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International Red Panda Day: Zoos Make a Difference for Red Pandas

Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters

Happy International Red Panda Day! It’s virtually impossible not to smile when you watch this fuzzy Asian mammal frolic. It’s no surprise that two years ago a video of our red pandas playing in the snow went viral and made international news.

Red panda (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Red panda (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Of course, there’s a lot more to red pandas than just being cute. Like so many animals, they face daunting, often human-made threats to their existence. Red pandas are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which means they face a high risk of extinction in the wild.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is proud to help save red pandas through research and breeding as well as through support of Red Panda Network, the conservation organization behind International Red Panda Day.

“While Red Panda Network’s primary focus is on conservation efforts in native red panda habitat in Nepal, zoos in other parts of the world are some of our most important allies in the fight to save this wonderful animal. Deforestation and poaching now sadly mean that home is not safe for these animals, and keeping a population in a managed habitat monitored and protected by people has become necessary for some of them. These captive populations allow researchers and keepers to observe the animals’ behavior. The more we know about how these animals act, the better we can develop effective conservation strategies.” – Red Panda Network

Red panda (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Red panda (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Scientists at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) have devoted years to studying red panda reproduction. They’ve produced data that support the theory that red pandas can display “pseudo-pregnancy,” or a false reading based on hormone levels previously used to diagnose pregnancy.

Over the past few years, our researchers have successfully diagnosed red panda pregnancies using trans-abdominal ultrasound. Although the procedure requires animal training and comes with a high price tag, it has proven more accurate than hormone tests. In 2015, we bred the first red panda cubs with birth dates accurately predicted using a combination of ultrasonography and hormone monitoring.

Currently, we have a pair of cubs, Harriet and Hazel, born to mom, Lin, in June. At three months old, they are just starting to venture out on exhibit. Our red panda exhibit also houses two adult females, and soon we’ll receive two new males for future breeding. Stop by their exhibit and look for them; you might spot them in the trees. And go ahead, say it: “They’re soooo cute!”

Harriet and Hazel the red panda cubs (Photo: Angela Hatke)

Harriet and Hazel the red panda cubs (Photo: Angela Hatke)

Not in Cincinnati and want to know where you can go to see red pandas near you? Check out this worldwide search tool.

September 17, 2016   No Comments

A Case Study to Conserve Trillium: Can The Seeds Survive Drying?

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.

Courtney Dvorsky working in the plant lab

Courtney Dvorsky working in the plant lab

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).

White trillium (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

White trillium (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

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.

Trillium seeds were planted in soil boxes for germination

Trillium seeds were planted in soil boxes for germination

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).

Desiccators, in which trillium seeds were dried to different moisture levels in this study

Desiccators, in which trillium seeds were dried to different moisture levels in this study

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.

Trillium seeds tested for viability with TTC. Living seeds stain red; dead seeds remain white.

Trillium seeds tested for viability with TTC. Living seeds stain red; dead seeds remain white.

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   5 Comments

The Power of Connections: Endangered Species Day

Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters

There are currently 16,306 plants and animals listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That’s more people than visit our Zoo on a typical spring day.

It’s Endangered Species Day, so you might hear a lot of shocking numbers like this, which could understandably put a damper on your day. If you wanted to make a difference, which of the 16,000+ would you even choose to start with? Well, you don’t have to choose. All plant and animal life is interconnected, which means that by taking small actions that support a healthy ecosystem, you can benefit all species, including our own!

If you’re visiting our blog, you’re probably passionate about animals and the environment. That passion gives you power. Let’s look at how you can harness your power to make Endangered Species Day the start of significant change.

What does “endangered” actually mean?

It’s a good idea to first understand what we mean by the term. In the 1990s, the IUCN developed the Red List of Threatened Species™, widely recognized as the standard for evaluating a plant or animal’s risk of extinction. They rank species along a continuum from “least concern,” to “vulnerable,” followed by “endangered,” the more serious “critically endangered,” and finally, “extinct.” Watch this video to learn more.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also maintains a list of endangered species, as do state and local agencies. Around our Zoo and others, you might see signs that display an animal’s IUCN classification. For example, you’ll see that the red pandas are considered “vulnerable,” while the black rhinos are “critically endangered.”

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Taking action

As we’ve said, one positive environmental action holds the potential to affect a lot of different areas. We’re all living on the same planet, so shopping with reusable bags here in Cincinnati really does have ripple effects for polar bears in the Arctic!

Here at the Zoo, you can bring us your old cell phone for recycling, which reduces the need for mining metals in endangered gorilla habitat to make new ones. Go a step further by collecting phones at your school or around your neighborhood.

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

You can also support our many conservation field efforts. Cheetahs, western lowland gorillas, and keas are just a few of the species we’re actively involved with conserving in the wild. When we work to protect these animals’ habitats, we also benefit countless other species with whom they share space.

You don’t need to limit your choices to those you can carry out at the Zoo. Change can begin in your own backyard…literally. Plant native plant species in your yard. They’ll attract native insects which, in turn, will attract other native species that eat them, and native species that eat them. More pollinating insects means more native plants and, you see, the cycle really gets going!

Good news

As a team, organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), like ours, have made strides in restoring more than 30 species to healthy wild populations, including the American bison, the California condor and a variety of aquatic species. (Read more about AZA efforts here.)

There has been good news just over the past year. In 2015, the IUCN moved the Iberian lynx from “critically endangered” to the less severe “endangered.” The Guadalupe fur seal went from “threatened” down to “least concern.” The global community has taken new interest in restricting trophy hunting thanks, in part, to the publicity surrounding Cecil the lion’s tragic death. Change can happen.

And just last week, we received good news for a critically endangered species that is near and dear to our hearts, the Sumatran rhino. A female rhino calf was born on May 12 at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Indonesia. The calf’s father, Andalas, was born here at the Zoo in 2001 and moved to the SRS in 2007. With fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos left on the planet, this birth is significant for the species, and we are proud to have played a part in it.

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

There are infinite choices you can make to promote positive change, but you’ll be most successful if you start with one or two that really speak to you. You’ll help ensure that currently endangered animals are still around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy and, more importantly, you’ll improve life on Earth for all of us.

And be sure to tell your friends and family. The power of your passion is contagious!

“The quality of our life on this earth is dependent on how we treat the rest of life on Earth. We have a moral responsibility to look after the rest of the world, the future of which now lies in our hands.”  –David Attenborough

May 20, 2016   2 Comments