Notes From the Zookeeper: I’m Positively Giddy

We’re used to making history in our department. Is that bragging? I’m okay with it. Our successes have, in many cases, perpetuated the propagation and potential rescue of entire species. The beauty and frustration of the field of Herpetology is that it is still in its infancy, with so many discoveries yet to be made. But we’re making them, slowly but surely, with research and a large helping of patience.

Our zoo (my curator, Michael Ogle, really) has made some historic firsts. Lots of zoos, our own included, got eggs from their Malagasy tortoises regularly, but not only did they not hatch, they never even began to develop. Embryo development is quite easy to see just by turning out the lights and shining a pen light through the egg. An egg that is developing has distinct veining, and eventually, you can see the shape of the tiny little reptile. It was extremely unlikely that the dozens of eggs produced over the years were ALL infertile. There was something keepers were missing, some cue, some signal. But what was it?

You’re looking at a baby tortoise. An embryo. If I m not mistaken, its head is toward the left. I watched it move. It has months to go before it hatches, and I saw it wiggle. Mind = blown.

My boss (he hates when I call him that!) solidified the gold standard for hatching Malagasy tortoises by reading a field guide and taking a risk. After egg-laying season, the temperatures drop in the wild. Michael speculated that by cooling the eggs to 65F (18C) for a couple of months and then replacing them in an incubator at 84-88 degrees, fertile eggs might begin to develop! He was right!The egg waits until weather warms up to begin developing, otherwise it’s like Game of Thrones. Winter is Coming. There won’t be food when the egg hatches if it starts before winter is over. Michael hatched the first Flat-Tailed Tortoise (Pyxis planicauda) in the Northern hemisphere, with many others to follow.

By applying these same principles to the other species of Malagasy Dwarf Tortoises, our department has had amazing success. In 2006, Michael hatched the first captive Northern Spider Tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides brygooi) in in the world. Heady stuff, right? Now we are headed full circle. Look what happened a couple of days ago!

The first egg from the very first hatchling in the world! She isn’t the first captive-bred to lay an egg, but this is still a significant event for us. And I am trying to hatch an F2 (grandkids of the wild-caught animals) of all three sub-species.

The chances that this egg will hatch are very slim, mostly because the male she is paired with did not figure out what girls were for until this breeding season, so chances are that the space shuttle didn’t quite hit the dock. But it’s an excellent sign. Eventually they will get it right! I have hatched one F2 this year, just 2 sub-species to go, and I now have eggs from ALL of them!

Maybe this is too much information to process. TL;DR A rare hatchling laid her first egg.

This is what’s rocking my world this week. What’s great in yours?

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Notes From the Zookeeper: Saying Goodbye

I love to share the good things. There is so much about my job that is good, hopeful, wonderful. I hatch baby tortoises fairly regularly now, I have the privilege of taking care of an Aldabra Giant Tortoise that I met for the first time when I was on a class field trip in the first grade, and my job is never, ever boring. There is so much to learn, so much to question, so much to DO! Happy is when a kid overcomes their fear and pets Big Al for the first time. Happy is when a new baby tortoise hatches and thrives. Happy is changing a guest’s mind about the value of snakes in their yard. But with light comes dark, with sweet comes bitter.

A few weeks ago, we lost Khaleesi, our beautiful female Komodo Dragon. She would have been nine in August. Captive dragons don’t live as long as their wild counterparts, a phenomenon we have begun to understand and correct, but a captive life expectancy is around 25 years. At 9 years old, she was still a young dragon. We are still reeling from her loss.

One Saturday she looked like she was favoring one hind leg. A few days later, she was gone. Necropsy (an autopsy for animals) revealed that she was carrying eggs, several of which had begun to decay. Had the eggs been fertile, she would likely have laid them days, even weeks, prior. Infertile eggs don’t pass through the reproductive tract as easily. Retained eggs lead to infection, and that is what got our girl.

Dog and cat owners can tell you how strong the human-animal bond can be and how much it hurts when our pets die. We loved our dragon the same way other folks love their cats and dogs. She was one of a kind, and we miss her.

She arrived at Zoo Knoxville eight years ago, as a yearling. Komodo Dragons have an excellent sense of smell, so one way to get to know her keepers was to have each of them put a dirty work-out shirt in her exhibit with her a few times per week. Dragons are intelligent, as well, and they recognize individuals by sight and by smell. Very quickly, she had picked her favorite person. Each time the shirts were hung in her exhibit, she would yank his down and sleep on it. Years later, when he had been promoted out of the department, he could still do things with her that none of the rest of us had the nerve to. He could hold her to have her claws trimmed when she was nearly grown.

