Tag Archive: fish

What’s going on?

Dear Backyard Zoologist readers,

You’ve probably noticed a huge drop off in posts recently and I wanted to let you know what’s going on. In all honesty, I began this blog over a year ago because I enjoy sharing information and pictures of awesome wildlife. I still do, but at the moment I have a lot of cool but time consuming things going on and creating these posts on a regular schedule is starting to become more of a chore than something I do for fun. So, I’ve decided to only write new posts when the spirit moves me instead of on a regular schedule, to eliminate the dreaded deadline of Monday and Friday. Still, I hope you’ll check in periodically to see what’s new or better yet, sign up for e-mail notifications to let you know when I do post something new.

I still have lots to share…for example, did you know that this animal:


A giant green Anemone. Image taken at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve tidepools in California.

is used as a vertebrate heart stimulant? Or that this animal:


A 9 banded armadillo. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

always gives birth to identical quadruplets? And naturally grows the bacteria responsible for leprosy on its feet? Scientists couldn’t cultivate this bacteria in a lab, so they brought in live armadillos to collect the bacteria to work with.

Or that this animal:

tree shrew

A tree shrew. Image taken at the Oregon Zoo.

Is very smart and has a larger brain size to body mass than humans do?

Or that this animal:


California kingsnake, Kali, my personal companion.

Is called a kingsnake because it eats other snakes, including rattlesnakes and is immune to rattlesnake venom?

Or that these animals:

rock doves

Rock doves, a.k.a. pigeons. Image taken in San Francisco.

are one of the few birds that feed their young a type of milk?

Or that this animal:

marine toad

A marine toad. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

is one of the only toads that will sometimes eat vegetation and dead things? While other frogs and toads want to eat only moving things, this toad is even attracted by dog and cat food left in yards.

Or that this animal:


A lionfish. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

is covered in highly venomous barbs and that dolphins will sometimes grab these fish by their tummies and use them as weapons to catch fish hiding in crevices?


Eels of the Ribbon Sort

ribbon eel

A ribbon eel, also called a ribbon moray. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

This interesting looking fish is a ribbon eel. Those big membranes on its face are its nostrils, which also act as a lure to attract prey to their sharp-toothed jaws. When it snaps its jaw shut, it recoils into its burrow. They will also use their burrows to hide when they are threatened. I can tell that this is a juvenile or a small adult male because of its coloration. Adult males will have a yellow snout and females are yellow, with a little white and black on their fins. Females are comparatively rare and not seen often. None of these fish are born females-all of them are born as males. This is another sex changing fish that changes from male to female.

ribbon eel

A ribbon eel. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

bull shark

A bull shark. Image taken by Albert kok.

The flood in Australia has caused wildlife to move about quite a bit. Several people have reported seeing bull sharks, passing by McDonald’s and the butcher shop on its way down what was formerly a busy street, but became a street covered in 26 feet of water.

This is not really surprising. Well maybe a little. But bull sharks live in really shallow, coastal parts of the ocean and frequently head up river into fresh water. They’re one of the few sharks that have no trouble living in fresh water for quite a while. They’ve been reported as far as 2,220 miles up the Amazon river and 1,800 miles up the Mississippi! Because they live in such shallow water and in rivers, streams and estuaries, they come into contact with people often. They are commonly thought of as being one of the top 3 most aggressive shark species. Given their size and proximity to humans, I suppose it makes sense. The other two are the great white shark and the tiger shark and they don’t come across people as much. And of course I feel obligated to point out that you are more likely to be killed by cows (yes cows) or by being struck by lightning than you are likely to be killed by a shark.

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Flashlight fish

This is what it looks like when you take a picture of a flashlight fish without using your flash. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

This little stripe of light you’re looking at is coming from a flashlight fish-a small, nocturnal fish that lives in warm oceans, along steep drop offs and caves. They’re usually only spotted by humans in the shallows on moonless nights. So, what causes that beautiful glow? And how does the fish use it?

The light is coming from what’s called a photophore, which is an organ located under their eyes:

flashlight fish

A flashlight fish specimen. The arrow is pointing to the photophore, an organ just below their eyes. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

This organ contains a bio-luminescent bacteria, which casts a greenish glow that can be seen as far away as 100 feet. Some flashlight fish have a photophore cover that can be raised and lowered to expose or hide their special lights. Other flashlight fish can rotate their photophore back into their head to hide their lights. This flashlight fish has a cover:

flashlight fish

A flashlight fish specimen, partially covering its photophore. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

This gives the fish the appearance of blinking and the photophores seem like eerie, glowing eyes.

At any rate, this special bacteria sack brings a lot of special advantages to the fish. For instance, small prey, such as plankton, small fish, crabs and shrimp, are attracted to the green glow and the light helps the fish see to catch them. They also use their glow to communicate. These fish will normally “blink” 2-3 times per minute, but when they are in danger, they’ll blink up to 75 times per minute. If there is an intruder in a couple’s territory, the larger females will “turn off” their light, get close to the intruder and then turn their light back on, which is meant to scare them. They’ll also use their light to confuse a potential predator. They will “flash and run,” exposing their photophore and then darting in a zigzag motion. Apparently this works pretty well, because these fish are very rarely found in the stomach contents of larger fish.

Of course, this doesn’t stop humans from catching them. Some fishers will catch these fish and then remove their photophore to use as a fishing lure.

dead blackbird

A dead blackbird, one of about 3,000 found in Arkansas in a mass bird kill. Image by Stephen B. Thorton.

The seemingly random death of wildlife across the world has captured the attention and imagination of people everywhere. It started with the death of 3,000 black birds in Arkansas . That same day, between 80,000 and 100,000 fish were found dead about 125 miles away from the birds. Many of these fish were missing their eyes. Is that a clue?


dead fish

Dead fish found missing their eyes. Image by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

A few days later, fishermen in Brazil happened upon this:


fish kill, Brazil

Fish kill in Brazil. Image from Parana Online.

Over 100 tons of fish showed up dead off the coast of Parana, including sardine, croaker and catfish.

Still, more reports came, from Chesapeake Bay:

chesapeak bay fish kill

A Chesapeake Bay fish kill. Image from the Maryland Deptartment of the Environment.

Two million dead fish, spot and croakers, were found in Maryland. Officials wonder, is it the record cold temperatures?

What if we fly over to New Zealand?

fish kill New Zealand

A New Zealand fish kill. Image by Geoff Dale.

Hundreds of dead snapper found at Little Bay and Waikawau Bay, again many with their eyes missing.

Tired of seeing dead fish? Well, then let’s check out the mass death in England:


crab death

England's crab death. Image from the Thanet Coast Project.

40,000 dead crabs have washed up near Kent, England.

More bird deaths followed, including hundreds of dead doves with a “mysterious blue stain in their beaks” and 50 or so dead birds were found in Sweden. 150 tons of tilapia washed up in Vietnam. So, what’s going on? And don’t tell me about fireworks. Seriously.

Well, mass die offs of animals have been happening for a long time. The U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center has been tracking them since the 1970’s. 95 mass wildlife deaths have occurred in the last 8 months and there is an average of 163 events reported every year. Often they are the result of disease, parasitism or pollution. Sometimes no one knows. The past 8 months included 900 turkey vultures in the Florida Keys, 4,300 ducks in Minnesota, 1,500 salamanders, 2,000 bats and 2,750 sea birds in California. The current ones that have gotten so much attention aren’t even the biggest ones. in 1996, 100,000 ducks died in Canada. The causes of many of these deaths have been figured out. In fact, the crab kill in England has now happened 3 years in a row.

What’s changed this time is that our new awesome social media outlets, such as twitter, facebook and (ahem) blogs have allowed for people to learn about all of these events and for them to be seen on a global scale. And maybe the first one happened on a really slow news day. So this has finally grabbed people’s attention and people are trying to make sense of this phenomenon, which many are hearing about for the first time.

Some examples of the mass kills I’ve come across before include several cited by Rachael Carson in her book “Silent Spring,” which studies showed were related to pesticide use; in Ron Fridell’s book “Amphibians in Danger: A World Wide Warning,” the author describes how the amphibian decline I’ve been talking so much about first became recognized when a young herpetologist found a mass kill of frogs; and in the book “And the Waters Turned to Blood” by Rodney Barker, the author talks about how fish kills occurred with regularity in North Carolina. Disturbingly, these fish kills were linked to a dinoflagellate that released a toxin that caused serious problems in humans, including memory loss and disorientation.

