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We ask one of our animal keepers, Christa, questions that visitors have about our cotton-top tamarin monkeys in this Pulsar podcast brought to you by #MOSatHome. We ask questions submitted by listeners, so if you have a question you'd like us to ask an expert, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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ERIC: Cotton-top tamarins can make over 30 distinct sounds. Today on Pulsar, we ask your questions about the cotton-top tamarin monkeys living at the museum to one of our staff who takes care of them every day.
I'm your host, Eric. Thanks to Facebook Boston for supporting this episode of Pulsar.
My guest today is Christa, one of our animal keepers here at the Museum of Science. Christa, thanks for chatting with me about our animals.
CHRISTA: You're welcome, happy to be here.
ERIC: So let's start with a very common question we hear from visitors when they see our live animals on exhibit or in live animal shows. Why does the Museum of Science have animals?
CHRISTA: Because there is so much that we can learn from animals. They connect us to the science behind nature. And I think they encourage us to ask questions about how and why they live.
We definitely do have a lot more animals than people would expect, coming to a science museum. But I think it's a pleasant surprise.
We have exhibits throughout the building. And we also have our live animal care center where all of our ambassador animals live.
And the ambassador animals, especially, are important because they join educators for live programming where we can talk about, say, a really cool adaptation or a habitat that animal lives in.
And I feel like the importance of having the live animals is because it's one thing to talk about how cool they are. It's a whole other thing to see it in person from the experts themselves - the animals.
ERIC: And the next question we typically get about any given animal is where did it come from? So can you tell us the different ways an animal might end up at the museum?
CHRISTA: Yeah, so we have over about 150 animals right now and they all come from an array of backgrounds. Sometimes we receive animals just from other institutions, so zoos, aquariums, other museums, have a network of communication.
And if they have a surplus of an animal - maybe they had some successful breeding - or they just have an animal that might need some homing because it might not be, say, getting along with its roommates or something, we get animals sometimes that way.
And we also get animals sometimes if we get a call that there's been some sort of confiscation. For instance, we have a couple of box turtles that came from someone who was illegally keeping them.
We've also gotten animals from wildlife rehabilitators. That's actually probably one of the number-one sources that we like to get animals from.
Wildlife rehabilitators, if they find an animal that's injured or imprinted and can't be released back into the wild for that reason, they'll call up institutions to see if they can rehome them.
A good example of that is the majority of our birds came from wildlife rehabilitators. They have injuries that either impair their vision, or they can't fly. So for obvious reasons, they can't be put back out in the wild.
So we get to spoil them here at the Museum of Science.
ERIC: You mentioned imprinting as something that can happen to an animal that makes it a bad idea to release it into the wild. Can you talk more about exactly what that is?
CHRISTA: Imprinting - a common definition is associating humans with food. That's one reason why a lot of times, if you go out to nature reserves or parks, there's signs asking people, please don't feed the animals because animals are smart.
And they'll start to associate us as a food source. And, of course, that can cause some close encounters that aren't always welcome.
So that's a big reason why national parks, for instance, don't feed the bears, don't do things like that, because we just don't want animals associating us with food. Imprinting can also just mean that they enjoy being around us.
The most recent edition, actually - he's perfectly great at flying. But we have Cobalt, our blue jay. He was a rehab fail. He basically got really imprinted on the people who were caring for him. He is not afraid of humans at all.
He'll probably fly right up to anybody, even visitors in the animal center, no problem. So because of that putting him back outside, he'd probably want to see humans a lot more than normally a blue jay would. Kind of impair his ability to be a wild, natural blue jay.
ERIC: Yeah, I can see how that wouldn't be great out in the wild. So the animals I want to talk about next are visitor favorites - our monkeys.
For as long as I've been at the museum, we have had an exhibit with cotton-top tamarins in the green wing. So first, can you give us some info on our tamarins - where they're from, what they eat?
