Daily Discovery: Endangered & Forgotten

Post written by Alexa Leinaweaver, Live Animal Husbandry Coordinator.

Daily Discovery: Endangered & Forgotten

National Wildlife Day is September 4, 2020! To celebrate, let’s explore some of the less well known endangered species in Colorado.

We hear a lot about endangered species these days, as the climate changes around us and human activities challenge wildlife survival. Often the articles and advertisements you see feature fuzzy and adorable animals like the Giant Panda or the Sea Otter. Here in Colorado, our featured endangered wildlife tends to be appealingly majestic, like the Grey Wolf (whose reintroduction to Colorado is on November’s ballot for 2020) or even FCMOD’s beloved Black-footed Ferrets. These are species that definitely deserve attention – but there are many more of our wildlife neighbors that need our attention and help that may not be so cute or exciting. There are so many ignored species in the world that are in difficult or dangerous situations thanks to habitat loss, pollution, water loss, and many other human activities.

Here are just a few of our Colorado wildlife neighbors in need:

Least Tern (Sterna antillarum), Federally Endangered

The Least tern is the smallest member of the gull and tern family. They’re only 9 inches long. They nest in the summer on sandbars along major rivers in the central U.S., including in Colorado. This bird was listed as federally endangered in 1985. A lot of nesting habitat in the U.S. has been lost to the birds because of the ways that humans have changed the river systems: dams and reservoirs; introduction of invasive plants; stabilizing river banks, hydropower, and diverting water.

Bonytail Chub (Gila elegans), Federally Critically Endangered

The bonytail is a freshwater fish that lives in the Colorado River basin. It can grow up to 2 feet long and can live up to 50 years. It was added to the endangered list in 1980, and is now the rarest big-river fish in the Colorado. The bonytail, along with numerous other fish species in the Colorado, suffered drastic population declines after the construction of Hoover Dam and other human projects that divert water from the river and change how the water flowed and pooled. These fish also suffer from competition from non-native fish species that humans have introduced into bonytail habitat. At this time, there is no self-sustaining wild population of these fish, and human-run hatcheries are all that maintains the species.

North Park Phacelia (Phacelia formosula), Federally Endangered

The North Park Phacelia only exists in one place in the entire world: the North Park area in Jackson County. It likes to grow on bare slopes and eroding rocks in ravines in the North Park area, where few other plants are able to survive. This phacelia was listed as federally endangered in 1982. It is threatened by livestock, off-road vehicles, commercial and residential development, and petroleum exploration. It also suffers from the loss of pollinating insects in the area, which it depends on to reproduce.

You may be wondering what you can do to be a better neighbor to these species, and the other species in our beautiful state that are threatened or endangered. Here are some steps that you can try:

Educate yourself. Learn about the different kinds of wildlife that live in Colorado with us, and what kinds of things we humans are doing that are putting them at risk.

Take action. Think about how much water you use, or whether the plants in your yard are native or invasive. Consider how much energy you use leaving on lights in an empty room, or streaming your favorite songs rather than downloading them. Look at how much gas your vehicle uses, or how many plastics or other petroleum products you use on a daily basis. Even a small change you can make in your own behavior can be a help to our endangered neighbors.

Talk to your friends and family about why this wildlife is in danger, and why it’s important to you. Your friends and family care about your thoughts and opinions. Help them to understand how important it is to help all.

Contact your representatives in government. These threatened and endangered species do not have a voice in our government, but you do. If you are old enough, vote for candidates that pay attention to wildlife. But at any age, you can make your voice heard! Make sure that your representatives know how important it is that we are good neighbors to all the wildlife in Colorado, in the country, and in the world.

Follow along with our Daily Discovery! Click here for all activities that you can do at home.

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It’s National Pollinator Week! 🐝

Post written by Alexa Leinaweaver, Live Animal Husbandry Coordinator.

🐝It’s National Pollinator Week!

June 22-28, 2020, is the 13th annual National Pollinator Week!

What Are Pollinators?

Pollinators are animals that move pollen from one flower to another flower of the same species in the first step toward the plant reproducing. While pollinators are primarily insects (bees, beetles, flies, moths, butterflies), there are also some birds and small mammals that pollinate plants too.

More than 70% — and possibly as much as 90%! — of flowering plants are dependent on pollination for creating seeds and fruit. It is estimated that one out of every three bites of food you eat was made possible by animal pollinators!

Many of the animals that pollinate are in decline. Pollinator habitats are shrinking or getting destroyed so they have no space to live or feed. In addition, overuse of pesticides, environmental pollution, and climate change are all adding risks to these animals.

Pollinators in Colorado

In Colorado, we have a wide range of habitats and extreme changes in altitude – different bees will thrive in each area. Because of that variety of habitat, Colorado is home to more than 900 species of bees! There are more than 200 bees in Larimer County alone. The smallest bee in Colorado is the Miner Bee (Perdita salacis) at 3.5mm/0.1in; the largest is the Nevada Bumblebee (Bombus nevadensis) at 26.5mm/1in. Colorado bees are colorful, too! Different species may be the usual yellow and black, or range to red, orange, green, blue, or brown.