So mass animal deaths have been occurring for decades, but that doesn’t mean that they are all together a natural phenomenon or that people shouldn’t take an interest. These examples I’ve mentioned led to the discontinuation of the worst pesticides as well as stricter studies on new pesticides being produced, the discovery of the UV radiation effects on frogs and the chytrid fungus and an advisory for fishermen to avoid working when there has been recent fish kills in North Carolina. It simply means that the “end of the world” hysteria is perhaps a bit exaggerated.

Want to know about some of the strangest mass deaths every to occur? Check this out. Seriously, follow that link because it is awesomeness.

Green mantella

The green mantella. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Once again, this is a post that is highlighting animals that are listed as endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN red list. You can find part one of this group here. In the first part, I wrote about the purpose of these posts and I’d like to reiterate that:

“This post was not meant to be so sad, but to be a chance to learn more about animal species that aren’t doing so well and to see and appreciate them while we still can. There have been many species that were endangered, but thanks to strong conservation efforts, are surviving or even thriving again (buffalo, bald eagles, brown pelicans, American alligators, peregrine falcons, Canada geese, gray wolves, gray whales-to name a few). In fact, these species are the face of conservation and can really bring about the best in people. We just have to continue to fight.”

Now to begin with the first endangered animal, pictured above. The green mantella is a small frog found mostly in northern Madagascar. Although they are very similar to poison dart frogs, in that they have toxic skin and are brightly colored, they are not closely related. Like much of the wildlife on this island, this frog is IUCN red listed as endangered mostly due to habitat loss, but also because of international trade from before the 90s, when they became protected. Although there are many problems facing wildlife in Madagascar, amphibians in general are facing major declines across the globe, not just on this one isolated island. To find out more about how and why we can and should stop amphibian decline, please check out save the frogs. If you’ve been following this blog for a while now, you have seen this name many times already. Save the Frogs has been working to tackle the amphibian decline problem from many fronts-by education, research, legislation and market pressure. They have accomplished a lot with relatively little. Their site has tons of helpful information on what you can do to save the frogs.

Visayan warty pigs

Visayan warty pigs, a critically endangered species. Image taken at the Oregon Zoo.

These sweet pigs are found only on a few islands in the Philippines. They are listed as critically endangered because their numbers are dropping rapidly due to habitat loss, hunting and interbreeding with domestic pigs. The few zoos that are housing these pigs are participating in an emergency breeding program to save these pigs from extinction. The Oregon Zoo’s website has some wonderful pictures of these pigs, including a male that has its breeding mane, which is a giant spiky poof of hair and quite an amusing sight, and it has a video of 3 unbearably adorable piglets born at the zoo as well as more information on the tragically named warty pigs.


A coelacanth specimen. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

The coelacanth is an interesting fish. It’s thought to have existed over 400 million years ago and was believed to have gone extinct 70 million years ago, since all we’d ever found was fossils. But, in 1938, a fisherman hooked one. Now more have been discovered. We still have a lot to learn about this critically endangered fish and scientists are eager to find out the secrets to its survival.

Sea otter

This sea otter is one of many from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter research and conservation program.

Sea otters have been facing all sorts of problems, both natural and human caused. Natural problems include predation and disease (although human pollution may also be partly responsible if it hinders their immune systems.) Of the current human caused problems, the worst is oil spills, which is particularly bad for them because unlike most marine mammals, otters don’t have a thick layer of blubber for insulation, but incredibly dense fur, which doesn’t work when it’s covered in oil. Being captured in nets and being hit by boats also pose problems. Still, there have been many protection efforts in place, including international agreements. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter and conservation program is just one example of these efforts. They raise and release stranded pups, treat and release injured otters, take care of otters that can’t return to the wild and conduct scientific research. (You can support this program here.) Otters are major predators of marine invertebrates and one of the problems we’ve seen because of their decline is an increase in sea urchins. Since sea urchins eat the holdfasts of kelp (the part that keeps them anchored down), they are tearing through kelp forests, which is also a hiding place and food source for a lot of other wildlife.

