Tag Archives: biology

Pygmy Three-Toed Sloths……

http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0316-hance_fs_pygmythree.html

(repost because this is the most common blog to turn up in search engines and my friend just became head vet at DWA)

Isla Escudo is home to this pygmy sloth, one of four species of three-toed sloths. These folivores (suborder: Folivora), also known as Escudo sloths are not only smaller than mainland species, but they are considerably more docile. They are  threatened by the loss of mangrove habitat, and are  consumed by local fisherman. The fisherman will camp out on the island and cut down mangroves for fire. They feed on these xenarthrans when fishing is deemed unsuccessful. By the way, the brown-throated three-toed sloth may still be the only publicly displayed three-toed sloth in the US.  You can see one at the Dallas World Aquarium and Zoo, Texas.  Although sloths are known for their menacing claws I do remember a colleague who was seriously bitten by a two-toed sloth.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

Jungle Yellow Fever

I’m scheduled to give a talk to an audience at the Beardsley Zoo in Connecticut next month on topics relevant to ecological health and conservation medicine. These emerging field disciplines are popular right now, just as veterinary epidemiology has become a hot topic among interdisciplinary collection-based research programs.  They are not just popular. These health science disciplines are vital areas for researching the implications of the human-wildlife interface in regions of the world where wildlife coexists closely with human populations.

While perusing wildlife health resources I realized that I missed some recent epizootics or at least notable reports of disease outbreaks in wildlife.  The Wildlife Conservation Society just released some news regarding the cause of a 2007-2008 die-off  among two of the 9 extant species of howler monkeys.  Altogether 59 monkeys in northeastern Argentina succumbed to this arbovirus (arthropod-borne virus) some of which were a subspecies of brown howler monkeys (Alouatta guariba).  Although found in relatively high densities even in fragmented habitat, hunting and disease have impacted otherwise sustainable populations of these large leaf-eating monkeys.

Muller, Frankfurt Zoo

Jungle Yellow Fever refers to the sylvatic or wild life cycle which persists with in New World monkey populations in forest habitat.  The acute viral hemmorhagic disease which has it’s origins in Africa is also now endemic in Latin America. Infected Old World primates are typically asymptomatic, but the virus takes it’s toll on the more susceptible Central and South American primates which have not co-evolved with the disease.  Aedes spp. mosquitoes serve as vectors of this viral pathogen and if they feed on unvaccinated populations of humans, the disease is easily transmitted and may persist in “urban” transmission cycles.

Yellow fever refers to the jaundice that affects some human patients. The disease, if not treated, can be lethal.  As people continue to encroach upon wild lands and deforestation rates increase in tropical regions, the potential for the sylvatic disease transmission cycle to evolve into an intermediate and/or urban transmission cycle becomes increasingly likely.  As people and monkeys increasingly attempt to co-exist, threats to human health from Yellow Fever will persist without the intervention of immunization  and mosquito control programs.   Yellow fever exemplifies a human health risk that can be assessed and addressed though surveillance programs targeted at wild primates.  In this case brown howler monkey populations which are already threatened by human activities serve as indicators of disease outbreaks in areas inhabited by humans.

Some zoos in Latin America, including facilities in Belize warn people not to purchase monkey as pets, mentioning several reasons, one of which is concern over diseases like Yellow Fever.  Yellow fever like all arboviruses is considered a zoonotic disease because the transmission cycle involves   insect vectors and people. However,  no direct transmission occurs between primates and people.

According to ISIS  the only pair of  brown howler monkeys (Alouatta guariba guaribaNorthern Brown Howler) in captivity (on record) are housed at the  Fundacao Zoo-Botan. de Belo Horizonto. I believe the animal photographed above is a red howler monkey.

Imperfect Specimens

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/31/world/americas/31colombia.html

In my recent post on celebrity menageries I mentioned the fate of Pablo Escobar’s hippopotamus herd. I had no premonition that the New York Times would address this topic in a much more compelling piece than what I provided, much less a few days later. It’s merely a timely coincidence.  I applaud the director of the sanctuary featured in the article for taking in so many animals that were confiscated or in need of a good home. It’s a lot of dedication that often goes unrecognized.

Alaska Fisheries Science Center (NMFS)

But I also want to commend zoos, aquariums, and marine parks for displaying imperfect specimens. This wasn’t always the case.  If you have worked  with free-ranging wildlife you may consider any animal in a zoo to be fairly close to meeting the criteria for a perfect physical specimen. Many of them are. They don’t all bare the wounds of battle from aggressive conflicts with con-specifics, predators, or even prey that managed to inflict some damage.   Many of the animals that I have seen in the wild have scars to prove that indeed they live there. In particular, I think of wild sea lions. From studying activity budgets of  California sea lions hauled out just meters away on a rookery in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, California Sur) or from sailing by a colony of Steller sea lions near Benjamin Island (Southeast, AK), I would be hard-pressed to say that I’ve seen an adult or subadult animal that would meet the criteria of a perfect specimen by historic standards.   It always surprises me a bit when patrons take pause at the sight of an animal that may well have been injured.   In fact, when I think about it, I’ve probably witnessed just as many wild sea lions that have been branded for research studies as I have seen that have not been. Branding was a common and safe practice for marking wild animals for census work and demographic studies.  I couldn’t imagine a branded animal on exhibit, but maybe there are some.

