Swim Like Nobody’s Watching: How Guests May Impact Behavior in Zoo Penguins

December 26, 2021

Author: Ashley Edes
Animal Welfare Scientist

Guests look at the Humboldt penguins at the Saint Louis Zoo Penguin & Puffin Coast. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

If you have visited the Saint Louis Zoo, then chances are you’ve been splashed with icy cold water from frolicking penguins at the always-chilly Lichtenstein Penguin Cove at Penguin & Puffin Coast. In the wild, these natural swimmers spend much of their lives in the ocean hunting for food. But in zoos, penguins are well-fed, and without the need to find their next meal, they generally spend less time in the water. Guests are always excited to see penguins swim, whether they are calmly floating or zipping around underneath the surface. From a welfare perspective, animal care teams at the Zoo also like to see the penguins in the pool – as a natural behavior, swimming is a great form of exercise, provides stimulation for the animals, and can improve penguin health.

In a recent Zoo study, the Research Department at the Zoo explored the relationship between guests and penguin activity, specifically swimming. Do guests hinder a penguin’s interest in swimming? Do guests have any effect on this natural behavior? We had good reasons for asking these questions, as we were not the first group to address these topics. As scientists at the Zoo, part of our jobs involves being well-versed in studies published by other researchers that relate to the animals in our care. We were aware of conflicting findings on the effect of people on penguin behavior, including swimming.

For example, a few studies, observing both penguins in the wild and in human care, demonstrate that certain species of penguins, or specific groups of penguins, are sensitive to visitors. These studies showed increased levels of stress-related hormones and avoidance behaviors in the animals when humans were near. However, other studies show the opposite effect, with penguins exhibiting no negative behavioral or hormonal changes. Some studies even show an increase in activity or interest in interacting with visitors! With the considerable variation in results between different species and at different zoos, we decided to conduct our own study investigating how visitors impact swimming behavior in our mixed-species penguin colony at Penguin & Puffin Coast.

A Gentoo penguin swims in front of visitors at the Saint Louis Zoo. The study showed the gentoo penguins engaged in more pool use when crowd sizes were larger, suggesting visitors are a positive stimulus that attracts individuals to the water. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo 

Our study was performed remotely using cameras and microphones mounted inside Lichtenstein Penguin Cove where the king, gentoo and southern rockhopper penguins live. We also used the Zoo’s Penguin Webcam that guests can watch from home. Using video and sound recordings from the summer of 2016, we counted how many guests were present, determined the composition of the crowd (i.e., how many guests were adults and how many were children), and measured the noise level. For the penguins, we counted how many of each species were on land versus in the water. During the study period, there were 20 king, 14 gentoo, and 24 southern rockhopper penguins living at Penguin & Puffin Coast – all 58 penguins had to be counted each time data were collected, which was 2,545 times!

King penguins at the Zoo. This study found guests are likely a neutral stimulus to this species. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

So, what did we discover about our tuxedo-clad swimmers? Each species showed different results in this study, which was expected as we know some species and individuals are more gregarious than others. Regarding the king penguins: crowd size, composition and noise levels did not impact swimming behavior, indicating visitors are likely a neutral stimulus to this species. However, the gentoo penguins engaged in more pool use when crowd sizes were larger, suggesting visitors are a positive stimulus that attract individuals to the water (where they can be closer to people). Guests also may promote swimming behavior in the southern rockhopper penguins, for which we saw increased pool use with louder crowds.

Visitors may promote swimming behavior in the southern rockhopper penguins. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Overall, these results are encouraging! They tell us that visitors do not inhibit pool use and that some of our penguins actually swim more when guests are visiting. This suggests some penguins find humans to be a source of enrichment, which is great news, since guests are able to walk right up to the edge of the pool and experience the penguins up close. It is important to note, there is plenty of space for penguins to move away from our guests, and the habitat is designed so that the animals may choose to either be close to people or stay away, either on land or in the water. The Zoo also has a staff member inside the building at all times who makes sure visitors don’t touch or feed the birds. This helps ensure our birds feel safe in expressing their interest in humans by approaching guests and performing their natural behaviors when visitors are nearby.

This study and similar efforts are one way the Zoo works to provide positive welfare for all the animals in our care. In this instance, we found that the penguins are able to perform swimming behaviors that are important to them at their leisure because they are not trying to avoid visitors. This promotes natural activity patterns, better health and a positive emotional state, all of which are critical to good welfare. So, the next time you are at the Zoo, don’t be shy! Guests should be sure to stop by Penguin & Puffin Coast and say hello to the penguins!

This study was published in a special issue of the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition focused on animal-visitor interactions.
Click here to read the full paper.

