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News Article | April 19, 2017

A few years ago at a bar in Reno, graduate student John Zablocki was talking about his research on the rediscovery of lost species—those presumed to have gone extinct only to turn up again alive and well—when a stranger chimed in. “What about the Lord Howe Island stick insect?” he suggested, recalling the widely reported 2001 rediscovery of that species on an island in Australia. Recalling the celebrated line from the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, the stranger added: “Life, uh, finds a way.” This is the tantalizing thing—when a species thought to be lost comes back, in effect, from the dead, Zablocki says. It hints at rebirth in an era otherwise dominated by headlines about climate change and mass extinction. Scientists even refer to these rediscovered organisms as “Lazarus species,” after the man said in the New Testament story to be raised from the dead by Jesus Christ. But finding lost species does not take a miracle, according to Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), a small Texas-based nonprofit. The GWC is now launching an ambitious “Search for Lost Species” initiative to rediscover 1,200 species in 160 countries that have not been seen in at least 10 years. The first expeditions will launch this fall in pursuit of the 25 “most wanted” species, says GWC herpetologist Robin Moore, who is leading the effort. Among the top 25: a pink-headed duck last seen in 1949 in India, a tree-climbing freshwater crab last observed in 1955 in the West African forests of Guinea and the world’s largest bee (with a wingspan of 2.5 inches) last sighted in 1981 in Indonesia.* “For many of these forgotten species,” Moore says, “this is likely their last chance to be saved from extinction.” The plan is to work with international partners to put scientists in the field, with an initial fund-raising goal of $500,000. That’s not much—just $20,000 each for the 25 “most wanted” species, which have been missing in action for a collective 1,500 years. But Moore is optimistic, he says, because of his past experience leading a 2010 “Search for Lost Frogs” initiative. That effort, a collaboration between the GWC and Conservational International, rediscovered only one of its “top 10” species in its first six months but found a total of 15 species over its first year as a result of 33 expeditions. In one case in Borneo, local researchers made repeated expeditions over eight months before eventually finding the missing frog higher up the mountain than it had ever been seen. “Some species,” Moore says, “just require persistence.” To improve the odds of success, the plan for the new initiative is to put researchers in the field in places where recent evidence suggests a lost species may persist. For instance, the long-beaked echidna, a spiny, egg-laying mammal, is known from only a single specimen collected in 1961 by a Dutch researcher in Indonesia’s Papua Province. But a 2007 expedition in the Cyclops Mountains there led by the Zoological Society of London spotted burrows, tracks and the sort of holes echidnas dig for worms. Local hunters have also reported sightings of the elusive creature. “We have been in touch with an Indonesian conservation group about setting up an array of camera traps in the area over a longer period,” Moore says, “to see if we can get a photograph.” Other technologies could also make rediscoveries more likely. Sequencing the DNA in a body of water, a technique called environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling, can reveal the presence of certain fish or amphibians. Likewise, sequencing blood from mosquitoes or leeches, known as invertebrate DNA (iDNA) sampling, can reveal which species they have been feeding on. New mapping technologies can also combine high-resolution images from Google Earth with species data to identify an animal’s likely habitat more precisely. Even without modern technology, finding lost species has been a common occurrence. A 2011 study in Trends in Ecology & Evolution documented 351 such rediscoveries over the previous 122 years—an average of about three a year. These include such sensational cases as the 1938 finding of a living coelacanth, a fish that was presumed to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs; the 1966 discovery of Australia’s mountain pygmy possum, previously known only from bones found in a cave; and the 1951 rediscovery of the cahow, or Bermuda petrel, then thought to have been extinct since the 1620s. In northern Australia a research team not connected to the GWC initiative is currently undertaking fieldwork with the equally sensational goal of rediscovering the thylacine, or “Tasmanian tiger,” which has been presumed extinct for the past 80 years. James Cook University ecologist Sandra Abell, who is leading the effort, rates the likelihood of success as “low” but “not impossible.” Even so, Richard Dawkins excitedly tweeted, “Can it be true? … Has Thylacinus been seen alive? And in mainland Australia not Tasmania? I so want it to be true.” The reality of such rediscoveries, says John Zablocki, a biologist at The Nature Conservancy who is not involved with the GWC effort, is that wildlife biology suffers from “a gap in knowledge” about the behaviors and whereabouts of most species. “Our survey capacity is just so limited. Even here,” he says, of properties The Conservancy owns in the Mojave Desert, “we may have an ‘extinct’ vole” that is actually just missing. Zablocki (of the Reno bar conversation) wrote his master’s thesis, “The Return of the Living Dead,” on rediscoveries. The thesis recommended exactly the sort of focused rediscovery effort now being undertaken by the GWC, partly for the potential to engage the public in what amounts to a wildlife detective story. “It’s still kind of tantalizing that we just don’t know what's out there, even with our remote-sensing technology and DNA analysis,” Zablocki says, “and it does give us hope. Conservation is so fraught with doom-and-gloom stories that the opportunity to get things right a second time is also important. The flip side is that it can give people the sense that species can come back from extinction or that the extinction risk isn’t as serious as it really is,” he notes. Both Zablocki and Moore argue, however, the excitement about rediscoveries tends to motivate conservation efforts. For instance, after researchers discovered a remnant population of 24 Lord Howe Island stick insects dwelling under a single bush on an island cliff face, conservationists launched a major captive-breeding program. As a result, the Melbourne Zoo hatched 16,000 eggs in 2016 and established insurance populations of the species at three other zoos.  The rediscovery also helped motivate a program to eradicate species-killing invasive rats from the island group. Rediscovery, says Moore, is “a very powerful motivator. The risk of always telling people how bad things are with the environment is that we instill despair. We’re trying to instill that glimmer of hope, to remind people that there is still a lot worth fighting for, and that the world is a wild and mysterious place.” *Editor's Note (4/21/17): This sentence was edited after posting. The original misstated the country where the pink-headed duck was last spotted.

