Amphibians & Reptiles: Similarities & Differences

August 18, 2023

Have you heard of a herp? Herp comes from the Greek “herpeton”, which means creeping animal, and refers to amphibians and reptiles. These two groups of animals were historically categorized together because of their recognized similarities. In some cases, reptile and amphibian species look similar in body structure, but they all emerge from eggs and are ectothermic. 

Often described as “cold-blooded”, ectothermic means that their body temperature is dependent on the environment. While we sweat during the hot summer months to cool ourselves off, a herp needs to move somewhere cooler, such as a shady spot or underground burrow.

Despite these similarities, there are more differences between these two groups of animals. Although they both have eggs, amphibian eggs lack outer shells while reptile eggs have papery or leathery shells. Interestingly, some snakes are ovoviviparous, which means the eggs are held and hatch inside of the mother’s body, so the young appear to be born live.

Their body coverings are another difference. Reptiles have scaly skin, and their scales or scutes are made out of keratin, like human hair and fingernails. Their scales can be bumpy or smooth and although they might appear wet or slimy, the scales are dry. Amphibians, on the other hand, have permeable skin that is kept wet. This allows them to absorb oxygen and water through their skin, but they can also absorb chemicals, including harmful ones, from the environment. Because of this, amphibians are often studied as indicators of their ecosystems’ health.

Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that amphibians go through metamorphosis as they grow up, changing dramatically from tadpoles to their adult forms. Regardless of these differences, reptiles and amphibians are still collectively referred to as herps, and the scientists who study them are called herpetologists.

– Director of Education and Visitor Studies Kelly Ulrich

Animal Training Workshop Experience With Natural Encounters Inc.

As the way we work with animals in conservation care changes, the use of animal training is becoming more prevalent.  Animals now can participate in their own health care and have their minds and bodies enriched through positive reinforcement training.  However, having a knowledge base and understanding of how to go about training is something one would need in order to make these training sessions successful.  One company that has that knowledge base is Natural Encounters Inc. (NEI)  
Natural Encounters Inc. was established in 1976 by Steve Martin.  He began by creating the first bird show at the San Diego Zoo.  Then went on to provide free-flight bird shows in zoos around the world.  Their mission is to engage, inspire and empower their audiences to engage in conservation.  Additionally, their staff will travel to zoos around the world as animal training consultants to assist animal care professionals with training skills in general or for working with a specific species.  With their extensive knowledge of animal training, they hold various animal training workshops for animal professionals at their home ranch in Central Florida. 

I was lucky enough to attend an animal training workshop hosted by NEI this past January.  NEI is home to over 550 birds of 70 different species at their ranch.  In the workshop we not only received information in a lecture-based setting, but were able to take what we learned and apply it to the birds at their facility.  We were placed into groups with a team lead who has had many years training animals.  We were also assigned a group of macaws and a raven to be able to train with throughout the week. We would spend each morning with a lecture, followed by a training demonstration, then time to train with our birds.  Then we would have a wonderful catered lunch and do the same in the afternoon.  

I went into the workshop with previous education and practice with positive reinforcement training from my time at school.  However, the way that they explained and put techniques and processes into perspective really changed the way I thought of how I was training the animals I work with.  Having the ability to take what we had learned and immediately apply it to the birds we were working with was crucial for everything to click.  The added benefit was having the team lead and your team with you there every step of the way.  Most times you don’t necessarily have the chance to have someone watch and give advice while you are training. This opportunity allowed you to have that immediate feedback, change what you were doing, and see that result of the feedback.  Our whole group joked that we wished we could all go to work with each other to help and give advice during our training sessions!    

Since attending the workshop, I have worked with our African Grey Parrot, Minnow on a nail trim behavior, putting his wings up and beak holds.  The ability to attend this workshop was very beneficial to my own knowledge and changing the way I work with the Zoos ambassador animals.  


– Program Coordinator & Zoo Naturalist Jess Hays


Veterinary Care for the Birds

Working with birds is fun, but does have challenges as well! Here at the Zoo we have many different birds in our care. In our education building, which is not open to the public, we have psittacine birds (parrots). These birds partake in education programs and the Zoomobile. We have raptors (birds of prey), which includes the snowy owls and red-tailed hawk. The Savanna Aviary contains spotted dikkops (a shore bird), sandhill cranes, and multiple species of passerines (perching birds/song birds). Of course, we also have African penguins in the Rocky Coast area too!

