Why Every Field Biologist Should Intern at a Zoo

Holding a blue-tongued skink at the Nature Store.

Lehigh Valley Zoo Education DepartmentHello there, my name is Natasha and I was a spring Conservation Education Intern and soon to be full-time summer intern at the Lehigh Valley Zoo. My background is in studying biology and I have been lucky to do lots of cool wildlife research so far. I just spent the last couple years post-graduation collecting data for research projects on chimpanzees and orangutans! Now, before I go back to graduate school in the fall I am excited to be interning with the Education Department at the zoo. And I would recommend it for any fellow field researchers and wildlife biologists!

Why? Because during my time within field research, I have traveled to many places to see amazing species at the cost of spending a long time isolated in remote areas. Really with no way to effectively communicate my passion for wildlife conservation and studying the natural world to others. And the people I spent all this time with were people of similar interests and science backgrounds as me. Now, at the Lehigh Valley Zoo, I can speak to people outside of this small bubble about wildlife from all around the world and species native to PA!

Talking to zoo guests about PA native box turtles. Photo: Educator MichaelaAs a conservation education intern, I connect people directly to the animals and give them a personal experience. All while educating about wildlife behavior, biology, and ecology. Through my studies, I learned to create very direct and factual presentations. I spoke only in scientific terms. What I haven’t learned is how to be fun, engaging, and spontaneous in how I communicate to a general audience. It’s one thing to give a structured PowerPoint presentation about research and a whole other to hold on animal in my hands, just talking to people about what makes it so cool. I have learned so much from watching our awesome Educators give animal ambassador presentations that can inspire, inform, and entertain all at the same time. I’m excited to do this as well!

Speaking to guests about Brazilian Three-banded armadillos, which are endangered in BrazilThere’s no feeling quite like when a family genuinely thanks me for teaching them about an animal. It’s so rewarding to watch kids and adults alike be mesmerized by the animals and asking questions, eager to learn more. Most people are not as fortunate as I have been to see these species in the wild. Many don’t have access to natural spaces in their backyards. That’s why the Lehigh Valley Zoo is so important. The zoo also always spreads great conservation messages, something very important to me. By having ambassador animals of endangered species and participating in Species Survival Plans they contribute to wildlife conservation every day, which is very cool!

Spring interns building enrichment for our Education department’s animals Being at the zoo also makes me a better naturalist in my own hometown. I learn about the wildlife and ecology of where I live and then spread this knowledge on to others through presenting PA native animal ambassadors and through nature hikes in Trexler Preserve. I also get to truly test out my understanding of an animal’s biology through creating enrichment items: things that can stimulate the animal’s primary senses and encourage natural behaviors.

I am so excited for the summer: to start doing outreach programs and animal presentations for bigger audiences. Plus, I hope to share my stories of seeing these animals out in the wild during my research days! I can show people what a field biologist really does by sharing my experiences. If you come to visit the Lehigh Valley Zoo this summer, you might just here me talk about approaching wild zebras on foot to study a thing call flight initiation distance while we stop by the zebras on a zoo tour. Or hear my story about being stranded on a penguin island during one of our daily feeding talks of our African Black-footed Penguins! My goal this summer is to connect people, science, and wildlife conservation together each day!

Written by Natasha Bartolotta
Conservation Education Intern
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA

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Life Inside the Colony: The Penguins of Lehigh Valley Zoo

Lehigh Valley Zoo Animal Care Department

How Many Penguins Live at the Lehigh Valley Zoo?
There are 16 penguins that call the Lehigh Valley Zoo home, nine females and seven males, ranging in age from 2 years old to 22 years old.

African Black-Footed PenguinWhat Kind of Habitat do African Black-footed Penguins Have in the Wild?
African Black-footed Penguins inhabit the rocky coast of Southern Africa. That is why our exhibit is comprised of a multitude of large and small rocks. This is what is natural for this species, and one of the most important parts of animal welfare is making sure the enclosure resembles the natural habitat of their wild counterparts. This gives allows them to display natural behaviors like rock-hopping, creating nests, and diving into the water.

Breakfast Time!
We have two penguin feeds per day at the zoo, one at 11 AM and one at 3 PM (in the spring/summer) or 2 PM (in the fall/winter). We feed out many different species of fish, often alternating species to provide as much variety as possible. The most common fish that are fed out are sardines, herring, capelin, smelt, mackerel, and trout. The penguins have the opportunity to eat as many fish as they want, as they know their bodies best. There are several reasons that an individual penguin may require more or less fish than they typically eat, including their yearly catastrophic molts. Each penguin might eat up to a pound of fish per day.

Penguin Fashion
While penguins do look quite dapper in their black and white “tuxedos”, this coloration is actually an incredible defense mechanism called countershading. This form of camouflage helps provide some protection against predators that penguins share the oceans with. If a predator swims above a penguin, they may miss them entirely because the penguin blends in nicely with the dark depths of the ocean. If a predator swims below the penguin, the penguin also might catch a lucky break because their white bellies blend in well with the lighter surface ocean and the sunlight reflecting through the water.

African Black-Footed PenguinAs a year progresses, penguins will begin to look fairly drab. That is because their feathers become old and brittle as time goes on. Once every year, a penguin will go through their catastrophic molt, which means that they lose all of those old feathers all at once. The molt typically takes about two weeks from start to finish, and as soon as all the old feathers are shed, they grow in beautiful, shiny new feathers.

Penguins also possess a spattering of spots across their bellies, that are as unique as a human fingerprint. This can help them identify each other and help researchers differentiate between penguins in the wild. All of our penguins have one additional fashionable item in their wardrobe: a multicolored bracelet. We put bracelets one each of our penguins to help us more easily identify who is who. The first color on the bracelet is either blue or pink beads. A bracelet with two blue beads means that the penguin is a male, and two pink beads means that the penguin is a female. The second color in the bracelet is simply two beads of a unique color to identify the individual.

African Black-Footed PenguinNoisy Neighbors
Our penguins can be heard across the zoo, as they use different calls to communicate with each other. Some calls are a penguin summoning their mate, some are penguins signaling to the rest of the colony to stay away from their nests, and others are simply affectionate noises.

Penguin Couples
Penguins are a monogamous species, meaning that, for the most part, they will spend their entire lives with the same partner. Many of our penguins are in relationships, such Don and Tee. Our pairs spend much of their days with each other, engaging in mutual-preening behaviors, swimming together, building nests, or simply taking naps.

Penguin Parents
Penguins are largely considered exceptional parents within the animal kingdom. African Penguin parents take turns caring for any eggs that they lay, mother and father switching on and off the nest so that one can hunt for food while the other continues to incubate the eggs or protect their chicks. Penguins are very defensive of their nests, and that includes being defensive against zookeepers coming too close to a nesting location when in a zoo setting. We don’t mind, that means our penguins are doing exactly what they are supposed to: demonstrating natural behaviors.

African Penguins are part of something called an SSP, or a Species Survival Plan, which means that the genetics of all penguins is put into consideration before a penguin pair is recommended to breed. The goal of any SSP is to create stable, genetically diverse populations within zoos that may ultimately be released back into the wild in the future.

Two of our chicks still reside at the Lehigh Valley Zoo. Baridi and Bahati can be seen constantly interacting with guests toward the front of the exhibit.

Written by Caitlin Keim
Zookeeper & Enrichment Coordinator
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA

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