Posts Tagged ‘Amy Phelps’

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 6, Savannah Module

by | April 2nd, 2012

Franette Armstrong is taking us along on her adventures in Zoo Ambassador Training.


Bellowing Bison, rooting Warthogs, leaping Elands, calloused Camels, bugling Elk and zigzagging Zebras. The last two ZAM classes have been all about our handsome hoofstock.

Today, we visited the African Savannah area of the Zoo where experienced docents taught us how to use biofacts to teach visitors about the animals there. Biofacts are real or replicated materials like skulls, antlers, and teeth which are used for educating and amazing.

There’s so much to know about all of these critters, I can’t possibly cover everything we learned, so here are some common beliefs. Are they myths or are they facts?

Docent Ann Ditlefsen is Master of Biofacts here in the Zoo, making sure we have teaching aids for every animal.



Myth? We don’t know if Zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes.

If you follow the rule for determining the color of a horse, their muzzles, ear tips, and above their hooves are black. So we figure Zebras are black with white stripes.

Our Zebra's black muzzle is a dead giveaway to his true colors. Photo credit Steve Goodall











What we don’t know is why Zebras are striped, but one theory is that when they run in herds they create a zigzagging mass of light and dark so it’s hard for predators to tell where one begins and the other ends. This is called the Dazzle Effect. Stripes also might be camouflage and they might help regulate the Zebra’s temperature because black absorbs heat and white reflects it.


Our Dromedary Camels store fat in their hump and have calloused pads for kneeling on hot desert sand. Photo credit Steve Goodall

Myth? Camels store water in their humps.

Their humps store fat which helps insulate them from heat and is later metabolized for energy and water. The desert plants they nibble give them nearly all the water they need but when they come to an oasis they can drink and hold an astonishing 40-60 gallons of water at one time. They can also drink salty water…something else that most mammals can’t do.


Myth? Camel skin doesn’t burn.

What lets Camels kneel down on blazing-hot sand? It’s not fireproof skin, it’s thick callous pads on their knees, ankles and chests. Their dense shaggy fur also helps insulate them from burning.


Myth? Warthogs have warts.

Nope. Those facial bumps are made out of hard connective tissue and are not fungal or contagious like real warts. They serve to protect the animal’s mouth and eyes from the tusks of their fellow Warthogs and predators.

Emma, the Grande Dame of our Warthogs, meets Simon, the interloper. Photo credit Lorraine Peters



Myth? Tusks and horns are basically the same.

No, again. Tusks are extra-long teeth that extend from a Warthog’s, Elephant’s or Walrus’s mouth. Horns are keratin (protein) covers over bones on the top of the head.…such as we find on Bison, Elands, and Goats.

Docent Paul Ferreira shows us the intricacies of a Warthog skull. Warthogs have tusks that actually are extended upper and lower canine teeth. The uppers are sharper and used for fighting. The lowers are used for digging.



Myth? Horns and antlers are basically the same.

Confusing headgear: Horns are permanent and irreplaceable, though they will grow longer every year. Antlers, such as those on our Tule Elk, get knocked off once a year and grow back even larger the next year. The “velvet” coating is like skin that nourishes the boney antler until it gets to full size, then the antler falls off.

Our gorgeous Tule Elk sport antlers that get larger year even though they are shed every year. Photo credit Alameda Creek Alliance





Giraffes and their nearest living relative, Okapis, are born with their horns, called ossicones, lying flat on their heads but they rapidly fuse to the baby’s skull, harden into bone and lengthen. You often can tell the male Giraffes from females because the gals have hair on top of their ossicones, which are purely decorative. Since the guys wear the hair off their ossicones during sparring, their horns are usually bald.


Baby Maggie and Mom both have ossicones...the Giraffe version of horns. Here, Maggie's are just beginning to straighten up.







Animals like our Elands and Giraffes enjoy friendly sparring with their own species using their horns to press the other guy’s head away in what zoologists call “displacement” maneuvers. Something you’ll see in our veldt that you won’t see in nature is one of our Giraffes doing this sparring with one of our Elands. According to Amy Phelps, their Keeper, these two just enjoy playing together. It is quite a heartstopper to see this enormous Giraffe swinging his head and neck straight down towards incredibly sharp horns, yet time after time they connect just right so that neither gets hurt.


Eland horns grow constantly and are used for the athletic sparring ours are doing here, as well as serious battle. Photo credit Steve Goodall

















Myth? Giraffes are afraid of water.

Depends on where they are. In our Zoo and others, Giraffes will stroll through a pond to get to food and even seem to enjoy cooling off in the water.

In nature, though, they never go wading, which is good because their narrow hooves and legs would probably sink into the muddy bottom. Their aversion to water might have another source: The most dangerous time for a Giraffe is when it’s drinking at a waterhole, because it has to widely spread its legs to get down to water level. Lions and crocodiles know this and hang out near water to ambush them.

Maggie shows us why Giraffes are vulnerable when their head is near the ground. Photo credit Steve Goodall


We learned all of this and so much more. Come on out to the Zoo and spend some quality time with these uniquely beautiful animals.


Next week: Elephants!








Stepping Through ZAM: Day Five, Savannah Module

by | March 22nd, 2012

Franette Armstrong is taking us on her journey through Zoo Ambassador Training.


Ruminating on ruminants…that was a large part of tonight’s lecture, and this was timely because our baby Giraffe, Maggie, will be introduced to the world tomorrow. Tonight we get the inside story.

