Is that bird a male or female?

Photos by Kelli O'Brien

Photos by Kelli O’Brien

Determining the sex of a bird – penguins to eagles, snowy owls to great horned owls, king vultures to guinea fowls – is more difficult than one might suspect. Currently the Seneca Park Zoo has 21 male penguins and 13 female penguins. But we also have nine penguins of unknown sex. How do we know if they are male or female? The answer is science.

Snowy Owl 2013 Kelli O'Brien (2)

The best way to determine the sex of some birds is to look at the animal’s DNA. This is an extremely high-tech process that takes very specialized equipment to perform. Fortunately, the sample that is needed is fairly easy to obtain from our birds. All a scientist needs is a few feathers. Once we get the feathers, we mail the sample to the lab and a short time later we receive the news if we have a boy or a girl. That’s why we don’t know the sex of some of our young penguins; we like to wait until the birds grow up a little to get a sample from them.

For some birds it is quite obvious what sex they are just by looking at them. With chickens, the male (rooster) looks much different than the female (hen). In the wild many song bird males are more colorful then the females. Some of our Zoo birds we know are female because we’ve seen them lay eggs, which is always a sure giveaway!

Garrett Caulkins, LVT, Health Center Supervisor

Polar Bear 2011 A Lisa Schaller (Aurora & Zero)

Photo by Lisa Schaller

As zoo keepers, a question we are frequently asked is, “What’s your favorite part of your job?” As a keeper who works with the polar bears, another question I’m constantly asked is, “Where are the polar bears?”

Let me first tell you why I love my job. Just being able to spend time with exotic animals is reward enough for any of us. One of the most enjoyable things for us to do is to provide new and novel enrichment for the animals in our care. Enrichment is essential for the mental and physical wellbeing of all animals we care for. We try to find a variety of ways to entertain them and keep them busy, especially where they have to use all of their senses and body parts.

The response to “Where are the polar bears?” is a bit more involved. We strive to provide activities that will elicit the animals’ natural behaviors. In nature, polar bears hunt for seals under the ice through holes at the surface. Here at the Zoo, a favorite pastime of the polar bears is ice fishing. One of the off-exhibit areas contains a pool that tends to freeze over in the winter and the ice can get as thick as 4 1/2 inches. We make a few holes in the ice, about the size of an adult’s fist, where we can drop fish through to the bottom. As soon as we allow the bears access to that pool, they use their keen sense of smell to sniff out the fish. They head straight for the frozen pool, climb up on top of it, and peer into the holes where they can see the fish down below. That is all it takes to get them motivated and moving! They use their large paws and claws to dig at the ice surrounding those holes. The wide scratch marks they leave behind are telltale signs that bears have been there. The ice shavings they create by doing this remind me of the snow cones I used to eat as a child, which prompts me to flavor their snow as well, and I laugh when they lick it all away. Enrichment is fun for all of us.

The polar bears use their powerful jaws and long teeth to bite at the edges of the holes. This proves to be quite a mental and physical challenge for them and they keep at it. They use their massive shoulders and front legs to pounce on the ice trying to break through it. Our female, Aurora, will go and get her toys, carry them over to the pool, put them on the holes, and proceed to jump on them, trying to shove them into the holes to make them bigger. Our male, Zero, prefers to use his solid body and brute strength. Once they get the holes big enough to fit their front legs through, they reach inside, spear the fish with their claws, pull it out and devour the fruits of their labor.

The Zoo will be celebrating polar bears during Polar Bear Awareness Week and our polar bears, Aurora and Zero, will star in this week-long learning adventure.

– Heidi Beifus, Zoo Keeper

Imagine a landscape of white rock pockmarked with thousands of holes. At night, out of each hole extends a hand with six or more fingers, writhing and snapping at anything that passes by. To complete this bizarre scene, visualize the hands covered with hairs. To touch these hairs could mean instant death, for some are very poisonous. Now imagine all of this covered in a layer of mucus. Each hand is connected to the other by a thin layer of tissue extending over the surface of the rock, so that this becomes one big mat of living tissue.

This science-fiction description is very close to the reality faced by minute planktonic organisms floating helplessly toward a coral reef in the warm tropical seas. The hands referred to are the coral animals, known as polyps, each with six or more tentacles armed with cells capable of shooting out threads tipped with poison or sticky mucus, or whip-like ends that can wrap around prey. No other animal group uses these unique weapons. Few other animals can remove tiny organisms from the water with such efficiency. Yet, as efficient as the colony of coral animals is, it can not be sustained by what it can trap in seas whose meager crop of plankton cannot meet it’s nutritional needs.

Though they are voracious and efficient carnivores, corals as well as gorgonians, anemones, and giant clams must rely on a very unique means of supplementing their nutrition. Each harbor within their cells a single-celled algae called zooxanthellae (pronounced zoo-zan-thell-y). The coral polyps and zooxanthellae have what is known as a symbiotic relationship. Coral polyps produce carbon dioxide and water as byproducts of respiration. The zooxanthellae cells use the carbon dioxide and water to carry out photosynthesis. Sugars, fats and oxygen are some of the products of photosynthesis which the zooxanthellae cells produce. The coral polyp then uses these products to grow and carry out cellular respiration. The tight recycling of products between the polyp cells and the zooxanthellae is the driving force behind the growth and productivity of coral reefs. As much as 90 percent of the organic material they manufacture photosynthetically is transferred to the host coral tissue.

Another byproduct of the symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae is color. Several million zooxanthellae live and produce pigments in just one square inch of coral. These pigments are visible through the clear body of the polyp and are what gives many reef-building coral their beautiful color. As you begin to understand the complex ecosystem of the coral reef, it becomes clear how small physical changes such as ocean temperature, ocean acidification, poor fishing practices and land-based pollution can threaten the reefs’ ability to survive.

