Thursday, December 5
Given the technological boom that has occurred in recent years, we zookeepers have had to keep up. Some of the avenues the Zoo utilizes are Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram to keep everyone informed. Recently, a Program Animal Keepers participated in Google+ Hangouts On Air with a few school groups and a homeschooler to invite them into the Zoo Atlanta world no matter where they are.
One of the Hangouts occurred during the Halloween season, and the theme was Myths and Misconceptions. Keepers Christina, Caroline and I featured a few of our “Halloweeny” animals as we tackled some popular myths such as the notion that tarantulas are deadly. Not true. A tarantula’s venom is meant to kill its prey, which are creatures much smaller than humans.
Caroline also participated in a recent Hangout about U.S. native species – her favorite animals. We always enjoy hearing comments and answering questions from students and teachers and will continue to reach out to those interested in learning about what we do and about animals and their importance to our environment.
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, December 3
One of the number one questions I get from the public during Keeper Talks is, “What does your day consist of?” This is a great question! A typical day as a primate keeper here at Zoo Atlanta starts at 7 a.m. The first thing we do when we arrive is safety-check the areas. This consists of checking the areas where the animals stay during the night, checking on everyone, and feeding them some breakfast. Almost all of the primates in our collection, except the tamarins, get an item in the morning called a biscuit. Biscuits are very similar to a piece of dry dog or cat food; the only difference is that this item is made specifically for a primate. Just like us, some of the primates may be on medication. Many of the medications that they are on are very similar to what humans might be on. In the morning we prepare any medications for them. Most of them also receive them in a piece of banana.
Next, we typically set up the habitats and scatter their veggies and greens for them to forage for throughout the day. While the animals are outside, we keepers are inside cleaning their night areas. This involves a lot of sweeping, scrubbing, hosing, and more scrubbing. Zookeeping is a very physical job. It’s the perfect morning workout! Once this is completed, we set up these areas for them to come into later in the day by adding hay and any other enrichment items for them to use. These items may be shredded paper, large plastic playground toys, cardboard boxes, browse or blankets. Typically cleaning takes all morning, so once that is completed we head to lunch.
After lunch, we chop diets for the next day and weigh out each animal’s biscuits. During this time we sometimes do public feedings and Keeper Talks with some of the animals; these may include the fruit portion of their diet for the day. The afternoons are also used to work on projects, such as making new enrichment, cutting browse, filling out animal record logs, and training. One of my most favorite interactions with the animals is training. We use positive reinforcement with all of our animals so that they can participate in their own care. Training provides keepers with an opportunity to get an up-close look at the animals. Many of the primates are able to present body parts, open their mouths, stand on a scale voluntarily to obtain a weight, voluntarily have their blood drawn, and allow keepers to obtain cardiac images or abdominal ultrasounds.
Later in the afternoon we bring in our animals for the day, right as the Zoo is closing. During this time we are shifting them into their night areas. Once inside, they receive more biscuits. We also prepare medication again for those animals who may need it. Once everyone is fed, we secure the area and lock it up for the night … to do it all again tomorrow!
I have worked with many other types of animals, but to me being a primate keeper is by far the best! As a zookeeper, you never know what is going to happen in your day. An animal may get sick, something may break, a new baby may be born. All of these things can throw you a curve ball, and you must be adaptable as you go. You have to because we have animals who are depending on us to care for them 365 days of the year!
Coming to work each day is rewarding for me, and as you can see, it’s not a typical job that most people have. I wouldn’t give it up for anything!
Keeper III, Primates
Thursday, November 28
We have had some wonderful things happening in the World of Reptiles. There have been several new species released from quarantine, including giant day geckos, one male and two females. They have an amazing adaptation that allows them to climb up walls as easily as walking on the ground. You can see our geckos climbing up bamboo and other plants. Watch for the females to lay eggs. This species usually lays two hard-shelled eggs at the base of plants or even inside holes of broken pieces of bamboo. We have a couple of pieces of bamboo split to allow the geckos to lay eggs while allowing our guests to view the process of incubating and hatching these little geckos. We also have another new lizard species coming soon: the large and impressive Meller’s chameleon. This is one of the largest species of chameleons, reaching up to 24 inches in total length. They have beautiful green bodies with yellow markings, and they have a unique look with a single nasal appendage and two large flaps on the backs of their heads; males raise these appendages in defensive displays toward other male chameleons.