People were stunned that we would go into her exhibit with her, but she was a pleasure to work with. We always took precautions. She was a wild animal, after all. But we knew her – knew how to read her behavior. We used a Komodo stick, basically a long, thick stick with a fork at one end, useful for pinning a tail, pushing a head away, or cupping the back of a chunky thigh to encourage her to move forward when she was dug in and refusing to go inside. Sometimes she surprised us. Last summer, she learned to pin the stick with her thigh so she could try to whack it out of our hand with her tail.

Khaleesi was very intelligent. Not only did she recognize individual keepers, she responded to each of our expectations differently. Stephen, her primary keeper, didn’t hesitate to open the door to feed her when she was right in front of it. He could get by with that. He had known her longer and had worked with her more. It took her only a couple of tries to learn that if I was feeding her, she needed to go up on a platform under the lights. Considering she only ate once a week, it was a pretty impressive feat on her part.

Intelligence also means curiosity. Any time we brought something into the exhibit that she hadn’t seen before, she would run over as quickly as she could, tongue-flicking to beat the band. I once brought in a temperature gun to make sure the exhibit was warm enough, and tried to climb my leg like a temp gun was exactly what she wanted for her birthday. How could you not love an animal like that?

We’ve been asked quite a bit whether or not we’re getting another dragon. The short answer is that we don’t know. The longer answer is that there aren’t any available dragons right now, and we don’t know if that will change. We don’t even know right now if any zoos are incubating viable eggs. So we wait to see what will go in her exhibit.

We wait. And we miss her.

 

 

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Something Terrible Happened Here

There is only one witness, and he is a little fuzzy on the events that occurred. I understand. I’m sure it was terrifying.

“He went thataway!”

One minute the sprinkler in Big Al’s lot was merrily chugging along, watering the grass and filling his mud hole. The next, this:

What happened? Where did that third arm go?

I looked for Al to ask him if he had seen the perpetrator because he had been hanging around close by while the sprinkler was running. He was all the way in the front of the exhibit. Hmm. That’s weird.

Hey, Al! Did you happen to see who did this to my sprinkler? I’d like to talk to them!

I took the broken pieces out and threw them away. When I came back, Detective Al was investigating the crime scene.

“Wait, Miss Heather! Wasn’t there a sprinkler right here? I mean, um… Someone laid on it. I do not know who. I had never seen them before in my life! I hope you catch them!”

Unfortunately, the case has gone cold. I wonder if we will ever solve this particular mystery. In the meantime, Big Al asked me if I wouldn’t mind starting a GoFundMe for a new bidet. I’m sure he meant sprinkler.

The Introverted Activist: Be the Light

I was so depressed this morning that I could barely get out of bed. This administration becomes more monstrous by the day; there is so much evil in the world, and I can’t take it anymore. There aren’t enough anti-depressants in the world to make me feel better. Like, I asked the world to quit turning because I wanted to get off. What can I do? I called my senators (both Republicans, both speaking out against the abuses at the border), I called the Department of Justice (1-202-514-2000), but I didn’t feel better. Not at all. Again, what can I do? I am one person. And I figured it out. My most important job right now is to make my own tiny corner of the world the very best that it can possibly be. And so I did.

I did anything I could think of.

  • I picked up trash
  • I checked a reservoir before the end of the day so my co-worker didn’t have to fill it
  • I paid for the groceries of a little elderly lady whose check kept getting rejected at the check out
  • I let a birthday boy help feed Al his watermelon
  • I let cars into traffic, and I didn’t honk when someone cut me off
  • I talked to lots of zoo guests who had questions and tried to make their day a little better
  • I let son choose what we watched while we worked
  • I made falafel for husband and son
  • I didn’t expect son to eat the tabouli
  • I let smallest pick his own dinner – ramen noodles – and didn’t bark about nutrition (there’s always tomorrow!)
  • I fed my silver Arowana a little extra goodness. Roaches. Her favorite
  • I gave the dogs extra biscuits
  • I am making plans to take my husband to see the Mr. Rogers documentary – something that we BOTH need!
  • I wrote the report for today so my co-worker didn’t have to
  • I gave my intern some fun jobs to do – like feed Al. It was good for both of them

Am I cured? Not by a long shot. My heart still hurts, and I am struggling to breathe sometimes. But tomorrow is another day, and I will do it again. As much as I can for as long as I can. You do it, too. Do what you can to make your world better than it was without you. You do it, I’ll do it, and before you know it, we will have our world back. We can do it. Together. Be the light.