Most bees in Colorado (and the rest of the world too) are solitary bees that don’t live in a colony like the familiar honeybee. Most of these solitary bees are ground nesters, digging burrows in the soil or using abandoned rodent burrows. Some of the bees here are cavity nesters, finding holes or cavities in twigs or logs.

In Colorado, bees are responsible for pollinating 80% of the crops in our state.

In addition to bees, other pollinators in Colorado include approximately 250 species of butterfly and more than 1,000 species of moth. There are also 11 species of hummingbird that migrate through the state from April through September.

How can you help pollinators?

Learn more about the pollinators in the space where you live. Spend some time outside and observe the animals that are visiting your garden. What kinds of animals do you see? What colors are they? How do they behave as they visit flowers?

Create good habitats for pollinators around your home. Whether you have acres of land or just a window box, you can help pollinators by offering them food and shelter. Plant a variety of flowering plants (preferably native – CSU has a great example list of native plants for pollinators) that offer food and nesting space. Provide several different kinds of blooming plants near each other, and use plants that have different bloom times, so that flowers are available to pollinators from early spring through late fall. Plant in sunny locations that are protected from the wind.

Don’t “clean up” your yard in the fall. Leave all the dormant or dead plants alone rather than trimming them back for the winter season — cavity nesting bees and other pollinating insects will use them as a safe home during the cold weather. Leave some leaf litter around for butterflies and moths to use as insulation over the winter, rather than raking it all up and dumping it in the landfill. If you can include materials in your yard such as logs or wood nesting blocks, you provide space for species that nest in wood to survive the snow. Leave some of the ground uncovered (i.e. don’t put mulch everywhere) for the native bees that nest in the bare dirt for the winter.

Reduce use of chemicals for controlling weeds and pests, as these can hurt or kill beneficial pollinators as well.

Protect natural habitat.

 Share what you know. Talk to your friends and family about what you have learned about pollinators and how and why you are helping them. Talk to your local and state government about how important it is to protect pollinators.

 

 

 

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The Pollinator You Know: The Honeybee!

Post written by Alexa Leinaweaver, Live Animal Husbandry Coordinator.

The Pollinator You Know: The Honeybee!

When most people hear about pollination, the first thing they think of is the honeybee.

The oldest bee that scientists have found so far was in Myanmar, encased in amber and dated at 100 million years old! Bees that old were hunters, eating other insects. At some point they started visiting flowers for nectar and pollen, changing into the honeybees that we know and love.

Honeybee colonies have been kept in man-made hives since Ancient Egypt and have been important throughout human history. In addition to being delicious as a sweetener in food, honey can be used to make mead (an alcoholic drink), which works as an antiseptic. It has even been used to embalm mummies! Beeswax can be used in making many products, such as candles, soap, cosmetics, and waterproofing. Honey and bees are so important that people have named their children after bees. Deborah and Melissa both mean “bee” in different languages; Pamela derives from a word for “honey”.

When Europeans colonized the Americas in the 17th century, there were no native honeybees. Native Americans tribes at the time kept and traded other kinds of bees. European settlers brought the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) along with their familiar crop plants when they moved to the Americas. As we have expanded across the planet, humans have deliberately expanded the range of the Western Honey Bee, and it is now found on every continent in the world except Antarctica.

Healthy Honeybee Colonies

In a healthy honeybee colony, you can see thousands of individual bees. Most of what you see are the worker bees, which are females that cannot lay eggs. There are usually 10,000-50,000 workers per colony. The workers care for the queen and young, defend the hive with their stingers, build comb for the young honeybees and the honey, and collect food. There are also drones, which are the male honeybees. There are about 1,000 drones in a given colony. Drones have no sting, do not forage for food, and cannot defend the hive. Their only purpose is to mate with the queen. There is only one queen bee in the colony. She is larger than all the other bees, and usually has a circle of worker bees around her (her “court”) that take care of her, bringing her food and cleaning her. The queen is the only individual who can lay eggs, and can lay as many as 2,000 eggs per day!

The worker bees leave the hive and may fly up to two miles away from their home to find food. They seek out flowers and collect nectar, which is a sugary solution that flowers produce in order to attract pollinators. The worker bee then returns to the hive and performs a dance to indicate to her fellow workers where she found food. The collected nectar is transformed into honey and may be consumed by any of the adult bees or fed to the young who cannot yet fly to find their own food. The honey can also be harvested by humans.

Honeybee colonies normally survive for several years, going dormant in the winter cold and then becoming active in the warmer months. During favorable conditions (an abundance of food), the hive will create “daughter queens,” and the old queen and much of her colony will relocate to make room for the new queens.

What is happening with the FCMoD colony?

Fort Collins Museum of Discovery has had a bee colony in the Animal Encounters exhibit for our visitors to watch and enjoy since the exhibit opened. However, our colony has collapsed several times since then. Each time we have obtained a new colony from our professional beekeeper.

