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!