Today, zoos are very candid, often sharing this kind of information regarding research and clinical case work with the public. Living institutions treat these issues with more tact and sensitivity than ever before.   It’s amazing how we can genuinely shape perception if concerns are addressed thoughtfully. It’s effective micro-crisis management.

I remember watching an Allen’s swamp monkey at the San Diego Zoo. Among this fascinating troop of guenon monkeys was a female with a juvenile. She was obviously missing a limb, but was able to get along just fine and tend to her parental responsibilities. In the background visitors were sharing their sentiments and most appreciative of the zoo for providing information about this individual animal’s health status. As I recall, one of the zoo’s interpretive graphics conveyed the message that just like people animals are imperfect.  It was quite refreshing verbiage, and almost touching.  Instead of eliciting great concern, cause for alarm, or unnecessary speculation, the language provided an explanation and message that was well-received by the guests. I thought this was very nicely done.

I think it is important to share with people that there is nothing wrong with animal ambassadors in captive facilities that fall short of perfection. They may better represent their wild counterparts and perhaps they convey to the public that although they may be different, they are offered great care and attention just like every other animal in the zoo collection.

Taxidermists, collection managers or curators at museums of natural history may speak of perfect specimens.  Likewise researchers in systematics and taxonomy may also place value on perfect specimens, but not for purely aesthetic reasons.  They may have studied newly described species  or been working with various biological types (e.g., holotypes) as referenced by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
Their objectives are more likely aimed at providing reference data for scholarly publications (for the benefit of colleagues working with related taxa) and teaching.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

“Captivity on Camera”

http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/Amazonia/default.cfm………(link to Andean bear cub cam)

Web cams are not new to zoos. They have broad appeal among the generation of people born after Al Gore invented the internet. Hopefully you agree that it  is pretty amazing to see live feeds of spheniscid penguins and sun bears on display (separately, of course).

It’s even cool to see the charismatic mini-fauna on your computer monitors. Who is not captivated by watching the eusocial naked mole rats (also known as  sand puppies) on exhibit. Fossorial and arboreal web viewing is also very popular for zoo and wildlife enthusiasts. You can visit the zoo while you are drinking a Cappuccino (sometimes confused with a ‘capuchin’) at Starbucks. The remote monitoring of captive wildlife is not new. Panda research units in zoos often remind people of something out of a NASA spacecraft with more monitors accessible to behaviorists than actual animals . Aviculturists have carefully studied condor chicks sequestered in nests and neonatologists have observed a host of species through the use of these unobtrusive surveillance tools. However, today’s animal keeper can leave the zoo and make it home just in time to watch the crepuscular activities of their charges.

Some of our most prominent living institutions designate webcams for use by husbandry and health care staff- cameras that are not intended to provide footage for patrons. Keepers simply login to their respective accounts and chose what camera angle they want.  Well before a press release of  new offspring, animal keepers may have been watching webcams from remote locations immediately following parturition.

If a zoo has the resources to install web cams, it’s possible to monitor individual animals in zoo collections from any place at any time as long as one can find an internet connection. When you think about it this is pretty amazing. Just like camera traps have provided footage of the most rare and elusive carnivores in the densest jungles on earth, zoos now have the capability to observe behaviors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from a laptop or a cell phone. This greatly enhances the potential to carry out collection-based studies on our most imperiled species.

Internet technology progresses at lightening speed.    Zoological parks are now embracing these technological developments to expand our knowledge of zoo biology and improve upon their high standards for animal welfare.  I can’t imagine what tools will be available to study wildlife in the next decade. We just need to remain committed to saving vanishing species and our natural heritage for generations to come.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

The Underappreciated Camelid

http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/stlouiscitycounty/story/5FF2E5BE45FE21F4862576EA005A91EE?OpenDocument

Congratulations to the St. Louis Zoo. The zoo recently celebrated the birth of a Bactrian camel calf.

I remember as a young keeper being tasked with exercising a Bactrian camel calf in the early mornings of a typically hot Midwestern summer. Just like many neonates of large ungulates, this animal was pretty big despite his age. You may not realize this until you have one on a lead and he’s running you to exhaustion.

If you have ridden or worked with dromedary camels and/or have experience working with Bactrians camels you can well appreciate the differences between these two true camel species, and their special adaptations for the environments they inhabit. Notice the humps of course.  The smaller New World camelids are also sometimes referred to as camels (e.g., guanacos, alapacas, etc). Hybrids of  Old World (true camels) and New World camelids also exist (e.g., Dromedary X Llama = Cama).

With the exception of  approximately 700,000 feral dromedary camels in Australia (introduced by the Afghans in the 19th century), the greater majority of these animals living today are domesticated. The majority of Bactrians are also domesticated.  However,  the declining wild population of Bactrian camels may number as few as 800 or less. This remnant population from the Gobi desert (Mongolia/China) has drawn much attention from conservationists making the Bactrian camel a species of special concern.  Bactrian camels were listed as one of the top-10 “focal species” in 2007 by the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) project.

Working with Bactrian camels in captivity can be quite dangerous and hence, precautions may be taken to work these animals in a “protected contact” environment such that keepers and handlers train and care for the animals, but do not enter the enclosure with them.  Bactrians may not look that big until you stand next to one.

I recommend a colleague’s site for ungulate resources:

http://www.ultimateungulate.com………………………..

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus