From China, with cuteness

In recent months, the zoo has welcomed a small batch of unusual warm-blooded fur-babies, including a binturong, or bearcat, not yet on exhibit and a tapir, now nine months old and looking like a smaller, feistier adult. But the latest one, a takin born Feb. 4, is the current show-stopper, especially since she went on public view after just three weeks and likes to do cute things like scamper around the exhibit, attempt to mountain-climb her dad’s belly while he’s trying to nap, and nuzzle her mom’s face.

takin calf nuzzling mom

The second time I saw her, last week, she was more than a month old and cavorting in a light snowfall (and yes, as we see here, nuzzling). Sichuan takins — it’s pronounced TAH-kin — are related to the mountain goat and musk ox. Adults weigh about 600 pounds on average. This little one’s name, I learned at last weekend’s volunteer update seminar, is Bing Leng, which fits the species’ Chinese heritage. Sichuan takins, the most common variety in zoos, hail from the country’s forested mountains. Like the giant panda, takins have been declared a national treasure worthy of protection in China, and the two species share an overlapping habitat in the wild. As large animals that live in herds at high elevations, they have few predators, but hunting and habitat loss mean they’re classified as threatened — a step down from endangered. In human care, they can live up to 20 years.

takin trio and trees

Bing Leng has been exploring the exhibit, and testing her climbing skills, under the supervision of her parents and a fourth, female takin named Mu Shi, who’s -a 3-year-old recent arrival from San Diego with breeding prospects of her own. Bing Leng’s transformation will continue as her hair lightens in the next few weeks and she starts sprouting horns at six months. As spring arrives on the Northern Trail, it will be increasingly fun to watch.





Dragon days

Hello again! I’m back here blogging after a long break, inspired partly by a new year but especially by some of the zoo encounters I had at the end of the old one. In 2015, Christmas and New Year’s Eve both fell on Thursdays, my weekly volunteer day. And both days brought a remarkable batch of families to the zoo — inquisitive kids with parents who encouraged them to linger and ask me questions, or who saw me with an artifact and pulled their kids over to take a look. As one dad said to his son, “Here — come learn something.”

komodo monitor

If I want to pack a lot of facts into one half-hour session, I stand by the Komodo dragon exhibit and hold the Komodo-jaw artifact. Since the passing of an elderly Komodo monitor named Gasher, who received acupuncture treatments to ease his arthritis, the exhibit’s sole occupant has been this young guy, whose name I don’t know yet. (The Komodo is one of those animals that doesn’t necessarily have a “public” name, but when you attend volunteer update seminars, you learn what zookeepers call them.)

komodo descending

How can I tell this guy is young? Aside from his relative smallness (a male Komodo can get up to 200 pounds and 7 feet long), he still has a blush of color on his scales, and he still climbs the big log in the middle of his exhibit. Baby Komodos climb trees soon after they hatch and stay up there for several years, evading hungry predators — including their own parents. Since they’re highly endangered, with a native habitat restricted to the Indonesian islands, feasting on their own offspring is not the smartest survival strategy for the world’s largest living lizards. (In terms of interesting facts that are also kind of alarming and scary, Komodos win hands-down. I’ve learned out to leave out details like that one when I’m talking to smaller or more sensitive-looking kids.)

komodo tail

When I’m standing by the exhibit holding the jawbone artifact , I show kids how a Komodo, like its reptilian cousin the snake, can unhinge its jaw to swallow a small animal whole or take big sloppy bites of a much larger animal — possibly even a water buffalo. Komodos can eat 80 percent of their body weight in a single meal — keeping in mind, of course, that for these and other predators, there’s no guarantee of a meal every day in the wild. At the zoo, they’re fed various meats including chicken and quail — and live in a warm, safe, tropical space where nobody (resident or visitor) gets eaten at all.





Summer of the seals

Even with the memory of the dolphins still fresh in our minds, everyone at the zoo was at least a little excited when the zoo’s Hawaiian monk seal exhibit opened a few months ago, bringing the old dolphin pool back to life. Sure, the seals could never live up to the dolphins — what could? — but especially for volunteers stationed an hour or two each week in Discovery Bay, any life in that pool was welcome when it finally reopened after months of renovation. My expectations honestly weren’t that high. At least the seals would be interesting to talk about, if not as interesting to watch.

