Gentoo breeding season at Edinburgh Zoo

July 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

By Dawn Nicoll, Senior Keeper, Penguin Section

We are now in the middle of summer and things have definitely been hotting up at Penguins Rock.

Gentoo chick by Dawn Nicoll

Gentoo chick by Dawn Nicoll

In the month of April we saw some of the first eggs laid by our breeding gentoo penguins. Our penguins become dedicated to their nests and eggs working as a close pair to protect them. Taking turns, the male and female sit tight on their two eggs keeping them warm under their brood pouch. Throughout the space of 36 days they gently turn the eggs aiding the full development of the baby penguin inside.

By May, we saw some of our first chicks hatch out to join the colony. Starting at a tiny 96 grams they gain roughly 10% of their body weight a day, with such a steep growth rate it only takes two months for our chicks to reach 4.5kg and be ready to leave their parents.

Watching the nest site at this time is both rewarding and entertaining. Every day the chicks are growing, learning new behaviours and becoming increasingly independent. Our older chicks are now taking an interest in swimming and building up their confidence with the water by practicing their snorkelling techniques.

In the wild gentoos would crèche their chicks together while they go out to fish. This helps the chicks to become less dependent on their parents and learn to defend for themselves. Here at Edinburgh zoo we replicate this stage in their development by moving them into our smaller enclosure. In this crèche environment the chicks learn to take fish from the keepers and master the art of swimming in our smaller pool. Currently we have four of our 10 chicks in the crèche and the other chicks will follow soon.

Don’t forget you can keep up with all the action on our Penguin Cam.

Chief Executive’s Blog

July 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Well Edinburgh Zoo is just finishing week three of Summer School, with one more week to go. Summer School is one of our Discovery & Learning team’s busiest times of the year and we are extremely proud of what we can offer children during the school break.

Down in the Jungle was this year’s theme, we have a new one each year, and the team has done an amazing job of decorating our Discovery & Learning building to look the part. A local studying artist has created a detailed animal mural to adorn the entrance way and the corridors are done up to look like the youngsters are walking through jungle terrain.

14_07_18_SummerSchool_DoorMural_kp_smlEach year we have 400 places across four weeks (100 slots per week) for children aged six to 15. Divided into four different age groups, children learn about the natural world in a fun and interactive way with our education officers. Summer School activities include animal handling, drama, games, arts and crafts, scavenger hunts, storytelling and more. The older children will spend time learning about animals, enclosure design and do more in-depth learning.

Each age group will get the chance to create an enrichment device for an animal. A bit like a toy, the enrichment is for the animal to essentially ‘play’ with and offers them a variety of stimulation. Here are some of our jungle themed enrichment devices made by some of our different age groups.

14_07_18_SummerSchool_enrichment_kpHere’s a quick link to one of our senior education officers at RZSS explained more about one of our previous Summer Schools with a Down Under theme

RZSS has also just completed our first offering of a new education programme called ZEST CWR (running 5 May to 10 July). The course was opened up to young people (17-21yrs) across Scotland and launched by Angela Constance MSP and Cabinet Secretary for Training, Youth and Women’s Employment. By working in partnership with Skills Development Scotland we designed the programme for candidates that were not currently in education, employment or training (NEET’s). The adapted ZEST programme offered six places at Edinburgh Zoo, as well as two places at the Highland Wildlife Park. All participants had the opportunity to achieve the Skills Development Scotland’s Certificate of Work Readiness (CWR).

Also at Edinburgh Zoo this week, a very colourful Mindanao bleeding heart dove has arrived in Brilliant Birds and we shortly hope to find it a mate. Dillon the three banded armadillo has moved into Brilliant Birds too; he has a large open enclosure in the corner of the attraction. A really popular individual, Dillon has been with us for some years taking part in animal handling sessions and the hilltop shows; however this is the first time he’s been on public display. Very lively, you are likely to see him scurrying around and exploring his environment.

Still with the Zoo, our rockhopper penguins are now back in the main enclosure – some of you may know they go up to an enclosure further up the hill for breeding season as the birds have previously bred very successfully at this location. The ten new gentoo penguin chicks from this year’s breeding season will shortly go into the penguin crèche away from their parents to learn skills like independent feeding, swimming and grooming.

Flamingo_nest_1In some mixed news, there was a Chilean flamingo egg laid one morning, but unfortunately the birds accidently cracked it by the afternoon. This is actually still a really encouraging sign and we are hopeful for more eggs. Breeding season for the Zoo’s 34 Chilean flamingos started in late spring when the bird keepers built “mud pie” nests to help stimulate courtship behaviour, such as head flagging, wing saluting, vocalising and aggression between competing males. Around 25 nests were created, each ranging in shape and size. In case you are passing the enclosure to the right of the main entrance and spot two eggs sitting rather proudly on top of two mud pie nests right now, they are actually fake and are just there to offer the birds encouragement! We hope to have more of the real thing shortly.

Finally onto staff news, two of our trainee keepers are now fully qualified as zoo keepers. RZSS has a 99.99% success rate that we are extremely proud off. Come September another seven trainee keepers start their course, so we wish them the best of luck. Michael Livingstone, one of our panda keepers, is also off to China next week to the Bifengxia Panda Reserve to work with pregnant pandas and cubs. This is the first trip to China for Michael, with his panda colleagues visiting last year. I hope to be able to share some of his experiences and photos from his trip with you here.


The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual

~John Muir, letter to J.B. McChesney, 19 September 1871


More interesting than you think

July 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

by Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

The most important role for any modern zoological institution is to act as a safety net for highly threatened species by managing them in captivity as a buffer against possible extinction in the wild. If you were to ask our visitors which of the species we maintain is in most peril, you are likely to be told Amur tiger, polar bear or Scottish wildcat. All three answers are correct when measured against a range of criteria, but it also illustrates a wider conservation issue: the high profile, easily recognised species are the ones that are likely to attract most interest and funding and the small, blandly coloured or unattractive may not receive the required amount of attention. In birding circles they are called “small brown jobs”.

A number of the species we maintain at the Highland Wildlife Park would certainly fall into the mammalian equivalents of the medium and large brown job categories. One in particular is our breeding herd of Turkmenian markhor, a spiral-horned goat from central Asia. It is listed as Critically Endangered with a wild population in the very low hundreds and decreasing. The current wild census is an informed estimate as the range of this species includes the mountains of northern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, not the safest place on the planet to carry-out fieldwork. Although we are the only location in the UK to hold this species, there is a fairly well developed breeding programme with the bulk of the captive population in continental European and North American zoos.

Turkmenian markhor photo by Jan Morse

Turkmenian markhor photo by Jan Morse

Although the adult males look pretty impressive with their metre long spiralled horns, the younger males and all the females are basically just a drab, brown goat. Our visitors walk past them on the way to or from the polar bears and most appear not to give the markhor a second glance. This suggestion of indifference is not just restricted to zoo visitors, but to some zoos as well. Locating more zoo space for elephants or tiger breeding programmes is not a significant problem, but finding more zoos that are willing to devote resources to some of these less than charismatic species can be a challenge, even when there is a concrete conservation need.

A fairly large percentage of our animal collection can be seen in no other or only one other zoo in the UK. They vary from the easily identifiable and spectacular polar bear, to species whose names are unfamiliar to most like our Japanese serow or the herd of Himalayan tahr. We have an animal adoption programme at the Park where people can help to support a species’ care. Whereas there is no shortage of adopters for wildcats and tigers, the markhor had not a single name on their adopters’ plaque, until a gentleman materialised whose surname matched that of the markhor’s scientific surname, Capra falconeri. Now they have one person interested, which is a start.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

Chief Executive’s Blog

July 11, 2014 § Leave a comment


Well the weather this week has been wonderful and the animals at Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park have been making the most of the glorious sunshine.

In the Highlands the two northern lynx cubs are starting to venture out. Born to female Dimma and male Switch (please do excuse the names – they came to us with these already in place!), the cubs born on 24 May and are now seven weeks old. Visitors have been catching their first glimpses of the pair this week.

Keeper’s also managed to capture the very first picture of our six Pallas’s cat kittens. Born on 30 March to female Alula and male Beebop, the kittens looks rather sizeable already. They are now around three and a half months old. The story of the science behind their conception appeared in one of my earlier blogs. Currently off show until they are around five months old, it is important to keep them secluded as the species young are highly susceptible to toxoplasmosis.

14.08.06_PallasCat_Kittens_DBStill with cats, our two Scottish wildcat kittens born on the 11 April to Betty and Hamish have been named Vaa and Gynack. Both females, their names are in-keeping with all kittens born at the Highland Wildlife Park being named after Lochs.

Both Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park have both had Eastern kiang foals. Two were born on the 21 and 22 June at the Park and can be seen in the entrance reserve, and one was born at the Zoo on 24 June. We know already that one of the Park’s foals, born to Boshay, is male.

