Welcome to the Minnesota Zoo’s blog! From animal updates to photos to video, go behind-the-scenes with Zoo volunteers and staff to find out the latest news.
Moscow or Bust:
The Minnesota Zoo has a long standing history of global conservation efforts, including tiger conservation. Our Director of Conservation, Dr. Tara Harris, is making the trip to the Russian Far East with others from around the world to discuss the issues that face Amur tigers in the wild. She will be sharing stories and photos with us as much as she can, so check out her first post below!
Animal Enrichment: Paper Mache
The Minnesota Zoo offers different types of enrichment for the Zoo’s animals in order to stimulate the senses and attempt to widen the animals’ range of natural behaviors. One of the enrichment types is novel objects. Novel objects, or “toys,” are enrichment items that can be manipulated in some way by animals with their hands, paws or hooves, mouths, horns, or even tails. By putting novel objects in an animal's environment, the animal may respond with a variety of natural behaviors, anywhere from exploring the object to playing with it.
One novel object featured at the Minnesota Zoo is paper mache piñatas. Paper mache piñatas can provide several uses: sensory enrichment (piñatas can be sprayed with different scents or extracts to entice the animals), stimulate animals’ curiosity, elicit a foraging behavior (if keepers hide a piñata in the exhibit, it can encourage the animal to explore), as well as elicit a physical challenge the animal needs to overcome (like a tiger stalking and tearing apart a paper mache piñata). Essentially paper mache piñatas make the animals’ lives more interesting, stimulate behaviors they would exhibit in the wild, and provide new challenges
Just like for human beings, paper mache pinatas are fun for animals, too! Zookeepers will often use tempera paint (non-toxic kids craft paint) and crepe paper streamers to make paper mache piñatas look more exciting and aesthetically appealing. In addition, zookeepers get to dictate the shape or form of the paper mache piñata, anything from a piñata that looks like a strawberry to a piñata that resembles another animal!
Zookeepers can also add parts to the piñata; the more detachable parts on the piñata, the better in terms of animal enrichment. Adding on ears, tails and other features gives the animal more to tear off, which provides more challenges. Cutting a hole in the paper mache piñata to add food treats is another way zookeepers can enhance paper mache piñatas for the animals, creating a food and novel object enrichment. Fun and beneficial, paper mache piñatas are a great enrichment tool used here at the Minnesota Zoo!
What is a Typical Day for a Zoo Veterinarian?
Many people want to know what a typical day is like for a “zoo vet” at the Minnesota Zoo. Actually, there is no such thing as a “typical” day!
Our duties are dynamic based on the season and the animals themselves—but that is part of the excitement and the challenge of veterinary medicine. Each morning we have rounds, a time for discussing the plan for the day, updates from the animal health keepers on quarantined or hospitalized animals, and case updates. From there, we typically perform animal examinations. We may split up into teams depending on the size of the patient and number of exams we have planned for the day. Including the fish, we have over 4,200 animals to care for – and they keep us very busy!
Anesthesia plays a large role in our practice; most of our patients are not accustomed to being handled. So for our safety and theirs, we use anesthesia to facilitate our medical exams and sample collection. Anesthesia typically happens in the morning to give us the remainder of the day to evaluate the recovery process. Once our patients wake up from the anesthesia, the zookeepers monitor them for several hours. They look for the animals to resume normal function, successfully navigate their habitat, interact normally with the social group, and tolerate their regular food.
Our afternoons are typically spent completing medical records, writing surgery reports and prescriptions, attending meetings, doing case research and consulting with other veterinarians on various medical issues. While this may not seem as exciting as working directly with the animals, it is a vital component of our job. Detailed medical records give us an opportunity to share our clinical findings, and clarify what decisions were made and why for a specific patient. When working as part of a veterinary team, that communication is very important. When all that is complete, we review the medical histories and plan anesthesia protocols for the following day and start all over again!
Penguin Chick Announcement
Penguin Chick Update
Penguin Chick Update
Penguin Chick Update
’Egg-stra’ Special Enrichment at the Minnesota Zoo
Every day at the Minnesota Zoo, zookeepers work to provide animals with objects or changes to their environment that will stimulate behaviors like those of healthy wild animals. That is essentially what zoo enrichment is: giving animals something to think about, encouraging exercise, and presenting animals with choices to provide the animals with some control of their environment. Enrichment keeps the zoo animals’ lives interesting and challenging. As Christine McKnight, Supervisor of Behavioral Husbandry at the Minnesota Zoo, describes, “Enrichment provides novelty, variety, and choice for animals.”
The Zoo will often have themed enrichment around the holidays (like paper mache chocolates for Valentine’s Day). With the spring season and the upcoming Farm Babies event (March 29th- April 30th), the Zoo will be holding egg hunts for the animals with egg-themed enrichment. Some animals may be given paper mache eggs, “popsicle” (frozen, flavored ice) eggs, gelatin eggs, or hard boiled eggs. The egg-themed enrichment will be different depending on what is appropriate for each animal. McKnight provides an example: “Jell-O eggs for otters are different than for tamarins; for example, fruit juice may be added to the tamarins’ enrichment, whereas otters may get fish added.”
As logic would predict, different enrichment causes different reactions from the animals. Tigers will tear apart the paper mache eggs as if the eggs were prey. To encourage this, zookeepers might put scents or extracts on the eggs, or fur or deer hide inside of the egg to interest the tigers. Jell-O eggs, paper mache eggs, or hard-boiled eggs scattered in the snow monkeys’ exhibit may elicit a foraging response.
Egg-themed enrichment is not the only fun enrichment done at the Zoo, though. Enrichment on exhibit may not be obvious to guests because the enrichment is often inconspicuous. Examples of enrichment in exhibits that are easy to miss include leaf piles, spices, extracts, perfumes, fur, snake sheds, rocks of different textures, feathers, logs, tree branches, and pine trees. There are also enrichment devices (or “toys”) that would look out of place in their habitats, so the devices are given in the animals’ off-exhibit areas. Some of the devices have unique names, such as “astro-tube feeders.” An astro-tube feeder is a hanging PVC pipe covered in astro-turf, used as a foraging device. It can be stuffed with mealworms, jelly, or fruit, which encourages primates to use their fingers, toes, and tongues to get the food out.
Whether clearly visible and noticeable (paper mache eggs), or seemingly blending in with the surrounding environment (leaf piles), sometimes enrichment does not go as planned. Zookeepers may make an enrichment plan to elicit a certain behavior (like a foraging response), but the animal may not end up responding in the desired way. Animals may choose to respond to enrichment in a different way, or may not respond at all. As McKnight states, “Enrichment is about giving animals opportunities to make behavioral choices, not about forcing behavior.”
Be on the look-out for egg-themed enrichment in animal exhibits and see how the animals respond on April 27th and 28th!
How do we get the animals to take their medicine?
You may be wondering how animal care staff at the Minnesota Zoo gets the animals to take their medicine. It’s often easier said than done!
Some medicine, especially antibiotics, can taste very bitter. Very few zoo animals will swallow a pill whole and chase it with a glass of water, so we have to be creative. Zookeepers are excellent in coming up with new methods for pill delivery: they crush pills, hide them in food items, and dissolve them in tastier substances. The higher the value of the treat, the more likely the animal will accept it without hesitation, and the medication remains undetected. We also try to get medicine formulated to taste like apples, bananas, or meat, depending on the patient. Some medicine can even be compounded into a lollipop!
Primates are really good at finding pills and spitting them out, or hiding them in their cheek pouches and spitting them out later. This makes them an even greater challenge to medicate! Sometimes we take advantage of competition between animals to get a monkey to scoop up the medicated treat before his roommate gets a chance. Other times we use training to ensure medications are administered successfully. Animals, like primates, can be trained to take liquids through a syringe, and medication can be formulated into a flavored liquid. After giving a monkey a piece of medicated fruit, we may ask the patient to present an open mouth – all to ensure the pill was swallowed and not hidden in the cheek pouches.
