Field Notes

Read up on what Zoo Atlanta's staff is doing all over the world.

Helianthus verticillatus

Wednesday, September 15
On Tuesday, September 7, we traveled to Floyd County to assist with a habitat restoration project near Cave Springs, Ga.  As a member of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, we answered the call for assistance at this unique ecological community.

A Coosa Prairie can be described as an open grassy area nestled in a pine forest. Viewing this habitat for the first time, you would think that you are in the Midwest U.S., with many grass species such as big bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass. Trees and shrubs are not found growing in this prairie because of the calcium-rich, heavy clay soil and limestone rock layer beneath the soil. Because of this unique composition, a diverse collection of herbaceous species are found here and nowhere else in Georgia. 

Coosa Prairie work crew
One such species is the whorled sunflower, Helianthus verticillatus. It was discovered in 1892 but was thought to be extinct until 1994, when it was rediscovered in Georgia. Today, it is known to exist in only four locations in west Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. It has been a candidate for listing as a federal endangered species since 1999. Temple-Inland, Inc, a timber company and owner of the land, donated a 929-acre conservation easement on the most sensitive portion of that area to The Nature Conservancy in 1992, because of the sunflower population as well as the presence of two other threatened or endangered species (Mohr's Barbara Buttons and Tennessee yellow-eyed grass). This habitat is managed by prescribed fire every two to three years, and woody vegetation is manually removed to maintain the open prairie landscape.

After parking along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, we proceeded to seek out this habitat via a walk through the woods. Like an oasis in the desert, we found the Coosa Prairie shortly and were surprised to see such a lush grassland landscape in the middle of the forest.  We assisted The Nature Conservancy and other volunteers with removal woody plants that were encroaching on the prairie and allowing for the plant species within the prairie to thrive.  Few words can describe the feeling of being in such a unique place in Georgia where many plant species exist only here – the feeling of being back in time and admiring the natural history of the land.
Danielle Green
Curator of Horticulture and Environmental Initiatives

Monday, July 12
On Saturday, June 11, members of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Society (MABA) and I conducted a honeybee hive inspection and honey harvest. Jerry Wallace, who is the MABA president, led the inspection. It was a hot day, and I was pouring sweat in my bee suit; a full body suit with hat and veil is not what you want to be wearing in the glaring 94-degree sun. Jerry, with 40 years of beekeeping under his belt, only had on blue jeans, a T-shirt and a loose-fitting veil to protect his face and head. After the inspection he told me it was too hot to fully gear up – he just hoped the bees wouldn’t be mad today…

Zoo Atlanta’s three honeybee hives are located on the ARC roof behind the scenes. We started these hives in spring 2009, and they have performed very well. Last year we “robbed” the bees of 120 pounds of honey that we sold at the summer staff meeting. One of those hives didn’t make it through the harsh winter we had this year, though, so we used bees from our surviving colonies to make a new one. In the spring we took frames of bees with brood (bees in larval stage), nurse bees, and larval queen cells from our other hives and put them into the new hive body, hoping nature would take its course and produce a new colony. The hive inspection revealed that this split had indeed been successful, and we now had a very prolific queen. There were hundreds if not thousands of new eggs and brood. We did not rob this new hive of honey, though. This one needs to get fat and happy this year so we can rob it next year.

We did rob our other two hives (our “production” hives). For those who don’t know, a modern bee hive consists of several wooden boxes with 10 removable frames in each one. Boxes of different sizes have different functions. The hive body, usually called the deep super, is found on the bottom of the stack and is where the queen lays her eggs and nurse bees rear the brood. Honey supers are shallower boxes on top of the deep, where the foraging bees store honey and pollen.  Honey supers are added throughout the season as needed. Once one becomes full of honey, another empty one goes on top. This process can go on indefinitely as long as the nectar is flowing and the bees are foraging. Our two production hives had seven honey supers total, of which we took four and left the rest for the bees.

