Birdy Spotlight: Emu

Written By Animal Care Professional Amanda Wright

What do you see in your mind’s eye when you think of a bird? Maybe you picture a majestic eagle swooping through the sky, or a delicate wren flitting soundlessly through the trees? Perhaps you see a colorful parrot, or maybe even a vulture making lazy circles high up in the air. You probably didn’t picture an animal bigger than you, with powerful legs, big stomping feet, and the inability to fly… but this is exactly the kind of bird that we are going to celebrate this month.

As the Year of the Bird begins to wind down, let’s take a few minutes to appreciate the awesome adaptations of ratites! No, we’re not talking about rodents – ratites are a group of flightless birds that include ostriches, cassowaries, rheas, kiwis, and the star of this blog: emus! The word ratite stems from a Latin word meaning “raft”, and has to do with their flat, raft-like breastbone, which is different from the breastbone of flighted birds in that it lacks a “keel”.  A keel is an extension of the breastbone to which birds’ wing muscles can attach, allowing them to fly. Ratites don’t have this important skeletal component, which makes them unable to fly, but they have adapted to life on the ground quite well!

Here’s what makes emus are so special:

  1. Emus love water and believe it or not, they can swim! Emus are also the only birds in the world to have calf muscles. They are powerful runners and in a sprint, they can reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour! These legs aren’t just for running, emus can deliver a powerful kick to defend themselves when necessary.
  2. Their feathers are just as unique as their legs! Emus have amazing feathers that look nothing like a typical bird feather. Emu feathers grow in pairs – each feather is actually split into two equally sized parts. Their feathers aren’t rigid either, they are actually quite soft and “droopy”. These feathers are black at the tips, which helps absorb sunlight and keep heat away from their bodies.
  3. Emus also make great dads! Once a female lays her large, dark green eggs, the male takes full responsibility for taking care of them. He will incubate them for as long as it takes for them to hatch (usually around 8 weeks) and during this time he will not leave them – not even to eat or drink! While incubating eggs, male emus can lose up to one third of their body weight. The only time he will stand up is to turn the eggs to make sure that they are evenly incubated.

Our very own emu, Elaine, can be seen in Wallaroo here at ZooTampa. If you’re lucky, you might even catch her taking a shower under her favorite sprinkler! Next time you visit, say hello to Elaine and see if you can recognize some of her adaptations in person!

Building a Pack with Seven New Puppies

Written by: Animal Care Professional Ashley Gaia, Africa Team

Last year, ZooTampa at Lowry Park welcomed an exciting new species called the African painted dog. A male and female pair, Hatari and Layla, came to us from Zoo Miami in hopes that they would begin growing a family of their own. On October 1st, our hopes were met with the addition of seven beautiful, squirmy puppies. There are several reasons why these puppies are so special!

African painted dogs (Lycaon pictus) are genetically unique in the world of canids. One of the features that sets them apart from other canids is their feet, they have four toes per paw instead of five! They also have specially adapted carnassial teeth that help slice meat and bone more efficiently.  All painted dogs have big round ears, a dark muzzle, and white tipped tails. The rest of the coat is mottled in splotches of ebony, white, and golden tans. Every dog has a unique pattern, just as unique as our finger prints!

Painted dog society is complex and cooperative. Packs range from around 6-12 individuals, however packs of 30-50 have been documented. Each pack has an alpha male and female, chosen by the pack for their ability to lead versus their size. The painted dog is one of the greatest predators in Africa. Working as a team, the pack brings down their prey, quickly fill their bellies and rush back to their dens. There, they will regurgitate some meat to feed any puppies or dogs that need extra care.

Currently, our own painted dog family is excelling at parenthood. Hatari quickly mastered his role of staying close to the den to be a literal “watch dog” while Layla is devoting all of her time into raising, and wrangling, their puppies inside their den. For the last month, animal care staff has been heavily feeding Hatari so he can supply food to his growing family. At this time, Layla is allowing the puppies to begin to explore the habitat little by little. The puppies are rapidly learning the rules of fair play, tumbling together and pouncing on sticks and leaves. When Layla sees the pups getting too excitable, she ushers them back into the den to calm down and nap. It won’t be long until the whole family is out exploring the habitat in full and playing together!

The birth of these puppies is critical, as African painted dogs are an endangered species. Threats such as habitat fragmentation, car strikes, diseases from domestic dogs, and illegal snares have diminished this species to around 6,000-7,000 individuals. Here at ZooTampa, we work closely with organizations in Africa that are fighting for the survival of wild painted dogs. We sell recycled snare wire sculptures in our gift shop, with the proceeds going to saving this incredible species. To learn more, join us at the painted dog habitat every day at 10:45am for our keeper chat, and help us on our mission to preserve and protect wildlife!

World Okapi Day

ZooTampa at Lowry Park has supported Okapi conservation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for over 10 years as a partner of the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP).  The Okapi Conservation Project has a long history of engaging the local communities, living in and around the Ituri Forest, to conserve and protect the remaining okapi and their habitat.

To celebrate World Okapi Day, the Democratic Republic of Congo has a huge celebration filled with a parade, a race, soccer matches, educational talks and prizes. ZooTampa is one of the sponsors of this event and it honors the local community’s support of okapi conservation. This celebration will take place in each of the five surrounding villages of the Ituri Forest where wild okapi live.

This is just one way that ZooTampa is working to save this incredible species around the globe.

Birdy Spotlight – Vultures

By Tessa Giannini, Animal Care Professional, Aviary

2018 has been celebrated as The Year of the Bird nation-wide. This month, we’re highlighting vultures and the important, but often overlooked role they play!

Vultures and other scavengers sometimes get a bad rap for being unattractive or unsanitary and are associated with death and bad omens. What many people don’t realize is that scavenging birds are incredibly important for a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Without them, deceased organisms would not decompose nearly as quickly and diseases would spread more rapidly. In areas without vultures, carcasses take 3-4 times longer to decompose!

Vultures tend to be social animals and will feed and roost in flocks. Did you know their bald heads and hunched awkward bodies are designed to be adaptive to their diets? Their bald helps these messy eaters stay clean as they dive into a meal.

Although some species prefer fresh meat, vultures will feed on carcasses in various stages of decomposition, even carcasses that may be infected! Thanks to their very strong stomach acid, vultures are able to feed on rotting, infected carcasses without ill-effect.

Sadly, 14 of the 23 species of vultures are threatened or endangered due to a variety of threats including poisoning (both accidental and intentional), vehicle collisions, power line collisions, habitat degradation, lack of food availability and human-wildlife conflict. Many of the species facing these threats occur in Africa and Asia.

Vultures, also known as “nature’s garbage collectors” love to be appreciated year-round! If you find a wild vulture that is injured and needs help, contact a local certified wildlife rehabilitation facility that can provide them with the proper care to return to their native habitat. To help these species, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has a designated the African Vulture a Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program. This program focuses on assisting 6 species of Endangered or Critically Endangered African Vultures by partnering conservation work in Africa with the work that zoos are doing in North America.

Here at ZooTampa at Lowry Park we are home to Quito, the Andean Condor and Smedley, the Black Vulture. Both of these handsome birds can be found flying in our “Spirits of the Sky” Bird of Prey demonstration, where they help educate visitors about the importance of vultures.