There are a lot of environmental factors that can negatively affect a honeybee colony, and a lot of colonies around the world are struggling and collapsing right now. There are some pesticides that are worse for bees, especially the class of pesticide called neonicotinoids. There are diseases and parasites that can affect a colony. Climate change may also be playing a factor with bee colonies dying.

What our beekeeper thinks may be happening to the honeybee colony here at FCMoD is that the bees may have found a flower source in the area that has been sprayed with a certain kind of pesticide. They collect the nectar and pesticide, then carry it back to the colony and tell their sisters where to find more. The bees eat the poisoned nectar and honey, and die.

How can we stop honeybee colony collapse?

There are a lot of different pesticides that people use to control weeds and to get rid of bugs they don’t like. But since we do like the honeybees and the honey they make, we need to make sure that we use pesticides that won’t hurt the bees. Pesticide application can be done at night when bees are not foraging. Additionally, making sure not to apply pesticides to blooming plants will help prevent bee deaths.

Like all animals, bees need good quality and abundant food. We can plant native flowers at our homes so honeybees and all the native Colorado bees have healthy and nutritious food sources.

We should also look for ways to reduce our impact on the environment around us, improving the lives of all animals that we share our environment with. Find reusable products instead of single use items you throw away. Turn off the lights in empty rooms. Compost. Take shorter showers. Each of us can have a huge positive impact on the wild animals that live around us.

Learn more about how pesticides can affect bees and other wildlife:

EPA Tips for Reducing Pesticide Impacts on Wildlife

National Pesticide Information Center: Protecting Wildlife from Pesticides

Learn about native plants you can use in your garden:

Colorado Native Plant Society plant lists

Find out how to reduce your impact on the environment:

World Wildlife Fund’s Tips for Reducing Your Environmental Impact

Can you spot the queen bee in this picture? She is larger and a slightly different color.

The FCMoD honeybee colony, in Spring of 2018.

Photos courtesy of Alexa Leinaweaver

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Amazing Amphibians

Post written by Willow Sedam, Live Animal Husbandry Team Member.

Amazing Amphibians

Did you know that amphibians were the first animals to live on land? Or that they swallow by blinking and pushing the backs of their eyes into their throat?

Today, we’re looking at the amazing world of amphibians!

What is an amphibian?

Toads, frogs, and salamanders are all amphibians. While amphibians are a wide and varied class of animals, they all have a few things in common.

Amphibians have slimy skin which they can breathe and drink through and has to be kept damp at all times. Amphibians lay squishy, shell-less eggs in water. And they all start out life as aquatic larvae, later metamorphosing (like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly) into their adult form, growing legs and shedding their tails!

Because water is so important to amphibians, they are often found around ponds, streams and marshes. But spending so much time in water means they can often be the first animals affected by a change in water quality. Amphibians can be the first warning that something is wrong with an environment, as they are very sensitive to pollutants, and a decline in amphibian populations can be a clue to scientists that something is wrong. But when amphibians are doing well, that means the environment around them is, too – which is why they are such important animals to learn about and protect!

At the museum, we have four species of amphibians on display, two of which are native to the US, and one that can be found right here in Colorado!

Fire-bellied toad

Despite being called toads, these Eurasian amphibians are technically frogs – you can tell by their long legs and preference for swimming.

These amphibians display two interesting types of coloration at once: camouflage, which blends them into their environment, and aposematism, which warns predators that they might be dangerous. Much like poison dart frogs, fire-bellied toads are brightly colored to warn predators that they are toxic. However, while poison dart frogs are bright all over, fire-bellied toads limit their bright warning coloration to their bellies. When a predator looks down on a frog, it sees only the green and black camouflage on its back, and might not notice it. But if the frog is threatened, it can rear up on its back and show off it’s bright belly that acts just like caution tape and says: stay away from me!

This behavior, called an unken reflex, actually gets its name from fire-bellied toads and the German name for their species, Unke.

Southern toad

Our southern toad is actually more of a southeastern toad, hailing from the warmer and wetter parts of the American east coast, from North Carolina to Mississippi. These amphibians are true toads – warty, with short legs ill-equipped for swimming and jumping but built perfectly to dig. They actually have claw-like spurs on their back legs that help them build burrows to stay safe and moist when the weather gets too hot, too cold, or too dry for them.

Like all amphibians, they lay their eggs in open water – about 3,000 of them per season! After only a couple of days, these eggs hatch into tadpoles, which undergo metamorphosis when they’re barely half an inch long!

Tiger salamander

These salamanders are a Colorado native and can be found in marshes and ponds right here in Fort Collins! But they’re not picky about where they live – they’re actually the most wide-spread salamander species in North America, ranging from Canada all the way to Mexico! Their name comes from the yellow and black splotches on their skin, which look a little bit like tiger stripes. Like tigers, they are also ferocious predators – even if they don’t look like it. When they emerge from their burrows to hunt, they look for anything they can eat – worms, spiders, and beetles, even frogs and smaller salamanders are all fair game!

Our salamanders at the museum get so excited during feeding time, that sometimes they’ll even try and bite their caretaker’s fingers! Unlike frogs, salamanders actually have teeth – lucky for the people feeding them, they aren’t very sharp.

White’s tree frog

These Australian frogs are very popular in the pet trade because of how calm they are around humans – even wild frogs will find their way into people’s sinks, laundry roo

rooms, and bathtubs, no matter if they’re occupied!

Unlike some frogs, White’s tree frogs do not have long sticky tongues that they use to catch prey. Their preferred method of hunting is close-range. Once they’re close enough to a bug or other tasty morsel, they lunge at it with their mouth open wide and scoop it up into their gob with their hands.

These frogs are also very unique for the way they protect their delicate amphibian skin. They secrete a goo from their skin that is antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal, allowing them to stay safe and free from disease even when they’re living in places that are mucky and full of germs. The virus-fighting ability they possess is so impressive, it’s even being studied for use in human medicine!

Amphibians are amazing animals, coming in so many different shapes and sizes. From legless, soil-dwelling caecilians to flying tree frogs, they all play an important part in our ecosystem!

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Meet Tara, FCMoD’s Ornate Box Turtle!

Post written by Willow Sedam, Live Animal Husbandry Team Member.

Meet Tara, FCMoD’s Ornate Box Turtle!

Have you met our Ornate Box Turtle, Tara?

Ornate Box Turtles are a species of box turtle native to the great plains of the midwest – including Colorado! Our Tara was a wild turtle who was taken in by the museum after she was hit by a car and her shell was cracked – look closely and you can see the places where the scutes (the separate bits of hard keratin covering a turtle’s shell) are scarred from her injury.

But how do cold-blooded animals – who can’t warm themselves up on their own like we can – survive the harsh Colorado winters we get if they don’t have a museum to live in?

When it gets cold, reptiles will go through a process much like hibernation, called brumation. Unlike hibernating animals, who are asleep for the whole winter season, brumation only occurs in cool temperatures, and if it warms up enough, even in the middle of winter, brumating animals will wake up, go about their business, and go back to brumating when it’s cold again. In the wild, Ornate Box Turtles spend most of their winter cuddled up in a nice pile of soil, deep enough below the ground that frost can’t reach them.

And while Tara lives inside the museum, where it’s the same warm temperature all year-round, she will sometimes brumate, too! Even though she’s not having to hide away from the cold, she can tell that it’s time for her to brumate because of how short the winter days are.

But Tara is a true Colorado native, and once it warms up, she’s ready to go outside. As part of her care, the Animal Encounters team take her out for regular walks for exercise and enrichment. You wouldn’t think a turtle of all things would need walking, but what Tara lacks in speed she makes up for in energy and determination.

Sometimes she spends her time walking around the museum indoors, especially if it’s still a little chilly out for a cold-blooded animal like her. But her favorite walks are outside walks – in the museum’s Big Backyard! She’ll spend as much time as she can exploring the yard, digging in the dirt, and doing her best to sneak away from her caretakers, often by blending in with rocks and bushes like a camouflage master.

Ornate Box Turtles are opportunistic omnivores – meaning they’ll eat just about anything they can find, including plants, bugs, and even carrion. When Tara’s out in the backyard, she likes to forage for extra snacks, trying to catch and eat any ants and beetles she sees. While we see a tiny, cute, turtle, many bugs see a hungry predator! But the funniest thing she likes to do when she’s out on a walk is to pick things up in her beak. She does it with rocks, sticks, and bark chips – she’ll search around for the perfect something, pick it up, and just hold it in her mouth while she wanders!

So next time you’re out enjoying the warm weather, keep an eye out for Colorado’s native reptiles who may also be soaking up the sunshine! You might even see one of Tara’s cousins out in the wild, eating ants and basking in the sun.

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Aw – Rats!

Post written by Willow Sedam, Live Animal Husbandry Team Member.

Aw – Rats!

Ever wonder what it would be like to live in a museum? For the critters who are a part of our Animal Encounters exhibit, living in a museum is just a part of their daily life!

Our mischief (a group of rats) of four fancy rats are the only mammals in the Animal Encounters exhibit at the museum. They are an important part of our mission to educate the public about animals and how they crawl, slither, and skitter in-and-out of our daily lives. Our rats travel regularly through the museum to meet people as part of the live animal presentations and events to help educate the public about life on earth. But what do they do when they’re not helping educate the public?

At the museum, the rats’ morning starts around 8:00 am, when the Animal Encounters staff come in to take care of all the animals before the museum opens. They’re usually all fast asleep in a big fuzzy rat pile. They are not very happy to be woken up – but they need to come out of their enclosure so that the staff can clean it and make their breakfast.

Once they’re up, each rat gets put in their own brightly-colored exercise ball and is set loose in Animal Encounters for their morning exercise – although each rat treats their “exercise” time differently, as some prefer to find a quiet corner to nap in, while others like to run around and sniff everything they can.

Each rat is named after their distinct and varied appearances. Black and White is a white rat with black markings, and the busiest, always running around hiding food in her favorite food-hiding spots. Black Rex is named after her fur – rex is a name for animals bred to have soft and curly fur – and her fur is definitely soft, but because it’s so fluffy, it’s always sticking up in crazy directions! Blaze is a white rat with a gray “blaze” marking down the top of her forehead, who loves to snuggle and take naps. And Brown is your typical brown-furred rat, and the most adventurous of the mischief, always spending her exercise time exploring the museum and bumping into people’s ankles.

Rats are nocturnal, which means they’re most active during the night, and prefer to spend their days sleeping – something you might have noticed if you’ve been to the museum and seen them all curled up in a sleepy pile. However, once they’re done with their morning exercise and back in their enclosure, sleep is far from their minds, because it’s time for breakfast!

Rats are omnivores, much like humans, meaning they eat meat and plants. In the wild, rats will eat just about anything – including agricultural crops and discarded human food. At the museum, we offer them a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, greens, and rat kibble, to make sure they get all the nutrients they need. But just because rats are omnivores, doesn’t mean they don’t have standards! Our rats have favorite foods just like we do: they love sweet potatoes and curly lettuce the most. Just like us, they also have a least favorite food, like squash – they’ll leave it completely untouched in their food bowl, even when everything else has been eaten!

Rats are very smart animals, and need enrichment to live happy lives in captivity. Enrichment is a term for anything that is provided to animals to keep them from getting bored – like interesting treats, puzzles, and new toys. At the museum, we have several strategies for changing up the rats’ routines to make sure there’s always something interesting going on. They get food treats, from peanuts hidden around their enclosure, to blocks of alfalfa hay, to cute little rat-sized “hamburgers” made of seeds and dried fruit. They also get new toys like wicker balls and salt licks regularly – and every so often they get new hammocks, tunnels or houses to cuddle up in. Every time they go back in their enclosure after their morning exercise, there might be something new and exciting waiting for them!

By the time the rats have had their exercise, gotten their home cleaned, and finished eating breakfast, it’s usually close to opening time. Once the museum is open again you can come in and see exactly how the rats spend the rest of their busy rodent day. And they’ll be just as excited to see you as you are to see them!

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World Wildlife Day 2020: “Sustaining All Life On Earth”

Post written by Alexa Leinaweaver, Live Animal Husbandry Coordinator

Happy World Wildlife Day!

 

Wildlife, while traditionally meaning all non-domesticated animals in an area, has expanded to mean all the fauna, flora, and other kinds of life. All species have evolved to be dependent on each other. Sustaining all kinds of life on our planet can only help the human race survive and prosper.

Some individual species are so vitally important to an individual ecosystem that they are considered to be a keystone species. So many other kinds of life depend on the keystone species that it would have a disproportionate effect if it should be removed from the ecosystem.

Colorado has amazing diversity in its wildlife. With the massive changes in altitude from the Rocky Mountains down to the Great Plains, the wildlife that live here have adapted to a wide range of micro-climates. With the variety of ecologies in the area, there are many keystone species that keep the whole system healthy. Some local examples include:

In the Mountains: Aspen trees

Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) are, for many, a symbol of the Rocky Mountains. They cover 20% of Colorado’s forested land, or 5 million acres.

Aspen are a keystone species, supporting many birds, insects and mammals throughout the year and creating a highly biodiverse ecosystem. Because aspen love sunlight, groves are more open and bright than an evergreen forest. More variety of plant species can grow in the understory below an aspen grove. Additionally, as aspen are short-lived (70-150 years), they quickly add nutrients back into the soil around where they fall. Aspen propagate both with seeds and via cloning. A grove of clones can send up tens of thousands shoots per acre – which many grazing animals love to eat. Aspen shoots are actually higher in fat than many plant species, making it an especially important winter food source for deer and elk. The white bark of the aspen tree can also be used by many species as a food source in winter (elk, deer, beaver, rabbits, voles, mice, etc.), and year-round by a wide variety of insects. Several kinds of woodpecker, chickadees, nuthatches, kestrels, owls, and wood ducks will nest in the aspen.

Aspen trees are unfortunately in decline throughout the Rockies, up to a loss of 60-90% depending on the local climate. The primary cause is believed to be human behavior. Human efforts at fire suppression have allowed conifers to spread into aspen groves, shading the aspen and preventing them from thriving in the sunlight they love. Fire is also a natural part of the aspen’s life cycle: as the older above-ground aspen declines in health it should be cleared out by fire, prompting new sprouts. Without the fire, the sprouts are fewer and grazing animals have more impact on the grove. As the Aspen trees decline, hundreds of species will suffer.

In the Prairie: Prairie Dogs

Prairie dogs (genus Cynomys) are a group of intelligent, burrowing rodents – actually a kind of ground squirrel – native to North American Grasslands. In Fort Collins area, you will see the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus). Prairie dog colonies will dig a complex maze of burrows as their colony’s home for breeding, raising their young, and hiding from predators, maintaining the town over several generations.

Prairie dog activities change the grassland ecosystem that they live in; they are often labeled “ecological engineers” for the way they shape the world around themselves. Burrowing will actually alter soil chemistry, as well as aerating the soil. Their grazing (both above and below ground) affects the plant life they live in, encouraging more diversity of plant species and plant productivity. The soil becomes richer in nitrogen and more fertile, supporting both more plants and a wider variety of insect life. Because of the positive effect prairie dogs have on the soil and the plant life above, grazing animals (including domestic cattle) often prefer to eat in the middle of prairie dog towns as the forage is better. Prairie dog burrows provide shelter and nesting habitat for many animals, including black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls. Prairie dogs are also a vital food source for a wide variety of predators: hawks, owls, ferrets, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, and rattlesnakes.

Prairie dogs numbers are vastly reduced from their historic populations. Many people believe that prairie dogs are pests, damaging crops or putting domestic animals at risk, and have actively persecuted the animals (e.g. target shooting, poisoning). Humans have also taken up most of what was originally prairie dog territory for agriculture and suburban sprawl. Between 1900 and 1960, 98.5% of prairie dog habitat was lost. Additionally, humans accidentally introduced the bacteria that caused the plague to spread, which can quickly wipe out entire colonies of prairie dogs. Even if you agree that they are pests, the loss of prairie dogs to our grassland ecosystems would have an enormous negative effect on hundreds of other species.

Celebrate World Wildlife Day

Celebrate World Wildlife Day this year by learning more about your local wildlife! Explore one of our many beautiful natural areas and observe the way that the wildlife interacts with each other. Or, visit the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery this weekend and see our Natural Areas Exhibit. Watch the Ferret Feeding Frenzy at 2:30 on Saturday or Sunday! This is not for the faint or squeamish of heart…

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National Bird Day: Winter Birds

Post written by Alexa Leinaweaver, Live Animal Husbandry Coordinator.

National Bird Day: Winter Birds

Weather changes, snow is falling. But when you look out your window, there are still a bunch of birds hanging out. Which birds are here in the winter, and how do they survive?

Migration

Migration is a strategy that many animals use to cope with seasonal changes. Generally migration seems to be triggered by birds following their food supply or seeking a new type of food, as well as seeking more comfortable weather conditions.

We are most familiar with migration from an area closer to the poles in summer, and toward the equator in winter. This is known as Longitudinal Migration, as it is on a north-south axis. Migration distance can range from thousands of miles each way to only a short distance. While we mostly think of birds leaving Colorado for warmer weather, we get some migrants coming to stay here from much further north. Some examples of birds that migrate to the Fort Collins area for winter:

  • The Dark-eyed Junco spends its summers breeding in Canada and Alaska, and moves down into the continental United States during winter. Juncos are easily recognized by their behavior, hopping around the ground seeking food, and the black and white flash of their tail when they take flight. They are colloquially known as “Snowbirds”.

  • The Rough-legged Hawk breeds in the Arctic, but winters in the U.S. and southern Canada. It gets its name from the fluffy feathers covering its legs – an excellent adaptation for a bird that spends its summers in the Arctic as well as for our snowy Colorado winters.

  • Most Bald Eagles spend their summers further north in Canada and Alaska. They will migrate into Colorado in winter where they breed, usually January through March. (We do have some year-round resident bald eagles in the area as well.)

There are also birds that migrate a short distance, but for a big change in altitude: Altitudinal migrants. Most of the altitudinal migrants in the U.S. are in the American West, thanks to our Rocky Mountains. Many of us humans have experienced the dramatic difference in weather and temperature between the plains and up in the Rockies.

  • Most Prairie Falcons winter in the Great Plains, hunting Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks. In summer, they move up to 11,000 feet in search of abundant ground squirrels and pikas.
  • The Townsend’s Solitaire spends its summers in the mountains, then moves to lower elevations in winter. They switch food sources from mostly insects in summer to fruit, mostly juniper berries, in winter. They can get extremely territorial over their chosen patch of juniper trees, defending them against solitaires and other bird species.

  • Immature Mountain Chickadees are known to migrate to lower elevations. However, once they are old enough to select a breeding territory, they will generally stay there year-round. (It can be very challenging to distinguish them from our usual Black-capped Chickadees who stay in Fort Collins area year-round. Look for a white “eyebrow” on the Mountain chickadee that the Black-capped lacks.)

Other Adaptations for Winter Survival

For us humans, it seems logical to escape the cold and snow by going south for warmer weather. But birds have amazing adaptations to help them survive weather that we find daunting.