Robbing honey supers is a rather simple process. Jerry had a fume board on which an almond scented spray is applied and placed on top of the open honey super. For whatever reason, the bees hate the odor and will move deeper into the hive. After a few minutes, the super is rid of bees and can be removed and placed into a bag for transport. A super full of honey easily weighs 30 to 35 pounds; you just want to make sure most (if not all) of the bees are gone. Last year we couldn’t get all of the bees out of the supers, so we had to use a leaf blower to remove them!  It’s all very scientific really. 

Jerry has been a great help to us in our endeavors in beekeeping. He hauled the supers away for extraction, and within a few days we had two five gallon buckets full of honey – about 100 pounds. If the weather cooperates next spring like it did this year, with three production hives I think we could easily pull about 150 pounds.
Hal O’Kelley
Horticulture Technician III

Monday, June 28
On June 16, Jason Brock, Ed Kabay and I, along with two of our Guatemalan interns, Mile and Juan Manuel, had the opportunity to travel to the Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama to take part in the first release of captive-born indigo snakes for the reintroduction project with which we are currently assisting. Being that this is an important next phase of the project, representatives from all nine partners were present, which amounted to a total of about 50 people. Also present was the film crew from the Alabama Department of the Conservation of Natural Resources, who has been documenting the project for their Discovering Alabama series.
The event began with a speech from Jim Godwin, head of Auburn University's involvement with the project, who spoke of the historical presence of these animals, their disappearance from the wild, and the ecological significance that they have in the wild. The first of 15 snakes was then released, with the others following throughout the day. About half of the animals were released into one of four fenced-in areas, each of which measuring approximately one hectare in size, while the rest were released into unfenced habitat. Each of the snakes was previously fitted with a radio transmitter, which will be used for future monitoring and studies of habitat use.
Post release monitoring showed that all of the snakes are still alive and well, with one of the most exciting observations being that one of them was found in the process of ingesting a 2.5-foot copperhead. This is very exciting news because this is strong evidence that their tendency to hunt other snakes is an instinctual behavior rather than a learned one.
Overall the indigo reintroduction project seems to be going very well. It was a pleasure to finally get to meet all of the partners involved, and I look forward to the day that we release the 37 beautiful indigos that are currently housed here at Zoo Atlanta. Also, the day when there will once again be an established colony of wild indigo snakes in southern Alabama.
David Brothers
Keeper II Herpetology

April 20, 2010
I had the wonderful privilege of working closely with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) representatives to swamp out the Hale Ridge Bog. We hiked into the plot in Rabun County, where carnivorous plants such as Sarracenia purpurea var. montana and other bog companion species have previously been outplanted. Obvious designators (black and white striped poles) parked the boundaries to the four different plot points where we were working. Each of the four plots in the bog is being analyzed by DNR for an experiment they are conducting on different management techniques for this rare habitat. To assist their experiment, a group of volunteers hiked into the bog to pull out (“swamp”) large woody saplings and small shrubs to move them outside the plot boundaries.  It took about two days work to pull the debris to the outside boundary of the bog. Rain or shine, it was a great experience for everyone and an opportunity I’m thankful for receiving.

This project is part of an ongoing restoration effort, the Georgia Mountain Bog Ecological Restoration Initiative. This initiative includes restoration and recovery of both plant and animal species that call this rare habitat home. Read more about the bog restoration.
Julia Mitchell
Horticulture Tech I

April 8, 2010
Last month, Dr. Joseph Mendelson, Danielle Green and I attended a Georgia Mountain Bog Ecological Restoration (GMBERI) Initiative meeting coordinated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Also attending were other GMBERI partners, including the Atlanta Botanical Garden, State Botanical Garden of Georgia, USDA Forest Service, Chattahoochee Nature Center, Tennessee Aquarium, Project Orianne, Georgia DNR, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Thomas Floyd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources started the meeting off with an overview of the 13 known sites where bog turtles occur in the wild in north Georgia and a list of other mountain bog sites with plant/botanical interests. Next, Mr. Floyd, along with Brian Davis of Atlanta Botanical Garden, covered the criteria for how potential restoration sites are identified and mapped through what is called “Groundtruthing.” Mincy Moffett then gave an update on Mountain Bog habitat restoration and experiments with non-valuable vegetation control methods, including mechanical or hand-clearing, approved herbicide, torch, and prescribed burning. Also shown were updated pictures of some of the sites that Zoo Atlanta has helped to clear and maintain. 

