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Improving the Lives of Animals in Our Care

The North Carolina Zoo always strives to improve the quality of care their animals receive. To do so, research projects are carried out on zoo grounds in order to improve animal care, fine-tune diets, and develop new husbandry techniques. Zoo animals also offer researchers the chance to study wild animals in ways that are not possible in the wild.

Elephant behavior research

Elephants in zoos can often get bored if they are not offered many different opportunities for feeding, socializing and play. Interns from the State Government Internship Program have studied our elephants to determine the best practices for keeping our elephants active and healthy. One of the findings of the study was that the best way to stop elephants from getting bored was to provide them with a constant source of hay. This mimics what elephants would be doing in nature, since wild elephant spend the vast majority of their day looking for or consuming food. This study is a good example of how research can be used to improve the lives of zoo animals by providing zoo keepers with hard data upon which to base decisions about animal care.

Chimpanzee Cognition

The Hominoid Psychology Research Group at Duke University has partnered with the North Carolina Zoo to investigate social cognition in the zoo’s chimpanzees. Together with zoo staff, Professor Brian Hare and graduate student Christopher Krupenye are training our chimpanzees to perform complicated tasks presented to them on touchscreen monitors. The chimpanzees make selections by touching icons on the screen, and, just like human children, many of them have quickly become expert video game players! This research explores what chimpanzees know about their social world. For example, how much they think about the thoughts and emotions of other chimpanzees, or even their human caretakers. Knowledge gained from this research program will improve how chimpanzees are cared for in zoos and elevate public awareness of the unique intellect of our closest relatives.

Ape Movement— Gorillas and Chimpanzees

When watching chimps and gorillas you may have noticed that they walk on their knuckles rather than the palms of their hands. While walking on their knuckles they keep their long fingers, which are needed for grasping and climbing tree branches, tucked into their hands. This type of movement, called knuckle-walking, allows them to easily move both in the trees and on the ground. While humans don’t knuckle walk, humans, chimpanzees and gorillas are the only animals that hit the ground with their heel first when they are moving. These special adaptations are important for understanding ape behavior and anatomy, as well as how humans and apes evolved. However, little is known about how these postures change over an individual’s lifespan. Postdoctoral researcher Angel Zeininger of Duke University has been studying the North Carolina Zoo’s chimpanzee and gorilla troops, including four young chimpanzees and two young gorillas, in order to shed more light on how their posture and movement develop and what those developments mean for the evolution of knuckle-walking. The study will also offer insights into African apes’ ability to move in a variety of different habitats, as well as to determine critical times in an ape’s locomotive development. This information will help us to better understand the habitat needs of chimpanzees and gorillas, both in the wild and in zoos.

Baboon Healing Study

The North Carolina Zoo houses twenty Hamadryas baboons, the largest troop in the United States. Even though our troop is large, hamadryas baboons are extremely social primates and can live in troops of over 100 individuals in the wild. Hamadryas baboons are unique in that adult males establish and maintain a harem of females. Competition between males for females can create tension which in turn can lead to fighting. However, baboons are well adapted to their fighting lifestyles, and can quickly and naturally heal from wounds they receive. While getting hurt is a natural part of Hamadryas baboon society, in captivity, wounding can be a concern for keepers and vet staff. North Carolina Zoo keeper Jodi Wiley initiated a study to compare how baboons at different zoos received and recovered from injuries. Findings from this study will help all zoos that house Hamadryas baboons to provide better veterinary care when animals get wounded.

Polar Bear Food Allergy

Of the eight species of bears found in the world, polar bears are the only true carnivores. While their diet in the wild consists mainly of seals, in zoos they are often supplied with different varieties of nutritionally complete food that are both meat and vegetable based. In 2009, the North Carolina Zoo’s polar bear keepers noticed that one of their male polar bears was having problems with indigestion. Discussions with our vets suggested that the bear seemed to be suffering from a food allergy. Working closely with the vet staff, keepers began a study to see if they could pinpoint which food item the bear was allergic to. After several trials, they found that removing a particular nutritional biscuit from his diet greatly improved his symptoms. Based on this project, our polar bear keepers are developing a survey for other zoos to see if food allergies like this could be contributing to gastro-intestinal problems in other polar bears.

Light Cycles of Arctic Birds

The Rocky Coast habitat at the North Carolina Zoo is home to horned puffins, parakeet auklets, and thick-billed murres. All three of these species live in the arctic where the length of the day varies seasonally by as much as 20 hours. Many plant and animal species depend on variations in daylight length to maintain annual behaviors such as migration and breeding. For birds, daylight length can help determine seasonal molting and breeding as well as daily activities such as looking for food. In zoos it is often difficult to replicate lighting that mimics a bird’s natural light environment. However, it is important that zoos approximate as closely as possible the conditions that animals would encounter in the wild. At the Rocky Coast habitat, simple light timers are used to provide the birds with a light cycle that closely mimics the light cycle of the arctic. Zoo keeper Melissa Vindigni and the other Rocky Coast bird keepers are taking this one step further. They have developed a research project to to evaluate the quality of light intensity variation between different types of bulbs used for artificially lighting the habitat as well as to evaluate quality of light that the bulbs produce over their lifespan. This information will help them to create and maintain an optimal lighting system for our arctic birds, encouraging natural behaviors and seasonal patterns.

Developing a New Diet for Zoo Gorillas

Gorillas are the world’s largest primate. They also eat large amounts of food, and their diet is (except for a few insects) totally vegetarian. In 2008, the North Carolina Zoo’s gorilla group was placed on a new “heart-healthy” diet, the ingredients of which were based on what they would be eating in the wild. This diet removed high calorie, high fat items and replaced them with foods that are were low in starch and high in fiber. This diet change grew into a multi-zoo research project, led by Elena Less ofCleveland Metroparks Zoo, to investigate the health benefits of the new diet. The new diet made the gorillas more active and has reduced the amount of body fat that they are carrying. Because heart disease is a major cause of illness in gorillas, these changes could have significant long term benefits. Thus, research is continuing to monitor heart health of gorillas on the new diet to see if it promotes better cardiovascular health.

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Aviary Bird Guide

African Pygmy Goose

Amethyst Starling

Bali Mynah

Birds in the Aviary

Blue Poison Dart Frog

Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot:

Blue-grey Tanager

Blue-winged Leafbird

Chilean Flamingo

Common Shama Thrush

Crested Coua

Crested Wood Partridge

Eclectus Parrot

Emerald Starling

Fairy Bluebird

Golden- crested Mynah

Green Woodhoopoe

Mandarin Duck

Masked Lapwing


Nicobar Pigeon

Panama Golden Poison Dart Frog

Paradise Tanager

Pekin Robin

Purple Glossy Starling

Red-capped Cardinal

Ringed Teal

Scarlet Ibis

Scarlet-faced Liocichla


Victoria-crowned Pigeon

White-faced Whistling Duck

Yellow-banded dart frog (bumblebee frog)

Yellow-rumped Cacique

Africa Bridge Art

African Gates

African Savanna

Agama Lizard

Ant Bear

Arctic Fox Art

Arctic Turns

Bald Eagle with Salmon

Ball Python

Billy Goats Gruff

Black Dog


Cattail Gate

Elephant Rubbing Tree

Elephant Tracking Game

Elephants Art

Follow the Pollen Path

French Beans


Garden Friends

Harbor Seal Sculpture

Hippo Pod

Hummingbird Garden

Lisa’s Dragonfly



Nature’s Recyclers

Ola, The Water Bearer

Ostrich Egg Interactive

Piedmont Totem

Polar Bear Art

Prairie Geyser

Preening Heron

Stalking Little Blue Heron

Stone that Stands in an Empty Sky

The Critics

Uwharrie Vision

Watani Cooling Station

White Rhino Art

Zoological Egg Rest