Minnesota Zoo Hawaiian monk seal

But now that their summer honeymoon period is over, I know that the seals are, in fact, both things — factually and visually engaging enough to help me reboot this blog after six months of dormancy. No matter how distracting life gets, I always gravitate back to the zoo. And zoo visitors have gravitated to the seals, with their torpedo-shaped bodies, powerful flippers and heavily whiskered faces. In a typical response, one woman exclaimed last week: “It’s so cute! It looks like a little old man!”

Hawaiian monk seal and zoo visitors

All five monk seals, which came to us via a facility in Texas, are female, 400-500 pounds and about 20 years old. All but one have limited vision, all were originally rescued as starving pups off the coast of Hawaii, and none could survive in the wild today. Unlike dolphins, the seals like to “haul out” of the water and rest, and their redesigned zoo habitat has small stretches of “beach” for that purpose. When they wriggle awkwardly onto “land” to during public feedings, a soft “aww” or fond giggle often rises from the audience.

Hawaiian monk seal feeding

At first, I didn’t think I’d memorize the five names, which are all short, similar, Hawaiian and full of vowels. With limited brain-space, a docent learns to prioritize, and only the most basic or compelling information — usually about the species, not the individual — joins the long-term memory bank. The seals look identical at first glance, anyway, and don’t interact with each other, since the species (unlike harbor seals) is naturally solitary. But it quickly became clear, week after week, that guests wanted to know the names, and also that the seals weren’t identical at all.

Ola the seal twirling

So far there are only two seals in the show pool at once (again, because they’re not very social — which is fine!). On my Thursdays so far, those two usually seem to be Ola, who has good vision and swims laps with a playful, twirling motion (I think that’s her above), and Koa, below, who doesn’t see well and floats vertically next to the glass. Often she seems to be watching the big TV screen for seal-related images and information. This cracks me up. In reality, she may be listening more than watching — seals have very good hearing, although they have no external ear flaps as sea lions do. This makes even our sight-impaired seals very trainable; they listen for their names and other cues. (The other seal duo that rotates in and out of the show pool is Paki and Opua. The fifth seal, Nani, has been happily hanging out by herself in the “west pool” so far.)

Koa the monk seal

There’s so much more to say about Hawaiian monk seals, and in months to come, I plan to say it. For now, it’s enough to note that these whiskery marine mammals aren’t just a post-dolphin placeholder. They’re fascinating in their own right.

Sensitive spooning

Eleven years into volunteering at the zoo, I’ve noticed that I go through favorite-critter phases, with a “best thing at the zoo right now” orientation. Because the South American aviary on the Tropics trail was a new addition last fall, with its waterfall and its chorus of chirping, and because that leafy green trail is such a refuge in winter, that’s my “best thing” this season. And my favorite bird in that aviary is the roseate spoonbill, which the Audubon Society accurately describes as “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.”

roseate spoonbill posing

roseate spoonbill close-up

Standing about 30 inches, the spoonbill is related to a flamingo and looks like one, too — until you notice the bill. In this aviary, that’s not always easy to do, because our two spoonbills — like their other on-exhibit relatives, the scarlet ibis — like to perch in the treetops, beak tucked under wing. But first thing in the morning, one spoonbill likes to pace the lower level, brushing the ground with that amazing implement on his face. (On the day I took all these photos, zookeeper Ben told me this one is the male and has a slight wing injury from some mysterious phase of his pre-Minnesota life. The roosting female would be a bit smaller-bodied, and smaller-billed.)

spoonbill scavengingThis big, odd, beautiful shore bird was behaving much as he would in the wild, where spoonbills sweep their heads from side to side in search of tasty morsels, especially in shallow water. The spoon-shaped bill is a sensitive instrument full of nerve endings, and when its owner scoops up a mouthful of water, that bill has the advantages of a sieve; it opens slightly, the water leaks out the sides and the tasty bits of seafood get swallowed, along with the occasional piece of plant life.