News Article | February 2, 2016

Researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia are studying how orangutans are able to learn and make social choices by exposing the animals to digital technology such as Microsoft's Xbox Kinect system. In earlier studies, animal experts from Melbourne's Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces and Zoos Victoria tried to use touchscreen computers and tablets to determine the social interaction and cognitive challenges that orangutans typically experience. However, because of the animals' curiosity and immense strength, the researchers would have to stay alongside the orangutans in order to guide them in using the computers or tablets. The animals had to put their hand or fingers through a strong mesh when operating the devices. Despite these challenges, the researchers were able to discover that the orangutans had a penchant for using technology, especially if it gives them the chance to interact with humans. Sally Sherwen, an animal welfare expert from Zoos Victoria, wanted to allow the orangutans to use the technology the way they see fit. She believes that it would provide the animals a richer and more engaging interaction as they can use their full range of body movements. "They enjoyed using the tablet but we wanted to give them something more, something they can use when they choose to," Sherwen said. The researchers developed a new natural user interface (NUI) technology and incorporated it to the Xbox Kinect, a gaming console accessory that allows users to make virtual actions using their voice and body movement. Using the Xbox Kinect, the research team is now able to create a full body-sized projection that provides the orangutans the opportunity to engage images through their body gestures. The Xbox Kinect projection serves as a touchscreen for the animals to use without requiring any physical devices be placed inside their enclosure. During their testing this week, the researchers found that the orangutans were very receptive to the projected interface. Malu, a 12-year-old male orangutan from Melbourne Zoo, was shown a projection of a red dot. Once he saw the projection, he went over to the dot and proceeded to kiss it. The red dot then exploded. When the projection reappeared, Malu kiss it again. Malu's actions indicate the orangutans' keen sense to using not only their hands whenever they interact. The researchers aim to develop a new method of stimulation for the orangutans, which would allow the animals to have fun while also motivating them to use their problem solving skills. One of the team's primary goals is to find out how the orangutans, which are known to enjoy social engagements, would behave toward humans when they are given control of their interaction. Various computer games, picture galleries and painting applications are now being developed for the use of the orangutans.

