Thursday, May 28, 2015

Hello from The Wilds!

Name: Courtney Dover
Class Year: 2018
Hometown: Springfield, Ohio
Internship: The Wilds Scholar Internship
Location: Cumberland, Ohio

Hey everybody! I'm Courtney Dover, a sophomore in the zoo and conservation science program at Otterbein. This summer, I will be spending 10 weeks living at The Wilds as a wildlife ecology intern. All of the wildlife ecology interns got to pick a project to work on this summer. I am very excited to start my project because I will be doing predator avoidance training with head-started hellbenders! Now, let me explain what this means.

Eastern hellbenders (Cryptobranchus allegiensis) are a giant species of salamander native to the Eastern United States. They are completely aquatic and exchange gases through their skin. The Wilds is one of the few facilities dedicated to conservation of the species. We have hundreds of young hellbenders at the Wilds, and one of my tasks this summer is to help care for these little guys as well as researching them. The hellbenders at The Wilds are "head-started", meaning they have been cared for from eggs to larvae and to juveniles. Many of these animals would have been prey when they were young in the wild. We are giving them a head start to help ensure survival.

Photo courtesy of Purdue~Help the Hellbenders

When any animal is raised in human care, there is concern that it will not know how to behave in the Wild or that the behavior will differ from an animal raised in the wild. This applies to hellbenders as well. Larval and even juvenile hellbenders can fall prey to many different animals in the wild. When hellbenders are released into the wild, a big concern is that the young have not been exposed to these natural predators and will not know how to behave when a predator comes near them. It has been hypothesized that the larval hellbenders lack of predator avoidance skills is one of the main reasons for death in individuals released into the wild.

This is where I come in! Apprentice Tucker and I will be conducting research on predator avoidance training of the larval hellbenders at The Wilds. I will give more details on the procedure later, but for now I can say that we will be using a combination of mink gland secretions and an otter puppet to train the hellbenders.

Another cool aspect of the internship is that the wildlife ecology interns get to venture out into the world and survey for wild hellbenders! I was in the first group that got to go all the way out to West Virginia to search for these awesome salamanders under the giant rocks in creeks and streams. The site that we went to was not promising, as a hellbender had not been found there for over 50 years. But, Joe Greathouse, my advisor, was able to do eDNA testing to see if hellbender DNA could be found in the water of the site we were surveying. His test was positive, which meant hellbenders were in the creek, but we could not find any. We were lucky to find a mudpuppy, which is another species of large salamander similar to hellbenders. Enjoy some pictures of our trip!

Searching for hellbenders under rocks and using nets to block their escape routes.

Me holding the mudpuppy we caught. Since I was the one who caught him, we named him Courtney.

A close up of this cutie. After we took a few pictures and measurements, we released Courtney back under his rock.

Also, here are some cool pictures of the other animals housed at The Wilds.

Przewalski's wild horses

Sichuan takin


Reticulated giraffe

Pere David's deer

Bactrian Camel. The babies name is Wednesday (its a hump day joke). Also this is a great picture of her mother shaking drool everywhere. How graceful and majestic. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Day in the Life of an Elephant

Name: Mara Eisenbarth
Class Year: 2017
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
Internship: Animal Care Intern, Perth Zoo
Location: Perth, Western Australia

Hello again! 

So last time, I said I was going to talk about my experience with the elephants here at the Perth Zoo.  I want to talk only about the elephants in this post because Perth Zoo has a rare approach to elephant husbandry in this day and age.  First though, I'll introduce you to the Ellies! 

To start, there's Tricia.

As you can see from the birthday cake, she is 58 years old.  Tricia came from Singapore to the Perth Zoo in 1963 and is one of the oldest elephants being cared for by zoos in Australia.  

Then, there's Siput who is half Tricia's age at 25.  The two girls are best buds and just adorable together.  

What's special about the Ellies here in Perth, is that they are cared for through free contact. Free contact (in zoo terms) means that there is no protective barrier between you and the animal.  Obviously with an animal the size of an Asian elephant there has to be a fence between them and people right? Well, a lot of zoos (if not all) used to be free, or semi-free contact, until recently.  As safety risks are realized and fatal accidents occur, there is more and more pressure to have protected contact where the keeper and elephant interact through a barrier.  Either way can work, if the right procedures are followed.  

At Perth Zoo, they are fortunately able to take the two female elephants on a walk through the zoo a few mornings a week.  These walks are vital to the animals' health and just natural behavior of walking for most of the day.  The keepers use positive reinforcement to train the elephants and make sure they can perform most behaviors needed to care for them like foot checks and other procedures.  

So they have two female elephants, but they also have a male.  The bull elephant is under semi-free contact.  This means that most of the keepers (except one) never share the same space as the ellie, but they do interact with him through a barrier and can hand feed him.  Watching the keeper practice behaviors with the bull elephant was just amazing.  With just a few phrases she could have this elephant go across the yard, hold water in his trunk, stand on his back legs, and spray the water into the crowd.  And then he would happily come back to grab a few apples for his hard work.  

Before this bull elephant reached sexual maturity, they had free contact with him as well as the other girls.  But once bulls reach maturity, it's dangerous to continue to have free contact with them.  Unfortunately for the younger female, there won't be anymore elephant walks once Tricia passes away.  The young female is just a little too nervous to safely walk through the zoo without Tricia to keep her calm.  The 30 to 45 minute walks are just so beneficial for these amazing creatures who can walk 50 miles a day or more.  There are other ways to ensure captive elephants get enough exercise, but none that are practical for a zoo that is landlocked in a city.  

Anyway, my day with the Perth elephants was an amazing opportunity that I will always remember.  I learned so much from the dedicated keepers and who knows, maybe someday I can give that experience to another hopeful zookeeper. :) Thanks for reading. 

(Silup the male in the left picture; then me with Tricia on the left and Siput on the right)