radiated tortoise

A young boy watches a critically endangered radiated tortoise. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Radiated tortoises are critically endangered tortoises from Madagascar. This picture, with the little boy watching the tortoise moving about its exhibit, stood out to me when I read about the projections for this species. Without additional protection, these tortoises will become extinct in the little boy’s lifetime. In fact, at the current rate of decline, they’ll probably be extinct by the time he has grandchildren. Destruction of habitat is one of the problems facing this tortoise. So is collection, both for the pet trade and for their livers (why livers? I don’t know). But one of the biggest problems is from local people using the tortoises, mostly for food. This hasn’t been a problem in the past, because the Mahafaly and the Antandroy have a taboo against touching or eating the tortoises and their land covers the range of the radiated tortoises. But more people have moved to this region that will eat the tortoises, as well as Malagasy people who are just passing through. As far as future protection goes, Madagascar has been expanding its protected areas. Providing education and alternatives for local people is considered essential and so is careful monitoring of markets, traders, restaurants and the international pet trade. Perhaps with a lot of work, we can stop this species from going extinct.

Imitation Scallop, A.K.A. Skates



A small skate shows off its camouflage. Image taken at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

This flat sandy colored fish is one of many types of skates. Sometimes these fish bury themselves in the sand, with just their eyes and spiracles sticking out. Spiracles are the holes behind their eyes that pull in water to push across their gills so they can breath while sitting still. Several species of skates have been found to have electrical tissue in their tail. So they can produce electrical energy (much more than is required for simple muscle movement), but no one has ever been shocked by a skate and at the moment, we don’t really know what they have this ability for, although it is thought that it might be for reproductive and social interactions.



This skate swims over us in a large tunnel at the Aquarium of the Bay.

Skates are closely related to rays and sharks. Just like rays and sharks, their skeleton is made of cartilage, which is more flexible and lighter weight, instead of bones. They have several gill slits visible instead of a gill cover. You can tell the males from the females the same way (by looking for claspers-long, thin protrusions on their underside). And the coolest similarity, is that they can detect electricity. If you look closely at the last picture, you can see small golden spots on the underside of the skate’s body. In this picture, you can see them most clearly around its mouth. These spots are the ampullae of Lorenzini. These spots can pick up very small electrical pulses, so if the skate is hunting and there’s an animal buried in the sand but the skate can’t see it, or smell it, or hear it, it can still detect the electrical pulses from its heart beat. But then what? Well, notice the two holes above its mouth that look like the eyes of a happy face? Well, their eyes are actually on top of their head and these holes are its nostrils. They can actually shoot jets of water out of their nostrils to push sand away and find food living underneath, such as clams. Another trick they have is to cup their wings toward the sand creating a suction cup to pull the sand away. This little trick has led to many disappointed fishers, because the great force required to dislodge this fish when it’s suctioned to the ground makes them think they are getting a much bigger fish than they actually are.

Although skates have a flattened body shape similar to a ray and are closely related to rays, they have their own separate order. A couple of major differences help to distinguish them. One is that skates will never possess a venomous barb, while many rays do (manta rays have lost their barb). The other is that skates lay eggs, while rays give live birth.

Skate eggs are particularly cool. They are often called mermaids purses. One cool trick aquariums like to do is replace part of this leathery egg with clear plastic so that we can watch the embryo develop. Here is a video of a skate embryo, inside its flat sea weed-looking egg:

Is that cute or what? That little yellow ball in the middle of its chest is the yolk, which is giving the embryo nutrition. When that ball is gone, the embryo will make its escape through the sides of the egg and emerge as a miniature version of the adults. Some skate eggs can have as many as 7 embryos in them! That’s pretty cramped.

While watching these embryos develop, scientists noticed that they go through a number of stages very similar to shark embryo development before continuing on to a skate shape. Also, they discovered many malformed skates, where their embryonic development was arrested and they looked like a cross between a shark and a skate. Based on this, they believed that rays and skates evolved from a shark ancestor. However, the molecular studies now show that they share a common ancestor with sharks rather than evolved directly from an ancient shark species, so they are not modified sharks.

If you are interested in learning more about skates, the Florida Museum of Natural History has two great pages filled with ray and skate information here and here.

Lastly, skates are not a sustainable seafood, as they are overfished and frequently caught with high amounts of by-catch. Read more about this here. Are you eating imitation scallop? Imitation scallop is just one of the common market names for skates. The rest can be found at the aforementioned site. How is this vertebrate being misidentified as a shellfish? Well, if you can’t sell skate to consumers, use a cookie cutter to cut out chunks of a skate’s wings and call it scallop. Apparently, it works.

mummified kitten

The face of a mummified kitten. Image taken near Wolf Creek, Oregon.