If animals like the river otters, pumas, or tigers need a vaccine, for example, the keepers can train them to accept the injection. They work up to the goal with small steps, first presenting a hip to the mesh, then allowing us to touch it with a pole from the other side of the barrier, holding still and eventually tolerating more pressure so we can administer the treatment– and the animal’s cooperation is rewarded, so the process remains positive!
Despite our best efforts, sometimes animals just won’t take their medicine. Then we really have to be creative. Zoo veterinarians have lots of stories to share. Some end with a face full of medication that was spit out after being detected by the patient. These are the stories that motivate us to find more palatable routes of administration for medications, and ensure we always have entertaining anecdotes at dinner parties.
This winter has been bitter, windy, cold, slushy, icy anddefinitely snowy. Considering all this, it is not surprising that many of us would like to sleep through it all and wake up when it is spring again, when the sun shines for hours and warm temperatures make going outside enjoyable. Bears are a species that do just that—sleep through the winter and wake up in the spring. While it is pretty well-known that bears hibernate for the winter, how much do you really know about their hibernation habits?
In the fall when the cooler weather begins, black bears start to prepare for winter hibernation by collecting rich foods in order to increase their fat for the months ahead. Black bears add about 4 inches of fat and gain 2-3 pounds a day through their hunting and eating before winter. When black bears are actually hibernating, their body temperatures decrease 10 - 12 degrees and their metabolic rate drops to about half of what it was. Furthermore, black bears do not eat, discharge feces, or urinate while hibernating. Additionally, female black bears typically birth and nurse 2-5 cubs that are born during the hibernation period.
Brown bears, often called grizzly bears in America, technically do not hibernate. Grizzlies sleep through most of the winter season, but they are able to be awakened. In preparation for the winter when they will be sleeping and not eating, brown bears put on weight in order to survive. Particularly in the far north, brown bears add up to 400 pounds of fat every summer! A large female brown bear can get up to 770 pounds and a large male can weigh 1,300 pounds before winter. As for nursing, between the months of January and March, up to four hairless cubs are born while the mother brown bear is sleeping. Interestingly, some of the largest brown bears are found on the coast of Alaska, and especially in Kamchatka, located in the far east of Russia. In Russia, brown bears are not called grizzlies, but rather burii medved.
Here at the Minnesota Zoo, we have both black bears and brown bears. The bears at the Zoo do not follow the normal winter behavioral patterns just described. As Northern Trail Supervisor, Diana Weinhardt explains, “The [brown] bears go out every day on exhibit, because they are still fed every day, and asked to move, their winter habits have been modified from what they would be in the wild.” Visitors can explore the Medtronic Minnesota Trail to see the black bears and Russia’s Grizzly Coast to observe the brown bears all year long!
Spotlight On Animal Health: Meet the Animal Doctors!
January 24, 2013 - by Dr. Rachel Thompson
Did you know that the Minnesota Zoo has onsite medical services for its animals? We have a fully- equipped hospital, staffed by three veterinarians and two veterinary technicians, to provide preventative health screening and treat any medical concerns that arise with the animals. As our senior veterinarian likes to say: “The animals benefit from a comprehensive health plan during their time at the zoo!”
In addition to diagnosing and treating illnesses, our team provides routine health exams including physicals, blood work, and vaccines; prenatal and neonatal care; infant wellness exams; nutritional counseling and geriatric care. From tenrecs to tapirs, we are committed to the lifelong health of each of our animals.
We invite you to meet our veterinary care team!
Dr. Jim Rasmussen: Dr. Rasmussen hails from Wisconsin. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin College of Veterinary Medicine. From there, he spent a year in private practice at an emergency/referral clinic and then went on to complete a residency at the University of California-Davis Regional Primate Center. Dr. Rasmussen came to the Minnesota Zoo as an associate veterinarian in 1993 and now serves as the senior veterinarian.
Dr. Tiffany Wolf: Dr. Wolf was born and raised in New Orleans and attended undergraduate and veterinary school at Louisiana State University. She spent a few years in a small animal and exotics practice before going on to complete a residency at The Wilds in Ohio. She then joined the staff at the Minnesota Zoo as an associate veterinarian in 2006. Dr. Wolf is currently working part time at the zoo and working towards a PhD in wildlife epidemiology and ecosystem health, studying respiratory disease of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. She also serves as the veterinary advisor for the Sloth Taxon Advisory Group.
Dr. Rachel Thompson: Dr. Thompson is a South Dakota native. She completed her undergraduate work at Missouri State University and then attended the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. From there she worked as an associate veterinarian at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Northern California. Dr. Thompson joined the Minnesota Zoo as an associate veterinarian in 2008. She also serves as a subject matter expert for the International Species Information System (ISIS) consulting on the development of medical content for the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), a global electronic records software program.
Jenny Prom, CVT: Jenny is a Minnesota native. She received a B.A. degree from St. Cloud State University and then completed the veterinary technology program at Ridgewater College where she became a certified veterinary technician (CVT). Jenny completed an internship at the Minnesota Zoo as part of her training and joined the staff in 1998 as an animal health specialist.
Jen Drinen, CVT: Jen is originally from Montana but has called Minnesota home for several years. She completed her veterinary technician training at Argosy University, which included a 14-week internship at the Minnesota Zoo. After graduation, she worked at Lexington Pet Clinic, where they provide care for small animals and exotic pets, and the Minnesota Sea Life Aquarium. Jen also worked at the Oklahoma City Zoo before returning to the Minnesota Zoo as an animal health specialist in 2012.
Deb Arndt, CVT: Deb is an animal health zookeeper and is originally from Wisconsin. She received her associate degree in biology from the Medical Institute of Minnesota (now Argosy University). Deb completed her internship at the Minnesota Zoo and joined the staff in 1998 as a zookeeper. She has a special interest in mustelids – and wolverines are her favorite animal.
Janet Long: Janet is our animal health zoologist. Raised in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, she graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a bachelor’s degree in animal science with a specialty in equine science. Since 1990, she has worked in a variety of areas at the Minnesota Zoo including Birds, the Children’s Zoo, Zoolab, Animal Health, Medtronic Minnesota Trail, Tropics, Grounds and Exhibits.
We are also fortunate to have the assistance of a medical records secretary and several excellent volunteers!
Minnesota Zoo’s Travel Program: Costa Rica
January 24, 2013 -The Minnesota Zoo’s mission is to connect people, animals and the natural world. The Zoo works to fulfill that mission in a variety of ways, whether it is here at the Zoo or thousands of miles away in a remote location. This includes the College/University Travel Program and recently, a group of students just returned from an exciting 14-day excursion in Costa Rica! Read some of their reflections below.
“I came on this trip simply hoping to see some exciting species of animals in a new place. I have traveled on many educational trips before but didn't realize how much I really would learn on this trip. Being surrounded by nature, and people who love nature, for two weeks really opened my eyes to opportunities out there. It wasn’t just the "classes" we attended or the hikes we went on, but rather the after dinner conversations about classes taken, internships or our career goals that helped most. By seeing researchers in the field, and swapping stories with other students I realized that there are so many different opportunities out there and this trip made me excited to explore these opportunities. From volunteering at conservation sites in Costa Rica to working at nature summer camps, there are so many chances to get involved that I never thought of before. I am leaving this trip with 7 new friends, countless fun memories and most importantly new "to-do" list of goals I would like to accomplish and a newly renewed passion to make these goals happen.” - Stephanie Supa
“You look at the description for this trip and you think to yourself, awesome an amazing experience to learn about the wildlife and conservation in Costa Rica. Afterwards is when you realize that the trip really was much more meaningful. I learned not only about the wildlife and ecology of Costa Rica, and more importantly how to conserve it, but I also learned so much more on a deeper level. I got to experience the people and culture of Costa Rica, but more importantly I got to witness firsthand the intriguing balance between wildlife and human society that has been created there. So not only have I gained a deeper understanding of the conservation of our wonderful natural world but also how to be a better person. Now I know I may never be as green and conservation smart as one would hope to be, because face it no one is perfect, however without the realization that it can be done, and done with passion and grace, it would not be as effective. I know that I have something beneficial now to bring back with me, and that something is the memories and the knowledge that can only be gained through adventures like this and the people that I got to share the adventure with. I can honestly say I had the best time and will never forget this experience and the new perspective I have gained, and really why would you ever want to!” - Jenna Bird
Keeping Up With the Cubs:
November 30, 2012
We have been having so much fun the past couple of weeks here at the Minnesota Zoo! Last week, we saw these things floating in the sky. They looked kind of like snow, but they weren’t very cold and when we touched them they were gone – like magic! We don’t know what they were, but they were so much fun to play with!
We are growing a lot too! Our tiger moms and keepers put us on a scale again and it said we are 60 pounds now. And our coats are getting really thick to help keep us nice and warm! We can’t wait for more of that cold, white stuff to come – what is it called…snow? It’s almost as fun as all our toys we have! Do you like the snow too?
We hope you can come and visit us at the Zoo soon, but if you can’t you can always watch us having fun on exhibit on your computers here - http://bit.ly/SOB4Xr! That’s all for now, we want to get back to playing!
Keeping Up With the Cubs, Week 8:
November 15, 2012
This week is another fun week for us at our home at the Minnesota Zoo, when we went out on exhibit the other morning, it was REALLY cold out and there was this white stuff on the ground. SNOW! We are not sure what that stuff is but we had a lot of fun running around and playing in it. We are growing a lot in the last week, our coats are getting thicker so we stay warm while outside!
Today is Give to the Max Day – a special online giving day when you can show your support for your favorite charities. Today is the day you can help protect wild animals, like the Amur tiger, by supporting the Minnesota Zoo.
This is an extra special opportunity because, for today only, The Valspar Foundation will match all donations up to $25,000! That means your donation will be DOUBLED if you support the Minnesota Zoo today!
Click here to make your donation and a huge difference. We don’t really understand the internet, but we’ve heard it’s so easy, an Amur tiger cub could do it!
By supporting the Minnesota Zoo, you’re funding conservation at home and around the world, award-winning environmental education programs, and (most importantly) toys and food for the animals like us!
Thank you for making our home a better place!
Keeping Up With the Cubs, Week 7:
November 8, 2012
We hope you have been able to come and visit us while we’re playing on exhibit! We know some of our fans live very far away and can’t visit us often, but now you can watch us while we are out on exhibit on your computers here - http://bit.ly/SOB4Xr!
There’s a special day coming up on November 15th called Give to the Max Day where you can support the Minnesota Zoo’s work with Amur tigers and over 540 other species! Lots of Minnesota charities will be competing for cash prizes from $1,000 to $12,500 – just think of how many boomer balls that could buy!
If you’re easily distracted like we are, you can click here to schedule your donation. Then, your donation will automatically be sent on November 15th, helping the Zoo continue its amazing work with wildlife conservation, and also receive cash grants and matching funds! That’s right. Your donation on November 15th will be matched by The Valspar Foundation – doubling the impact of your gift! And we all know that two of something, just like Amur tigers, is better than one!
Thanks for “keeping up” with us!
Keeping Up With the Cubs, Week 6:
October 31, 2012
Happy Halloween from us, Sundari and Nadya!
October 26, 2012 -As the dolphin’s caregivers, we prepared Semo for every aspect of what his transport would entail for months prior to his departure.
An entire crew from Six Flags was there to help us once we arrived. Semo started eating immediately once we landed, and again once he was in the water at his new home. He began interacting with me instantly. I was extremely pleased with his progress from the start. During his first night, the Six Flags staff provided 24-hour monitoring to help him settle in. Their team of onsite veterinarians, animal trainers, and water quality staff members were there to monitor every facet of Semo’s health and well-being.
October 26, 2012 -During the morning of the dolphin transport, many Minnesota Zoo staff members came out to help and support our dolphins. It was early, and cold, but everyone was there to give their all for Allie and Semo.
After getting Allie on her way, I remember thinking that it couldn’t possibly go any better with Semo! Well, he proved me wrong! We had been training him for his journey, and that amazing dolphin made us very proud trainers. He was perfect. Although saying goodbye was tough, I knew I’d see him in his new home in the future.
Two trainers from the Minnesota Zoo’s marine mammal staff, Terah and myself, were sent to Brookfield Zoo to help acclimate Allie to her new surroundings and new trainers.
Keeping Up With the Cubs, Week 5: Tiger Trouble
October 24, 2012
Things have been going great for us in our new exhibit! We’re enjoying the cool fall weather, playing in the leaves and running around. We also watch all of you through the glass. You all look very different than my sister and I. We still don’t have names so we hope you hurry up and go vote.
This week we got weighed! When we were little, the tiger moms sat us on a blanket in a plastic box on a scale and they would write it down and tell us how big we were getting. Now, the keepers put us on a big scale and we can see the numbers…I weigh 42 pounds now (Minnesota Cub) and my sister weighs 39 pounds! I gained 12 pounds in 3 weeks, and my sister gained 11. That means we are becoming big tigers, right?
Even though things are going well here, we keep thinking about our relatives in the Russian Far East. We’ve been learning a lot about these relatives and things aren’t going so well for them. Did you know that there are only about 360 Amur tigers in the wild? During these fall days at the Zoo, we see at least 1,000 humans! Need another analogy? If you were to put all the wild Amur tigers in a single Boeing 747, they would only take up 2/3rds of the seats. <Insert “tigers on a plane” joke here.>
Tigers are facing all kinds of challenges in the wild – from poaching to deforestation to disease. But it’s not all gloom and doom. What you may not know is that the Minnesota Zoo has been working to protect these animals through zoo breeding programs (that’s where we came from!), awareness campaigns, and field conservation since the Zoo opened in 1978. That’s why the tiger is on the Minnesota Zoo logo!
Find out how you can help: www.mnzoo.org/tigerssp/campaign
P.S. Remember to vote in our Facebook naming contest!
Keeping Up With the Cubs, Week 4:
October 16, 2012
We’re having such a blast in our new exhibit! Have you been by to see us yet? When we are outside we love to run around and take our naps in the sun. Lots of changes have happened for us this past week and we are no longer on bottles. That was a little sad (we really liked those things) but big tigers don’t drink bottles, we have been told. We are getting more and more meat and we are getting bigger and stronger every day. Our toys are getting bigger and stronger too!
As one of our fans, you know exactly how adorable we are. And we’ve been getting fan mail from around the world proclaiming our cuteness. This week, we received a postcard from Russia and it got us thinking about our tiger relatives in the Russian Far East.
We know that where our relatives live is a beautiful and remote place. There are steaming geysers, bubbling mud-pots, and even volcanoes! But, mostly, there are forests similar to the ones we have here in Minnesota. We think that would be a cool place to visit but we’re happy with our keeper friends at the Minnesota Zoo! We are out every day now from 10 AM-2 PM unless there’s really bad weather. Come see us soon!
Keeping Up With the Cubs, Week 3:
October 9, 2012
After months of waiting we are finally big enough to go out on exhibit and see our fans! Today is our first day on exhibit in the Tiger Lair and a lot of our fans have already stopped by to say ‘Hi’! Some people even came with big cameras and said we would be on TV!
We thought life in the Tiger barn was exciting, but our exhibit is a whole new, big world to explore. There are all kinds of sights and smells to check out, but the best part is seeing our human fans up close and personal!
