Tails From The Zoo

Construction To Begin On Zoo’s Old Bear Range June 8, 2010

The Assiniboine Park Zoo and Assiniboine Park Conservancy announced plans today for its new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre at a unique “snow-turning” ceremony today. Construction is scheduled to begin next week on a new transition centre for orphaned polar bear cubs. The $4.5-million education and research facility and polar bear “transition centre” in Assiniboine Park Zoo will be a world-wide centre for Arctic conservation. The new building is to be constructed behind the zoo’s existing bear enclosure.

The transition centre will be off limits to the public most of the time but a new state-of-the- art Arctic exhibit, with room for six adult polar bears will open in 2013 for public viewing of bears.  The Province of Manitoba has committed $31 million to the project, including $4.5 million for the conservation centre and more than $26 million for construction of the polar bear arctic exhibit.


For more information on this story, please see the following coverage:

Winnipeg Free Press: Work Set to Begin On Rescue Facility

ChrisD.ca:  Snow Turned on First Phase of Polar Bear Centre


The Ghosts of Madagascar May 2, 2010

Filed under: Extinction Crisis,Primates,Zoo Animals,Zoo Knew — Scott Gray @ 10:37 pm
Tags: ,

They go from completely motionless to full-out balls of boundless energy, bouncing from branch to branch in a split second. And a visit to the Assiniboine Park Zoo would not be complete without spending a little time at the Tropical House watching these prosimians parade through their exhibit with their tails held high.

Sadly though, the ghosts of the Madagascan forests are quickly living up to their name. Of the more than 70 species of lemur on the island of Madagascar, two-thirds are endangered with extinction. Lemur, which means ghost, is an apt name for these mysterious primates that are disappearing from their island home at an alarming rate. Thanks to deforestation by humans, lemurs have lost more than 90% of their forest home in the last 100 years. Add on the illegal pet trade and hunting for bushmeat, humans are dealing a death blow that many species will not survive.


Arguably the most well-known of the lemur species, the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) was the focus of our discussions on Zoo Knew this morning. (Listen to CJOB’s Weekend Wake-up Show every Sunday at 7:15 am). The ring-tailed lemur, known for its black and white tail rings and black eye mask is the most common species exhibited in zoos around the world. Here are some fun facts that we discussed this morning, and some we didn’t get a chance to.


The Assiniboine Park Zoo currently displays nine primate species including three species of lemur. http://www.zoosociety.com/ZooAnimals_animalfacts.asp?L=1

Ring-tailed lemur



  • Ring-tailed lemurs have a long fox-like snout and a highly sensitive sense of smell.
  • Scent marking is extremely important to lemurs. They can pass on information to other members of their troop or other troops about their age, gender and social status.


  • Social grooming is an important bonding tool for many primates and lemurs are no exception.
  • Ring-tails have a special claw on their second toe and a tooth comb (on their lower jaw) to aid in grooming.


  • Ring-tails are omnivorous, eating items that are seasonally available.
  • They eat many types of fruits, flowers, grasses, leaves (especially tamarind) as well as sap.
  • They are also opportunistic hunters, eating spiders, insects and lizards when they can catch them.


  • Mouse lemurs (approx. six species) are the smallest lemurs, weighing less than a pound.
  • The indri is the largest of the lemurs at more than two feet tall and approximately six pounds. Oddly enough they have the shortest, stubbiest tail of all the lemurs.
  • The ring-tailed lemur is about the size of a house cat and it’s tail is longer than its body.



  • Male and female ring-tailed lemurs look nearly identical although the male will often have a heavier head and bulkier shoulders.
  • Lemurs live in a matriarchal society, with the females dominating the group.


Randomly Fun Facts:

  • Ring-tailed lemurs are diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day.
  • Lemurs are hunted by hawks, domestic dogs and cats and humans.
  • Lemurs tend to live an average of 17 years in the wild and 20 to 25+ years in zoos.
  • Ring-tails spend more time on the ground than any other species of lemur.
  • A group of lemurs is call a troop. Troops average 18 individuals.


Compiled by Scott Gray – Assiniboine Park Zoo


Extinction by the Numbers January 5, 2010

Filed under: Biodiversity,Extinction,Uncategorized — Scott Gray @ 4:09 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Here’s are a few numbers that most people don’t know, but need to:

● Up to 30,000 species (including plants, animals, fungi) per year are going extinct: three per hour.
● Fifty percent of all primates and 100 percent of all great apes are threatened with extinction.
● Three of the world’s nine tiger subspecies became extinct in the past 60 years; the remaining six are all endangered.
● Humans have already driven 20 percent of all birds extinct.
● Twelve percent of mammals, 12 percent of birds, 31 percent of reptiles, 30 percent of amphibians, and 37 percent of fish are threatened with extinction.

Learn more about the extinction crisis from www.biologicaldiversity.com


Amur Tigers on the Brink July 5, 2009

The following text was taken from http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8128000/8128738.stm. All rights are reserved by the author.
The Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) is also commonly known as the Siberian tiger.

Amur tigers on ‘genetic brink’

Matt Walker, Editor, Earth News

A wild Amur tiger is a rare sight. The world’s largest cat, the Amur tiger, is down to an effective wild population of fewer than 35 individuals, new research has found.

Although up to 500 of the big cats actually survive in the wild, the effective population is a measure of their genetic diversity. That in turn is a good predictor of the Amur tiger’s chances of survival.

The results come from the most complete genetic survey yet of wild Amur tigers, the rarest subspecies of tiger. At the start of the 20th Century, nine subspecies of tiger existed, with a total world population of more than 100,000 individuals.

Human impacts have since caused the extinction of three subspecies, the Javan tiger, Bali tiger and Caspian tiger, and world tiger numbers could now have fallen to fewer than 3000.

The Amur tiger, or Siberian tiger as it is also known, is the largest subspecies which once lived across a large portion of northern China, the Korean peninsula, and the southernmost regions of far east Russia. The Amur tiger most likely derived from the Caspian tiger, recent research has shown.

What is remarkable about the Amur tiger is how much lower the effective population size is than the census size. During the early 20th century, the Amur tiger too was almost driven to extinction, as expanding human settlements, habitat loss and poaching wiped out this biggest of cats from over 90% of its range.

By the 1940s just 20 to 30 individuals survived in the wild. Since then, a ban on hunting and a remarkable conservation effort have slowly helped the Amur tiger recover. Today, up to 500 are thought to survive in the wild, while 421 cats are kept in captivity.

However, the genetic health of the tiger hasn’t improved, according to a new analysis published in Molecular Ecology.

Michael Russello and Philippe Henry of the University of British Columbia, in Kelowna, Canada led a team drawn from universities in Canada, Japan and the US in a bid to analyse the genetic profiles of the remaining wild Amur tigers.

They sampled nuclear DNA found within the scat samples of an estimated 95 individuals found throughout the Amur tiger’s range, likely constituting up to 20% of the remaining population.

The study sampled the amount of variation within the DNA from more tigers, across a broader geographic, than any previous research.

“Although the census population size of Amur tigers is closer to 500 individuals, the population is behaving as if it were the size of 27 to 35 individuals,” says Russello.

That’s the lowest genetic diversity ever recorded for a population of wild tigers.

The effective population of any group of animals will be lower than the number that actually exist, due to factors such as non-breeding individuals or a skewed sex ratio.

“However, what is remarkable about the Amur tiger is how much lower the effective population size is than the census size,” says Russello.

Population split

Another important finding to emerge from the study is that the remaining Amur tigers are segregated into two populations that rarely intermingle.

The majority of Amur tigers live among the slopes of the Russian Sikhote-Alin Mountains, with 20 or fewer living separately in Southwest Primorye in Russia.

The two groups are separated by a corridor of development between Vladivostok and Ussurisk, and the genetic analysis showed that perhaps just three tigers had managed to cross the divide, reducing the effective size of the wild population further.

“There is little sharing of genes across the development corridor, suggesting that these two populations are fairly discrete,” says Russello.

“In actuality, it seems that Amur tigers are residing in two, fairly independent populations on either side of the development corridor between Vladivostok and Ussurisk, further lowering the effective size for each from 26 to 28 for Sikhote-Alin and 2.8 to 11 for Southwest Primorye.”

That means more work needs to be done to open up this barrier segregating the tigers.

If that doesn’t happen, then it’s likely that the Southwest Primorye population will continue to dwindle. That could also kill off the prospect of reintroducing Amur tigers to China, as those in Southwest Primorye are living closest to their former Chinese range.

The news is not all bad for the Amur tiger, however. Russello and Henry’s team also analysed the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA of 20 captive Amur tigers, to see if they retained any unique genetic features since lost by the wild tigers.

“There are gene variants found in captivity that no longer persist in the wild,” says Russello, which suggests that the captive program has done a good job of preserving the genetic diversity of the subspecies.

“Now that it is known which individuals possess which gene variants, managers will be able to selectively breed to help preserve the unique and rare gene variants,” says Russello.

“The implication is that this variation may be used to re-infuse the wild population sometime in the future if reintroduction strategies are deemed warranted.”


Human Overpopulation, Poverty, and Wildlife Extinction May 22, 2009

Filed under: Biodiversity,Eco-Dates,New Animals/Births — Scott Gray @ 2:15 am
Tags: , ,

By Dr. Robert E. Wrigley, Curator, Assiniboine Park Zoo.

This article is based on ones published in CAZA News (Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Jan-Feb 2000) and International Zoo News, June 2000;  47 (4): 210-214, and is reprinted here in support of International Biodiversity Day, 2009.


Incessant human population growth is viewed as the leading cause of most of humanity’s scourges, such as poverty, war and starvation.  While the wildlife-conservation movement is valiantly attempting to save the world’s remaining diversity of life, this effort is overwhelmed by the demands of mounting numbers of people.  The obvious solution of birth control and family planning remains largely unknown or ignored — a heritage of our ancient customs and religious beliefs.

Under the onslaught of an ever-increasing human population, it has become clear that humanity and the world’s environments and ecosystems are under serious threat.  In their landmark books, Ehrlich and Ehrlich (1970) and Wilson (1992) demonstrated with overwhelming evidence that reducing the human population, and hence lessening demands on natural ecosystems, is the over-riding factor in the struggle to conserve the natural world.  The current frenzy for exploiting natural resources and the escalating environmental degradation by the world community are in stark contrast to traditional beliefs of Aboriginal Peoples about Mother Earth.  The spiritual inter-relatedness of earth, water, plants, animals and people demanded that great respect be shown to each part of this unity of life.  They appreciated (as few people do today) that their very survival depended on caring for the natural world.

However, in past times and present, when people are in desperate need, they have little choice but to exploit Nature to the fullest of their abilities and technologies.  Witness the rapid extinction of hundreds of species of large animals in North America, Europe, Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand, shortly after early people arrived and populated these land masses.  The American Great Plains region formerly supported a fauna of large animals as rich as that found today in Africa.  In the last 18,000 years, rapid climatic changes, ecosystem dislocations, and particularly over‑hunting by early people, have left a decimated assemblage of large animals.  Over 73% of large mammals and large birds in North America were wiped out (Martin and Klein 1984) before the arrival of Europeans, and the assault process has continued ever since — witness the almost-complete elimination of the Tall-grass Prairie Community, which formerly stretched from Manitoba to Texas.

Overpopulation and Conservation

Dedicated wildlife conservationists valiantly try to manage ecosystems and wildlife populations by conducting research projects, establishing large natural preserves, signing cooperative agreements with landowners, maintaining genetically diverse captive-breeding programs, developing education programs, and many other activities.  But increasingly, all these positive efforts are being overwhelmed by the demands of an ever-growing human population.  As a biologist and educator, I find it disheartening how infrequently the critical topic of birth control and family planning are stressed in society.  We feel justified and safe in discussing human overpopulation and the resulting habitat loss and environmental degradation, but fear to tread further to the logical conclusion.  True, family planning is a taboo subject fraught with public-relations risks, and it may challenge dearly held concepts about individual rights and family, however, it is ultimately the most important message our leaders and educational institutions can champion in saving the Earth’s ecosystems, their treasury of wondrous life forms, and for our very survival.

Perceiving the Problem

It is a daunting task to be heard and understood by people who do not wish to be confronted with lifestyle restrictions, or with depressing facts about human poverty and the demise of wildlife and the environment.  Pre-election platforms of political leaders often include promises to eliminate or alleviate the serious problem of child poverty and related tragedies of society.  While no one questions the desperate need to find solutions, debate, funding and programs all focus on treating symptoms and seldom on the over-riding cause of the dilemma — lack of family planning.

As long ago as 1798, a young British clegyman and economist Thomas Robert Malthus pointed out, in his “Essay on the Principle of Population,” that in favorable times food production increases in an arithmetic progression (2,3,4,5) while the human population (like all life forms) increases geometrically (2,4,8,16).  Unfortunately, this compounding of humanity means that the population will always outstrip food supply and social services, leaving an ever-increasing segment of people without adequate resources on which to survive or to lead a decent quality of life.

Unknown to most people, species are tuned by natural processes, over immense periods of time, for parents to produce (on average) only a sufficient number of surviving offspring to replace themselves — meaning two.  Ancestral females of our species evolved the ability to have over a dozen children in their short lives — a necessity under high levels of mortality.  Around 20,000 years ago, there was an estimated world population of three million people, which likely had a negligible effect on their surroundings.  To ensure tribal survival and integrity, customs and spiritual beliefs of our ancestors became ingrained with the concepts of large families and dominion over all other life.

The Population Explosion

The discovery of agriculture around 9,000 years ago changed everything, generating a giant leap in human birth rate and survival.  Starvation lessened as an ever-looming factor in limiting population numbers, as it had likely operated effectively over several million years of human evolution.  During the period of the Egyptian Pharaohs, the world’s population passed 100 million, 250 million at the time of Christ, 500 million by 1650, and 1 billion by 1850 (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970).  With improving technology for food production and distribution, medical care, and social programs, numbers climbed to 2.5 billion in 1950 and 6 billion in 1999.  Over 78 million people are currently added each year, and the population-doubling time continues to drop dramatically.  I find it appalling that the human race has more than tripled (2 to 6.7 billion) in just my life time, and may quadruple before the end of my life.  Obviously this rate of growth cannot continue indefinitely without severe repercussions, which are becoming more evident everyday (e.g., acidification and pollution of the oceans, global warming).

By the year 2050 (within our children’s lifetime), it is anticipated that the burgeoning human population will level off between 11 and 15 billion, driving over 25% of the Earth’s remaining wildlife into extinction (Wilson 1992).  The World Wildlife Fund believes one-third of all plant and animal species could be gone within 20 years.  We are now losing wildlife at the rate of 75-100 species per day (Wilson 1992), squandering through ignorance and greed a 3.6-billion-year heritage of life on the planet.  All these unique life forms are our kin; all of us traceable back over 3.6 billion years of evolutionary history to a common ancestral stock.

Humans now consume almost half the entire world’s photosynthetic capacity (Girardet 1999).  In terms of biomass, there is an estimated 250 million tonnes of humanity and over one-half billion tonnes of our livestock (Cincotta and Engelman 2000).  There are simply not enough room and resources for all us and wildlife to survive.  We surpassed a sustainable level, in balance with Nature, many centuries ago.  A recent study of global human numbers revealed that the existing population is already three times the planet’s carrying capacity to provide a reasonable lifestyle (Pimental 1994).

The Human Tragedy

Countless millions of children and adults die of starvation and neglect each year, and over half the world’s population is seriously malnourished and drinks contaminated water, in spite of massive humanitarian efforts by generous countries and charitable agencies.  Some organizations (including certain religious and political groups) and leaders continue to encourage large families, in an outdated effort to increase membership, and maintain institutional power and influence; but at what cost?  Few people appear to realize that all this human suffering, loss of wildlife, and environmental damage are needless, preventable through education and the practise of family planning in which couples produce no more than two children.  Ancient customs and religious beliefs die hard.

As we begin to fathom the molecular basis of life and to search remote solar systems throughout the infinity of space, we still cannot escape our animal instincts and ancient codes.  “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

These profound words from Genesis were written during a time when large families and mastery of local natural resources were absolutely essential to the survival of family and tribe.  Instincts and customs of procreation and exploitation of Nature, which served our ancestors so well for several million years, are now tearing apart the very fabric of our world.

To maintain the present course is madness and irresponsible.  Nature’s ecosystems and environments progressively curb plague species like ours through drastically increased rates of mortality — escalating famine, terrible wars over contested lands and beliefs, clashes over disappearing resources, devastating outbreaks of old and new diseases, massive loss of life from each major natural event of weather and earth movement, debilitating stress, and poisoning from thousands of  toxic and waste products (all negative-feedback loops in the jargon of biologists).

A Matter of Education

When will parents, educators, politicians, and clergy gain the knowledge, courage and dedication to speak out and support family planning?  When will leaders and the public recognize that overpopulation is the root of so many community problems, and stifles our most-earnest efforts to solve them.  When will women be granted their right to the reproductive control of their bodies and lives?  While the birth rate in Canada and a few other developed countries has finally dropped below two young per couple, there are still many parents exceeding this critical limit, and often without the resources to care for them.  Even if parents can afford to raise many children, each individual in a first-world country consumes and pollutes over 18 times that of a poor person in an under-developed country, thereby compounding the negative effects of overpopulation, and postponing the obvious solution.

As Malthus pointed out so long ago in harsh economic terms, ‘the surplus’ is destined for a life of poverty and misery.  Society’s caring social programs, technology, and natural resources can never keep pace with the incessant demands arising from exponential human-population growth.  The survival of life-support systems and wildlife, our civilization, and social justice depend ultimately on an ethic of family planning, communicated through the teaching of life skills at home, school and church, and supported by governments, concerned groups, industry and the media.  With a right to reproduction must come knowledge and responsibility.

Conserving Biodiversity

Wildlife species cannot be “saved” in the long term by protecting them solely in a cocoon of captivity in zoos or small reserves.  Without the existence of sustainable wild populations — free-ranging, interacting with their environment, and evolving — each species will end up hopelessly inbred, a mere genetic shell of its ancestral stock, and eventually doomed to extinction.  Humans and all other species were created within magnificently complex ecosystems, and without these nurturing wombs they will surely pass away before their time.  Maintaining natural ecosystems is absolutely dependant on a massive reduction in the current human population, which cannot occur without family planning, which in turn relies on a strong educational message backed by resources.

What Can We Do?

We may stagger under a feeling of hopelessness as we become conscious to what is happening to our only home — the Earth — and to the terrible plight of so many people and wildlife.  One often hears the question; “What can I do to help?”  Many of us respond by attempting to live in moderation, purchasing wisely, donating to worthy causes, recycling materials, and by supporting conservation legislation.  While these actions are positive steps, by far our most-significant individual contribution is to have two or fewer children.  In the long term, this is the only factor that really counts.


  • Cincotta, Richard P, and Robert Engelman. 2000. Nature’s Place; human population and the future of biological diversity.  Population Action International, Washington DC. 80 pp.
  • Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. 1970.  Population, resources, environment — issues in human ecology.  383 pp. W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • Girardet, Herbert, 1999. Workshop: Greening urban society. World Conservation 1:10.
  • Martin, Paul S., and Richard G. Klein, editors. 1984. Quaternary extinctions — a prehistoric revolution. University of Arizona Press.
  • Pimentel, David. 1994.  Quoted in; Mobilizing to combat global warming, by D. Hayes, 2000. World Watch, March/April 2000.
  • Wilson, Edward O. 1992. The diversity of life. W.W. Norton and Company, New York. 424 pp.

Bats Dying From White-nose Syndrome May 14, 2009

Filed under: Conservation Programs,World News — Scott Gray @ 8:20 pm
Tags: , , ,

A biological meltdown is occurring right before our eyes. The survival of North American bats, including several federally listed endangered species, is at stake. In addition to dealing a tremendous blow to biodiversity, losing insect-eating bats could trigger explosive increases in insect populations, with serious repercussions for agriculture, forestry, and possibly even human health.

A deadly new disease called white-nose syndrome has swept several eastern states over the past two winters, killing bats where they overwinter — sometimes wiping out entire hibernation sites. To date, over 1 million bats are estimated to have died from the disease. White-nose syndrome was first documented near Albany, New York in the winter of 2006-2007. Since then, it has spread rapidly throughout the state and into neighboring Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Last winter, the disease was discovered in five new states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Virginia. If current trends continue, the disease could soon hit some of the most significant bat caves in the world, located in the South and Midwest.

Among the bat species at risk are the federally listed Indiana bat, Virginia big-eared bat, and gray bat. Winter surveys this year indicate that Indiana bats have declined dramatically in New York, where the species had previously been staging a recovery. Virginia big-eared bats are especially vulnerable to an epidemic like white-nose syndrome; their entire global population winters in only a few caves in West Virginia and nearby states.

Bats play a vital role in healthy, balanced ecosystems. They consume enormous quantities of insects, including many that humans find problematic, such as mosquitoes and crop-eating moths and beetles. Research has shown that bats significantly reduce damage to crops. Without bats, agricultural losses and costs to protect crops would rise. In a cruel twist, pesticides and other environmental toxins are suspected as one cause of long-term bat population declines. Increased use of pesticides to offset the loss of bats would lead to a disastrous spiral effect with escalating harms to both wildlife and people.

To learn more about bats in Manitoba, (which are not currently affected by this horrible disease), please call the Education Department and book into our “Going Batty” program or visit www.zoosociety.com.

For more information on white-nose syndrome, please visit the Center for Biological Diversity at www.biologicaldiversity.org. Thanks to the Center for providing the information posted in this blog.


Canuck Nanooks May 3, 2009

The Vickery sisters have been recognized for their outstanding conservation work in the Winnipeg Free Press yet again. And for good reason. Tom Oleson profiled the family that calls themselves the Canuck Nanooks, http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/westview/little-does-a-lot-41620352.html , on their superb drive to make a difference for polar bear conservation and education. The family was again profiled in the Winnipeg Free Press for their ourstanding win at the most recent Polar Bears International competition in San Diego, http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/life/grin-and-bear-it.html.

The Zoological Society of Manitoba, a beneficiary of the Canuck Nanooks fund raising drive, would like to express a heart felt Hoorah! for all of the efforts of this group. I had the good fortune of meeting the Vickery family last year and the priviledge to get to know them a bit better during our Boo at the Zoo event. The team rolled out to the Assiniboine Park Zoo nearly every night to talk to as many Halloween visitors as they could about the plight of the polar bear and its Arctic habitat. The team of three (plus Mom!) have been a relentless voice for making a positive difference in the world and for doing it in a fun and energized way.

Polar Bears International was lucky to have found such effective voices for the wild, and Manitoba was lucky to have found such wild voices! If you have not yet heard of the Canuck Nanooks before, you will. I expect that this is just the start as the group expands on their energized solutions. In a world of bad news for mother earth, including global warming, mass extinctions and habitat destruction, the Nanooks will put a smile on your face, your hand on your wallet and a skip in your step. Don’t believe me? While most of us would run out and spend our prize money on a new iPod or clothes or something we really don’t need, the Canuck Nanooks have pledged it to the Polar Bear Conservation Fund! With support like this, the Zoological Society of Manitoba and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will reach its goal of becoming a world leader in polar bear and Arctic conservation very soon indeed.

For more information on how you can donate to the Polar Bear Conservation Fund, please visit www.zoosociety.com or joinvisit our Facebook group called Polar Bear Express 2009.