Category — Education
Guest blogger: Kelly Carpenter, Seasonal Keeper
Happy World Okapi Day! First, what is an okapi? Well, do not let the stripes on its back half deceive you. The okapi is actually the only living relative of the giraffe; thus, the nickname “forest giraffe”. The okapi was not discovered until 1901 because of its mysterious nature. It is a solitary animal, with the exception of mating and when a mother is with her calf. It lives deep within the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Ituri Forest is extremely dense, which has allowed for the okapi to remain hard to observe. This, along with its zebra-like stripes that look like streaks of sunlight filtering through the trees and its brown velvety fur, also helps this herbivore stay hidden from predators. Now when I say velvety, I truly mean that its fur feels like touching a piece of velvet. This fur has an oily texture that allows for the okapi to mark its territory and keep it dry on rainy days.
The okapi is around the size of a horse, standing about six feet tall at its head and weighing between 500 to 800 pounds. Just like a giraffe, it has a 14 to 18 inch long tongue that can wrap around limbs of trees and leaves, or even groom itself or calves with (there is a good chance you have seen one of our okapis licking their own eyeballs). Something that a lot of people do not know is that the okapi uses infrasonic sounds to communicate with other okapis. These are sounds that are below the range of human and predators hearing. It is very useful when a calf is first born as a way for the mother to get in touch with it; think of it like putting your cell phone on silent. The calf goes through what is called the “nesting phase”, in which it lies in vegetation for two to three months, conserving all of its energy for sleeping and nursing. It remains in this phase until the calf maintains its temperature, activates the rumens in its stomach, and defecates for the first time. This is the reason why our new calf will remain inside for the first few months after he or she is born.
You read that correctly, we are expecting an okapi calf this spring and we could not be more excited for his or her arrival! I am a seasonal keeper in Rhino Reserve where I have had the pleasure of working with the two okapis that call the Cincinnati Zoo home, and I have been completely captivated by them. Kuvua is our 7-year-old female (her birthday is coming up on November 4th) and is our mother-to-be. This will be her second calf. Her first calf, Kilua, recently moved to the Dallas Zoo to start a family of her own! Kuvua is truly a sweetheart; she is extremely gentle and easy-going. Her favorite foods include leaf-eater biscuits, lettuce and bananas.
Kiloro is her other half and is a 9-year-old male. He is very gentle as well, but tends to be a little bit more stubborn and knows what he wants. His favorite activity is chewing on branches or stealing browse straight from you so he can eat it right away. Both of our okapis are very smart and are trained for hoof trims, blood draws, and other medical behaviors. This training occurs through operant conditioning and requires myself and the other keeper staff to build a trusting and respectful bond with them.
Even with its hidden nature, this species is one whose existence is under threat because of human activities. In the wild, the okapi is completely dependent on the Ituri Forest. This forest is fighting the battle against deforestation, poaching, and mining. This has led the okapi to recently be classified as ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Okapi Conservation Project is working to help protect the habitat of the okapi as well as the other plants and animals that call the Ituri Forest home. They are doing this by creating a wildlife reserve that focuses on working with the community to create awareness and an understanding of the problems at hand. They are providing wildlife protection and alternative agricultural practices for food and reforestation.
World Okapi Day was created to celebrate this mysterious animal, to bring awareness to the threats it faces, and to show you how you can help, too! Today at the Cincinnati Zoo, right outside the okapi exhibit, we will be doing fun activities including a scavenger hunt and a raffle, as well as putting out special enrichment. We will also have the keepers, including myself, that get to work with these amazing animals every day out and about to talk to you about our okapis and answer any questions that you may have.
You can also post photos on social media with #OkapiConservation or #WorldOkapiDay. Even recycling your old cell phone at the Cincinnati Zoo will help prevent future mining in the Ituri Forest. So please be sure to tell all of your friends and family to stop by the Zoo and visit the most mysterious and curious animal, the okapi. I hope you all okapied (copied) all of that information! Learn more about the okapi and World Okapi Day here. Happy World Okapi Day!
If you are like me and cannot wait for the new baby to arrive this spring, here is a video of when Kilua first made her debut at the Cincinnati Zoo.
October 18, 2016 1 Comment
Guest blogger: Courtney Dvorsky, CREW Plant Lab Intern
Growing up in Cincinnati, my love for conservation research grew each time I visited the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. As a kid, I attended summer camps, and in 2008 and 2009, I was a VolunTeen. Now, seven years later, I had the amazing opportunity to be an Intern with the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) plant division! The project I worked on, funded by the Association of Zoo Horticulture (AZH), focused on determining if seed banking could be an option to help conserve some of the endangered trillium species.
