A month in the life of a Zoo Keeper – My experience of favouritism and guilt.

A month in the life of a Zoo Keeper – My experience of favouritism and guilt.

For the last month I have been working at a local zoo, looking after 3 very demanding, very hungry female Asian Elephants. The last month has been a rollercoaster of emotions and opinions about the ethics and morality of zoos and I hope to outline those feelings to you now.

When I first applied for the work experience position I had what I would call a “typical scientific opinion” of zoos. That is, I thought zoos have a two prong strategy: to inform the public of the threats facing endangered animals (and hopefully gain some charitable donations), and to take part in breeding programmes to change population numbers for the better. Obviously I thought all this went on with the utmost care and consideration for the animals in question. This was my mind set when I started working at the zoo and in the vast majority of cases I was correct.

The elephants were fantastic. I remember saying on my first day that I wouldn’t have a favourite but that quickly changed when I developed a small soft spot for one of the elephants called Kate. Before I knew it I found myself sticking up for her in arguments, and throwing her that extra slice of melon or pineapple on the sly. After my first week I found myself noticing their hierarchy, day to day behaviour and individual qwerks. By the end of the month they knew my face, trusted my voice and (regardless of whether I was right or wrong) I felt like one of the family.

As well as the elephants I also spent a lot of time around the big cats. Similarly to Kate, I soon developed a soft spot for our Amur Tiger called Zam. Tigers are largely solitary animals, but they do come into contact with other members of their species from time to time. But what happens in a zoo environment? In the wild, Zam at least has the possibility that he might bump into another tiger, (hopefully a female!) but in the zoo, day in day out it is guaranteed he will never see a male or female of his species – no exception. This is where I start to question my opinions. There is no question Zam is a vital part of the Amur Tiger breeding programme, and the zoo continually provide enrichment for him but is he living his life to the full? Should we try and save endangered species for future generations of tigers, regardless of the cost, or burden it may put on the current generation? Zam may be very happy when he gets a scheduled visit from a female, but that female can’t stay with him forever – it isn’t in the nature of Tigers to live in breeding pairs. So for the majority of his time he will be on his own. It upsets me knowing how his life will pan out, with no where new to explore, no females to pursue or males to fight. These were my thoughts half way through the month, and they were depressing. But let us not forget successful breeding programmes do exist, and I believe it would be morally criminal to let these beautiful creatures go extinct without even trying to save them.

So what do I think now after my time at the zoo? Well in the case of the elephants: all 3 of them are too old to breed and 2 of the 3 are from the circus. The other has lived all but one year of her life in captivity. Since none of the elephants therefore possess the skills to live in the wild, I personally think they have a very good quality of life – and undoubtedly better than their life in the circus. In the case of Zam I am not so sure. He has certainly made it clear to me that my opinions on zoos a month ago were quite naive.  I feel for Zam, but at the same time, the sacrifice he is making could be the difference between his species surviving or becoming extinct. I guess the real point here is Zam shouldn’t have to sacrifice his life in the first place. It is neither his nor his species fault. So what is the place of zoos? Perhaps the zoos will eventually manage to right some of the wrongs done to animals, and provide a home to those whom no longer have one. Perhaps they won’t. As I said, it would be criminal not to try and save these beautiful animals. Those of you lucky enough to spend long periods of time with endangered animals as I have will agree: heart strings are pulled, moral stances are questioned and finally a sense of guilt and shame overwhelms. These creatures suffer, and the sad truth is: in the most part it is our own species’ fault.

The sad truth about British indigenous species – not exotic or exciting and too familiar?



The sad truth about British indigenous species – not exotic or exciting and too familiar?


Those of you who have read my “About me” section will know that I am currently doing work experience at a local zoo on the Elephants and Big Cats section. The past two weeks have been excellent so far, with many experiences which I hope will stay with me forever. Working at the zoo, I have noticed the incredible number of “opportunities” visitors have to donate money to charities the zoo supports. There are literally collection boxes everywhere! Now don’t get me wrong, there are thousands of endangered species in the world and the sad truth is without the continual financial support of the public they probably will become extinct. However, I think we often forget about the less exotic species, found closer to home.