Kiang foal at Edinburgh Zoo by Sharon Hatton

Kiang foal at Edinburgh Zoo by Sharon Hatton

In Edinburgh, Mya the Goeldi’s monkey gave birth to a healthy infant just seven days ago in the Magic Forest. Mabanja the crowned lemur gave birth to twins early this week in the Monkey House and both doing well so far. This is her first birth and a first breeding of this beautiful species for us so we are all delighted.

Last but not least, I cannot end without mentioning one of our most high profile potential births…

Of course earlier this week we confirmed that giant panda Tian Tian has conceived. However, with pandas this is not as straightforward as it may sound as the species practice delayed implantation. Technically pregnancy has not yet occurred in Tian Tian as her embryo has not yet implanted into the womb, when this occurs pregnancy has commenced. Pandas have very short pregnancies, so if all remains well, she could give birth at the end of August. Timings are very approximate and this is very early days right now, but Tian Tian is very relaxed and in excellent health. When we know more I will update you all.


Don’t blow it – good planets are hard to find.

~Quoted in Time

Chief Executive’s Blog

June 27, 2014 § Leave a comment


Recently we have been celebrating the arrival of a number of young animals; here I wanted to tell you about two of these births in particular.

14_5_8_Darwins_Rhea_Chicks_4I am delighted to announce the birth of nine Darwin’s rhea chicks this year at Edinburgh Zoo. Their arrival, and the fact the chicks are thriving, is a great achievement for our bird team as Darwin’s rhea chicks are by no means straightforward. To put the achievement into context, we had hopes we might be able to successful rear ONE chick – so NINE is an absolutely delightful and unexpected problem to have.

So far the chicks are growing fast and are going from strength to strength. They are doing so well in-fact, that the two oldest are now on show near to the monkey house.

Bird keeper Emily by Maria Dorrian

Bird keeper Emily by Maria Dorrian

Keepers have had their hands full raising the chicks, which are fast running and full of energy. The largest chicks weigh around a third of the adults now, but actually eat the same amount already. Out of the nine, the oldest pair are two months old, the middle three are around a month old and the youngest four were born just over a week ago.

Edinburgh Zoo has been home to Darwin’s rhea since 2007, with our current adult pair, Evita and Ramon, arriving more recently. A popular attraction with our visitors, the birds can stand at an impressive 35 to 39 inches and can move at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour – although we do not see quite those speeds on their Costorphine hill paddock!

The South American birds are classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List and these chicks are a very positive step towards the overall survival of the species; they will go on to become part of an overarching coordinated breeding programme.

Another significant birth has taken place at Highland Wildlife Park. We are happy to welcome a male muskox calf to the collection. The male calf is yet to be named, but is growing quickly in size and strength.

Muskox calf by Alex Riddell

Muskox calf by Alex Riddell

We welcome a female muskox calf named Belle last year, but she sadly passed away at five months old due to an injury sustained by one of her parents.

Muskox are very difficult to raise and have a high neonatal mortality rate due to their weak immune system and also parental aggression; there is still a long way to go before the calf will venture from his off show enclosure or be on display to our visitors to the Park.

Muskox actually require specially adapted enclosures due to their size and aggressive nature. The species have been successfully brought back from the brink of extinction and are now classified as of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, however this birth signifies what could be a big development in captive muskox breeding here in the UK, with the last surviving musk-ox calf born in 1992.

We are very proud of our achievements. These breeding successes are testament to our keeper’s dedication and expertise.


As we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: 

“With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,” or, “They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them.” 

~U Thant, speech, 1970

Keepers Step in to Hand Rear Little Pudu Fawn at Edinburgh Zoo

June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Scarlet the pudu fawn at Edinburgh Zoo has been keeping her keepers busy with around the clock bottle feeds.

Sadly this little new born lost her mother when she was only two and a half weeks old, but her dedicated keepers stepped in to hand-rear the tiny fawn.

Hoofstock keeper, Liah Etemad, said:

“Sadly Scarlet lost her mother at a really young age after birth exasperated an underlying untreatable condition. It was touch and go for a while for the fawn as she was being mother reared, but her keeper’s have worked around the clock to nourish and nurture the little fawn and she is doing so well now.

“Scarlet started on seven to eight bottled feeds of milk each day, getting her first feed early in the morning, throughout the day and then into the early hours. She is steadily gaining weight each day. During the first week after mum died she was cared for solely by her keepers, but then at four weeks she was reintroduced to her dad Normski. We were all delighted how well it went and the two were soon cuddled up together in the evenings and he maintains a watchful eye over her during the day. The fact her and her father have bonded so well means that he is teaching her natural pudu behaviour.

