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7 Tricks Zoos Use to get Endangered Animals to Mate

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Getty Images

By Lauren Hansen

Just like humans, animals sometimes need a little romantic help in the "bedroom." For endangered, captive animals, the pressure to perform is even greater as mating is the only way to save species from extinction. So what's a sexually apprehensive creature to do? Leave it to industrious zoo keepers to come up with some wildly romantic gestures—from the sweet sounds of a classical pianist to the alluring scent of fragrant herbs—to help make the magic happen. In honor of Valentine's Day, here are seven potentially inspiring stories (ahem), of animals trying to get it on.

1. French pianist plays live

A pair of Galapagos tortoises at the London Zoo were treated to the ethereal tunes of French pianist Richard Clayderman on Feb. 7. The musician serenaded them with songs from his latest album Romantique, as well as classics like his stirring "Ballade pour Adeline" and a rousing rendition of "Chariots of Fire." While the intimate event was mostly an admitted plug for his new work, the endangered animals do desperately need to get it on and the zoo was willing to try anything. Unfortunately, the romantic music was, by all accounts, lost on the reptiles, who only appeared interested when offered carrots by a keeper.

2. Creating a private love nest

The pressure was on earlier this month for giant pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian when the female, Tian Tian, had but a 36-hour window of optimal fertility. To encourage the process, keepers at the Edinburgh Zoo opened a "love tunnel" between their separate enclosures and also turned off the Panda Cam to ensure they had their privacy. While the pair showed encouraging signs of intimacy, including a spirited wrestling match, they have yet to mate. Officials say they would like for the UK's only pandas to do it naturally, but if necessary, they can use an extended bamboo pole to lift up Tian Tian's tail. Talk about a mood killer.

3. A cuddle surrogate

Cheetahs, being such stunningly fast animals, are fiercely independent, which doesn't help them in the metaphorical sack. Adding to the pressure, female cheetahs don't go into heat, but rather have to be brought into estrus by a male cheetah. Those living in zoos and wildlife parks are often particularly skittish and ill-suited for mating because they are likely to have been abandoned by their mothers or just fail to relate well to other cheetahs. How do zoos warm the loins of the frigid kitties? With dogs, naturally. Several zoos around the country have begun using "companion dogs" to serve as playmates for young cheetahs to provide the cats with socializing guidance. The cats and dogs are introduced at three months old and grow up together, the dog being the dominant figure in the relationship. The hope is that over time the cheetahs will relax around their brethren and, one day, welcome male cheetahs with open paws.

4. Speed dating

If you feel limited by your current dating pool, why not spread your wings and look elsewhere? That's exactly the mindset of those in charge of the Ecuadorian Amazon parrots at the UK's Chester Zoo. To encourage the rare bird species to mate, the zoo sends its lot of birds out to wildlife parks and zoos throughout Europe to meet potential mates. Once the potential suitors are located, the parrots are given time to get to know and evaluate each other, the way humans do in speed dating. If a pair is compatible, they are sent off to live together at a zoo where they are more likely to breed successfully. Body language is key to identifying a compatible pair. If the birds are sitting on opposite ends of the cage, they are not "clicking." If they are preening each other or even squabble like an old married couple, they're likely a good fit. But what, you might ask, of the Lady Edith Crawleys of the group — the birds left standing at the altar without a mate? Fear not, just because the parrots don't find compatible birds in one location doesn't mean their breeding partner isn't out there somewhere. The parrots continue to be passed along in the hopes of finding their one-true feathered friend.

5. 'Sexercise' and 'panda porn'

The people at the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center in Southwest China are panda whisperers when it comes to mating tactics. As the country's wild panda population — now just under 1,600 — continues to dwindle, it has become more and more imperative that the animals mate. And so, the center's maternity ward has become a veritable petri dish of experimental romantic gestures. Some pandas partake in "sexercising," an activity in which the giant animal is tempted by an apple dangling on a pole. The hanging treat forces the panda up onto its hind legs and, as the apple bobs up and down, the panda exercises its pelvic floor muscles and reportedly improves its stamina. Meanwhile, for the timid pandas that are afraid to engage suitors, zoo keepers have two experienced pandas mate in front of the shy creature to encourage it to do the same. Others will be subject to "panda porn," to teach captive pandas how to do what they would normally have learned in the wild.

6. The sweet sounds of Marvin Gaye

After witnessing a two-decade drought of successful hatchlings, the keepers of the Chilean flamingos at the UK's Drusillas Park decided to give the long-legged pink birds a little tender encouragement. To conjure up that loving feeling, the staff played a mix of songs that have been successful in the human baby-making department, including tunes from Barry White and Marvin Gaye, along with a selection of love songs that might be particularly arousing for the birds themselves, including Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo" and Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings." Keepers combined these love classics with recordings of the flamingos' bird calls and found subtle improvements. "They appear to be spending more time at the nest sites and taking a greater interest in each other." Proof, perhaps, that Marvin's sexual healing crosses species.  

7. An alluring fragrance

Prince is a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to romance. The 25-year-old two-toed sloth that lives at the London Zoo has been introduced to a few mates but none have piqued the little guy's interest. To be fair, a lass named Sheila turned out to be a male, but sloths are particularly secretive and notoriously difficult to pair for mating. Since playful Marilyn, who is "most definitely a lady," was introduced into Prince's habitat, the keepers have been cautiously optimistic. To encourage a clandestine meeting of the potential mates, staff members leave trails of fragrant herbs for Prince to seek out in his rainforest-style enclosure and, perhaps one day, the search will lead him into Marilyn's arms.

Sources: BBCThe Belfast TelegraphBird ChannelThe Daily Mail (2), The FriskyThe Huffington Post (2)

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds

Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.

There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]


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