Birds have many unique adaptations. They all have feathers which serve as insulation, aid in flight (or swimming for the penguins), and can serve as signals to other birds. Birds go through molt, which is when they lose old feathers and grow new ones. Some birds do this gradually, but some birds molt all their feathers at once. African penguins are a species that molts all at once so you may see some of them looking quite bald like little vultures. These birds are not sick, they are just molting their feathers! When new feathers first grow in, they are connected to blood vessels and are called a “blood feather.” Once the feather is fully grown, it loses the blood supply. However, if a feather breaks while it still has a blood supply it can bleed a large amount. When this occurs, we need to remove the feather to stop the bleeding. This can happen to pet birds too and is one of the most common pet bird emergencies.


Most birds also have hollow bones to reduce their weight for flight. Penguins and other flightless birds are an exception to this and have solid bones like us. Birds do not have a diaphragm, the muscle that separates the chest and abdomen in mammals. They do have air sacs which help to increase airflow through the respiratory system and keep a higher oxygen flow into the body.

It is important for our safety and the safety of the birds to be aware of how a bird might act when we handle them for veterinary procedures. For long procedures, we will anesthetize the birds. This reduces the risk of them injuring us and reduces that risk that they injure themselves trying to escape. Most birds first instinct when we restrain them for an exam, nail trim, or to draw blood is to flap their wings to try to get away. This can cause injury to the wings so we cover their wings with a light towel. Parrots might try to bite while raptors will try to use their talons for defense. 

All of the birds that go outside receive a vaccine for West Nile Virus. This virus is spread by mosquitos and can cause neurological disease in many different animal species. Penguins are also prone to another mosquito borne disease called avian malaria. This is a parasite that only infects birds. This disease was very rare in the northern US, but is becoming more common because climate change is leading to longer mosquito seasons and different species of mosquitos moving further north. To protect them, the penguins receive a preventative medication during mosquito season.

The highly efficient respiratory tracts of birds make them prone to respiratory infections. One that has been in the news lately is avian influenza. The Zoo has a plan in place to help protect our birds from this virus. This plan was developed through discussions with veterinary teams at other zoos and the NY state veterinarian. They can also get a fungal infection called Aspergillosis. This is a fungus that exists in the soil and can infect birds when they are stressed or ill with another disease.

Birds hide signs of illness very well because in the wild, if they show signs of weakness, they become a target for predators. Because of this adaptation, we regularly evaluate all of our birds.  They receive an overall annual checkup and the keepers give daily reports on anything abnormal so that we know if a bird needs additional exams or tests such as blood work or x-rays. The bird’s weights are also monitored.  If a bird does need any tests performed, we bring them to the Animal Hospital. X-rays allow us to not only see the bones but also the outline of the heart, liver, and other internal organs. Some diseases will cause enlargement of organs which we can see on the x-rays. The blood allows us to check the red and white blood cells along with enzymes that show liver and kidney health, protein levels, and electrolytes. 

Stop by and visit with the man species of birds in our care this weekend and all throughout the year! 

– Dr. Chris McKinney (DVM / Zoo Veterinarian) 

Madagascar: One Seedling at a Time

This article first ran in our ZooNooz July 2023 edition.

After three days of travel, upon arriving in Madagascar, there is only one leg of the trip left before reaching Centre ValBio, Seneca Park Zoo’s partner of three decades. Centre ValBio is situated in Ranomafana National Park, a biodiversity hotspot, and home to countless creatures, including some of Madagascar’s most famous residents, lemurs.

“I like to move it, move it,” friends and family sing to us before we leave—a reference to the singing lemur in the animated Madagascar movie. We are asked to take pictures, and to bring some home in our suitcases.

We are on our way to the land of lemurs. Lemurs are found only here in Madagascar, this very large island hundreds of miles off the coast of Africa, and one of the most unique and biodiverse ecosystems in the world. When conservationists talk about species that are particularly popular, and are considered cute or cuddly, or otherwise draw our collective attention, they call these species “charismatic.” By this definition, lemurs are some of the most charismatic creatures on the planet. They are also some of the most critically endangered, with over 95% of lemur species threatened with extinction in the next 20 years.

We are hoping to see some lemurs, of course, but we are really here to meet the people who are working to protect them and the land they call home.

But before we arrive there is the 12-hour drive, on roads with potholes the size of vehicles. It used to be nine hours, our Malagasy driver and guide David explains to us, but it is much longer now because the roads are so bad; they haven’t been repaired in years. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Minimum wage is $55 per month, David tells us, yet many people don’t even make that.

As we drive away from the city and into the rural areas, the poverty becomes clear. Children and adults wait at the roadsides for the opportunity to sell something to passing cars. Clothes are torn, feet are bare.