We’ve had some breeding successes we’re particularly proud of. Two more McCord’s box turtles have hatched. This is one of the rarest species of turtle in the world, and Zoo Atlanta staff has been responsible for breeding many animals to help raise zoological populations. We work with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) on many breeding projects of rare species. We’ve also had a female impressed tortoise lay 20 eggs. These animals were recommended to breed by their Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) studbook keeper, Luke Wyrwich, formerly a Zoo Atlanta keeper and now the Lead Keeper of TSA’s Breeding Center. Luke helped breed our impressed tortoises while he worked with us and continues to lend his expertise for the conservation of this species.
We also had another one of our Guatemalan beaded lizards lay eggs. This is the second female to lay eggs recently, and we are still waiting for another female to lay eggs soon. Curator of Herpetology Dr. Brad Lock will actually be running the AZA studbook for this extremely rare species of venomous lizard. Dr. Lock and Zoo Atlanta work with Zootropic and Disney World’s Conservation Fund to help conservation efforts for this lizard through Project Heloderma.
We have had a few animals leave the collection recently also. One sad passing was one of our male Aruba Island rattlesnakes. He hatched at Zoo Atlanta in 1996 and after several moves to other zoos, he returned to our facility as recommended by the AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP). This is a fairly short-lived species but one of my top five favorite rattlesnakes. We also have a couple of animals leave the collection in positive ways, on breeding programs. We sent one of our male Panamanian golden frogs to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla. This gorgeous little frog is actually extinct in the wild, but captive breeding groups are doing well. This male is going to join the breeding project that is ongoing at several zoos around North America. We also sent one of our male Sulawesi forest turtles out for a breeding project.
Finally, be sure to come see the new caiman lizard habitat opening in the World of Reptiles in the next couple of weeks, followed by the debut of the Meller’s chameleons.
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, November 26
With Thanksgiving just days away (where did this year go?), the Birds and Program Animals Department has been thinking about what they are thankful for. And there is a lot! Not only do we have very unique and interesting jobs, we are also fortunate enough to be working for such a top-notch facility.
The Birds and Program Animals Department is very thankful for each other, first and foremost. We have such a great department, and that makes coming to work a joy! We have people from all over the country ranging in ages from their early 20s to the … well, older than 20s. In this department, we have keepers that have been here for a decade and ones who just joined the team in May of this year. We have worked in institutions from California to Florida and all sorts of places in between. Our Curator traveled across the pond – he’s a Brit – and manages the Birds and Program Animals Department here at Zoo Atlanta.
It goes without saying that we are thankful for the diverse collection of animals that we are fortunate enough to work with. It shouldn’t go without saying that we are also thankful for the institution of Zoo Atlanta for giving us so many amazing opportunities. The Birds and Program Animals Department is full of professionals, using their college degrees, who have a thirst for knowledge and for contributing to the scientific community. In no better way is that illustrated than by our involvement with in situ conservation programs, keeper exchanges and professional conferences. In fact, due to support from Zoo Atlanta and from a donor, almost all of the keepers in our department were able to travel to participate in one or more of these activities this year!
As the nights get colder and the smell of the holidays is looming in the air, please join us at Zoo Atlanta and think about all of the wonders of the world that there are to be thankful for during this holiday season. It may be a baby panda or two, or a cute rhino baby, or maybe it’s the smiling faces of your family spending quality time together learning and having fun. Whatever you are thankful for, the Birds and Program Animals Department would like to wish you a happy, healthy and safe holiday season!
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, November 21
There’s been a lengthy move in process at the Zoo! This “length,” though, has to do with size and not the span of the trip. Glenda, our female giraffe, moved to a new home at the Riverbanks Zoo in South Carolina today. In exchange, we’re accepting three younger males from them. These shipments have their challenges as you can imagine, as Glenda is around 14.5 feet tall. Probably the most challenging part is trying to get an animal of that size safely shifted onto an appropriately-sized truck. You’re not going to move a 2,000-pound animal if it doesn’t want to move. I’m sure our friends at Riverbanks will have their own challenges, as they will have loaded tree giraffes.