Well, I couldn’t start off this special Halloween post without the Canterbury Kitten! Read about the Canterbury kitten from one of my previous posts here. One last photo of this kitten:

Mummified kitten

The side view of a mummified kitten. Image taken near Wolf Creek, Oregon.

Next up, deer skulls:


Deer skulls stick together
Two deer skulls, antlers entwined. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

These two deer were battling when their antlers became intertwined and they were stuck. Struggling to get free, they eventually died, still stuck together. This is not uncommon in the deer world and is one of the hazards of competing.

Now, for the skull of a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake:


Western Diamondback

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake skull. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Only one set of fangs will be attached to a venom gland. Note how all of the teeth point inward, so a prey item can slide in easily, but not out.

Here’s the full skeleton of a gray whale:

Gray whale skeleton

A gray whale skeleton hangs from the ceiling at the California Academy of Sciences.

And a hominid skeleton:

Hominid skeleton

A hominid skeleton. Image taken at Museo Arqueologico in La Serena, Chile.

On Halloween last year, the California Academy of Sciences had a “coolest dead thing” contest for its employees. This mummified raccoon took the prize:

Mummified Raccoon

A mummified raccoon won the Prize at the California Academy of Sciences' "coolest dead thing" contest.

This was a really cool second place:

Stained frog specimen

A stained frog specimen. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

And last but not least, here is another stained specimen, a fish:

Stained fish specimen

A back-lit stained fish specimen at the California Academy of Sciences.

And there you have it! Some mummies, skulls and skeletons for a Happy Halloween!

Red-bellied piranha

A red-bellied piranha. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Of all of the fish in the Amazon, the piranhas are probably the ones with the most recognized name. Everybody has heard of piranhas. But what have they heard? What were your first impressions of piranha? Do you think they were accurate? Were they something like this:


Yes, that is a real movie (having been New World Picture’s most profitable movie, there is actually a part 2, Piranha 2: The Spawning. Not joking) .

So, this is the part where I tell you that piranhas are just misunderstood and they really aren’t dangerous and they are really beneficial and we should all love our piranha, right?

Well…not quite.

But I will talk about some of the things that science has discovered about them and some of the things that are myth, or at least lack authenticated records.

There are over 20 species of piranha each with a unique way of making a living. They are generally small animals, but there are at least 3 that are comparatively larger and could potentially kill or hurt a large animal or person. These are the black piranhas, the red-bellied piranhas and the pirayas. The largest of these are the pirayas. They can grow to be at least 20 inches long or more as adults. The black piranha’s bite is strong enough to remove a person’s finger or toe (more on this later). The red-bellied piranhas live mostly in lakes and are one of the most colorful piranhas. They have a bright red stomach and throat that becomes lighter as the fish gets older. In Brazil however, their bellies are yellow.

Red-bellied piranha

See the shiny red scales, belly and lower fins of a red-bellied piranha. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

So, those are the 3 that are considered the most dangerous. However, to give this a little perspective, there are no verified, recorded human deaths from piranha attacks. Zero. So, why the reputation as people eaters? If you still doubt this reputation, from 1978 I give you:


So awesome. Anyway, there is probably a lot of reasons for the people eating fears. One of them is definitely the razor sharp jagged teeth that they have. They have triangular shaped, serrated teeth from birth. The lower part of their jaw juts out farther than the upper part of their jaw, so when they open their mouth, the teeth on their lower jaw point out. Their upper and lower teeth fit together like a puzzle, interlocking so no area is left unscathed from a piranha bite. And they are really sharp. They can bite through thin steel fishing hooks and fishing nets, and if they are flopping around on a boat with fishers who aren’t being careful, some can bite through a toe or a finger. (Despite this, they are heavily fished and eaten in the Amazon.) People in the Amazon sometimes use piranha jaws as cutting tools.

To make sure these weapons stay in tact, piranha species are known to shed and replace their teeth after a relatively short time compared to the functional life of the teeth. And to make sure that they can always eat, they replace their teeth on one side of their jaw at a time.

