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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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)

Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]


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