Tunnel into the world of naked mole rats

Pinterest

 

Did you know naked mole rats can run as fast backwards as they can forwards?

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Dallas Zoo’s Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo is the Underzone, which hosts two colonies of naked mole rats. Our keeper, Joby Davidson, gives us the inside scoop on what makes these tiny, hairless rodents so fascinating and important. In Davidson’s words, “Naked mole rats are not moles and not rats, but they are naked.”

Despite looking a little too naked for some folks, these fascinating creatures seem to break the mold in just about every way.

Why they’re important:

In the wild, they call sub-Saharan Africa home, where they provide essential ecosystem services, such as being a part of the local food chain and digging tunnels that help irrigate the land during rare rainfalls. They’re also becoming increasingly important for research in cancer, osteoporosis, joint studies and Alzheimer’s disease, because a complex sugar produced in their body makes them cancer-resistant. They could be holding the secret to the fountain of youth! Interested yet?

Take me to your leader!

Naked mole rats have a very complex social hierarchy, similar to ants and bees. This is the most defining aspect of how they DON’T fit the mold for most rodents. Each colony has one queen and one or two mating males, and the rest of the members are divided into different levels of workers, including diggers, food-movers, and warriors.

Additionally, age is an important factor in rank – older ones hold more authority. For example, while moving around in their tunnels, they constantly have to figure out how to get around each other if they’re going opposite ways. The solution? Whoever is subordinate passes below, while the superior crawls over.

Here’s another interesting behavior observed in naked mole rat colonies: if an older mole rat sees a younger one doing miserably at its job, it will tug on the younger one’s tail as if to say, “Just let me do it.” The younger one gets the message and scurries away while the older one takes over, presumably grumbling about “kids these days.naked-mole-rats-from-cloud

At the top of the chain, the queen runs the show. She is the only female with a specific scent (or pheromone) that lets the rest of the colony know she’s the one with breeding rights. A queen is typically pregnant for an average of 79 days and has a litter of 10-15 babies (or pups). It’s possible for her to get pregnant again as soon as 10 days after giving birth (count me out!), but the average is four to five months between pregnancies. In the wild, populations grow quickly because breeding can happen at a rapid pace, but it’s possible that naked mole rats may regulate their own population, because most colonies even out at about 75 members.

On that note, we’re leading the way in experimenting with birth control for naked mole rats. Because they breed so often and have relatively large litters, population control helps us keep track of how many mouths there are to feed and ensure that our colonies are a comfortable size.

We began this research more than two years ago, treating the queen with annual birth control. One of the biggest questions was whether she would continue to produce the pheromone that asserted her “nobility,” and if not, would another female step up and take the role?

It seems to be working so far. “The queen still acts like the queen in every way, except for breeding,” Davidson explains.

Who’s who?

Currently, the Dallas Zoo has two separate colonies. The first and largest colony began from a single breeding pair and now boasts 47 members. The second sprouted off from the first in a situation where a second female challenged the queen and attempted a takeover. We quickly separated them, and she became queen of a new colony all her own, with 21 members.

With so many members, how do we keep track of each animal? Microchips! We began a microchipping program six years ago. Although zookeeper Davidson says he doesn’t know each of them individually, he’s pretty adept at picking out queens and several other notable members of the clan.

The only “cold-blooded” rodent

Here’s your vocabulary word for the day: naked mole rats are poikilothermic. This means they are incapable of maintaining their body temperature and are essentially “cold-blooded.”

They build several levels of chambers of varying depth, so the higher chambers are warmer than the lower ones. Our residents have separate enclosures that mimic those chambers, with varying levels of temperature. On average, we keep the temperature around 85° degrees, with about 70% humidity.

Homey habits

Several other techniques keep our naked mole rats thriving. Tunnels connect their different chambers. These tunnels have to be replaced fairly often though because naked mole rats’ teeth grow continuously throughout their lives, like most other rodents. These teeth are on the outside of their mouths, placed in a way that they can use them to dig their tunnels, but be able to close their lips so they don’t ingest dirt. Since their teeth grow constantly, the’re always busy wearing them down on their exhibit and tunnel walls.

Besides chewing on the walls, naked mole rats are exceptionally civil little beings. They have special bathroom chambers that are used only to collect waste. Sounds familiar, right? (Disregard if you still dig holes in the yard.) It gets a little weird after that, though. Naked mole rats are very close to blind, so they rub their own urine on themselves after using the bathroom as a way to distinguish themselves by smell.

Threats to naked mole rats

Although the current wild populations of naked mole rats seem to be pretty healthy, increasing droughts are likely to make it difficult for them to find the bulbs and roots they need to feed the colony. They are likely to establish colonies on farms, where they feast on cassava and sweet potatoes. If farmers perceive them as pests, they may double their efforts to get rid of the wrinkly rodents.

What you can do to help naked mole rats

Since the change in weather patterns worldwide is greatly influenced by the amount of heat-trapping gases in the air, we can help protect naked mole rats and other African animals in the comfort of our own homes. Reducing our energy use can have a positive impact on wildlife. Weatherizing your home, unplugging electronics, taking short showers are all easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint. You can also join the Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Action team to get involved in local, hands-on conservation efforts.

If you’re interested in meeting a queen, but can’t quite foot the bill to take a trip to England, come visit the Underzone in the Lacerte Children’s Zoo instead, and see for yourself the fascinating world of naked mole rats.

Categories: Children's Zoo (Lacerte Family) | Tags: | Leave a comment

Elephant introductions: A peek at a very complicated process

Pinterest

It’s been eight months since we rescued five elephants from Swaziland, Africa, in an intricate airlift to save their lives. Since then, we’ve been introducing the new arrivals – Nolwazi, Amahle, Zola, Tendaji and Mlilo – to our four “Golden Girls,” Jenny, Gypsy, Congo and Kamba.

And believe us, entire NASA expeditions to outer space may have been launched with less care, planning, observation and hard work. Have you ever introduced a new pet to your family? Now imagine it with 10,000-pound animals.

All summer, the nine adult elephants have been in various parts of the Giants of the Savanna habitat, getting to know each other and forming their own complex social bonds. The arrival of calf Ajabu in May brought great joy, but added another layer of complexity to the introductions.

Congo, Kamba, Tendaji and Zola graze together in the Giants of the Savanna habitat.

Congo, Kamba, Tendaji and Zola graze together in the Giants of the Savanna habitat.

Our keepers have monitored the elephants almost around-the-clock. (They even slept in the elephant barn after Ajabu was born, to keep an eye on the little guy.) And our research scientists and volunteers keep detailed notes of all of the interactions, to chart the herd dynamics.

It’s been complex, exhilarating, humbling, emotional, sometimes nerve-wracking – and incredibly rewarding. So we’d like to share just a bit of our daily lives with these remarkable creatures, taken from our team’s observation notes and interviews.

Remember, training occurs simply so we can provide better medical and husbandry care for the elephants. We utilize “protected contact,” not sharing their space, so we let elephants be elephants.

Read more »

Categories: Conservation, Elephant | 2 Comments

‘Rockstar’ cooperative cat aides Zoo medical study

Pinterest

Pull, poke and squeeze a cat’s tail, and you may not like the results – but Lakai, the Dallas Zoo’s 7-year-old mountain lion, isn’t like most cats.

He doesn’t mind having his tail prodded and squeezed, and it’s helping zookeepers and veterinarians explore a lesser-known medical field.

Zoo staff are taking blood pressure readings on Lakai’s tail using an inflating cuff, similar to one used on humans. The readings will help monitor his well-being and track data in a medical area without a lot history.

“There is very little data on blood pressure on awake mountain lions. The majority of blood pressures are taken on mountain lions while anesthetized,” said Dianna Lydick, manager of the zoo’s A.H. Meadows Animal Care Facility.

Lakai’s blood pressure training and readings are generating interest and buzz internally and throughout the zoo community nationwide.

“There are definitely people wanting this information,” said keeper Libby Hayes, adding that any time you can avoid aestheticizing an animal for medical treatments, it’s better for the animal.

To get to this point, Hayes and keeper Caron Oliver worked on tail training with Lakai every week starting in May. Over time, the mountain lion became comfortable staying in position, allowing keepers to grab his tail, prod it with a needle for blood draws and squeeze it tightly to take the blood pressure readings.

All aspects of the tail training is voluntary and done with positive reinforcement. If Lakai doesn’t want to participate, he doesn’t have to. Luckily, he doesn’t mind trying new things, Oliver said.

Categories: Mountain lion, Veterinary Care | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Dallas Zoo, city unveil new elephant-statue gateway

Pinterest
_mg_7684-peter-busby-with-elephant-statue

Connecticut-based artist Peter Busby stands with his sculpture Two Elephants Greeting at the Dallas Zoo on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016.

Visitors will now receive a taste of Africa before stepping on Zoo grounds with Two Elephants Greeting, a new steel sculpture unveiled today at the corner of Marsalis Ave. and the I-35E frontage road.

The sculpture joins our iconic 67-foot giraffe sculpture greeting visitors entering the Zoo’s main parking lot.

The sculpture shows two larger-than-life African elephants with intertwined trunks – a symbol of a solid, loving bond, and a greeting often seen expressed by our elephants. The elephants stand on a berm surrounded by drought-tolerant native grasses and plants.

“It will greet all visitors that come to the Zoo in a monumental way,” said Kay Kallos, Public Art Program manager for the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs.

The sculptures weigh 1,800 pounds each and are the work of Connecticut-based artist Peter Busby. The installation is part of a City of Dallas Public Art Program contest that received more than 200 sculpture designs from all over the world vying for the space, which formerly housed a used car lot.

“It seemed as a friendly introduction to the zoo,” said Busby. “Like what you hope to see inside.”

Busby created the elephants at his Connecticut workshop before hauling them to Texas in September for the installation, but this isn’t his first time bringing massive sculptures to the Lone Star State. He also designed and installed two 16-foot-tall longhorn sculptures at the Cypress Waters office park in Dallas and a pair of supersized horses at a ranch in Plano.

Thank you to Busby and the City of Dallas for giving us such a life-size representation of love between African elephants. We look forward to enjoying the statues for decades to come.

Categories: Exhibits and Experiences, Horticulture | Leave a comment

Scimitar-horned oryx: Thanks to zoos, the world welcomes them back from extinction

Pinterest

_mg_1636-scimitar-horned-oryx-cb

While we proudly care for five new scimitar-horned oryx at the Dallas Zoo, these African antelope are making huge strides across the world – they’re rebounding from extinction in the wild.

Due to over-hunting, human encroachment and drought, it’s been 30 years since the oryx was last seen in Chad – until now.

Thanks to zoos and other private groups, these beautiful antelope were successfully preserved in human care, allowing a wild bounce-back this year.

In a rare and daring move, the Sahara Conservation Fund and the governments of Abu Dhabi and Chad, released a small herd of 25 oryx back into the desert with GPS radio collars in August.

“This is why you start working in zoos, for outcomes like this,” mammal curator Keith Zdrojewski said. “It’s rewarding to work with an animal that is so rare. And because of successful breeding programs, these animals are now able to go back to their native country.”

The scimitar-horned oryx has long been the most iconic animal in Chad. Tremendously adapted for desert life, oryx are equipped to conserve _mg_1693-sciimitar-horned-oryx-cbwater, allowing them to go for long periods without drinking.

Their stunning, sharp-tipped horns curve all the way over their backs, and also represent their name – “scimitar” derives from the long, curved Arabian swords used for centuries.

One of our new female oryx hails from Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas, where she was part of a critical study to determine if GPS collars would negatively affect the behavior of newly wild oryx. And good news – they don’t.

While our female wasn’t one of the oryx chosen to be released back into Chad, we’re honored to care for this special girl, along with three other females and a breeding male.

Here on an Association of Zoos and Aquariums Scimitar-Horned Oryx Species Survival Plan breeding recommendation, our new residents may add some much-needed tiny additions to the population. Visit our herd (video of them playing below!) in the desert exhibit off the monorail.

The Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF), the only organization committed to conserving wildlife of the Sahara and its bordering Sahelian grasslands, also partnered with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Zoological Society of London to make this release possible. Now, SCF faces its biggest challenge ahead – ensuring that these oryx, and future released herds, can thrive in the desert for generations to come.

A sign they’re already on the right track: the first wild-born scimitar-horned oryx in three decades was just warmly welcomed to the arid land. Follow SCF as they share updates on this momentous herd.

Watch video captured by keeper Laura Frazier of our females chasing each other! 

Categories: Africa, Conservation | Tags: | 1 Comment

Brought to you by the Dallas Zoo