The Bog Turtle Headstart Program was discussed by Dr. Joseph Mendelson of Zoo Atlanta, Dave Collins of the Tennessee Aquarium, Kathryn Dudeck of the Chattahoochee Nature Center, and Thomas Floyd. Seventy-two individual turtles are known from 13 sites across north Georgia. Fifteen are in the captive breeding program, with 10 at the Tennessee Aquarium and five at the Chattahoochee Nature Center. The Zoo will be getting some adults for its captive breeding program later on this spring. Jennifer Ceska of the State Botanical Garden and Dr. Jenny Cruse-Sanders of the Atlanta Botanical Garden closed out the meeting with information on safeguarding rare mountain bog plant species through ex-situ propagation and out-planting new populations in restored habitats. Some of the species discussed were the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), swamp pink (Helonias bullata), and Cuthbert’s turtlehead (Chelone cuthbertii). The goal of this meeting was to update cooperating organizations on what has been achieved thus far and to coordinate the group on future projects in the upcoming work season.
Darryl Windham
Lead Horticulture Technician

Monday, March 29
On February 12, 2010 – just in time for Valentine’s Day – the girls were reunited with the boys. The Rhus michauxii girls and boys, that is. The rare dwarf sumac had dwindled to just two populations in the 20th century – a group with female flowers that lives under a Newton County water tower and a group of male-flowering plants on a secluded bluff near the Broad River. The female plants were brought to the Broad River site (complete with a pink bow tied around one of the stems) to be planted alongside the males to hopefully reproduce and strengthen their numbers. The Rhus planting was a joint effort between the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Atlanta Botanical Garden, and the State Botanical Garden. 

I did not participate in the planting, however; my job was to set up photo monitoring stations where DNR can observe the effects of controlled burns at this particular site. The photo monitoring stations were set up in three uniquely different places: the first to give an example of the site in general (longleaf pine with hardwood understory); second, an example of where important species may benefit from Rx burns (the Rhus site); and third, an area where Rx burns may have the most impact on the habitat (a low, wet area with native river cane). The stations consisted of recording a GPS location and photographing the four compass points at each location. DNR will compare before and after photos to study the effects of controlled burns. This site was burned last year (it was the first burn for Danielle Green and I), and the Rhus seemed to have a small population explosion afterward – from five stems to about 25.  Let’s hope this trend continues … 
Hal O’Kelley
Horticulture Technician

Friday, March 19
The indigo snake head start program that we are assisting Auburn University with has afforded us the opportunity to help with the conservation of this species in the wild. Recently a group of us herpetology guys (Jason Brock, Ed Kabay, and myself, along with our Guatemalan colleague, Cristian Beza) took a little trip to South Georgia, near Lumber City, where we assisted Mike and Kara Ravenscroft from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources with a mark/recapture study that they are conducting in that area. We, along with their special friend CJ the Indigo Hunting Dog, embarked on a survey of a private tract of land in search of wild adult indigo snakes. The day started out cloudy and cool, but soon the sun came out and so did the indigos. In virtually no time at all CJ had located the first two snakes of the day. A little while later Jason found the third, and then Ed the fourth. We searched a while longer, but it was approaching late afternoon so we decided to head back. Just as we were preparing to leave the site CJ sniffed out one final indigo, bringing the grand total for the day to five snakes. All of these animals were new captures, and when considering a threatened species like the indigo snake, that is a very good thing! We had an amazing time and definitely look forward to assisting them again in the future.

Dr. Joe Mendelson discussed the indigo snake head start program in his January 28 post on the Keeper Blog.
David Brothers
Keeper II Herpetology

Wednesday, March 17
On Sunday, March 7, I assisted The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources with a prescribed burn on a 215 tract of land just outside Sylvester, Ga. The burn unit is on private land conservation easement and includes a power utility right of way. The reason for the burn was to reduce ground litter and hardwood encroachment on the longleaf pine/sandhill ecosystem. This area is also referred to as Winecup. Erick Brown with TNC explains that Winecup refers to a plant, Callirhoe papaver or woodland poppy-mallow. It’s considered imperiled in Georgia, but there were many other species there that we were also focusing on. 

