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A Study to Honor Suci the Sumatran Rhino

The loss of our female Sumatran rhino “Suci” to iron storage disease just over a year ago on March 30, 2014 was a devastating blow to the Cincinnati Zoo’s Sumatran rhino breeding program. Iron storage disease is an insidious disease affecting many wildlife species that are maintained in zoos, ranging from marine mammals to birds. In addition to Sumatran rhinos, black rhinos are susceptible to the disease, whereas white rhinos and Indian rhinos remain largely unaffected.

Suci

Suci

The disease is extremely challenging because we do not know how to prevent it, diagnose it or treat it. The only known cure for the disease is frequent, large volume phlebotomies (blood collection), but nobody knows how much blood to draw or how often it must be removed to keep a rhino healthy, and it is difficult to perform phlebotomies without anesthesia. The best method for monitoring iron storage disease is to measure serum concentrations of ferritin, a protein involved in iron transport and storage, but ferritin can be species-specific, so an assay for humans or horses may not work accurately in rhinos. Such was the case with our Sumatran rhinos.

Electrophoresis gel of isolated rhino ferritin

Electrophoresis gel of isolated rhino ferritin

However, thanks to a dear family committed to helping rhinos that wanted to make a gift in honor of Suci, CREW has embarked on a new study to develop an assay specific for measuring rhino ferritin. The first step – isolating the rhino ferritin protein – is complete, and our goal is to have a functional assay by this coming summer. Our hope is that the assay will be used to monitor iron storage status in many rhinos throughout North American zoos to ensure the disease is detected before the rhino becomes sick.

This project was made possible by the generous donation of Mr. and Mrs. Jeremy S. Hilton and Family.

(Reprinted from CREW Review Fall 2014)

April 3, 2015   4 Comments

Sihil, the Zoo’s Ambassador Ocelot, Helps Save Ocelots in Texas!

Last week, the Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program and their ambassador ocelot, Sihil (pronounced C-L), traveled to Texas for the annual Ocelot Conservation Festival. Hosted by the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Gladys Porter Zoo, the Festival raises awareness about the endangered Texas ocelot and appeals to those who share their space with these pint-sized predators to protect them.

Sihil and her trainer, Alicia Sampson

Sihil and her trainer, Alicia Sampson

Did you know that ocelots still range up into the United States? Biologists estimate there are about 80 remaining and they live only in the southern tip of Texas. They are federally listed as endangered in the United States and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners work to protect them. Learn more from this infographic we created on saving the Texas ocelot:

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This is the eighth year in row that Sihil and her trainers have participated in the Festival, and the second year that I’ve accompanied them. It’s a long drive to and from Brownsville, Texas, but Sihil is an old pro at traveling. She enjoys watching the landscape and other cars go by out the windows of the van, and she especially cherishes the one-on-one attention and extra treats and toys she receives from her trainers on the trip. The rest of the time, she sleeps like a typical cat would.

Over the two days we spent in Texas, we kept busy. The first order of business was a 6:00AM television appearance on the local Channel 4 news to highlight the Festival. Next up was an appearance at a seminar held at the University of Texas Pan American . This event featured several speakers who addressed ocelots and the issues they face. Dr. Michael Tewes, Regents Professor and Research Scientist at Texas A & M, discussed his work with ocelots in Willacy County. The Texas Department of Transportation discussed transportation issues and the importance of wildlife crossings. Dr. Hilary Swarts, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Biologist, discussed the status of and issues facing ocelots in Cameron County. Following the speakers, Sihil strutted her stuff for an audience of about 125 while her trainers, Alicia Sampson and Colleen Nissen, shared information.

Sihil and her trainers at the University of Texas Pan American

Sihil and her trainers at the University of Texas Pan American

After lunch (and a nap for Sihil), our next appearance was at the Cameron County Commissioner’s Office. Nearly 60 government employees learned about Texas ocelots and were treated to what was a first glimpse for most of a live ocelot when Sihil jumped up on the table in front of them. Since they are so rare in the wild, most South Texans have never seen a live ocelot up close and in person before.

Cameron County employees meet Sihil

Cameron County employees meet Sihil

That evening the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge held its annual Ocelot Soiree fundraiser. Activities included live music, ocelot-themed appetizers, drinks, a live auction of ocelot-inspired art, a presentation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and of course, an appearance by Sihil.

Sihil at the Ocelot Soiree

Sihil at the Ocelot Soiree

The next day was the official Ocelot Conservation Day, which kicked off with Ocelot 5K and 1K Runs. Many of the 600 runners really got into the ocelot spirit with the way they dressed.

Ocelot 5K runners

Ocelot 5K runners

The finish line brought the runners into the Glady Porter Zoo’s South Texas Discovery Center where the Ocelot Conservation Festival was held. Each runner received a very cool ocelot medal as a badge of their accomplishment and support for ocelots.

Ocelot 5K Run medal

Ocelot 5K Run medal

From 10:00AM to 4:00PM, more than 1,300 people stopped by the Festival, which featured information tables, fun activities and the chance to watch Sihil show off her climbing skills. Needless to say, she was a big hit and generated a lot of great questions from the audience.

