observe their breeding behavior and look out for eggs being laid, which can be trickier said than done while taking care of hundreds of reptiles. My particular interest is to increase the success of our flowerback box turtle breeding program, which hit a milestone last year with Zoo Atlanta’s first hatchling. They’re my favorite species!
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, April 15
The temperatures are rising, flowers are blooming, and pollen is covering our cars, which can only mean one thing! Spring is here! Not only are all of the keepers happy for the awesome weather, especially after Snow-tastrophe Parts I and II this winter, but the animals are excited too. And one of the best places in the Zoo to witness this excitement up-close-and personal is in The Living Treehouse.
The Living Treehouse is now filled with different species of birds of all different colors and sizes. You can find the eight tiny, yellow/orange taveta weavers flying here and there, or you can see the two larger green white-cheeked turacos perched in the trees. You can find the blue-bellied roller hanging out with the racket-tailed roller, waiting to swoop down and catch bugs that the keepers toss out. Or you may see the three white-crested laughing thrushes darting about on the ground playing with mulch and looking for bugs.
Every time you visit The Living Treehouse, you can see something new. We may be adding more birds as the spring continues to, well, spring! With all of the pairs of birds in there, you’re bound to see plenty of nest building throughout the summer.
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, April 10
The Program Animals Team has been diligently preparing for the summer season of Amy’s Tree and Wildlife Theater shows. This means a new script and plenty of new behaviors to share with you! Between Labor Day at the end of the summer and Memorial Day at the beginning of a new summer season, we work hard to come up with new and exciting ideas to keep Zoo Atlanta guests excited about animals all over the world. As the Zoo has been busy with Spring Break season, we have been able to use guest participation to help with training new behaviors.
It’s one thing for an animal to learn a new behavior with just the trainers alone in an empty theater. It’s a whole other ball game when there are 300 or 400 people sitting around as a distraction. We want to thank everyone who has participated in training demonstrations and shows. Whether you know it or not, you are trainers for the day! Moving forward, we will return to shows six days a week beginning Memorial Day, which is right around the corner. Please come visit Amy’s Tree Theater and the Wildlife Theater and experience all of the hard work the trainers, the animals, and the guests have put into a new and exciting 2014 show season.
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, April 8
Just past the Mzima Springs elephant habitat, across the bridge, and up the hill, you will find two Zoo inhabitants often unnoticed by the average guest. They are much smaller than their exhibit neighbors, Kelly and Tara the African elephants, and are often found asleep in the shade or wallowing in a mud puddle. However, life in the Kalahari Connections section of the Zoo has plenty of excitement and is well worth a visit.
Donning themselves in Georgia clay-caked skin and a wire haircut that would make Elvis Presley jealous, Vern and Shirley warthog strut around their exhibit daily. This April is an especially exciting time of year for Zoo Atlanta’s two common warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus) because Shirley is expecting. The animal care staff has been monitoring her very closely, noting any change in her behavior. The veterinarians have conducted several ultrasounds on the mother-to-be, and everything appears to be progressing well.
The gestation period is about 155 to 175 days, though based on the timing of previous litters, Shirley will most likely give birth toward the end of the birth window. Litter size is typically around three piglets, with a range of one to seven. When the piglets are born, keeper staff will separate Vern from his family for a brief period to allow the piglets and Shirley time to get to know each other. After about one month, Vern will be reunited with his now expanded family, and soon after that, everyone will be on exhibit for viewing. It is important to allow the piglets time to grow before they are ready to explore their habitat safely.
Like all births and hatchings at Zoo Atlanta, Shirley warthog’s piglets will be a great success for their species. The common warthog is found throughout much of Africa, predominantly south of the Sahara nearly to the tip of the continent. The wild population is not at critically low numbers like many other African species are, but pockets of the warthog species are in decline due to overhunting.
Art by Nate Elgart.
Elephant Lead Keeper
Thursday, April 3
What good are snakes for people, you ask? Well, how about mining them for their nature-approved engineering secrets? You see, snakes are the best of all vertebrates for getting into—and out of—tight situations. So, nothing in nature is better designed for searching through a rubble pile for important things like injured people following urban disasters.
The problem is that you cannot train a search-and-rescue snake, as you can a dog. Enter biologically inspired design: Build a remote-controlled robot shaped like a snake, put a camera on it, and send it into the rubble. Check! The robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University has done that, in collaboration with our colleagues at Georgia Tech, and based largely on snakes from Zoo Atlanta’s collection.
Now enter the huge problem of sand. Sand is very difficult for any animal to traverse with any energetic efficiency (remember how short your last jog on the dry sand at the beach was?). Sidewinder rattlesnakes have solved this problem by adopting a bizarre form of locomotion, hence their distinctive name. So, for the last two years a Dream Team of scientists including herpetologists from Zoo Atlanta, a sand physicist and several bio-engineers from Georgia Tech, and the robotics team at Carnegie Mellon have been hard at work with a small colony of sidewinders at the Zoo, some insanely expensive equipment from Georgia Tech, and a half-ton of desert sand shipped in from Yuma, Arizona. And it is working!