Category: Uncategorized

Embracing Elderly Elephant Care

December 16, 2021

Author: Becky Heisler
Keeper, River's Edge

Pearl is one of the three elephants at the Zoo that turned 50 in 2021. She interacted with her Happy Birthday sign, which was one part of her birthday celebration. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo. 

I’m Becky Heisler, a keeper in the River’s Edge of the Saint Louis Zoo. My passion for elephants began in graduate school, where I studied with an elephant reproductive specialist. From there, I began my career at the Zoo as a River’s Edge keeper and have been in this position ever since. I’ve spent the past 19 years learning the intricacies of our elephant family’s personalities and forming bonds with this exceptional herd. As you can imagine, after almost two decades in this career, I’m starting to age a bit. Not unlike their aging keeper, some of our elephants are feeling the normal effects of getting older. This year we are celebrating the 50th birthdays of Pearl, Donna and Ellie, three elderly Asian elephants that call the Zoo home. The median life expectancy for Asian elephant females under human care is 47.5 years old. At 50 years old, our “Golden Girls” are considered geriatric, and we expect them to require medical care specialized for their dynamic and individual needs beyond primary care for the rest of their lives.

Before I dive into how we help our older elephants, I want to introduce each of them! Each elephant is different with her own unique personality and fun interests.

Priya, Ellie, Donna and Sri (from left to right) are seen interacting with several enrichment items including hay filled paper bags, large elephant-sized popsicles in white barrels and large, heavy-duty rubber toys. Ellie and Donna each turned 50 in 2021. They are considered geriatric elephants and are given unique care at the Zoo. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Pearl was the first female elephant to give birth at the Zoo, and she is the mother of our bull elephant Raja. Pearl has the most captivating golden eyes and likes to spend time with her granddaughters, Maliha, Jade, and Priya. She is very attentive and seems to enjoy interacting with her keepers. A good problem solver, she loves challenging puzzle feeders filled with special treats.

Donna has distinctive, flappy ears that are always moving! She is very conversational (oh, the stories she tells with her rumbles!) and enjoys making sounds with her trunk on various objects (a sort of ‘thunk, thunk, thunk’). A fantastic auntie, she used to spar with a much younger Raja. Nowadays, she helps teach Raja’s kids manners, such as sharing food and respecting elders. It’s important for young elephants to learn how to live well in a social group of dominant females, and Donna is a great teacher!

Ellie is a doting mother of three, a grandmother and our tallest female. She has a calm demeanor and does life by her own schedule. She enjoys pruning our trees and chilling in one of the pools under the waterfall.

Ellie (right) is one of the three elephants at the Zoo that turned 50 in 2021. Her youngest daughter Priya (left) helped her enjoy her birthday celebration. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

These "Golden Girls" are in need of increased support due to their age. Just like many people, they require geriatric care throughout the day. While I am reluctant to start my own exercise routine, these cooperative elephants voluntarily participate in daily exercises. The elephant care team that I am a part of helps them focus on stretching and staying limber through activities like yoga for elephants. Since joint health and mobility are so important, we design exercise routines to make sure they are able to perform movements properly with no discomfort.

Just as I need a yearly check-up, Pearl, Donna and Ellie also need health evaluations. Our extraordinary Animal Health and Nutrition teams provide a unified approach to ensure optimal well-being. They oversee physical exams twice a year. During these appointments, we check the elephants’ eyes, teeth, feet, and general movement. The team may discuss the addition of medications and supplements as necessary. This is all in addition to body condition assessments that take into account a number of health data points. We analyze this rating multiple times a year to verify the girls are fit and maintaining a healthy weight.

Health is not only about physical comfort; scientific studies on zoo elephant welfare suggest elephants experience the highest level of well-being when they live in a multigenerational family. We provide this exact type of social environment for our elephants and give them the opportunity to spend time with the younger individuals. This is why guests will often see Pearl with Maliha and Jade, and Donna and Sri with Ellie and her daughters. But most importantly, they have ample space to engage or disengage with individuals as they choose. Sometimes, these older ladies prefer some time away from the energetic youngsters. We can all relate to that! I feel this at a personal level, as I just attended a moms’ weekend away for “me time” at a spa. We definitely provide “me time” for the elephants as needed and are happy to give elephant pedicures or baths.

The elephants at the Zoo receive detailed health care, including nail trimmings. Nail care is important because properly trimmed nails can help to even out weight distribution on the cushiony pads of their feet and help prevent nail overgrowth and cracking. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

The animal care team plays a key role in the care of these geriatric ladies. We are with them daily and intimately know them, which allows us to quickly notice if one of our elephants is acting uncharacteristically. Furthermore, we are knowledgeable about issues that are common in geriatric elephants and so have taken a number of preventative measures to help ease them into old age.