Much of the landscape is bare, too. Trees have been cut or burned down, and hillsides have been torn into or terraced, leaving the soil to seep or wash away, where it runs into rivers, and eventually out to sea. The water in rivers and rice paddies looks like chocolate milk.

Madagascar has lost nearly half of its forests over the past 60 years, much of it through clear cutting, and slash and burn methods to use ash for fertilizers. The soil is red here, and erosion is so bad that satellite photos show Madagascar “bleeding” into the ocean.

As the trip goes on, the day turns cloudy, then rainy and dark, and poverty reveals itself at the roadsides, it is hard not to feel a sense of hopelessness, even despair.

We arrive in the dark. As we get closer to our destination, the roads start to improve, but it takes us awhile to notice; it’s funny how often we notice when things get bad, but fail to recognize right away when they improve gradually.

We wake up in a world entirely different than the one we’d driven through, with the rainforest all around us. From here, it is only a short walk to the Centre ValBio field station.

Centre ValBio (CVB) was founded by Dr. Patricia Wright, a world-renowned researcher and conservationist—and recipient of the Zoo’s Conservation Warrior award in 2022. Dr. Wright came to Madagascar to research lemurs in the 1980’s, and with the help of local guides discovered the golden bamboo lemur in 1986.

Dr. Wright soon set out to protect lemurs, recognizing that to do so you must protect their habitat: the rapidly declining forest. She worked with the Madagascar government to protect 100,000 acres of rainforest and lemur habitat, which in 1991 was established as Ranomafana National Park (RNP). CVB, located within RNP, is widely recognized as a standard-bearer for tropical research stations, leading research and conservation efforts, and also initiatives in community health, education, and sustainable livelihoods.

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) partners with the Seneca Park Zoo Society (SPZS) to support CVB’s work in biodiversity research, habitat restoration, reforestation, and restoration ecology. A goal of this visit is to learn more about the work happening at CVB, and to identify opportunities for RIT to support the work through faculty and student research projects. But mostly, we will find, we are here to learn.

We arrive at CVB and meet with Biodiversity Specialist Mahandry Hugues Andrianarisoa. Mahandry, who is Malagasy—like most of the staff here. Mahandy made his way to working with CVB through SPZS, first in 2016 when SPZS sponsored Mahandry while he was pursuing his master’s degree, and he became part of the One Cubic Foot project to document, through art and science, the region’s biodiversity. In his 2017 visit to the United States, sponsored by SPZS, he learnd DNA barcode analysis at the Smithsonian Institute and also met with Dr. Wright in her office at SUNY Stony Brook. Dr. Wright invited him to become part of the reforestation work at CVB. Within two months on the job Mahandry had planted 3,000 trees. Shortly before our arrival in Madagascar, he had planted 10,000 trees in Kiranomena, the community where he grew up.

Mahandry greets us wearing a Seneca Park Zoo jacket, a wool cap, and a smile that warms and lights the room. He reviews the work CVB’s doing to understand and document biodiversity in the area—inventories on lemurs,
but also reptiles, birds, insects, small mammals, plants. The inventories are updated annually to see changes over time.
A unique aspect of their work, he explains, is that they are seeking to understand how biodiversity thrives in an agroforestry system. Agroforestry integrates forests and agriculture—meaning the cultivation and harvest of
crops are incorporated with, rather than in competition with, the forest and species that live there.
We are given a tour of CVB’s facilities and labs, where we learn about some of their research efforts, and meet Emile Rajeriarison. Emile leads insect collection activities— part of CVB’s mission to understand ecosystem dynamics and genomics in the rainforest. He smiles as he shows us specimens, and explains how they are learning how each insect functions in the ecosystem, with most serving as pollinators. With his deep knowledge of the forest, Emile was asked to serve as Dr. Wright’s guide during her first field expeditions in the area, and they ultimately discovered the golden bamboo lemur together in 1986; they have worked together ever since.
Emile recalls when Dr. Wright first began to pursue protecting the forest; Emile agreed it was needed, as it pained him to see the forest destroyed. But he wondered how locals could make a living; people here, in extreme poverty, use the forest for everything from fuel to fertilizer to food.
So, to protect and care for the lemurs, you have to protect and care for the forest. And to protect and care for the forest, you have to care for the people, and allow them to care for themselves and each other. This is what
is called a One Health approach—recognizing that nature and people are interconnected, and the health of one depends on the health of the other.
Dr. Wright has a vision of reforesting the entire area between RNP and the sea—with an ultimate goal of protecting 600,000 acres. But much of the land is privately owned, by many individuals with relatively small
plots of land. This is not a case of greedy companies trying to make a killing by killing off the trees; rather it is people trying to make a living, to have enough to eat and feed their families. This is where agroforestry and
restoration ecology—or agroecology—come in.
The next day we meet with Nicolas Rasolonjatovo, CVB’s Head of Reforestation, who takes us to a small agroforestry site, about three years in the process.
He explains how high-value crops such as vanilla and white pepper are integrated into the forest. As part of the program, when farmers pick up seedlings for revenue-generating crops, they are given seedlings of endemic
trees for free. The trees provide necessary shade for the crops, while also improving the health of the soil, and cleaning the water.
Several income (and food) generating activities can be combined in one plot of land—in the small area where we stand, we see pineapples, beekeeping, and vanilla amidst the young trees. As part of the agroforestry programs, people learn how to add value to and harvest crops to ensure sustainable incomes.

