As a safari guide at Safari West, one of the questions I am most often asked is: what is my favorite animal? There are two ways to interpret this question: what’s my favorite animal within the Safari West collection or what is my favorite species in the world? I usually answer the latter and I tend to lead with, “whatever animal I most recently learned something incredible about.” This answer is both honest and useful in my tour as I then get to segue to an educational and entertaining topic. Recently, my follow-up to this answer has been, “Currently, my favorite species is one that lives at Safari West, but is not in our collection: the California ground squirrel.” If you are familiar with ground squirrels, it’s possible that you count yourself among those who do not like them. They aren’t the most popular of animals, however, when you begin to learn about wildlife, ecosystems, and conservation, native life forms like the ground squirrel turn out to be critically important. Many, if not most, of the more unpopular species of the world, are actually pretty awesome when you examine their survival strategies or role in the ecosystem.
Ground squirrels are often loathed by farmers and ranchers as their burrows present hazards for livestock and they can be quite destructive to crops: eating vegetables and damaging trees by either girdling the base (eating the bark all the way around the tree) or burrowing beneath the tree and drying out roots. Be that as it may, one cannot deny how hardcore ground squirrels are when it comes to the ever-important challenge of avoiding predation. While ground squirrels make a pretty nice meal for most of the larger snakes in their range, they have adapted an effective defense against rattlesnakes. Rattlers do prey on squirrels, mostly the pups, but the adults are quite ready to handle a rattlesnake attack. First, unlike the babies, adult ground squirrels are resistant to rattlesnake venom (to varying degrees throughout their range). Rattlesnakes tend to bite prey and back off, allowing their venom time to work. In the case of a ground squirrel, that means dinner gets away. But waiting for a predator to attack you and then hoping your anti-venom-super-power does the job isn’t necessarily a great survival strategy, so these squirrels also offer up a very sophisticated defense. They basically get dangerously close to a rattler, stare it in the face like a bad movie protagonist daring a much larger opponent to a fight, and wave their tail back and forth. While they are waving said tail, they increase blood flow to it, thus heating it slightly. As rattlesnakes can perceive in infrared, they see the hot, swinging tail very clearly. Tail waving or tail flagging is still being studied, but it does appear to deter snake strikes. The most convincing idea on why this works is that the tail flagging sends a message. It seems to say “I see you. Look how fast I can move, I’m paying really close attention and if you strike I will probably dodge it.”
Another really amazing animal that inhabits the Safari West property and the surrounding mountains, is the grey fox. Full disclosure, I’ve only seen fox scat and tracks at Safari West, but I have seen them running about in the neighborhood just beyond our boundaries. Like the ground squirrel, foxes get a bad rap–preying on chickens, digging in garbage or compost, harassing house cats–but they are amazing (and in the spirit of learning, what the fox says does not involve “rings” or “dings” as the pop song suggests. Their vocalizations mostly sounds like a cross between a hacking cough and a bark). Grey foxes are the only canine in north or south American that can climb trees. They are reported to be able to climb limbless tree trunks dozens of feet off of the ground. For a fairly small animal–roughly the size of a typical house cat–they can jump fairly well too. I’ve seen one casually leap a six foot fence from a standstill (after I startled it out of my compost pile) as though it were hopping up a curb. Grey foxes are skilled hunters preying mostly on rodents and to a lesser degree lagomorphs (rabbits/hares/etc) but they are also omnivores and opportunistic, meaning they will eat what they can get when they can get it. In Sonoma County, this is evident during the times of year when manzanita and madrone trees are producing berries, because fox scat will often appear to be mostly berries.
Aside from being skilled hunters and climbers, having foxes around could potentially be a good thing if you are worried about Lyme disease. As mentioned earlier, foxes eat small rodents and small rodents are the primary vector for carrying the ticks that spread Lyme. While the science on this is far from settled, there does seem to be a negative correlation between fox population and Lyme disease (but remember that correlation is not causation). It stands to reason that more foxes means fewer rodents means less Lyme. Lyme disease notwithstanding, if you have a rodent problem, and don’t want to introduce a subsidised predator that would also kill a bunch of birds (ie an outdoor cat. See last month’s post) encouraging, or at least not discouraging your local fox population could help keep the rodent population at bay.
Another amazing animal that catches a bad rap is the turkey vulture. Their bald, wrinkly, bright red heads are usually enough for any casual observer to call them ugly. If aesthetics are your primary concern however, you may be happy to learn that turkey vultures have beautiful eggs. They are a delicate pale purplish color with brown blotches; like a naturally occurring Easter egg. Pretty eggs aside, turkey vultures are a super important part of the ecosystem. They are carrion eaters–meaning they eat dead things–hence the feather-free head. When your meal plan includes sticking your head inside a carcass, having bloody head feathers until your next bath is a little maladaptive. Eating dead animals makes these vultures nature’s cleaning crew, cleaning up the carcasses left when other animals die. While you might get past the gross factor of eating dead animals, another incredible adaptation turkey vultures have, which you might not let slide, is called urohidrosis, where they basically defecate/urinate on their feet so when the excrement evaporates, it cools them. I do encourage you to get past the gross factor, because they are quite elegant birds. Watching them soar effortlessly on thermal updrafts is an incredible sight, especially considering they are usually about as long from wingtip to wingtip as I am from head to toe. Take a moment to enjoy their grace the next time you see them circling overhead or sunning their wings in the morning. They are not an omen of death, just a convenient and critical clean-up crew.
