Behind the scenes at the ABQ Biopark

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I visit zoological parks with some trepidation. I think there are some species of animal that are ill suited to captivity, and proper maintenance of any zoo is a monumental task. However, I have been luckily enough to have close working relationships with all manner of zoo staff, from keepers to educators to directors. Zoo people are good people and they take ethical quandaries very seriously. It’s no surprise that, over the past 10 years, zoos have been undergoing makeovers and pushing conservation narratives as part of their educational programming.  Today my husband and I took a behind the scenes tour of the giraffe and rhino facilities at the ABQ Biopark, our new hometown zoo. We moved to Albuquerque in January and the Biopark was one of our first stops. I especially love the Bugarium.

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Male beetles duke it out on the Valentine’s Day during the Bugarium’s “Love Bugs” event.

Behind the scenes tours always have a chance of being a bit depressing. While many zoos have beautiful, natural feeling exhibit spaces, holding areas are often dark, damp, and depressing. They are built for safety and for the ease of keeping animals, not for guests. I put my worries aside and purchased a ticket anyway. Perhaps patting a rhino would be worth it?

We were greeted by friendly staff in the administration office and given large VIP buttons. When we got to the meeting area it had been clear our group was waiting for us (sorry fellow zoo patrons and keeper). The keeper gave us a quick introduction and some ground rules and we set forth back to the rhino holding area. On the wall were neatly arranged brushes for cleaning the rhinos and giving them scratches.  The rhinos, Chopper and Bertha were waiting. Our keeper let us know that zoo staff were trying to condition Chopper to present his flank rather than greet people head on through the bars. So, we were encouraged to give good quality scratches when he presented his flank. Right away I noticed that the holding area was well maintained, new, and had more than enough space for the rhinos. Secondly, the Biopark has special rules that allow certain animals access to both their outside exhibits and the inside holding area unless the weather is too cold or otherwise horrible. It was good to know that the holding area was really just a holding area, rather than the main home of Bertha and Chopper. To my delight, both Bertha and Chopper appeared to like having the area behind their ears rubbed.

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Zane contemplates rhino conservation with Bertha. 

Our keeper identified them as Southern white rhinos. Their Northern cousins are extinct in the wild. Southern white rhinos almost met a similar fate. A century of conservation has brought their global population from < 100 to over 20,000 individuals. With advances in reproductive technology, scientists are able to maintain “frozen zoos” where they keep viable sperm, eggs, and embryos of species in need. In 2015, the San Diego brought 6 female Southern white rhinos to their zoo to serve as surrogate mothers for Northern white rhino embryos. The potential moms have undergone exams this year to prepare them for surrogacy. Bertha and Chopper help wild rhinos in other ways. The Biopark works with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) as part of the rhino Species Survival Plan. This means that they work with other AZA accredited institutions to ensure that captive rhinos are properly cared for and that they are genetically diverse. So when you support places like the Biopark, you are helping to maintain a sort of genetic insurance plan for wild animals. Genetically speaking, Noah’s ark doesn’t work very well in practice. Zoos cannot maintain tiny populations of a species and hope to build up a genetically healthy population. Even many zoos with many individuals are at a collective loss if the individuals in questions are too closely related. Species Survival Plans help stop that from happening. And so I was happy to support Chopper and Bertha with my ticket and ear scratches. On a side note, rhinos very much maintain the same body posture of Eeyore, the meloncholy burro from Winnie the Pooh. It’s very hard to get a photo of a rhino where it doesn’t look sullen, no mater how much it is enjoying a scratch.

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Chopper gets a scratch from a young guest while keeping his head down, just like Eeeyore.

After wrapping up with the rhinos, we were off to meet the giraffes. The giraffes at the Biopark are also part of their own Species Survival Plan. You might ask yourself why giraffes need a Species Survival Plan. The giraffe keeper at the Biopark had a very good explanation for this. Giraffes have undergone significant population decline. Some conservationists refer to the decline as a “silent extinction” because no one talks about it. To make matters more complicated, scientists are just barely unwinding the secrets of giraffe DNA, revealing several different kinds of giraffes. When giraffes were originally brought into zoos, these different kinds were interbred, making most captive giraffes some kind of mix.

The giraffes we met were reticulated giraffes, with maybe a pinch of something else here and there. The Biopark has a few female giraffes, one young male, and one older male, affectionately known as “Buck” which is short for Buccaneer. Giraffes are highly specialized to browse leaves that grow tall in trees. So, we had the opportunity to feed them leaves still stuck on twigs.