I was astonished to find that there are 10 species of animal indigenous to Britain that are on the brink of disappearing forever, including the cuckoo, red squirrel (see my second blog) and the iconic British hedgehog. Over the last 10 years the hedgehog population has declined 25% to 1 million. If this decline continues at the current rate, hedgehogs will be extinct in 15 years. A reduction in habitat is the main problem facing the hedgehog, resulting in sharing of their habitat with predatory badgers as well as humans in residential areas. In the residential areas, hedgehogs have to fight against pesticides killing their food (caterpillars and beetles), as well as rat poison, strimming and mowing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. An additional 50,000 hedgehogs on average are killed by motorists or drown in garden ponds.

As mentioned above hedgehogs are not the only species indigenous to Britain that are under threat. There has been a huge effort recently to understand the 60% decline in cuckoo populations over the last 25 years. The behaviour of these birds is well known in our own country but on return from their annual migration to Africa, there seems to be fewer birds than expected. Researchers decided to fit 5 birds with a 5 gram tracking system to see where and when the migrating cuckoos run into trouble. Currently all 5 birds are in Africa, 4 of which have crossed the Sahara heading south.

Saving endangered species has two key parts. Firstly researchers must work to understand the problems facing the animal in question, and then create a strategy to not only positively influence the animal’s population numbers, but also ensure no damage is caused to the animal’s ecosystem. Secondly, once the strategy is approved money must be injected to see the plan through. In terms of Britain’s situation this may be where the likes of the hedgehog and the cuckoo come stuck. The British public already donate a huge amount of money to charities supporting endangered animals outside the UK, but asking them to support British animals instead or as well as, in the current economic climate may prove too much to ask. I fear it may be true that it is the exotic and unfamiliar that will get the limited financial backing and in this case, that does not mean support towards Britain’s indigenous species. It is of course your decision but I urge you to think about the animals you are supporting and not forget the ones closer to home.



Blog 8 - Hedgehog vs Tiger
Hedgehog vs Tiger, which would you choose?



British Hedgehog Preservation Society – http://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk

Cuckoo tracking website – Location via Google Maps of all 5 cuckoos and a link to a donation page – http://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking



Humans vs. our 3.7 million year old ancestor: Not so different after all?

Humans vs. our 3.7 million year old ancestor: Not so different after all?

I love my degree (Zoology), but if I had to choose a different degree which I think I would enjoy equally it would be Biological Anthropology, otherwise known as the physical development of the human species or more generally human evolution. I am not alone in my fascination for this subject. It is shared with many people from our own species, all trying to understand who, what, where and when we came from.  The modern technological revolution has resulted in a huge leap forward in genetics and computer simulation which has increased our knowledge in this area astronomically. This allows scientists to refine, and/or recreate previously used methods in a hope to increase the accuracy of their conclusions.

A paper recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society has used new methodology to show that the first known fully bipedal hominin footprints are 3.7 million years old – 1.8 million years older than previously thought. The research was carried out by scientists at the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Bournemouth. The footprints, (discovered in Laetoli, Africa) are much more similar to a modern human than expected. Using computer simulation the gait of these hominins can be recreated, and that too is very similar to modern humans.

The method of using footprints as a way to visualise the individual that left them is relatively new one but has revolutionised our understanding of early bipedalism in hominins. First, computer software creates a 3D image of the foot which left the footprint, which is then compared to modern human footprints. The software can also show where the most pressure is applied when making the print. This relates to the posture of the individual and so can also be useful in visualising the print maker. All this information is then brought together to identify the most likely printmaker based on what we already know about the morphology of past hominins. In this case the 3.7 million year old footprints were made by a member of Australopithecus afarensis. It was previously thought that A. afarensis used the side of its foot to walk but the pressure points identified show that was not the case. This research shows that A. afarensis actually used it’s big toe to push off from the ground, much like a modern human. Furthermore the early hominin had a much more upright posture than previously thought and had a gait very similar to modern day humans.

It is widely accepted that A. afarensis is a direct ancestor of the Homo lineage, and therefore a direct ancestor of modern humans too. As I discussed in my previous blog, research is been carried out to try and decipher what it is that makes humans unique. It was long thought the answer was our big brains, which resulted in our upright posture, which was our great advantage. However this research shows that at the time when the hominin lineage developed a big brain (2.4-1.5 million years ago), hominins had already been walking upright for at least 1.5 million years. As a result this quest to know what it is that makes us unique is still left wide open. What is clear is that modern humans have a passion to know things, in particular to know about ourselves and what we came from. The advances in technology are allowing us to take further conclusions from the evidence available to us and to learn from it. There is after all that old cliché: how can you know yourself without first knowing where you came from.


Humans: not so unique, not so special? The case of the clever Mandrill.

Humans: not so unique, not so special? The case of the clever Mandrill.  


Not so long ago the world of science was very different. Leading scientists of their age believed in alchemy, a 6000 year old (flat) Earth and that DNA was unimportant. Another belief was that humans were superior to any other animal on the planet. It wasn’t until Charles Darwin presented his theory of natural selection in the 19th Century that opinions began to change. As we all know, this theory made people think again about where or more importantly from what species originated and ultimately that humans are not so different from other animals.

Since that realisation, more evidence from genetics to behavioural studies has been gathered which further supports the theory. In the 1970s it was thought that humans were the only primates that used tools, but since then evidence of tool use and/or manipulation has been found in a number of primates including chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and capuchins. Current scientific thinking is to study these behaviours and see how they can help us understand the evolution of our own tool use behaviour.

Observation of tool use and modification for apparent hygiene purposes in a mandrill  

A paper was published in May this year which describes the use of tools by alpha male mandrill monkey in captivity at Chester Zoo, England. To confirm the use of tools the mandrills were videoed over 252 hours, of which the alpha male demonstrated tool use 7 times. The tool use observed involved the alpha male picking up and studying wood chip and bark from the floor surface. The preferred wood chip and bark was then broken down into twigs and again into splinters. The splinters were then used to clean underneath the toenails of each foot. After a splinter broke, or had worn down too much, a new splinter was selected.

It is clear from this observation that this captive mandrill is able to identify, manipulate and use tools. As the behaviour was not a one off, it can be implied that the act was achieved intentionally. It is unlikely the mandrill is imitating a human it has seen behaving in this way due to the mandrill’s environment. But it is possible the mandrill was only able to develop this behaviour due to the extra time available as a result of not having to find food.

While it is obvious more studies, using different mandrills are required to further support this study, mandrills can now be considered as a tool using and modifying animal. The study also provides more evidence that it is not just the great apes that display tool use, but also other old world monkeys such as the capuchins and mandrills.

Final thoughts

A question that has been frequently asked about the human species is: what makes us so special? For a long time people thought it was our tool use, but with so much evidence to contradict that being our unique feature it seems unlikely. A relatively new theory presented by Professor Paul M. Bingham and Joanne Souza suggests that our uniqueness is our ability to demonstrate non-kin independent social cooperation. That is, our ability to form a culture, to socialise within that culture and to cooperate regardless of relatedness. Obviously this is and can only be a theory, and like any theory it is being tested, but it is gaining scientific backing.

This case is an example of how scientists do get some things wrong, even fundamental knowledge such as the shape of the earth or the origins of our species. What is important is the progression from one theory to another one, with better evidence supporting that new theory – otherwise known as the scientific method. This method is the foundation of science and with its continual use we can begin to understand some of the most fundamental questions facing science.


Further Reading

Journal Article:

Pansini R, Et al. 2001. Observation of tool use and modification for apparent hygiene purposes in a mandrill. Behavioural processes. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2011.06.003

News article covering the story:


The snow leopard: a forgotten casualty of war?