As captivated as one can be by often disenfranchised animals that are either gross, ugly or a nuisance, it is worth considering that public appreciation for species can be the difference between continued existence and extinction.
While many are aware of the plight of some of the iconic primates in Africa (ie chimpanzees and gorillas) there are many African primate species that are threatened or endangered that people never hear about. Take the aye-aye, a small lemur (around five pounds) that has the oddest way of finding food and is quite odd looking as well. While they have the primate standard five fingers per hand, two of these digits are highly specialized. Their middle finger is different from the rest, and used to tap on trees. The tapping works like sonar, allowing them to find insect larva inside the tree. They then chew a hole in the tree and and use their extra long ring finger to fish the larva out of the hole. It’s pretty cool that they fill the same niche as woodpeckers.
These unique creatures tend to catch a bad rap from the locals. They are often considered to be omens of evil and are frequently killed on sight. It is however, worth pointing out that not all populations hold this negative belief and some consider the aye-aye a symbol of good luck. All the same, they are listed as endangered by the IUCN, with a reduction in their population of over 50% in the last 30 years. Their numbers are dropping for many reasons including habitat destruction and hunting as a nuisance animal (to protect crops) or for food (in some populations). The IUCN lists the practice of hunting due to the “evil omen” stigma as one of the influential factors in the species’ declining numbers.
Just like we have vulture species living around Safari West, there are vulture species that live in Africa too. Unlike our turkey vultures (which are a species of least concern according to the IUCN), many of the African vulture species have declining populations and are listed as threatened. A large factor in the global decline of vultures is bioaccumulation; the process through which toxic substances build up in the animal faster than their bodies can clear it out. With vultures, this bioaccumulation tends to be of manmade toxins like pesticides and such.
Many African vultures also face an additional, well-known threat, but one not usually associated with vultures; the illegal ivory and rhino horn trades. The connection is that poachers dislike the way vultures will quickly smell a kill and circle, enmass, overhead, thus alerting anti-poaching patrols to a potential incident. To combat this natural alarm system, when rhino and elephant poachers are finished removing the horns or tusks, they will often poison the carcass. This kills the vultures that feed on it (and many other scavengers too). We hear about the plight of the rhinos and the elephants because they are large, charismatic species and their deaths hit us hard. Often ignored are the “gross” and unpopular vultures.
To those involved in wildlife conservation, it is quite obvious the cute, charismatic, popular, or well known animals get the bulk of conservation attention. Case in point, the average guest at Safari West tends to be super excited to see our plains zebras and are usually bummed if they happen to be hiding that day. Rarely do those same guests know what a waldrapp ibis is, let alone get excited to see one on tour. This is unfortunate, since compared to the three quarters of a million or so zebras in the wild, the waldrapp ibis numbers just a couple of hundred. That’s like comparing the population of San Francisco (zebras) to the population of a small high school (waldrapp ibis). The Waldrapp Ibis is a critically endangered species and it’s not that people don’t care, it’s just that most of them don’t even know that they exist in the first place.
Some species have been able to bridge that gap and move from disliked or obscure to well known and beloved. Orcas (ie killer whales), for example, were once a largely unknown and unpopular animal, now, ironically, people love them so much, they are being phased out of the aquariums and aquatic parks that initially introduced the species to the public. Pangolins–purported to be one of the most heavily poached species on earth–have seen a recent rise to fame (possibly due to viral social media attention), leading to an increase in public awareness of their plight. Even the grey wolf, once considered a grave threat to the ranching industry and nearly wiped out, has made a recovery and achieved increased popularity
The world of conservation is making great strides in trying to bring attention to the less famous or photogenic species of the world. We do our part at Safari West, but we’re far from alone. There is an incredible project called the Photo Ark, being put together by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore. His project aims to give every animal species in captivity studio-quality treatment. He is roughly half way through photographing the 12,000 or so species living in zoos or other human-managed settings worldwide, giving equal treatment to every species, be it cute or ugly, charismatic or gross, popular or obscure. In a recent interview, Jartore said, “A mouse is every bit as glorious as an elephant, and a tiger beetle is every bit as big and important as a tiger.” Just because animals are annoying or unpopular, does not mean they are not a wonderful part of our world with something amazing to share. They can’t all be lovable, iconic species and while I do not want to live in a world without elephants, lions, pandas or rhinos, it would be a shame if those species were the only ones we work to conserve.