Maggie stepped right out to meet the media. What a star! Photo credit Steve Goodall







Giraffes are hoofstock, a category that also includes our  Zebra, Camels, Elands, Warthogs, Elk and Bison all of which are Ungulates (literally translated as “hoofed animals”) and some of which are Ruminants. Amy Phelps. their Keeper, came to class to explain.


Amy Phelps, Primary Keeper and passionate advocate for hoofstock.


What is a hoof? Surprisingly, it is like a shoe that fits over the animals’ toe bones. Think of it as a ballerina’s toe shoe. Hoofed animals actually walk on the tips of their toes, but we don’t see that because of their hooves.

Hooves are made of the same material as horns—keratin—which is a fibrous protein also found in our hair and nails. It’s pretty tough, but no match for rocky trails and paved roads, so that’s why Horses get horseshoes: the extra soles help their built-in shoes wear better.

Animals with hooves are divided into two categories: those with an odd number of toes (Zebras, Horses, Rhinos and Tapirs) and those with an even number (everyone else including Goats and Sheep).

Camels are two-toed Ungulates like Giraffes, Elands and Goats. Photo credit Steve Goodall



Even-toed hoofstock feast on branches and leaves and ruminate— chew their cud. That’s why we call cows, goats, camels, giraffes and others like them ruminants.

Horses and Zebra are one-toed ungulates. They are not ruminants.

What is a cud? It’s basically undigested food that keeps coming up for more chewing until it can finally be digested and go the way of most food. Since we don’t eat such fibrous food, we don’t have a cud to chew, though if we started eating branches, we’d wish we did!

This cud-chewing process has another advantage: it lets herd animals eat a lot of food when they’re on the run and then digest it later when they have time to stand around and rechew it. It also squeezes out every single drop of water in the food. Judging by their contented look when they are doing this, I’d say its about as pleasureable for them as gum-chewing is to some humans.



Giraffic Park

Our 8-Giraffe herd is here for life and they greatly enjoy every new birth that adds to their number. Our little Maggie will eventually go to another AZA-accredited Zoo so she can carry on her very rare Reticulated Giraffe genes. If she stayed here, there would be a danger of inbreeding which is very bad for all species. We will love getting to know her while we have her.

On our African Savannah we boast the largest (Elephants) and tallest (Girafffes) mammals on earth. Our largest male Giraffe touches the treetops at nearly 20 feet. Females get to about 14 feet tall and give birth standing up, so when Maggie made her entrance, she had to drop nearly six feet to the ground— it sounds harsh but the jolt triggers the baby to start breathing. She picked herself right up and staggered around to find her mom and breakfast.

Baby Giraffes have no choice but to quickly join the herd, which in nature is usually on the move. They surround their little ones to keep them safe. Photo credit Steve Goodall

Hoofed animals are independent from the get-go so if the herd has to move, they can too. We saw how her dad and mom both kept her from lying down too long at any one time. They’d nudge her, and the dad would even kick her, to get her back on her feet. Staying awake is a survival skill on the Veldt and Giraffes rarely sleep more than a few minutes at a time. When it’s time to rest and sleep, they will like down, though.

Despite their very long necks, Giraffes have the same number of cervical (neck) vertebra that we do: seven. The difference is theirs are ball-and-socket joints so they can swivel their necks nearly in a circle. Don’t try this at home! Male Giraffes spar with each other by slamming their necks and heads together…one more thing to avoid at home.

Valves in their necks keep blood from rushing to their heads when they make the long trip from tree top to grass. Without these, Giraffes would surely faint everytime they bent over.

With their long necks, Giraffes can see for a mile or more and act as lookouts for everyone around them. Since the males are taller, they eat the top branches of trees and the females eat the middle tier. The shorter Antelope, Elands and other hoofstock get the lower branches and shrubs. It’s all organized by height so everyone gets fed.

Giraffe heads are topped with horns, called ossicones that start out as soft cartilage flattened to their heads and then over the first few weeks gradually “pop up” and harden into bone. Males use these as part of their sparring and fighting, so usually the tops are bald from wear and it’s one way you can tell the guys from the gals on our veldt.

Maggie's mom is never far from her side these days. Giraffes don't have upper teeth...just a bony ridge. Photo credit Steve Goodall

Prehensile tongues come in handy for grabbing those branches and they even eat thorns. Their tongues can be 20inches long, so they find their way into birds nests, too.

When Maggie was first let into our Veldt enclosure, Amy kept back the Elands who share that space, because she was worried they might accidentally hurt our little gal with their long horns. A couple of days of cautious introduction went by and before you knew it, Maggie was chasing them, trying to play with them and leaving no doubt that Giraffes rule the hoofstock on the veldt.

Sadly, African Lions prefer to dine on large male Giraffes more than just about anything, so Giraffes are prey for them, particularly when they are drinking at watering holes.  And their land is being broken up into cattle ranches leaving them less room to roam: even a small Giraffe herd needs about 45 acres for feeding.

To add to Giraffic Woes, there seems to be a market for Giraffe fur to make little tourist bracelets, so add poaching to their problems and you see why the Giraffe population is rapidly dwindling.

Giraffes normally fear water, perhaps because they have to do the splits to get a drink, as Maggie is practicing here. Photo credit Steve Goodall


Putting Poachers Out of Business

Next time you go to Africa, please do not buy a Giraffe-hair bracelet—or anything else made from the bodies of wild animals. Did I say Africa? I meant anywhere! Instead, help the locals by buying crafts that don’t rely on killing animals.


Amy’s lecture on of the rest of our African plains animals was equally fascinating but would take too much time to tell you about tonight and I still have my homework to do. We’re going to visit all of them on Saturday, so I’ll fill you in then.