It’s funny how we have money to spend to go to Mars, but not to heal the planet. We are all connected. We need to find better ways to use what we have on the ground. - Mahandry Hughes Andrianarisoa

Madagascar article pic

Later, Nicolas takes us to a larger and more established site, owned by a woman named Félicité. Félicité’s father owned the land before her, and had cleared it to feed his family; a short-term solution for many farmers in the area. Félicité has embraced agroforestry as a more sustainable solution for both livelihoods and the health of the land. She has been trained on fermenting vanilla—fermented vanilla gets two to three times the price on the market. She has a nursery with seedlings; she grows vanilla and teaches others how to grow, harvest and pollinate it. Her land has been transformed, and she is a leader in her community.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Nicolas tells us of additional partners they’re working with to reforest and regenerate the area: 500,000 seedlings through TerraMatch; 300,000 through, a free, non-profit search engine that plants trees. He points to a nearby mountain and explains their strategy of planting endemic trees at the top of mountains, which establishes soil and nutrients, nourishing farmers’ soil below.

Before we part ways, Nicolas shares that this is his dream, to help people and teach them how to have healthy soil. It’s funny, he says, how we have money to spend to go to Mars, but not to heal the planet we live on. “We are all connected,” he says. “We need to find better ways to use what we have on the ground.”

On the last day of our visit, we wake up early to have breakfast before starting on the long road back home. As we drink coffee in the dining area, we look up to see Mahandry walking in. It is Saturday, his day off, and not yet 7 am. He joins us at our table, sleepy-eyed but smiling, bearing gifts of cinnamon and white pepper. I wanted to say goodbye, he says.

As he sits with us, drinking warm milk instead of coffee, we have a chance to ask him more about his work, and what brought him to CVB.

While he was working on the One Cubic Foot project, in Washington, D.C., he says, “I saw all of the trees, and I wanted to have as many trees where I live.”

Mahandry shared his dream to reforest his country with Tom Snyder, SPZS Director of Programming and Conservation Action. Tom worked with Mahandry to learn about his vision, and helped connect him with CVB’s reforestation work.

This is a nice story, but something is confusing. Looking around at the rainforest, one can’t help but wonder why Mahandry would see D.C. and want to have more trees at his home.

“But you have so many trees here,” we say. Mahandry laughs. “Oh,” he says, “this isn’t my home. Here, let me show you.”

He opens a map on his phone, zooming in on Kiranomena, the area where he’d recently planted 10,000 seedlings. The whole area is mint green, the color digital maps use to show parks and forests.

“But that green shouldn’t be there,” he says. “There aren’t any trees.”

It’s funny, if you think about it, how much we trust these maps to tell us about the state of the world, as though they are reality.

But then again, sometimes maps show us where we are, and sometimes they show us where we’re going.

Written by Erin H. Green, M.S. (Seneca Park Zoo Society Member, Research Analyst and Writer) 

– Edited by James Myers, PhD. (Associate Provost of International Education at Rochester Institute of Technology)

Keeper Connection: Sea Lion Rehab and the Seneca Park Zoo

Here at Seneca Park Zoo, we are home to four California sea lions. We have three females and one male. Lily, Mary Lou, Daley, and Bob are all special, but Lily has a very interesting story about how she came to live at Seneca Park Zoo. Assistant Curator Kellee Wolowitz shared that story with us below.