Come see us at the Zoo!
Little Ants on the Prairie
October 4, 2012
Throughout the summer, you’ve probably noticed the Zoo’s East parking lot transition from monoculture grass hills to its current state of lush growth. What you’ve seen is the emergence of a new prairie, increasing the plant diversity of the area while also providing food, nectar and habitat for many of our resident birds, butterflies and insects. We would like to keep you up-to-date with some of the exciting changes that are taking place in our new prairie!
Partridge peas (Cassia fasiculata) are important honey plants of dry prairies. You may notice their showy yellow flowers, but what are those strange orange-red dots below the leaves? These bowl-shaped glands hold nectar that frequent visitors like ants love to drink. In fact, it is almost impossible to find a partridge pea without these friendly guests! Ants are important underground miners of prairie soils and the energy in honey from partridge pea glands keeps them hard at work. Ants improve soil quality on the prairie by creating tunnels, which facilitates water and air flow to growing plant roots.
Keeping Up With the Cubs, Week 2:
October 2, 2012
Things are a little different for us now, we moved over to the Tiger Barn and the weirdest thing happened last night! We were all cuddled up, nice and warm, slowly dozing off to sleep in our new bed…when we heard this loud, crazy noise!
We couldn’t fall back asleep until we realized that it was just our neighbors – the Big Tigers! We’ve been living in the bear kitchen since we were babies but we never had a chance to smell them or hear them. The tiger moms and keepers helped us get ready for our move over here by playing recordings of big tiger noises and doors moving (they are loud and scary). They also played “bird” noises, whatever those are?
Life here at the Tiger barn is a little unfamiliar. We still have the Tiger moms and keepers taking care of us. We are almost done with bottles, we like those, but all of a sudden meat is tasting better. We get to go outside and play with big logs and balls, our blankets and some of our toys came with us. Our teeth are getting bigger and stronger so, even our toys are changing! But it’s lots of fun and we hear we get to see you soon!
You can see our neighbors at the Zoo everyday even if you can’t see us…yet! And while you’re waiting for our grand debut, you can help name us! Be sure to check the Minnesota Zoo’s Facebook page this week to enter into our naming contest!
Do svidaniya! (Goodbye for now!)
September 24, 2012 -Preevyet! That means ‘Hi’ in Russian!
I’m sure you recognize us – we’re the Amur tiger cubs at the Minnesota Zoo! We’re starting our own blog so that we can tell you all about our life at the Zoo. When we were a little younger, everyone was too busy to help us write a blog because we required around the clock care!
We have spent most of our lives so far in the kitchen of the Bear Building in Russia’s Grizzly Coast. So far, you could only see us on the camera and some of you have been watching us since we were born! In this area we have toys, soft blankets, food and water, we use to have bottles those are our favorite things, but now we get bowls of this red stuff called meat with our milk on it. The “moms” tell us that is what we have to eat if we want to grow to become big tigers.
Now that we’re almost three months old, we’re getting used to our home and our two-legged human caretakers. They look funny and make strange vocalizations, but they’re always there for us; to feed us, clean us, play with us, and cuddle with us! We like to jump on them and bite them, too, because that is how Tigers play. We don’t think they enjoy that as much as when we were little, and sat very nicely in their laps. They’ve even affectionately named us “No” and “Stop That”...those are real names…right?
Well, maybe you guys can come up with something a little better? Keep your ears and eyes open for our upcoming naming contest on the Minnesota Zoo’s Facebook page!
September 7, 2012 -Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins have been part of the Minnesota Zoo experience since the Zoo’s opening in 1978. Throughout this time, dolphins and trainers have been interacting and learning from each other – bonding and building strong relationships. With our current dolphins “Allie” and “Semo” bidding the Zoo farewell, our dolphin trainers took some time to share with you some of the fun memories they have had with our dolphins over the years…
No matter how one gets their start, a dolphin trainer quickly learns that working with dolphins is so much more than just a job. It’s a passion – a way of life. It’s a privilege to care for these amazing, beautiful animals! As a trainer, you bond with the animals you care for as you share with them some of the highest of highs like the birth of a baby dolphin! And you share with them the difficult times like saying goodbye to a dear friend.
Many trainers have had the privilege to be part of the Minnesota Zoo’s dolphin program and have shared some incredible memories with these amazing aquatic animals. Please enjoy reading as the dolphin staff reminisces about some of their favorite memories… Remember when?
Mindy: The Athletic One
Rio: Independent and Sensitive
We often have requests for special-needs children to want to visit, and Rio was wonderful in these situations. There was a young girl whose mother just wanted her to hear the dolphins’ sounds because she had lost her sight in an accident that had also left her unable to walk. We had placed the young girl by the pool with her feet just at the pools edge. Rio and I started a training session and were showing off all the numerous sounds that she could make; the young girl was delighted. But then on her own, Rio tapped the girl’s foot and the girl’s face lit up. Following Rio’s lead, I would point to the girl’s foot and Rio would use her rostrum (her mouth or beak) and press and hold on the foot. Rio was excited by the girl’s response, and all the humans on deck were clearly elated by the interaction going on before us. Rio was always one step ahead of you. She was so smart, charismatic and caring. She was always teaching me a new life lesson.
Flipper: Oh So Charming
Ayla: Cartoon Lover
Chinook: Loved his Trainers
Spree: Wonderfully Playful
April: Proud of Her Accomplishments
Taijah: Queen of the Pool
GIGANTIC DEVIL RAYS
August 30, 2012 -The Minnesota Zoo strives to protect all species, on land and below the sea. Rays and other sea creatures have continued to fascinate people, including our Aquarium’s Supervisor, Allan Maguire who continues to research these oceanic giants.
Centuries ago, mankind decided that personal identification was important. Fast forward to today, and most people have a first and last name. This form of identification was also extended to plants and animals.
Latin was chosen to identify each living or extinct being, giving people a single, unique name to use. Since few people know Latin, plants and animals were given “common names” – chosen by different people attempting to visually describe plant or animal characteristics.
Take, for example, a group of fish in the subfamily, Mobulidae. What are they, and how did they get their common names?
This subfamily contains rays – animals that have fascinated people for centuries. This is why Manta birostris has been named the devil fish, devil ray, giant manta, manta ray, and Prince Alfred’s ray. These rays are very interesting to look at: they have “cephalic lobes” – which look like wings – projecting from the front of their head. These are actually extensions of their pectoral fins. These lobes help to scoop plankton into their mouths. Devil rays have teeth, but only on their lower jaws.
These rays are huge! At birth they are approximately four feet wide, and can grow until they reach 22 feet. A few individuals have been measured at 30 feet long, weighing 3,100 pounds – that’s 1.5 tons! As a comparison, the Minnesota Zoo’s Shark Reef exhibit 30 feet wide.
Devil rays vary in color; they can be black, grayish blue, greenish or reddish brown. Some black rays have white, triangular shoulder patches, and some are black with white and grey blotching. They are found in tropical areas around the globe, usually near shore. They swim by flapping their large pectoral fins and are capable of rapid speed. Juveniles sometimes leap well clear of the water, landing with a loud slap. Adults come only partway out of the water, but usually two or three times in succession.
Although these animals have been around for centuries, they are difficult to study in their natural habitat. There is no data on age at maturity for either gender. Devil rays pose no threat to humans unless they are attacked. They don’t have tail spines, but are closely related to stingrays. Unfortunately, they are being hunted in some areas of the world and since its believed that these rays produce only 10 to 15 pups in their lifetime, this could have a devastating effect on their population.
Relatives of these interesting rays can be seen every day at the Minnesota Zoo in Discovery Bay’s Shark Reef. Stop by during your next visit!
August 22, 2012 -Atlantic Bottle-Nosed dolphins have been part of the Minnesota Zoo experience since the Zoo’s opening in 1978. Throughout this time, dolphins and trainers have been interacting and learning from each other – bonding and building strong relationships. With “Allie” and “Semo” bidding the Minnesota Zoo farewell, our dolphin trainers took some time to recap their experiences working with these amazing animals. Michaela has had the pleasure of working with “Allie” and wanted to share some insight on her abundant personality.
Passing by the pool or windows that peer in, “Allie” is the quintessential picture of what you envision of a dolphin. She is absolutely stunning and beautiful to the human eye – and her personality will not take long to rope you in either.
I met Allie a little over four years ago. She had just recently come to live at the Minnesota Zoo’s Discovery Bay and I was the new girl on the team. Right away I was drawn to her. She is extremely intelligent, athletic, nurturing – and challenging at times. She keeps each of us trainers on our toes, making us think. Allie is an animal that thrives on learning, being challenged with new behaviors and sometimes just seeing how much she can get away with….but she is also one of the most gentle, tactile-loving, attention-seeking, playful and creative animals I’ve had the pleasure of caring for. She, like me, has good days and bad days and sometimes it’s not easy to hide how you are feeling, but that is the beauty of working with animals: you never know what flash of brilliance you might have in a training session or what moment of unbridled excitement you might get to share with Zoo guests.
I have had many wonderful moments with Allie over the years. There have been many positive breakthroughs with her on important, complex behaviors. I had the joy of seeing some of her first exuberant, playful moments with a new toy, once again showing her thoughtful, creative side to her personality.
Allie loves “innovative” sessions, ones that allow everyone to run wild with creativity. For example, she enjoys when we simply give a hand signal that tells her to “go do something” – this can be anything from turning her body in a different direction, to making a small gesture with her fin, or jumping in the air, spitting a mouthful of water and flopping back down in the pool with a splash!!
From discovering an amazing new behavior that always draws the “ooh’s and ahh’s” from the audience as she gracefully flies through the air, to witnessing many touching moments between her and other dolphins to diligently caring for her offspring, Allie is nothing less than extraordinary. She is an exceptional animal that I will forever share a bond with; I have enjoyed and appreciate every moment I have experienced with her.
August 22, 2012 -Atlantic Bottle-Nosed dolphins have been part of the Minnesota Zoo experience since the Zoo’s opening in 1978. Throughout this time, dolphins and trainers have been interacting and learning from each other – bonding and building strong relationships. With “Allie” and “Semo” bidding the Minnesota Zoo farewell, our dolphin trainers took some time to recap their experiences working with these amazing animals. “Semo” and Robyn have been working together for years and she wanted to share some of his enormous personality with you.
“Semo” is 500 pounds of pure love. His dark gray color and many tooth rake scars (received from numerous interactions with other dolphins through the years) make him our most recognizable dolphin. He may look rough and tough on the outside, but Semo is delightful, friendly, and playful with people. Staff members have found him to be very trusting, patient, attentive, and an overall easy going dolphin. Semo has a giant personality that comes out instantly when you meet him. He has an adorable habit of bringing his trainers “presents” by collecting the toys in his pool to greet us with when we come poolside. Semo’s enthusiastic and fun attitude puts a smile on our faces every day!
Semo is an old dolphin; at 48 years old (the oldest male in human care) he doesn’t jump as he once did and doesn’t see as well as he used to, but he continues to be very active. We monitor how many “high energy” behaviors Semo does during his training sessions to avoid tiring him out. Living at the Minnesota Zoo since 1991, Semo has had to compete for his dominance over the years. Currently, he spends his time chasing our female “Allie” around the pool; he is basically just trying to make himself look attractive. When Semo isn’t trying to get Allie’s attention he likes to interact with his trainers and the toys in his pool. He is always ready to play football and acts like a giant puppy clamoring for attention and of course treats, including Jell-O, ice, and frozen fish treats called “fish-icicles.”
Semo is a riot when we interact with him. During Dolphin Encounters and training sessions, guests’ cheers can be heard for him: “Great job, Semo!” “Semo, you’re so funny!” Sometimes the crowds are so loud, they compete with Semo’s sounds. If you’ve ever heard Semo’s crazy laugh, you know he is boisterous! Semo has learned over the years that spitting at humans gets a big reaction, so of course he loves to do it. Interacting with Semo leads to wet clothes all the time because he deliberately spits at people and splashes close to them.
Consistent, tolerant, comical, and playful – that’s Semo!
Native Prairie Butterflies
August 7, 2012 -The Minnesota Zoo is committed to conservation locally, nationally and globally. One of the Zoo’s new conservation biologists, Erik Runquist, is working on a research project dealing with the diminishing native tall-grass prairies and prairie butterflies.
What is the smallest animal at the Minnesota Zoo? The two new Amur tiger cubs? A poison dart frog? A goby in the coral reef tanks? Actually, it is none of the above! At barely 1/20th of an inch when “born”, the smallest animals at the Zoo are young caterpillars of the Poweshiek skipperling butterfly (Oarisma poweshiek). When they reach adulthood next year, their wingspan will barely reach one inch. This little orange and brown butterfly is the “most Minnesotan” of all butterflies because nearly half of all known records are from Minnesota. Despite once being one of our most abundant butterflies though, it not been seen in Minnesota in over five years! It also disappeared from North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa between 2001 and 2008.
What is going on?! The disappearance of the Poweshiek skipperling is sadly not an isolated event and reflects the much broader loss of their habitat, the tallgrass prairie. Filled with sweeping grasses up to 7 feet tall and loaded with purple coneflower, black-eyed susan, and many other wildflowers, the native prairie is a huge part of Minnesota’s natural and cultural heritage that has been made famous in popular references like Little House on the Prairie and A Prairie Home Companion. It is a piece of who we are as Minnesotans, but it is also an ecosystem in trouble.
Sharks, Rays and their Relatives
August 2, 2012 -Did you know that sharks are related to rays?
Sharks are probably the better known fish of the “elasmobranches” – a group of animals including rays, skates and fish with skeletons made of cartilage. Other elasmobranches include sawfish, electric rays, and guitarfish.
Top predators like sharks can evoke primal fears humans have about all large predators – helping to maintain the interest people have in seeing and learning about them. Although large sharks, skates and rays get a lot of attention, there are actually more species of small sharks, skates, and rays than there are large ones.
Just like their top-predator relatives, skates and rays have many misconceptions surrounding them. Some interesting facts:
Inside the Minnesota Zoo’s Shark Reef are Southern red stingrays, Dasytatis americana. These rays are benthic (living in the bottom of the sea), occurring naturally in the tropical and subtropical water of the southern Atlantic ocean – most abundantly in Florida and the Bahamas. They can reach a maximum width of 6 ½ feet and weigh 214 pounds. Although little is known about their average life span and growth rate, males are smaller than females. They like to eat fish and crustaceans, and find their prey relying on electro-reception and strong sense of smell and touch. This type of stingray is listed as “Data Deficient,” which means not enough is known about the population and species to determine what endangered status it is listed under.
During the Zoo’s 11:30 a.m. fish and shark feeding in the Shark Reef three times weekly, you may see our stingrays rise to the surface of the pool to be fed where we offer them capelin, mackerel, herring, and squid. They pin the food to the tank wall to bite and swallow as they side down to the tank bottom.
The Zoo also have stingrays called bat eagle rays, Myliobatis californica, in the Estuary, or Shark Touch Tank. These rays naturally live in the temperate waters of the Pacific ocean from the Gulf of California to Oregon. These rays are more pelagic than the Southern stingrays but will rest on the bottom for long periods of time.
Our Tropical Reef exhibit on the Tropics Trail has a fish called a fiddler ray, Trygonorrhina fasciata. This ray is in the guitarfish family and doesn’t have a sting for protection. This ray is benthic, living in the eastern Indian Ocean, endemic to southern Australia.
