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Category — Exhibits

Helping Scientists Assess the Body Condition of Polar Bears in the Wild

As our global climate continues to change, we are already seeing reports and photos of polar bears with decreased body condition. How can scientists track that trend in a consistent manner across the polar bear’s range over the long term? That’s a problem scientists with Polar Bears International (PBI) are working to solve.

A young polar bear male jumping in the pack ice in Norway (Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques)

A young polar bear male jumping in the pack ice in Norway (Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques)

The Body Condition Project is a pilot program to develop tools that non-invasively gather information on the body condition of polar bears. Conceived by PBI’s chief scientist, Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, it is being conducted in cooperation with the University of Wyoming and Purdue University, with support and participation of animal care and research teams at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, North Carolina Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, the Indianapolis Zoo, and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

PBI has developed a Body Condition Index (BCI) card, which provides a standardized way to rate bears in the field through visual observation, and in some cases palpation or touch (if they are safely sedated). Over time, consistent records of body condition across years and regions will help scientists monitor individual condition, as well as how broader populations may be affected by large-scale environmental change, including loss of sea ice due to climate change.

Polar Bear Scorecard

As an Arctic Ambassador with PBI, we often facilitate research projects like the Body Condition Project that help us better understand and conserve polar bears. Last week, Marissa Krouse from PBI came to the Zoo to take 3-D photographic images of our female polar bear, Berit. The images will be compared to physical measurements we take of Berit while she’s under anesthesia in two weeks. This information will be used to improve the ability to assess the body condition of wild bears.

Marissa Krouse shoots photos of Berit

Marissa Krouse shoots photos of Berit

March 9, 2016   No Comments

Sloth News: A Mate for Moe and Sloths on the Go in Costa Rica

A Mate for Moe

If you’re one of Moe’s super fans, you may notice an empty tree in the Zoo’s Discovery Forest where the two-toed sloth would normally be. Where did Moe go? Don’t worry, she’ll be back soon…from her honeymoon!

That’s right! Moe will be off exhibit for a short while, snuggling up with a new mate named Twix. On short-term loan specifically for breeding purposes, Twix came to us from the Racine Zoo and will return once the honeymoon is over. A special off-exhibit honeymoon suite has been outfitted to set the mood, complete with a palm frond canopy and rainforest sounds.

Moe awaits her new mate in the off-exhibit "honeymoon suite"

Moe awaits her new mate in the off-exhibit “honeymoon suite”

Twix awaits his introduction to Moe

Twix awaits his introduction to Moe

While Moe is “on vacation”, her exhibit space is being upgraded and expanded with new trees and vines that will allow her more room to move around and explore once she returns to the Discovery Forest.

If all goes as planned, Moe will give birth to a single 12-ounce newborn 10 months later. With fully formed claws at birth, the youngster will cling to the fur on Moe’s belly for six months or more and remain with her for at least a year as young sloths do in the wild.

Sloths on the Go in Costa Rica

Meanwhile in Costa Rica, several young sloths that have been rescued and rehabilitated by Kids Saving the Rainforest (KSTR) and The Sloth Institute (TSI) are making their way back into the wild with help from the Cincinnati Zoo. Last September, two of the Zoo’s Interpretive Animal Keepers traveled to Costa Rica to help TSI prepare for the sloth releases. Soon after, TSI initiated the release process for two sloths, Ellen and Kermie.

Ellen and Kermie are both two-toed sloths. Ellen arrived at the KSTR rescue center when she was about three or four months old. She was found on the beach alone with no mother in sight. Kermie was rescued when he was a mere newborn (less than one week old). He was found on the ground with a twin brother that sadly never made it to the rescue center alive. Both Kermie and Ellen have spent almost their entire lives together and they are now almost three years old. They are very bonded and spend most of their time together. They sleep together every day and have even been observed breeding!

Kermie takes it easy (The Sloth Institute)

Kermie takes it easy (The Sloth Institute)

Before venturing straight back out into the wild, the young sloths first spent some time acclimating to the forest in a 20X20X20 ft pre-release enclosure. Here they can climb and explore their new environment while still being provided shelter and food. TSI spent hours every day collecting leaves from the forest for Ellen and Kermie to eat so they could learn what to forage for when they are out on their own.