Face painting at the Ocelot Festival

Face painting at the Ocelot Festival

Sihil at the Ocelot Festival

Sihil at the Ocelot Festival

So what is the current status of ocelots in Texas? Are we having an impact? Can the population survive? With the discovery of two young ocelots on the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge earlier this year, biologists are optimistic. We know the population is breeding. This summer, the Texas Department of Transportation will begin construction on 13 new wildlife crossings on roads where ocelots have been struck and killed in recent years. This is great news and should cut down on road mortality, the number one threat to the current Texas population. As U.S. Fish and Wildlife continues to protect and restore thorn scrub habitat required for ocelots, it is hoped that the current population can continue to expand. There is also a plan in the works to translocate an ocelot from Mexico to Texas in the future, which would bring much needed genetic diversity to our population.

An ocelot kitten recently caught on camera at Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge (Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

An ocelot kitten recently caught on camera at Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge (Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

What can we do to help save Texas ocelots here in Cincinnati? Come join the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) Greater Cincinnati Chapter in celebrating and raising funds for ocelots at our first Cinco de Gato event!  Held at Barrio in Northside on May 8, a portion of the proceeds from food and beverage sales along with funds raised from raffle items and merchandise will go to the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge to support ocelot conservation. Mark your calendar and look for more details to come later!

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March 17, 2015   No Comments

Hand Rearing Kea: Behind the Scenes at Wings of the World

Here in the Wings of the World bird house at the Cincinnati Zoo, kea are all the hype this season. And this is with good reason. The success of the new interactive flight this past summer is noteworthy, but behind the scenes something just as exciting was occurring. The Wings of the World department includes an area off exhibit dedicated to incubating eggs and hand-rearing chicks.  This year we successfully hatched out and raised six kea chicks. Raising this species is a very time consuming process that requires the help of all the bird staff over the course of five months, from day one of incubation to fledging.

Artificially incubating eggs is a delicate endeavor. Eggs are fragile and sensitive; therefore it is vital to keep them in a clean environment with precise temperature and humidity settings. The bird department has four incubators dedicated to this, all set up for different species of birds that may require different parameters. Eggs are weighed and candled twice a week in order to closely monitor development. Candling is a technique used to see the developing embryo inside the egg. This technique indicates to keepers whether or not a chick is developing correctly, is in the right position for hatching, and when the hatching process has begun. Keeping track of weights is an indicator of whether or not humidity in the incubator needs to be adjusted. Kea egg incubation term is 21-28 days.

Kea eggs in the incubator

Kea eggs in the incubator

Once a chick has pipped (pierced the outer layer of the shell), it is moved to a different incubator where the temperature and humidity is ideal for hatching. It can take anywhere from 24-72 hours for a chick to hatch. All six of our kea hatched out on their own and proved to be strong and healthy when they were immediately standing upright and exhibiting a feeding response.

Kea chick mid-hatch

Kea chick mid-hatch

After a few hours, the chick can be moved to another enclosure, called a brooder. The brooder keeps the chick’s environment at a warm stable temperature. Keepers use washcloths and towels rolled up in a bowl to simulate a nest. As chicks grow and down feathers come in, temperatures and enclosures are modified to fit their needs.

One-week-old kea chicks in brooders

One-week-old kea chicks in brooders

Kea chicks are fed a specialized formula that meets all their dietary needs. The formula is made up fresh at each feeding and fed through a syringe. Weights are obtained daily and detailed notes are kept to ensure the chick is gaining the appropriate amount each day and hitting developmental milestones. The keas are initially fed every three hours, six times per day. That makes for a long day for the bird keepers! When the chicks start to become very mobile and curious with their surroundings, solid food is offered. Whether they play in it, walk in it, or sleep in it, it’s a good experience for them to have access to solids.  The bird staff spends a lot of time hand-feeding different food items in different forms until chicks begin to show interest. Overall, the best method to wean chicks is to have an adult kea around to show them how a real kea does it.

Five-week-old kea chick sleeping in its food plate

Five-week-old kea chick sleeping in its food plate

Once the kea are fully feathered and starting to self-feed, we begin daily field trips to the kea exhibit and holding areas. This gives the chicks an opportunity to adapt to a new environment, explore, exercise, and learn how to behave around adult keas.  As the chicks become more comfortable in this new environment, the longer they can stay out. The length of the trips and the need for supervision from keepers all depends on how the kea seem to be adapting. Overall, it takes around four months to hand-raise a kea and then fully integrate it into the flock. This is on par with a kea chick that fledges around 3-4 months of age in the wild.

Juvenile keas have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) that makes them distinct from adults.

Juvenile keas have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) that makes them distinct from adults.

Raising kea takes a lot of time and effort from the bird staff, but the reward is great. The Cincinnati Zoo is the only AZA-accredited institution to hatch out and raise kea in the last five years. What an accomplishment!  Next time you are at the Zoo, stop by the free flight aviary next to Wings of the World and see if you can spot one of our six juveniles, all grown up.

 

March 2, 2015   2 Comments