Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Antwerp Zoo

Antwerp Zoo was by far the most accessible of the three zoos I visited two months ago (wow, it's been that long already!?) in Europe. It is located adjacent to the city's central railway station, ideal if you're coming from out of town, but even more conveniently, our hotel was located a mere two minutes' walk away. It's a small zoo, about the same size as Artis in Amsterdam. Although I don't feature any of their inhabitants in this post, the reptile house and the aquarium were very impressive. Less impressive though is the zoo's exhibit for nocturnal creatures. It was far too dark in there, lacking even the usual long wavelength lighting for the benefit of visitors. I wasn't able to get any photos in there. Oddly, Europe's only kiwi is kept in a standard-looking aviary. With it being completely nocturnal, and the sleeping quarters being off view, I'd be very surprised if anyone ever saw the bird. The same is true for the Cape genets (Genetta tigrina) apparently sharing their enclosure with African brush-tailed porcupines (Atherurus africanus) in an enclosure with visitor access only to the part exposed to sunlight.

Antwerp Zoo's inhabitants seem to be quite heavily biased towards those from central Africa (the okapi, eastern lowland gorilla, turacos aplenty, bongos, and Congo peafowl being a few examples): my thinking on this is that Belgium had imported lots of creatures from what is now The Democratic Republic of Congo (then, the Belgian Congo), and many have carried on breeding up until today. This won't remain the case for the eastern lowland gorilla, however (see below).

Here's a few of the highlights from Antwerp Zoo, heavily biased towards birds and mammals...

Siamang (male)
Symphalangus syndactylus (Raffles, 1821)
Hylobatidae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata
Antwerp Zoo, March 2011 (and all other photos on this post)

The male siamang is a distinctive type of gibbon with his throat sac clearly visible in the above photo. He uses it to create an apparently almost deafening call which reverberates around the southeast Asian rainforests in order to communicate with other members of its species. They are a plain black coloured species of gibbon, unlike most of the other members of the family, and it now resides in its own genus Symphalangus. That, and the species name syndactylus, both mean "fused digits", describing the partially webbed toes that put apart the siamang from other gibbons. I highly dislike the term "lesser apes" to refer to the gibbons, as although it is accurate in that they are smaller, lighter, and more agile than the chimpanzees, gorillas, orang utan and humans, it implies that they are lesser than us in other ways, i.e. more primitive.

Eastern lowland gorilla (female)
Gorilla beringei graueri (Matschie, 1914)
Hominidae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata

There are four types of gorilla in existence today, making up two species: Gorilla gorilla is the western gorilla, and G. beringei is the eastern. Within G. gorilla we have the well known and widely distributed (in captivity) western lowland gorilla G. g. gorilla from central Africa, and the critically endangered Cross River gorilla G. g. diehli from the border between Cameroon and Nigeria, representing the westernmost gorilla race. The eastern gorilla consists of the well known but extremely threatened mountain gorilla G. b. beringei from Uganda, Rwanda, and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the eastern lowland gorilla whose range is adjacent to the mountain gorilla's but does not extend to high elevations.

I am not completely certain that the above photo is of an eastern lowland gorilla, but going by the number of western lowland gorillas I have seen, this one just looked different. The fur was more uniform black without the brown and grey shades that westerns have, and the head was less dome-shaped, which indicated a female. If I'm wrong and anyone out there knows otherwise, let me know in the comments.

This is the only eastern lowland gorilla kept in captivity in the world, and the only one outside of Africa. It was formerly more common in zoos, but has not had the same success as its western relative. It's likely, although I haven't had this confirmed, that Antwerp and other Belgian zoos had a population of eastern lowland gorillas since colonial times, and since exportation of wild gorillas doesn't happen anymore (hence why there are no mountain gorillas in zoos either), the population has dwindled, and the Antwerp individual is the only one of its kind left.