Minnesota Zoo roseate spoonbill crouching

They’re in our South American exhibit for a reason, but roseate spoonbills can also be found along U.S. shores in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. In our zoo space, they coexist with several smaller species besides the ibis. My second-favorite bird species in this aviary, the black-necked stilts, were keeping anxiously clear of the much larger Mr. Spoonbill, who strode purposefully across every inch of the exhibit in the 20 minutes I spent hovering with my camera. Eventually he fluttered up to join his mate in the treetops, and I craned my neck for one last look before moving along.

spoonbill and stilt



Obituary for an octopus

She lived in Discovery Bay for six months beginning in May. I didn’t see a lot of her in the summer, even when I made special trips to that end of the zoo to check out this new attraction. She was probably hiding in her cave, something wild octopuses often do in the shallow seas they call home. But by fall — because I was scheduled to volunteer in D-Bay more often, because the crowds had died down or because she had just settled into her tank — she became the entertaining sure thing in that part of the zoo. There were always a few people gathered round the tank, and most of them wanted to linger and talk about her for more than just a minute or two.

Minnesota Zoo octopus posingBefore the octopus arrived, we had a series of cuttlefish in here — just another type of cephalopod (Greek for “head-footed”). So a lot of their cool facts applied to her, too: their ability to change color and squirt ink, their three hearts and blue blood, their excellent vision and poignantly short one- or two-year life span. Where the cuttlefish’s eight arms and two tentacles are clustered near the front of its head, though, the octopus has its arms farther back and a mantle — the sac that holds all its organs — in front of its face. Every part of an octopus is squishy except for its beak, which it uses for cracking open shellfish; combined with their high intelligence, this makes them good escape artists able to squeeze through small gaps. Male octopuses have one differently shaped arm — the “business arm” of reproduction, if you will — that this one apparently didn’t, sealing her identity as female. For either gender, reproduction marks the end of a life that’s extremely short anyway.

common octopus swimmingOctopuses swim differently from cuttlefish, too; there’s a lot more arm involvement, and those arms are covered with suction cups that make walking on the tank-side possible. This girl was a graceful and entertaining swimmer (though I could never decide whether she was doing the crawl or the breast-stroke) and an accomplished tank-walker, too.

white octopus

So yes, I’m writing about her in the past tense. She’d been looking whiter in recent weeks, which worried a regular guest or two who’d been paying attention, though that may have been a coincidence. On Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving, the volunteers’ day began with a visit from aquarist Becky, who told us the octopus had died two days before, after “politely” refusing meals of shrimp for the previous week, and that the cause was definitely old age. The entertaining cephalopod came to us from the Mall of America’s aquarium, where she’d lived for four months. Wild-caught off the coast of Florida, she arrived full-grown in Minnesota and had to be at least 18 months old by now. Becky told us we’ll be getting a giant Pacific octopus by  late spring, in a new and larger tank, as part of a D-Bay makeover. That one will probably get twice as big as the common octopus we had (the Monterey Bay Aquarium says their Pacific is six feet across, “tentacle to tentacle”) and live twice as long, but I don’t think I could possibly enjoy it twice as much as I’ve enjoyed this dear departed one.




To the bat cave!

Meet Fang. He’s an Indian fruit bat, on view at the zoo’s Tropics trailhead throughout the spooky, creepy month we’re calling “Howlzooween,” and he’s a real kid-magnet. Without fail, kids approach the bat booth in fascination and ask the same two questions in rapid succession: “Is that real? Is it alive?” This might get old for the volunteers spending half-hour shifts at the booth this month, repeating “yes” (real) and “no” (artfully preserved), except that these questions are just our jumping-off point to share other bat facts. And there are plenty of those.

Fang the fruit bat at Minnesota Zoo

The world contains 1,300 species of bats, most varied in the tropics but scattered pretty much everywhere but Antarctica and the Arctic Circle. Our own Tropics trail is home to a cave of 90 fruit bats representing three species. Unlike Fang, all seven of Minnesota’s native bat species are insect-eaters — including the little brown bat, which can devour 150 mosquitoes in 15 minutes. When they’re not bug-hunting — or pollinating, as fruit bats do; who knew!? — bats prefer to hang upside-down in enclosed spaces like mines or caves. Two exceptions: If they’re giving birth or relieving themselves, bats can hang right side up by the “thumbs” on their wings. Northern bats either migrate or hibernate in winter, depending on their species. The hibernators, including the little brown bat, are increasingly at risk from white nose syndrome, which damages their wings and disrupts their hibernation, driving them out into the fatal cold in search of food and water.

Fang facing usOne of my fellow Thursday volunteers has a long-standing love of bats, so needless to say, this month’s focus has delighted her. While I’ve never feared this flying mammal, my regard is more intellectual and wary. But now that the zoo has taught me so much about them — and given me a chance to teach others — I’ve gained new respect for their place in the ecosystem, and concern for their future.