There are many species within the Trillium genus of spring wildflowers, most of which are native to North American woodlands. With three petals, three sepals and three leaves, they are commonly called trinity flowers. Many trillium species, including the Ohio state wildflower, the white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), still thrive in the wild. There are others, however, that are threatened or endangered such as the persistent trillium (Trillium persistens).
My first task was to set up germination trials to compare germination in soil with germination in vitro (in tissue culture) for several different trillium species. Many trillium seeds have a double dormancy, meaning they need two cold periods to germinate entirely. Thus, it takes about two years for a seed to germinate into a trillium seedling. Unfortunately, as a result, I won’t see germination while I am at CREW.
My second task was to determine if the seeds could withstand drying in order to be seed banked. Seeds that are banked must be under 20% moisture content so we began by analyzing the initial moisture in the seeds directly out of a fruit pod. We then dried the seeds to different moisture levels using air, silica gel, and three humidity levels created in containers with three different saturated salt solutions (NaCl, MgCl, and LiCl).
After the seeds were dried, we analyzed them for moisture content and viability using a stain known as TTC (triphenyl tetrazolium chloride). If the seed is still viable, it will stain red. If the seed is not viable, it will not stain at all. So far we succeeded in drying the seeds to under the 20% moisture content needed for seed banking; however, they are often not viable. CREW is running more tests to try to repeat these results in the months to come.
Unfortunately, my time as an intern has come to an end. Luckily, I will be just a short distance away working on my PhD at Miami University of Ohio, so I will be able to check in on my seeds. Here’s hoping for some germination!
August 18, 2016 No Comments
Guest blogger: Christina Del Greco, CREW Plant Lab Intern
Hi! My name is Christina Del Greco. I’m a college sophomore studying biology at the University of Notre Dame. Thanks to a grant from the Association of Zoological Horticulture (AZH), I had the wonderful opportunity to be a plant lab intern with the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) this summer.
As a CREW intern, I worked on the oak tree conservation project. Scientists store seeds in seed banks for many plants, especially endangered ones, as a precaution in case the wild population of a plant gets too low. However, you can’t do that for oak trees, as the acorns don’t stay viable if they are frozen. This means that there has to be another way to build up a bank of oak tissue. CREW has been pursuing oak stem tip culturing, in which the tips of oak seedlings are put into test tubes filled with media meant to help the plants grow. This way, we can store test tubes of seedlings instead of acorns.
The problem is there are so many different types of media with different concentrations of various nutrients the plants need, and each species grows differently than the others. My main project was to work on a Design of Experiments (DOE—a statistical method of setting up experiments) project in which 26 different types of media are used for four different oak species to compare growth on different media and gather data in order to compare them.
I took pictures of each of the plants after one month in culture, and then again after two months in culture. I also kept track of things such as whether the plants were infected by bacteria or fungus, how tall they grew, if the medium they were in turned brown, if any leaves were growing, and more. All of these variables are able to potentially tell us something about what makes the oaks grow better or worse.
The data is sent to a collaborator at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who knows far more about statistics than I do, and he can use the results to determine if any of the particular nutrients had a noticeable effect on the growth of the oaks. In the future, once all of the statistical results come back, we can use that data to create what we hope to be the optimal medium on which an oak shoot can grow.
I worked on a few smaller side projects as well. One was to try and determine at what point you should trim off the tip of an oak seedling to put it in the medium. Generally, we clip off the stem tips relatively early in the plant’s development, but there has never been any consistency, so I chose three relative stages in three different species and put them in culture to see which one grew best.
I also started a few petri dishes to try to initiate somatic embryogenesis, which is a process in which we try to force plants to make embryos by placing non-embryonic parts of the plant (somatic tissue), such as small leaves, on a special medium in the dark to try and force an embryo to form on its own.
And, when an incredibly old red oak tree fell in the middle of the Zoo, I had the opportunity to collect samples to see if there was any way we could regrow the tree in the future, allowing me the opportunity to use all of the methods I had learned about at once.
I learned so much over this internship. Besides learning all sorts of new lab techniques, I had no idea there were so many different ways to try and conserve different species of plants. I also didn’t know that there are so many different endangered oak trees. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to work at CREW for the summer and learn all about conservation efforts both here and at zoos and botanical gardens all over the world.
August 16, 2016 1 Comment