CHRISTA: So yeah, we have Jane and Darwin - our female and male cotton-top tamarins - up in the Hall of Human Life. They can be found naturally in the tropical forest of Northwest Colombia.
They eat a variety of foods. So they are an arboreal species, I should mention. So that means they live up in the tree canopy.
So basically, they eat things that they would find up in the trees, like insects, fruits, plants, gum, and sap. They occasionally will catch small reptiles and amphibians.
ERIC: And we've heard a lot about the species survival plan for the tamarins in the last few weeks. So can you talk about what that involves?
CHRISTA: So the species survival plan - that's something that's usually put into place with the goal of saving a species that is endangered. Currently cotton-top tamarins are considered critically endangered in the wild.
They have less than 6,000 left. And they are among the most endangered primates in the world. Their populations have mostly declined due to habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade.
When their numbers started to plummet, the SSP was put into place to try and manage the species.
So this program focuses on the successful breeding of cotton-top tamarins in AZA institutions, which is the Association of Zoo and Aquariums. The idea is that hopefully, someday we can hope to reintroduce them into the wild.
Currently, there are no plans to be able to do that just because so much of their habitat has been destroyed. First, that habitat needs to be rebuilt somehow in order to reintroduce them.
But by keeping their population through the SSP successful, we can hope to someday work towards that goal.
ERIC: Well, that sounds like a really important long-term project. Are there any other animals at the museum that are part of a similar species-wide program?
CHRISTA: Yeah, actually, one of the cool ones I'll talk about is one that is not a permanent resident here at the museum. We take part in a Headstart program for the Northern red-bellied cooter turtle.
This particular population can be found in Plymouth, Mass. And this program focuses on them because they were considered critically endangered back in the '80s.
And the way it works is every year, hatchlings are removed from the wild in the spring, and they're brought to the institutions that are taking part in this program.
And they are given a "head start." When they first hatch in the wild, they are so tiny. They are so cute. I recommend googling a photo of it.
They're about the size of a quarter. Their shells are also pretty soft. You can imagine out in the wild, if you are the size of a quarter, and you're soft, you can make a perfect snack for lots of things.
They're very susceptible to predation at this stage. And by removing them at that time, they get a chance to grow without the threat of being someone else's lunch.
And they are given plenty of food. They're kept in nice, warm water. And that helps to boost their metabolism.
So in the short months that they're here at the museum or at the other institutions taking part, they actually gain up to three to five years worth of growth. So when they're reintroduced into the wild, they are given that big head start.
And they're way less of an option for many animals to eat. So their populations have actually been really boosted through this program, and we look forward to it every year.
ERIC: So we do have some programs that release animals back into the wild and have made great progress with endangered populations.
CHRISTA: Oh yeah, absolutely.
ERIC: So getting back to our cotton-top tamarins, we've had lots of questions coming in about our pair on social media because Jane just arrived at the museum. So people want to know-- how did it go when Darwin and Jane first met each other?
CHRISTA: It went really well. We were all so nervous just because you never know, and we were so excited to have Jane come. But it went great.
They get along really well. We've been seeing great behavior, like grooming of each other, cuddling with each other, foraging together through their enrichment.
Enrichment is basically things that we give them, like puzzle feeders or various foraging items to look for food. They get along really well. They share food well. We've been catching them in the nest boxes together, which is great.
So all in all, we think it's safe to say it's been a good match, so far. We're very happy.
ERIC: And we got a great question about what they're like, and if Darwin and Jane act differently from each other. So do they have distinct personalities?
CHRISTA: 100%. Darwin likes to push Jane out of the way sometimes - not hard, but if I'm giving them rewards in any way, Darwin likes to be first in line.
And Jane complements him because she's OK and sits back. I think it's because she knows that I'm an equal person, and so are the other keepers.
And she will still get her reward even if Darwin tries to be first in line, which, through training, we are going to work on managing that.
Jane - she loves food. I will say she's a very food-motivated monkey. And there's one really fun thing that you might notice if you come visit her. She loves her reflection.