Bye bye, butterfly

It’s been a spectacular Sunday on the razor’s edge between summer and fall: brilliant blue sky, mid-70s, cool dry breeze, surely the last weekend day of its kind before the coats come out. On Labor Day morning last week, I took my husband to the zoo to say a seasonal farewell to its butterfly garden on the more official “last day of summer.” This morning, in my own mini-butterfly garden (modeled on the zoo’s), I saw a late-season monarch stop by, perching for a minute or two on a stalk of my joe-pye weed before it was on its way.

tiger swallowtail and joe-pye weed

This is my joe-pye weed — a superb, hardy, pollinator-attracting plant I would not have tracked down for my yard if I hadn’t seen monarchs all over it a couple years back at the zoo. Just keep it watered, and it will spread on its own. That is not, of course, a monarch up there but an Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly that hung out in my yard for two weeks straight in August. Last year I was a little sad that only bees were drawn to the tall plants — although this year at the zoo, as we focused on the importance of pollinators, I realized that bees need our help more than butterflies in that respect, with the added risk of colony collapse disorder and bees’ crucial role in providing not just honey, but essentials like chocolate and coffee as well, by spreading pollen from plant to plant as they sip nectar. This year, bees and the butterfly, which finally appeared in August, shared the joe-pye weed.

julia on trunk

julia butterfly

On Labor Day, the zoo’s butterfly garden’s last hurrah for the season, the most active and visible subspecies was this orange one, known as a julia.But even after that garden goes dark for nine months, the zoo keeps its hand in butterfly-conservation efforts — specifically, preserving the Dakota skipper and Powesheik skipperling, inhabitants of Minnesota’s ever-shrinking tall-grass prairie. (Skippers are a butterfly-moth hybrid explained here by the self-described Old Naturalist. And the key differences between butterflies and moths — butterflies have knobbier antennae and hold their wings closed while perching) are detailed here by the Lepidopterist’s Society.)

My tiger swallowtail (so reliably present for a couple of weeks that I dubbed it my “yard pet”) has moved on — either by migration or by virtue of a lifespan measured in weeks. There’s a sadness in the fleeting beauty, but still hope that careful perennial-planting choices can lure next year’s generation, too.




Fur-baby explosion

I’ve spent nearly a month of this summer away from the zoo, and what did I miss? Babies, mostly — home-grown Minnesota fur-babies, either born on site (lynx kittens) or rescued from the wild (moose calves). There’s a healthy batch of both: four kittens and six moose orphans that came our way via the DNR. Here are a couple of the kittens, who only recently started venturing into the exhibit (so maybe I didn’t miss that much after all). With all the high-speed scampering, getting all four and their mom in the same frame was out of the question. To see a previous generation of our lynx kittens attempting to navigate trees when they were a bit older than this, I refer you to my post from two birth cycles ago, An Epic Feline Frolic.

Minnesota Zoo lynx kitten in stream

lynx kittens and logs

The new lynx and moose are all somewhat more than three months old now, in late August, although the moose calves were born in separate batches over a period of nearly three weeks. Those calves have begun rotating in pairs through the outdoor exhibit, learning to nibble leaves from branches as they’re gradually weaned off bottle-feeding.

Minnesota Zoo moose calves

Northern Trail supervisor Diana, in the exhibit with the calves below, said this pair weighed about 180 pounds when I took these photos in early August. They’re coming along nicely since their discovery by DNR researchers as part of an ongoing study about declining moose populations in northeastern Minnesota.

moose calves and Diana

Minnesota Zoo moose artifactsA new volunteer feature this summer, besides our outdoor Big Bugs exhibit and the Conservation Carousel you walk by en route to Big Bugs, is the  “conservation cart” by the carousel. Inside, along with all the information about bees and other pollinators (a topic for another post) are moose “bench talk” artifacts: a section of antler rack, a piece of pelt, a jar of the “moose chow” that supplements the leaves and twigs in a zoo moose’s diet. My favorite moment so far with the antlers followed a question like the ones I explored in my previous post: “How did the moose die?” This gave me the perfect opening to talk about the temporary nature of antlers (shed naturally every December) compared with the more permanent nature of horns, and the lack of antlers in most deer species’ females (except caribou), and how antler growth is a response to hormone levels, which react to seasons and their varying hours of daylight. Moose are struggling in Minnesota, the southern tip of their geographic range, but nothing gives you hope for a species’ future like a big batch of thriving babies.

Pelted with questions

Every year, I forget that May is a crazy whirlwind of school groups at the zoo — and every year, I’m reminded. Volunteers are encouraged to stroll or sit with animal pelts, or skins, year-round, and for families who visit the zoo often, those skins are a familiar sight. But last month also reminded me that for the many children from families that don’t visit the zoo — or hunt, for that matter — they’re a disorienting  sight that demands context. So the questions come pouring out, repeatedly, in high-pitched voices: “Is it dead?” “Did you kill that?” And sometimes, softly, “Oh, sad.”

Sharon Bob puma lynx

That’s when fellow volunteers like Sharon and Tom (seen here with the lynx and puma pelt, respectively) jump in with the context: We never kill an animal for its pelt at the zoo. For the highly endangered sea otter, for instance, it’s not just “sad” but illegal to do so. But in previous centuries, in a world without retail stores, the ability to hunt wasn’t recreational: It kept humans from freezing as well as starving. (A standout phrase from our bison “bench talk” is “SuperTarget of the Great Plains” — Native Americans used every part of the animal as food, shelter or tool.)

Our zoo pelts come from animals who died of natural causes; many come via the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a partner in lots of zoo projects. Death is sad but also natural, and the pelts give us a chance to talk about varying lifespans, special adaptations (the lynx, my favorite pelt, has big furry feet for pursuing its prey, the snowshoe hare, across snowdrifts) and the animal’s native climate. It’s also a chance for the animal to “live on” and a chance for kids to “pet” a wild animal they would never touch otherwise. The hair or fur often feels rougher or softer than you’d expect just from looking. And my momentary discomfort at a high-pitched “Did you kill that?” (I can’t begin to imagine killing an animal) reminds me that the squealed question is just another opportunity to educate.

Rattles and rosettes

Week before last, when it was finally warm enough to walk the Northern Trail and enjoy it, I was just passing the Amur leopard exhibit when a school group came running and squealing “Cheetah! CHEE-TAH!” I just had to turn back and gently clear things up (“That’s actually a leopard, and his name is Chobby!”) One thing you learn as a zoo volunteer who’s not a biologist, though, is to anticipate the likely follow-up question to any statement and make sure you can answer it, and I left the exhibit thinking, “Good thing none of them asked me how to tell the difference. Better look that up.”

leopard mom and kitten This is our leopard Polina and one of her cubs (now full-grown and living at another zoo in hopes of making still MORE cubs, since their species is nearly extinct in the wild). As I learned from The Wildcat Sanctuary  (whose website features types of wild cats I’d never even heard of) and Tiger Tribe, cheetahs have a different shape, befitting their status as the world’s fastest land mammal. About 30 pounds lighter than leopards on average, cheetahs are greyhound-shaped, with long legs, deep chests, narrow flanks, small heads and more doglike snouts compared with the classic “cat shape” of the leopard. And the cheetah’s spots are basically just polka-dots, while leopards have rosettes, or elaborate blotches that may or may not have spots at their center.

banana leafThe zoo is mainly about animals, yes, but March and early April brought reminders that it’s also about plants. We’ve spent recent weeks talking about them at the Tropics trailhead, the site of January’s bird talks and February’s frog talks. We had a variety of options and artifacts, but my two favorites were bananas and coconuts. (Other volunteers focused on orchids or bamboo. All four can be found along the Tropics trail.) Someone made this lovely fabric banana leaf, which isn’t even as large as some of the real ones can get — up to 9 feet long and 2 feet wide. I have learned to stop saying “banana tree” — bananas grow on plants, which despite the huge leaves do not have woody trunks. Tropics dwellers cooking over open fires may wrap their food in banana leaves, making them “nature’s aluminum foil.”

shark rattleMy second-favorite plant artifact: the shark rattle. It’s made of coconut shells, and Pacific Islander fishermen use it to attract sharks: Dangle one over the side of a boat, shake it, and wait for the vibrations to mimic a school of fish (at least in the shark’s mind). Kids like to take it and shake it themselves. Then I tell them to look for the coconut palm across from the top of the tropical reef. If I can use an artifact to make a guest see a familiar object in a new way, or notice a feature of the zoo they’d otherwise pass without a glance, then I’ve achieved one of my main goals as a volunteer.


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