Penguin Festival

December 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

There isn’t much that’s more Christmassy than a penguin, as we saw last year with Monty in John Lewis’ Christmas advert. Penguins have always been a huge part of RZSS Edinburgh Zoo’s history – from historic links with the Salveson company who supplied penguins to the Zoo as far back as 1914 to the knighting of Sir Nils Olav, the king penguin, in 2008. Not to mention our world famous Penguin Parade, which began when a keeper accidently left an enclosure door open and a few penguins waddled out! So what better opportunity to celebrate our penguins than with a special winter Penguin Festival?

Earlier in the year, we were contacted by art curator Paul Robertson who introduced us to the work of Ottmar Hörl – a German conceptual artist, art professor and sculptor. We were immediately struck by the installations Professor Hörl creates – the displays of large numbers of sculptures together which alters the way you look at the pieces of art. Ottmar Hörl has developed memorable models of identification and universal emblems that have come to be part of our collective memory, such as the Euro Sculpture erected in Frankfurt am Main in 2000 and the Soap of Innocence, first issued in 1997 in an edition of 82 million copies.


Ottmar Hörl’s penguins, in particular, were an ideal fit for the Zoo and something we were sure our visitors would enjoy. We decided that the main lawn in the centre of the Zoo would be an ideal location, so then set to work figuring out how many penguins would be required to fill the space. After mapping it out, we settled on ten rows of 12 penguins as the most visually appealing formation.

The Penguin Festival opened with a spectacular light show during its first weekend, illuminating the 120 black and white penguins and the historic Mansion House back drop.


There is also an interactive element to the Penguin Festival in the form of a treasure hunt. Five special “Sir Nils Olav” gold penguins are currently hiding in various places around the Zoo waiting to be found. Plus, visitors can enter a competition to win a Penguin Magic Moment if they spot a “Nils”.

GoldPenguinVisitors can also purchase the limited edition works of art, with the penguins being available to collect or be posted in the New Year. It’s a fantastic chance to own a piece of Zoo history, so head over to our online shop to p…p…pick up your very own penguin sculpture today.

Film screenings, storytelling and penguin bubble enrichment will also be going on throughout the festival, so hop on down to the Zoo before it ends on 6 January!

Jo Paulson is Events and Experiences Manager for RZSS, and is responsible for delivering a wide range of events as well as keeper experiences and magic moments at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo.

Going Wild about Scotland through November

December 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

Our Wild about Scotland bus has been up and down the country in November, visiting schools across Dumfries and Galloway, Moray, South Ayrshire, Fife, West Lothian, Perthshire and South Lanarkshire. We also reached an exciting milestone – visiting our 200th school!


Celebrating visiting our 200th school!

Since the project began in August 2014, we have delivered almost 400 educational sessions to 8600 pupils in 31 out of 32 school districts in Scotland, not to mention the 8800 members of the public that have come on board during open days and events.


Celebrating visiting our 200th school!

When we’re not on the road, we are always busy making additional resources and extending what the project can offer. We’ve recently developed an interactive story session for nursery children following The Adventures of Polly the Puffin. With many schools having nurseries attached, we wanted to give nurseries a chance to explore the bus and learn about one of Scotland’s most charismatic animals.


Celebrating visiting our 200th school!

In our travels this month we stopped in at Robert Burns’ birthplace in Alloway, near Ayr and WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) Caerlaverock reserve, which was featured on BBC Autumnwatch. Despite torrential weather, we even saw some of the stars of the show – the barnacle geese.

See you next month,
Jamie and Lindsay

(Wild about Scotland Education Officers)

WaS_Brodie#Brodie knows best

Inspired by Autumnwatch, Brodie’s been learning all about the barnacle geese that call Scotland their home over winter.

The UK hosts migrating birds all year round from African ospreys in the summer months to Icelandic whooper swans in winter. Being only a few miles from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) site in Caerlaverock near Dumfries this month we took the opportunity to see the amazing barnacle geese that had flown 1000 miles from Svalbard in the Arctic circle to the Solway Firth. These geese are long distance experts capable of flying over 120,000 miles in a lifetime from their breeding sites in the north to the wintering sites in the south of Scotland. This WWT site has been an incredible conservation story over the last 40 years increasing the numbers of geese from just 300 to around 35,000 by managing the marsh and pasture that the birds rely on so much.


Top teacher comments and Tweets

“Hands on, interactive activities for pupils to take part in. Amazing resources and friendly hosts providing lots of information and guidance for pupils” Dalyrmple Primary School.

“Very hands on and discussion based. Children enjoyed looking for lonks between the items. Staff good at extending children’s thinking through discussion” Lochside Primary

“The resources were fantastic. The presenters were fantastic with the children” Lockerbie Primary

“Hands on, interactive session was interesting and engaging” Castleview Primary

“Lots of active learning opportunities. High level of discussion. Level aimed appropriately” Auchtertool Primary.





Next month- December

Next month we continue our tour, visiting schools in the Central Belt including Falkirk, West Lothian and Fife.

Highland Wildlife Blog: Antler anomalies

December 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

Since 2008 we have been collecting some basic data on the antlers of our various deer species at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park. There was no specific reason for gathering the information, other than the philosophy that there is no such thing as useless information and one cannot necessarily predict what may or may not eventually become valuable data.

Deer antlers differ from cattle, sheep or antelope horns in that they are grown and shed annually, whilst horns grow almost continually through the animal’s life and are never shed. When a deer drops its antlers in winter at the end of the breeding season, after a few weeks antler buds appear covered in a velvet-like material, a valuable commodity in Chinese traditional medicine, which is suffused with a blood supply that feeds the growth of the antlers. When the antlers reach their full size for that year (they are generally bigger or have more points each year), the “velvet” is rubbed off by the deer to expose the hard, bony antlers. In our data-set, we record the date the individual strips the velvet and goes into hard antler, the date it loses its antlers and the antlers’ weight.


Male Eurasian elk by Jan Morse

An aggressive, territorial stag can overnight become a meek and mild shadow of his former self as soon as his antlers fall off his head, practically like throwing a switch. I once got a call from a keeper to come and look at one of our big reindeer bulls who was acting strangely. The keeper had noted that his head was shaking a bit and that there may be a neurological problem. When I saw the deer I asked when he had shed his antlers (forest reindeer antlers are particularly massive), and I was told that it had happened the day before. The animal had been carrying almost 10 kg in weight on his head for some months and all of a sudden it had been “removed” and his neck muscles were just taking a bit of time to get used to the new situation; the animal was fine within just 24 hours.

On 21 November we had an unusual event when the bull elk, or moose, dropped his antlers, which was a tad early. We consulted the antler chart and he normally shed them in February, with one pair lasting until mid-March. Our first thought was that he may be poorly, but he is in very good physical shape, his appetite is robust and he is actively associating with the adult female and twin calves. We also noted that the young adult male red deer were hanging about quite close to the female herd without being actively chased away by the herd stag; normally the red deer rut would still be in full swing.

Are these premature shifts in what are normally much later physical and behavioural events just the result of a mild November, or are they possibly indicators of climate change? The continued entry of each year’s antler data into our chart may yet prove to be more enlightening than we first anticipated.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald

Chief Executive’s Blog

December 14, 2015 § Leave a comment


Welcome back to the CEO blog. Over the past few months we have welcomed new blogs from across RZSS, with a number of colleagues now posting regularly about their fascinating and vital work. We’ve been delighted to bring you updates covering everything from giant armadillos to Scottish wildcats and the latest developments from our WildGenes lab and Wild about Scotland bus. Soon we will be bringing you even more stories from across the Society, including the life of a new trainee keeper at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park and updates from the Living Collections departments. Watch this space!

Last week one of our greater one-horned rhinoceroses, Samir, left RZSS Edinburgh Zoo for Istanbul in Turkey as part of the overarching breeding programme. Whilst it is sad to see him go, the two male rhinos at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo had reached an age where they were sexually mature and, as part of ongoing international efforts to save the species from the threat of extinction, Samir will soon be joined by a female. It is hoped the pair will breed and help further reinforce the safety net population of this threatened species. The move mimics the natural process of rhinos in the wild, with males becoming solitary once they reach breeding age and disperse in order to find a suitable mate. Bertus, the other male rhino, will stay at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo as we continue to work up our plans for the next generation of rhinos at the Zoo.


Photo by Jamie Grant

In other conservation news, Fred Babweteera – Director of the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) in Uganda – and Arnaud Desbiez – the conservation biologist and RZSS’s Regional Conservation and Research Coordinator for Latin America who leads the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project in Brazil – both spent last week at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. We discussed in detail the work of RZSS in these two far flung locations, alongside future developments and plans for these two groundbreaking conservation projects. With so much achieved in 2015 – from Arnaud’s Whitley Award to the 25th Anniversary of BCFS – there is much to look forward to over the coming year.

On 8 December, RZSS’s Conservation Projects Manager Roisin Campbell-Palmer gave a talk at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) Institute of Zoology for their ‘What is the future for beavers in Britain?’ event. The event discussed the topic of whether beavers could be successfully re-established in Britain and what effects they would have on local diversity. Roisin’s talk looked at beaver restoration in England and the importance of founder selection.


