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Tracking Rhinos (2042 views)

Whilst working at Imire Conservation Reserve in Zimbabwe, I witnessed some serious courtship behavior from a male white rhino. Whenever the female strayed from his eyesight (which incidentally in rhinos is around 15 metres before everything gets a bit blurry) he would stop his grazing, do a big sniff, find her scent again, and proceed in a straight line towards her. The female wasn’t as receptive as he probably hoped, as she’d quickly do a ‘leave me a alone’ snort and trundle off again. This process was repeated many times while we were observing.

Male and female white rhino

We also learned there are some distinct differences between white and black rhinos. Physical differences include the white rhino’s wide lips that allow it to graze on grasses and shrubs, where the black rhino has got prehensile lips that allow it to wrap their mouths around tree branches.

White (left) and Black (right) Rhino comparison

What goes in must come out the other end, and with their different eating habits their poo is also quite distinct. White rhino poo contains a lot of grass, and black rhino poo is full of sticks and branches. This is very useful to identify who we’re tracking. Their footprints differ too, with black rhino’s heels making a rounded ‘U’ shape, whereas white rhino tracks have a big ‘W’ at their heel base.

Even though both rhino species inhabit a similar geographical range, their behavior is quite different. As mentioned before, when courting the white rhino males pursue the females, whereas for black rhinos, it’s the female who snorts and chases the male. The way they protect their young couldn’t be more different either. Adult white rhinos, with their quieter demeanor, will position their calf in front of them and encourage the calf to run away from danger. On the other side of the coin, black rhinos tend to put their young behind them and then charge towards the danger, like predator would. If only this would work to protect them from poachers!

Rhino Conservation in Zimbabwe (2331 views)

Kat Fox and myself have just spent over a month observing and monitoring the movements of white and black rhinos at Imire Conservation reserve in Zimbabwe. In that time we’ve experienced first hand the potential conflicts between humans and wildlife in Africa.

Imire is an hour south of Harare, and is well protected by a determined anti-poaching patrol team. The reserve is teeming with wildlife due to the conservation efforts of the patrols ensuring both visitor safety but more importantly the safety of the white and black rhinos that are a part of their breeding program.

Since 1985, they’ve successfully bred and released 14 black rhino back into national parks in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Unfortunately, over the last 10 years, all of those rhino have been killed by poachers for their horns. Rhino horn is made from keratin, the same material as our fingernails and hair. The horns have no proven scientific medicinal purposes whatsoever, but are still highly prized for traditional medicines in some countries.

Imire also suffered an attack on the park in 2007, which resulted in the deaths of five more black rhinos, and one being orphaned. The young orphan goes by the Shöna name of Tatenda (meaning ‘Thank You’) and is now leading the charge of their black rhino breeding program. The female he’s been paired with has just returned a positive pregnancy test!

Despite all the setbacks over the years the team here at Imire are more determined than ever to save Rhinos from extinction. What we have experienced over here has made us realise just how important breeding programs are, both over here in Africa, and in places like Werribee Open Range Zoo (with it’s newly born white rhino calf ‘Kipenzi’) to preserve these iconic, shy herbivores for future generations.

Talking eggs and baby crocs (2639 views)

There were some strange squeaking sounds coming from the incubator at Melbourne Zoo’s Reptile House last week…. These cute squeaks were music to the ears of our reptile team who have been eagerly awaiting the hatching of baby Philippine Crocodiles! Check out the sounds they made in this short video:

In March last year Melbourne Zoo was the first zoo in Australia to successfully breed this critically endangered reptile. Just one very lucky baby female croc hatched then (She has since been named ‘Tess’). This season we have 15 eggs and they have been separated into two groups that have been incubated at different temperatures. Egg temperature during development will determine whether the hatchlings will be male or female. 32- 33 degrees Celsius will result in males and eggs kept at 29-30 degrees Celsius will most likely be all females. So far 6 baby crocs have hatched and all have been incubated at 32-33 degrees so are probably all boys.

Once they’ve hatched it’s hard to believe they fitted inside the eggs!

As soon as they are fully out of the egg the keepers measure and weigh each baby croc. All indications are they are very healthy and strong little reptiles!

It was so special to see these tiny hatchlings of the world’s most endangered crocodile species emerge to the world for the first time. The wild population of Philippines Crocodiles is believed to number no more than 200 adults which makes any new babies all the more important for the species. As well as breeding them here Zoos Victoria is working closely with the Mabuwaya Foundation, local communities and the Philippine Government to protect one of the last known breeding populations of the Philippine Crocodile. You can find out more here.

So it’s 6 boys so far with the girls due to hatch sometime in the next few weeks. Fingers crossed they’ll be as strong and healthy as their brothers. You shouldn’t count your crocs before they hatch I guess but I’ll be keeping my ear close to the incubator for the next group of talking eggs!

Here come the Hercules! (3159 views)

It has been many years since Melbourne Zoo has hosted the impressive Hercules moth (Coscinocera hercules). A recent delivery of young caterpillars from Queensland can currently be seen in the lifecycle display inside our Butterfly House. Visitors can witness the lifecycle of this species up close and look in wonder at the size these caterpillars can grow too!

Full-sized caterpillar

The Hercules moth is the largest moth in Australia and can be found in north Queensland. Caterpillars grow up to 14 centimetres long and weigh up to 29 grams. When they emerge as moths the female’s wingspan is a massive 28 centimetres, making it one of the largest of any moth species in the world!

The female moth can lay up to 250 eggs in her very short lifespan. The eggs are brown/orange and can be laid in singular pattern or small groups. Adult moths lack mouthparts so do not eat and can only live as long as the stored energy in their body lasts, surviving usually only up to 2 weeks. When they emerge as moths it is the males with their long tails that do most of the flying, being attracted by pheromones produced by the female to locate her and mate.

Young white caterpillar

When the caterpillar hatches from it egg it is covered in a thick coating of white wax. As they feed and grow they change to a beautiful pale blue-green colour with soft yellow spines down the entire length of their bodies. When fully grown the caterpillar will spin a large silk cocoon. It will then go inside to change into a pupa and over many weeks eventually emerge as a magnificent moth!

Face shot of caterpillar

In the wild the caterpillars feed from a number of different rainforest plants. Here at Melbourne Zoo they are feeding on the leaves of the Bleeding Heart tree (Omalanthus populifolius). They have a very healthy appetite and can be seen feeding vigorously.

Invertebrate Specialist Kate Pearce in the Butterfly House

Next time you visit the Butterfly House I would recommend you drop in to see one of the most impressive caterpillars in the natural world! And stay tuned to see them in all their adult glory in the not too distant future…

Baw Baw Bunker Babies (3444 views)

The Frog team at Melbourne Zoo have been working around the clock to ensure the precious Baw Baw frog eggs are kept in tip top condition.

You might remember earlier posts late last year where we were pumped about returning from Mount Baw Baw with two egg masses in our hot little hands. Over the summer we have been meticulously taking care of these little guys. It feels like the future of their species is in our hands… no pressure!

Well we are very pleased to report that the Baw Baw Bunker is in full swing and both egg masses have been developing well. The little guys are currently at Gosner stage 27 – that’s frog development speak that tells us that they are starting to grow little hind legs! It very exciting to see, although they are in total darkness so we needed a special infra-red camera to get these pictures.

It’s a little hard to count them all exactly at this stage as they are all lying on top of each other, however we are confident that there are at least 40 healthy tadpoles successfully hatched and chilling out together from each of the egg masses. That’s potentially 80 Baw Baw Frogs or perhaps even more!

There is a long way to go and we’re not out of the alpine woods yet in this journey to crack the husbandry of this little amphibian mystery! Conditions in the bunker are pretty chilly – we are maintaining the bunker at 7.0 – 8.5 degrees Celsius, and providing a cool stream of highly oxygenated water to flow across the tadpoles to keep them in line with the conditions they would be experiencing in the wild. The idea is that it will simulate the seepage lines in which the egg masses were originally deposited and fertilised by their wild parents. Speaking of water – I’m off to check in with the keepers about how they test the water quality so I best be off. Keep your fingers and toes crossed that things carry on smoothly, I’ll give you a heads up when they turn into metamorphs!   #canyouhearthecall #Bawbawfrog #fightingextinction

No salad required (4052 views)

Brown Tree Snake with a small chicken

Snakes are truly amazing predators. They can go for months without eating but when they do it’s usually something pretty big!

Death Adders use their worm-like tail as a lure

Snake feed day is a lot of fun for a reptile keeper. They get to feed a Death Adder who wiggles it’s worm like tail to lure prey towards it. And after that it’s our Inland Taipan who’s venom is toxic enough to kill thousands of rats with one bite! You can watch this and more in the video below…

Reptiles feeding from Zoos Victoria on Vimeo.

Being cold blooded (ectothermic) reptiles can survive quite easily for a long time after eating. Some can even go for a year or more if the meal is big enough! Imagine trying to eat something 5 times the size of your head? Without chewing!

An easy meal for a Death Adder

Inland Taipan’s prefer rats

Down the hatch!

Chantilly the Lace Monitor

Lace monitors also swallow their prey whole… even rabbits!

This summer at Healesville Sanctuary we’re highlighting our awesome predators. So if you’re fascinated by snakes, devils, birds of prey and dingoes, then come and check them out!

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