If You Build It, They Will Come

June 18, 2018

By Jack Perryman, External Relations Extern

This year, celebrate National Pollinator Week all summer long by planting native species that will bring pollinators to your garden. This will make it prettier and healthier, and help Missouri's pollinators at the same time. Native species are healthier for our pollinators and grow better in our intense Missouri summer heat than non-native species! They also require less watering, less upkeep and will bloom longer. Here are five species that you can plant to attract native pollinators to your garden:

Milkweed is essential for monarch butterflies as it is the only plant that the insect can eat during its caterpillar stage. However, milkweed flowers, which bloom in mid to late summer, will provide nectar for many pollinators, including bees, monarch butterflies and ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Purple coneflowers
This native ornamental species is not only beautiful, it is perfect for all pollinators. The flower is long blooming, so it will add color to your garden all summer long.

Joe Pye weed and Spotted Joe Pye weed
These two wildflowers bloom from mid to late summer. The flowers last about a month and are highly attractive to pollinators. This is a rugged plant that does not require too much gardening and is quite beautiful.

These beautiful, late-summer blooms are very important for monarchs because they provide food for their journey back to their winter home in Michoacán, Mexico.

Wild Bergamot
This native plant blooms for about a month and is very attractive to bees! They are often called Bee Balm because of their attractiveness to bees.

Planting any one of these species will help to keep Missouri's pollinator populations healthy this summer. For the adventurous, plant all five of these plants to create your own native pollinator garden and watch the bees, butterflies, and birds come all summer long!

Click on an image to see a larger version.

The Eyes Don’t Have It: Using Technology to Observe Animal Behavior

June 11, 2018

By Eli Baskir, Behavior Research Associate

Frequent guests of the Saint Louis Zoo have probably seen behavior research interns outside animal habitats holding clipboards and observing our animals. Because the Saint Louis Zoo is dedicated to caring for our animals, these interns are collecting data to examine the animals’ habitat usage, activity level, interactions with enrichment, and more. Interns can’t stand in front of animals all day, however, and clipboards aren’t always the best option for recording information.  We have started introducing technology into our studies to make data collection more efficient.

The simplest tools for studying live animal behavior are the researcher's own eyes and ears. Being patient, watching closely, and making notes make a good start to any project. Although we can record data with pencil and paper on a clipboard, handheld tablet computers can automatically prompt  researchers to make observations at specific intervals—and tapping a screen is usually quicker than writing. Tablets also save time by exporting data directly into analysis software without needing to copy information from paper onto a desktop computer.

Animals, like humans, have 24-hour lives, but our interns aren’t around after the Zoo closes. We can use cameras for after-hours observations to expand on what the interns witness, or when the animals prefer privacy; however, video is not always a perfect solution. Depending on camera placement, or changes in the habitat after the camera is set up, the image may be obscured, have poor quality, or be too far away to see important details. Human observers, on the other hand, can move to adjust their line of sight. Video does offer some other advantages over human observation; for example, cameras can be fitted with infrared light detectors or night vision to see in the dark.

We are always looking for new ways to speed up our review of footage. One possible solution we are exploring  is software called EthoVision. This program tracks movement from video, telling us how animals use their habitats, such as what features are preferred and how much time is spent near them. Not only do we receive valuable data points, but EthoVision can present this information visually with an easily understood color-coded map. Brighter areas on this map reveal locations where the animal is most often recorded. The picture below of a bird habitat shows two perches; the one on the right is lit up, indicating that the bird has spent more time in that area.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) also is being tested for use in our projects. This technology uses microchips the size of a grain of rice that receive radio waves broadcast by paired antenna. Information is logged on a computer when signals from an antenna detect a nearby chip. These chips are so tiny that they can be glued to identification bands already worn by some animals, so it’s perfect for monitoring movements through specific parts of a habitat. RFID is already used in toll roads, warehouses, key cards—even your favorite fast casual restaurants can use it to serve you without knowing your name or where you’ve chosen to sit.

Each of these options has its own strengths and situations to which it is best suited. We continue to explore methods that allow us to learn more—that is, more quickly and in more detail—about behavior and welfare to provide the best possible care for our animals. As researchers, we are constantly presented with a variety of  new questions and must use all our available tools, including eyes, interns, tablets, cameras, and newer technologies, to discover the answers.


Project Puffin: One Zookeeper’s Passion to Save Seabirds

June 08, 2018

By Rick Smith, Bird Keeper

Rick started his career in the 1980s at the former Aquatic House at the Saint Louis Zoo. Although he has a degree in fisheries and has worked with many fish species, Rick has primarily worked with birds. He has volunteered five times for Project Puffin and is looking forward to the work in 2018. Having spent many summers as a child along the coast of Maine, Rick fell in love with marine ecology. He has found Project Puffin to be a perfect place to help keep the drums of marine conservation beating.

As we celebrate World Oceans Day on June 8, I would like to share my ocean interest.  Below is a short essay on Project Puffin.

I first volunteered for Project Puffin in 1994. The National Audubon Society started Project Puffin in 1973 in an effort to learn how to restore puffins colonies to historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine. Today, Project Puffin refers to the active seabird restoration programs for puffins and other Maine seabirds, as well as many public education programs. In Maine and beyond, Project Puffin is also known as Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, as it actively works to share restoration methods to benefit rare and endangered seabirds worldwide. It also aims to  build a culture of seabird conservation and appreciation.

Over the years, I have been to three of the seven islands in the Gulf of Maine. This year, I will be heading for a new destination — Stratton Island, where there are a large variety of birds, especially nesting seabirds. As a volunteer, I will participate in daily field research with the tern colonies on this island. The data to be collected will include nesting records, feeding surveys, chick growth surveys, weather records, ocean water testing, habitat study/plant identification, and monitoring the fishery operations nearby.

While working with Project Puffin this year, I also will help with maintenance of the field station. My duties include three-hour bird blind observations, bird banding, chick measurements, avian census counts, marine mammal census counts, and predator control. All of the research data is analyzed by our island supervisors. At the end of the season, this data is reviewed to give us an insight on how these bird species are faring year to year.

Daily volunteer duties also include preparing meals and upkeep of the research facility. Living on a seabird island is quite rustic. There is one small structure for research and preparing meals. All island staff sleep in tents. There is no running water, so showers and dishwashing are done using salt water or rain water. We have our own compost restroom facility. All of our supplies and personal transportation are usually done via lobster boat or U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service patrol boat. This opportunity to work with the seabirds is the worth the sacrifice of typical amenities. 

In addition to my avian interests, I also love fish. When there is free time, I will go snorkeling or fishing in the frigid 50 degree waters. I want to know everything that is above and below these waters. I’m fascinated as I watch the island life unveil its secrets.  These islands, with the fauna living there, have become a paradise to me. Even during the winter, I will read research papers about the Gulf of Maine and its diverse ecology.

The project is supported by many Association of Zoos and Aquariums institutions. This project is my passion and has helped me to develop both professionally and personally. I share my Project Puffin experiences and conservation messages daily with Zoo visitors. The pictures here are from my volunteer visit to Seal Island in 2016.

Click on a picture to see a larger image.

Categories: Our Staff, Conservation
Tags: Puffins, Maine