What I saw at the zoo yesterday...

Yesterday I did a day of work in London. Because everything finished far earlier than I was anticipating, I had time to kill so, accompanied by trusty sidekick John Conway, what else could I do but spend a few hours at ZSL's London Zoo (ZSL = Zoological Society of London)? We had a great time and saw some neat creatures: here are a few of the highlights. We start with one of the most awesome creatures on the planet...


Yes, the incredible Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis. To be honest I'd forgotten that they have them there: I think there are also dragons at Chester Zoo, Colchester Zoo and (correct me if I'm wrong) Bristol Zoo, so they're 'easier' to see than ever before if you live in the UK. In 2004 one of the zoo's dragons, a female called Nina, died after falling off a wall: she'd been climbing it in, apparently, an effort to reach her mate, Raja. Another of the zoo's dragons - Sungai - is world famous for demonstrating parthenogenesis in 2006 (she'd previously been kept with Raja, but the babies were demonstrated not to be his). I need to stop talking dragons there, and move on...

While wandering around the cat section, we were attracted to a dispute that occurred between these two Serval Leptailurus serval. I have no idea which cat was male and which was female. If you've never seen serval before, you might be surprised at how big they are: they're round about 60 cm tall at the shoulder, and strikingly long-legged. While we stood watching them, a lady said to her daughter "Don't they look just like cats?". We laughed and walked away.


Here's me with the Snowdon Aviary. Constructed between 1962 and 1964, it's an impressive thing - the problem is that it's a bit of a disappointment, housing only ibises, a couple of Green peafowl Pavo muticus and Black kite Milvus migrans. There were a couple of medium-sized gulls in there as well: I strugggled to identify them and gave up, and remained nonplussed as to whether they were some obscure exotic species, or just wayward Black-headed gulls Chroicocephalus ridibundus that had gotten trapped. Last time I visited (something like ten years ago), there were Inca terns Larosterna inca, but no sign of them this time round.


However: don't get me wrong, the zoo has some awesome birds. I won't start discussing them, as it'll mean adding lots of words and spending lots of time that I don't have. But here are a couple of highlights: Von der Decken's hornbill Tockus deckeni, Sunbittern Eurypyga helias (a first for me: John and I spoke about the pouches.... which I later discovered are present in sungrebes, not sunbitterns, d'oh! [see comments]) and African jacana Actophilornis africana.


Finally, it was great to see amphibian expert, EDGE worker and ace Tet Zoo supporter Helen Meredith plastered all over a wall - wow, fame at last Helen!


Anyway, it was a good day.

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I like that it was only just discovered that the dragons pump copious amounts and varieties of anticoagulant and venom into their mouths when they bite.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 23 Jul 2009 #permalink

I love Komodos, unforunately I've never got to see real ones at a zoo.

By Michael Ogden … (not verified) on 23 Jul 2009 #permalink

I visited London Zoo last year, and was fortunate enough to watch one of the Dragons pace past the front of the glass fronted enclosure only a few feet away from me.

Watching its unhurried, powerful and surprisingly graceful progress, I was filled with awe - and happiness I was not in the enclosure!

The gulls in the Snowdon aviary might've been Grey-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus), as they were there last time I was there.

The Snowden aviary might be winding down for its (very, very, very) long overdue and planned renovation. At various times it was set for a complete makeover as an aviary, a new lion enclosure (really) and as a gibbon / monkey house (the height and space would have been magnificent if used well). Certainly each time I go there are fewer birds there or fewer species. As ever it is a listed building and thus the zoo are badly hampered by what they can (and mostly cannot) do to the structure making it hard to upgrade or improve but it still has the potential to be a world class exhibit and I hope they put the effort in at some point after the wonderful improvements to the Mappin terraces, revisions to the Clore and others.

By Dave Hone (not verified) on 23 Jul 2009 #permalink

Speaking of Dragons, have you posted about megalainia? I'd like to know what your opinion is about their size, Darren.

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

I saw the dragons last year, they are incredible.
There's a whole book about the architecture of London Zoo, I took it with me last time I went.

Hey Darren, when you said pouches, my guess is that you are talking about the unique underwing pouches this bird uses to carry it's young in flight, etc... but I think the species is actually the Sungrebe Heliornis fulica, not the Sunbittern.

Or did I misunderstood?

We do not have Komodos at Bristol unfortunatley - the only varanids we have are Green Tree monitors V.prasinus (we currently have eggs on show awaiting hatching). We do have some seriously good mammals - Aye Aye and Livingstone's Fruit Bat amongst others.

Isn't Megalania priscus now Varanus priscus?

By Michael Ogden … (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

Ah good old London Zoo, one of the great things about living in the travelcard zone. Last time I went they ahd just opened the old reptile house aviary which was good. I just love the amount of walk through enclosures, great for photography!

Michael Erickson - Re: Megalania. It depends on who you ask. There has certainly been a push to sink Megalania into Varanus. Personally I think that Varanus is an overlumped genus as it is, and I'm all in favour of elevating most of the subgenera that are already in place. If one can split cats up into 18 genera, then I certainly think one could justify splitting Varanus up too.

