The National Zoo

05/09/09

The field trip I chose to go on this semester was the trip to the National Zoo in D.C. We spent an afternoon observing several of the houses at the zoo, including the small mammal house, Think Tank, and the invertebrate house.

The first house I visited was the small mammal house. This house, obviously, holds many different species of small mammals, such as monkeys, prairie dogs, ferrets, etc. One of the first species we saw was the Golden Lion Tamaran, or Leontopithecus rosalia. The Golden Lion Tamarin is a species of monkey that is native to South America, mostly in the Atlantic forests of Brazil. It is "golden" orange/brown in color, and is relatively small. These tamarins are mostly tree-dwellers, and have several features like slender arms and sharp claws that help it to live in trees. They are endangered, with only about 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild. The next species that I observed was a species of rodent called a chinchilla, or Chinchilla lanigera. Chinchillas can be found in the Andes mountains in South America, where it lives in rocky crevices or caves. It is known for its incredibly soft fur, due to the fact that they have over 60 hairs sprouting from each follicle. Although chinchillas were once hunted close to extinction for their soft fur, they can now be found in the wild, albeit rarely. They are currently classified as an endangered species. The rocky habitat in the exhibit appeared to resemble an area that a chinchilla would actually live - it had a rock wall along with small caves.

The next house I visited was the invertebrate house. Here I saw the North Pacific Giant Octopus, or Enteroctopus dofleini. This interesting creature can be found in the Pacific Ocean, mostly along the coast. It typically lives in depths of about 65 meters, and is arguably the largest octopus species in the world. It's diet consists mostly of shellfish such as crabs, clams, and shrimp, as well as several species of fish. The habitat in the exhibit was basically a small model of the ocean floor, with several large rocks up against the wall. This habitat makes sense for the octopus, considering the majority of its prey (namely the shellfish) would also live on the ocean floor. The next species I observed was a cephalopod called the Common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis). This cephalopod can be found in the Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, and North Sea. It is one of the largest species of cuttlefish species. It lives at depths of about 200 meters, and preys on a wide variety of small aquatic animals, from crustaceans to algae. It's predators include large fish such as swordfish and whales. They are known for their ability to change colors.

We also made a stop at the Think Tank, one of the more interesting exhibits at the zoo. Instead of focusing on one major group of animals like the small mammal house or invertebrate house, the Think Tank instead deals with the ability of many species to think and examines their intelligences relative to humans. One interesting exhibit was a table that had several life-size casts of the brains of several species of animals, including the fox squirrel, orang utan, Asian elephant, human, and fin whale. Seeing these brain casts would make one think that the fin whale might be smarter than the fox squirrel, based on the fact that its massive brain far overshadowed the tiny brain of the fox squirrel. However, the exhibit pointed out that in brain-to-body ratio, the fox squirrel's brain was actually much "larger" than that of the fin whale, which I found very interesting. This was effective in getting across the information because the life-size brains are literally right in front of you, and can be easily compared to other species. There was also an orang utan habitat in the Think Tank, with plenty of information on our close genetic relatives. The exhibit explained that orang utans are very intelligent for animals, and use a variety of tools in their lives. In the actual exhibit, there were crates, ropes, and doors that the orang utans all actively interacted with.

The Smithsonian National Zoo also actively participates in many conservation efforts in an attempt to help save species from extinction. One such effort is the center for species survival, which mainly does research both on the actual animals and on their habitats. Using this information, the CSS hopes to save as many species as possible from extinction. One active project of the CSS is the Black-Footed Ferret Reproduction Project, which examines the biology of this species in order to boost their reproduction as well as prepare them for re-introduction into the wild. This species is one of the most endangered in North America, but it's population has been slowly brought back from the brink of extinction. By both working to prepare animals in captivity for re-introduction as well as pioneering assisted reproduction techniques, such as artificial insemination, this project hopes to restore the species in its natural habitat (American Midwest).

Another project is the Wild Canid Project, which focuses on studying several species of wild canids (dog-like animals) that are facing extinction with hopes to maintain strong populations of these species in both the zoo and the wild. Some of the species that are involved in this project are African Wild Dogs and Maned Wolves.

The zoo definitely provides a lot of information that anyone could learn an incredible amount from. There were several exhibits that were very in-depth, such as the ones included in the Think Tank that went into great depth as to how the brain actually works, and what makes some animals "smarter" than others. It's really interesting to be able to walk around for several minutes in each exhibit, yet walk out feeling like you've learned a lot. If I were zoo director, I would try to find a way to further incorporate the large cats into the zoo, and try to find a way to make it a more interesting exhibit. The lions and tigers have always been one of my favorites, and I am sure this is true for many others since these animals are just otherworldy in their size and prowess. It seems like every time you walk by their habitat, all of the cats are sleeping, which I guess cats will do a lot regardless but it would still be interesting to try to find a way to make this exhibit more interactive. This may be unlikely, since these are very dangerous animals and there would probably be many precautions that would have to be taken. However, it would definitely be neat to see more of these incredible predators.

Annotated Bibliography

Roach, J. April 16, 2009. "Great Turtle Race Mixes Competition, Conservation" ScienceDaily. Accessed 19 May 2009.

This article is about the "Great Turtle Race", which is a race organized by both National Geographic and Conservation International. Satelite tags were attached to a group of 11 leatherback turtles, which were released in the icy waters near Canada and set off in a race to the Caribbean, more than 3,700 miles away. The race acts as a way to raise awareness of leatherback behaviors and threats, considering this species is currently listed as endangered.

Anonymous. May 19, 2009. "Mongolian Gazelle"WCS and USAID Accessed 19 May 2009.

This article discusses the Mongolian Gazelle and its struggle for survival. There are currently active conservation projects to try to protect this animal, as it faces many threats including over-hunting, over-grazing, and fires. About 100,000 are hunted every year by locals, and it is the most hunted animal in Mongolia. The conservation projects are currently trying to find ways to boost reproduction as well as restore habitat and curb hunting.

Last modified: 20 May 2009