This past weekend, an exciting one-off Penguin Festival opened at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. The Festival started on 4 December and will run right through the festive season until 6 January. The main feature of the festival is a large art exhibition by notable German artist Ottmar Hörl. The installation consists of 120 black and white penguin statues, displayed upon the main lawn outside the Mansion House at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo. To launch the festival we hosted a Penguin Festival Lights event on Sunday 6 December, which saw the Zoo stay open later and the penguin art colony and Mansion House brightly illuminated. For details of other daily Penguin Festival activities please visit

And finally, the keepers at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park donned their kilts and traditional Scottish attire last Monday to celebrate St Andrews Day. Despite being surrounded by snow, the team seemed completely unfazed by the cold weather and enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate St Andrew’s Day in style!


“Our inability to think beyond our own species, or to be able to co-habit with other life forms in what is patently a massive collaborative quest for survival, is surely a malady that pervades the human soul.” – Lawrence Anthony



Going Wild about Scotland through October!

November 20, 2015 § Leave a comment


Pupils celebrate their dam-building attempt, while learning about Beaver behaviour.

We’ve had a busy October, welcoming aboard pupils from schools in the Lothians, Fife, Glasgow and Angus to learn about our amazing Scottish Wildlife.

One of the challenges of the project that we face on a regular basis is negotiating the bus around streets designed in the last century for wooden carts and the like. David managed to navigate our nine foot wide double decker successfully into East Linton Primary School grounds and we delivered our popular Beavers and Wildcats lesson to the Primary 4 and Primary 6 classes, much to the delight of the pupils and the teachers.

With it being October half-term across Scotland we decided to park up at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park for the week. This is a great opportunity for us to talk about the project as well as the other work of RZSS. People love hearing about the important conservation and research work that is funded by their visit to our parks as well as hearing about the amazing biodiversity of Scotland and the UK.


RZSS Education officers Jamie and Lindsay with Costi from The European Nature Trust (TENT), who runs a similar project with a bus in Romania.

During this time at the park we manged to fit in a meeting with Alexandra Kennaugh and Costi Ciocoiu from The European Nature Trust (TENT). This is an organisation which is interested in the restoration and preservation of wild habitats in Scotland and Romania, particularly the Scottish Highlands and the Carpathian Mountains. TENT have been running a similar project to ours in Romania called Regatul Salbatic (Wild Kingdom) and this was a perfect opportunity to link up the two buses. Costi travels around Romania teaching children about the importance of the forest and was keen to get an idea of what we deliver for his next bus that they will be launching in the new year.


The Wild Kingdom bus is run by TENT in Romania

Romania contains 50% of Europe’s virgin forest and with illegal logging on the increase animals such as lynx, brown bear and wolf are now under threat. For more information on TENT and their work across the world just head to

See you next month,
Jamie and Lindsay

WaS_Brodie #Brodie knows best

Following our visit from Costi, who runs The Wild Kingdom bus in Romania, Brodie’s been learning all about Romania’s wildlife. Romania still has species that once roamed Scotland but sadly have been hunted to extinction over the last 1000 years. Animals such as lynx, European brown bear and wolves live alongside the local shepherds working in the mountains. Although some of the large predators hunt their livestock there is a respect for the important role these predators play in controlling large destructive herbivores such as deer in an ecosystem like that of the Romanian forest.

Top teacher comments and Tweets

“Fantastic afternoon of activities which thoroughly engaged children in learning. Resources were interesting and children were excited to engage with them. Education officers were well organised and enthusiastic” St John the Baptist School

“Excellent workshop which engaged everyone in the class” East Linton Primary

“Fantastic workshop and great education officers!” Campie Primary School, Musselburgh

What was the best part?

“Using the nets, bug boxes and sheets to let the children see what is living in their own garden. Motivating and something we can do again when doing info handling and graphs next term” Stenton Primary

“The outdoor section- the children were able to explore in small groups, helping their appreciation of the outdoors and wildlife. Children were engaged, motivated and intrigued to learn about what they had collected” St Benedicts Primary.

Next month- November

Next month we continue to spread the word about Scotland’s amazing widlife visiting schools across South Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Moray, West Lothian, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Arnaud’s Blog: Have you seen this armadillo?

November 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

After a frustrating update from the Pantanal in my last blog, I promised some great news regarding the Cerrado expansion. I am really pleased to say that things are going very well and progressing as planned. We were able to run our first model on giant armadillo distribution thanks to the work of Helen Maranhao. Helen is a student we funded to collect all existing locations of giant armadillos in government databases, biodiversity surveys and interviews with organisations and researchers. Over 30 locations were obtained. Predictably the map is incomplete, but it is a great starting point.

24.Gabriel Massocato triaing young future field biologists (Small)

Gabriel meeting young future field biologists.

