Field Trip to the Zoo

I came to Syracuse to study right whale calls, but as Susan’s passion for bioacoustics is indefatigable, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my first trip out had a very different target, albeit one much easier to observe. Asian elephants are charismatic, huge and have complex social lives, and now we hope to have the privilege of studying their calls in captivity. So a field trip to our nearest elephant herd was in order.

Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse has what is generally considered the best elephant program in America and they have not one but two pregnant elephants for us to observe. I find any species big enough to dwarf an SUV irresistible, particularly ones as beautiful and charming as elephants. So when Susan explained that she wanted me to spend time recording and analyzing elephant calls, I jumped at the chance. As it happened, our field trip fell on my birthday so I had the pleasure of ‘working’ on a trip that I would happily have used for a celebration anyway.

two students posing in front of red panda exhibit
Dana and Jess posing with a red panda

A bit more luck was involved as Syracuse has missed the 7 feet of snow that recently hit Buffalo or the visit would have been off. Wrapped up well enough to barely notice the 25°F temperatures, Susan, Hannah, Jess, Dana and I trooped off to the Zoo for a first look at our elephants and their enclosure. The elephants, lacking our parkas and gloves, were taking the sensible precaution of staying inside while the snow fell around us. There the luck ran out and the reflection on the window glass stopped us from taking any good photos or getting very close. The portraits of our subjects will have to wait for another day – I’m sure there will be no shortage of volunteers for the next trip.

From what we could see under the snow, the enclosure was large and well situated for our kind of direct behavioral observations with good lines of sight. It’s surprising how well an animal as big as an elephant can hide what they’re doing when it’s the sole object of your focus and you just need them to shift a few feet to the left or turn a quarter to the right, please! We’re planning on filming them and recording their calls to be able to compare the behavior and the sounds that different individuals make for different reasons. The next step is to put forward a proposal and make sure the keepers are satisfied with our plans. As soon as we have approval, the real work can start.

We also took the opportunity to look for other good photo research opportunities and walked all the way around the Zoo. It has a lot of great species in suitable enclosures, but for our purposes the Humboldt penguins and red wolves were the most promising potential research subjects. There are around 30 penguins, which is a great sample size for any study, and the red wolves are an attractive species because they are both rarely kept in zoos and critically endangered. They were also a little camera shy.

That didn’t mean we ignored the rest and we had particular fun watching the red panda scent mark its entire enclosure after the snow had buried all its previous efforts.

red panda in exhibit
Red Panda

Before we left, we paid a visit to the Zoo’s lion pride and watched in awe and some trepidation as Joshua chewed his way through a piece of massively thick bone. While his sister, Kierha, waited impatiently to claim her own piece, Joshua was playing lion in the manger as he lay close enough to deny her the other bone while totally ignoring it for his own. As soon as she approached, he would snarl and she would back off, visibly frustrated. Eventually he got bored and she quickly claimed her prize. This picture doesn’t quite go justice to his majesty, so we’ll have to try again soon…

Lion at zoo
Joshua the Lion