What's New with the Department of Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences

February 06, 2018

By David Powell
Director of Research

Here at the Saint Louis Zoo we are dedicated to the care and well being of our animals and researchers in the Department of Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences are working with animal care staff to study various husbandry practices that can benefit the animals living here and at other zoos. Here are a few of the projects we are working on now.

The Reptile Exercise Project

Reptiles use the environment to adjust their body temperature and metabolism. You probably are aware that some reptiles like to bask in the sun to warm up for a while before going about their daily activities.  Zoos have long provided warm basking spots to reptiles using stationary lighting, artificial “hot rocks”, and other tools.  One limitation of these approaches is that they don’t replicate natural changes in temperature throughout the day. In the wild, as the sun moves, basking spots appear and disappear, encouraging reptiles to move around and explore more of the environment. In the desert exhibit at the Zoo’s Herpetarium, we have installed a dynamic lighting system in which different lights turn on and off throughout the day to replicate the movement of the sun.  Researchers observed the habitat’s inhabitants, gila monsters and chuckwallas, before the new system was installed and after the dynamic lighting schedule had been turned on.  This winter we are reviewing the video footage to see if the animals responded to the lighting change and become more active and used more of their habitat.  If it works, this would represent a great advancement in reptile husbandry that would promote exercise and more natural exploration behavior.  Dynamic lighting systems could be programmed differently for different times of year, providing even more variation in the reptiles’ environment.

What do birds find interesting?

Providing environmental enrichment – new objects, scents, sounds, flavors or other kinds of stimulation – is an established practice in animal care in zoos and aquariums.  Enrichment gives the animals choices of how to spend their time and provides opportunities to use physical and cognitive abilities to solve challenges and obtain rewards. In theory this all sounds great, but some types of activities just aren’t interesting to some kinds of animals.  Just like some humans like to do jigsaw puzzles and others find these uninteresting, not all birds find the same enrichment stimulating In the Zoo’s bird house, we are studying various kinds of enrichment to see what kinds of activities different types of birds find engaging.  We are looking at several bird species:  plush-crested jays, red-crested cardinals, sunbitterns, ringed teal, and bamboo partridges and presenting them with novel objects, food enrichment, sensory stimuli, activity-based enrichments, and combinations of these and recording responses.  Although keepers already do a quick assessment of various enrichment practices, we will be doing our own side-by-side assessment to validate this quick scoring method.  Our study will allow us to watch the birds for longer periods of time to see if the rapid assessment gives us insight into longer lasting effects of environmental enrichment.  These results will help keepers allocate their time and creativity to developing enrichment activities that will be interesting to different kinds of birds. 

Notes from the Field: The Great Grevy's Zebra Rally

January 23, 2018

Great Grevy’s Rally January 27 & 28, 2018 

Four members of the Saint Louis Zoo’s staff are participating in this year’s Great Grevy’s Rally: Martha Fischer, Curator of Mammals/Ungulates and Elephants (her 24th trip to Kenya), Tim Thier, Zoological Manager of Ungulates (his fourth trip to Kenya), and keepers Lauren Harster and Joshua Sydney-Smith (both making their first trip to Kenya). The Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute is partnering with other organizations, including Grevy’s Zebra Trust, Northern Rangelands Trust and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to fund the second national census of the endangered Grevy's zebra. This year’s Rally also includes counting the threatened reticulated giraffe.   #GGR2018 #earnyourstripes
Click a photo below to see the slideshow.

Days 1 & 2: Visiting Lewa Wildlife Conservancy 

The Zoo team is visiting Lewa Wildlife Conservancy for two days before beginning their preparation and training for the Great Grevy’s (and Giraffe) Rally. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy started in the 1980s as a black rhino sanctuary and is currently home to 62 black rhinos and 80 white rhinos. The Zoo began its partnership with the conservancy almost 20 years ago in 1998 and have since partnered on research and conservation projects related to the preservation of Grevy’s zebra, an endangered species.
For the last two days, the team has been honing their wildlife spotting skills and practicing  taking  photographs of the sides of Grevy’s zebra and reticulated giraffe. During the Rally, side photos of every Grevy’s zebra and reticulated giraffe observed will be taken and used for photo identification of individual animals. 
In the first 24 hours at the Conservancy, the Zoo team has seen nearly half of the 45 species of mammals found there, including the endangered Grevy’s zebra and black rhino.  They have also spotted numerous bird species, such as endangered East Africa crowned cranes and the critically endangered Ruppell’s vulture.

Grocery Shopping & Wildlife Spotting

Before this weekend's rally, staff members stopped at a local grocery store in Nanyuki. The staff needed to get enough food for roughly fifty people including scouts, drivers, rangers/security and chefs, as well as those participating in the rally.  Zoo staffers also caught a glimpse of a pride of 10 lions and 4 cubs, and of course, a wild Grevy's zebra. Grocery photos courtesy of JT Svoke from ZooMiami. 

Visiting BeadWORKS

While in Kenya for the Great Grevy’s Rally, our four staff members visited the headquarters of BeadWORKS,  a company that enables women within the Northern Rangelands Trust conservancies to use their traditional skills to earn an income. BeadWORKS products are sold throughout the world, including gift shops at the Saint Louis Zoo and many other zoos.  The Zoo’s WildCare Institute has been a partner with the Northern Rangelands Trust since its inception in 2004 and provides annual support to the Northern Rangelands Trust Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy, one of the first of the six original conservancies when Northern Rangelands Trust was started.  Pictured below are Martha Fischer, Saint Louis Zoo Curator of Mammals/Ungulates and Elephants; Rufo Roba Halakhe, Business Administrator for NRT Trading; and Lauren Harster, Saint Louis Zoo Antelope Keeper. You can read more about BeadWORKS Kenya here: BeadWORKS Kenya here.

Facebook Live

In honor of upcoming International Zebra Day (January 31), Zoological Manager of River’s Edge Katie Pilgram and Antelope Keeper Kim Downey talked zebras and wildlife conservation on Facebook Live. Katie and Kim participated in the 2016 Rally and shared their experiences in the Facebook Live.

And That’s a Wrap!

The Great Grevy’s Rally 2018 is complete! The zoo teams’ photographs will be an important addition to the hundreds of photos taken by over 700 people across five northern Kenya counties during the Rally.

The field reports coming in from Kenya are:  

  • Baio region:  The zoo teams in Lauren and Tim’s camp spotted and photographed 18 Grevy’s zebra over two days, but unfortunately saw no reticulated giraffe.
  • Goudas region:  The zoo teams in Syd and Martha’s camps covered over 250 km during the two-day rally and spotted 11 giraffes, but unfortunately no zebras.  
  • Laisamis region: Two zebras and no giraffes were seen by the zoo teams. 

Pictured below:

Syd and Martha with Joshua Labarakwe, Laisamis Regional Coordinator in front of a zebra watering hole constructed for Grevy's zebra and other wildlife.

During day 1 of the Great Grevy’s Rally Syd and Martha did not see any Grevy’s zebra, but did spot and shoot photos of 11 giraffes.

Grevy's Zebra Trust "Grass Guardians" visited camp and shared educational interpretations for their communities that teach them about the rotational grazing and the importance of wildlife in their ecosystem. 

Assessing the health of the endangered Galapagos giant tortoise

January 05, 2018

By, Laura Kleinschmidt, DVM 

During the last two weeks of October 2017, Dr. Ainoa Nieto and I collected samples for the Galapagos tortoise health project in Santa Cruz, Galapagos for the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine in partnership with the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Charles Darwin Foundation. Dr. Nieto is based at the Charles Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz Island, the most populated island in the Galapagos, Ecuador. I am in my final year as the Veterinary Resident for the Department of Animal Health at the Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA. The Saint Louis Zoo has a long history of supporting global conservation as well as post-graduate training in zoological veterinary medicine. The Saint Louis Zoo veterinary residency is a post-graduate, 3-year appointment designed to develop a board-certified specialist of the American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM), and a veterinarian who makes significant contributions to the field of zoological medicine. These contributions may include field conservation projects such as this program in the Galapagos designed to assess the overall health of animal populations and their interactions with humans and domestic animals.

The goals of the project include identification of disease threats to the endangered Galapagos tortoise and determination of the effect of human encroachment (including livestock, agriculture, roads) into the tortoises’ natural habitats. On the island of Santa Cruz, we sampled tortoises in three zones: urban (those living closest to the city), rural/agricultural (those living/traveling through farmland), and protected areas (those living farthest away from humans and domestic animals on National Park grounds). Thirty tortoises were included in this initial two-week pilot sampling period. Depending on the results obtained from these first 30 tortoises, Drs. Nieto and Deem, and the team may sample up to 200 tortoises over the next couple of years.

The first step once in the field was finding the tortoises, which was harder than you would think!  Each morning, the team would head up towards the highlands, where the temperatures are cooler and the air more moist, creating perfect climatic conditions for the Galapagos tortoise. Though the tortoises are large, they are excellently camouflaged in the brush of the forest habitat in which they live and on farm pastures, they look like large boulders from a long distance! In order to find the tortoises, the team would hike through the habitat looking for clues such as feces and tortoise trails (flattened grasses).  Tortoises also take advantage of human-made paths and roads that cross through the landscape.

After locating a tortoise, the team would get to work with the first step being to set up a mobile laboratory for processing collected samples. We recorded the GPS location, habitat type, weight, and sex of the tortoise. Each tortoise then received a physical examination including body measurements, blood draw, fecal sample and swabs for disease screening. The tortoise would be identified with a microchip (similar to the type used for dogs and cats for identification) and then left to return to its daily activities.

Once we collected all the samples for the day, the team returned to the Charles Darwin Research Station to finish processing the samples. The blood samples were used to perform blood cell counts and blood chemistry testing to assess the overall health of the tortoises. The collected swabs were frozen for future molecular testing for viruses that may affect tortoise health, such as ranavirus, herpesvirus, or adenovirus, and bacterial diseases such as mycoplasmosis. Fecal samples were also frozen and will be tested for antibiotic resistance, which has become a worldwide issue in many species including humans. It is suspected that the tortoises that are closer to the urban or agricultural habitats with exposure to humans and domestic animals (and their antibiotics) may have increased patterns of antimicrobial resistance themselves.

The Galapagos tortoise is iconic and unique in the world, plays an important role in a unique ecosystem, and is the protagonist of the archipelago that has given them their name. Given the social and ecological importance of these giant tortoises for the local community and the Galapagos National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a complete and extensive knowledge of the disease threats these gentle giants face is necessary for effective conservation plans for this species. These health assessments will help us to gain a better understanding of both current and future issues that may impact not only the health the giant tortoises, but also the well-being of all inhabitants (animal and human) of the Galapagos Islands. 

Click on a photo below to see a larger image.

Photo1: Tortoises traveling through farmland are found in the same pastures as cattle.

Photo 2: We preserved the samples in a “mobile laboratory” for later processing at the research station.

Photo 3: Body measurements were taken of all the tortoises as part of their complete physical examination.

Photo 4: We collected swabs from each tortoise during their evaluation.

Photo 5: The samples were processed at the Charles Darwin Research Station laboratory after returning from the field. 

Photo 6: Galapagos tortoises are sharing their habitat with domestic animals and humans, which could expose them to antibiotic resistance.

Photo 7: Our hard-working team celebrated with a photo after hiking over four kilometers on the final sampling day.