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What’s happening in research at the Zoo?

Like every aspect of the Zoo’s operations, research activities have been greatly curtailed by the pandemic. Our primate behavior research intern position is unfilled at this time, outside researchers are prevented from accessing most areas of the Zoo, especially behind-the-scenes, and Zoo team members similarly are limited by staffing constraints and common-sense COVID safety measures from being as research-active as usual. But rather than bemoan all the things that are not happening, let’s focus on the things that are happening! Here are some highlights of research projects taking place at the Zoo recently.


Lauren Wilson is collaborating with a group of engineers from Georgia Tech and our flamingo colony to understand the fluid dynamics involved in how a flamingo’s beak effectively filters suspended food particles out of the water. The team made a little “feeding trough” rigged with mega-powerful high-speed cameras and more traditional GoPro cameras to video-record the movements of the beak and to visualize how the beak sets up little currents of water about itself, drawing water laden with suspended food particles into the beak.  Modelled on the cranium from a deceased flamingo from another institution, the team 3-D printed a plastic functional replica of a flamingo beak, so they can compare how the real beak functions versus their model. From this work, we will learn a lot about the extraordinary evolutionary specialization of a flamingo’s beak and the role it plays in feeding, and the engineering team hopes to apply nature’s beak design into an improved filtering device. As for the flamingos, it’s just another nice day at the Zoo albeit some of their food is now presented in an engineered device rather than a plastic tub. The Bird Team has been working hard to get the birds accustomed to the new feeder and initial trials have already produced some pretty amazing underwater feeding videos.

Monica Halpin is leading an effort with archaeologists from University of Colorado with some special feeding trails with the lappet-faced vultures. For their archaeological investigations, the researchers often are working with ancient animal bones that may have been chewed upon by natural scavengers, such as vultures, or may have been butchered by ancient humans or earlier relatives. They need to be able to distinguish between marks made on bones by scavenging animals vs. hunter-gatherer humans. To accomplish this, we are offering goat legs (obtained from USDA-approved sources such as farmers markets) to the vultures and then saving the leftovers, presumably including beak-marked bones, and shipping them to the archaeology lab in Colorado. Pretty interesting stuff, and refreshing to see our animals contributing toward research that is not strictly biological in context. And our vultures get some naturalistic feeding opportunities as enrichment!


The Elephant Team has ordered cool remote audio recorders (like an audio version of a camera trap) so we can learn how the elephants are vocalizing (or producing other sounds, like snorts perhaps) and, crucially, getting overnight recordings.

Georgia Tech graduate student Andrew Schulz (also a Zoo Volunteer) has been working with the team and Kelly for some time now to investigate the fine-and large-scale manipulations of the trunk in terms of biomechanical forces and manipulative abilities. Kelly seems to love the enrichment she gets from Andrew’s ingenious devices and tasty snacks. Scheduling for Andrew’s work has been badly compromised by the pandemic, but because Kelly seems to enjoy it and the trials can be conducted in a COVID-safe manner, we have been able to continue the work at least at some level.


Robert Hill and Joe Mendelson have been mining historical data from our colony of Guatemalan beaded lizards and published two short papers on reproduction. One was a summary of clutch size in the species, as well as in the black beaded lizard (working with a collaborator at a zoo in Mexico), and comparing these data to other more well-known species of beaded lizard, such as the gila monster. The other paper also reported, for the first time, ritualistic male–male combat in Guatemalan beaded lizards; this was not unexpected, but nevertheless had never been reported previously. In another project, they are collaborating with a geneticist at University of Tulsa to recover the pedigree of our beaded lizard colony. This will give a record of how all of our individuals are related, to inform future conservation breeding efforts.

Georgia Tech students, working with Joe Mendelson, have been making observations of behaviors in our eastern diamondback terrapins, looking for signs of social and play behaviors. Another group of students, working also with Sam Rivera, documented remarkably different behaviors during surfacing (for breathing) between our newest cohort of tiny baby terrapins and the recently released larger sub-adult terrapins. Aside from the behavioral differences, the team has been using museum specimens and salvaged road-killed terrapins from our partners at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center to investigate the anatomy of poorly studied organs called cloacal bursae in terrapins, as those organs appear to play a role in maintaining buoyancy in the water.


Marieke Gartner worked with the Giraffe Team and former research interns Ellen Sproule and Liz Haseltine to collect pre- and post-data on how our giraffes used their old space vs. the new habitat. That project currently is in the statistics phase, so we can anticipate interesting results to start appearing from those efforts!


Sarah Hamilton, Danielle Linthicum, Melissa King, and Kimberly Rodgers currently are writing up the results of their evaluation of the African Savanna complex. They collected data through surveys and guest observations and will be presenting our findings soon. Specifically, they examined learning outcomes and engagement with interpretive elements (signage). Those results will be interesting, and very valuable. The team will move on next to do a similar evaluation of Trader’s Alley as it is being considered for a general update.

Thank you all for your wonderful patience and support of our Zoo as we are navigating historic times and challenges! We are looking forward to seeing you soon, and imagining your smiles underneath those masks.

Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Research

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