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If giraffes do  not get to use their tongues to forage, they start to lick non food objects.

These extra feedings, along with special food hampers that force the giraffes to use their tongues, help them relax and avoid stereotyped licking behaviors. Apparently, and I did not know this, giraffes are very sensitive. If they are stressed or not cared for properly, they can die from nutritional complications. It is very important they ruminate for long enough to properly digest their food. Additionally, keepers try to make sure older giraffes, especially females, are not separated from their established social groups for long periods of time or moved to new zoos. Moving causes loads of stress and is not a first resort when caring for giraffes, so giraffe keepers prefer to avoid it.

Visiting the rhinos and giraffes got me thinking about the role modern zoos play in society. After the documentary, Blackfish, the ethics of keeping certain animals captive for human entertainment has skyrocketed to the forefront of the American public’s minds. As we visited the rest of the Biopark we saw lots of other animals, some of which would arguably be much happier in large open, free, spaces. However, those spaces are disappearing and their wild counterparts suffer at the hands of people.  If modern zoos are committed to Species Survival Plans and taking proper care of their animals, maybe it’s worth it to keep healthy populations in zoos? It could be, now that we are living through the 6th extinction, that we have a moral imperative to keep genetically viable populations of wild animals in captivity. Zoological parks and aquariums, especially those with AZA accreditation, do work towards the welfare of their charges. Increasingly, education programs are being measured against their effectiveness at changing human behaviors and knowledge retention.  Did you spend more time at an exhibit because of an educational program? Did you remember more? Did going to the zoo inspire you to purchase shade grown coffee? Did you decide to donate to a conservation effort? Maybe you joined a citizen science project with your local zoo?

In my case, I paid a little extra to go on a behind the scenes tour with two species that need our care and our help. Maybe you would like to go too? 

P.S. I donate to conservation organizations that work in the field and contribute to citizen science projects. I also allow non-profits to use my photography for free. Helping the local zoo is great, but one has to get off their arse and get dirty in the field once in awhile.

 

 

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Reflections: Diversity in STEM

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18033396_833554408523_367431073048731894_nI switched jobs recently. I am no longer an educator at a museum but a producer for a creative firm that specializes in digital museum exhibits. We make touchscreen software, touchscreens, projection maps, and other interactive media hoping to inspire people to learn more about their world around them.

We hosted tours for kids this week who were competing in a computing challenge. My stop was first on their list before getting to play with some of our exhibits and meeting many of our technical staff. Our company, like almost all tech companies, is primarily male and Caucasian. I know from working there that a big reason the office is not more diverse is that we simply do not get diverse applicants for job posting. Almost everyone in the office with an opinion on the matter would like to see more diversity, but our pipeline is broken.

So, when I suggested that I talk about diversity as it relates to STEM, the tour organizer thought it was a good idea. As a museum educator, and former college instructor, I think that I may hold a broader definition of diversity than some STEM initiatives.

I think diverse spaces include:

Different ethnicities

Different gender identities

Different religions

People who grew up in rural areas

People from poor families

That being the case, I feel hypocritical as an educator if I ignore a student who doesn’t come from a diverse background. So few students commit to STEM that I think a wealthy Caucasian male is also deserving of chances to grow and develop their skills too.

Considering my somewhat contradictory beliefs I wasn’t sure what to say to these students. What was the point of talking about diversity to groups of young white men? I thought I would point out why diversity was important, so even non-diverse students could understand why they should support their more diverse peers, and to encourage them regardless of their background. We need troops of scientifically literate citizens now more than ever.

I was pleased to find that many of my tour groups were at least half female and somewhat ethnically diverse, so my fear of preaching to young white men all day was ill founded.  One group stuck out to me in particular. I saw a team of four students, three girls and a boy, dressed like they might as well have been at an Future Farmers of America (FFA) meeting.  They represented a kind of diversity that I think many people don’t think about. Students from rural areas are often expected, especially if they work on a farm or ranch, to carry on the family business and learn no more than the skilled labor required to be good at their jobs. Months ago I had lunch with a few professors from Idaho. They lamented that the K-12 teachers they spoke to from rural areas didn’t think their students needed STEM. They argued their students needed to learn practical skills only, as most of them would stay in the area and work with their families. That’s why this team, with their jeans and dusty boots, made such an impression on me. They were exactly the kind of students I would not expect to see at a computing challenge, and they are exactly the kind of students that should be there.

