New faces at the Moscow Zoo

When I heard that the pair of Maned wolves - Emilia and Falcao - had three pups at the Moscow Zoo and that the family was already out in public, I had to rush there. For these odd and fascinating animals breeding is hard enough in the wild, so to get them to procreate in captivity is a herculean task. Kudos to the biologists of the Zoo! I got there at the earliest possible hour, but the doors of the wolves' warm house were closed and their enclosure was empty. I slowly made my way to one of the large ponds where ducks crowded in the one corner free of ice. Clearely, spring had already arrived for these birds. The air was filled with the mating calls of the Ruddy shelducks. These cheerfully colored ducks are one of several species that live freely on the Zoo territory, although they do not migrate. But you can find migratory water fowl mixing with the crowd here in search of a safe place to rest and an easy meal. The Ruddies even nest in the atticks of the houses close to the Zoo.

There were so many of them and yet I didn't manage to get any good shots of these shelducks. Funny how that works. But other ducks were also sporting new bright colors.

So there I was, watching the ducks and the geese, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed some sort of comotion. A flock of pigeons was feeding on some grain left out for the ducks when a large seagull casually strolled in amongst them, picked one pigeon up and just as casually walked off.

It was so strange how unimpressed everyone, including the kidnapped pigeon, seemed to be by this turn of event. The flock continued to feed, the other seagulls didn't rush over to compete for the catch, the waterfowl went about as if nothing happened. The captured bird didn't even flap its wings much, it hardly struggled when the seagull carried it into deeper water and proceeded to drown it.

Seagulls are rutheless predators and cunning opportunists. As someone who lived by the sea and the ocean for a great part of their life, I am familiar with their ways. It wasn't surprising to see a seagull hunt. It was the casual matter-of-fact way of it all that threw me off. It was obvious that this was a well-practiced way of hunting for this bird. Everything was over in seconds. And life went on like nothing happened at all.

I admit, I had to give it a second thought before posting these images here, but nature is what it is and we have to accept it. This scene is no different from a cheetah killing a gazelle or a leopard seal ripping a penguin apart. 

I am not that good at identifying seagulls, but I think this was a European herring gull.


After this spontaneous dose of casual brutality I decided I needed to switch my attention to something less savage. After all, I came here for some fluff and cuteness and right out of the gate was slapped with the heavy hand of reality. So I grabbed a hotdog and moved on.

There seems to be a lot of construction activity going on at the moment and that's great. I'm glad the Zoo is developing. It is one of the oldest zoos in Europe (est. 1864) and is caught in the heart of a busy modern city, so it must take great deal of careful thinking and thorough planning to improve the territory. It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.

Oh, by the way, this corpulant gentleman is called Archie and he just recently woke from his winter hibernation. His two female companions are still sleeping.

Some species of animals are classic residents of the Zoo and have been displayed here for as long as I can remember.

The Markhour.

The Japanese macaque. 

The rare Asiatic lions.

Once lions roamed in Asia, Europe and Africa. Now the only population of Asiatic lions can be found in one single area of India - the Gir national park. They are smaller than their African kin, bulkier, the males have less rich manes than African lions (not counting Tsavo lions, of course). They are extremely vulnurable to extinction and to help conservation India allowed some of the lions to be kept in zoos across the globe. In the 90ies, however, some of the captive Asiatic lions in India were cross-bred to African lions and the precious genetic pool was contaminated. It was decided that hybrids have no conservation value and a lot of work was done to restore the pure population that serves as backup for the only remaining wild Asian lions.

This is why zoos, the good ones, anyway, are important. They have breeding programs that help conservation, they keep studbooks to carefully select the least related animals, they run genetic tests and do other important research that can help save species that hang by a thread. I do not understand the negativity that has been recently directed at the zoos, especially when people attack good zoos that are heavily involved in conservation and take exceptionally good care of their anomals. I've seen some horrible, concentration camp type zoos as well as disgusting menageries. But guess what, there were no social justice warriors tripping over themselves to help animals there! But I digress.

This time around two lionesses came out for a breath of fresh air. I noticed that their fur grew out for the winter - a reminder that lions once were very adapted to surviving the Ice Age. I wonder if genetically the Asiatic lion is older than the African and whether the species originated in Asia and then spread to Africa.

Another special resident of the Zoo doesn't appear to be very impressive at first glance. The jackal, after all, is surrounded by less-than-flattering legends and stories. But the pair of jackals from the Moscow Zoo were part of a very interesting project that was linked to airport security. They were cross-bred to Nenets herding laikas (some sources say Lapponian herding dogs, but from what I found in Russian sources, the founding breed was the Nenets dog) to produce hybrids with exceptional working qualities. The hybrids that were approved for work posessed only a quarter of jackal bood, but they had extremely sensitive noses and could easily cope with drastic changes in weather and outside temperatures characteristic of Russia. In 2018 they were registered as a breed - Sulimov dog, named after its creator Klim Sulimov, but they aren't available for purchace by general public. All of them are owned by Aeroflot and 25 of these dogs are working at Sheremetyevo airport.

My point is, don't diss jackals. They are not cowardly or treacherous, these are human concepts inapplicable to animals. Jackals are smart, agile, very flexible in terms of surrounding conditions. They deserve respect just like any other animal. And their grandkids might be responsible for your safety when you travel.

Interesting how yet another animal from a warmer climate is able to grow a gorgeous long and full coat in winter.

So who's a good boy? Yeah, this fella right here!

The Moscow Zoo has several small indoor pavilions. One is a reptile pavilion where former victims of illegal pet trade are housed. Confiscated by customs, they were handed to the Zoo which has a great team of specialist veterenarians and biologists that can help exotic animals and care for them properly. I am glad that the Zoo put some effort into providing information about the trade that costs so many animals their lives and is so detremental to their wild populations. That day the reptiles were not very active, but I do wish to return to the subject and get more shots of some stunning specimens they have there.

The pavilion of nocturnal animals is a very interesting place, but taking photos there is extremely hard. The displays are bathed in red light which the nocturnal animals are less sensitive to, but even without a camera my eyes struggle to adjust to the lighting. Add a relatively dark lens to this equasion and you just can't win. But you can try.

A degu was sitting right under the lamp and that gave me a little more light to work with. Weird, I thought degus were diurnal.

The Egyptian fruit bats are a curious bunch. They have the greatest brain weight to body weight ratio of any bat species and feature heavily in navigation studies. Here I was lucky to find a momma bat using her wings to cover a youngster clinging to her belly.

I waited patiently for her to move and expose her precious cargo and my patience was rewarded.

The image quality leaves a lot to be desired, but it's the best I've ever gotten in this pavilion, so I'll take it.

It was closer to noon when I returned to the maned wolf enclosure and lo and behold there they were!

Mom, dad ant three three-months old rascals. They were such a delight to observe! Both parents happily engaged in games with their pups, especially their big handsome dad. Their mom looked a bit more tired, plus, her coat was thinned out from pregnancy and feeding the litter, but she too was very involved, although less rough when playing with her babies.

It was so unusual to see these animals so energetic. Usually, in all zoos I've seen them at, they just walk around on those stilt-like legs and do not even pay attention to their mates like more social canids do. Here I saw them in a whole new light and I have to admit my heart melted. The parents were so happy, froliking with the pups or playing by themselves with sticks. They were loving and gentle even when roughhousing. Dad might have used his teeth or paws, but not a single pup yelped or whined, so it's obvious he was careful.

OK, I'm gonna nerd out right now, because every time I stand near this enclosure I hear people calling these guys foxes. Because, of course, a pony-sized fox is a common occurance. Well, first of all, if you don't know what you're looking at, read the plaque on the fence. Zoos make a point of making the basic information available to visitors. The world is a collection of many diverse animal species, it should be interesting to see how many forms of life there truly are out there. Second of all, this is neither a fox nor a wolf. It's a unique representative of a seprate branch of canids, the the only species in the genus Chrysocyon. DNA studies did not link this animal to any living species, so the current theory is that this is  a relict, the soul survivor from a group of large South American canids that were wiped out by the Late Pleisocene extinction.

The closest relatives this very special canid has are the now extinct Falkland Island wolf (also not a wolf) and the bush dog. But all of these species broke away from each other long ago, so the Maned wolf is a distinct canine with very flimsy familial relations to any modern surviving canids. By the way, the Falkland Island wolf would have also been a surviving species if it weren't wiped out by settlers, much like the Dodo or the Thylacene (aka Tasmanian tiger). It was a very trusting animal, hunting it down was an easy task. And when people wrongly accused the so-called wolves of hunting their sheep, the poor bastards didn't stand a chance. This is what Charles Darwin wrote: "These wolves are well known, from Byron's account of their tameness and curiosity; which the sailors, who ran into the water to avoid them, mistook for fierceness. To this day their manners remain the same. They have been observed to enter a tent, and actually pull some meat from beneath the head of a sleeping seaman. The Gauchos, also, have frequently killed them in the evening, by holding out a piece of meat in one hand, and in the other a knife ready to stick them." Heartbreaking. Adding insult to injury the humans gave these animals the genus name Dusicyon, which means "stupid dog" in Greek.

The maned wolf is a solitary animal, so seeing it communicate with other members of its family is a rare treat. It hunts alone in open grasslands and avoids other members of its species like the plague. Even a bonded mating pair defending the same territory will only meet for reproduction, and that's not even on a yearly basis! They can skip a year or two. Given that they only have about 13-14 years to leave their legacy in this world I'd say these guys are taking a great risk.

Little is known about their life in the wild and the captive population is not making life easier for conservationists and scientists. Therefore, this particular litter is a great success.

The maned wolf is not just an exotic-looking canine, it plays an important part in the life of its habitat. As an omnivore it feeds on fruit as well as small prey. Actually, one particular fruit makes up 40-90% of the wolf's diet and depends heavily on the animal for dispersal of its seeds - the aptly named wolf apple. This plant, however, belongs to the family Solanaceae, along with potatoes, tomatoes and nightshade and mandrake. It is believed that consuming the wolf apple helps the animals get rid of giant kidney worms that can be fatal to maned wolves.

Interestingly, the maned wolf will often defecate on leaf-cutter ant nests. The ants use the dung as fertalizer and discard the wolf apple seeds into refuse piles which increases the germinetion rate of the seeds. So this rare and shy animal is an essential part of complex symbiotic relationships. Today it is not yet registered as endangered by the IUCN because of its wide range, but it is classified as near-threatened. Local organizations are a little more concerned and list it as vulnerable or endangered, depending on the geography. Due to habitat loss and exposure to diseases and parasites transmitted by domestic dogs the numbers of wild maned wolves are in decline. These factors, as well as the maned wolf's reluctance to breed like bunnies, make the work done in good respactable zoos more important.

The Moscow zoo has a separate facility about a 100 km from the city - the Breeding center for endangered species. Until 2017 it was closed to the public, but now they allow visitors (only on guided group tours). There they keep and breed some animals that are never displayed in the Zoo, all in all about 1000 animals from 160 species. I think I might visit it someday. And I also want to follow up on the progress of the lovely maned wolf family, so expect more posts about them and the Moscow zoo from me!