As foot problems can occur in older elephants, we condition the soil of the habitats to create a softer walking surface and provide checkups on their feet that include keeping their nails healthy and trimmed. Elephants have six sets of four teeth and, uniquely among mammals, even their permanent molars will be continuously replaced throughout their lifetime. To help provide these girls’ exceptional dental care, we offer a variety of plant material to browse on including soft trees, like willow! We also help grow and maintain a lush natural environment, so that each elephant develops their own favorite way to enjoy the River’s Edge.

In addition to dynamic social groups and habitats, we provide mental stimulation by creating positive-keeper elephant relationships that allow for voluntary and enriching training programs tailored to each elephant’s interests. They are active participants in their own preventative health care routines, so that if there is ever an illness or emergency requiring immediate intervention, this positive reinforcement training will remove a level of stress on the animals. 

The elephant care team will continue to provide preventative measures for the entire elephant family, including our "Golden Girls." I hope to be a part of this extraordinary team for several more years and may even become inspired to monitor my own health the way we monitor the elephants’ and replace my fast food tacos with kale! The Zoo provides exceptional elephant care by creating a low-stress, enriching environment with tailored diets and exercise programs. All of these factors are incorporated into the elephants’ daily voluntary routines. We want our elephant (and keeper!) family to live a long, healthy and comfortable life at the Zoo, no matter their stage of life!

Conservation Notes From the Field in Armenia

December 14, 2021

Author: Justin Elden
Keeper, Herpetarium

Zoological Manager of Herpetology Mark Wanner photographs an Armenian viper. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Western Asia has been conducting field research in the country of Armenia for over a decade. In September 2021, herpetology staff at the Zoo traveled to Armenia to conduct field research on endangered reptiles. Keeper Justin Elden documented the trip, and readers are invited to learn more about this international conservation effort in Elden’s own words (and photos) below!

An adult Armenian viper (Montivipera raddei). Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Notes From the Field: The Armenian Viper                                                   

The Center for Conservation in Western Asia studies a number of animals, including the Armenian viper, a species whose numbers have declined drastically over the last few decades due to habitat destruction and over collection. Autumn is a good time to carry out research in this region as the snakes move towards their rocky winter dens coinciding with cooler weather. This makes it easier for Zoo researchers to locate snakes on the move and collect information about their populations. Though the climate was hotter and drier than expected, our herpetology staff were able to find enough vipers and other reptile species to add valuable data to a long term population monitoring study in an area outside the country’s capital of Yerevan. This area is currently not protected as a nature preserve. The Zoo and our Armenian colleagues want to bring formal protections to this site to ensure the Armenian vipers and other species are further protected, and collecting data on these endangered snakes is crucial to that effort.

Armenian herpetologist assessing the vast and dry habitat or Goravan Sands. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Notes From the Field: Surveying in Goravan Sands

The WildCare Institute and our international partners are dedicated to the conservation of wild animals and wild places all over the world, including the obscure Pleske's racerunner lizard of Armenia. During this trip, herpetology staff supported surveys in a unique nature preserve, Goravan Sands, by helping local colleagues locate and photograph this endangered species.

The critically endangered Pleske's racerunner lizard (Eremias pleskei). Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Goravan Sands is a preserve of 95 hectares and has many endemic species of plant and animal that need its rocky and sandy habitat to survive. The Pleske's racerunner lizard is a critically endangered species and threatened by habitat destruction. It is only found in rocky, dry, undisturbed habitats in western Asia. During the surveys, numerous lizards were found and documented, leading our colleagues to believe the population is benefiting from the increased protection to their habitat that has been provided by the Armenian government and our in-country colleagues.

One of nine Caucasus blotched rat snakes (Elaphe sauromates) captive bred in Armenia and released into the wild by Zoo staff and Armenian colleagues. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Notes From the Field: Introducing Caucasus Blotched Rat Snakes

The conservation-breeding component of the Center for Conservation in Western Asia takes places at the Zoo’s Armenian Conservation Breeding Center (ACBC) outside of the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Here, our Armenian herpetological collaborators care for and breed endangered species of reptile for release into the wild to bolster native populations. While visiting Armenia this past fall, Zoo staff were able to acquire new animals for the center’s breeding groups as well as help in the release of nine Caucasus blotched rat snakes back into the wild. The ACBC is the first facility of its kind and is a great example of collaborative efforts between the Zoo and our Armenian colleagues.

Dr. Levon Aghasyan, Director of the Armenian Conservation Breeding Center, releasing the rat snakes after a last physical. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Trips to Armenia, such as this one, are vitally important to the Zoo's dedication to amphibian conservation and to further assess areas in need of support. Reptiles and amphibians play vital roles in ecosystem health, and their survival is wholly dependent on conservation programs like ours. It is a bonus when your flagship species is the beautiful Armenian viper!