They use these sharp teeth to take small bites out of their prey’s bodies. They don’t chew, but swallow their food whole. Tiny but strong jaws mean that they literally nibble their prey to death. They will often take bites out of living animals, eating fins, tails and toes off of them while they swim. They will even bite off pieces of other piranhas’ fins. But, another interesting thing about them is that they’ll grow their fins back! Cichlids have actually developed a behavior that is specifically anti-piranha because of this. They will form a circle, with their tails pointing inward, so the piranha can’t easily bite their tails off.

There’s a few other reasons they might be cast as people eaters. What? Still not convinced they are unfairly cast in this role? Well then, from 2010 I give you:


Keep in mind, this is classified as sci-fi, horror and action, not humor. And that is at least 4 Piranhas-are-coming-to-kill you movies that I have found, and they are actually getting worse as they go.

Alright, so reason number 2 that they are considered people eaters is that…they…sort of…are. But not living people. Piranhas actually have a wide variety of feeding habits. In general, they are really not that picky. They’ll eat meat, fruits, nuts, seeds and sometimes plants that grow in the water. Young will eat insects. And while they will hunt (predominantly fish), they are also very likely to try to scavenge. A few researchers believe that people who have died in the water are scavenged upon by the fish, and when they are found, people attribute the cause of death to the piranhas. And the corpses that have been found can definitely be cause for fear or at least extreme respect. When researchers went to investigate, they found 3 cases to follow and they were all pretty gruesome. All of them had post-mortems where the people were found to have other causes of death (2 drowning, 1 heart attack) but were scavenged upon by the piranha. This is thought to fuel the piranha-as-man-eater image.

They are really efficient scavengers. One of the reasons why is that they have 4 nostrils and an amazing sense of smell. They can actually smell the blood of an injured animal (or human corpse) and are attracted to it. However, they’ll also scavenge for left over plant remains, such as leaves and seeds that other animals have left behind. This is an important job for the rain forest, as they will keep the rivers and lakes clean by eating dead animals and they will spread the seeds that they eat to new areas.

If reasons 1 and 2 weren’t terrifying enough, these fish scare humans one other way-they are often found traveling in schools, sometimes with over 100 fish swimming side by side. (They will not get too close to one another and they don’t like fish swimming directly behind them, probably because of the aforementioned fin and tail biting. If a fish gets too close, the offended fish might chase it or wag its body from side to side to tell it to get lost.) One piranha with pointy sharp teeth is scary enough, but over 100 piranhas with pointy sharp teeth is bone chilling.

So, a little bit about piranhas’ schooling behavior. First of all, not all piranhas are always in a school. Sometimes solitary piranhas do fine on their own and in fact make a handsome living as ambush predators as opposed to “pack hunters.” They will sometimes hunt together in their schools, using techniques such as having one piranha scatter a group of fish and then each piranha in the school can grab one for themselves. However, it is likely that they also school for protection. These animals are eaten by birds, people, snakes and crocodiles, so they have their own lives to worry about as well. (In fact, they also have a special type of scales called scutes along their belly, which when looked at closely form a saw-edge, which acts as extra armor against all of their potential predators.)

Another thing about their schooling behavior is that their school size is inversely proportional to the amount of water available. During droughts, when water levels drop, these fish “school” or gather in much larger groups wherever they can to survive. It is during this time that they have the hardest time getting food as well, and in this time when they are considered the most dangerous.

Those in Need: Endangered Species Part 1

golden frog

A Panamanian golden frog, a.k.a a golden arrow poison frog, a critically endangered species. Image taken at the Oakland Zoo.

This post is going to highlight some animals that have been red listed by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) as endangered or critically endangered.

The Panamanian golden frog (shown above) has become the icon for the amphibian decline movement. This frog has been part of legend and myth in Panama and is a symbol for good luck. There’s even pictures of this frog on their lottery tickets! However, due to habitat loss, chemicals and now a horrible outbreak of the chytrid fungus, these animals are so near extinction that zoos, government agencies and universities both in the United States and in Panama have joined together to protect it, while simultaneously increasing awareness about global amphibian declines. Project Golden Frog is focused on education, research, habitat preservation and captive breeding programs, such as the one at the Oakland Zoo, where this picture was taken. Have I mentioned Save the Frogs?


African Penguin

Ocio, an African penguin. This species was just recently IUCN red listed as endangered. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

The African penguin has just this year been listed as endangered. The IUCN spent over a year examining the data and finally concluded that this species should be listed due to rapid population declines. There are many reasons why the number of African penguins is dropping, but one of the major ones is lack of food. They are competing with commercial fisheries and there has been an eastward shift of the current that carries their prime fish supply. Have I mentioned Seafood Watch, to prevent similar problems from happening to North American birds?


Spider tortoise

A spider tortoise, critically endangered. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

This very tiny tortoise (I’m holding him in one hand while I take this picture) is from Madagascar. It was just listed as critically endangered in 2008. These animals are very habitat specific and they have lost and are losing habitat at an incredible rate. This species qualifies as critically endangered because it has lost (or will lose, if current rates continue) 90% of its habitat in only 3 generations. To make matters worse, what habitat they do have is severely fragmented. Also, radiated tortoises (another critically endangered species we’ll see in a future post) have suffered major population declines and people who previously sought radiated tortoises for food are now switching to the spider tortoise, so increased “hunting” pressure is also causing a population drop. This species is projected to be completely extinct in 60-80 years without protection and if current trends persist.

Black Rhino

Elly, a black rhino who has contributed immensely to conservation programs. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

This rhino is my home girl. I adore Elly. She was one of the first animals to really have me wondering about and researching conservation efforts-my first real connection to an endangered animal. She let me feed her son- her baby rhino number 13, Moja Doga.

Elly is part of a black rhino breeding program at the San Francisco Zoo. She has the world record for having the most calves in captivity-and she is a very good mommy. She’s retired now and is not going to have any more young. But her babies have gone out into the world to  help protect rhinos.

You might be wondering-how does captive breeding help protect the black rhinos as a species? The answer comes in 3 parts. The first is education and making that connection, like the one I mentioned above. While it is incredibly important that we protect ecosystems and not just individual animals, making that first connection will draw people into the world of conservation action. I know. As a city girl, I had never really thought about rhinos until I got to know one. The second is research. Raising animals in captivity means that we can learn more about their reproduction, behavior, genetics, dung (very interesting stuff going on there) and more without disturbing animals in the wild. The third is breed and release programs. In programs like these, animals are raised in captivity and then released, increasing the wild population and genetic diversity.  Release programs have just begun in 2008 in Kenya, with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Zoological Society of London. Before any release program begins, the problems facing the animals should be addressed (as much as possible) and a protocol for releasing the animals established, to ensure that the animals are able to survive once released.  The animals are also tagged, so they can be monitored and to allow scientists to conduct studies. All of this continues to take place as we speak. I’m happy to report that despite a bad 2009, black rhino numbers are on the rise. But their numbers are still low and much more work needs to be done. These animals are still listed as critically endangered, due to an over 90% population decline in ~60 years.

Scalloped hammerhead shark

A scalloped hammerhead shark, listed as endangered. Image taken at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The scalloped hammerhead shark is one of many shark species that is not doing too well in the wild. They are often easy targets for shark finners because they tend to live in large schools. Their fins are also highly prized because they have a lot of fin rays. Shark finning is a problem for many species of shark, usually to make shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy to some. It is however really high in mercury (often above FDA suggested daily limits) and I’m told it’s tough and tasteless. Still, it is believed that if you eat shark fin, you won’t get cancer. This is simply not true. In fact, the excess of mercury can adversely effect your health. Anyway, when shark finners catch sharks, they cut off their fins and then dump the rest of the shark-often still alive-back into the water to die. It is brutal and disgusting. The other serious problem facing these sharks is that they are frequently caught as by-catch. These two things combined has lead to some population decreases of 50-90% in the last 32 years. Have I mentioned Seafood Watch, which lets you know which fisheries use methods that minimize by-catch?

This post was not meant to be so sad, but to be a chance to learn more about animal species that aren’t doing so well and to see and appreciate them while we still can. There have been many species that were endangered, but thanks to strong conservation efforts, are surviving or even thriving again (buffalo, bald eagles, brown pelicans, American alligators, peregrine falcons, Canada geese, gray wolves, gray whales-to name a few). In fact, these species are the face of conservation and can really bring about the best in people. We just have to continue to fight.