Tag Archives: national zoo

Can a museum object be more like a dog? New post at PLOS Sci-Ed

Dog owners out there may sympathize whit this: say you are outside walking your dog and are approached by friendly strangers who ask to pet him. Your dog just mediated a conversation with a stranger that would have not happen otherwise.

Like a dog, a museum object offers an excuse for strangers to have a conversation.

drill

Giant drill at the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Photo by Lara Solt at Dallas News.

This giant drill illustrates hydro frakking at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science’s energy hall.  If this seems controversial it’s because it is: is the museum celebrating such technique, or opening up for debate among visitors?

For more examples and ideas, read the entire post at PLOS Sci-Ed.

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Animal Kingdom’s Halloween – part II

Wolf Crystal cautiously examines her Halloween treat. Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Recently I’ve started volunteering at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The new American Trail exhibit opened last Summer, and expecting a flurry of visitors, the Zoo asked for extra help. The goal of American Trail, as one might expect, is to portray animals native to the US,  like beavers, ravens, sea lions, river otters, a bald eagle, and (my favorite) grey wolves.

Last week, American Trail  celebrated its first Halloween. Meanwhile, I was part of  the Boo at the Zoo event, but this time from a different point of view – zoo staff, instead of a visitor. I chose to talk about the bald eagle to a score of power rangers, princesses, iron men, and Marios – who also lined up for my newly-invented “are you a seal or a sea lion?” game.

From my booth in the Zoo’s main path, I could hear the sea lions barking. Where they responding to the children’s philosophical conundrum of “trick or treat”?

Sea lion Sophie has a treat and a toy at the same time. Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Instead, they were busy investigating their own Halloween treats. A collection of photos of the animals and their pumpkins has been posted to the zoo’s Facebook page. Besides being cute and hilarious, the Halloween treats serve the important purpose of enrichment. I’ve talked about this strategy on the blog before, which is an attempt to encourage natural behaviors in captive animals (and some might say, to avoid boredom). Animals will fall back to behaviors they display in the wild, like hunting or scavenging. They exercise their curiosity by investigating the treat (some, like Sophie above and raven Iris, event get a lot of play out of it). Mental abilities are tested as the animals figure out how to open the pumpkin to retrieve the goodies inside.

Selkie feasts on squid she found inside her pumpkin. Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Grey wolves Crystal and Coby got their share of treats. They were able to scavenge for meat hidden inside their pumpkins. It is only after Hurricane Sandy left that I can reflect on those events – specially considering DC and the National Zoo came out of it mostly unscathed. But in pre-hurricane times, people’s minds were filled with Halloween. And, with the risk of anthropomorphizing, I believe both animals and infant humans had a great time.

Animal Kingdom’s Halloween – part I

Vampire bat. Photo credit: Barry Mansell/naturepl.com via NewScientist

Last week I wrote a short piece about bats, which was published on my employer’s website. I was inspired by Halloween, but mainly I wished to talk about something dear to my heart: anticoagulants.

Most of my master’s dissertation revolved around mosquito molecules and the design of anti-clotting drugs. Mosquitos and bats do have a lot in common. You get a Halloween treat if you guessed its because both have a blood-based diet. Below is an excerpt (property of Owen Software) of the post I wrote for work:

The bad reputation of bats stems from their blood-filled diet, even though the vast majority of bat species eat insects or fruit. Out of more than a thousand species, only one drinks blood from other mammals: the aptly named “common vampire bat” (Desmodus rotundus), which preys on cows, pigs, or horses. But did you know these blood-sucking creatures can help scientists design new drugs?
Medical conditions like heart disease and stroke are caused when blood flow is interrupted, in many cases because of a blood clot lodged in an artery. Blood coagulation (or clotting) is a natural process in which blood clots plug wounds and help us recover from injuries and even prevent us from bleeding to death. One way to slow down the clotting process in stroke patients is to dose them with a class of molecules called anticoagulants. Besides halting coagulation, these molecules also dissolve the clot and boost blood flow.
Given the vampire bat’s need for blood, it might seem counterintuitive that those animals can be a source of drugs for heart disease and stroke. Through the course of evolution, vampire bats have developed their own natural anticoagulants. Their saliva is full of anticoagulant molecules that prevent their host’s blood from clotting and allow the bat to drink it. This ingenious feeding solution is not a novelty: in the animal kingdom, many other parasitic species have developed similar mechanisms (e.g, mosquitos, leeches, and ticks). Molecules from the bat’s saliva are the inspiration for new anti-stroke drugs. (…) Fittingly, scientists have paid homage to Halloween when choosing a name for a bat anticoagulant: they called it draculin.
I hope you enjoyed that cross-over of work post into my hobby blog.
Now that hurricane Sandy is gone, a mostly-unaffected Washington DC starts to celebrate Halloween. And that includes the National Zoo and its animals. On Part II of Animal Halloween I will talk about pumpkins treats as enrichments and of my participation on Boo at the Zoo.

Zebra piñatas and shrimp popsicles: keeping animals busy at the Zoo

Lioness attacks a zebra piñata. Photo credit.

It was graduation day at the Seattle Aquarium when I first heard of animal enrichment. I had been training for about two months before starting weekly shifts as an interpreter at the invertebrate tanks. My class was composed of about 60 other biologists, naturalists, teachers, and divers. As a treat – both for us and for the animals – after completing our training, we were taken to the sea otter tank. We watched from behind the glass as one of the Aquarium workers brought up a tall ladder – the same ladder which would later become my best friend in Aquarium activities. The Aquarium keeper also brought it a big iced bucket. Holding on to it, bucket and ladder, the she climbed up to a point where she was above the tank, dangling over the water. The three sea otters reconvened at the sight, and starting rolling around in the water as they waited for their precious bucket. This was an enrichment session.

Sea otter and his shrimpsicle. Photo: Seattle Aquarium.

“Enrichment” is a way a Zoo can save their animals from cabin fever. It is the equivalent of Internet or Facebook for a freelancer stuck in his studio apartment during a snow storm. It is distraction, curiosity, and novelty. It offers animals a chance to explore and behave like they would in the wild: forage for food, or hunt for prey (more on this later).

The sea otters got a bucket containing a plastic toy, which had been filled with water and frozen. Toy popsicle, or toysicle (they also get fishsicles and shrimpsicles). The entire frozen contraption is then tossed to the animals so they can play and exercise their mental abilities – or simply to find out what is inside. It reminded me of those dog toys with a treat inside – the dog has to chew, tinker, roll, and play with it, until the treat is released. Torture? We torture ourselves working through puzzles or, you know, curing cancer.

Preparing toysicles. Photo credit: Seattle Aquarium.

Turns out the “frozen bucket of something” is a common practice in Zoos and Aquariums. This “popsicle” can be made of frozen fruits for monkeys or pandas, or seafood for otters. For feline carnivores like lions, Sarah Putnan of the Smithosnina Zoo has designed the quail-pop or quailsicle: a quail is placed inside a bucket with its legs sticking out, filled with water, and frozen.

Jaguar unlocks the secrets to the meat hidden inside the blue container. Photo credit: Houston Zoo.

But frozen buckets are not the only enrichment option. The giant octopus I used to feed (atop the giant ladder mentioned above) at the Seattle Aquarium enjoyed playing with an empty peanut butter jar (Youtube is full of examples). Unscrewing the lid is sudoku for molluscs. At the National Zoo, apes play with towels, pandas interact with burlap sacks, lions shred cardboard boxes (really) and chew on horsetails (the National Zoo has a facebook photo set with some animals and their popsicles and towels). Animals can also “attack” too: small felines will hunt for small goldfish the keepers place in their ponds . Sounds like a busy life.

African wild dogs also enjoy zebra pinatas. Where can I order one? Photo credit: Houston Zoo.

But what my colleagues and I got that day at the aquarium was also “human”enrichment – the chance to meet the animals and get to learn about their personalities. Back then they were just “the otters”. Only later I would start distinguishing them – one male and two females – and calling each one by their names (the Alaskan Aadas, Lootas, and Aniak, which was recently joined by pup Sekiu). Even river and sea otters looked alike before I started interpreting. Now I don’t understand how I could have been so blind: they are worlds apart, like a human and a chimp.

A few cheetah-speed* notes

It is now  ~three weeks since I started this blog, and I thought I could give you some quick notes and some insights on what is to come:

  • This week I decided to skip the Terra Nova review. Apparently the dinosaur budget ran out and the last episode was all about littlegirlsaurus. For those still eager, the Bad Astronomer posted his Terra Nova review. In this case the focus is, obviously, on the astronomy depicted by the show (specifically the size of the moon and position of the stars).

  • This came in via James: Terra Nova drinking game. Take a drink when:

Someone leaves compound when they are not supposed to,
Blood and guts in the infirmary,
Teen boy acts put out,
Sixers face off with Novans,
Dinosaurs don’t die when shot with heavy weaponry,
Legless man shows up and says something pithy.

Die of alcohol poisoning.

(I am a health professional so I don’t endorse drinking a shot at each Terra Nova cliche. How about.. eating a vegetable instead?)

Iguana at the National Zoo, photo by the author

  • The Iguana above is not a dinosaur, but after I went to the Smithsonian National Zoo last Sunday, I have a lot to report. Coming up in future posts.

House episode - Transplant

  • This screen shot is a teaser for the review I am preparing of last week’s episode of House, named “Transplant”. I got so caught on the research that I decided to make into a larger post and interview a thoracic surgeon. My sister (the other, actually the first, Dr. Russo in the family) is also collaborating on this post.

  • I am compiling a list of Science, geek and sci-fi Halloween costumes. (Pixar lamp via Marina). It is growing a bit large and I might divide it into two parts. It might help whoever still lacks in ideas..

That’s it for now, coming back tomorrow with more.

*the cheetah is the fastest land animal and can run up to 75 mph!