The next big step was to open the enclosure door, allowing Ellen and Kermie the opportunity to move freely between the pre-release enclosure and the wild as they choose. Over time, the hope is that they become more and more self-reliant and eventually stop returning to the enclosure at all.

Ellen exploring the treetops (The Sloth Institute)

Ellen exploring the treetops (The Sloth Institute)

Both are fitted with VHF tracking collars (funded by the Zoo). This way TSI staff can monitor the sloths around the clock and record their behaviors, postures, tree choices, food choices, and so on. TSI collects similar behavioral data on wild sloths in the area with which they can compare the behavior of the released sloths. This will let them know how the released sloths are faring in the wild and if they are acting like wild sloths.

Wilbur is one of the wild sloths being studied (The Sloth Institute)

Wilbur is one of the wild sloths being studied (The Sloth Institute)

With Ellen and Kermie well on their way back into the wild, the next sloths beginning this transition are two-year old Monster and one-year old Piper. Both three-toed sloths, Monster came to the rescue center as an orphan at just two weeks old; she was found crying and trying to cross the street on her own. Piper was rescued clinging to another young sloth after they had fallen down a rocky cliff onto the beach at high tide. Piper was about four months old when he was rescued. They have been learning the new sights, sounds and smells of the forest in their pre-release enclosure and the door is scheduled to open in about a month. They will be fitted with tracking collars and monitored in the same manner as Ellen and Kermie to assess the success of their release.

Meet Monster. Perhaps she was named for her monster claws? (The Sloth Institute)

Meet Monster. Perhaps she was named for her monster claws? (The Sloth Institute)

Here's Piper! (Photo: The Sloth Institute)

Here’s Piper! (Photo: The Sloth Institute)

Can you find Monster here in her pre-release enclosure? (The Sloth Institute)

Can you find Monster here in her pre-release enclosure? (The Sloth Institute)

This is the first time hand-raised sloths have been released back into the wild. Long-term monitoring is important to determining its success. It will also help us learn more about the natural ecology of sloths and provide insight into how to overcome the challenges they face in the wild.

Stay tuned for more sloth news as we keep our fingers crossed for Moe and Twix here at the Zoo and Ellen, Kermie, Monster and Piper in the wild.

February 22, 2016   3 Comments

Pushing the Envelope on Frozen Semen Fertility with Gek the Pallas’ Cat

Back in the early 1990s, an eager young post-doctoral fellow was hired to study cat reproduction at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. One of his first projects involved a small-sized, little-known Central Asian felid called the Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul).

Pallas' cat (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Pallas’ cat on exhibit in Night Hunters (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

At the time, there was a grand total of one male Pallas’ cat in all U.S. zoos – a wild-born Mongolian cat named Gek. The post-doc dutifully collected and evaluated Gek’s semen every two months for almost two years and, for the first time, documented the extreme reproductive seasonality typical of this species. Concurrently, he froze Gek’s semen for long-term storage.

Fast forward 22 years later. That post-doc, Dr. Bill Swanson, is now CREW’s Director of Animal Research, and in early 2015, found himself in desperate need of frozen Pallas’ cat semen. Fortuitously, he previously had acquired Gek’s samples from the National Zoo. Frozen semen from Gek and two other males was used for laparoscopic oviductal artificial insemination (LO-AI) of four Pallas’ cats at three U.S. zoos (Cincinnati, Columbus, Pueblo). Two of those cats appeared to conceive; however, only the Columbus Zoo female subsequently gave birth. Her single kitten was fully developed, but, unfortunately, stillborn.

Dr. Swanson with his little buddy Gek in 1993

Dr. Swanson with his little buddy Gek in 1993

Notably, the father of that kitten was … (drum roll, please) …Gek! The pregnancies and birth were the first ever with frozen semen in Pallas’ cats but also established a new longevity record for frozen semen fertility in any wildlife species. Additional LO-AIs using Gek’s frozen samples are planned for 2016 – hopefully followed by the birth of healthy kittens this time around. Long-live Gek!

(Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services)

February 12, 2016   3 Comments