We now know how the snakes compensate their locomotory behaviors in response to changing conditions (e.g., slope, density) of the sand and, just as importantly, we have quantified how related species of rattlesnakes struggle, or fail completely, to move across the exact same sample of sand.
All of these data are being programmed into a new robotic device that now can sidewind with remarkable efficiency across a variable real-world type sandy landscape. I’m pretty sure that the next exploration devices sent to Mars are going to look a lot more like the sidewinders at Zoo Atlanta than the current “dune buggy” model that keeps getting stuck! Wondrous collaborations like these could only take place at the intellectual intersection of collaborations between institutions like our Zoo, Georgia Tech and Carnegie Mellon that think outside-the-box, get creative, make things happen that simply could not happen at any one of these institutions working in isolation. Of course, credit for the original template for all of this goes to our cute little friends the sidewinders. You can see some of the actual snakes being used in this project on display in World of Reptiles every day, rain or shine!
Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Herpetological Research
Tuesday, April 1
Winter is over, and spring is just beginning. The primates at Zoo Atlanta would LOVE to go outside everyday instead of sporadically! In the next few weeks, hopefully the weather will perk up and we can start putting everyone out first thing in the morning. When the animals are stuck inside it is more time-consuming for the keepers to clean and get all the animals fed.
When we come in for the morning, animals need to be fed, medicated, and checked on. The keepers love to train first thing in the morning to get an eye on all of the animals. This allows keepers and animals to maintain good relationships. The animals’ participation is voluntary. All of the gorillas (and orangutans) will present body parts so the keepers can get a better look at any wound or injury that the animals may have. The gorillas love to train; it is when they get their most favorite foods, and the keepers love to train because we can show off how smart our guys are. In the fall, we end up with animals regressing from their flu shots, so winter and spring may be a time when we are getting that behavior back.
We have an amazing training program here at Zoo Atlanta. The gorillas are participating in voluntary blood draws, voluntary cardiac ultrasounds and voluntary blood pressure readings, just to name a few. One thing I am working on with our arthritic gorillas is laser treatments. We have three older gorillas and one younger gorilla who have developed arthritis. We are at the beginning stages of this treatment and hope to see some results in the next several months. When getting started with this treatment, I started with our two old ladies, with whom I was already the primary trainer. They already come up to train for me and they hold positions really well, so all I had to do was get them used to a laser probe coming close to their elbows, wrists, hands, knees and toes. Because gorillas are so strong, we do not go in with them; all our contact with them is behind two-inch by two-inch mesh. At first I got them used to me holding a capped PVC tube near them. Then they had to get used to our vet staff sitting with me holding the probe and the machine’s beeps. We then followed up with a training session without turning on the laser, which emits a pretty low heat and actually should feel good to the animals. When we were set, we turned on the heat and while the veterinarian held the probe, I got the gorilla’s body parts in position and kept reinforcing them to hold position as long as needed. We used grapes, popcorn, or juice as rewards.
Our oldest female, Shamba, can be a little grumpy at times, and although she will sit in front of us and train well, she has in the last few weeks not allowed the laser to be turned on near her hands. Our vet staff is great, and the veterinarian working on this will take time and just do a regular training session, asking Shamba for various body parts and rewarding her. Building this relationship back up may take some time, but I am glad all involved are willing to make it work! Next time you are at the Zoo looking at Habitat Two with our geriatric group, watch how well the old guys are getting around, and know the staff is working hard to keep them healthy in their golden years.
Keeper II, Primates
Tuesday, March 25
Baobab and Acacia, our new hooded vultures, have both made huge strides lately. Baobab has been moving along faster than Acacia has, but both are making great progress. Baobab learned very quickly how to step up to a trainer and fly to different perches when cued, and he is now scale-trained so we can get a daily weight on him, which helps us keep an eye on his health.
His most recent training sessions have been focused on voluntary kenneling so we can safely transport him from point A to point B if needed. Kenneling behaviors are also very important for shows, as I have touched on before. Acacia has had a few breakthroughs of her own, as is it taking her a little longer to build a relationship with the staff. This past week, we were able to get her first weight with her voluntarily stepping onto the scale. She is still a little hesitant (sticking close to the edge), but this is a huge step for her. Once she gets more comfortable on the scale, we will begin introducing a kennel to her and see how it goes. These two have been very fun to work with, and we are all excited to see them progress more over the next year.
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, March 25
Spring is almost upon us. Here in the Bird Department, we’re looking forward to the warmer weather, moving birds around, and Spring Breakers. We’re also looking forward to breeding season. Many of our birds prefer the spring for their breeding season, and we make lots of preparations for them: building nest boxes, making sure they have nesting material, and making sure we “set the mood” in all of the enclosures.
