Friday, September 26
This Saturday is a day that we all get very excited about because it is Play the Animal Way. Animals all over the zoo are scheduled to receive all sorts of enrichment and we all get to watch. Animals interact with their enrichment in a way that allows them to utilize their natural behaviors. For example, new scents for them to explore. Boxes, toys ,etc. will have food inside for them to forage for their food and/or tear it apart just for the sake of being destructive! Manipulating objects is a natural behavior for many animals in order to find and get to the food in their natural environments. We try to simulate the same environment here at the zoo as best we can and use enrichment to help us out. Smell, sight, touch, sound, taste are all of the senses we use on a daily basis. Animals do the same. We can be pretty spoiled and lazy, but animals have to use their senses in order to survive whether it is to avoid predators, find and manipulate food, build shelter and nests or find a safe place to sleep, navigate their environment in a safe way, etc. There is a whole big amazing world out there we don’t know about. On the one hand that’s a good thing so we can leave those animals alone to play their role in the ecosystem. On the other hand we should be aware of the environments we cannot see so we have help them be successful. I digress – come to the zoo this Saturday so you can see all of the animals interact with their enrichment. Remember, based on natural history that might mean a snake deciding to hide underneath something like a pumpkin or a kinkajou manipulating its enrichment to get to its dinner. Either way, all very fun to watch. Of course I have to plug the Wildlife Theater and Amy’s Tree shows which will include some enriching moments of their own with animals you can see up close and personal. Pictured is Onyx “foraging” for some of his favorite treats with an enrichment toy he can manipulate to access his food. It’s going to be so much fun to see Zoo Atlanta’s animals “Play the Animal Way!” There will be a schedule waiting for you as you enter the zoo so you don’t miss any of your favorites. See you Saturday!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, September 23
It’s been a quiet week here in the Elephant barn.
The weather is good. Maybe even ideal. The days are warm and the nights cool, with a little breeze and clouds enough to make everyone appreciate the sun whenever it finds its way through. It’s a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the summer months for us and for our animals; the elephants throw less mud on themselves and I haven’t sweated completely through my shirt for at least two days.
Kelly and Tara are keeping busy in a manner that can only be described as elephantine (the adjective, not in reference to the island on the Nile). You all know the way: ponderous and plodding but every measured movement belying a ballerina’s grace. They’ve been helpful with the yard maintenance lately, delicately picking up any fallen leaf and eating it before we have a chance to get out there with our rakes, and stripping the leaves and bark from the low lying trees on the berm to show the Horticulture department where needs trimming. They’re cheating on their diets a little bit, but who can begrudge them the opportunity to forage every once in a while? And everything they pick up is one less thing I need to bother with, so I welcome the assistance. There has been talk of teaching them to clean up after themselves, but we keepers dare not teach them to do our jobs lest we find ourselves redundant, and have become adept at selective hearing difficulties whenever such a proposition rears it ugly head.
The warthogs are keeping busy, as evidenced by the height of the mud splattering the viewing glass of their exhibit. Lex and Eleanor work hard to make Shirley appreciate the quietude of their afternoon siesta. The piglets eat the majority of the food, scatter the browse all over the yard and drag it through the mud wallow to make it unpalatable to even so indiscriminate an eater as a warthog, eat the Bermuda grass beds instead of sleeping on them and bowl their Mother over to nurse with a frequency that borders on indecent. That being said, they’re all healthy and happy and Shirley is back to her pre-pregnancy figure.
The meerkats are all very well. Sniff and Scarlet have been enjoying the recent addition of a camouflage shade net. They dig their holes and scarf their food and spend the rest of the day alternating between keeping watch and lying on their backs in the shady sand. Prince and Co. next door do about the same. They’re pretty easy going, those meerkats, and are happy as long as they have a place to dig and bugs to eat and aren’t bothered unnecessarily by us trespassing keepers. Unless we bring crickets, in which case they swarm our feet and beg as if they’re actually interested in us.
Last, but certainly not least important, our interns are both doing amazing. They need more training than do the animals sometimes, but generally make up for it by virtue of their hard work and the frequency with which they bring snacks to share. It isn’t easy working alongside a bunch of elephant keepers, pushing full wheelbarrows, raking and shoveling and scrubbing for hours at a time, throwing hay bales, carrying elephant sized toys and cleaning all day long, but Christina and Katelyn manage to do it every day with wry smiles, and hardly ever roll their eyes at our jokes.