Lily was captured on a boat float in Marina Del Rey Harbor, Los Angeles County, on December 4, 2009. She was suffering from emaciation and had an abscess on her front right flipper. While the abscess was treated and did heal, she lost her ability to flex her flipper and walks with a permanent limp. 
Due to this injury, it was determined she could not be released back into nature. Once she was medically cleared, Lily was brought to Seneca Park Zoo from Fort MacArthur Marine Mammal Center in San Pedro, California on January 25, 2011. That might seem like it was a very long trip, but she was flown on a plane and was accompanied by zoo staff that monitored her very closely. 
Since her arrival, she has thrived and has given birth twice. Her son Bob, currently lives here at the Zoo and was born on June 7, 2017. He can often be heard vocalizing throughout the Zoo! 
Lily is a laid back sea lion, and knows many different behaviors. Many of these behaviors allow us to preform medical examinations with little to no stress. Lily receives voluntary hand injections of her vaccines, rolls over so we can look at her belly, and opens her mouth so we can look at her teeth, presents both her flippers, and can lay flat. She even lets us give her eye drops. We also do some fun behaviors that allow her to exhibit natural behaviors and is also enriching for her. 

Unfortunately California sea lions like Lily face many obstacles in nature. Their natural predators are sharks and orcas, or killer whales, but that is not the worst of it. They are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it illegal to harm them, but they are still killed or injured by fisherman who see them as a threat or competition to their livelihood. 

Entanglement in, and ingestions of, plastics in the ocean, malnutrition due to overfishing, infections, parasites, and harmful algal blooms, are other threats. If you want to help sea lions, you can do so by eating fish recommended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, reduce toxins you use on your lawn and gardens, reduce trash by avoiding single use plastics, and dispose of fishing lines and lures properly. 

Lily is a success story, thanks to the Marine Mammal Center and Seneca Park Zoo, so let do our part to make sure all California sea lions are able to live in a clean, healthy environment! 


– Assistant Curator Kellee Wolowitz


Keeper Connection: Opportunities, Barriers, and Suggestions for Orangutan Rehabilitation and Re-Introduction Centers in Indonesia.

In the fall of 2017 I visited Indonesia to expand on my Masters of Science theses titled Implementing Best Practice Guidelines: Opportunities, Barriers, and Suggestions for Orangutan Rehabilitation and Re-Introduction Centers in Indonesia.

While in Indonesia I visited three primate rehabilitation and re-introduction centers: The Aspinall Foundation in Java, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program in Sumatra, and International Animal Rescue in Kalimantan, Borneo. 
The Aspinall Foundation rehabilitates and re-introduces Javan gibbons to the wild, langurs and various other primate species that may be surrendered or rescued. International Animal Rescue focuses mainly on Bornean Orangutan re-habilitation and re-introduction into the wild. The primate species within these centers are victims of mass habitat deforestation for agriculture or the wild primate pet trade. 
My main focus was to determine whether the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Best Practice Guidelines for the Re-Introduction of Great Apes was in need of an updated version since it was first published in 2007. Orangutan and other Indonesian primate rehabilitation centers have seen a dramatic increase in number of orangutans in need due to the continued deforestation of their habitats in order to grow palm oil. Because of the increase of individuals and the decrease of wild habitat to re-introduce them into, the practices that were once standard in the past have now changed.

My project aims were based on a theme:

1. To determine the applicability of the IUCN Best Practice Guidelines for the Re-Introduction of Great  Apes to orangutan rehabilitation and re-introduction practitioners;

2. To determine the major difficulties practitioners face in implementing the IUCN guidelines; and

3. To determine the potential need for an updated best practice guideline containing in-depth orangutan-specific rehabilitation and re-introduction practices. 

I obtained my data from interviews with practitioners and questionnaires handed out to those willing to participate. The questions asked pertained to the project aims.
The quantitative results from the questionnaire determined that the majority of practitioners felt that the IUCN guidelines for great ape re-introduction lack orangutan-specific information with a need to update sections regarding policies and protocol for guideline compliance and post-release monitoring. 

– Zoo Keeper Clare Beldin-Walker


Resources for orangutan conservation:

How Zoos are Helping Researchers Improve Wild Snow Leopard Population Counts – Guest Blog by Snow Leopard Trust

This guest essay contributed by by Jen Snell Rullman, Senior Philanthropy Manager at Snow Leopard Trust, first appeared in our April 2023 edition of ZooNooz

Snow leopards are famously elusive, making them challenging to observe and study. We rely on technology like research cameras to be our window into their wild lives. Take a good look at the two photos on the following page of snow leopards. Is it the same cat or two different ones? Now imagine the wind blowing the fur in different directions, snowflakes obscuring the rosette pattern, or maybe half the cat is hidden behind a rock. Would you be able to know with 100% certainty if it’s the same cat?

Welcome to the world of snow leopard research.