We heard recently about the amazing experience of a visitor to Melbourne Zoo who sat to breastfeed her child and was watched with interest by a female orang-utan. Families are also regularly captivated by the antics of the Zoo's youngest orang-utan, who seems to delight in playing near children on the other side of the glass. Now Zoos Victoria and technology researchers are collaborating to explore whether digital technologies could let orang-utans choose to interact safely with visitors in entirely new ways. For modern zoo organisations such as Zoos Victoria, the animals' wellbeing is top priority. Cognitive enrichment is vital, particularly for species such as primates and elephants which evolved astonishing intelligence and problem-solving skills to meet the challenges of survival in the wild. Research suggests that orang-utans like to watch what's happening on the visitors' side of the glass, and interacting with visitors could be an important form of enrichment for them. There is a real art to developing enrichment that encourages smart animals to use their intellect to explore and solve problems. On occasion, keepers at Melbourne Zoo have taken hours to prepare a new fiendish food puzzle, only to see the orang-utans solve it in a matter of minutes. And of course enrichment must be safe and robust (an orang-utan can be nine times stronger than a human), which limits the equipment that zoos can use. To continue to provide novelty and variety, primate keepers have started to add digital enrichment to the range of existing activities. At Melbourne, and a number of other zoos, orang-utans have learned to use a tablet computer through the wire of the enclosure to play with chase games, music-making and painting apps. As a team of technology researchers and zoos professionals, we are investigating new forms of digital enrichment. Our collaboration began as the result of a happy accident: a Melbourne Zoo staff member happened to visit the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces, and had the opportunity to play a video game with the Microsoft Xbox and Kinect body tracker. She quickly realised that motion-based games could provide entirely new ways to address the challenges of orang-utan enrichment. Computer-based enrichment is an attractive prospect for zoos. It could be easily modified to provide new challenges, or tailored to an individual orang-utan's skill level. It overcomes some of the safety issues of introducing new physical objects. And it might allow animals a choice of enrichment when keepers are not available. We have created an interactive projection which works like a touchscreen on the floor, using a projector and a Microsoft Kinect body tracker placed outside the enclosure. Recently we have been trialling simple games to show the orang-utans that this interactive projection responds to their touch, and start investigating how they might use it. In our first game, which has proven a big success, large coloured dots move around the projection and explode in pulsing waves of colour when touched. The interests of Melbourne Zoo's orang-utans have inspired some of our apps, including one which allows the animals to view photos or videos, choosing them from a gallery. We are confident that the orang-utans would quickly learn to use the touchscreen if we train them to. However, as part of our research we have let orang-utans explore the touchscreen without direction. By not rewarding them for using the projection, we have been able to investigate how interesting this enrichment is to them, see how intuitively they take to it, and see their preferred ways of interacting with it. The six orang-utans at Melbourne Zoo have all tried out the interactive projection, and most seem to have learned that fun things happen when they touch the bright moving shapes on the floor. Excitingly, they have shown us some unexpected styles of interaction, such as kissing the projection, sweeping it with the back of the hand, exploring how it works with physical objects and even swooshing a cloth at it from above. We hope that digital technology will allow animals greater choice over their environment and enrichment. A first step will be for orang-utans to choose which game to play. In the future, they might be given control over lighting or temperature, or perhaps even feeding schedules and interaction with other animals or humans. As orang-utans seem to find humans interesting, we are experimenting with creating a shared digital space where orang-utans can choose to interact safely with keepers and even visitors. In our first trial of a game for humans and orang-utans, we saw with delight that they chose to play even with people they had not met before, creating a powerful sense of connection for the human player. The day is perhaps not far off when digital technology might let you get closer than ever to our primate cousins. Explore further: A happy life is a long one for orangutans

Fanson K.V.,Wildlife Reproductive Center | Fanson K.V.,Deakin University | Lynch M.,Melbourne Zoo | Vogelnest L.,Taronga Wildlife Hospital and Elephant Division | And 2 more authors.
European Journal of Wildlife Research | Year: 2013

Understanding how elephants respond to potentially stressful events, such as relocation, is important for making informed management decisions. This study followed the relocation of eight Asian elephants from the Cocos (Keeling) Islands to mainland Australia. The first goal of this study was to examine patterns of adrenocortical activity as reflected in three different substrates: serum, urine, and feces. We found that the three substrates yielded very different signals of adrenocortical activity. Fecal glucocorticoid metabolites (FGM) increased as predicted post-transport, but urinary glucocorticoid metabolites (UGM) were actually lower following transport. Serum cortisol levels did not change significantly. We suggest that the differences in FGM and UGM may reflect changes in steroid biosynthesis, resulting in different primary glucocorticoids being produced at different stages of the stress response. Additional studies are needed to more thoroughly understand the signals of adrenocortical activity yielded by different substrates. The second goal was to examine individual variation in patterns of adrenal response. There was a positive correlation between baseline FGM value and duration of post-transfer increase in FGM concentration. Furthermore, an individual's adrenocortical response to relocation was correlated with behavioral traits of elephants. Elephants that were described by keepers as being "curious" exhibited a more prolonged increase in FGM post-transfer, and "reclusive" elephants had a greater increase in FGM values. Future research should investigate the importance of these personality types for the management and welfare of elephants. © 2013 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.