July 23, 2012 -The Minnesota Zoo is dedicated to wildlife conservation around the world. We are fortunate to have staff with a strong desire to learn more about all species of animals through various programs such as the Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Fund of the Minnesota Zoo. Below is a great blog post written by one of our staff, Amy, about her time in northern Michigan.
On the sandy summer beaches of the Great Lakes, you may never notice the beautiful but inconspicuous shorebird, the piping plover, raising its young along the shoreline. The endangered plover is a small sparrow-sized bird that blends in perfectly with the cobbled beaches and is a surprisingly fast runner!
When I joined researchers in early July in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan (the “tip of the mitt”, they say), the plovers were already preparing for their migration to their wintering grounds around the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic shorelines. On my first trip to check on plovers at Bliss beach, we found two chicks with dad foraging near the water; when we couldn’t spot mom, we decided it was likely that she had already flown south to the wintering grounds. The plovers were doing well and even knew to retreat to the exclosure that researchers had placed around their nest when they felt threatened.
The wire exclosures were placed around the plover nests earlier in the season, keeping larger predators out while allowing the plovers to move freely in and out of their nest site and the surrounding area. Since researchers started using nest exclosures hatching success has increased by 40%! Researchers also placed signs around the area, warning beachgoers that there are endangered birds in the area and prohibiting people (and their pets) from approaching nest sites.
But the piping plover hasn’t always had protection like this. Plovers in the Great Lakes have been struggling since the mid-1900s, mainly because of increased beach use, for recreation and housing, and were listed as an endangered species in 1986. Roaming cats, off-leash dogs, bad storms and natural predators also pose a serious threat to plovers.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota, in collaboration with numerous other organizations, have been working to protect the Great Lakes plover population since the 1980s and, slowly but surely, the plovers are starting to come back. With nest protection and monitoring, as well as captive rearing of abandoned chicks, the population has increased from 11 to 57 breeding pairs (a far cry from the 500-800 pairs that historically nested in the area). Despite the slow recovery, the endangered status of the piping plover has allowed the preservation of shoreline in Michigan that helps many other animals, such as terns and merlins, making the plover an “umbrella species”- where the conservation of one species helps to protect other species in the area.
During these critical summer nesting months, researchers are housed at the University of Michigan Biological Station where they also raise the abandoned piping plover chicks in a specially created facility. I spent most of my time helping to raise the abandoned chicks. This year, fewer abandoned eggs came back to the Biological Station to be hatched which means the protective measures researchers have taken are working.
Zookeepers from around the country rotate in to the Biological Station every couple of weeks to care for the abandoned chicks until they are old enough to fly at around 30 days old. When I arrived, we had two groups of chicks – four chicks around 20 days old and two chicks at only 3 days old. With their adorable little ‘peeps’, they quickly won me over.
With feedings every three hours, and a diet of blackworms, mealworms, crickets, and wax worms, the chicks grew fast! But none were old enough to be released before my time there was done. Now I can only wish my little plover friends the best of luck on their long flight south and say I hope to see them next summer at ‘the tip of the mitt’.
Popsicles for Bears and Other Enrichment at the Minnesota Zoo
July 10, 2012 -On a hot summer day, little compares to the joy of eating a Popsicle. Here at Minnesota Zoo, our animals occasionally get to enjoy a similar treat to help them cool off. While it may be fun for guests to watch the animals devour a frozen treat, the purpose of this activity is much more than just to catch the eyes of our guests. Popsicles are an excellent and fun form of enrichment.
What is enrichment you ask? Well, animals in zoos don’t always have the same opportunities to engage in physical and mental stimulation as wild animals do. To keep the animals engaged and challenged, zookeepers give the animals objects or make changes to their environments. These changes, referred to as enrichment, help to stimulate the behaviors of healthy wild animals.
Enrichment can come in a variety of forms to stimulate different behaviors. Categories of enrichment include food, sensory, novel objects, environmental, and training. Food is frequently used as enrichment because it encourages an animal’s natural hunting and foraging behavior. Zookeepers may give the animals new foods with unique tastes and textures or hide their favorite foods in their exhibits. Sensory enrichment can help exercise an animal’s senses and often includes playing music or sounds and spraying perfumes like “Obsession.” Novel objects are items that can be manipulated with an animal’s hands, paws, hooves, or mouths. This enrichment type includes unnatural objects like balls and natural objects like pumpkins and pinecones. Environmental enrichment refers to changes made to an animal’s exhibit. This may include new branches for climbing or pools for cooling off. Training helps to maintain healthy interactions between animals and zookeepers and also allows vets and zookeepers to constantly examine animal health.
Recently, some of our animals received some “Popsicles” on a very hot day. These icy treats are not the Popsicles you would pick up at the local grocery store. Instead, they are specially made by zookeepers and contain foods that the animals like to eat. Pears, apples, grapes, and sweet potatoes are just a few of the ingredients zookeepers froze in water or fruit juice and gave to our brown bears, snow monkeys, prairie dogs, and wild boars. Each animal interacted with their Popsicles differently. Kenai, Haines, and Sadie, our brown bears, quickly chewed away at theirs to get to the fruit inside. The prairie dogs, on the other hand, were a little shy. The group took their time examining the Popsicle before finally digging in.
If you visit the Minnesota Zoo around the holidays you might just be lucky enough to witness some themed enrichment items like pumpkins around Halloween and presents and pine trees around Christmas. However, zookeepers use enrichment all year round so be on the lookout during your next visit!
Minnesota Zoo Zookeeper Assists Lake Superior Zoo with Cleanup Efforts
June 25, 2012 - A flood in Duluth hit Minnesota Zoo zookeeper Carey Goedel (a former employee of the Barnyard Exhibit at the Lake Superior Zoo) close to home. Once Goedel and the Minnesota Zoo learned of the flood and the damage it caused, they wasted no time in making arrangements for her to travel north and help in any way she could.
The Lake Superior Zoo always has, and always will have, a special place in my heart. They gave me my first paid zoo keeping job and I loved it. During my employment there, I became one of the barn keepers – and worked closely with some of the animals that later perished in the flood. I had the wonderful opportunity to know and directly care for the donkey (Ashley), raven (Edger), turkey vulture (Jive) and especially the goats (Jeb, Dave, Archie and Buck).
The Gulf, an Oil Spill, and our Common Loons.
May 21, 2012 - The Minnesota Zoo is dedicated to wildlife conservation around the world. We are so fortunate to have a staff with such a strong desire to learn more about all species of animals and travel all over through various programs such as the Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Fund of the Minnesota Zoo. Below is a great blog post written by one of our staff, Rebecca from our World of Birds Show, and her time spent in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.
For those of us, like myself, who are not so stellar at recognizing bird calls- there is one that I can always remember: the trembling yodel of a loon. That made it all the more bizarre to hear their wails out in the salt marsh bayou of Bay Adams, Louisiana. The Gulf of Mexico is not exactly the first locale that comes to mind when we think of loons, but our state bird spends more time in the warm gulf waters than up north with us. Minnesota is breeding habitat for the common loon, which means they spend summers with us to hatch and raise their young. During the remainder of the year, many of them are overwintering in the Gulf. The Gulf of Mexico has received plenty of press in the last few years due to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill that occurred 55 miles off the coast of Louisiana in 2010. This spill released over 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Luckily enough for the loons, their yearly migration had already taken place and most of the loons were already on their way north to the breeding grounds when the spill occurred.
It’s two years later, and the Gulf looks deceptively pristine. I traveled down to Port Sulfur, Louisiana thanks to a Ulysses Seal Conservation Grant through a project with Earthwatch International. Funded by the BioDiversity Research Institute and Earthwatch, researchers are just beginning to examine the lasting effects the oil spill could have on the wintering loon populations there. The most prominent source of concern is a compound found in crude oil that is lingering in the ecosystem. This compound, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs for short, is known to cause an array of harmful effects in animals that come in frequent contact with it. A depressed immune system, red blood cell damage, and hormone imbalance are just some of the effects of frequent exposure. Where do loons come in to this mess? Well, it’s true they missed the initial spill, but those PAHs still exist in their wintering grounds; and there, it’s all about the food chain. Phytoplankton and zooplankton on the low end of the food chain take up PAHs from the water, and then the plankton itself is eaten by shellfish, shrimp, or crabs, which in turn may be eaten by fish. Loons in the Gulf are considered an apex predator, sitting right at the top of the food chain, which means all the organisms they typically eat, crustaceans and fish, have the potential to contain high levels of PAHs which they pass on to the loons when the loons catch a meal.
Researchers are spending their winters capturing loons in the Gulf of Mexico and using blood processing techniques to determine the levels of PAHs in the loons themselves. So little research has been done on the common loon in its southern wintering habitat that there is a literal wealth of knowledge to be gathered and analyzed. The hope is that by placing unique bands on the legs of the loons to tell individuals apart, and hopefully recapturing the same loons in years to come, the levels of PAHs in individual birds can be determined. Blood samples from previous years can be compared and any change in condition of that bird will also be noted. By looking at individual birds year after year, a sort of map of the wintering population can be compiled to see if the loon population as a whole is suffering from the lasting effects of the oil spill. Years of study lay ahead of the dedicated research staff in Louisiana. With luck, there will be some answers for the future of the loon population so Louisianans and Minnesotans both can enjoy loons in their wild habitats for years to come.
April 27, 2012 - The Minnesota Zoo is dedicated to wildlife conservation around the world. We are so fortunate to have a staff with such a strong desire to learn more about all species of animals and travel all over through various programs such as the Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Fund of the Minnesota Zoo. Below is a great blog post written by one of our staff, Melanie, about her time in Kusapin.
In the middle of a dense red mangrove forest, knee deep in thick mud, with my face covered in biting sand flies…this could be one of the best days of my life! This is the habitat of a very unique and critically endangered pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus). It is this animal, discovered as a new species just 11 years ago, that has brought me to Escudo Island de Veraguas off the coast of Panama. It was an epic journey for me to even get here!
It started by receiving a grant from the Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Fund of the Minnesota Zoo. I joined a small group of other conservationist and organizations coming together to help preserve and prevent the extinction of the pygmy sloth. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) listed this species as critically endangered in 2006 and it is only found on this 3.4 km2 island which is uninhabited, but used as seasonal fishing grounds by the indigenous Ngobe tribes in the area.
I took a plane from Minneapolis to Panama City and then a small propeller plane to a small town called Changuinola in the NW corner of Panama. Once I arrived there, I took a 3-hour local bus to Chiriqui Grande, a small coastal town. I spent the night here and in the morning, took a 2-hour boat taxi across the Atlantic Ocean to small town Kusapin on a peninsula with no cell service, electricity or running water. Kusapin was going to be my home base for the next week.
Kusapin has no hotels or restaurants so I had to rely on the kindness of strangers for food and a place to sleep. Luckily, I found a man shortly after arriving that had a shell of a house to rent me and my Peace Corp volunteer interpreter for $5 a night. Although the floor was covered in cockroaches and rat droppings, I gladly took the place and began work in building relationships with the community. Matt, the Peace Corp volunteer, and I began the three day event of interviewing everyone and anyone we could about the use of the island and the history of its biological resources. This first visit to the area was not to tell them how to use the island, but just to gather information on how they use it. We wanted this information to help put the pieces together on how and why the populations of this species and others on the island are in decline.
It was a joy for me to interview over 40 people along the coast about their decades of experiences on the island. Stories of huge schools of fish, unique birds they hear on the island and how they have seen it change over the years. Usually our interview spots were outside their stilted homes, sitting on a piece of drift wood on the beach under a palm tree or sitting on a dock with our feet hanging over the beautiful ocean. During my time in Kusapin, I also used the skills of another Peace Corp volunteer Amanda who actually spoke the native Ngobe language. I also was able to speak in a few schools about the project. My favorite person to interview was a man for three days I had heard about. Everyone in the communities seemed to say Alfonso Simon was the man who protected the island and coordinated the fisherman to use the resources in a sustainable way. It wasn’t until the last day of my trip that we finally found him walking bare foot with a machete on a remote beach about 3 hours by boat from Kusapin. As the boat pulled up he said, “You must be Melanie”. I wish I would have had that on video. I could not believe it. He was told 2-months prior that a “blonde girl from America was going to find him and ask him questions about Escudo Island”, and there I was. We spent the next hour and a half sitting on the beach talking about why he feels he wants to lead his people, the Ngobe, to protect the island, its species and its resources. By the way, his nickname is Bruce! This is a conservationist dream, to find a local leader who agrees with the preservation goals and wants to help in the efforts. It made sleeping in rat droppings covered in cockroaches that much more worth it.
So let’s go back to me being in knee deep mangrove mud on the island. Yes this was one of the best days of my life as I was able to see a male and female pygmy sloth during my 2-hour visit to the island my last day in the Kusapin area. It was a chance of a life time to actually get an up close look at this species very near extinction. I feel honored to be a part of this project and to tell you about just one of the ways the Minnesota Zoo is practicing what it preaches by helping with the efforts of endangered species all over the world. I thank the Ulysses S. Seal Fund as well as my colleagues from ZSL, Peace Corp and CONAVI for making all this possible. I hope to return in October to continue the work.
Surgeons of the Sea
March 9, 2012 - Looking for a good doctor? How about a good doctorfish? I would like to tell you about a group of fish from the tropical oceans of the world called doctorfish.
Surgeonfish come in many different colors. The largest can grow to over one foot long. They are thin, deep bodied fish. Some species will school together in large numbers but some like only a few of their kind very close to them. They swim around the exhibit tank giving people a chance to get a good look at the various colors they have to show off. They are grazers, scraping algae with their single row of teeth. We have a lot of algae in the gelatin diet we feed them but they will still scrape algae off the artificial coral in the exhibit.
We must be careful when we work with these fish. The sharp spines can cause a good gash. Several years ago, when I was doing dive shows without gloves, I found out how sharp a spine could be. When I entered the tank to start the show the fish would swim close to the food container in my hands to try to get any food that would float out of the holes in the container. One of the tangs flashed past my hand and cut it. It was only a small ½” wound but it helped me decide to wear dive gloves for the dive shows.
We hope to have 15 species with over 200 individual tangs for the Tropical Reef display. Look for Achilles, Powder blue, Clown, Olive Convict, Yellow, and the ever popular Blue tang when you visit the Zoo.
We will also have the tang family members that have what people think looks like a nose. The tangs have the family name of unicornfish. When you see these fish you will instantly recognize the reason for the name. While the growth between their eyes may look like a nose, it doesn’t function like a nose that mammals use to smell with.
Tangs have been popular exhibit fish at the zoo for many years and we hope to have a good variety on display for the renovated Tropical Reef.
Leap Day Frog Facts
February 16, 2012 - What is in a common name? People are pretty familiar with terrestrial mammals when you ask them to think of rabbits and bats. Ask them if they have heard of fish with family names like rabbit and bat and you will probably get a blank stare. Rabbitfish and Batfish aren’t as well known as their terrestrial namesakes, but what is in a name.
Q: What are amphibians?
Q: What’s the problem with amphibians?
A: Nearly 1/3 of all amphibians are facing extinction. They depend on wetlands, grasslands and forests. These habitats are under severe pressure for other uses by humans. There is also a fungus that kills amphibians which has been unknowingly spread by people to many parts of the world.
Q: What amphibians does the Minnesota Zoo have? (on exhibit and in Zoomobile)
A: The Zoo has frogs and toads on the Medtronic Minnesota Trail, and dart-poison frogs on the Tropics Trail.
Q: Why should I care about animals like frogs and other amphibians?
A: Amphibians are important in our ecosystem. For example, they help control insect populations. They are also a good indicators of how humans are impacting wetlands and water quality. If amphibians aren’t thriving it means the wetlands are not healthy either.
Q: Why is the Zoo choosing to talk about this today?
A: Today is Leap Day. An organization called the Amphibian Ark is launching a new event today, Leaping Ahead of Extinction, to inform people about this crisis and tell people what they can do to help.
Q: What is the Minnesota Zoo doing to help amphibians?
A: The Minnesota Zoo not only talks about the amphibian crisis in its education programming, but it also supports programs through the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG), an organization located on zoo property.
Q: What is CBSG?
A: The conservation breeding specialist group (CBSG) is an organization, located at the Minnesota Zoo, that helps save threatened species by working with conservation efforts worldwide.
Q: Where can I learn more about the amphibian crisis/What can I do?
Rabbits and Bats in the Water?
February 16, 2012 - What is in a common name? People are pretty familiar with terrestrial mammals when you ask them to think of rabbits and bats. Ask them if they have heard of fish with family names like rabbit and bat and you will probably get a blank stare. Rabbitfish and Batfish aren’t as well known as their terrestrial namesakes, but what is in a name.
Batfish are also known as spadefish. They probably got their name from the way they look in the water as juveniles. They have long flowing dorsal and ventral fins attached to a relatively small body.
There is another family of fish also called batfish that don’t look anything like the batfish you will see in the Tropical Reef. They look very “un” bat like. They look and act more like flounders that swimming fish.
The batfish that will be in the renovated Reef will have the long fins for a relatively short period of time. As they grow, the body gets spade shaped and laterally compressed. They look like large plates swimming thorough the water. The fins are short and close to the body, they don’t look very “bat like” when they are adults.
We would like to have three species of batfish for the Tropical Reef but we will have at least one as we have adults from the previous exhibit.
The rabbitfish get their name from their mouth that looks somewhat like the nose and mouth of a rabbit. Common names are in the eye of the beholder. I don’t really see that look but someone did and the name stuck. They have well developed dorsal and anal fin spines. These spines are venomous so we need to take care when handling these fish.
We have had rabbitfish at the zoo for many years. They tend to school well and swim in from of the viewing window giving people an opportunity to see the rabbit face.
One of the species we have and tend to do well here is called foxface rabbitfish. They have a dark stripe across the eyes with a yellow body. Pretty distinctive fish when you recognize them. We hope to obtain several other species but they have different stripes and spots that and don’t swim in front of the window as well as the foxface do, but they are interesting fish none the less.
No matter where the rabbits and bats live they can be very interesting to see, especially when they are underwater.
Hawkfish, Always Watching
February 2, 2012 - The new Tropical Reef will have several fish that may be hard to find. These fish are similar to species that are very well camouflaged but these species have very attractive colors. They will be difficult to see unless you look closely around the coral. These fish like to perch on high ground. This affords them a good view of the area so they can be aware of predators. This habit has helped give them their common family name, Hawkfish.
They aren’t active midwater swimmers; they prefer to stay motionless darting from perch to perch. They are small; most of them will be less than three inches long. But they are very interesting fish to watch.
Unlike most fish they lack swim bladders. This is useful because they have a sedentary life style and live in shallow warm marine waters. When you are looking for these fish look for quick movements, they dart from place to place.
We hope to acquire Spotted, Banded, Red, Flame, and Horseshoe hawkfish for the renovated Tropical Reef exhibit. Look closely for them during the restocking process. They will be the small red, pink, white and blue colored fishes.
Burmese Python Exam
January 30, 2012 -The annual exam for our 18 yr old female Burmese Python. Every year in January the veterinary staff do a physical examination of our Burmese Python, looking at her overall body condition, eyes and mouth as well as taking an annual blood sample looking for any abnormalities or infection. The exam took 10 animal care staff and 2 animal health staff to restrain and examine her due to her size and immense strength. The last two years the python has been on a carefully calculated diet as she has been overweight (carefully calculated to help her lose weight, but not so hungry that she becomes difficult to work around!). We are happy to say that her diet has been successful and we are happy to report that she is down to a healthy 45.15kg or ~100 lbs. Her length has remained consistent the last several years and she is around 14 feet (+/- a few inches). Her girth (circumference) at her widest point is about 21 inches, which is a little smaller than previous years, but as you can imagine, her length and girth are difficult to accurately measure.
Interesting fact: Burmese Pythons (along with Yellow Anaconda’s and two African Python species) were recently listed as an injurious species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service due to the large number of pet pythons and boas that have been released into the Florida Everglades. Burmese Pythons and other non-native species now have established resident populations that are breeding and reproducing in Southern Florida causing great harm to the native Everglade species and the South Florida ecosystem. Being listed as an Injurious species means that it is illegal to house or transfer these species without a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. For more information this ruling from the USFWS, visit: http://www.fws.gov/invasives/news.html
Most Beautiful Fish in the World
January 12, 2012 -Butterflyfishes and Angelfishes are among the most beautiful fish in the world. When most people think of Tropical Reefs these fish come to mind. People with very little knowledge or interest in salt water fish can identify these species. When people come to see an exhibit with marine warm water Tropical fish I believe they expect to see these types of fish.
These species are highly ornate animals with flattened disc like bodies. Most species aren’t very large. The butterflyfishes are usually less than 8 inches long. The largest angelfishes can be 18 inches but the Pygmy angelfish are less than 6 inches.
Since these species are so conspicuous around coral reefs we want to have a large collection for the public to see. We have 35 species on the acquisition list for eventual exhibition in the Tropical Reef display.
Butterflyfishes are in their own family. The Angelfish have been categorized into two families. You have the large Angelfish and the small, also called pygmy, Angelfish. They are subdivided into additional families based on other characteristics but I think you get the idea.
Some butterflyfish feed on coral polyps. Providing this type of diet in captivity is next to impossible so they aren’t kept in captivity. The species we display here are omnivores; they eat both plant and animal food items.
A good way to identify many butterlyfishes that will be displayed in the new Tropical Reef exhibit is to look at the marking on the fish. Threadfin have a small fin in the dorsal, topmost fin. Saddleback has a large black pattern on their back. Lined has a series of vertical lines across their body. Raccoon has a black pattern across the top of head and eyes. Lemon has a high percentage of yellow covering their body. Once you recognize these distinctive marking you are on your way to identifying many of these popular fish.
We are also including some butterflyfish that have banner in their name. They are mostly black and white vertically striped fish that can have a very long dorsal fin. They look unique among the butterflyfish and usually swim in small schools.
The pygmy angelfish are the small shy swimmers of this group of fish. They prefer to stay close to their chosen “home” territory. They don’t swim around the tank in open water, they prefer to stay hidden. When looking for these fish you need to be patient and wait for them to come out from hiding to seen the magnificent colors they have. These fish rarely get above 11 cm. That is 4 and ½ inches long.
Once you see the larger angelfish you will wonder how one animal can have so many different colors on one fish. These fish can get large, not huge, just large. They can grow over 15 inches in length. This is large for such a colorful fish.
We hope to have angelfish with names like Blue king, Emperor, Blue-girdled, Blue Koran, Sixbar, and Yellowface. These fish will give the Tropical Reef exhibit many good examples for people to stop, look and wonder at fish often called coralfishes.
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, here’s a little educational game that we have on our website. It just seems fitting to play “Zoo Matchmaker” this time of year.
Zoos use genetic tools to save endangered species. Use the genetic information that is provided to decide which tigers should breed, while you try to control inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity.See if you have what it takes to be a Zoo Matchmaker!