So we'll actually give mirrors sometimes to them for enrichment. Darwin could care less, usually, about the mirror. But Jane will hold it and look at herself, and let out these little happy calls.
There's also an area in the exhibit where she can catch her reflection on the window. She tends to climb up there and look at herself a lot. All in all, they're pretty spunky monkeys. But that's what makes it really fun working with them.
ERIC: Now, one of the questions we get at the Museum of Science when we are holding animals - it could be an alligator, it could be an armadillo - would it make a good pet? So what about cotton-top tamarins?
CHRISTA: No. Next question. Just kidding. That is a great question. There's so many ways we can dive into that.
First of all, collection for the exotic pet trade is one of the biggest issues affecting so many species, including monkeys. Especially for that reason, it is never a good thing to support the removal of them from the wild.
Also, even if, say, monkeys weren't endangered, they still would not make good pets at all. They have complex social structures within their species. They just aren't meant to be living with us.
They need to be with each other. They're highly intelligent, and with that comes opinions.
So they aren't an animal that's going to listen. They're not going to be well behaved if they don't feel like it. You can train them all you want. But if they don't feel like listening to you, they're not going to.
And as they get older, they can become rather aggressive, especially monkeys that are removed from that social structure I just mentioned.
They can get frustrated. They have natural instincts that, being in human care in someone's home as a pet, they would not naturally be able to get. And they're not exactly the cleanest animals to have around.
Trust me, I clean up after them every day. I'm really happy when I go home, and there aren't cotton-top tamarins flying around my living room.
Plus, there's a lot of risk when handling monkeys. They can transmit many diseases to us if they bite or scratch us. So with all that in mind, you can see why monkeys are in no way meant to be pets.
But if you love monkeys or any other type of wildlife, you can always support them by visiting institutions that help with their conservation. You can donate to programs that help protect them.
There's lots of ways that you can still support these amazing animals without trying to wrangle them as pets.
ERIC: Well, that's really good to know. I wanted to end by asking for some inside tips for observing the tamarins while you're at the museum.
CHRISTA: I will say, first of all, take advantage of the couches. There are couches in that viewing room.
And the thing with the tamarins is they just have so many amazing behaviors that sitting on that couch, you can really see a lot of different things going on if you sit and watch patiently.
Patience is also key in and of itself because I know sometimes, you might go out there, and they might not be on exhibit. That's because we actually do have a small holding area behind the scenes that they are allowed to go into during the day.
And we do this because we practice choice and control with all our animals at the museum. What that means is we want them to have choices on how their day looks. We don't want them to have to be on exhibit if they feel like taking a break.
So if you go up there, and you don't see them, they might just be hanging out in their back holding area. But trust me, they are constantly active during the day. So if you wait patiently, and you sit on those couches, they will come out. I promise.
But as far as really good times of day, we feed them first thing in the morning. Usually, we try and get there before the museum opens at 9:00.
So if you go up there first thing in the morning, they're usually really active, eating their breakfast. And then they get fed again mid-afternoon, usually sometime around 1:00 or 2:00.
So those are really good times to kind of guarantee that they'll be out on exhibit running around.
It's really interesting to watch how they've adapted to live up in trees. I will say if you come and visit, them pay close attention to their hands, their feet, their tails.
It is so impressive watching how they nimbly maneuver all the branches in their exhibit. I've been here five years. I've worked with them for five years, and I'm still pretty awestruck when they fly above my head constantly, faster than I could ever imagine moving.
ERIC: Well, Christa, thanks so much for giving us an inside look at the cotton-top tamarin exhibit at the museum.
CHRISTA: Anytime. It was super fun. If you guys come and visit, and you see me in the exhibit, or any of the other keepers, feel free to wave. We love visitors enjoying our tamarins.
ERIC: You can follow the Museum of Science on social media for more updates on our cotton-top tamarins.
Until next time, keep asking questions.
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