News Article | November 20, 2015

The calf was born in seemingly good health at the zoo in southern California on Nov. 11, officials said in a statement, but a veterinary exam later found the newborn was not receiving proper nourishment, despite care from its mother. "Sad to announce the death of our pygmy hippo calf," an official with the San Diego Zoo wrote on Twitter. It was the first surviving pygmy hippo birth at the San Diego Zoo in more than a decade, it said. The zoo has not said whether the calf was male or female. The pygmy hippopotamus, from the forests of West Africa, is listed on a list of threatened species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There were roughly 2,000 left in the world a decade ago, the most recent population survey showed, the zoo said. Habitat destruction and wildlife trafficking in recent years has likely played a role in reducing the population, it said. The pygmy is less aquatic and smaller than its non-pygmy hippo relatives, having a rounder and narrower head and a median life expectancy of 27 years, the zoo said. It can weigh as much as 600 pounds, it said. In Australia, a pygmy hippopotamus calf was unveiled in June at Melbourne Zoo, the first to be born there since 1981.

Scheelings T.F.,Australian Wildlife Health Center | Scheelings T.F.,University of Melbourne | Jessop T.S.,Melbourne Zoo | Jessop T.S.,University of Melbourne
Australian Veterinary Journal | Year: 2011

Objective The aims of this study were to determine baseline reference intervals for haematological and serum biochemical parameters in lace monitors, and to examine whether such values were influenced by capture method, expected differences in habitat food resource availability and a lizard's body size and body condition. Methods Thirty-three wild Victorian lace monitors (Varanus varius) of unknown age and sex were captured by noose pole or aluminium box trap from Cape Conran in East Gippsland, Victoria, Australia. Results No statistical differences between the two capture methods were noted for haematology. There was a significant difference in the serum glucose concentrations between the two methods of capture (higher concentration in box-trapped animals) because of a physiological response to capture stress. Habitat food quality did not appear to influence haematology or serum biochemistry. The packed cell volume (PCV) for the lace monitors was 0.29-0.43L/L. Lymphocytes were identified as the most common leucocyte. The haemoprotozoan parasite, Haemogregarinavaranicola, was found in all 33 blood samples. No correlation could be made between parasite burden and PCV, serum globulins or serum proteins, but animals in poor body condition were more likely to harbour large numbers of parasites. Conclusion The results of this study may be used as a basis for evaluating health in lace monitors. © 2011 The Authors. Australian Veterinary Journal © 2011 Australian Veterinary Association.

PubMed | Melbourne Zoo, 5Australian Wildlife Health Center, University of Melbourne and Victoria University of Melbourne
Type: | Journal: Journal of medical microbiology | Year: 2016

Koala retrovirus (KoRV) is currently undergoing endogenisation into the genome of koalas in Australia, providing an opportunity to assess the effect of retrovirus infection on the health of a population. The prevalence of KoRV in north eastern Australia (Queensland and New South Wales) is 100%, whereas previous preliminary investigations in south eastern Australia (Victoria) suggested KoRV is present at a lower prevalence, although the values have varied widely. Here we describe a large study of free ranging koalas in Victoria to estimate the prevalence of KoRV and assess the clinical significance of KoRV infection in wild koalas. Blood or spleen samples from 648 koalas where tested for KoRV provirus using PCRs to detect pol and env genes. The prevalence of KoRV in these Victorian koalas was 24.7% (160/648) (95% confidence interval [CI]: 21.3, 28.1%). KoRV-A was detected in 141/160 cases but KoRV-B, a genotype associated with neoplasia in captive koalas, was not detected. Detection may have been precluded by genomic differences between KoRV in Victoria and type strains. Factors associated with KoRV infection, based on multivariable analysis, were low body condition score, region sampled, and wet bottom(a staining of the fur around the rump associated with chronic urinary incontinence). Koalas with wet bottom were nearly twice as likely to have KoRV provirus detected than those without wet bottom (odds ratio = 1.90, 95% CI 1.21, 2.98). Our findings have important implications for the conservation of this iconic species, particularly in regards to translocation potential.