The use of motion-activated research cameras to survey “hard to-count” species has grown over the last decades. Researchers use them to estimate populations of many species, including tree kangaroos, wolverines, bears, and many species of cats. But how accurate are the resulting population estimates? There is a widespread assumption that when looking at research camera images, scientists can readily identify individual animals from one another based on their unique characteristics. We’re testing that assumption to ensure we get the most accurate population counts.

Snow Leopard Trust has launched a robust study to better understand how well we identify one cat from another and how the errors influence the population estimates, allowing us to take that into account when developing our own population estimates of wild snow leopards. To do this, we need research camera photos of animals with known identities.

This is where zoo animal ambassadors get the opportunity to help their wild counterparts. Our scientists are working with experts from over 40 zoos, including Seneca Park Zoo, to deploy the same kind of research cameras we use in the field to capture photos of each individual cat species in the study: amur tiger, lynx, amur leopard and snow leopard. Why all four cats? Snow Leopard Trust scientists will examine how identification error rates may vary according to different fur types in wild animals by comparing data from four species of cats with contrasting patterns. 

amur tiger = stripes and short fur lynx = small spots and long fur amur leopard = large spots and short fur snow leopard = large spots and long fur

Snow Leopard Photos Courtesy of: SLCF-Mongolia/SLT

It’s relatively easy to tell these four different species apart. But how did you do on the ID test on the above? Did you know it’s the same snow leopard in both photos? If you didn’t, you could have overestimated the population, skewing conservation strategies for snow leopard protection.

The research cameras in zoos will take photos of both sides of the cat where there is 100% certainty of its identity. We will send these photos to scientists who normally ID the species of interest in the wild (lynx photos to lynx researchers and so on) through research camera studies. Researchers involved in the project will not know how many cats are in the database, which cat is which, or where it is from. Only our lead scientist knows the true identities. The researchers will ID the cats in the zoo photos. We can then assess how accurate they are at identifying individual cats because we are certain of the true identities of the zoo animals.

We can also evaluate the types of errors that most commonly occur. For example, if it is more common to say that photos of the same cat are of two different cats, that leads to an overestimation of the population. In contrast, if it is more common to classify two photos of different cats as the same cat, that will lead to an underestimation of the population.

“We could not learn the answer to this vital question about ID accuracy without these known cats and the generous conservation partnership of Seneca Park Zoo in this study. Once we have the final results, we hope to have a clearer understanding of the margin of error. We can then incorporate that into our research findings to better analyze and estimate snow leopard populations. This will help us take another leap forward in securing a future for wild felids. And we have zoo cats to thank for their part in it.” – Marissa Niranjan, Deputy Director of Snow Leopard Trust. 

Snow Leopard Photos Courtesy of: SLCF-Mongolia/SLT

Seneca Park Zoo has partnered with Snow Leopard Trust for over a decade, contributing to our conservation programs in myriad ways – inspiring zoo visitors to take action on behalf of wild snow leopards and increasing awareness of the importance of local and indigenous communities in snow leopard conservation. In 2021, Seneca Park Zoo support helped build multiple predator-proof corrals in Mongolia and Pakistan, protecting livestock from attack and decreasing negative interactions between wild snow leopards and herders.

You may be surprised to learn that Seneca Park Zoo’s conservation efforts also help snow leopards by supporting a growing beekeeping livelihood-improvement project in Pakistan. This initiative increases the economic resilience of high-altitude communities who share their land with snow leopards and promotes coexistence with this threatened cat. (Check out how Seneca Park Zoo is also making a difference for pollinators in the Rochester area on the zoo website.)

Seneca Park Zoo and the larger global snow leopard community are empowering Snow Leopard Trust to reach new conservation milestones for the magnificent ghost of the mountains. Thank you for turning inspiration into action!

“Seneca Park Zoo and the larger global snow leopard community are empowering Snow Leopard Trust to reach new conservation milestones for the magnificent ghost of the mountains.”

– Jen Snell Rullman, Senior Philanthropy Manager

Reproductive Evaluations & Research with Lions in Our Care

Zuri is trained to allow us to collect vaginal swabs for reproductive evaluations and research. This process is not painful and only takes a few seconds. Zuri is allowed to leave if she chooses, but she often stays put even after we are done! The swabs are then rolled on glass slides to transfer any cells onto the slide. 

These are used for cytology – evaluation of the cells under a microscope. The slides are sent to the Lindner Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). This organization performs important research regarding the protection and conservation of endangered species. They also have educational programs to help spread knowledge and engage the public to help save endangered species.

This research is important for many of the species that we work with in zoos because many wild populations are faced with the threat of extinction. Lions are listed as a vulnerable species by IUCN, which is one-step below endangered, meaning that wild populations are declining and they are facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. 

Knowing more about their reproductive physiology helps to increase success of breeding in zoos, which helps zoos to maintain healthy and genetically diverse populations. 

Reproductive research also helps us to understand how animals reproduce in the wild and what factors could disrupt or help to increase reproductive success. This knowledge is an important component of conservation strategies.

– Dr. Chris McKinney (DVM / Zoo Veterinarian)

Zoos Support Polar Bear Conservation Research in the Wild – Guest Blog

This guest essay contributed by Dr. Thea Bechshoft, Conservation Programs Associate and Staff Scientist Polar Bears International, first appeared in our January 2023 edition of ZooNooz

It’s a little known fact that zoos can play an essential role in conducting research that helps polar bears in the wild. Many of the zoos and aquariums taking part in such efforts, including Seneca Park Zoo, are part of Polar Bears International’s Arctic Ambassador Center network. They work with us collaboratively on research, education, and advocacy programs that address the challenges polar bears face in a warming Arctic.



Studying polar bears in the high Arctic can be logistically demanding and even dangerous. And some essential research would be impossible to conduct with polar bears in the wild. Also, it’s extremely rare for field researchers to handle the same wild bear multiple times during any given year, meaning that field data often gives us a precious but single snapshot in time of what is happening with an individual bear.

Modern zoos and aquariums present a unique ability to help fill such knowledge gaps by having their bears take part in studies that can only be conducted in zoo settings. These studies are made possible partly because the highly skilled caretakers and vets at these institutions have the ability to train the animals to allow the collection of voluntary samples, but also because the animals in their care can be accessed multiple times over a longer duration. Both of these factors are immensely helpful, especially in studies that aim to enhance our understanding of polar bear physiology and behavior, and in developing and calibrating new research methods and technologies before they are deployed in the field.

KT Miller / Polar Bears International

Several such studies are underway as we speak. For example, voluntary blood samples are being used to study how the bear’s reproductive hormones fluctuate across the entire calendar year. In addition, polar bears in zoos are helping us develop pregnancy tests, and voluntary hair samples are helping researchers understand the timing of hair growth on different body parts of the animal, which can provide insights into their diet and health. And recently, zoo bears have been helping us develop and test new attachment techniques for small tracking devices that will help us understand the movement patterns of polar bears in the wild. Earlier studies provided insights into the energy requirements of polar bears when swimming or walking and also helped solve the puzzle of how polar bears find mates on the vastness of the sea ice.

But how do zoos and aquariums prioritize research on polar bears and forge collaborations with field biologists? In 2018, Polar Bears International supported the efforts of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in forming the Polar Bear Research Council (PBRC). Composed of zoo professionals and polar bear researchers, the council helps ensure zoo projects answer key scientific questions related to polar bears in the wild. The projects fall within four main areas – Field Techniques, Health and Welfare, Physiology and Behavioral Ecology, and Reproductive Physiology – and members can find them in the PBRC Research Masterplan, a living document that is revised regularly. (The latest version, released in January 2022, can be found on the Polar Bears International website).

BJ Kirschhoffer / Polar Bears International
KT Miller / Polar Bears International


Polar bear fieldwork is often a financially challenging undertaking, even though most researchers are willing to live on a stone if that’s what it takes to be able to afford Arctic conservation projects. However, the unavoidable cost of transporting people and equipment in these remote regions can quickly max out any budget – especially when it comes to helicopters, which are essential to many projects. The high costs are true for any in-field polar bear researcher, including those working at and with Polar Bears International on our many projects around the circumpolar Arctic. Outside funding is essential to our ability to collect the data on wild polar bears that allows managers and policy makers to make science-based decisions on how to best protect these amazing animals.

Seneca Park Zoo has supported Polar Bears International’s maternal den study in Svalbard over multiple years as one of our generous sponsors. This study uses solar-powered trail cams to study polar bear moms and cubs non-invasively during this sensitive time in their life cycle. Our team arrives in late winter to set up the cameras on snowy mountain slopes in Svalbard, just ahead of the emergence of moms and cubs. The findings will help managers and policymakers establish the best possible guidelines to protect denning families. It will also help scientists understand the impact of climate warming on the survival rates of denning cubs and provide insights into the den-selection process.

“Zoo bears are perfect candidates to help with polar bear research because they already participate in many health-care behaviors voluntarily and seem to find those experiences enriching,” says Amy Cutting, Vice President of Conservation at Polar Bears International. “In addition to inspiring guests to take action on behalf of polar bears, zoos are helping conservationists find ways to save a species facing very serious threats to its survival. I am really proud of how the zoo community has come together over the last decade to make significant contributions to polar bear conservation science – and the Seneca Park Zoo has played an important role in that effort.”