We invite you to come visit our coral reef exhibit, located in the Rocky Coasts Gallery, and watch this fascinating ecosystem close-up. Our philosophy is simple. If you see it, learn about it, and care about it, you will help protect it.

Blog, photo and video by Kevin Blakely, Zoo Keeper

Sea lions 1If you ask me, the best part of our jobs as zoo keepers is the opportunity to participate in positive reinforcement training. Most of the animals you see at the Zoo, from the tiny golden lion tamarins, to the great African lions, participate in training on a regular basis. When training with positive reinforcement, a trainer relies on motivating an animal through rewards rather than with force or coercion.

Animal training has a profound impact on our animals’ physical, emotional and mental welfare. The vast majority of behaviors we train are used to aid animal health efforts. We train our animals to stand on a scale to be weighed, voluntarily accept injections, give blood and offer body parts for keepers and vets to examine. Many animals voluntarily enter a crate to be transported to the animal hospital, eliminating the need to chase and capture them. This not only makes the whole experience more enjoyable for the animal, but it helps the vet get a clear view of the animal’s health by providing normal readings rather than the elevated heart rate, temperature and stress hormones they find in animals that had to be netted or chased.

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The benefits of animal training go much further than its effects on physical health. Training is an amazing way of exercising an animal’s mind. Essentially, when an animal is taught a new behavior, it is solving a puzzle. For example, which behaviors will earn me a treat? Solving problems to find food is a natural behavior and an important part of life for most animals. For an animal and trainer that know each other well, the animal is helping to solve the puzzle through subtle communication from the trainer. In a process called shaping, the trainer will reward behaviors that look more and more like the desired behavior. Through the process, the animal tries new things as if to say, “Is this what you want? How about this?” and is answered by the trainer’s patient waiting or quick reward. Together, they play a game of hot and cold until the right behavior is reached. At this moment, it is not uncommon to find both trainer and animal elated, each seeming to think, “We did it!” This moment of triumph keeps the animals coming back for more and it seems to give the animal as much joy as the trainer. Just watch Lou the hyena bound and spin in joyful circles the next time he sees one of his trainers. When taught to do a behavior on cue, these animals are empowered with ways to earn their food. Far from seeming defeated or subservient, these animals tend to put on an air of empowerment and eagerness to engage. Positive reinforcement trainers the world over report a permanent change in their animals as they become more bold and creative after participation in training.

By teaching the animals through patience, rewards and relationship, along with such creeds as “it’s never the animal’s fault” and “make the right behavior easier,” both trainer and animal are enriched and enjoy cross-species communication as well as continually unfolding new opportunities. Every day I feel grateful to not only work with, but communicate and reach goals with the wonderful residents of the Seneca Park Zoo.

Laura Shipp, Zoo Keeper and Co-Chair of the Zoo’s Animal Training Committee

Photos by Mary Ellen Ostrander & Kelli O’Brien

Winter and cold weather are here again, but it is still a great time to visit the Zoo. I think it’s the best time to see the Amur tigers, snow leopards and polar bears, animals perfectly adapted to the season. They seem to love to play in the cold and snow.

Since we aren’t adapted for the cold, the Zoo’s aviary is a great place to visit in the winter. It is like a trip to a warm, tropical island right in the middle of the Zoo. We have serene singing birds and a peaceful waterfall. In the aviary you share space with our tropical birds. All of our birds were hatched at other zoos, but they represent species found in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. They are all gregarious and found in a variety of different habitats. See our white-faced whistling ducks, roseate spoonbill and scarlet ibis swimming. Watch the emerald and superb starlings playing. Look for our crested wood partridges exploring the aviary along with the Nicobar pigeons and spotted dikkops. With his exquisite feathers, you can’t miss our male golden pheasant. And, of course, you can stop to hear all of their beautiful songs. Winter tends to be a quieter time at the Zoo, so you can spend all the time you need looking for every species, including the rare Bali mynah.

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So come on out to the Zoo and see the animals play in the snow and enjoy the invigorating cold. Then be sure to stop in the aviary and warm up with some of our feathered friends.

Blog by Lori Warner, Zoo Keeper | Photos by Walter Brooks

The Education Collection animals are getting a new home! If you have been to the Zoo recently, you may have noticed the building in which they were housed has been torn down. While they wait for a new building to take the old one’s place, the animals have taken up temporary residency in the Animal Hospital. The moving process took some major planning. With the help of many staff members we were able to move all the animals safely during a two day span. The animals have adjusted well, and we look forward to a brand new building in 2015. Stay tuned for updates on our new building!

Below are photos of some of our Education Collection animals. (Photos by Helen Dishaw.)

Kellee Wolowitz, Zoologist

Harris' Hawk 2009 C Helen Dishaw (Lady)

Harris’ Hawk

Rose-hair tarantula 2010 Helen Dishaw (2)

Rose Tarantula

Millipede 2008 B Helen Dishaw

Giant African Millipede

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake pictured is a female. We know this because she has 21 subcaudal scales, which are found on the underside of the tail. Males have 25 to 33 and females have 19-29. Believe it or not, most animals are sexually dimorphic. Sexual dimorphism, simply put, is a set of unique, observable characteristics that distinguish sex in a species. Observable is a key word here because there are many small details that often get overlooked. Laurence M. Klauber took the time to note many of these characteristics in his classic two volume book Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, published in 1972. I have always used this fantastic book as a reference. It has helped me to determine the sex of eastern massasaugas by counting the subcaudal scales.

– John Adamski, Assistant Curator

Photo by Rich Sajdak

Photo by Rich Sajdak


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