Notes From the Zookeeper: How DO You Move a 525lb Tortoise?

It’s the best time of year – SPRING IS HERE! And do you know what that means? It’s time for Big Al to go on exhibit! Al the Aldabra Giant Tortoise loves to be back out on exhibit. He likes to be out in the fresh air, natural sunlight, green grass, and in the midst of his adoring public.

So how do we move this big guy? In the past, we have lifted him in the back of a truck and driven him to the front of the zoo. And by “we,” I mean 8 guys who are way stronger than I am. Al does not enjoy being lifted. It’s unsettling for a tortoise to be lifted off their feet, but there wasn’t a better way. Until this year. This year, we have a crate!

Big Al did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday. He knows what it means when the exhibit design team and our curator appear at his enclosure. And he does not like it. Last fall, he did fine walking toward the truck until he heard our curator’s voice, and then he knew for SURE what was about to happen. He headed off in a different direction as fast as his chilly legs could carry him. So it’s all about patience and baby steps. I did ask my curator to steer clear so Al wouldn’t be tipped off.

Al loves my son, so I had him walk Al toward the greenhouse gate with a handful of honeysuckle. Exhibit design team came down to meet me. In order for the move to be as stress-free as possible, I told the team to treat it as a social call. They could offer him treats, pet him, etc. My goal was to keep them from having to push or pull on him because once that happens, he is no longer game, and our job would be much more difficult. The tricky part was that the greenhouse is surrounded by woods – lots of delicious things to eat. If he headed off-course, we’d have to wrestle him into the crate.

How do we move a Giant Tortoise? Like this:

We planted grass and clover last fall, and I over-seeded a few times to get the lot ready for my sweet boy. And he has thoroughly enjoyed it. He stayed up way past his bedtime because he couldn’t stop eating the delicious, fresh grass.

The move was completely without fear or trauma. He did not lose his trust in me, and was happy enough to pose for a picture. No hissing and running. Yay!

Who’s a tired boy? Normally he’s down for the night by now, but he’s so intrigued by the clover that he is only taking a nap. How do I know? By his stretched out neck. When he is down for the night, he parks himself with his head against a wall.

Notes From the Zookeeper: Gratitude

I love my job. There are so many things to be grateful for.

The first call is the critically endangered Golden Dart Frog. The second call is a Bumblebee Dart Frog. I have played these calls back to them for fifteen minute stretches three times a day, five days a week for several weeks now. It gets them grooving.

  • Ingenuity and success. Bowers made of coconuts cut in half are recommended for breeding Dart Frogs. I only have one, and my Annulated Boa has commandeered it. So I made due with what I had – black snake hide-boxes set atop the lids from Chinese food takeout containers. And you know what? It worked!

These are just a few of the eggs hidden in the exhibit. If they hatch, Dad will carry them to a water source on his back. Check back in about 10 days days.

  • Hoses that don’t kink
  • Hoses that aren’t frozen
  • Brand-new hoses that save us from filling our rearing reservoir with a bucket in the cold
  • Guests that show up on bitter cold days because they love the zoo
  • A raise
  • Good water pressure
  • Disposable food storage containers. Seriously. We use these for everything from storing food to raising dart frog tadpoles. Thank you, Glad and Ziploc! Wanna sponsor a post?
  • When the youngsters start to figure out what they’re meant to do

Egyptian Tortoises (Testudo kleinmanni). He’s only seven, so he’s maybe not quite got the hang of it yet, but he’s trying!

  • Surprises. My female Chinese Crocodile Lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus) has babies every two years. So we thought. She had eleven babies last year. In December, she surprised me with eleven more. This species is critically endangered due to habitat destruction, fragmented populations (some groups have 10 or fewer adults, which isn’t sustainable), over-collection for the pet trade, and a long gestation period (9-14 months!) which combine to make population recovery difficult

Newborn Chinese Crocodile Lizard. It’s tiny until you think that there were ELEVEN of them all curled up in there!

  • This guy.

    Tex, wearing his best opuntia fruit lipstick.

  • When my snack drawer is full. Zookeeping is hungry business!
  • Hidden opportunities. In 2017, I got to volunteer at the Turtle Survival Center in SC, and I got to go to the Turtle Survival Alliance conference in Charleston. I also had a trip to Amphibian Management School. This year, I’m going to Amphibian Research School, and I have a lead on a trip to California.
  • Weird animals
  • Mossy Leaf-tail Gecko (Uroplatus sikorae) shortly after hatching

  • Guests who ask questions and are genuinely interested in learning more
  • The sense of wonder and amazement when guests finally see a well-camouflaged animal on exhibit
  • Plants. I just started two small green houses at work with cuttings to make some really interesting additions to exhibits
  • My iPod. A lot of what I do is solitary. It takes me 6-8 hours a week to maintain my aquatic exhibit. It’s great to have music to listen to. This year, I may expand to podcasts
  • Lowe’s. I love home improvement stores, and it gives me jollies to know where everything is
  • Toboggans and gloves. It’s cold out there!
  • Possibilities. We’re working on planning our new facility. It is going to be incredible and state-of-the-art. Stay tuned!

What are you grateful for? Today is the last day that the linkup is active. Want to participate? Set a timer for 15 minutes. Make a list of what you are grateful for. When the timer goes off, stop. Post, link.

From Dawn at Tales From the Motherland:

How to join in: write your own post and publish it. Copy the link from the post. Then click on the frog below, and follow the instructions to add your link. If you have any trouble, please let me know, and I’d be happy to help. I will also add a link to each post on my own blog post, as they are published. For extra fun, please add the hashtags #BloggersUnite and/or #50HappyThings… because, well, everyone loves a hashtag! The link-up expires January 15th at 11:59pm.

Click here to link

 

 

The Daily Post : Weathered

I haven’t tried the Daily Post in a number of years, but I was inspired by today’s theme: weathered. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t put a zookeeper slant on it, though, would I?

Riverbanks Zoo has a herd of Galapagos Tortoises. We have Aldabra Tortoises at our zoo. These two species are a fascinating example of convergent evolution – animals that develop similar traits, but in different parts of the world. Galapagos Tortoises are found off the coast of Ecuador in South America, and Aldabs are found off the east coast of Africa in the Seychelles. They last shared a common ancestor about 20 million years ago. But they are so similar.

Here’s an Aldabra Giant Tortoise:

Big Al and his watermelon that was donated by a child. If I cut up the watermelon, it’s gone in 10 minutes. A whole watermelon gets shoved around for 5 hours.

Galapagos Tortoise in Riverbanks Zoo, SC

There are minor differences. Galapagos tortoises can get up to about 600lbs, depending on the subspecies, whereas Aldabs top out typically at 350. Though Big Al is a plus-sized model. He’s 525lbs. Galaps typically lack the little scale on their shell behind their neck, called a nuchal scute. Their shells vary, and some have really high arches at their necks to allow them to reach taller shrubs. And Galaps have a very round head by comparison to Aldabs, but you have to really know them to notice. My favorite difference is that Aldabs stretch out their necks to be scratched, while Galaps look straight up. ADORABLE!

The thing about both species is, they can live for, like, ever. Not really. Eventually they peter out, but they live a very, very long time. One animal died in 2006, and there were records on it going back 252 years, and it was a wild-caught animal. The oldest confirmed tortoise was 189 years old. That’s a lot of wear and tear.

Time takes its toll on all of us, tortoises included.

It’s like looking into the face of a dinosaur. Weathered.

Time, wind, and water wear us down. The scales on this Galapagos tortoise girl’s neck have worn smooth with time. Her shell, too, sports that lived-in look. She had a nice hole in her carapace (top shell) that is now a cozy home to a spider.

See the spider web? It was nice and fresh. The damage is purely cosmetic. Shells are tough!

She looks pretty good for her age, don’t you think? Just imagine, a century ago, she looked more like this:

Juvenile Galapagos Tortoise

This tortoise is under six months old, all shiny and pretty and new. There are plenty of growth rings in her shell, too. They are like trees. As they grow, they get new rings. The center of the ring is essentially dead shell, like our hair or fingernails, and the rings are fresh growth. This little baby is all bright-eyed and represents the future of her species.

And this girl? She’s bursting with history.

If this girl could talk…

What do you think of when you hear the word “weathered?” Show us your best photos. Join this week’s Daily Post.

 

Notes From the Zookeeper: Remember Meatball the Miracle Tortoise?

Remember this little guy? He is a tiny miracle of a Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) . His egg had been broken during excavation of the nest (we have to excavate them or the eggs will die), and his keeper had carefully replaced the broken bit of shell and hoped for the best. And out he came with only a small cosmetic defect in his shell.

Now Meatball is a year old, and my how he has grown!

Right before Christmas, guess what? Meatball had a baby brother!

Radiated Tortoise says it is going to have to odd, because it just…can’t…even…

The hatchling should be a male because it was incubated at a lower temperature – 84F. A temperature of 88F produces females. This minute difference in temperatures is one reason why climate change can have a devastating impact on a species. A few really hot summers can result in more females than males, which sounds great at first glance. But too many females in the breeding population can very rapidly reduce genetic diversity.

This baby popped out right before Christmas. What a great surprise! The eggs weren’t even expected to hatch for a few more weeks. We check eggs every morning and afternoon, because we never know for sure. It’s not like incubating bird eggs, where there is only a day or two of variability in expected hatch dates. There can be MONTHS of variability. Like now. SURPRISE!

Now, back to Meatball. It’s hard to see how much he has grown in the last year until you see him beside his new brother. So here ya go!

Meatball’s brother (so far nameless). He likes his collard-green plate more than his chopped greens and veggies.

And here are the two of them together.

Awww! Family portrait!

There are still a few more eggs in the incubator, and Mom and Dad have done such a good job making babies that they no longer have the recommendation to breed, so we will be getting a different pair to work with. If we fill up zoo holdings with animals that are closely related, there’s no room in captivity for genetic diversity. Most zoo animals only have a few offspring. It may be a little while before we have more baby Radiated Tortoises. That’s okay. They’re worth waiting for!

What’s exciting in your world? I want to know!

Notes From the Zookeeper: My Day in Pictures and a Mind-blowing video

Notes From the Zookeeper: Help!

Dear Mom,

I want to go home. I’m currently seven hours south of the ole homestead at the Turtle Survival Alliance conference in South Carolina. I get to spend the next three days learning all about countless species from experts the world over. Turtles? Yes. Studying up on them? Absolutely! School’s my jam! At a conference where I do not know a soul?  (insert needle-scratch) Ummm. People? I don’t do the whole human thing very well. I am shy, a little weird, and I have the social skilz of an octopus, minus the tentacles. Did I have tentacles when I was born, Mom?

This is me. Trying to blend in, or maybe just outright hide. My Patronus is an octopus.

I stepped out of the car into a city that smells of an odd mix of excrement and brackish water, and I was ready to turn around and go home. The brackish water I get. I’m right here on the coast. But poop? Why? Why the poop? I do not understand! I’m in the heart of the historical district. Is it historical poop? Maybe?

The hotel is a shack. Three room suites, valet parking, a mezzanine, thick walls where I can’t hear the neighbors scratching their bed bugs, maybe not even bed bugs. A shack. I will suffer through. But one of the bars of soap was already wet when I opened it, and that creeps me out more than a little. And everything from the soap to the lotion smells exactly the same.

Our opening event was at the South Carolina Aquarium. I had never been. It was all kinds of amazing. Let me show you.

There’s, like, this whole ocean and stuff!

I did make two friends right off the bat, Mom. Want to meet them?

And there were other cool things.

I found a drug store on my way back to the hotel, and I thought I should get some snacks because food is WAY too expensive here. $12 for hotel breakfast is way more than I want to spend. But I am a jinx, and as I was buying my stuff, the entire computer system shut down, and I had to stand at the register making awkward small talk with the cashier and manager for ten minutes. Ten long, painful, awful minutes.  Come and get me.

The TV is broken. At least the one in my bedroom is, and I don’t want to go to the living room. That’s too much trouble. I mean, the TV comes on, but it only gets crappy channels. There were these two pink people who were walking through the jungle. Did I mention they were nekkid? Why were they nekkid? I go hiking all the time, but always with my clothes on. Don’t these people know there are insects and other things you don’t want close to the tender parts? Am I missing something?

The alarm went off, and I’m still typing my letter. But I will get out of bed. I will. Eventually. I can do this, Mom. I can learn good stuff and make new friends and eat all my snacks so I’m not spending a billion dollars on breakfasts. I can do this. I can.

On second thought… there are two beds here. I should go try out the other one.