The easement was really meant to protect the habitat, and, of course, with good habitat comes a number of important plant and animal species. Winecup is also home to a near endemic plant called Marshallia ramosa that only grows in areas with Altamaha grit, a band of subsurface sandstone that underlies Georgia’s coastal plain. It’s referred to as near endemic because there is one site in Florida where it also occurs, but other than that one population in Florida, the entire species in only found in Georgia. 

The easement is also less than a mile away from several populations of Thalictrum cooleyi, which is federally endangered. No plants of this species have been found on Winecup, but ecologists think it’s just a matter to time. The landowners may be willing to allow the planting of this species on their property as well. Cool animal species included a great population of gopher tortoises, a huge population of Bachman’s sparrows, and the resident southeastern kestrel, all also found there.

The weather has not cooperated this year, so the burn plans for this year are running a bit behind. We hope to make up some ground soon and get some fire on the ground in many other habitats around the state.
Danielle Green
Curator of Horticulture and Environmental Initiatives

Monday, June 1
Well my time here in Chengdu is up, again. I will be leaving on the 1st of June, heading to Shanghai, where I will take a couple of days rest before heading back to Atlanta on the 3rd. Overall, it was an interesting trip with lots of different stories and experiences than I had in 2007. In some ways I am ready to head back and get back to my life, but there is a whole other side that wants to stay in Chengdu longer(probably because I have way too much to do when I get back to Atlanta). It will be nice to get back to Yang Yang, Lun Lun, Mei Lan and Xi Lan and say hello to them. Even though I have some pandas that I really like at the Base here, there is nothing like those four, even on those days that they are driving you nuts. While here, I periodically thought about how I was missing the development of Xi Lan, and wondered how Lun was handling raising a male instead of a female. The web updates do help, but there is nothing like seeing it firsthand. In 2007, I missed the same period in Mei Lan's development, so I was hoping that I would see it this time, but it was not to be. I am sure that he is huge now, and a handful to deal with.
JT Svoke
Keeper III Carnivores

  Dr. Charlton at Mt. Everest

Monday, May 11
The playback work for this year is now completed and overall I have to say I am happy with the way things have gone. Consequently, this past week I have been trying to make some headway with writing things up. At the moment I am working on a paper investigating acoustic cues to female estrous stage and social context in female chirp vocalizations. Briefly, we found that female chirp vocalizations given during the female’s most fertile time, just prior to ovulation, differed acoustically from those given a few days earlier in the female’s estrous cycle. This is potentially important because it means that males would be able to use female chirps to determine the exact timing of the female’s fertile phase. In addition, females appear to alter chirps according to whether they are interacting with males or not and even according to which male they are interacting with. These are interesting findings and I hope to have it all written up before I leave Chengdu next Sunday. 

Finally, the week before last, I took my long awaited trip up to Tibet and out to Everest Base Camp. I have wanted to go there for as long as I can remember. For me, seeing the light playing on the north face of Mount Everest as the sun set and rose again the next morning really was the experience of a lifetime. 
Dr. Benjamin D. Charlton
Postdoctoral Research Biologist

Wednesday, May 6
What else was in the box? Well, it also included an enrichment toy for the pandas at the Chengdu Zoo. Specifically, the toy was a large plastic ball (that has a variety of names). It's a common enrichment item used throughout most zoos in North America. Unfortunately, that type of ball is not available in China. Luckily there are a lot of great panda fans out there in the world that helped me out (with the assistance of my fellow panda keepers back in Atlanta) by securing two for the pandas at the Chengdu Zoo. Over a month ago, a keeper at the Chengdu Zoo was asking me about items that we use to enrich our pandas and where we get the items. We ended up talking for three hours that day about different simple items that can be used and different ways of presenting the objects. A few days later I was able to present him with a CD that contained the full list of items that we use in Atlanta, as well as some pictures. Luckily, I had brought that CD with me just in case the keepers here were interested in enrichment. Specifically he asked about large balls that we might use, and I just mentioned that there are a number of different companies in the US that make and distribute them. He had been looking online in China and here locally in Chengdu but had not been able to procure any that were suitable for the pandas. He did joke that he should start up his own company making similar things for the zoo market in China, which could be a good idea. So, I thought that it would be a nice surprise to get some for him, and I guess more specifically the pandas.