It does seem like every monitor lizard, its brother, its mother, its grandpa, and its dog are in the genus Varanus.

By Michael Ogden … (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

Speaking of varanids - maybe you can give some overview of the all strange herps discovered recently in Indonesia? My local zoo got Nanny Smith-green, black and even sky-blue monitor lizards!

The latest evidence (a paper on the braincase of 'Megalania' by Jason Head and others) supports a sister-group relationship between it and V. komodoensis, which in turn is very close to the eastern Australian V. varius, which happens to be the type species of genus and subgenus Varanus (which has priority). That makes it extremely ungainly to use both Varanus and Megalania as non-nested monophyletic taxa, so the only future I see for 'Megalania' is as an informal common name (this closely parallels the situation for 'Montypythonoides', a junior synonym of Morelia).

Also note that despite usage in Head et al., and I think also in the recent paper on V. komodoensis venom, agreement in gender means the correct name of 'Megalania' is Varanus priscus, never V. prisca.

HEAD, J.J., P.M. BARRETT and E.J. RAYFIELD. 2009. Neurocranial osteology and systematic relationships of Varanus (Megalania) prisca Owen, 1859 (Squamata: Varanidae). Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 155: 445-457.

By John Scanlon, FCD (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

While we're talking about monitors, a new species was recently named. Varanus lirungensis is a member of the V. indicus complex.

Koch, A., Arida, E., Schmitz, A., Böhme, W. and Ziegler, T. 2009. Refining the polytypic species concept of mangrove monitors (Squamata: Varanus indicus group): a new cryptic species from the Talaud Islands, Indonesia, reveals the underestimated diversity of Indo-Australian monitor lizards. Australian Journal of Zoology 57(1) 29â40

The description of a new cryptic member of the mangrove monitor (Varanus indicus) (Daudin, 1802) group from Indonesia presents a refinement of the systematic concept for a polytypic complex of closely related species. The new species is recognised on the basis of morphological and molecular evidence. It is so far known only from the type locality, the remote Talaud Islands, located between Sulawesi, Halmahera and Mindanao at the outer boundary of the Wallacea transition zone between the Oriental and Australian faunal regions. While the descriptions of several sibling and mostly sympatric species within the last 15 years have not affected the range of V. indicus, here, we demonstrate that morphologically distinct island populations represent independent evolutionary lineages and warrant specific recognition as distinct species within an evolving superspecies complex. In addition, some basic natural history information is provided for the new species based on observations at the type locality. These systematic and zoogeographic investigations reveal shortcomings in the current knowledge concerning the diversity and endemism of Indo-Australian monitor lizards, particularly within the Wallacean region.

I went for the first time to the London zoo a few months ago. It was awful. I expected so much but when you compare this piece of animal cruelty to the zoos in Germany and the Netherlands than you can only laugh (if it wasn't so sad). There were some despicable enclosures.
We came singing and left quite depressed.
Luckely there are quite a few good pubs over there but for me no more London Zoo.

(the same goes voor Antwerp zoo in Belgium)


Milvus milvus is the Red Kite, the Black Kite might be Milvus migrans or Milvus aegpytus, the Yellow-billed Kite. In fact three forms of Milvus have been recorded in the UK 'cos as well as M. milvus and M. migrans migrans M. migrans lineatus has also been recorded. This last may hve been an escape from the Snowdon Aviary.

By David Kelly (not verified) on 25 Jul 2009 #permalink

On the name of the Black kite... dammit, this is what I get for relying on memory. Should've checked.

As for London Zoo being awful (comment 20), of course it's never really fair for big animals to be kept in small enclosures, and - constrained as it is by lack of possibility for expansion, and by enclosures that are sometimes listed buildings - London Zoo is not the best one for creatures that require large spaces. However, the zoo does the best that it can, has made major improvements in recent years, and does a huge amount for education and conservation.

"Anyway, it was a good day."

Did you even have to use your AK?

"While we stood watching them, a lady said to her daughter "Don't they look just like cats?". We laughed and walked away."

Someone needs to start a website collecting these quotes. Last week Taisha and I were at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and overheard this conversation in the aviary:

WOMAN: God, I hate birds. They're so boring!
MAN: Yeah, maybe if there were a pterodactyl or something.
WOMAN: Or a bald eagle.

I too visited the famous London Zoo a few years back. It's a very special place -- so historical, especially for zoo fans like me.

Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America's Best Zoos

RE 20 & 22
Also the large majority of large animals have been moved to Whipsnade which is a parkland zoo. (CF Berlin Zoo & Berlin Tierpark)

Many years ago (ca 1970?) in the cafeteria at London Zoo, I heard a child (even younger than me) at an adjacent table ask her mother what kind of animals x & y were (where x & y were either rodents or mustelids). In a bored upper-crust accent Mother replied "Vermin, dear."

By Terry Hunt (not verified) on 27 Jul 2009 #permalink