Rarely do you hear the zoo visitor soliciting directions to the small mammal exhibits from docents, guest services, or other zoo personnel. Most people are eager to get right to the big guys. Guests hastily try to orient themselves with respect to some key locales with the help of the printed zoo maps. They are challenging for some people to use at first, but they are actually quite useful if you have some patience. Yes, some people are most eager to visit the restroom, the gift shop, or perhaps the restaurant. Others quickly embark on a journey to see the high-profile species. Among these people some are too excited to fumble with the schematic map and start following patrons who appear to know where they are going. Although many seek out the quickest route to the mega-fauna on display (e.g., big cats, apes, marine mammals, and elephants, etc.), a few are probably more systematic in their approach to comprehensive zoo animal viewing.
But once the visitors, regardless of their interests or enthusiasm, catch site of the crowds hovering over something seemingly insignificant, their curiosity over rides the impulse to pass up anything of potential interest and temptation leads them to follow others.
The most popular exhibits that may serve as the impetus for visiting the zoo in the first place may eventually take a back seat to the lesser known and underappreciated displays of charismatic min-fauna. By the time you leave the zoo, your party may have all but forgotten the lions and tigers and bears. While reflecting on your zoo visit the interest in mega-fauna is somehow superseded by discussion of meerkats, and prairie dogs, and naked mole rats. These semi-fossorial and fossorial species are highly social, perceived as “cute” and their high energy levels make them particularly interesting to watch. Even those distracted by ADHD or cotton candy find these animals to be fascinating. Their impromptu “pop up” performances are riveting.
True fossorial mammals live their entire lives virtually underground, but due to some fantastic exhibit design zoos now offer subterranean viewing of these eusocial, true fossorial mammals. The African mole rats or blesmols, including the naked mole rat (which is commonly displayed in zoos) use their incisors to dig through soil. The smallest of the fossorial rodents may burrow at a rate of 4m/h. This energy expenditure comes at a cost, but indicates just how much energy these animals can expend in a short period of time. To restore energy small mammals are typically voracious eaters and consume a lot of food .
Energy expenditure is determined by body size, climate, and foraging habits. The physiological parameters considered in the measurement of the metabolic activity and the general energetics of small endotherms (animals that regulate their own body temperature) must be considered when comparing wild animals to zoo animals. Even captive small mammals will be quite active and captivating to watch. The abundance and distribution of food resources in captivity are far different from what is available to wild animals. This may permit visitors with more of an opportunity to observe a certain spectrum of behaviors. This is purely speculation.
Without concern for predators or other coteries (harems) of prairie dogs, the behavioral repertoire of captive prairie dogs may differ or be limited compared to wild prairie dogs. None-the-less, their social interactions are most interesting. I should mention that prairie dogs are very important to prairie ecosystems, and they are actually ground squirrels. They do bark like dogs.
Today prairie dog exhibits allow kids and adults to view these animals under ground and are also designed to simulate fossorial activities. I first worked with a black-tailed prairie dog enclosure with a bottomless enclosure. In an effort to deter the animals from burrowing out of the exhibit, I placed long white, plastic tubes above ground to encourage the animals to spend more time at the surface. This alone won’t discourage burrowing activity, but it provides secure above ground retreats.
Black-tailed prairie dogs which one numbered in the billions were candidates for the endangered species list. They are highly susceptible to plague and human activity has heavily fragmented their habitat. Today they are commonly displayed in zoos. A mentor of mine, Dr. Penny Bernstein began studying black-tailed prairie dog communicative behavior at the Philadelphia Zoo in the 1970’s. The Philadelphia Zoo continued to study the behavior of these animals as have other living institutions. More recently, the Denver Zoo has dedicated an entire day to prairie dog awareness. A good reference for prairie dog information is the following website http://www.prairedogcoalition.org
Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus