Tails From The Zoo

European Bison March 14, 2010

Filed under: Extinction,Zoo Animals,Zoo Knew — Scott Gray @ 7:10 am
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The European bison, also known as wisent, is the cousin of the North American bison. Wisent are currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, but their status was much worse nearly a century ago. Due to a combination of habitat loss, war and poaching, the wisent was declared extinct in the wild after the last one was shot in 1921. Thankfully, 56 wisent survived in zoos scattered around Europe and a joint breeding program was quickly set up to save the species. It took nearly thirty years but the European bison began to be reintroduced throughout the forests of Belarus, Poland, Russia, Lithuania and the Ukraine in the early 1950’s.

The current wild wisent population is less than 2,500 as their success is still hampered by a lack of habitat but nearly 1,400 live in 250 zoos and game preserves around the world. We currently have 1.6 (one male, six female) European bison at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.


Are bison and buffalo the same thing?

No. Bison belong to the family Bovidae, which include wild and domestic cattle as well as buffalo, but there are a number of significant differences between the two.


  • Live in North America and Europe
  • Have long shaggy hair
  • Have large shoulders and pronounced humps
  • Have short horns


  • Live in Africa (cape buffalo) and Asia (water buffalo)
  • Have short thin hair
  • Have smaller shoulders and no humps
  • Have long horns


Life Span: up to 27 years

Habitat: Mixed and deciduous forests, meadows

Height (at the shoulders): 1.8 – 2 metres

Weight: 800- 1000 kg

Body Length: 2.9 metres

Tail Length: 80 cm


Thanks to everyone that listens to Zoo Knew every Sunday morning at 7:15 on CJOB68, where we talked about bison this morning. I hope you’ll take a chance to visit the Assiniboine Park Zoo today or in the near future to view both our European and our North American bison herds. If you’re not in Winnipeg, take a visit to your nearest zoo to find out about all of the amazing animals that live there. Take part in a guided tour or read some of the interpretive signs and find out what your local zoo is doing to save and preserve endangered species. I think you’ll be surprised how much work zoos do! Please feel free to send me your comments or links to success stories.


Arctic Fox – Zoo New Segment on CJOB December 7, 2009

Scott Gray and Chris Reid spoke about the Assiniboine Park Zoo’s Arctic foxes this past Sunday on the Weekend Wakeup Show at 7:15 am. We hope you’ll tune in every Sunday morning to listen to the show and our new zoo segment.

Arctic Fox

We currently have 2.3 Arctic foxes at the Assiniboine Park Zoo

  • In the zoo world, “2.3 foxes” is a quick way of saying two males and three females.
  • If young foxes were born (let’s pretend four of them) and zoo staff don’t yet know yet if they are male or female, they would say there are 0.0.4 with the .4 meaning unknown gender.
  • Another example: 3.5.1 means 3 males, 5 females and 1 unknown gender

All of our Arctic foxes arrived at the Assiniboine Park Zoo as pups in November 2003. Our two breeding pairs have had 28 offspring to date. These offspring have been shipped to zoos all over the world including Switzerland, France, and the US and throughout Canada.

Arctic Fox Litters:

  • Are very large – between 10 and 25 depending on lemming populations.
  • This is the largest litter size of all the carnivores
  • This species of fox becomes sexually mature at 9 to 10 months
  • Survival rate is low being about 25% for kits and 50% for adults

A Bit of Biology/Ecology:

  • There are 20 species of fox worldwide.
  • Arctic foxes live throughout the treeless Arctic and alpine tundra
  • Their circumpolar population is several hundred thousand. They are not yet part of an species survival program because of a relatively stable wild population.


  • Height: ~1 foot at the shoulder
  • Length: Average about 21 inches long in addition to an 11-inch tail
  • Weight: 6 to 11 lbs


Arctic foxes are opportunistic hunters, preying on lemmings, voles, squirrels, birds and their eggs, berries, hare and fish. They will also eat carrion, often scavenging scraps of meat from wolves and polar bears.

Cold Hardy Adaptations:

Arctic foxes were made for living in the cold.

  • They have short muzzles, short legs, and small ears, which reduces heat loss and the chance of frostbite.
  • Their metabolic rate only starts to increase at -50C and they begin to shiver at -70C.
  • They have three times as much underfur as the red fox.
  • They have densely furred feet pads, which helps prevent slipping and greatly increase warmth of the foot.
  • Their feet can remain just above freezing thanks to specialised muscles and blood flow (peripheral thermoregulation). Other animals, like caribou and some northern waterfowl have this feature where cold blood is warmed as it moves into the body.

Compiled by Scott Gray, Education Director, Zoological Society of Manitoba

References: WAZA, Woodland Park Zoo, Oppenheim Zoo, Detroit Zoo


Amur Tigers – CJOB Zoo Knew December 4, 2009

Amur tigers were discussed on “Zoo Knew”, Sunday November 29, 2009 on the CJOB 68 Weekend Wakeup Show with Chris Reid and Scott Gray.

Amur (Siberian) Tigers

Tigers at the Assiniboine Park Zoo:

  • Kendra – 10 years old. Arrived in 2007 from St Louis zoo via Memphis Zoo.
  • Baikal – 13 years old. Arrived in March 2009 from Toronto Zoo via the Cherrybrook zoo.

Tiger Subspecies and Population Estimates (from the IUCN Red list):

Living subspecies:

Amur tiger = ~500 (with a biologically effective breeding population of ~35)

Sumatran tiger = 400

Northern Indochinese tiger = 1000

Indian (Bengal) tiger = 1850 – 2460

Malayan tiger = 400 – 500

South China tiger = 30 (functionally extinct)

Extinct subspecies:

Caspian tiger – Extinct in 1970

Javan tiger – Extinct in 1976

Balinese tiger – Extinct in 1930


Timeline Highlights:

1900: Estimated population of 100,000, which included 40,000 in India

1906: Last known tiger shot in Pakistan

1922: Last known tiger shot in Georgia

1930’s: Bali(nese) tiger becomes extinct

1940’s: Amur tiger (in Russia) fell below 30 animals

1950’s: Tigers disappear from South Korea

1959: Chinese government declares the South China tiger a pest and encourages its persecution

1970: Last known tiger killed in Turkey

1970’s: The Caspian tiger goes extinct

1976’s: Javan tiger goes extinct

1996: Amur tiger listed critically endangered


Tiger Ecology:

Amur Tiger Distribution: Russian far east and Northern China

Habitat: Boreal forest

Life span: 10 -15 years in the wild, up to 20 years in zoos

Speed: 65km over short distances (house cat = 50km/ cheetah = 100km)


  • Their main diet includes deer and wild pigs. Will also take birds and carrion.
  • Requires 150kg of meat a month
  • Kill with a bite to the back of the head or neck

Size and Weight:

  • 95 to 300kg (250 to 650lbs). The Amur is the largest subspecies
  • Average 2.2 lbs at birth
  • Males can reach 3 metres in length (that’s as long as a station wagon)
  • Stand 3 ft at the shoulder

Sexual maturity: 4-5 years for males and 3-4 years for females


    Fast Facts about tigers:

    • Amur tigers have the palest colour and the fewest stripes
    • Can eat 30 to 40lbs of meat in one sitting
    • Must catch prey at least once a week to survive
    • 5% to 10% success rate in hunts
    • Were once known as Siberian tigers, but have been reclassified as Amur tigers because they are only found there.
    • Good swimmers, often found near streams and lakes
    • No two tigers have the same stripe patterns and each side of the tiger is different.
    • They are stalk and ambush predators
    • Require lots of cover and lots of space to roam and hunt
    • There are 36 species of wild living cats (22 of which are listed as vulnerable or endangered)

    Compiled by Scott Gray, Education Director, Zoological Society of Manitoba

    References: IUCN Redlist, Arkive, San Diego Zoo, National Zoo, APZ Reference books


      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.”


      Conrad the Wisent July 4, 2009

      I met Conrad back in 1996. He was the most impressive looking bison I had ever seen, and he rivals every other one I’ve seen since. Conrad spent nearly 20 years living at the Assinboine Park Zoo, until his death yesterday July 3, 2009.


      My favourite memory of Conrad was when he would decide to wander over to the pond (beside the visitor path) and quietly stand just out of reach of the public, seemingly enjoying their company. At more than 2000 lbs, Conrad easily caught your attention and his absence in the herd will be obvious.


      European bison, a.k.a Wisent, were hunted for decades but eventually went extinct in the wild thanks to Russian government sanctioned poaching and WWI. The last truly wild wisent was killed by a poacher in 1921. Thankfully, conservationists immediately started a captive breeding program using zoo animals.  There are currently 200 European bison breeding centres found in 27 countries worldwide. Wisent numbers eventually increased enough to be released back into the wild. At the present time, there are no more than 3000 European bison in the wild – the vast majority of which are found in four reserves in Poland, the largest of which is in the Bialowieska Forest.

      The Assiniboine Park Zoo also houses plains bison, another species with a troubled past. Although wisent are smaller in overall size, they have a thickset body shape with a short neck and a pronounced shoulder hump.


      Baikal Arrives June 8, 2009

      A new male Siberian tiger, named Baikal, arrived at the Assiniboine Park Zoo this past weekend to replace our current male, named Fedor. Fedor was originally brought in from the Calgary Zoo to mate with Kendra, here on long-term loan from the St. Louis Zoo.  Unfortunately, Fedor never took a liking to Kendra and they never mated. Fedor is being shipped out to a new zoo this week.

      It is hoped that Baikal, who it at the top of the Species Survival Program’s studbook, will enjoy her company more. But don’t expect a quick romance; the introductory period will require a number of months before they are placed together. Keep an eye out for more news (and pictures) of Baikal’s arrival on this blog and out website, zoosociety.com.


      On a side note, the Assiniboine Park Zoo participates in over 60 international breeding programs for species at risk.


      New Stud in Town June 1, 2009

      The following is reprinted from the the telegraphjournal.com, originally posted on March 31, 2009: http://telegraphjournal.canadaeast.com/city/article/683705.  All rights reserved by author, Hilary Paige Smith and the Telegraph-Journal.

      SAINT JOHN – Every young man needs to move out of his parents’ house, sow some wild oats and meet a wild woman.

      Click to Enlarge
      KâtÈ LeBlanc/Telegraph-Journal
      Baikal, the Siberian tiger at the Cherry Brook Zoo, leaves next week for Winnipeg, where he will meet a female tiger and mate. Baikal the tiger is no different. Baikal is a 12-year-old Siberian tiger who has lived at the Cherry Brook Zoo for 10 years in an enclosure with his 20-year-old mother, Pam. This is his last weekend at the zoo because he is being sent to the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg to breed with one of their female tigers.

      Lynda Collrin, the director of zoo development at the Cherry Brook Zoo, said Baikal is at the “top of the studbook,” meaning he is at the prime time for breeding. “He’s at the peak. They’ve tried to breed the pair that they have in Winnipeg with no success. Apparently (that) male has no interest in breeding whatsoever. Whereas we have a top of the studbook, top of the SSP line animal that is very keen to mate. It’s a perfect match,” Collrin said.

      She jokingly compared the matchmaking to eHarmony.com, a popular dating website. SSP in an acronym for species survival plan, a population management and conservation program for the preservation of endangered species. This includes transferring animals between zoos so they can breed future generations of animals and take their species off the endangered list.

      It is estimated by the World Wildlife Foundation that only 4,000 tigers are left in the world today, with the population constantly jeopardized by the illegal wildlife trade. They are hunted for their coats, as well as for traditional Chinese medicine.

      “We work with highly endangered animals that we work to protect from extinction and I really urge people to come out and see Baikal,” Collrin said.

      Baikal and the female tiger were expected to meet last year but could not due to the complicated process required to transfer the animals and place them in zoos. He will be shipped in a special crate made for tigers by transport truck to Winnipeg next week, where he will be introduced to his future mate.

      He will be leaving the Cherry Brook Zoo permanently and a new female tiger is eventually expected to be brought in as a companion for Pam. Collrin said Baikal will be greatly missed by zoo personnel and they are concerned his journey will be stressful for him.

      “I guess we have to look at what is not best for us, but best for him and best for the species and yes, the zoo staff is having a hard time seeing him go,” she said. “At the same time, I think when we hear that a litter has been born, we will feel so good about the decisions.”