Saturday, November 27, 2010


As we approached the San Diego Zoo's koala habitat, that was the sound made by members of the crowd assembled around the cage housing these cute marsupials. Yes, koalas are not bears.

"To help it climb, a koala has special hands and feet, both of which have claws. A koala has two thumbs on its hands, and the ridged skin on the bottom of its feet gives it traction for climbing. Strong arm and shoulder muscles help a koala climb 150 feet to the top of a tree and enable it to leap from treetop to treetop.

"Koalas are basically slow-moving animals that need to sleep a lot and take a long time to digest their food. Being on the ground all the time would be a disadvantage, because predators could catch them easily. So instead they adapted to live way up in eucalyptus trees, their behinds firmly planted in the forks of branches, so they can chew leaves and nap all they want without feeling threatened.

"Koalas only eat eucalyptus leaves, but there are more than 600 different kinds of eucalyptus trees, and each looks and tastes very different. They prefer the leaves of about three dozen varieties and eat 1 to 1.5 pounds of leaves each day.

"Interestingly, eucalyptus leaves are poisonous to most animals, but koalas have special bacteria in their stomachs that break down the toxic oils. Special cheek teeth grind the tough eucalyptus leaves.

Koalas don't get many calories from their diet, but they conserve energy by moving slowly and by sleeping as much as 20 hours each day.

"Koalas often eat a little dirt now and then to help them digest their eucalyptus leaf meal.

"The San Diego Zoo has the largest koala population and the most successful koala breeding program outside of Australia" (from the zoo's website).

Then it was on to another "a-a-w-w-w-w-some" resident's home. Fortunately, we were visiting the San Diego Zoo's panda habitat on a weekday in the fall. A weekday in the summer would in all likelihood have required us to wind our way through a number of S-channels just to reach the exhibit (above).

As with the koalas, there was a question of "whether pandas are bears, raccoons, or in a group all their own. Through studying the genetic code (DNA) in pandas’ cells, scientists have confirmed the panda's relationship with bears. Giant pandas are similar to other bears in their general looks, the way they walk and climb, and their skull characteristics.

"The Chinese call their beloved pandas 'large bear-cats.'

"Bamboo is the most important plant in a giant panda's life. Pandas live in cold, rainy bamboo forests high in the mountains of western China and spend at least 12 hours each day eating bamboo. Because bamboo is so low in nutrients, pandas eat as much as 84 pounds of it each day.

"Pandas grasp bamboo stalks with their five fingers and a special wristbone, then use their teeth to peel off the tough outer layers to reveal the soft inner tissue. Strong jaw bones and cheek muscles help pandas crush and chew the thick stalks with their flattened back teeth. Bamboo leaves are also on the menu" (from the zoo's web page).

One of our favorite habitats is that of the big cats. Lest you think that the comparison to (domestic) cats is a stretch, the zoo's description of the lion's behavior may erase that perception: "A lion’s life is filled with sleeping, napping, and resting. Over the course of 24 hours, lions have short bursts of intense activity, followed by long bouts of lying around that total up to 21 hours! Lions are good climbers and often rest in trees, perhaps to catch a cool breeze or to get away from flies. Researchers have often noticed lions lying around in crazy poses, on their backs with their feet in the air or legs spread wide open!" Sounds right on target to me.

Another similarity that we observed was the movement from one opening to their habitat to the second in anticipation (we think) of mealtime.

"Lions live in a matriarchal society. The lionesses work together to hunt and rear the cubs. This allows them all to get the most from their energy, keeping them healthier and safer. Being smaller and lighter than males, lionesses are more agile and faster.

It was mes-merizing just watching these animals walking around their habitat. We could only imagine them traveling a distance of one hundred yards in about six seconds.

The zoo's web page notes that lions are the only members of the cat family to have males and females that look distinctly different.

The Swahili word for lion, simba, also means "king."

The title seems to fit perfectly.

No comments: