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 edinburghzoo.org.uk/events/2015/12/penguin-festival/

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



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

RZSS Cat Conservation Blog

October 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Normally I would start the blog by introducing you to yet another Pallas’s cat project that we support in the field. However, it has become clear that since I started writing these blogs the support, interest and commitment (from both the RZSS and our supporters) to cat conservation and research projects has grown, and for these reasons I will take a lot of pleasure in updating you on all our cat projects through this re-titled cat conservation blog.

Pallas's cat kitten Mongolia 2015 by B.Munkhtsog

Pallas’s cat kitten Mongolia 2015 by B.Munkhtsog

With the momentum of our cat projects growing all the time, it has been a busy time for me both at home and abroad. Since last month we have sent further financial support to Bariushaa Munkhtsog, a Mongolian researcher who is conducting research into productivity and trends with Pallas’s cats in Central Mongolia. Not only has Bariushaa and his team spent years monitoring wild snow leopards, he is also one of the few researchers to be currently monitoring breeding female Pallas’s cats, which is providing an amazing insight into their behaviour and movements pre- and post-dispersal.

Another great achievement for RZSS was the signing of a new three year partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust and Nordens Ark Zoo in Sweden. This took place during a three-day visit to Nordens Ark where myself, Chris West (CEO) and Sarah Robinson (Head of Conservation Programmes and Science) spent time with staff from both organisations exploring the possibilities of this new joint venture. This has already opened new doors for our cat conservation and research projects and it will be amazing to see how this develops.

Snow leopard and pallas cat partnership, Nordens Ark Zoo, Sweden

Snow leopard and pallas cat partnership, Nordens Ark Zoo, Sweden

After several productive meetings with Scottish land managers and estates discussing how we can work together to secure the future of Scottish wildcats, I attended a week long European Association for Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) conference in Wroclaw, Poland. This gave me the opportunity to deliver presentations on our work with Scottish Wildcat Action, Pallas’s cats and snow leopards.

EAZA Conference ice-breaker, Wroclaw, Poland

EAZA Conference ice-breaker, Wroclaw, Poland

One of the great things about this job is not only having the chance to work with some amazing species, but having the chance to work with so many diverse people and organisations that share the same passion that I do. I am fortunate to be supported by both my own organisation and many other international colleagues and it is this support that drives my enthusiasm for conserving cat species across the globe. There are many exciting projects and events that I will be sharing with you over the coming year so stay tuned and I look forward to introducing you to more of the work that we do.

All the best until then,


David Barclay
RZSS Cat Conservation Project Officer

Chief Executive’s Blog

August 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

I am pleased to announce that we have recently received a pair of endangered snow leopards at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, who went on show last week.

The male, Chan, is from Krefeld Zoo in Germany, whilst the female, Animesh, arrived from Marwell Zoo in England. We hope that the pair will have cubs to help increase the worldwide population of these rare cats. They are currently settling into their new home, which is built around a rocky cliff face on a hill in the centre of the Park. As snow leopards prefer to inhabit high mountainous terrain in the wild, their new enclosure is ideally suited to them. The female is still keeping a rather low profile as she gets used to her new environment, but will hopefully soon start wandering out of her pen more regularly.

Snow leopards by Alex Riddell (Male, Chan; Female, Animesh; (L-R))

Snow leopards by Alex Riddell (Male, Chan; Female, Animesh; (L-R))

In light of the arrival of the two snow leopards, RZSS has also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Snow Leopard Trust and Norden’s Ark in Sweden, which will see a three year joint partnership with the three organisations. The partnership will focus on Pallas’s cat and snow leopard field research in order to aid future conservation efforts of the species, as well as to act as an educational tool.