Ways you can help polar bears:

  • Use educated consumerism – buy local products, follow the Seafood Watch Guide.
  • Turn off lights when not in use. Replace old light bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs.
  • Use proper trash receptacles for things that can’t be recycled. Don’t litter!
  • Eliminate Styrofoam – it doesn’t decompose!6. Walk, cycle, carpool, or take public transportation.
  • Save water by turning off taps when not in use and take shorter showers.
  • Unplug appliances (toaster, hair dryer, laptop, etc.) when not in use.
  • Turn off vehicles while waiting rather than idling.
  • Turn your thermostat two degrees down in the winter and two degrees up in the summer.
  • Avoid the dryer and hang your clothes to dry.
  • Donate to the Zoo’s conservation partner, Polar Bears International.
  • Assist in a community recycling event.
  • Avoid single-use plastics such as straws, grocery bags, utensils, water bottles, and to-go drink lids.
  • Plant a tree or garden. Your participation helps save polar bears!
  • Come out to Polar Bear Awareness Weekend at the Zoo (Feb. 25 & 26) and/or Defend the Ice Night at the Rochester Amerks! 

Estimating the Importance of Land-Based, Human-Provisioned Foods in Polar Bears Affected by Sea Ice Loss (Guest Blog)

Below is a summary of the study we are currently taking part in with Anoki by Dr. Karyn Rode, Research Wildlife Biologist with U.S. Geological Survey – Alaska Science Center


Estimating the Importance of Land-Based, Human-Provisioned Foods in Polar Bears Affected by Sea Ice Loss

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else in the world leading to substantial declines in summer sea ice extent.  In the southern Beaufort Sea of Alaska, bears have historically spent most of their life out on the sea ice hunting for ringed and bearded seals, their primary prey.  But over the past three decades, declines in summer sea ice extent have been associated with a greater proportion of bears in the population summering on land and spending more time there. 

Three communities on the north coast of Alaska also harvest bowhead whales during the time that bears are onshore. The remains left by hunters attract large numbers of bears and also provides a food source during a period when there is little to no sea ice off the northern coast of Alaska.  However, bears also are attracted to areas close to human settlement creating the potential for increased bear-human conflict. Answering the question of how best to manage whale remains depends on better understanding their nutritional importance to polar bears in the population.


A collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and European and U.S. zoos seeks to answer this question by pairing data collected on wild bears with data from bears in zoos.  In nature, collars fit on bears provide information on how much time bears spend where whale remains are deposited.  Direct observations at the carcass can provide information on how much time bears spend feeding.  But estimating how much food they are getting, requires better understanding the size of bears mouths and how much they consume while feeding – a question that can only be addressed in a zoo setting.

US Fish and Wildlife Service Polar Bear program

Determining the energetic contribution of whale carcasses will help inform decisions on the management of whale remains which can provide a supplementary and diversionary food resource during the ice-free period but also lead to bear-human conflict.  This partnership addresses a question important to managing and conserving polar bears in the United States but the data collected from zoos will help inform feeding ecology of polar bears throughout their range.

Karyn D. Rode, PhD Research Wildlife Biologist U.S. Geological Survey – Alaska Science Center

Videos of female (top) and male (below) polar bears eating blubber in nature. Footage provided by US Fish and Wildlife Service Polar Bear Program.

Ways you can help polar bears:

  • Use educated consumerism – buy local products, follow the Seafood Watch Guide.
  • Turn off lights when not in use. Replace old light bulbs with energy-efficient bulbs.
  • Use proper trash receptacles for things that can’t be recycled. Don’t litter!
  • Eliminate Styrofoam – it doesn’t decompose!6. Walk, cycle, carpool, or take public transportation.
  • Save water by turning off taps when not in use and take shorter showers.
  • Unplug appliances (toaster, hair dryer, laptop, etc.) when not in use.
  • Turn off vehicles while waiting rather than idling.
  • Turn your thermostat two degrees down in the winter and two degrees up in the summer.
  • Avoid the dryer and hang your clothes to dry.
  • Donate to the Zoo’s conservation partner, Polar Bears International.
  • Assist in a community recycling event.
  • Avoid single-use plastics such as straws, grocery bags, utensils, water bottles, and to-go drink lids.
  • Plant a tree or garden. Your participation helps save polar bears!
  • Come out to Polar Bear Awareness Weekend at the Zoo (Feb. 25 & 26) and/or Defend the Ice Night at the Rochester Amerks!