PubMed | Melbourne Zoo, University of The Sunshine Coast, University of Melbourne and Victoria University of Melbourne
Type: Journal Article | Journal: Journal of medical microbiology | Year: 2016

Chlamydia pecorum infection is a threat to the health of free-ranging koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) in Australia. Utilizing an extensive sample archive we determined the prevalence of C. pecorum in koalas within six regions of Victoria, Australia. The ompA genotypes of the detected C. pecorum were characterized to better understand the epidemiology of this pathogen in Victorian koalas. Despite many studies in northern Australia (i.e. Queensland and New South Wales), prior Chlamydia studies in Victorian koalas are limited. We detected C. pecorum in 125/820 (15%) urogenital swabs, but in only one ocular swab. Nucleotide sequencing of the molecular marker C. pecorum ompA revealed that the majority (90/114) of C. pecorum samples typed were genotype B. This genotype has not been reported in northern koalas. In general, Chlamydia infection in Victorian koalas is associated with milder clinical signs compared with infection in koalas in northern populations. Although disease pathogenesis is likely to be multifactorial, the high prevalence of genotype B in Victoria may suggest it is less pathogenic. All but three koalas had C. pecorum genotypes unique to southern koala populations (i.e. Victoria and South Australia). These included a novel C. pecorum ompA genotype and two genotypes associated with livestock. Regression analysis determined that significant factors for the presence of C. pecorum infection were sex and geographical location. The presence of wet bottom in males and the presence of reproductive tract pathology in females were significantly associated with C. pecorum infection, suggesting variation in clinical disease manifestations between sexes.

Context. Despite increased scientific attention on amphibian conservation in recent years, knowledge of population demography of amphibians remains scarce, hampering evaluation of population declines and development of appropriate management responses. Aims. The aims of this research were to examine variation in population demography of the spotted tree frog (Litoria spenceri), a critically endangered species in Australia, and to evaluate the role of various factors potentially responsible for population declines such as introduced trout, chytridiomycosis and habitat changes. Methods. Skeletochronology combined with markrecapture sampling were undertaken in two different river systems, Bogong Creek and Taponga River, to determine population age structure. Age-specific survival estimates were derived from each population and were then used to examine variance in age-specific mortality. Key results. Relative population density per 200m of stream was 67.7 adults and 131.3 juveniles at Bogong Creek and 10.7 adults and 33.8 juveniles at Taponga River. Ages were determined for 578 frogs across the two populations. Age-specific survival was lowest in the first year of life compared to all other age classes, and highest in sexually mature adults. Differences in age-specific survival were similar between the populations, with the exception of first-year survivorship, which averaged 1.9% at Bogong Creek and 0.4% at Taponga River. This difference was large enough to explain most of the marked difference in population density between the two streams. Key conclusions. The difference in first-year age-specific survival is consistent with trout predation as the most parsimonious explanation for the large differences in population density between the populations, and lends further weight to the role of introduced trout in the decline of this species. Implications. This study has contributed to informing management actions for conservation of this species, and demonstrates that population age structure data may provide valuable insights into demographic variability within and between populations and species. This may have important implications for interpretation of population declines, and conservation and management responses. © CSIRO 2010.

News Article | October 16, 2015

In July 2015, the Australian government announced the five-year plan of killing approximately two million feral cats by 2020. The move was part of a plan to save endangered native wildlife including 30 plants, 20 mammals and 20 bird species from extinction. Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who made the announcement at Melbourne Zoo, explained that feral cats are responsible for the bulk decline of native mammal and bird species. Feral cat has been listed as a harmful pest and would be killed by shooting, poisoning and baiting. The strategy also includes the installation of 10 feral cat-free zones costing around $750,000 to create safe habitat areas for the endangered species. A spokeswoman for Hunt explained that the estimated 20 million feral cats in Australia pose an enormous threat to native species, with an estimated five native animals killed by one feral cat daily. The priority list of mammal species requiring protection includes Kangaroo Island dunnart, numbat, eastern barred bandicoot, mountain pygmy-possum, golden bandicoot, eastern bettong, brush-tailed rabbit-rat, mala, western quoll and greater bilby. Former French film star Brigitte Bardot and British musician Morrissey are two of the high profile protesters against Australia's plan to kill over two million feral cats to protect threatened species. Morrissey and Bardot are veteran animal rights activists. In July, Bardot wrote an open letter to Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, wherein she described the move 'inhumane and ridiculous'. Bardot mentioned that killing two million feral cats is useless as the rest of the species will continue breeding. In Morrissey's open letter, he called the Australian government "a committee of sheep farmers who have zero concerns about animal welfare or animal respect." Despite the public's major outcry, Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews said the move is vital to save endangered native wildlife. In his open letter to Bardot, he defended the government's decision stating the Australian wildlife has survived one of the world's highest extinction rates. In the last 200 years, Australia lost 29 unique mammal species with feral cats as major contributors in the steep decline. Andrews also made it clear that he is referring to feral cats, not domestic cats. Australia's move is a tough pill to swallow for animal lovers worldwide. However, with the huge loss of wildlife, the culling of two million feral cats has been deemed environmentally fit and even necessary for the survival of endangered species.

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