  • Feathers are the best insulation we know of. Imagine curling up inside a cozy down overcoat – birds have one naturally! They can retain heat by fluffing out their feathers, trapping more air underneath to keep them warm. Birds like chickadees or wrens fluff up so much that they look twice as fat in winter! Many birds, like the American Goldfinch, will also change out their sleeker, brighter summer coat for a thicker, drabber winter one. They get better camouflage as well as better insulation.
  • Some birds, like crows, will cluster together and share body warmth. Smart birds like crows and other corvids can also communicate about food sources and predators.
  • Many birds will also plan for the winter by putting on fat. It acts both as insulation to keep warm and as an energy source if hunting for food doesn’t go so well.
  • Birds are also good at predicting when the weather will turn bad and a blizzard is coming. They will eat extra food in advance of the storm, then hunker down and save calories for body heat while it snows.
  • Several species will change what kind of food they eat. The Townsend’s Solitaire and Prairie Falcon, described above, are great examples. Some birds will also stash food in preparation for the cold – if you have a birdfeeder that gets extra busy in fall, some of your avian visitors are probably caching food for later.

Birding in Winter

Celebrate National Bird Day this year by spending some time outside, looking at our seasonal visitors! But remember, winter can be a difficult season for any wild animal. Keep your distance so they don’t waste their precious energy flying or running away from you when you get too close.

Photo courtesy of  Alexa Leinaweaver.

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National Reptile Awareness Day

Post written by Alexa Leinaweaver, Live Animal Husbandry Coordinator.

National Reptile Awareness Day

Do you know your reptile neighbors here in Northern Colorado?

Colorado is home to more than 50 species of reptile (lizards, turtles, and snakes). The majority of reptiles in our state live below 6,000 feet, though there are some exceptions.

In Colorado, there are a variety of environmental challenges that reptiles had to evolve to deal with. Many prairie streams and ponds dry up entirely in the summer, reducing safe water sources; in winter temperatures can drop below zero. Drought in summer is a frequent problem as well. But our reptiles adapt well to arid environments like northern Colorado.

All reptiles are “cold blooded,” or ectothermic: their body temperature is controlled by the temperature of their environment rather than producing their own heat internally. Reptiles regulate their body temperature by moving from shade to sun, changing their body orientation to the sun, or even changing color. They also vary their activity patterns with the seasons.

At this time of year, reptiles are getting ready to hibernate through the cold Colorado winter. They drop their body temperature to just above freezing. Lizards curl up under logs or in crevices for the season. Turtles will burrow underground to get below the frost line, either on dry land or in the mud at the bottom of ponds or lakes. Snakes have communal winter dens that they return to each year. While these animals hibernate, their body process slow down. They live off water and nutrients stored in their bodies, and don’t even wake up to eliminate waste.

Reptiles in Colorado are now facing new problems: human neighbors can make things more difficult for reptiles. Development reduces the habitat and resources that reptiles need to survive. We bring pets like dogs and cats that can hunt and kill native animals. Reptiles may be killed by traffic when they try to warm themselves by seeking out warm surfaces – like asphalt roads, which are often warmer than their surroundings.

Scientists do not know at this time how abundant or wide-spread reptiles are in Colorado, but some species are clearly in decline here. Reptile species listed as of special concern in Colorado are: triploid checkered whiptail; midget faded rattlesnake; longnose leopard lizard; yellow mud turtle; common king snake; Texas blind snake; Texas horned lizard; roundtail horned lizard; massasauga; common garter snake.

Reptiles are key parts in the landscape around us. Reptiles are food for many of the larger predators in the area (e.g. foxes, raptors, coyotes). Many of them also predate on and control the population of smaller animals – often those considered pests by humans – such as insects, rodents, and even prairie dogs.

For National Reptile Awareness Day this year, take some time to appreciate our reptile neighbors. Come visit the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery and see our live reptiles. Or, spend some time in the wild spaces near you and keep an eye out for our scaly friends.

When observing reptiles out in the wild, try to follow these guidelines:

  • Be careful: know what venomous animals live in the area. In Fort Collins area, there is one: the Prairie Rattlesnake. If you do spot one of these rattlers, move away slowly and leave it alone. They will only bite when they feel threatened.
  • Be respectful of all animals and their homes. Give the reptile or other animal space, and move slowly and quietly. Try not to damage the habitat they live in.
  • Do not bring home live animals. Take photographs or draw pictures of them instead.

 

Tara, FCMOD’s resident Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata), is keeping an eye out for a tasty mealworm to eat. Ornate Box Turtles are native to Colorado and are a protected species. They get their common name from the colorful patterns on their shells.

Photo courtesy of  Alexa Leinaweaver.

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World Animal Day

Interview conducted by Alex Ballou, Marketing Assistant.

Happy World Animal Day!

Fort Collins Museum of Discovery interviewed FCMoD Live Animal Husbandry Coordinator, Alexa Leinweaver in celebration of World Animal Day! The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

  1. Hi Alexa! First, tell us a little bit about your role as the Live Animal Husbandry Coordinator here at FCMoD.

Here at FCMoD, my job is to take care of all animals in the Animal Encounters exhibit and make sure they are happy and healthy, as well as coordinate the team that is responsible for their care.

  1. What inspired you to begin working with animals?

I can’t remember a time that I was not fascinated with caring for animals. As a kid I would go back to the field behind my house and catch grasshoppers, and be thrilled when they peed on me! When I look back at my childhood education I would find a new animal to be fascinated with, and keep adding more and more animals until I cared about all of them. My aunt bought me a subscription to ZooBooks and that only enhanced/expanded my love for animals.

A few years ago when I was moving to Colorado, I was looking for something that would get me away from the stress of my previous job. So I found a place to volunteer taking care of animals and it was a good way to stay centered and present — because you have to be if you are working with an animal. So that evolved into working with FCMoD.

  1. Tell us a little bit about the Animal Encounter exhibit, what kinds of animals do you encounter in this exhibit?

We have quite the variety of animals. We have everything from reptiles to amphibians to mammals to arthropods in the exhibit. We have a large variety of animals in the encounter exhibit. However, fun fact, the animals available are all able to be pets. We are not a zoo, so we do not have endangered or large animals in the animals encounter exhibit. That said, we do have some exciting and exotic animals.

Our most familiar are the rats. We have 5, and they all look different. We also have fish, insects, turtles, snakes, frogs, geckos, scorpions, etc. All of our fish are local. And my favorite is the whip scorpion because it shoots vinegar out of its butt! It’s the same as white vinegar as in your house and there is no stinger, but his aim is good so, if he feels there is a predator messing with him he aims for their eye.

Our goal is to keep all animals as comfortable as possible when cleaning. The most risky to work with animals include the whip scorpion, regular scorpion, and the assassin bugs. For all of these we keep them calm and have protective gear that we wear.

  1. Mammals, reptiles, and amphibians – oh my! How do you think the Animal Encounters exhibit fits into FCMoD’s vision, which is to inspire inquisitive thinkers and encourage responsible stewardship of the future?

I think any exhibit where you get to see animals that you do not usually see in everyday life is awesome. This exhibit at the museum is a great way to get all our visitors thinking about the world that they live in. Certainly now, I go out and see so much more because I know the animals to look for around in the mountains, city, etc. This sort of perspective creates a bigger world to live in. It allows for imagination and inspires us to care about the environment and for the animals.

“It allows for imagination and inspires those to care about the environment and for the animals.”

  1. Are there any programs associated with the Animal Encounters exhibit?

There are various programs associated with the Animal Encounters exhibit, including Meet the Animals, as well as school programs and summer camps. When school groups come in they can have a special time where we bring out the animals and let the kids get a closer look and sometimes pet the animals. Then we have our animal-themed summer camps, such as Animal Adventures. This camp includes a trip to the Lee Martinez farm and presentations of our animals in the Animal Encounters exhibit. Meet the Animals is a free gallery program offered every third Sunday of the month from 10 am to 1 pm. This program again, allows families and museum guests to get a closer look at the animals. Lastly, our animal-themed birthday parties are also quite the hit! Sometimes we even allow the birthday kid to handle the animal (depending on the child and the animal).

  1. What is your favorite part about working with animals at the museum?

My favorite part about my job is that it is my job to spend time with the animals – handling them, socializing them, and making sure they are well. I also get to snuggle with the rats. I get paid to hang out with the rats!

  1. What does a typical day at the museum looks like for you?

My team and I arrive a few hours before the museum opens. There are typically about 3-4 people working in the animal zone. We clean, feed, and observe the health of the animals, and then clean up to get ready for our visitors for the day.

  1. How do you think museums, like FCMoD, can continue to communicate, educate, and inspire positive action for animal care and conservation?

The first step is having the animals there to let people learn about them and be connected to the wild world. Also having school programs where kids come in and become the experts, to tell their friends and family about something like meeting a tarantula. Getting kids and adults interested in the world around them is the beginning. This creates awareness and increases interest. The second step is to get people angry. If you see and connect with an animal and you know their home is in danger — for example, once they are angry that frogs’ habitat in the Amazon is burning down — then they will have the motivation to do something about it. If you do not care you will not be willing to take the next step to protect the animals.

  1. Ok, random question, but if you could be any animal, what would it be and why?

I would want to be some kind of bird, maybe a Corvid. Specifically, a crow or magpie. Other than having the ability to fly, these birds are very smart and clever. It would allow me to have my wits about me while also having fun. These birds can solve puzzles that I could never solve. For example, a crow can understand how a street light works by dropping a nut that needs to be opened during the red light. And once it’s green the cars run over and open the nut. They go back down during the next red light to get the food they need. Isn’t that amazing?

“I can’t remember a time that I was not fascinated with caring for animals.”

  1. If you could have a conversation with every visitor in the Animals Encounters exhibit, what is the one thing you’d definitely want to know from them before leaving?

I would want to know what animal they connected with the most. It is so personal – which one and why. I want to know what people connect with and if there is any way to provide more information to create a greater proactive response to the animals. That way I can enhance the experience or help to inspire them in the future.

 

Thank you to Alexa for her time and talents at FCMoD! We hope the next time you visit you enjoy the Animal Encounters exhibit!

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