And that’s the news from the Elephant department, where the people are filthy but the intentions are pure.
Thursday, September 18
I’m always surprised by the number of guest questions and comments that we get about the animals in our collection, and I always enjoy answering those questions when given the opportunity. One of the most commonly commented-on snakes in the World of Reptiles is the black mamba, and for good reason. At an average of nine to ten feet in length, it is the longest species of venomous snake in Africa. It is also one of the fastest-moving snakes on the planet, moving at approximately seven miles per hour and capable of reaching around ten miles per hour in short bursts. If the combination of size and speed weren’t enough, the black mamba also produces one of the most highly toxic venoms of any snake. The effects from a bite are a roller coaster of symptoms ranging from high to low blood pressure, blood hemorrhaging, and nerve and muscle damage. This combination of size, venom toxicity and unpredictability make it one of the most dangerous and feared snakes in Africa.
With all of these things considered, however, it should be noted that the black mamba doesn’t necessarily use its speed to catch its prey or chase down and bite humans, but instead uses it to escape from predators or other threats. In fact, as with most other snakes, the black mamba will usually only stand and fight when given no other choice. The high venom toxicity is a means to quickly secure prey in an environment where competition for resources is high.
So how do we address all of these things in a zoological setting? Well, the answer is that we have a strict “hands off” approach to working with our black mamba. What this means is that if we ever need to move the animal off exhibit, we do so through the use of a shift box, which is a specially designed box that we can attach to the exhibit and then safely secure him inside. He can also be safely restrained from that box if the need should arise. That way we highly minimize the chance that a bite can occur.
One final interesting note about the black mamba is in the name. If you come by to see him, you will notice that his skin is actually gray. That’s because the animal is named for the black skin on the inside of its mouth. We encourage you to come and see our mamba, as well as all of the other fascinating animals in the World of Reptiles!
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, September 9
Do animals know “how much?” In everyday life, people seem to associate abstract numerical thinking with complex thought, math and science, and something that makes us unique among all the animals of the world. Yet the last decade of research has found that many animals – from mosquito fish to elephants – understand some things about numbers. For example, if a zookeeper let an elephant choose between two cups of food, one cup that contained two peanuts and a second cup that contained eight peanuts, the elephant would likely choose the cup with the larger number! This is because elephants do understand that some amounts are larger than others. However, most animals are not very precise when it comes to thinking about numbers. If you asked the same elephant to choose between a cup with five peanuts and a cup with six peanuts, she wouldn't be very good at choosing the larger number. This is because five and six are close together, and just by looking at the two numbers of peanuts, it’s hard to tell which cup has more food. Researchers think that humans can solve this task because we have invented a number system, which includes words for discrete number amounts (like five and six) and ordered counting (one, two, three, etc.), which allows us to count the number of peanuts in a cup and always be able to find out that six is more than five.
Zoo Atlanta has a history of researching how well animals can represent numbers, showing that gorillas, orangutans and elephants are pretty good at knowing which set of food pieces is larger. In a couple of our studies, we also looked at how young adult and older adult orangutans and gorillas did with number tasks, and these studies found that older apes lost some ability to reason about numbers, having a more difficult time determining the difference between number amounts. Right now, researchers at the Zoo are thinking about new ways to test very young orangutans and gorillas to see how they perform on number tasks. Before human infants and young children learn how to count, they too can tell the difference between number sets, just as gorillas, orangutans and elephants can; that is, they can tell the difference between amounts if the difference is large, but not if the difference between amounts is small.
Interestingly, because human infants' brains are still growing, they are particularly bad at determining which amount is larger, and can only do so with very large differences, like six versus twelve items. In our new experiments with young immature apes, we'll be looking at whether their knowledge of numbers is similar to human infants, or if apes grow up in the number abilities much faster than humans do and act like adult apes at a young age.
Thursday, September 4
Things are moving forward quickly for Scaly Slimy Spectacular: The Amphibian and Reptile Experience. One of the major exhibits in the new building will be for Cuban crocodiles. Last week, keeper David Brothers and I went to see the Cuban crocodiles that are currently at the National Zoo and will be making the move to Atlanta. It is going to be a challenging time for these animals; they have been living at the National Zoo for quite a long time. In order to facilitate the move and keep the stress to a minimum, we scheduled a visit where we observed the protocols that they have in place for working with these large animals. These animals are extremely intelligent, can jump well, and move quickly over land while lifting their entire bodies off of the ground. Together with their power and size, these make safety a concern, which training can facilitate. Currently these animals are trained to go into crates, and shift though doors that keepers can operate from the outside of the enclosure. This allows keepers to move animals from one area to another and then enter an empty area safely. It has been some time since Zoo Atlanta had any large crocodilians in the collection, and we are very excited about bringing Cuban crocodiles to our city.
Cuban crocodiles are listed as endangered by the IUCN and are restricted to a small range of freshwater swamp in the Zapata Swamp of Cuba. It is estimated that there are 3,000 to 6,000 animals in the wild. Historically they could be found in other freshwater swamps of Cuba and a few surrounding Caribbean islands. Some of their biggest threats are habitat destruction and alteration. The destruction and alteration has allowed other crocodilian species, the common caiman and American crocodile, to invade these freshwater swamps and out-compete or hybridize with the Cuban crocodiles. This creates a problem where we see the genetic degradation of a species. After hybridization occurs, it is not possible to extract or produce pure-blooded individuals. The Cuban crocodile has a Species Survival Plan (SSP) in place to manage the captive population; within participating institutions, there are approximately 50 individuals.
Keeper II, Herpetology
Tuesday, September 2
Don’t get me wrong; I love flamingo chicks, but ours are getting to that stage in life when they are starting to wean themselves. They are not yet eating enough to be self-supporting, so we continue to have to hand-feed our five chicks. They remind me of some human teens, heavily dependent still on Mom and Dad, but those childhood good manners have been replaced by eyeball rolls and “what-EVER!” Their names are Red, White, Yellow, Green and Black, those being the colors of the bands on their legs. Their personalities have become more obvious with age. Yes, flamingos have personalities!
Red: The first hatched, was a bossy, squabbling bully by the time it was 3 days old, always picking on the others. Now it’s the Goody Two-Shoes of the gang.
Yellow: A strange child. A couple of minor health issues early on and a horrible wriggler, this is the bird who will poop on you at feeding time! Can we say “drama?”
White: What a baby! Same age as the others, but all it wants is its next feed and to snuggle. White probably has the most character of the bunch. Wherever you go, he/she is at your heels. This is the only chick that still allows you to bury your nose in its down and smell the distinctive aroma of baby flamingo. Yeah, my favorite.
Green: Independent, will be the first to wean. Green is that high-school kid who’s more mature for their years than the others – calm, dependable, no trouble, straight-A student, Ivy League material.
Black: Started out independent, small for its age and the slowest grower. But he or she is mature, a self-starter and will be an excellent contributor to society!
Weather permitting, we’ll be rotating these chicks into a small viewing area in the entry plaza for Members Only Night this Saturday. We hope to have them out from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., so if you’re a Member and are attending, please come visit them!
Curator of Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, August 28
The Program Animals Department has seen many staff-related changes over the past several months. Before the summer season began, we lost Caroline Ledbetter (Keeper III) as she decided to further her experience at another Zoo. In view of her departure, Tommy Hutchinson was hired on as a Seasonal Keeper I and has since then accepted a full-time position as a swing keeper with both the exhibit birds and the animal ambassadors. He has been an excellent addition to our team. Not only has he taken on an enormous amount of responsibility and knowledge within a short period of time, but he has also utilized his construction experience to help complete some much-needed projects within the department. Tommy previously wrote a blog about a handful of his projects.
Lyndsay Newton has also joined us from Florida as a Keeper II. She has several years of experience with reptiles, mammals, birds, etc., and will be a valuable source of information and experience for us. More recently, Briel Ritter (Keeper I) presented her last Wildlife Theater show with us. She was an interesting character within the department and had a way of drawing anyone in with her sense of humor but also with her passion for the animals. We will certainly miss her bouncy personality and appreciate everything she has done for us and for the animals.
With Briel leaving us, Justin Eckelberry has joined us as a Seasonal Keeper from the Education Department and will spend most of his time at the Wieland Wildlife Home, but he’ll also assist with the Wildlife Theater as needed. He started with us this week, so we look forward to working with him as well. In the animal world, staff moving on is fairly common, as everyone wants to expand his or her experience as a keeper and trainer. We wish Caroline and Briel well with their future endeavors and welcome Tommy, Lyndsay and Justin as members of the Program Animals and Zoo Atlanta crew.
Although the Zoo will remain open seven days a week, after Labor Day this Monday, Amy’s Tree and Wildlife Theater shows will continue on weekends only, weather permitting. Please come say hello to the new and old team members as we introduce you to our amazing animal ambassadors. See you there!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, August 26
It’s hard to believe that summer has gone by so quickly! It has been a busy time for the Primate Department. If you have been by the orangutan exhibits, you may have noticed that we have switched around which groups of our orangutans are in the yards. Since each of our three yards is different, we like to let all the orangutans take turns in each of them throughout the year. With 13 orangutans in five groups, it takes a bit of thinking and planning to accomplish yard changes. Right now, Chantek our hybrid adult male, and Dumadi, our Sumatran juvenile male, are visible in Yard One. Adult female Bornean Miri is in Yard Three along with her two sons, Baby Pelari and sub-adult Satu. Adult Sumatran female Biji and adult Sumatran male Alan take turns in Yard Two with Sumatran family group Benny, Blaze and Pongo.
In addition to rotating our orangutan groups, we also make changes to the yards themselves. A few months ago, keepers decided to redo the ropes hanging in Yards Two and Three. Since the wooden climbing structures the ropes are attached to are so tall, a tree-trimming service actually came to the Zoo to help us reattach everything! It was a lot of work, but was definitely worth it to see the orangutans exploring on the new ropes. Changing the ropes is just another example of all the different things keepers can do to enrich the orangutans and help keep them mentally stimulated. It also encourages them to engage in natural behaviors. In the wild, orangutans are arboreal and live high up the trees. They rarely ever come down to the ground. Providing them with lots of ropes and climbing structures allows them to brachiate, moving by swinging one arm after the other. Next time you visit the Zoo, perhaps you will see one of the orangutans brachiating on the ropes!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, August 21
Greetings from the carnivore area! Summer for us has been otterly crazy! If you’ve been to the Zoo recently, you may have seen our newest residents, the giant otters. These two animals, male Bakairi and female Yzma, are the first giant otters here at Zoo Atlanta, and they are quite a bit larger than our resident Asian small-clawed otters. None of the current keepers have ever worked with giant otters, so we have been busy this summer learning about the species and working out our daily routine.
We now have extra pool cleaning duties, a new pump system, and extra feedings, not to mention once again managing two separate groups of otters. It has been a crazy couple of months, but I think we’re starting to get the hang of it! Thankfully, the animals themselves have adapted very well. Bakairi and Yzma came from different zoos, and we were hopeful that their introductions would go smoothly. We were extremely pleased that they got along right away and have been the best of friends since. As for our Asian small-clawed otters, they’ve gotten used to their large, noisy neighbors and seem to have adjusted well. Our Asian small-clawed otter, Moe, will be 21 years old in September!
As for the rest of our animal charges, they helped us during this adjustment period by remaining fairly status quo. Logan the fossa had a routine physical a few weeks ago and appears to be in excellent health and body condition. Timber the binturong loves her remodeled “bamboo bench” and remains her diva self. Kavi and Chelsea the tigers take turns in their two habitats.
Our lion pride is on exhibit together all day every day. In spite of my daily insistence that the lion cubs stop growing, they continue to get bigger and stronger every day. They’re even starting to sound more like adult lions when they try to roar! Xander and Sabah the sun bears have been keeping cool with the frozen treats they get most afternoons. Last but not least, Marvin the muntjac has moved back into this habitat next to the Komodo dragon. He loves to hide, so see if you can spot him on your next visit.
Oh, my! It’s time to go feed those otters again. Come by the Zoo to say hi to everyone, see the lion cubs again before they get any larger, and welcome Bakairi and Yzma to Zoo Atlanta.
Keeper II, Carnivores
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