Friday, June 24, 2016

Enjoying Otters in Chicago


My name is Hannah Musser and I am a rising junior in the Zoo and Conservation Science program at Otterbein University. I am from Cincinnati Ohio, and am living in Chicago, IL for ten weeks this summer doing a research internship in animal behavior under the direction of Dr. Lance Miller at the Brookfield Zoo! I am finishing up my third week there, and have enjoyed the experiences that I have gotten there so far!

A panoramic view of the Asia exhibit at Tropic World. Otters can access water, island, & land on the left & right.
For my project, I am observing and recording the frequency of the superstitious behaviors of four Asian small-clawed otters. They live in one of three large exhibits that make up the building called Tropic World, and share an exhibit with White-cheeked gibbons on one side (with whom they have occasional interaction- usually a gibbon coming down and grabbing at or chasing the otter on land) and Orangutans on a mountain above them. I got to go behind the scenes of this exhibit with one of the keepers the other day which was a really neat experience; I saw the feeding machines and learned how they work, saw the otters (that are smaller up close than they look from outside the exhibit!) in their holding/behind the scenes living area, and even got to wear waders and go out into the exhibit to help set up the feeding machines for that day!

The automatic feeder
Feeder in cooler on exhibit
The otters have two automatic feeding machines in their exhibit each day that drop out fish periodically- it could be every couple minutes or every twenty; it is random, depending on the placement of the fish on the conveyor belt inside the machine. The otters exhibit these behaviors such as head bobbing, begging, and intently staring at the feeders because in the past, when they have performed these behaviors, they have gotten a reward; therefore we believe that they continue to do them thinking that they will get fish (but there is actually no correlation since the feeders drop fish randomly, resulting in these “superstitious” behaviors.)

One of the begging behaviors under a feeder

One of the begging behaviors under a feeder

In the otters' exhibit!

I work Mondays through Fridays and observe the otters for two 1.5 hour sessions each day. So far I have seen the otters exhibiting the superstitious behaviors quite frequently and so I am excited to see how the project continues. After another week of observations, the keepers will introduce ice blocks that contain fish frozen in them, (about 75% of the otters’ diet, with the other 25% staying in the feeders), into the exhibit, and I will continue to observe to see how this addition may help decrease the amount of superstitious behavior that occurs while the otters wait for or try to make the fish fall out. In addition to observations/data collection, I am also working on literature review and beginning the writing of my project report. As a part of this zoo’s internship program, I have also gotten the opportunity to go behind the scenes in a few other exhibits (some highlights being feeding a zebra and petting an okapi!) and I am looking forward to the other opportunities ahead to learn more about the care and keeping of the Brookfield Zoo’s animals.

I have had to adjust to the public transportation way of life as I have to get up at 6am to take a train and two buses to get to the zoo (arriving around 8 when I start work), but I have learned to be flexible and keep my phone charged to use Google maps to track the buses when they are running late and it has worked out pretty well! I am living with about 95 other college students in a college loft-style dorm on the East side of Chicago downtown, so the commute has been long to get to work and back but totally worth it. Along with these other students I am participating in a summer mission project for these ten weeks through an international Christian campus ministry organization called Cru. Along with our day jobs throughout the city, we have weekly meetings, small group Bible studies, and do outreaches and service on local college campuses and around the city. I am really enjoying this part of my time here as well, and making some great friends as well as growing in my faith.

I have already gotten to explore some of Chicago, and am looking forward to seeing more sights and eating more bites in my remaining seven weeks here! Overall it has been a really great experience (besides the fact that I sprained my ankle on my lunch break at work we’ll see how quickly that heals and how that is feeling when I go back to work Monday) and I look forward to sharing again soon!

Thanks for reading!

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