Seven dwarfs: a cephalopod story

Several months after I predicted his end was near in September, the big European cuttlefish in Discovery Bay went off exhibit after the holidays and completed his lifespan at the usual age of 18 months. I call him the big cuttlefish because, though less than a foot long, he was a giant compared with the seven dwarf cuttlefish that have since taken up residence in his tank. They’re about twice the size of my thumbnail now (here’s one next to a fellow volunteer’s finger for perspective), but they’re also less than four months old and eventually will stretch out to a full four inches.

dwarf cuttlefish and fingerThese tiny cephalopods (or cuttlets, as the Zooborns website cutely calls the babies of their species) are still growing into their final shape, but if you gaze at them long enough, the key features emerge — especially the eight arms and two tentacles sprouting from each tiny head. Their main difference from their European predecessor, size aside, is their habitat: the tropical Indian and Pacific oceans instead of the Atlantic. These seven came from the Monterey Bay Aquarium on the central California coast.

baby dwarf cuttlefishWhen the first four cuttlets entered the tank a few weeks ago, they were kept in a small transparent crate so that aquarist Becky could find them and feed them even tinier mysid shrimp. Last week, we volunteers were told they had the run of the place but that three new cuttlets had joined the crate. But when several of us went to take a look, we saw that the crate was gone and all seven had deployed themselves throughout their aquarium. And indeed, they were big enough to track down. Two or three anchored themselves in this treelike plant. My fellow volunteer Carol, in particular, kept wandering away and then wandering back to see how many had relocated. They were all too relaxed to squirt ink, as stressed cephalopods do, but one showed off his ability to change color, from a milky white to a deep brown. I can’t wait to see what they’re up to this week, and how much bigger they’ve grown.

Social climber

So here’s a pop quiz, or perhaps a trick question: Can dogs climb trees?

Asian wild dog in treeA week ago, I went to an all-day seminar for zoo volunteers. In her part of the presentation, Northern Trail supervisor Diana Weinhardt told us several, or perhaps all seven, of the zoo’s Asian wild dogs — a highly social species also known as dholes — have been climbing a tree in their exhibit. We knew she wouldn’t lie to us, but I envisioned something short and shrubby. Thursday was finally warm enough to make the half-hour Northern Trail hike tolerable, and in the dhole-viewing gazebo, I gazed fondly at a pile of five napping Asian wild dogs before lifting my eyes and jumping half out of my skin. I mean, this tree is really pretty tall, is it not? The dhole looks as if it were photoshopped up there, but I swear it wasn’t.

Asian wild dog face in tree

My online exploration of canine tree-climbing led me to this excellent website on canids, which mentions more species of wild dog than I’d previously heard of and divides them into doglike vs. foxlike canids. There’s general agreement that only the gray fox, thanks to its curvy claws, can climb trees. But dholes, while their redness makes them look very foxlike, fall into the doglike category with wolves. Scientifically they have their own genus, Cuon. The preceding website says they’re so agile that they can pee while doing a handstand on their forelegs (not sure why they’d enjoy that). My zoo lit describes them as excellent jumpers, able to cover 10 feet in a single leap and 2o feet with a running start. Those two facts explain how the dhole got up in this tree, with its many thick, level branches, but I still wanted to see how he got down. And it took only another 10 minutes or so for that to happen.

Asian wild dog descendingThe dhole made a cautious, clumsy descent, paw-testing each branch to see if it would support about 40 pounds of dog-weight and glancing frequently at the service road behind the exhibit. (The tree made an excellent lookout post for passing vehicles, and the dhole was fascinated by one when I first saw him.) The process didn’t look like one that would necessarily end well, and I felt a little worried. But he wasn’t much lower than this when he made his graceful leap to the ground, landing as lightly and securely as an Olympic figure skater after a basic lutz jump. I resisted the urge to applaud before I moved on.

A howl before mating

It’s Wolf Watch mating season again, when volunteers bundle up for a few weeks to spy on the zoo’s two gray wolves in half-hour shifts and tell staff if we witness a butt-to-butt “tie.” (Two months after that, pups are probable.) There’s been a bit of grumbling the past two weeks, as zero-ish temperatures collided with a general lack of activity in the exhibit. (This Tumblr by an anonymous fellow volunteer about sums it up, while confirming the wolves’ names as I’d jotted them down once — she’s Wazi, he’s Kaska.) But on Thursday, I got a bigger eyeful than expected.

wolf watch- Wazi play bowFor the first 15 minutes, I saw only the tips of Kaska’s black ears as he lay near the exhibit’s edge and I sat huddled under an electric blanket in the glass-enclosed wolf-viewing room. But then he stood up, executed a deep stretchy “play bow” followed by a shimmying body-shake, and walked over to the “coyote side” of his area. A few minutes later, Wazi the she-wolf, whose white fur blends so well with snow that I hadn’t seen her, also stood up, performed an identical set of maneuvers and followed him. (Here she is doing another stretchy play bow at the coyote side.)

wolf watch- howlI was debating whether to leave my chair and blanket and follow them when I heard such a ruckus that I leaped up and ran toward it. Both wolves were howling through the fence at all four coyotes, who were yipping back. Here’s Kaska in full-thr0ated howl mode. (The wolves appear to be butt-to-butt here, but I don’t believe anything actually happened.) Only a few intrepid guests appeared on the Minnesota Trail that bone-chilling midday, and I had this particular scene completely to myself.

wolf watch- coyote watch

She maintained her interest in the coyotes longer than he did.

wolf watch- Kaska close-upKaska and I had a moment together at the coyote-side window, and when he faced me head-on, I had to lower the camera for a second and gaze directly into those amber eyes, appreciating the unmediated wildness of our encounter. (My husband later said Kaska was imagining how I’d taste with steak sauce, which was probably close to the truth.) These animals, so similar in some ways to our house pets, have such a fierce untamed elegance that I never take this kind of proximity for granted. It makes braving the bitter cold worthwhile.