Through a collaboration with the local federal university, alongside modelling expert Jose Ocha, we have selected 20 watershed areas (selected based on % of native vegetation cover) to run a preliminary test on methodologies. At the moment we have surveyed eight areas and plan to visit 30 before the end of the year.

I am relieved to report that we are finding evidence of giant armadillos in some of these areas. However, finding individuals does not mean viable populations and we still have a lot of work to do to fully assess the situation. The good news is we have had very positive responses from the local communities and we are creating a lot of interest in the species. This work is very much community based and we need to work in close partnership with all stakeholders. Recognising the importance of this, we are launching a citizen science exercise to help us with our work and to promote the species.

Through the help of local media we are calling upon everyone in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul to help us find giant armadillos. We have prepared a poster and pamphlets that describe how to recognise evidence of giant armadillos. Posters will be distributed in key places throughout the state during our visits and the pamphlets distributed to selected partners. Both these documents are being communicated through social networks and press. We recently did our first press interviews and hope to be doing television soon too. This work is aimed at encouraging public interest in this unique species and participation in giant armadillo conservation. I realise this will take time, but I think we have to use as many creative methods as we can to make this happen. I really look forward to reporting on the progress made.

23. Gabriel Massocato triaing young future field biologists  (Small)

Gabriel demonstrating field techniques to student biologists.

Giant armadillo conservation does not only happen in the field. Gabriel gave an intensive course to students on field techniques recently in an attempt to get the younger generation to let go of their cell-phones and tablets! Capacity-building is a big part of our work and we need to get biologists interested in field work and conservation (harder said than done!). We are pleased that after several meetings, the Pantanal Cerrado of WWF Brasil will be using the results of our work to help establish protected areas for giant armadillos!

A few weeks ago I presented our project and all the educational materials to the education board of the municipality of Campo Grande. I am hoping that in 2016 we can launch an outreach campaign in the 100 schools in and around Campo Grande on armadillos. If that is successful I will extend this work to the whole State! These partnerships and initiatives involve a lot of meetings and discussions but we are making solid progress.

Last but not least, I recently had the honour of being invited to attend the 8th Conference of Brazilian Mammalogy, where the organisers put on a special symposium for Xenarthra. I gave a presentation on armadillo conservation: where we are now and what we want to achieve. The idea was to try to get researchers working on armadillos to work more closely together.

None of this work would be possible without the long term support from RZSS and we are very grateful. Thank you so much for supporting our work.

All the best from Brazil,


Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 10.43.46

Projrect Poster – How to recognize giant armadillo evidence

Highland Wildlife Blog – When should you pull a tiger’s tail?

November 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

Taking your dog to the vet or putting your horse in a trailer usually involves leashes, halters and a few calm but firm words. Trying to carry out similarly routine procedures with zoo animals is seldom so straightforward and at best involves a very different process.


The keepers at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park have a very positive relationship with many of their animal charges and a range of routine husbandry needs can be managed with the cooperation of the animals concerned. At a basic level, visitors are often strangely surprised when they learn that many animals will respond to being called by their keepers to be transferred into an adjacent area to allow cleaning or enclosure maintenance. The Park’s large carnivore keepers have trained these potentially very dangerous creatures to present themselves at the enclosure barrier for some simple daily health checks. They will, when asked, present a paw or their belly, or hold their mouth open for closer inspection, which is rewarded with some small pieces of meat for the tigers or a range of unusual morsels for the polar bears, like tomatoes or cheese. They, along with the camels, have been trained to walk onto scales so that we can more accurately monitor their weight, which is crucial when it comes to calculating how much medication they might need when sick. This positive reinforcement training is also an interesting and enjoyable experience for the animals concerned as many seem to welcome the interaction with humans that they know, as well as the treats.

Dougs_Blog_WatervoleZoo keepers, being a resourceful bunch, will often find uses for items that the manufacturers did not intend. When you need to catch and move a water vole, a small rodent that thinks it is a bear, the tube that a certain salty snack comes in is the ideal restraint and short transport device as they will happily walk in of their own accord.

For more invasive procedures, like a dental check, the animals need to be anaesthetised for their own and our safety. There are a range of drugs that have proven to be as safe as possible for the animals and staff around them. Sometimes hand injected, sometimes delivered using a dart gun, it takes between 10 and 20 minutes for the animal to go down; it is not virtually instantaneous, as often depicted in films. When the drugs appear to have taken effect upon a tiger, one very gently taps on the ears and eyelids with a long pole. If there are any twitches or blinking, you wait a bit longer. When a new drug combination came along it was discovered that the usual gentle tapping was not enough. You could touch the ears and eyes and get no reaction and the animal would appear to be safe, but if you pulled the tail and the drug had not quite taken effect, the cat could jump up and start moving around, which is a touch disconcerting, so always give the tail a couple of tugs before going all the way in!

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald