Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Melbourne Zoo

 Melbourne Zoo is located in Royal Park, the closest zoo in relation to my apartment. It is a large and beautiful zoo with a sizable collection of native animals, which is dwarfed by nearby zoos, but still worth seeing. They keep local animals partly for education, but mostly for tourists. With the help of a few people at Como Zoo, Judie in particular, I was able to get in touch with a lovely zookeeper here named Megan. Thanks to her, I was able to come and spend a couple days meeting Aussie Bush keepers and learning about their animals. It was such a treat!

There was a lot of information to take in while I visited the zoo. I was unfamiliar with many Australian names of keepers, so undoubtedly have some of them wrong. Please let me know if you notice any obvious mistakes made in this blog entry. 

The first day began with me following Megan as she did the last of her morning duties. She cleaned out the cage of a beautiful tree kangaroo who happily bounced around tree branches as she raked the dirt below him. I read an article about tree kangaroos which described them as marsupial monkeys, for they are highly agile, arboreal creatures. She coaxed him lower with an avocodo to get his weight and then left him to enjoy the messy meal.

Close to the tree kangaroo was the back size of the wombat exhibit. Wombats are much larger than I had pictured. My best description would be a sizable pig, with muscles of a pit bull, and fur of a chinchilla. However, they are marsupials with pouches. Unlike most marsupials, their pouches face backwards so the babies won't be bombarded with dirt while their mommas dig burrows. One wombat in the zoo's collection was very protective of his area. For keeper safety he was lured into a large wood box when anyone needed to get into the exhibit. Only problem was he chewed his way out of the box! When I visited, they had begun using a larger carnivore box, with metal designed to hold big cats. It was working for the moment. The other wombats were fine to be around people.

After this, Megan loaded many large tree branches into her buggy (golf cart) and headed over to the koalas to give a keeper talk about them. She quickly cleaned the exhibit, switched out the old branches for new ones, and started the talk. Koalas occur naturally throughout much of the eastern coast of Australia. They are closest relatives to wombats, both having backward pouches. Koalas can carry Chlamydia, often causing infertility and sometimes eyesight loss. I always pictured koalas like a marsupial sloth given how much energy must be spent on digestion, but they are quite agile. They can jump from branch to branch without much effort at all. 

At this point, Megan introduced me to Norman, an invertebrate keeper. All of the bugs in his collection could be found naturally in Australia. One species of stick insect was especially notable, The Lord Howe Island Stick Insect (Dryococelus australis). This species was last seen in the early 1920s, when black rats were brought by boat to the remote habitat on Lord Howe Island, off of Sydney on the east coast. The invasive rats completely wiped out the endemic stick insects and they became officially extinct. It wasn't until 2001 that live specimens were found and captured on the volcanic rocky outcrop known as Ball's Pyramid approximately 15 miles from LHI. Two pairs were brought back from the tiny population of 20-30 individuals fround to exist. One pair went to Sydney, the other to Melbourne. Melbourne Zoo was the first to breed them and now has quite the collection. 

Just after hatching, the young are kept in medium sized, open air terrariums within a long greenhouse type tent. They are very small and bright green. Due to their color and size they are diurnal, eating leaves of their favorite plant during the day. As they get older and molt, they change into a darker color no longer allowing them to blend into the leaves. This causes a switch in activity, making them fully nocturnal. At such point the stick insects are moved to a different greenhouse void of individual cages. They are given wood boxes to use during the day and small plants to nibble on throughout the night. There are also buckets of sand for egg laying. The eggs are unidentifiable from a small seed to an untrained eye. I couldn't tell the difference at all. The eggs are kept in small, lidded, plastic cups until they are hatched.

The government of New South Wales (the state which Sydney is in) plans to eradicate the black rats over the next several years. At which point, the Melbourne Zoo population will be reintroduced to Lord Howe Island. Here are a few videos that show you the same areas I visited while there.

Video of documentarian Sir Attenborough visiting Butterfly House and LHISI at Melbourne Zoo.

Video of a man visiting the breeding and housing area for the LHISI at Melbourne Zoo.

After a full tour of the stick insects, Norman brought me to another giant greenhouse tent. All around were small potted plants. Each plant was a different species, and each plant species had its own unique caterpillar munching on it. The plants were all standing free within the tent, but the edges of the room were lined with open air terrariums. This was where the newly formed chrysalises were kept until the butterflies emerged. Each day the butterflies were caught and brought into the butterfly house. The butterfly house is a beautiful tropical room filled with native butterfly species. The potted trees are hidden within the room for butterflies to lay their eggs on. Each week or so there trees get rotated back into the greenhouse to begin a new cycle.

Before leaving the invertebrate area, Norman wanted to show me one last thing. He had me hold out my hands, and on them he placed a Giant Burrowing Cochroach. It's legs were covered in sharp spikes for digging. The one I held, Norman explained, was a mother. He lifted up some substrate to show many smaller versions of what was in my hands. GBCs are unique in that they give birth to live young and then continue to care for them for months. They eat mostly leaf litter and are native to Queensland (North-East Australia.) I placed the cochroach back into her terrarium, thanked Norman, and left with Megan to to find Sheila.

Sheila was a large carnivore keeper that offered to let me visit the Sumatran tigers. This is the only animal I saw which cannot be found in Australia. There were three tigers behind-the-scenes, all siblings. The female was currently being separated from her brothers due to them entering breeding age. The tigers all had lovely exhibits, though not as large as the keepers would like. The tigers seemed fully content and calm. Shelia took some deserved pride in explaining how she has never seen tigers so naturally content or at such healthy weights as hers. The female walked up to the fence to greet Shelia who responded with a quick pet. All three tigers were born at the zoo. Sheila explained how the zoo only feeds the cats fully feathered, furred, and boned meat. This gives them much more enrichment than raw cleaned meats, sometimes taking hours to finish a meal rather than seconds with the alternative. In addition, they recycle a lot of tree branches from other exhibits, such at koalas, as well as incorporate various enrichment toys.

As I was watching the tiger, being careful to keep a foots distance, Sheila asked me if I'd like to bottle feed her. I was shocked that I would be allowed to do that, but jumped at the opportunity.  Shelia left and soon returned with a large syringe specially made for this sort of thing. The tiger knew the drill. She waited, eagerly rubbing her face along the fence in front of me. I pressed the syringe through the fence holes and slowly let it drip out milk. She lapped it up quickly. When I was done, we had a closer look at the boys and then left with a thank you to Sheila. 

After seeing the tigers, Megan thought I might like to see some monotremes (egg laying mammals), which of course, I did! I followed as she prepared food for the platypus. It's food consisted of crustaceans, blood worms, and small fish. These were dumped into an approximate 40 gallon aquarium. The aquarium connected to a long wood box. Megan went to the far end of the box and opened the lid. Inside there was a second, smaller wood box with bedding materials inside. She opened the second box, and I was able to catch a glimpse of the platypus as it ran out into the far end of the large box, away from our view. 

Platypuses (always thought it was platypi, but all of my books say platypuses) are mostly nocturnal, as night is when they go looking for food. Looking isn't quite the right term however, because they don't hunt with their sight. Instead, they have electroreceptors within their bill that pick up the slight electricity produced by their prey.  Female platypuses build burrows and incubate their eggs. They have no pouches or nipples, but do produce milk through two ducts on their belly. Male platypuses produce poison through spurs on their hind legs. It's like platypuses are Gods left overs after making all the other animals. Weird stuff.

The platypus just wanted darkness so he could sleep and wasn't interested in his food at all, so we let him be and went over to see the echidna, who was housed in an exhibit with some tree kangaroos. Upon walking into the exhibit the echidna began to follow me around, sniffing my shoes. It had a small yellow band around a single spike on it's back for identification. Echidnas are insectivores. They have no teeth, but instead use a sicky tongue to lap up food. I expected them to look a lot like porcupines, but they look more like a mix between an anteater and a hedgehog. Their backs are covered with fur as well as spikes. While echidnas are monotremes like platypuses, they do create a pseudo pouch by contracting abdomen muscles around their single egg. The baby, aka "puggle," will stay attached to its mother until it begins growing its own spikes. When this happens, it will be moved into a burrow to stay for the remainer of its youth.

Megan lured the tree kangaroo down with an avocado half for a picture. It was no work to get the echidna to come over since he was now sniffing at the bottom of my pants leg. Very curious animal! The tree kangaroo grabbed his treat and then sat with his back turned away from the camera. As soon as he looked over, the echidna had just lost interest. Thankfully, I got one picture. 

Now, I can't remember the name of the last keeper I met that day. I want to say his name was Pete, but that may be because he simply looked like a Pete to me. He generously let me follow him as he feed the kangaroos, wallabies, and emu. By this time, I was tiring from the very full day and I kept accidentally calling the emus ostriches. I do know the difference, but it made me feel like a fool. Despite my words refusal to cooperate, it was great to be so close to all these native animals! This was an open exhibit that the public could walk through, sometimes even petting the animals. 

Before leaving I got a quick look at a cassowary, some Asian elephants, and a group of Rothchild giraffes. I had spent the entire day at the zoo and was quite tired from trying to learn and remember so many new things, in addition to the excitement of the amazing generosity I recieved. I left the zoo and returned home immediately. Upon arriving home, I fell asleep, only to wake up in the middle of the night. At noon, I finally woke up from a horrible nights sleep. I had been invited to come see more at the zoo that I had missed the previous day. I made it to the zoo at 2pm; not as much time as I would have liked, but at least I was well rested. 

Megan met me by the giraffes and led me over to Ang, who was currently working on cleaning the bandicoot cages. Eastern Barred Bandicoots are a critically endangered species in the state of Victoria. (That's the state I'm in.) Melbourne Zoo is part of the recovery program, breeding and releasing them to help with population stability. The bandicoots are not on exhibit, but are kept In large identical cages side by side. It slightly resembles a horse stables. Bandicoots are nocturnal, so I didn't get to see any, but it was still quite nice to learn more about them and see how they are kept. In pictures, they vaguely look like rats with especially long noses.

While walking back to take a short break with the keepers, Ang mentioned that he was a music fan. He was interested about the fact that I grew up right outside of Nashville and was delighted to find out that I was his six degrees of separation from Jimmy Buffet. Apparently several of the zookeepers are huge fans, playing his songs every day in the food prep room. One keeper even emailed me a video of their band singing a cover. 

After a quick "morning tea" (they have morning and afternoon teas here), Ang took me to see the aviaries. They were pretty incredible! The great flight aviary is a long raised pathway under a dome. It slowly transitions through three Australian biomes with the greatest diversity of birds: woodland, wetland, and rainforest. All of the birds were native and it was quite funny to see so many American "pet store" birds flying around. Ang kindly named each one as we saw it, but I could one retain a few species names. My favorite was the Satin Bowerbird, a blackish-blue bird, which was building a small bower (nest) on the ground and just beginning to decorate it with blue items it found within the aviary.

After the great flight aviary, he took me around to see the other many native aviaries within the zoo. We also passed by a Tasmanian Devil exhibit with the Tassy running all around. After going through a finch aviary, and seeing a kookaburra, we came to an aviary with a noticeably different bird inside. It was bright yellow with some brown and black markings, but what was noticeable were the tuffs of feathers coming from its cheeks. It looked like it had sideways horns off of its face. This was the Yellow-Tuffed Honeyeater. 

The zoo was about to close, so we headed back to the keeper break room. I said my thank yous and goodbyes to everyone and got a short ride to the nearby train station. The next day I dropped off a thank you note at the front gate as well, just in case I missed thanking anyone along the way. 

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