Southern pudu fawn, Scarlet

Southern pudu fawn, Scarlet

“It has taken a lot of time and commitment from keepers, and at seven weeks old we are still giving her a small number of bottles during the day, but we could not be happier to see little Scarlet thrive. She has done so well that visitors are able to see her with dad at our pudu enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo.

Find out more about the Southern pudu on our website.

Chief Executive’s Blog

June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

The world cup in Brazil is dominating media headlines at the moment, even getting mention on a conservation level. Conservationists in Brazil have challenged football’s governing body Fifa to do more to protect the animal that inspired the summer’s World Cup mascot; the Brazilian three-banded armadillo.

Listed as vulnerable, the species is the basis of the Fuleco mascot that features on merchandise and souvenirs. Conservationists have rightly been calling for parts of the armadillo’s dry forest habitat to be designated as protected areas and the government has met with scientists to discuss drawing up a conservation plan.

In the most recent Brazilian list of endangered species the three-banded armadillo moved from vulnerable to in-danger. Suffering from habitat loss, the species is also hunted and its distinctive shell used in the tourism trade.

Dillon - Southern three-banded armadillo

Dillon – Southern three-banded armadillo

There are actually 11 armadillo species found in Brazil and at Edinburgh Zoo we have another species very similar to the three-banded armadillo that inspired the mascot – the Southern three-banded armadillo. This species can be found in south-western Brazil and also in Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.

Edinburgh Zoo’s three three-banded armadillos are part of our presentations team. Dillon, a long standing resident of Edinburgh Zoo for the last ten years, and the recently arrived Rio and Rhodar, who it is hoped will go onto breed when they are older, are fantastic ambassadors for the armadillo family.

Dillon is part of our hilltop show Animal Antics that takes place daily at 12.15am in the hilltop arena during the warmer months. The event showcases animal’s natural behaviour and abilities. The animals vary between shows, as we work solely with animals that are willing to be involved, but when Dillon takes centre stage he gives us a great chance to explain about three-banded armadillos and the threats they face. It is also a great opportunity to share and highlight the work RZSS does in the Pantanal in Brazil.

A long term project dedicated to giant armadillos, it is a partnership between RZSS, a Brazilian NGO (IPÊ – Institute for Ecological Research), and a private cattle ranch (Baía das Pedras). The team is led by Arnaud Desbiez, Latin American coordinator for RZSS.

Photo by Kevin Schafer

Photo by Kevin Schafer

The giant armadillo could scarily go locally extinct without anyone even knowing and we are proud to be helping to understand the previously unknown natural history and ecological role of this ancient species so that the world does not lose it. It is incredible to think that in our study area in the Pantanal, many of the local people, some of them living in the area for their whole lives, have never even seen these animals.

Giant armadillos can reach up to 150cm and weigh up to 50 kilograms and one of their most striking features are large scimitar-shaped fore claws. The species is highly fossorial, nocturnal and most of the information previously available was anecdotal due to the animal’s cryptic behaviour and low population density. Although their distribution is widespread, as they range through much of South America, their habitats are diverse (from tropical forests to open savannahs) and their population density extremely sparse.

Since July 2010, the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project has successfully established a long-term ecological study of giant armadillos at the Baía das Pedras Ranch in the Nhecolândia sub-region of the Brazilian Pantanal (visit The main goal of the project is to investigate the ecology and biology of the species and understand its function in the ecosystem using radio transmitters, camera traps, burrow surveys, resource monitoring, resource mapping and interviews.

Giant Armadillo Baby by Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

Giant Armadillo Baby by Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project

During the course of our international research programme, I am extremely proud to say we have made many first discoveries, including: photographing a giant armadillo for the first time, capturing a camera trap image and then recording data on an armadillo young (nicknamed Alex) from birth to dispersal age, discovering that giant armadillos are actually ecosystem engineers – giving free housing and shelters to others via their large burrows – showing their important role in the ecological system.

What I sincerely hope is that the Brazilian World Cup mascot will raise the profile of the armadillo species as the whole and drastically reduce the threat and distinct possibility that many of this family of animal will not be on our world in the future.


Human consciousness arose but a minute before midnight on the geological clock.

Yet we mayflies try to bend an ancient world to our purposes, ignorant perhaps of the messages buried in its long history. Let us hope that we are still in the early morning of our April day. 

~Stephen Jay Gould, “Our Allotted Lifetimes,” The Panda’s Thumb, 1980


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