The new males will join our male, Abu. What this means for Zoo Atlanta is that we’ll have four males exhibited together, forming a small bachelor herd. Bachelor herds of giraffes are not that common in zoos, so this is a new experience for us. This offers a unique opportunity to study the behavior of a new bachelor group being formed, involving males of different ages. When we were looking into forming this group, a literature search for information did not present us with any insight on this subject. So we’ll be collecting behavioral data on how these males interact with each other over the next year.
During the new males’ routine 30-day quarantine period, we’ll be assessing their behavior while they are near each other, having our male Abu separate from the three boys. If they look like they are comfortable with each other, this will present us with the opportunity to introduce them together before they go onto exhibit. There will be an adjustment period for these boys to get used to our exhibit as well as the other animals that are exhibited with the giraffe. Thanks in advance for your patience, since we won’t have giraffes on exhibit during this 30-day period.
Hopefully this winter will be warm enough for all to go outside and enjoy having the room to roam. With any luck, by early spring, they will have had plenty of time to adjust to the exhibit, allowing our Zoo guests to meet the news giraffes at the feeding platform.
Lead Keeper, Hoofstock
Tuesday, November 19
Have you ever tried training seven animals at once? This is a challenge I encounter every time I weigh our family group of golden lion tamarins.
In order to monitor their health, we regularly weigh all the primates to make sure they are at a healthy weight. For Theo's group of tamarins, this is a little more challenging because the group doesn't like being separated from each other. Therefore, in order to make the weighing as positive as possible, I obtain weights on the entire group at once.
First, I enter the enclosure with the scale and the tamarins’ favorite treats: large mealworms and pieces of banana. There is a shelf built into the enclosure where I place the scale that is close to the branches where the tamarins regularly climb around. Next, I give the verbal cue "scale," and see who is first to participate.
Tamarins are known to be skittish around new things, and even though I bring the scale on exhibit at least once a week, every time they see the scale, the group vocalizes and runs away. Robin (the dominant female) or Tiete (the oldest son) are usually the calmest around new stimuli and are also usually the first to sit on the scale. Once they sit on the scale completely, they receive a treat. Theo (the dominant male) seems to be more focused on protecting his family and first has to make sure the group is fine. Afterwards, he will approach the scale, run away, and then come back and sit on the scale for his weight. In the midst of the adults, the youngsters like to run in and see what is happening. They have become very comfortable with the scale, and I can usually obtain their weight every session. Last session, this proved problematic because Pele and Leao (juveniles born in March 2013) decided they enjoyed the scale too much and would not leave it. Therefore, when Eva (oldest daughter) approached the scale, she couldn't get on by herself; one of the juveniles was always on with her. To help with this issue, I am also training the tamarins to sit on a spot to the right of the scale so they can "station" there while another animal is on the scale. The youngest tamarin (born July 2013) is still too young and shy to approach the scale by himself, but soon he will be as adventuresome as his older siblings, and we will obtain frequent weights on him.
Our goal is to obtain monthly weights on all the tamarins, but because of the group dynamics of Theo's group, I train them to sit on the scale at least once a week. Therefore, by the end of the month, we have usually obtained at least one weight on all the members of the group.
Keeper III, Primates
Thursday, November 14
Happy hatch day, Penny! The Wieland Wildlife Home’s Honduran milk snake celebrated her 23rd hatch day (her equivalent of a birthday) today! Honduran milk snakes can be found in Central America and live primarily in the rainforest. Milk snakes are a species of king snake, which are one of the most widespread types of snakes in the United States, and are known for their ability to consume venomous snakes! Their bright color patterns resemble that of the venomous coral snake, which helps deter predators and signal danger. When Honduran milk snakes reach sexual maturity at around 3 years of age, females can lay from three to 24 eggs. The hatchlings can be between eight and 10 inches long!
Snakes use their tongue to smell, so when Penny and other Honduran milk snakes get hungry, they use their forked tongues to help direct them to their prey. They are not a venomous species of snake, so once they have found a meal, they will constrict or squeeze the animal really tightly and then will swallow it whole.