I had another experience with a small group of younger competitors who were all ethnically diverse. Their group was so small that we took some extra time to meet some computer programmers and ask their opinions about a brand new piece of software. They unwittingly also got to chat with our CEO. I was very impressed with their knowledge base and eagerness to figure out how our exhibits worked. As they were leaving their mentor took me aside and thanked me, going so far as to say I should be a cheerleader for young women interested in STEM. Her reasoning surprised me. She explained that some mathematicians had come to visit their school to talk to the girls about STEM. She said that their personalities and style of dress were “rugged” and that some of the young students felt that math wasn’t for them. That because they felt more feminine, they wouldn’t fit in as mathematicians. The irony here is that I dressed nice for the tours that day, knowing kids might like my hot pink 3D printed saber toothed cat skull earrings and fashionable attire. Most days I look pretty “rugged.” My attire matches our computer programming team more than it does our professional producers, but no one at work seems to mind.

At first I felt a little frustrated. It wasn’t fair to judge the visiting mathematicians on what they wore. There are loads of problems with how young girls decide what is feminine and how they want to act. Gender roles are passe for goodness sake! On top of that, I know many women in STEM careers who would make better role models than me. I feel like I perpetuate a stereotype that STEM is only for rugged girls that are outspoken and have tattoos, when I know tattoo free conservative leaning women that do great work. I realized it made me feel bad because this mentor seemed to think I was the best she could get. I’m very good at making science fun, but I don’t represent all women.

All in all the day gave me hope. I saw many diverse groups of students and students that surprised me. I ended each talk by telling them that teams of people with drastically different backgrounds solve problems better, and we need more great problem solves in STEM.

 

 

Pokémon GO: A Gateway Drug to Nature Apps?

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“Do you think it’s too cold and windy for them?” I asked.  My husband shrugged and gave me a look that said, “you’re supposed to be the expert.”   I looked back down at the bright orange butterflies.  They bobbled in the wind on the tops of the milkweed flowers I had set them on and reminded me of little orange sails on schooners in a storm.  The little hooks

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The Monarch Butterflies at the museum are part of a Citizen Science project.

on their feet allowed them to keep a death grip during each gust.  We eventually moved them to a sheltered tree.

 

While Zane and I fussed over the Monarchs fresh from their chrysalises, Pokémon GO players walked by glued to their cell phones.  If you haven’t heard or noticed the droves of people walking around, Pokémon GO is an augmented reality game that requires players to walk to different geographic locations to play and collect Pokémon species.   The museum had become something of  a hotspot due to its proximity to stops, gyms, wifi, and electricity.  One of the players, a dad leading a small family on a Pokémon chase, rubbernecked at us and the butterflies.  He did not stop.

I’ve been playing Pokémon GO for a few days now and its similarity to citizen science apps is uncanny.  Yesterday I decided to look for Pokémon in the cemetery near my house and had little luck.  While I was there, however, I did a find a very real cottontail rabbit.  I closed my Pokémon game and opened iNaturalist.  I took a photo of the rabbit and added it to my observation list in (a pokedex for naturalists).  I switched back to Pokémon GO and went on hunting.  It’s hard not to see the similarities between apps that are used for

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Butterfree Pokemon.

finding and collecting observations, real scientific data, and Pokémon GO .  The big difference?  People are actually using Pokémon GO , while citizen science apps are generally only used by hobby naturalists, birders being the best example.

In fact, Pokémon GO is similar to birding in particular.  Groups of people mill about in spontaneously created “hot spots” and socialize.  “Has anyone seen a Jigglypuff yet?” can substitute for “Did you see the Long-eared Owl yet?”  Pokémon GO  players keep a pokedex and birders keep a life list. It shows me that, as humans, we have a love for
hunting and collecting things.   So far, we just haven’t been able to tap into that love to get people interested in nature on a large scale.  Can we ever use technology like the augmented reality in Pokémon GO to get people interested in the real monsters around them?

 

Evolutionary Psychology Isn’t Done Evolving Yet

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High Plains Skeptic

Editorial_cartoon_depicting_Charles_Darwin_as_an_ape_(1871) Caricature of Charles Darwin from The Hornet, ca. 1871.