The snow leopard: a forgotten casualty of war?


In the busy modern world we all live in it is sometimes easy to forget the bigger picture. I for one will admit I don’t think about famine, poverty, global warming or war every day. That isn’t because I don’t care, but it is simply easy to forget when comfortably living in the UK. When times are hard in countries experiencing this kind of problem it is also easy to think just of the people affected. But there is a great effect on the animals in these countries too. The official start of the war in Afghanistan was in 2001 and since that time snow leopards have been discovered in the north east of the country.

General Information

Snow leopards are the largest of the big cats currently listed as endangered. They are native to south and central Asia as well as Afghanistan. The snow leopards preferred habitat is steep terrain (3000m – 4500m) with cliffs, ridges, gullies and rocky outcrops, but can also be found in grassland, scrubland and open coniferous forest. Over the last 16 years the population numbers of snow leopards has decreased by 20%, with a wild population between 4,500 – 7,500 and an estimated 2,500 mature breeding individuals. A study has recently been released in the International Journal of Environmental Studies describing the work carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to manage snow leopard populations over the last 5 years in Afghanistan.

Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor.

Wakhan is located to the north west of Afghanistan and the corridor connects it with China. The first aim of the study was to confirm local villagers’ reports that snow leopards are present in the Wakhan corridor. This was achieved by setting up camera traps and then using the photographs to identify individuals and attempt to estimate the population size. The results suggested there was a high population of snow leopards in the area, but more testing was required to eliminate pseudo replicates.

The next step was to identify the threats facing the snow leopards and then create a management plan which not only aids the snow leopards, but also the local villagers. The threats identified were poaching for fur, removal of live specimens for private wildlife collections or zoos, and killing of the snow leopards by shepherds to protect their livestock. All these factors contribute to a possible local extinction if a management plan is not introduced.

As previously mentioned the management plan needs to aid the villagers as well as the snow leopards. The communities that live in the Wakhan Corridor are very poor and disadvantaged, as well as having a very high child mortality rate. Unfortunately this means in times of extreme hardship the villagers see the snow leopards as a source of income. To educate the villagers, the Wakhan Pamir Association (WPA) was formed. The WPA is a group of elected villagers that receive support and training in conservation management and livelihood development. These skills are then implemented to plan ways to sustain and manage the natural resources in the Wakhan Corridor. A group formed by the WPA is the ranger program. This is a group of 54 villagers and 5 experts responsible for monitoring illegal activities as well as patrolling and surveying the local wildlife. Furthermore the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has provided assistance for the villagers in constructing predator proof livestock pens to attempt to stop local shepherds killing the snow leopards.

Another important aspect of the new management plan is educating the villagers. This involves village to village consultations as well as taking villagers to visit neighbouring Pakistan where snow leopard and villager communities live together successfully. Another highly valued aspect of the programme is educating the children on snow leopards. These practices show a gradual cultural change in Wakhan adults towards conservation. The key towards this cultural change is giving the people in the Wakhan corridor facts rather than myths and rumours. For example, it is believed that snow leopards are responsible for the death of many of the livestock found in Wakhan. However, after this study it was found the actual number of livestock mortalities snow leopards were responsible for was 0.5%. It was in fact found that the vast majority of livestock mortalities were a result of wolf predation.

It is clear a significant proportion of the threats facing snow leopards are due to villager misunderstandings. In an animal population which typically has very low densities, such misunderstandings could be detrimental. Furthermore, in a country struggling to cope with the social, economical and political effects of war, a top-down strategy from government to community may not be effective or quick enough. It seems the current bottom-up strategy will have the greatest effect, and hopefully will avoid further population decline. The future of the snow leopard is uncertain but hopefully the WPA and WWF can work with the villagers to rescue population numbers before it is too late.


Further Reading

WWF snow leopard page – http://www.wwf.org.uk/what_we_do/safeguarding_the_natural_world/wildlife/snow_leopard/

Journal paper – Simms, A. Et al, 2011. Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor. International Journal of Environmental Studies, 68 (3), pages 299-312.


Invertebrates telling water’s dirtiest secrets – L’Esteron River, Saint-Auban, France.

Invertebrates telling water’s dirtiest secrets – L’Esteron River, Saint-Auban, France.

As promised, here is a brief overview of the work I did in Saint-Auban, France on L’Esteron River. I decided to study the possibility of pollution from a water treatment works (WTW) that has recently been built entering the river.



Pollution – At its worst is a global killer. As our population increases so does pollution, potentially resulting in major disease and catastrophic environmental issues. This is not just an issue in cities, but also in the countryside as people look to less built up areas to live. In some cases this leads to pollution disturbing the environment we would otherwise describe as clean and natural.

So what part do invertebrates play in pollution? Each family of invertebrates differs in their ability to tolerate different types and different levels of pollution. This coupled with their high prevalence and ease of capture makes the invertebrates an ideal indicator of pollution. To quantify the water quality in a river system the Biological Monitoring Working Party (BMWP) score is used. This takes pollution tolerant families such as the worms and gives them a score of 1, and pollution intolerant families such as the mayflies and gives them a score of 10. The assumption made is that pollution intolerant families are found in non-polluted water, and that pollution tolerant families are found in polluted water. Every family present at a sampled site is given a score from 1-10, and the sum of those scores is used to relate to the BMWP to give an indication of water quality.

Hypothesis 1: The water quality is poorer downstream of the Water Treatment Works relative to upstream of the Water Treatment Works

Hypothesis 2: The water will be of better quality the further downstream of the Water Treatment Works is sampled.


Methodology & Results

Three sites were sampled, one upstream of the WTW two downstream and six kick samples taken

Figure 1

at each site (See Figure 1 – adjacent). The kick sample collects any sediment and invertebrates within that sediment into a net. Once each sample was transferred from the net to a

box, it was taken back to the lab for identification. The kick samples showed

which invertebrate families were present at each site. Each family was then given a score, and the scores combined to give the BMWP score.

From Figure 2 (bottom of post) it is clear two dominant families were found at sites 1 and 3 – the Freshwater Shrimp (Gammaridae) and the Mayfly nymphs (Ephemeridae). Both these families are indicative of non-polluted water. At site 2 the most dominant family is the worms (Oligochaeta).The worms are particularly indicative to polluted water. This would comply with hypothesis 1 in that the invertebrates found at sites 1 and 3 differ dramatically to those at site 2. Furthermore the invertebrates found at site 2 indicate more polluted waters compared to the water at site 1.

Site 3 also seems to have a mixture of the diversity found at sites 1 and 2. The BMWP score for site 1 was moderate water quality, site 2 was poor water quality and site 3 was moderate water quality. The mixture of diversity at 3 insinuates the water can support both pollution tolerant and intolerant invertebrates, and therefore there is a relative water quality recovery from site 2 to site 3.

A general observation made from the samples was that the size of freshwater shrimps, as well as the total number of pregnant females was much greater at site 1 compared to site 3. It could be hypothesised that this is because there are more appropriate nutrients at site 1 compared to site 3. For example there could be more calcium at site 1, which is required for the crustaceans’ exoskeleton. At site 3 it could then be speculated that this free calcium has combined with any nitrate or phosphate pollution from the WTW, making calcium nitrate or calcium phosphate, which is inaccessible to the crustaceans in this state.

A chi square statistical test was used to test the data obtained for significance. For a degree of freedom of 22, the critical value in the chi square table at the 1% level is 48.27, and the chi square value from the data obtained here is 125. Therefore the data obtained is significant at the 1% level, or the probability of the data being obtained randomly is less than 0.01.



It is important to note that while these results do show that there is more pollution in the river at site 2 compared to site 1, there is no evidence as to where this pollution has entered the river. It is true that the only human activity between site 1 and 2 is the WTW but there could be other unknown contributions to the poor water quality such as surface run-off, or dumping of rubbish and other human waste. Therefore the results from this report can justify claiming there is pollution entering the L’Esteron River between sites 1 and 2. The source of that pollution can be speculated to be the WTW, but ultimately there is no evidence to directly prove or disprove that claim.

It is of vital importance that the pollution entering the river is monitored at least annually to ensure the pollution does not get any worse. If it does worsen the findings from this report and the findings from future reports should be forwarded to the WTW and the local governing body to try and solve the problem.



Artisteer (2008). “Crustacean: A class of Artropods.” Retrieved 05/07/2011, from


Croft, P. S. (1986). “A key to the major groups of the British Freshwater Invertebrates.” Aids to identification in difficult groups of animals and plants 6: 531-579.

Dos Santos, D. A., C. Molineri, et al. (2011). “Which index is the best to assess stream health?” Ecological Indicators 11(2): 582-589.

Greenhalgh, M. and D. Ovenden (2007). Freshwater life. London, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Martin, R. (2004). “Information on Distribution Maps and Histograms.”   Retrieved 05/07/2011, from http://www.cies.staffs.ac.uk/taxadist.htm.

NIEA. (2009). “The Biological General Quality Assessment Scheme.”   Retrieved 05/07/2011, from http://www.doeni.gov.uk/niea/water-home/quality/rivers/rivers_historical_monitoring_results/gqabiolexpln.htm.

Sigee, D., C. (2005). Freshwater Microbiology. Sussex, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Smith, J. G., C. C. Brandt, et al. (2011). “Long-Term Benthic Macroinvertebrate Community Monitoring to Assess Pollution Abatement Effectiveness.” Environmental Management 47(6): 1077-1095.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Giant Panda Poo: Telling the story of unfortunate circumstances


An article caught my eye a couple of days ago stating two quite interesting things. Firstly the Chinese population after census in 2010 has reached an astonishing 1.34 billion people, and secondly (and a little less of a bomb shell) the Chinese are now embarking on a once-every-10-year census of the Giant Panda population.

Conservation is a subject I hold close to my heart. I have had an active part in conservation since I can remember; whether it is at home in the Lake District or planting trees in the heart of the Borneo rainforest. I have little doubt in my mind that it will have some dictation over my future. Something else that is no stranger to conservation, and is in fact often used as a symbol for conservation itself, is the Giant Panda.

General Information

The Giant Panda is an endangered mammal found in Central Western and South Western China, distinctive for its black and white patterning. The vast majority of the Giant Panda’s diet is bamboo, but they sometimes eat small birds and rodents. Unfortunately for the Pandas their carnivorous digestive system means they get very little nutrition from bamboo, this means raising their offspring on milk leaves little nutrition for themselves. This lack of nutrients majorly limits their behaviour, such as limited social interactions and limiting energy expenditure from locomoting.

Another unfortunate issue facing the Giant Panda is not the loss of habitat due to deforestation as the Chinese population expands, but the subsequent migration to new habitats at higher altitude. At these higher altitudes very few bamboo species are able to grow. Therefore the Pandas have two options: live on the limited bamboo at higher altitudes, or travel down the mountain daily where bamboo is plentiful, but energetically expensive to obtain.


As well as loss of habitat and a nutrient poor food source the Giant Panda also has a very low birth rate. All these reasons meant it was obvious the Giant Panda populations needed to be monitored and conserved. I think it would be fair to say that the techniques used, particularly in early Panda conservation were quite “hit and miss”. It was first thought that caging was the only answer, which resulted in the Pandas suffering terrible conditions and further reducing reproduction rates. However a ruling in the late 90’s meant conservation could occur in the wild and population numbers began to increase.

To go about estimating Panda populations, trackers collect droppings and use them for DNA analysis to accurately identify the number of Pandas in an area. By identifying individual Pandas by their DNA, any pseudo replications can be removed from the sample to give an accurate estimate. 10 years ago population numbers of wild Giant Pandas were estimated at 1596 and the census is hoped to show a further increase after the preliminary survey ending this month.

Final thoughts

It seems the Giant Panda is a victim of unfortunate circumstances; decreasing habitat, nutrient poor food, and sharing a country with the highest human population in the world. The cynical amongst us may even suggest that the Giant Panda is a lost cause. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do believe it is going to take a huge effort to get population numbers up to a level whereby they will no longer be threatened. Crucially, I believe effort will not be the deciding factor, but instead space. I fear that once again we are faced with a species that is on the brink of extinction because of ever expanding human populations. As a result this iconic species may well have ever more challenging times ahead.

Further Reading

Original Article – http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/06/28/501364/main20075065.shtml

Article claiming some experts are calling for less care for Pandas – http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-06/16/c_13933891.htm



Saving UK Red Squirrels … too little too late?

Saving UK Red Squirrels … too little too late?


For the vast majority of my life I have lived in the Lake District, UK. Admittedly for most of my younger years I resented living in what I called “the middle of nowhere”, but as I grew up I began to appreciate its beauty. As well as the fantastic world renowned views, the Lake District is home to some amazing wildlife. Growing up in an environment where seeing wild deer, badgers, foxes etc every day is the norm has had a clear influence on my future career. When I was very young I remember seeing one animal in particular in the woods opposite my school almost every day. That animal was the Red Squirrel.

The woods in my village are home to one of the last populations of Red Squirrel in the UK. Despite this, I can’t remember seeing one since I left that primary school 9 years ago. It is thought there are less than 140,000 Red squirrels left in the UK, 85% of which are in Scotland.  Thank fully there are people up and down the country dedicated to maintaining, and hopefully increasing population numbers.


General Info

In the UK Red Squirrels are an endangered species and are estimated to be extinct in less than a decade, unless things drastically change. General practice is to blame the Grey (or Gray, dependant on region) Squirrel for the Red’s demise, however this is a little unfair. An estimated 60% of the Grey population carry the Squirrel pox virus like a reservoir – this virus is in all known cases, fatal to the Red Squirrels 4-5 days after infection. Grey squirrels were first introduced to the UK from America in the 1870s and the first Squirrel pox virus case in Cumbria was recorded in 1998.

Contrary to one of my previous statements, grey squirrels are not entirely blameless in the situation. The Greys are much quicker to strip an area of natural resources such as bark, wild bird’s eggs and fledglings, and eat 7 times as much food compared to the Reds. In fact, Red Squirrels are held so close to the hearts of UK citizens that Greys are officially classed as vermin in the UK. It is illegal to release Greys into the wild once caught, to treat for illness or injury and illegal to keep in captivity without licence.


Westmorland Red Squirrel Society

The Westmorland Red Squirrel Society (WRSS) was formed in 2005 and is the group responsible for the Red Squirrels in the woods by my village, and in the whole of South East Cumbria. They aim to raise awareness about the threats facing Red Squirrels, as well as eliminating those threats and therefore increase survival and population numbers.

As mentioned previously, the biggest threat to the Reds is the squirrel pox virus, as well as the competition with Greys for food and habitat. The solutions the WRSS present are to protect the Reds by controlling the Greys and keeping the two populations separate. Co-existing will in all cases result in the Reds being displaced by the Greys, until Grey populations can be controlled.


Is there any hope?

For some it may seem that there is no hope for the Reds, and that their extinction is inevitable, and from the above information I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that. However a paper from Animal Conservation claims in 2000 there were 4 Reds in a group of 140 that had an antibody to the virus. While I can’t find any papers with more up to date figures, it is promising that there is a resistance present in the Reds population. With the work of groups such as the WRSS perhaps the Greys can be held off long enough for the resistance to become dominant through the Red Squirrel population. However, I fear that it may take too long, and the Greys may have displaced too many Reds by that stage. I hope that the work of groups such as WRSS gain the support they deserve, and manage to save this animal from extinction, before it is too late.


Further Reading

Sainsbury, A. W. et al. (2000). “Grey squirrels have high seroprevalence to a parapoxvirus associated with deaths in red squirrels.” Animal Conservation 3: 229-233.

WRSS – http://westmorlandredsquirrels.org.uk/


Just how wise is a wise elephant?

Just how wise is a wise elephant?


When I tell people I study Zoology at University there are 2 common responses:

1)      Is that the study of how to be a zookeeper?

2)      What is your favourite animal?

Now we all know Zoology is not the study of how to be a zookeeper, but the second question is a little difficult. I couldn’t put my finger on one favourite animal, but I think Elephants are right up there. For those of you who have read my bio you will be aware I will be working in the elephant section at a local zoo this summer. As such, every elephant related soft toy, charm, book and most importantly news article finds its way to my desk from various friends and family. It is from one of these news articles that I became aware of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants (ATE).

The ATE is a study of 2500 African elephants over the last 35 years. Each elephant’s ancestry is catalogued, individually tracked and their behaviour observed and recorded. The ATE is founded by Cynthia Moss, who has almost been working with elephants for 40 years. The project is based in southern Kenya, near the border to Tanzania. Their focus is on the behaviour of these animals and to try and understand their intelligence and complex lives.


Findings from the ATE

After 35 years of studying the ATE have a huge database of information on the behaviour of their elephants. The current 1500 elephants at the Amboseli National Park are divided into separate family units comprised of related females and their offspring. Within each family unit there are also bond groups, clans and sub populations.

While everyone is brought up knowing that elephants are “wise” animals, the ATE has reported behaviour and actions that I for one would not have expected. For example they describe a female adult wincing as she watched a young calf extending their trunk to an electric fence. Other behaviour included using tree branches as fly swats, entwining trunks and bumping shoulders as a greeting, waggling heads and prodding each other as a playful incentive, and even females opening their eyes wider to attract potential suitors. The elephants at the ATE also show parental care by dragging stuck calves out of the mud, and walking with calves slower than the family unit, to ensure they don’t get lost. Another behaviour demonstrated has long been known in elephant research – grieving over their dead. Elephants seem to have the ability to distinguish an elephant carcass from any other animal carcass.

Some scientists suggest elephants are as capable as primates in co-operating and their short term memory is in some cases superior to that of humans. Iain Douglas – Hamilton of Save the Elephants, Samburu Nature Reserve Kenya, supports the work of Moss and the ATE, and believes their intelligence in day to day situations is an example of convergent evolution. Fritz Vollrath of Oxford University animal department is not so convinced. He argues that despite the obvious evidence for empathy, intelligence and compassion, is it really the same as our own? It is common for humans to assign human-like behaviour to animals, and Vollrath feels that this is the case in this situation.


Future Research

Elephants have a well developed sense of smell, and odour is an important part of their lives, but to what extent and do we really know the full purpose it serves? I would be the first to assume that the way they use scent is the same as the way another animal, say a dog uses scent. But is that really the case? One of the main reasons this has not been fully researched to the same extent as the ATE project is because it is much more difficult to record and analyse an odour, compared to recording and analysing a behavioural action. Another area the ATE are keen to learn more about is the way empathy effects an elephant’s life, how important it is, and why it developed at all.


Final Thoughts

I started at the beginning of this post explaining that elephants were one of my favourite animals. The current conservation status of the African (bush) elephant is threatened, meaning conservation work needs to be done to try and stop the species from becoming extinct. However, funding is required for this work and a viable source of income is the general public (via charitable donations). Perhaps the fact that elephants display behaviour similar to that of humans will add to the empathy felt for them by our own species. In theory, more empathy should mean more donations; therefore more work can be carried out trying to stop such an iconic animal from facing extinction.


Further Reading

Leadership in Elephants: the adaptive value of age (McComb, K. et al, 2011. Proceedings of the Royal Society B)

The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-term Perspective on a Long-lived Mammal (Moss, C. 2011. University of Chicago Press)

Elephant Expert: Busting myths of Nature’s masterpiece (Else, L. 2011. New Scientist)

Behaviour demonstrated over the 35 year study. Source: The Amboseli Elephant