When I took both balls into the zoo and he saw them for the first time, he was extremely happy. He was also surprised that people would be willing to donate money just to get them, but I assured him that there are many people willing when it goes to a good cause. The pandas have yet to see them, though, as he wants to add holes to one of them to be able to put food inside. Also, I want to be there the first time that the panda receive them, so that I can capture it on video or in photos. Then I can share the moment with all of you that helped out. Nevertheless, I am sure that the pandas will enjoy them.

Lastly, I just wanted to say a big thank you to all of you out there that helped in enriching the lives of some of the pandas here in Chengdu.
Joseph T. Svoke
Carnivore Keeper III

Friday, April 24
Since arriving back in Chengdu last Thursday, the hot weather has prevented me from making much headway with the playback work. This is because the giant pandas at the Research Base are given access to their indoor enclosures when it is warm and they mostly stay inside given the opportunity. Consequently, I focused on behavioral analysis of video data last week and added some of the experimental work I completed at Bi Feng Xi to a paper I had partially written up last year. So, this work is now ready for submission to an international journal. I am also currently writing up some of the other experiments that have been completed this year. Writing papers for submission to top journals is time consuming and will take up a large chunk of my time from now to the end of the year. Nevertheless, for the rest of my time here I will be trying to conduct playback experiments whenever I have the opportunity. 

Last Friday Jen (Keating) flew back to the States after 6 weeks at Bi Feng Xi recording male giant pandas for our study of male vocal characteristics versus testosterone levels. Jen did a great job and we saw her off with a few beers. The collaborative effort between Zoo Atlanta and San Diego Zoo has been a real success so far and this is mostly because of Jen’s fantastic efforts to get quality recordings of giant panda vocalizations, which believe me, is no simple task. Well done Jen!
Dr. Benjamin D. Charlton,
Postdoctoral Research Biologist

Wednesday, April 22
Currently, I am still collecting data on just two female giant pandas for the reproductive behavior study. One of those females, Cheng Gong, finally decided to go into estrus on the 10th of this month. I have been waiting a long time for her to officially enter her estrus period. A couple of weeks after I arrived, I thought that she was close to cycling, because she was doing lots of scent marking, urinating, and a behavior that we call "water play." But, for some unknown reason, she returned to her typical behavior soon after I observed these behaviors. Although the behavioral changes did coincide with a drop in temperature, as well as a change in housing, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what caused them. From what I know of Cheng Gong's previous cycles, this is fairly late in the season for her to enter estrus. Most of the females here seem to be cycling late this year, though; only a few have begun to cycle so far. I have speculated with people here in Chengdu about why this is the case, but we never did come to a consensus about why this is occurring.

The weekend after Cheng Gong cycled I had plans to head to another panda base in Bi Feng Xia to see the giant pandas there, as well as the scenery. After the earthquake last year, the facility in Wolong suffered a lot of damage, so most of their pandas were relocated to Bi Feng Xia. So, I made it my goal this time to see my third panda base here in China (I saw Wolong back in 2007). Originally, I had planned to travel down to Bi Feng Xia when Ben was doing his work down there, but our schedules never seemed to coincide. It turned out to be an interesting adventure, as I was armed only with information that I found online, which was very limited. As a result, I have many interesting stories to tell friends back in Atlanta now. Overall, I was happy that I went, but I would not do the trip again, at least by myself. At least I can say now that I have used the long distance bus system in Chengdu, which was both easy and cheap to use.