Rejecting evolutionary psychology (EP) is tantamount to rejecting evolution. Or so goes the argument put forward by evolutionary psychologist Glenn Geher in a recent Psychology Today editorial. As Geher writes, there does seem to be some disconnect involved in accepting evolution, on the one hand, and rejecting evolutionary psychology on the other. It’s the sort of about-face that seems dependent on a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. For many – particularly in the humanities and social sciences – this incongruence is probably very often politically or ideologically motivated. Rightly uncomfortable with the sort of late 19th and early 20th century typological thinking – sometimes crudely justified by a slipshod invocation of Darwinian ideas – that contributed to classist and racist social agendas, many rebel against the notion that human behavior is biologically determined.

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This is peculiar for a…

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5 Ways a Cat Loving Blogger Misunderstands Ecology

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I came across this gem of an article on my facebook, and I couldn’t handle it.  This is unintentional science denial at its worst.  I’ve responded briefly to each of the 5 claims made by the author.

“5 Ways Feral Cats Do More Good Than Harm for Wildlife”

Read the original article here.

  1. They kill other animals that cause harm

On Australian islands where feral cats were eliminated, rat populations rose exponentially. Rats are notorious for eating bird eggs, and as a result of being overrun by rats, bird populations on those islands were decimated.

Okay, this situation isn’t evidence that cats are good.  Cats were removed from Macquarie Island because they were negatively affecting the native bird population.  The implication here was not that cats were preventing bird deaths and environmental damage, but that they are the lesser of two evils.   

  1. They kill the weakest and slowest animals

By eating rodents or birds that don’t have the health and vitality to survive, or that lack the ability to camouflage themselves, feral cats help to assure that prey animal populations become stronger and more adapted to their environment.

This style of predation occurs in ecosystems where predator and prey species have been co-evolving.  When cats are introduced to ecosystems where none of the prey species have co-evolved with them, the cats are able to capture and kill healthy, smart, and young animals too.

The best example for this I can think of is bat predation by feral cats.  I was attending the 2009 Animal Behavior Society Annual Meeting, and a graduate student was scheduled to give a talk on feral cat predation of bats. During her presentation she presented a video of a feral cat standing at a cave entrance nabbing bats as they came out. These weren’t weak, old, or stupid bats…  They were healthy robust flyers out for their nightly feed.  The point is that cats are such astounding predators that they can decimate individual populations of native animals before natural selection has time to kick in and create adaptive responses that mitigate predation by cats. More about cats and bats here.

  1. They make prey animals smarter

Prey animals that learn that cats are to be avoided teach this lesson to their offspring. Those that get the clue will survive, and therefore the population as a whole will become smarter and more likely to live to reproduce.

Natural selection pressure for predator avoidance is not the same as natural selection for general intelligence.  Small mammals that are adapted avoid cats aren’t smarter in general, they just avoid cats, but that doesn’t even matter. Please see my previous point that many populations of animals under siege by feral cats do not have time for natural selection to act on their predatory avoidance behavior before being snuffed out.

  1. They help to maintain the ecosystem

If prey populations rise too high, the impacts on the environment can be profound. After the elimination of feral cats in Australia’s Macquarie Island, rabbit populations exploded and rabbit grazing destroyed albatross habitats. By preying on those rabbits, feral cats helped to ensure that the island’s ecosystem remained stable.

The ecosystem was not stable with cats, sea bird populations were declining due to predation by cats.

  1. They increase biodiversity

Because predators are more likely to kill animals that have a higher population, they make room for other animals that fill the same ecological niche. Shrews and birds both eat worms, for example, but if the shrew population rises high enough to threaten the birds’ ability to eat, feral cats will come to the rescue: they’re much more likely to eat shrews since there are so many more of them, therefore leaving more food for the birds.

It is widely accepted in the scientific community that feral cats, when introduced to new ecosystems, decrease biodiversity.  Point #5 is simply fantasy. Read more about cats and island biodiversity here.

As for the hypothetical example of cats benefiting birds by keep shrews in check…

What happens when cats have access to an overabundance of shrews to eat?  In this example, there are so many shrews that they are decimating worm populations, so it’s implied there are a metric S!&$-ton of shrews.  What happens to predator populations when there is an overabundance of prey?  Their population increases. What happens to the birds in this example when they cat population explodes in response to shrew overpopulation?  Now that there are more predators in the ecosystem than the shrew population can sustain, the cats will start eating birds.   This competition between birds and shrews is called apparent competition, and it’s been widely studied.  Learn more about it here.   

Long story short, please keep your pet cat inside and consider supporting well planned feral cat removal instead of Capture/Neuter/Release programs. It’s safer for your pet cat, and your local wildlife population thanks you.