December 2015 Newsletter

 December 2015

To our students and alumni

At this joyous time of year, we are grateful for the opportunities we have had to teach and work with you. The faculty and staff of the Animal Behavior Institute wish you abundance, happiness, and peace in a new year filled with hope. Happy holidays!

Superhero Senses


If you’re a fan of Marvel Comics, then you’ve probably dreamed about having the powers of a superhero. But there are plenty of non-fiction creatures out there with powers to rival those of Iron Man or Thor. Here are just a few animal examples that could turn even the Hulk green with envy.


Spider Sense 


Spider-Man had a unique ability not found in other humans – a “spider sense” that warned him of impending danger. But are there animals that have their own unique senses, allowing them to sample the environment in ways that we cannot? Absolutely! The hammerhead shark can detect small electrical fields generated by other animals – allowing it to detect both predators and prey. We often think of powers such as supersonic hearing or the ability to sense danger from miles away as characteristic of superheroes. But many of these unique abilities are commonly found in animals, detecting stimuli that we’re completely unaware of.


Olfaction Power


While we rarely think of enhanced olfaction as a trait of superheroes, both Daredevil and the Aquaman were blessed with this ability. However, normal humans have very limited senses of smell compared to other animals. But who has the best sense of smell? While you might guess that the winner would be the rat or maybe the dog, neither takes the prize. Elephants are among those with the best sense of olfaction. While the size of their long trunks may have something to do with it, science tells us that it is related to the fact that elephants have 2,000 genes dedicated to olfaction! To put this in perspective, humans have only 400 genes related to olfaction, and other primates even less. This means that elephants can detect differences in odors that are so similar, humans would think they were the same. Researchers believe that the elephant’s superior sense of smell is necessary because elephants use their trunks like hands to grasp food or objects. Therefore, they rely heavily on olfaction while exploring the world around them.



Learn more about elephant olfaction


Super Sound


While the Wolverine from X-Men may be best known for his retractable claws, his super sensitive hearing allows him to allude villains at a distance. However, even his skills are rivaled by one of the simplest of animals, the humble moth.


Though they can seem pesky or even creepy, moths are more than ugly butterflies; they have the best sense of hearing in the animal kingdom. You may have thought that bats had the best sense of hearing, particularly given their use of echolocation. If this is the case, you weren’t far off: the moth’s superior sense of sound is due to the fact that they must escape bats as predators. The greater wax moth can hear up to 300kHz (humans can only hear up to about 20kHz). This actually gives them the ability to hear bats using echolocation. This way, they know when they are being targeted and have a better chance of escape. Researchers also believe they use this ability to communicate with each other using frequencies outside the hearing range of bats.


Power of Taste


While we don’t know of any superhero known as Taste-Man, the insect companions of Ant-Man surely had a powerful sense of taste, as do so many members of the insect world. Butterflies have a particularly impressive sense of taste. They use their taste buds to determine what plants to lay their eggs on. Their taste sensors are located on their feet so that when they stand on a leaf, they can taste it to determine whether their caterpillars will be able to eat it. Despite their rock star taste buds, most adult butterflies cannot bite or chew; they generally eat nectar by sucking it up using their tongue, which functions like a straw.




Ironically, the animal with the best sense of taste spends most of its time in muddy polluted rivers. The catfish has about 20 times as many taste buds as humans. Just imagine how much more it tastes during its life than we taste while eating it! Starkist should have gone with the catfish: a fish that has good taste and tastes good!


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Gorilla Spoken Here: Sign Language in Primates

You may remember Koko as the gorilla that learned sign language, had a pet kitten named All Ball, and made friends with many celebrities such as Robin Williams. However, at the age of 44, Koko is still making headlines. She celebrated her birthday with the adoption of two new baby kittens. (Watch the video here.) As of now, Koko knows about 1,000 hand signs, and understands about 2,000 spoken English words. But she is not the entire story of sign language in primates.


The first attempts to communicate with other primates began in the 1930s, when Winthrop Kellogg, a psychologist at Indiana University, adopted a 7½ month-old chimpanzee named Gua to be raised alongside his 10-month-old human son. At the time, it was hypothesized that if primates were raised like humans, they might be able to learn human language. Gua eventually learned to respond to verbal commands, but never learned to speak herself, so the experiment was abandoned after 9 months. It was later discovered that anatomical differences between humans and other primates prevent them from speaking due to less flexibility in the tongue and differences in the larynx. Because of this, scientists began to attempt to teach primates sign language in the hope that while they might not be able to speak, they might be able to learn a non-verbal language.


One of the first primates to learn sign language was Washoe, a chimpanzee who, like Gua, was raised in a human family as if she was a human child. Washoe learned about 250 words in her lifetime, even creating her own words. (For example, she signed “water bird” the first time she saw a swan.) Washoe’s success led to more research about the use of language in primates throughout the next decade.

The next generation of sign-language using primates included Chantek the orangutan, Kanzi the bonobo, and of course, Koko the gorilla. Language skills in these animals were far more advanced. Kanzi was actually brought into the world of primate language by accident: his mother, Matata, was being trained to communicate by pointing to symbols on a keyboard that corresponded to English words. While Matata showed little interest in this activity, Kanzi started playing with the keyboard out of curiosity one day, and researchers began to focus on him instead. Kanzi proved to be quite talented in his studies. He soon learned over 400 words and was even able to invent new words, refer to past and present events, and understand others’ point of view, skills thought to exist only in humans.


Today, this research continues to explore the capabilities of primates as well as the evolutionary origins of language and social communication. Many issues within the realm of primate communication are still being debated, such as whether the ability to use language is innate or learned, or whether it is a combination of both (and if so, how much is innate and how much can be learned). Many subjects, such as Koko, continue to  participate in research today. In one recent study, researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz, found repeated examples of Koko performing nine different vocabulary behaviors that required control over her vocalization and breathing. These were learned behaviors, not something that gorillas naturally do. This led scientists to believe that primates may be closer to spoken language than we originally thought. There are still many unanswered questions in this field; clearly Koko and Caesar have a lot more to tell us.


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Animal Ambassadors: Spokespersons for Conservation

Ruuxa was only six weeks old when he was chosen to be raised as an Animal Ambassador by the San Diego Zoo. The young cheetah was rejected by his mother and had to be raised by keepers. However, humans were not his only companions. Keepers soon introduced Raina, a 7-week-old puppy, to be Ruuxa’s lifelong companion. Ruuxa and Raina grew up together, becoming the best of friends; both currently work as ambassadors at the San Diego Zoo.

Cheetahs raised as animal ambassadors are often paired with a puppy “sibling”. The dog’s body language let’s their cheetah companion know that there’s nothing to fear in new, public surroundings. This helps both the dog and the cheetah remain relaxed around the public, serving as excellent ambassadors.


But what does an animal ambassador do? An Animal Ambassador program is generally comprised of charismatic and safe species that zoos use in outreach; they facilitate closer, more intimate interaction with guests. Many zoos use ambassador animals to teach guests about a specific species and facilitate deeper levels of engagement.


Video of Ruuxa meeting Raina


The Associations of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) defines an Animal Ambassador as “an animal whose role includes handling and/or training by staff or volunteers for interaction with the public and in support of institutional education.” Thus, these animals can be instrumental in promoting conservation, a central goal of virtually every zoo. According to the AZA, animals can be either full-time or part-time ambassadors as designated by their zoos. They define three main categories of Ambassador Animal interactions:

  1. On site with the Ambassador animal inside the exhibit/enclosure
  2. On site with the Ambassador Animal outside the exhibit/enclosure
  3. Off the zoo grounds

Programs typically have ambassador animals in different areas within a zoo (on grounds with the ambassador animal outside the exhibit/enclosure). This is very exciting for guests and makes an impression that they will not forget. It can be beneficial for spreading awareness about endangered species, protecting wildlife, or simply creating positive publicity for the zoo.


The Cincinnati Zoo runs an exemplary program. The zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program allows guests to see wild cats up close without bars. Many of their cats are leash trained, and not only do they visit guests at the zoo, they also come to schools and other venues. Sadly, many big cats are endangered, but programs like the Cat Ambassador Program are spreading the word and promoting conservation.


Meet the Ambassadors


What are animal ambassadors like? Let’s meet three animal ambassadors from around the country.


Meet the Sacramento Zoo’s Bobcat! The Bobcat is native to the United States, Mexico, and Southern Canada. It lives in bushy woodlands, forests, high deserts, and high mountains. Bobcats are excellent jumpers; they can often leap 13 feet in a single bound. They can sprint up to 30 miles per hour and it is believed that their long ear tufts act like antennae to increase hearing.


Meet Druk! Druk is a female Rosy Boa who has worked as an animal ambassador at Project Wildlife since 2011. Project Wildlife is an organization that aims to improve the quality of life for local wildlife through animal rehabilitation and conservation education. Druk was taken there because she had a spinal column deformity that hindered her ability to unhinge her jaw. Because of this, Druk is unable to eat food on her own and must be fed by her caregiver. Luckily, she has a safe and happy life at Project Wildlife teaching the public about herself. Rosy Boas are native to Southern California and are usually “rosy-colored.” However, Druk has a more rare grey and black striped coloration.


Meet the Sacramento Zoo’s African Hedgehog! The African Hedgehog is native to (you guessed it) tropical Africa. It inhabits the savanna and semi-arid woodlands and can grow to about 4-6 inches long. The African Hedgehog eats insects and can move at a top speed of 6.5 feet per second. These amazing creatures are actually immune to the toxins in toads, which are lethal to almost every other predator. Hedgehogs can sometimes chew up the toads and then lather their hairs with the toxins for added protection. They don’t really need it though; the average adult hedgehog already has 5,000 dangerous spines!  


Being an animal ambassador benefits an animal by giving it an enriching life and often a second chance when it has been injured. But it also benefits the entire species by spreading awareness and creating a more environmentally conscious society. So next time you’re at the zoo, stop and see what animal ambassadors are waiting to greet you!


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Cheetah Conservation


Ancient Egypt: a mystical world of pharaohs, sphinxes, pyramids and mummies. The civilizations of ancient Egypt are fascinating to study for many reasons, but did you know that wealthy royals of the time often kept cheetahs as close companions? For thousands of years, not only pharaohs, but also Italian nobles, Russian princes, and Indian royalty used cheetahs as a symbol of their wealth and nobility. Cheetahs have a long history of being extremely important in society. However, in order to keep cheetahs as pets or hunting companions, ancient people had to capture them from the wild, destroying their population. This was the beginning of a long history of humans contributing to the decline in wild cheetah populations.




There was a time when cheetahs ranged across almost the entire African continent and into Asia. Today, however, cheetahs are only found in 23% of their historic African range and are extinct in their Asian range except for a small population in Iran of about 100 individuals. How did this massive loss of life occur? Many factors contributed to the cheetahs’ decline, but three main factors that are still prominent issues today include habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and illegal wildlife trade.


To survive, cheetahs require large amounts of land furnished with prey, water, and cover. One of the main reasons for their population decline is the loss of suitable land due to human use. Though Africa could formerly support thousands of cheetahs, human expansion has made that land unavailable. The areas left are barely suitable to support just a few individuals.


Ironically, some human efforts to offset habitat loss have not been very beneficial to the cheetahs either. Wildlife reserves have been created to provide the space that cheetahs and other animals need. However, these reserves are often filled with other predators such as lions and hyenas, that not only compete with cheetahs for prey, but also kill cheetahs if given the chance. In these areas, cheetah cub morality can be as high as 90%, making it nearly impossible for cheetahs to survive and reproduce.


Due to the limitations of wildlife reserves, most cheetahs continue live in the wild and therefore come into contact with humans. This presents yet another problem. Many wild cheetahs live among private farmlands in Africa, posing a threat to the farmer’s livestock. Because they hunt during the day, they are often blamed for not only their own kills, but also the kills of nocturnal predators. Therefore, cheetahs are seen as a huge threat and trapped or killed by farmers at every opportunity.


Believe it or not, just as in ancient times, cheetahs are in high demand as pets all around the world. In order to keep up with this demand, cheetahs are illegally captured from the wild and then transported to different parts of the globe. This is problematic to the cheetah population because only one in six cheetah cubs illegally captured survives, requiring even more cheetahs to be trapped. You may be wondering what we can do to counteract these man-made problems for cheetahs and save them from extinction. Numerous organizations are already combating the many threats to the cheetah population, and there are many ways that you can get involved.


The Cheetah Conservation Fund is a fantastic organization that works towards the protection of cheetahs. They have a campaign called #SaveTheCheetah that is tackling the multifaceted problems cheetahs face. They encourage the public to get involved by spreading the word both to family and friends and via social media, and making donations to their fund.


Watch their video here


The Cheetah Conservation Fund is tackling the issues surrounding the illegal pet trade by reporting instances of poaching and facilitating confiscations. They also track the activity of international agencies and governments involved with this issue and attend stakeholder meetings to influence the work being done to protect the species. Finally, they travel to the countries where this is happening to educate the public and further prevent or reduce the source of human-wildlife conflict.


You can get involved with this issue no matter where you live. Spreading the word about cheetahs is the best way to prevent their tragic deaths. In addition, avoiding patronizing stores that use products from endangered animals can help reduce the human effect on population decline. Finally, engaging in responsible tourism in Africa and other countries with endangered species can help as well. If you want to take your engagement to the next level, explore some of the internships and volunteer opportunities offered by the Cheetah Conservation Fund! Many great positions are offered here.


Source: Cheetah Conservation Fund,

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