Penny is one of our animal ambassadors, so she is taken out on public programs to help educate Zoo guests on the importance of snakes and other animals in the environment. A lot of people don’t like the thought of snakes hanging out in their backyards, but snakes like Penny help to manage and control the vast rodent population. So if you see a snake out in your backyard, the best thing to do is to just admire the beautiful animal and let it do the job it’s there to do!
Keep an eye out for Penny and other amazing animals at an Amy’s Tree show on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.!
Melanie Ennis and Dawn Sicchitano
Interns, Program Animals
Tuesday, November 12
Zoo Atlanta is home to two species of lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and black-and-white-ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata variegata). In the wild, lemurs are found only in Madagascar; because of this, they are sometimes referred to as the Malagasy primates. If you have ever stopped by The Living Treehouse, you may have seen them vertically clinging and leaping their way around their habitat.
When it comes to primates, lemurs have some pretty interesting morphological features. For starters, they have what’s called a rhinarium, or wet-nose, which helps with their very keen sense of smell. The ring-tailed lemurs have scent glands on their wrists, and all lemur species have scent glands under their tails. The scents enable the lemurs to identify groups and specific individuals, and they are especially important during their very short mating season.
Lemurs also have a tooth comb that is made up of their lower incisors and canines. Unlike our teeth, which are situated up and down, the dental comb faces forward, and it is a useful tool for both grooming and feeding. Strangely enough, the lemur also features a sublingual “under-tongue” that is thought to remove debris from the tooth comb. This small second tongue does not have taste buds and is a feature unique to the order, meaning monkeys and apes do not share this specific “toothbrush” trait.
If you’ve ever heard a loud ruckus emanating from The Living Treehouse, you’re probably hearing the lemurs vocalizing with one another. Like scent, auditory communication is very important to the lemurs, so the next time you’re at the Zoo, listen for these contact calls. Typically, if one lemur gets going, the rest will soon join in on the fun. In terms of behavior, lemurs are a bit different from the Zoo’s other primates in that the females are most often dominant. They are diurnal (meaning they are active both day and night), and the males and females are very close in appearance. Lemurs are endangered, so it’s very important that we study these species not only for conservation purposes, but also for insights on primate evolution.
As an intern who’s gotten the opportunity to train as a seasonal keeper, I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to work with such a wide variety of primate species. Whether lemurs, gorillas, or orangutans, I can’t help but notice the similarities between us and our closest animal relatives. The next time you’re at the Zoo, definitely stop by our fantastic primate exhibits. You will not be disappointed!
Seasonal Primate Keeper
Thursday, November 7
Typically when most folks think of the word “amphibian,” they think of either big bullfrogs “jug’o rumming” the night away on steamy summer evenings in the South or brilliantly-colored dart frogs bounding along unknown trails of dark tropical rainforests. It’s easy to see why – there are over 5,000 species of frog, after all! However, unless you’re of a certain ilk, you don’t often think “salamander.” While we maintain a wonderful array of native and tropical frog species here at Zoo Atlanta, we also have a diverse group of native U.S. species of salamanders. Some of these fascinating critters can be seen on exhibit in the World of Reptiles. Some, like the hellbender (also known variously as Snot Otter, Mollyhugger, and Grumpus), may be hard to see at times, but are incredible marvels that call the north Georgia mountains home (along with other parts of the eastern United States). Regarded as North America’s largest amphibian, these salamanders can reach lengths over two feet, although the three we currently have on exhibit top out at a “modest” 12 inches.
If you look closely among the rocks of their stream exhibit, you may notice some weird things about these giant salamanders. For one, their skin looks very wrinkly (which gives them another fun local name … the Lasagna Lizard). There is a reason behind those wrinkles! Hellbenders use the increased skin surface those wrinkles provide to help them absorb more oxygen. The waters they occupy in the streams of north Georgia are very cool (dip a toe before jumping in, trust me!) and highly oxygenated. Also, you’ll notice that they are pretty flat, especially their heads. That helps these slippery creatures not only squeeze under large rocks, but also allows them to walk against the quick flow of the streams they live in by creating very little drag.
Many legends surround these harmless “river monsters,” but they are completely benign members of the mountain ecosystem. Their wild diet includes crayfish, other underwater invertebrates, tiny fish and the odd smaller salamander. Our hellbenders at the Zoo enjoy fish, crayfish, and earthworms.
Hellbenders are among our most imperiled amphibians. In fact, the ones you see on exhibit at the Zoo were captive-raised in an effort by biologists from the state of New York and the Buffalo Zoo to re-introduce populations into parts of that state where they were once plentiful. We hope their efforts pay off and that you enjoy visiting these amphibian ambassadors at Zoo Atlanta!
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
Tuesday, November 5
Even in the colder months of the year, there are plenty of awesome animals to see and things to do here at Zoo Atlanta. As the weather starts cooling down, some of our animals start warming up. The laughing kookaburras (Dacelo novaguineae) at Outback Station are one of those species. They like cooler temperatures!
Laughing kookaburras can be found in eastern and southern Australia in cleared farmland, cities and suburban areas. They especially like wooded areas that are wet and cold. These birds are not migratory, so they will live in the same territory and will defend that area all year long. Laughing kookaburras can generally live 20 to 25 years and have a varied diet that includes snakes, lizards, insects, frogs and rodents.
Kookaburras weigh approximately one pound and are about 45 centimeters long. They have square-shaped heads and brown cheek patches on their faces. They are brown with grayish white patches on the undersides of their bodies and dark bands on their tails. They have a beautiful blue band of feathers on both of their wings. Male and female laughing kookaburras look almost identical.
Kookaburras have a unique song that is commonly compared to a full, boisterous human laugh. The song's cycle starts with a low chuckle “ooo” and then goes into a high “ha ha ha” and then back into a low chuckle. It is a communal (shared with neighbors) laugh and can usually be heard in the early morning and early evening. It is a yearlong song, especially present during the few months before the breeding season. Kookaburras have six distinctive calls: chuckle, chuck, squawk, soft squawk, cackle and kooaa. These are used in territorial, tense or excited behaviors and are used to communicate information only to family members, not to neighbors. The call of the kookaburra is used almost universally as a generic jungle sound in movies. Many times this is a gross misrepresentation, as kookaburras are not found in worldwide jungle habitats.
These birds are not globally threatened and are common over most of their range. They have benefited from human settlement. Kookaburras belong to the kingfisher family, which has 92 different species, 11 of which are threatened, and two subspecies are extinct (since 1600).
Come visit our male and female laughing kookaburras, Dundee and Sydney, at Outback Station right next to the petting zoo. You can also see Aussie, our other kookaburra, flying in Wildlife Theater shows on Saturdays and Sundays.
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, October 31
Well, as of this post, our little bouncing baby boy rhino calf will be 2.5 months old! He's growing in leaps and bounds! We were first able to weigh him on September 13 (almost a month after his birth since it's kinda hard to separate a calf from a protective mother!) at 190 pounds! Boy, were we shocked that he was so stout so quickly! We knew he was a studly boy, thick and healthy, but we had no clue that he was almost 200 pounds at less than a month old!
We've been able to get weights on him continuously in a third smaller stall in the rhino barn after he became comfortable with having us in the same space with him, as well as separated from his mom while still being able to see her. We have also been able to do a few blood draws with Dr. Sam Rivera, one of our vets, through an ear vein.
However, since he has become a “big” rhino, we are no longer able to go into the stall with him, so this will challenge us on getting blood work and weights on him. But he's a good boy, so our last weight on October 28 showed that he weighed 338 pounds! He still loves getting scratches and attention and will come up to the bars in the barn to greet us in the morning. It's wonderful getting to watch our little boy grow!
Keeper II, Mammals
Tuesday, October 29
Halloween, as well as the whole month of October, is thought of as the time to have fun with the scarier things in life. It turns out that humans are not the only species that think along these lines. Our animals like to give their keepers a scare from time to time as well.
In the Bird Department, we have had so many adorable chicks hatch this month that it is heartwarming, but every one of these chicks have given their keepers small heart attacks as they decide to make their debuts. For example, our Taveta weaver babies decided to fledge on a night when a huge thunderstorm hit Atlanta. A few weeks later, our buffalo weaver chicks decided to hatch on the coldest night of the year to date. Trust me when I tell you that these events have put multiple grey hairs on mine as well as my fellow keeper’s heads. But it is all forgiven in the end to see these beautiful babies flourish.
Keeper I, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, October 24
In view of Halloween season, some of the animals will also be receiving Halloween enrichment. Keep your eyes peeled for that holiday enrichment as you walk around the Zoo, especially as we approach October 31. For now, this coming Saturday and Sunday, October 26 and 27, are the last days for Boo at the Zoo. Fun-filled trick-or-treating and other activities Zoo-style!
Wintertime is also upon us. In the Zoo world, that means preparing all of our animals for wintertime. A lot of animals have been provided a heat source, extra nesting material and/or or access to an indoor area that is warm and cozy. Wintertime is also an opportunity to create new plans for training, rearranging our areas, building things, and creating things. As our Curator of Birds and Program Animals, James Ballance, mentioned in a previous post, a lot of painting has been happening. Painting typically requires removing things from the wall and moving furniture and such away from the wall. Things can get a little chaotic!
When you come to Zoo Atlanta and spot a keeper, ask him or her what new training plans they’re working on with their animals and what trained behaviors they have already trained and are important to maintain. Ask about what fun projects and enrichment they are working on. There is way more going on behind the scenes than what you can see from the exhibits! Some of the items on the back of the map include training and feedings that are fun for guest to watch, but these activities are also important for the animals to keep them enriched.
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, October 22
When you think of Halloween, your first thoughts might turn to ghosts and goblins or maybe even lots of candy. Here in the Primate Department, we think of the twin gorillas’ birthday! They were born October 31, 2005, so this year Kali and Kazi will be 8 years old.
It’s hard to believe that so much time has gone by already! They are both becoming more mature, with Kali (male) living in a young bachelor group with his 7-year-old half brother, Gunther, and 11-year-old male Mbeli. Kazi (female) remains with her natal group and is learning valuable infant-rearing skills for the future when it’s time for her to join a breeding group of her own. She is often seen babysitting 2 ½ year-old Merry Leigh and occasionally 7-month-old Andi. Come by and wish Kali and Kazi a Happy Halloween Birthday!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, October 17
The past several months have been very exciting for me. Just recently I was finishing my time as a graduate student teaching assistant at Georgia Southern University, hoping I would be fortunate enough to get a keeper position at a quality facility. Luckily for me, I was in the right place at the right time, and a position became available here at Zoo Atlanta’s Herpetology Department, where I had been conducting my graduate research for the past two years. Six months later, here I am. I have learned a lot already from the extremely knowledgeable reptile staff here, and I have been introduced to many new rare species of reptiles.
One of my first major tasks was moving the entire collection of on-and-off-exhibit outdoor turtles and tortoises inside for the winter. At this point, the big turtle move has been completed. All of our outdoor turtles and tortoises have been moved to their winter homes inside, where it will be nice and warm.
Two of our four female Guatemalan beaded lizards have been confirmed to have eggs through X-rays and should be laying them soon. In each of the past two years, we have had success in breeding this rare species of lizard, with an increasing number of hatchlings each time. We hope to continue this trend and hatch more this year than we did last year.
Our incubators are slowly emptying as the last of our turtle eggs are hatching. More impressed tortoises, Manuria impressa, from our lower temperature incubator have begun to hatch. When we place turtle eggs into the incubator, we typically split the eggs into two groups. We do this because turtles have something called temperature-dependent sex determinations (TSD), where the temperature that the egg is incubated at determines what sex the hatchling is. By incubating the eggs at two different temperatures, we are hoping to produce both male and female babies. The eggs that are put into the higher temperature will hatch first because they develop faster at the warmer temperature. So now eggs that were in the lower temperature incubator are beginning to hatch.
The most exciting hatchling news, that is hot off of the press, is the arrival of the first flower-backed box turtle, Cuora galbinifrons, hatched here at Zoo Atlanta. He hatched this past Tuesday, October 15, and weighed in at 23.9 grams. He has a lot of growing to do, and we are looking forward to watching it unfold.
Be sure to come visit us at the World of Reptiles. Our doors are always open!
Keeper II, Herpetology