Great blue turaco
Corythaeola cristata (Vieillot, 1816)
Musophagidae; Musophagiformes; Aves; Chordata

Turacos are an exclusively African order of birds, most of which are very brightly-coloured. The less vivid members, the excellently-named go-away birds, and the plantain-eaters (because they apparently like the small bananas which also give Musophagiformes its name) are grey, brown, and white in colour, but the members of the genera Musophaga, Tauraco, Ruwenzorornis, and Corythaeola are coloured mostly in shades of green and blue, with highlights of every other colour possible. Such a range of hues is possible due to the presence of a unique pigment called turacoverdin. This is the only true green colour to be found in birds (with the exception of parrots, who have their own pigment too), as the green present in other birds is really yellow refracted in a way to appear green. The red in the turaco's wing, a pigment called turacin, is a copper-based pigment that differs entirely from the red in other birds. Most birds obtain their red coloration from carotenoids in their food, from fruits to brine shrimp, but it is unknown how the turaco synthesizes its own pigment, but both turacin and turacoverdin are known to be similar to porphyrins such as haemoglobin and chlorophyll which are both extremely widespread pigments in the animal and plant worlds respectively. Turacos have been allied with the cuckoos for most of taxonomic history, but they are now placed in an entirely different order with unknown affinities within the bird class as a whole.

Guira cuckoo
Guira guira (Gmelin, 1788)
Cuculidae; Cuculiformes; Aves; Chordata

The guira cuckoo is a South American member of the cuckoo family. Apart from the roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), made famous by Warner Bros., the most famous member of this family is the Eurasian cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), infamous for being a brood parasite, almost comedically so, with the hatchlings dwarfing their foster parent, often a teeny warbler or other small songbird. It was this that went through my mind when I saw this guira cuckoo at Antwerp Zoo, with what looked to be a newly-hatched bird in its beak. It wasn't until I was able to study the photos I took in detail that I noticed that it wasn't a baby bird but a baby rodent in its grasp, probably a pinkie (the term given to newborn rodents fed to reptiles in the pet industry). Soon after this photo was taken, the cuckoo swallowed its prey. Guira cuckoos are not brood parasites like their Old World cousins. They regularly feed on hatchlings in the wild, and although this bird was sharing its cage with other birds, none of them have hatchlings that look like a baby mouse.

Barred buttonquails
Turnix suscitator (Gmelin, 1789)
Turnicidae; Turniciformes; Aves; Chordata

Buttonquails are partridge-like birds of unknown affinity, most usually closely allied with the cranes and rails in the order Gruiformes or just outside it in their own order Turniciformes. Buttonquails are unusual in that they show a sexual role reversal: in the above photo, the bird towards the top of the photo, despite being more boldly coloured than the lower one, is the female. The male buttonquail takes care of the eggs and chicks, and the female is polyandrous, meaning she mates with many males. This is the opposite case of most birds, where the males are either monogamous, staying with their mate for one brood or for life, or polygynous, mating with many females. The female is also the more territorial sex, expelling rival females from her own home range. The female is also the one to attract males by producing a booming call.

Perhaps because of the lack of parental care from the mother, the buttonquail chicks hatch highly developed and can fend for themselves despite being looked after by their father. Buttonquails are distributed in most of the Old World with one species penetrating southwest Europe. The barred buttonquail has a broad distribution across southern Asia.


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Brian said...

Nice post, but I'd like to add a few things.
For one, the Antwerp Zoo kiwi is not the only kiwi in Europe as Vogelpark Avifauna in the Netherlands also has one. (And that one is perfectly visible in its nocturnal animal enclosure.)
Placing buttonquails in Gruiformes or Turniciformes is outdated, since a decade or so they've been recognised as charadriiforms.
I'm rather surprised you didn't mention anything about the enclosures for the larger animals in the zoo, since these are decidedly outdated.
You're right about the African fauna being rather well-represented because of former Belgian colonies in the region. For quite some time after the discovery of the okapi the Belgians used to have a special outpost in the jungle where wildcaught okapis were collected to be send to different zoos and collections. Most of these went to Belgium and the Netherlands, but I think (nearly) the entire worldwide captive population of okapis is descended from the animals brought to the outpost. Clearly this was another case of Belgiums exploitative and wasteful colonial activities, but we owe our captive okapis to it.
Though not okapis, I'd presume many of the other African animals in the zoo were caught and exported in the same fashion though presumably in a less grand and organised way.
In fact, it was even in the 1980's that my father saw rockfowl (Picathartes) for sale in an animal market in Antwerp! (These being very rare passerines in captivity and very poorly-known creatures in general). Of course, wether these were (descended from) birds brought to Belgium decades earlier or in fact recently wildcaught themselves, I can't say.

cheap airport parking said...

really nice post, not visited antwerp zoo, but a few round europe, including phantasialands zoo with the white tigers.
The UK has some good zoo's, particularly London zoo and whipsnade.