On a side note I would like to thank the panda fans out there for the selection of candy that I received in a box today. It was an unexpected surprise, and greatly appreciated. Now I will have to use all my will power not to eat it all in one week. That was not the only thing in the box, but I will cover that in my next update, so stay tuned to find out more.
Joseph T. Svoke
Carnivore Keeper III

Wednesday, April 15
Since my last update I have been very busy indeed. Firstly, I have finished off an experiment at Chengdu Research Base looking at male and female responses to modified bleats simulating large and small males with differing motivational levels. I then came back to Bi Fengxia last Wednesday to finish off an experiment testing female discrimination of different male callers. I have now shown that females discriminate between different male callers and that they do not rely on the pitch of the male call to do so. Moreover, I have been playing back modified male bleats to investigate the importance of the distinctive amplitude (volume) modulation of these vocalizations for signaling male identity. Preliminary results reveal that this is in fact the most important acoustic feature that females are using to discriminate between different males.

I am also continuing to play back chirps from females at different reproductive stages (fertile versus non-fertile) to males at Bi Fengxia. I am working on getting access to more male giant pandas for this experiment and so far I have managed to get another male called Xi Meng, who was previously inaccessible to playback, moved up to the breeding centre. Finally, because I have a strong feeling that caller familiarity may be an important in reproductive contexts, I am playing back familiar versus unfamiliar males to investigate female responses. At the moment this is only a pilot experiment; however, it may reveal something that will lead us to some exciting future playback studies.
Dr. Benjamin D. Charlton
Postdoctoral Research Biologist

Friday, April 10
I feel like I have been playing a never-ending game of "Marco Polo" with the pandas that I observe. The problem, however, is that the pandas are not playing fairly. two of the bears at the Base have been moved multiple times, both between locations and within exhibits. In my last update I mentioned that pandas were being moved around and that I needed to pay attention, and that is exactly what I have had to do. When I show up to the exhibit space and I say to myself, "that is not the correct bear," I'm happy that I can easily identify the animals. The problem is that after I realize I haven't found the right bear, I then have to figure out where the bear has been moved to. Eventually I find them by going off what I have typically seen happen with moves in the past. These moves are all in reference to breeding potential so the moves are not needless and they do make sense. Still, it would be nice if the pandas played by the rules.

Not much to report otherwise, as the last week has been basically non- existent. All of last week I was basically laid up in bed, sick. I never figured out exactly what it was that I had, but it initially presented itself as a nasty cold, but then reverted to something more like food poisoning. The odd thing was that two other people that I know here experienced the same thing, but we all got it on different days. Of course the coworkers at the panda base were all worried and wanted to take me to the hospital, because they said I did not look good and were concerned. It is nice to have people so concerned, but because I'm so bull-headed sometimes (right mom!), I didn't take their advice and I just waited it out. So, I just lay in bed for about a week, until I was able to eat and get around again. Hopefully my next update will have something more interesting to report.
Joseph T. Svoke
Carnivore Keeper III

Friday, March 27
Since I have been back at the Chengdu Research Base I have conducted around 60 playbacks of re-synthesised bleats to male and female giant pandas. For these experiments I have manipulated the rate and extent of the characteristic pitch modulation of these calls (if you haven’t heard a giant panda bleat, just imagine a sheep or goat bleat). The rate and extent of pitch modulation is
certainly an acoustic cue to the caller’s motivational levels in giant pandas. The prediction is that giant pandas will show more attention to bleats indicating highly motivated callers; however, I also think we may find some interesting sex differences in their responses.

So far only one female (Li Li) has gone through estrus at the Base, but I am sure it will get very busy this week. The weather has suddenly changed and we are now having sunny and relatively clear days. Some of the researchers at the base think that temperature has a bearing on female estrus onset. Personally, I think that the greater light intensity of sunny days is the most likely factor affecting the onset of female estrus. I will be pressing on this week with another playback study, in which I will be presenting male and female giant pandas with bleat vocalizations representing different size callers. Although I looked at this last year, I only managed to include six male subjects in the experiment. Because I now have greater experience of giant panda behaviour and the best playback approaches for this species, I should be able to do a more controlled experiment on a larger sample size this year.  
Dr. Benjamin D. Charlton
Postdoctoral Research Biologist