Representing the Hellbender in Virginia

October 23, 2019

By Katie Noble, Hellbender Keeper

This summer has been a blur for me and the other hellbender keepers of the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation, part of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute. Preparing for our seasonal routine of releasing hellbenders into the wild with the Missouri Department of Conservation made for an extremely busy summer. Before the mayhem of releases, I traveled with my fellow hellbender keepers— Aja Martin, Patty Ihrig-Bueckendorf and Jordan Lewis—to Blacksburg, Virginia, to attend the 2019 Hellbender Symposium.

None of us had ever been to Virginia. If you Google "Virginia," you will quickly find that the state beverage is milk, and the state dance is square dancing. A thrilling adventure surely awaited us! I was apprehensive of the 10-hour drive between St. Louis and Blacksburg; however, I absolutely adore rodents, so the highlight of the drive was the groundhogs!

Upon arriving, we checked into our rooms and picked up our registration packets. The festivities began that night with a keynote presentation by Dr. Thomas K. Pauley, Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences at Marshall University. He dazzled us with stories of "herping" in West Virginia and made it abundantly clear that West Virginia is not a part of Virginia.

For the next three days, there were opportunities to attend meetings, discussions, and talks that relate to our job duties and assignments. There was a mix of attendees (including international colleagues) from a range of academic institutions, state agencies, federal agencies, and zoological institutions. Everyone came together in order to share their hellbender passion and knowledge. This opportunity did not go unappreciated. I feel that it was imperative for us to attend the symposium in order to acquire the most up-to-date information on hellbender research, fieldwork, and captive rearing procedures/protocols. Being able to represent the Saint Louis Zoo and the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation was an honor.

There were two talks that were very memorable to me. Stephanie Morrison, a Missouri State University graduate student, discussed her behavioral analysis of electrofishing on hellbenders. All of us (Aja, Patty, Jordan and I) had worked with Stephanie and the Missouri Department of Conservation to collect data for her research. Unfortunately, there were technical errors and glitches that made the projector turn to black and pause throughout her whole talk, but she continued on. She actually ended up winning the Best Graduate Student Platform Presentation Award despite the glitches.

Another of my favorite presentations was by Dr. Sumio Okada, a biologist at the Hanzaki Research Institute of Japan. He shared his research regarding Japanese giant salamanders, Andrias japonicas, using slopes to bypass dams in western Japan. There are small dams in some Japanese rivers to control flooding, and these dams can affect salamander movement. We actually got to watch some video footage from the Kando River; Japanese giant salamanders were using the little stairs to bypass the dam. Sumio's energy, passion and entertaining graphics made his talk very engaging and memorable.

At one point during the drive there, I was asked, "What is your favorite thing?" I quickly replied, "sustainability." I think the person who asked was looking for something more tangible and silly, like donuts or kittens. However, sustainability is an essential issue that I do value immensely. I try to make ecologically conscientious decisions daily and weigh the environmental impacts of my actions. Some examples include using plastic-free toiletries and cycling to work as often as I can. I only cook with local pasture-raised meat, and I am a member of a Local Community Sustainable Agriculture Farm Share (shout-out to Rosy Buck Farm.)

Unlike previous symposiums, there was an obvious theme of sustainability at this year's event. I substantially appreciated this. We received reusable aluminum cups and reusable name clips that we used for the whole symposium, and we even ate at Rising Silo Brewery, which is committed to sustainable practices. Not only is Rising Silo a brewery, but it is also a farm. Everything that we ate for dinner was harvested from their grounds. As I walked around stroking dogs, stalking chickens and admiring bees, I could hear a couple Eastern spadefoot toads, Scaphiopus holbrookii, calling in the distance. This was my absolute favorite moment of the symposium.

I count myself lucky to be so intrinsically involved with such a successful conservation program. On the last day, I raised my cup along the New River, "Here's to hellbenders, sustainability and for hellbenders being sustainable!"

Click the photos below to see a larger image.

Capacity Building in Belize

October 08, 2019

By Justin Elden, Herpetarium Keeper

Belize is a naturalist's dream come true. Much of the country has been set aside as wildlife preserves for hundreds of species of animals. Having such healthy, viable ecosystems can cause some issues for the people living side by side with nature. The lush rainforest and beautiful blue oceans are great places to find wild animals, and there are plenty of venomous snakes.

One species of venomous snake, called a terciopelo, is a very common and potentially deadly species of pit viper. These snakes are the cause of many snake bites throughout Central America due to their abundance and ability to make themselves right at home around villages. Working with potentially deadly snakes can be difficult, and the people who work with Belize wildlife certainly have their hands full.

While in Belize for a conference this past June, I taught a workshop to rangers from the Belize forestry department in collaboration with the Crocodile Research Coalition and the International Herpetological Symposium. In this workshop, rangers learned about basic serpent biology and the misconceptions and myths associated with them. This workshop included hands-on training from experts such as myself, and the students took turns using hooks and tongs to move a surrogate venomous snake, a Boa constrictor from the local zoo. The goal was to better prepare these front-line staff with the skills necessary to safely manage snakes in the field. The next time there is a problematic snake, the Belize forestry staff will have the skills and experience to relocate the animal in a manner that is safe for people and the snake.

At the Saint Louis Zoo, my fellow Herpetarium keepers and I not only take exceptional care of our collection of animals, but we also use our expertise to help wildlife and communities around the globe through fieldwork, research and capacity building. Not all conservation is science. Sometimes it's as easy as teaching a course and having long conversations with the people who work with animals in the wild.

Allowing keepers to share their expertise around the globe for the benefit of people and wildlife is something the Zoo takes pride in, and it is an integral part of human/animal conservation strategies.

Born to Be Wild: Studying the Behavior of Young Somali Wild Asses

September 19, 2019

By Corinne Kozlowski, Ph.D., Endocrinologist

Somali wild asses are considered one of the most endangered wild horses in the world, with fewer than one thousand individuals remaining outside human care. The Saint Louis Zoo is committed to conservation of this species in the wild in Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, as well as in zoos, and participates in a cooperative breeding program to maintain a healthy population as a guard against extinction. In 2013, all 5 females in our herd gave birth to foals within the span of about two months (three males: Hirizi, Tristan and Rebel, and two females: Farah and Luana). Their births provided Zoo scientists with a unique opportunity to study the biology and behavior of young Somali wild asses.

Behavioral data collection began when the foals were introduced to other herd members (around 2 to 3 weeks of age), and it continued throughout the first year of life. Interns in the Zoo’s Department of Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences worked in teams to document social interactions 6 days a week. Using a pre-defined list of behaviors called an ethogram, interns recorded which foals initiated instances of nursing, lying down, chasing, kicking, greeting, and biting, among other behaviors. Interns also detailed who received the behaviors. This information allowed us to determine whether foals were more likely to interact with their mothers, other foals, or non-related females. Finally, we collected fecal samples for hormone analysis. The fecal samples would tell whether levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with activity, metabolism, and sometimes stress, changed as the foals grew.

The results demonstrated that from 0 to 3 months of age, foals interacted almost exclusively with their mothers. By 6 months of age, however, most social interactions occurred between foals. Interactions with mothers were mostly comprised of nursing and kicking, whereas foals were more likely to chase, bite, and threaten to bite other foals. We saw differences among individuals, with Rebel, the youngest foal, engaging in more social behaviors than the other foals. Similar to studies of domestic horses, we also observed that males were more likely to engage in social interactions than females. Results from our hormone testing revealed that cortisol levels were highest for foals during the first month of life, and then declined with age. We suspect that this decrease might be the result of switching from nursing to foraging, adjusting to their surroundings or others in the social group, or seasonal factors.

As scientists, we are always excited to learn new information from the animals in our care. This study, which is the first to document the biology of young Somali wild asses, provides insights into how social dynamics change as foals grow from infants to yearlings. Currently, we are also analyzing behavioral data from our adult Somali wild asses to learn more about their behavior. Taken together, behavioral and hormone data allow us to support excellent welfare and improve breeding programs for these endangered animals.

On July 30, Tobias, a male Somali wild ass foal was born to mom Tukia and dad Hiriz.

Click a photo below to see a larger image.