One group of birds that you can see doing courtship behaviors right now are the Chilean flamingos. Located in Flamingo Plaza at the entrance of the Zoo, these beautiful pink birds are displaying all sorts of behaviors and pairing off. You can see our flock of 58 birds marching back and forth across the pool sometimes right next to their partners. Generally they are strengthening the bond between the pair and checking out the pairs in the rest of the flock.
Usually before the marching, you can see the flamingos head-flagging. They will all be standing close to each other and moving their heads back and forth from right to left. Sometimes they will fluff up the feathers along their heads and faces to show off how pink they are. Their coloring indicates that they are healthy and getting enough food and, therefore, are good mates.
As the breeding season moves on, you will start to notice nest mounds being built in the mud above the pool. Usually the keepers will start out these mounds for them. Once the birds decide which mound they like, they will do the rest. We keep records of which pairs are on which mounds. You can see them sitting on the nests in midsummer.
Come check out the Chilean flamingo flock this spring, and see if you can tell which birds are pairing up. Then, you can visit your pair all summer. Feel free to ask their keeper, Molly, about how each of the pairs are doing!
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, March 20
Hopefully in a couple of weeks, the hoofstock area will be celebrating the birth of a new calf. What animal is it? Well, it will be a new bongo! This calf will be the third for our female Matilda and male Tambo. We don’t know exactly when it will happen, but most likely it will occur during the first week of April, based on the breeding that we saw last summer. Some people might find it surprising that a bongo’s gestation is nine months long. So we have been watching Matilda progress for a while now.
Typically in the past, Matilda started to show physical and behavioral signs that she was pregnant about halfway through her gestation, and this time was not much different. As she nears the time of birth, she starts to avoid Tambo, and she becomes hard to shift from enclosure to another. Also, as you might guess, her appetite increases during the pregnancy but decreases closer to birth. Currently, Matilda has a nice round belly. Sometimes when we are lucky we can see the calf move and kick. She is reluctant to move much now, and her appetite is going slightly downhill. These are good signs that we are getting fairly close to a birth.
Preparing for the impending birth is a fairly easy process for us. We just check on her several times a day to monitor her activity, and we note if she is starting to show udder development and is producing milk. In her overnight stall, we have created a very large sand bed which serves a few purposes. It provides a soft landing for the calf during birth, provides good traction when the calf is trying to stand, and it provides insulation so that the calf is not on a cold floor. This last factor luckily won’t be as big an issue as it was for the last two births (as long as Mother Nature cooperates). The first two calves were born on the same date, December 2. But this calf will be born in spring, because we delayed putting Matilda and Tambo together after the last birth to shift the birth window to warmer months.
This birth, like a number of other births which occurred throughout the Zoo last year, is an important one. Our bongos are the subspecies known as the eastern or mountain bongo. This subspecies is critically endangered, with fewer than 150 individuals remaining in the wild. There are more individuals living in captivity (i.e. about 400) than in the wild. The captive population is an assurance colony for the wild population. Captive- born bongos have been released into the wild. Zoo Atlanta has supported this conservation effort by providing financial support though the Mabel Dorn Reeder Conservation Endowment Fund.
Lead Keeper, Hoofstock
Tuesday, March 18
It’s hard to believe that Miri’s infant Bornean orangutan, Pelari, just turned 6 months old on March 14. It seems like he should be a lot older than that.
For those who may not know Pelari (which means “runner”), he lives with his mother Miri and brother Satu. It’s amazing seeing how far Pelari has grown since he was born. I remember those first couple of days where all he did was sleep and grasp onto Miri. Orangutan babies are born with a strong grip and cling right to their mother. After those first couple of weeks, Pelari seemed to be awake a little more but still mostly cuddled up tightly in Miri’s arms.
As he grew, his curiosity would grow too. He went from completely holding onto Miri with both hands and feet to slowly letting one hand off and swinging it around playfully. It’s those little steps that have led him to be where he is today.
Today, when he is inside he is often climbing onto the mesh. The keepers consider this Miri’s “playpen” for him since she will put him on the mesh while she walks around foraging for food or building a nest. He doesn’t seem to mind being left here, but all he has to do is make a soft cry and Miri is right there for him.
Pelari and Satu have had some close encounters too lately. Satu will gently play with him and hold his hand. He is such a good big brother! For the past few weeks, keepers have seen Pelari gumming lettuce, peppers and biscuits, but it wasn’t until just recently that he has had his first teeth coming in!
We are all excited to watch as Pelari grows! Next time you come to the Zoo, stop by the orangutan habitats to see how Pelari and family are doing. Pongo fans: Keep a look out! I think Pelari’s hair may be in competition with Pongo’s – what do you think?
Photo credit: Patti Frazier
Keeper III, Primates