In other news from RZSS Highland Wildlife Park, the Park has also welcomed the birth of three Scottish wildcat kittens. Born at the end of April, the kittens have recently started to wander out of their den. The birth of the kittens is great news in terms of conservation, as this critically endangered native species is facing the very real threat of extinction. Our organisation, along with more than 20 other organisations, is involved in the Scottish Wildcat Action, which is a partnership project –supported by the Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund – which represents the best chance the wildcat has of surviving in the wild. The project consists of a Priority Areas Team which is currently working to reduce the threats wildcats face in the wild, whilst RZSS has undertaken a new conservation breeding programme to help build up the population of this species.

15_07_22_ScottishWildcat_kittensAnd in further good news related to big cats, we have received a donation of over £3,000 from Nashville Zoo, in Tennessee, to support our field work support projects for Pallas’s cats. RZSS holds and coordinates the European breeding programme (EEP), as well as the international studbook (ISB) for the Pallas’s cat. Little is known of this Near Threatened species, which is why we have undertaken in-situ field work support in Iran, Nepal, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The project will increase our understanding of this species, thereby allowing better targeted conservation efforts to save this species from extinction.

Socorro dove chick

Socorro dove chick

Meanwhile, at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, an incredibly rare Socorro dove has hatched. This species has been extinct in the wild since the early 1970’s and it is believed that there are less than 100 pure bred Socorro doves left in the world. RZSS has successfully been breeding this rare bird since 2005 and, along with Paignton Zoo, has sent over 12 doves to Albuquerque Zoo in Mexico to form a satellite breeding group in the hope that the offspring of these birds will be reintroduced to their native habitat on the island of Socorro, Mexico, in the near future. The last Socorro dove to hatch at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo was in 2010, so I am glad to hear of the recent hatchling and I hope that it will be able to return to its native habitat in Mexico.

“Nature is an infinite sphere of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Blaise Pascal

Chief Executive’s Blog

June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment


It seems as if summer has finally arrived with some glorious sunny weather.

Baby Alex - Giant Armadillo Project, Brazilian Pantanal

Baby Alex – Giant Armadillo Project, Brazilian Pantanal

Over in still warmer climes, our Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team out in the Brazilian Pantanal has been very busy over the past two months and has made great progress. The team has undertaken two expeditions recently: the first was a short one week expedition, led by the team’s Project Biologist, Gabriel Massocato. The objective of the expedition was to locate the armadillos they had been tracking as the group had not been in the field for a month due to heavy rains. The team managed to find Alex, the young giant armadillo, within a few hours and were rather surprised to find that he is still in his mother’s territory. Alex will turn two on 2 July. The researchers also managed to track down Alex’s mother, Isabelle who, according to close inspections of her burrows and the camera traps, has not yet had another baby. They are monitoring Isabelle closely to find out if she is pregnant and when she will have her next baby, as this information is crucial for our understanding of giant armadillo reproduction and population growth rates.

The second expedition in the Pantanal is one I have mentioned in a previous blog post, but the results were particularly interesting. In May, the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project team advanced their reproduction study, with the help of veterinarian and reproduction specialist Camila Luba. An examination of Alex showed that he has not yet reached sexual maturity, which is a very interesting finding indeed, as it gives valuable information about the reproduction of giant armadillos and how long it takes them to reach sexual maturity. The team is also still searching for traces of giant armadillos in the Sao Paulo state, where giant armadillos are thought to have gone extinct over 40 years ago. The scientists are currently working hard to expand the project and have just hired a student for a few months as well as a biologist.

Meanwhile, at our WildGenes lab located at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, Conservation Geneticist Dr Gill Murray-Dickson is busy preparing a genetic tool poster for identifying the geographic origin of snake skins in commercial trade. The DNA tests are being developed to provide evidence of origin to regulatory bodies that investigate illegal trade. This will allow authorities to determine whether the snake skins used in commercially sold items were illegally poached. The poster will be presented at an ITC (International Trade Centre) and DICE (Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology) symposium in Canterbury this month.

RZSS recognised with seven awards at this years BIAZA Awards.

RZSS recognised with seven awards at this years BIAZA Awards.

BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) held its annual award ceremony this week at Woburn Safari Park. The event, also known as the Zoo Oscars, is held to celebrate some of the contributions made by the zoo community to animal welfare, wildlife conservation, public understanding and horticulture. I am very pleased to announce that the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland walked away with a fair number of awards. In the Animal Breeding, Care and Welfare category, RZSS received three silver awards for the hand rearing of Darwin’s rhea chicks, the successful rearing of a chimpanzee by a previously unsuccessful mother and captive husbandry for European elk/moose. In the Conservation category we were awarded silver for our work on the Scottish Beaver Trial. In the Education category we were awarded two Bronze awards for our Scottish Beaver Trial and Beyond the Panda education programmes. And finally, we received a Bronze in the PR, Marketing, Digital and Events section for ‘Inspire, Engage and Enrich: a new digital presence for Scotland’s iconic Zoo’.

Giant pelican walk-through at Edinburgh Zoo

Giant pelican walk-through at Edinburgh Zoo

And in other news, our new pelican walkthrough exhibit at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo will be opening on Monday 15 June. The building and gardens teams have been hard at work over the last few months to get the walkthrough ready and I must say it looks fantastic. As of Monday, visitors will be able to walk through the pelican enclosure, getting up close to the pelicans with unrestricted views. The walkthrough is full of beautiful plantings and willow trees that are around 100 years old, as well as a number of ponds and cascading waterfalls. We have another special walkthrough exhibit opening soon, but I will tell you more about that closer to the time.

“The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.”- Nancy Newhal

Chief Executive’s Blog

May 8, 2015 § Leave a comment


The first of our gentoo penguin chicks hatched this week at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo and the rest of the eggs will continue to hatch over the next two to three weeks. The gentoos have laid around 40 eggs, so we are hoping for quite a few chicks this year. I look forward to seeing all the young penguins as they start leaving their nests and exploring their surroundings.

We have also had a few births at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park over the last couple weeks, as well as some new arrivals. The first new-borns at the Park this year were a Japanese macaque baby and a Mishmi takin calf, followed by a Przewalksi’s wild horse foal and a European bison calf. The young are all doing well.

The Mishmi takin calf has recently been named Snow, in-keeping with the Game of Thrones theme the keepers seem to have become so fond of recently! Last year the series characters Arya and Khaleeshi got their animal doppelgängers at the Park. We have also recently received a young male Mishmi takin from berlin, which will join the breeding herd. The Mishmi takin are a stocky goat antelope, normally found from the Chinese province of Yunnan in the eastern Himalayas to Bhutan and northern Myanmar, and are listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red list.

Last week RZSS research scientist Helen Senn attended the 15th Annual Sahelo-Saharan Interest Group Meeting in Abu Dhabi. This is a meeting of scientific, conservation and government agencies working in the Sahel and Saharan region. She presented her work on scimitar-horned oryx genomics. Highly detailed genetic data like this is hopefully going to improve the management of this species both in captivity and when it is re-introduced to the wild. She also presented her and the teams work on sand cats, a project that aims to try and find out what the genetic basis for the sub-species of the sand cat is.

Dr Helen Senn presenting at the 15th Annual Sahelo-Saharan Interest Group Meeting in Abu Dhabi

Dr Helen Senn presenting at the 15th Annual Sahelo-Saharan Interest Group Meeting in Abu Dhabi

Our RZSS conservation geneticist, Dr Gill Murray-Dickson, was in Battleby last week to present a talk about the use of environmental DNA for detection of species presence or absence. eDNA is genetic material derived directly from environmental samples (such as a loch water), without the source of the DNA actually being present. The meeting was organised by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to discuss research the use of eDNA as a tool for aquatic surveillance, and other potential applications, with researchers and relevant stakeholders

And finally, after all the excitement surrounding our Latin America coordinator Dr Arnaud Desbiez’s Whitley Award win for his work on the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project; the giant armadillo team is back to work and leaving for the Pantanal on Thursday. Although it is the end of the wet season, the floods have not been too severe and they don’t expect any problems reaching the field site.

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.

Aldo Leopold

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