Welcome to the Persian Onager Diary, where you will find regular updates on the Persian onager colt that was born on June 29, 2008, at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia. Our intern, Stacy Price, and animal management staff maintain this diary. Hope you enjoy it.
If you have questions or comments, please contact Budhan Pukazhenthi.
The foal and his family got to meet a new intern this week. Her name is Kate, and she will be working with the onagers for the next five to six months. At first, the onager family is always shy and cautious around a new visitor. However, it took only a few days for the smart family to figure out that Kate was now the one with the treats, and they have started to take a real interest in her.
When they pee, Kate immediately gives them a reward and collects the urine from the ground with a syringe. As with past interns, Kate will be learning how to use these urine samples to measure hormones. She’s excited to learn new scientific techniques and get to know the onagers better too!
As I mentioned last week, the foal’s life is full of firsts, and he had yet another one this week. But he may have thought this one was a little less pleasant than getting a new play yard: He got his first vaccines!
Just like human vaccines, the foal’s vaccines will help keep him from getting sick. Although getting vaccines can be a painful experience for you and me, the foal was anesthetized for the procedure and doesn’t even remember getting his shots. The anesthesia serves a dual purpose. It provides the foal with a much less traumatic experience, and gives the vet staff a safe working environment. So, the next morning when I went out to collect urine from his mom and sister he was eager as ever to greet me as ever, and was his usual spunky self! We cannot help but be pleased that we are able to offer the foal the best veterinary care and ensure that he has a long and healthy life.
One of the neatest things about the foal is that his life is full of firsts. A couple days ago, the animal keepers moved the onager family to a different pasture. We’re renovating the barn they use for shelter. As I opened the gate to let them into their new pasture, the foal’s sister rocketed through the gate and immediately began to eat huge mouthfuls of grass. The foal and his mother were much more tentative about the new area. They both slowly poked their heads through the gate and began to munch on grass while leaving their backsides in their old yard. His sister must have looked like she was having a great time trotting around and sampling new grasses. So, with a burst of energy, the foal bucked through the gate and began to chase after his sister. As soon as he realized what he had done, he puffed out his chest and brayed loudly while taking in the scenery. It was certainly a sight to see! The foal may have a few new firsts as renovation of the barns from the original Remount station continues. The CRC has many new updates planned!
Last night the foal got to experience his first snow! Although he doesn’t seem too enthusiastic about the cold, wet stuff, his mom and sister were covered in it this morning. This is a remarkable feat since there was barely enough to cover the ground! Their winter coats are so good at trapping in their body heat that snow doesn’t even melt on them as it would on you or me. Since the onager family would normally live in a desert climate, it makes their coats that much more extraordinary.
It seems as if they don’t even notice the cold, but everyone is a little friskier. Even mom is joining in the play!
It is amazing how fast the foal is growing up! With each passing day, he becomes more self-assured. He spends less and less time with his mom. He walks over to her when he is feeling itchy and wants to be groomed or when he wants to nurse, which he is doing less frequently. He still looks to his mom for comfort when his sister plays a little too rough, but for the most part, he is content to do his own thing whether or not it involves his mom.
His newest fascination is with the male onager next door to the family’s enclosure. Every morning as the male walks out into his yard, the foal sprints over to the fence and begins to bray softly. The male doesn’t pay much attention to the foal’s foolishness. That’s when the foal steps it up a notch and begins prancing confidently across the yard, trying to show that he is just as tough as the big male. We love to see this type of development in the foal’s personality because it is a sign that he is not only physically developing, but mentally developing as well.
Everyday he becomes a little less like a foal and a little more like an adolescent. Although we hate to see him grow up, we are very proud that we have had, and will continue to have, a hand in his progress.
The weather is beginning to turn cold here at the Center for Research and Conservation, and the onager family is beginning to replace their sleek summer fur with a thick, fuzzy coat of winter fur. Despite the obvious physical changes, the onager family doesn’t pay too much attention to the cold. They do play more than in the summer months, and they are obviously glad to be free of summer heat and insects.
Lately, we’ve had a lot of fun watching the foal and his sister run after each other in a game that looks remarkably like follow the leader. The foal’s sister will lead with a complicated series of kicks, bucks, and leaps. The foal is never far behind trying to mimic her every move, but it usually ends up looking more like a jumble of limbs rather than the carefully choreographed exhibit of agility that his sister displays. But with each passing day, the foal becomes more coordinated. He still he has quite a ways to go, though, before he grows into those long, lanky legs of his.
Our little foal is growing up so quickly! As I drove up to the onager family’s enclosure this morning, I confused him with his sister! With every inch he grows, so does the sibling rivalry between him and his sister. They play and nip each other, trying to work out who the top spot in the herd will go to. Other than this play fighting, the foal’s sister seems genuinely glad to have him around. They’ve become quite the inseparable pair lately. They love to chase each other as fast as they can while squealing in a high-pitched bray. Just like any other family, their mother monitors their play with a watchful eye. If either of her children gets out of hand, she is quick to put a stop to the nonsense. But just like any other family, as soon as she turns her back the roughhousing begins again!
As we spend more time with the onager family and watch the foal begin to grow up, we will begin to look for signs he has reached maturity and is old enough to breed. Then he too will become a focus of our reproductive studies. For now though, we are glad to watch the foal act like a foal. It is so fun to see him play that we are happy to wait a while for him to grow up.
Much to the annoyance of his mother and sister, our little foal has picked up a new habit. Every morning for breakfast, we give fresh hay to the onager family. The foal has recently discovered that it makes a very fluffy bed and the best part is it’s edible as well as comfortable! As soon as we put the hay out, the foal finds a nice place to plop down and eat. However, being three months old, the foal is no longer quite as dainty as he used to be, which means he takes up quite a bit of perfectly good hay. His mother and sister initially try to eat around him, but after a while, they get irritated at his lack of consideration. Then it’s time for a gentle nip on the rear to remind him that he’s not the only onager in the family who wants to eat!
Well, it certainly hasn’t taken long for the new treats to catch on! The whole family has learned to savor their apples, but the foal has a new favorite: carrots. Although it is nice to see him enjoying his veggies (as all growing boys should), he has begun following the intern a little too closely than either his mother or we are comfortable with. With everyone’s safety in mind, the foal has begun a new phase in his life; we no longer give him treats. He has to earn them.
At first, the foal wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to work for his rewards, but he got used to it in no time at all. Now he waits and backs up when we ask him to! We’re very proud of his progress and think that these new behaviors will come in handy as he grows up into a boisterous, self-assured little onager.
Today we introduced the onager foal and his family apples. We give the onagers a small treat after they urinate to reward the behavior, and reinforce in their minds. There was a time when collecting daily urine samples for hormone analysis took five hours or more, but now it only takes an hour or so because the onagers know they’ll get a reward. We’ve been giving them a commercially produced “herbivore biscuit.” But recently, one of the onagers seems to have become bored with this treat and has started taking longer to urinate in the mornings. We decided to try varying their reward to keep things interesting for them and keep them motivated.
Today, for the first time, we gave apple slices as rewards. Our onagers came from an equid sanctuary where they seldom interacted with humans. They probably had never seen an apple before. The foal and his family sniffed the apples cautiously and then backed up, not sure what to make of the strange new things. Only the foal’s mom was bold enough to try and eat the apple. She picked it up in her mouth several times and promptly spit it back out again before finally chewing it up and swallowing. Maybe tomorrow the foal and his sister will be brave enough to try the exotic treat too!
The onager foal continues to grow rapidly. His head reaches almost as high as his mom’s does now, although he still has a smaller, slenderer frame. The foal has become much more rambunctious and spends a lot of his time playing and bonding with his sister. Nowadays, he is usually at her side, rubbing his head on her neck or giving her gentle nips, unless he is nursing from his mom. It appears that any sibling rivalry we saw back in the first few weeks after he was born is gone. Today, the colt grabbed a long branch in his mouth and swung it around several times. Once his sister saw his game, she reached for the free end with her mouth, instigating a playful game of “tug of war.” I had so much fun watching their game!
As an intern at the Conservation and Research Center, I have been collecting samples and observing this onager family for four months. It has been rewarding to see how they have grown and changed. In the beginning, the girls were very shy of humans and stayed as far away from me as they could. However, over time, they have accepted my presence and have learned to trust me some. If they hadn’t, it would have been impossible for me to collect samples after the new foal was born. Watching this family interact with each other was fascinating for me. It’s been wonderful t to see the foal growing, learning, and gaining confidence. It is also amazing to know that the samples that I collected from this family will help the scientists here better understand how to save this species from extinction.
The weather today was cold and rainy, a drastic difference from the hot and dry weather that has plagued northern Virginia for weeks. Though the onagers are native to the Iranian area, they adapt easily to different types of weather, and seem relieved and noticeably friskier as the weather cools. The foal and his sister spent their morning playing and running around the yard more enthusiastically than I have ever seen them. The foal has always been hesitant to join in when his mother and sister engaged in any sort of playful roughhousing. It was rewarding for me to see him become more confident, as he gave his sister playful nips and rubbed his small head on her neck. They galloped around the yard, their hooves sliding in the mud. All the excitement made collecting urine samples from the girls more difficult and time consuming than usual. These daily samples are important because they help zoo scientists understand their reproductive cycles. We do this by monitoring fluctuations of hormone levels in the urine. Scientists use this knowledge to develop strategies for species preservation, such as artificial insemination. This is particularly important considering the onagers’ “critically endangered” state.
The onager foal continues to grow rapidly. It seems like he’s doubled in size since he was born seven weeks ago! He is less dependent on his mother’s milk and this morning, we only saw him suckling once in an hour’s time. He loves his hay and grain in the morning, and every day eats just a little more than the morning before. In the past, his mom and sister would quickly eat all their grain and, sometimes, move on to eat his portion as well. Now, he’s much faster and adept at ingesting the small pellets, and finishes his share all by himself. However, he is far still from being independent, and he still looks to his mom when anything unfamiliar comes close by, such as the fox who has a den close to their yard.
Seeing this foal grow healthy and strong is a reminder of the importance of the race we are running to preserve this species that is so close to extinction. Our work to understand the basic reproductive biology of this species will help us to develop techniques such as artificial insemination that will help us with preserving the genetic diversity of this species, ensuring their long-term. If we can develop artificial insemination techniques successfully, hopefully there will be many more young strong foals, like this little guy, growing and exploring their surroundings.
The onager family woke up with loads of energy this morning. After their breakfast of hay and grain, the colt’s mom and sister started frolicking and bucking their legs up into the air behind them. They tore around the yard, digging their hooves into the ground for sliding halts when they approached either each other or the fence. The foal looked on with excitement: tail swishing frantically and ears pointed straight up. But he seemed unsure of his role in all this rowdiness, and stayed cautiously on the sidelines rather than join in. After everyone wore themselves out and calmed down, the foal laid down in the hay pile for a quick nap. The family spent the rest of their morning grazing lazily out in the pasture.
The onager family has been very active lately and, as a result, has been hungrier than usual. They spend most of the morning munching hay and grain pellets. The foal is especially ravenous. He seems to have kicked off a growth spurt over the last two weeks and looks taller and sturdier everyday.
Today, some maintenance workers near their yard distracted the colt. As he watched curiously, his mom and sister moved out to graze in the larger pasture without him seeing. When he looked up and realized that he was alone, he panicked and galloped around the fence line, temporarily forgetting that he has to go through the open gate to reach them. It didn’t take very long for him to remember and scurry through the gate. When he got through, he was so happy to reach his mom that he crashed into her and buried his nose in her neck. He recovered quickly, though. Within a few moments, he began happily grazing.
The onager family got a pleasant surprise today when the male onager in the neighboring yard came close to the fence to see them. Usually this male is reclusive, and prefers to spend the hot days in his stall. Today though, thanks to the lovely weather, he ventured out into the pasture. This was very exciting for the onager family, who responded by becoming rowdy—prancing and galloping around their yard.
The foal seemed especially excited to see an onager other than his mom and sister. But all the romping around wore him out. He could not keep up with the older girls, so he laid down next to the fence to watch the commotion until the male went back indoors. The colt regained his energy when the family was let out into the large pasture. He ran far ahead of his mom and sister to be the first to run through the gate, clearly gaining more confidence.
The onager family has been enjoying the cool weather over the past two days, preferring to be outdoors rather than in their stall. The group has been playing and socializing more actively, running around their pasture and playfully rubbing their heads against one another. The colt has started to graze a little farther away from his mom, as a way of testing his limits. But he always looks up at her, to ensure that she is close by. During these times, his mom never takes her eyes off her foal.
When two of our scientists, whom the onagers haven’t met, came to the yard to observe the onagers, the foal darted behind his mom and sister. The family stayed alert, keeping their large ears pointed straight upward, until the scientists left.
The onager foal continues to explore solid foods and spends his morning eating hay with his family. He eats small amounts at a time, but enjoys it and always goes back for seconds. The funny part is that his neck is not long enough to reach the ground, so he spreads out his front legs, like a giraffe, in order to reach the hay. The colt still relies on his mom for most of his nutrients, though. He nurses frequently and is growing stronger. He also suckles for longer intervals than he did two weeks ago.
This morning the onager family was definitely feeling the effects of the heat. They spent their time eating slowly in the shade. When we let them out into the larger, grassy pasture, instead of running through the yard, as they usually do, they sauntered through the gate lazily, leaving the foal to run ahead. The colt, excited to be in the large yard, slipped on the tall and very wet grass, but quickly steadied himself. It taught him an important lesson in watching his step.
Due to the heat and humidity, the onager foal and his family had a lazy morning, alternating between grazing slowly in the shade and resting in their stall. The colt is just beginning to eat grass. Watching his mom, he leans to pick out the tastiest grass, as they pass up one grassy patch for another. His mom and sister take turns rolling around in the dirt, but today the foal just stood by watching, hesitant to try it himself. In a brief active moment, his sister tried to pick a fight with him, but their mom prodded them both, and managed to calm them down.
The onager family continues to bond with the new colt. The three onagers spend almost all of their time standing, grazing, and playing together. There was some excitement today as the normally reclusive male in the yard next to them came out to see the females. The family pranced around the edge of the yard, the colt especially eager to see a male onager for the first time. The foal, wrapped up in the excitement, began to run and suddenly tripped over his own long legs. (Yes, it was funny, but no one got hurt). His mother was at his side, but he immediately jumped up and shook his head, reassuring everyone that he was okay. Soon afterward, we let the group out into the large pasture, and the foal was happy to continue to run around and stretch his legs in the tall grass.
The colt is still doing very well. He is nursing more frequently and his frame is filling out, making him sturdier on his feet. He has a lot of energy and likes to run and explore his yard. He has overcome his anxiety of the big pasture, and really enjoys being let out on it in the mornings. However, he still never wanders too far from his mother. The colt watches his mom and sister carefully while they eat hay in the morning. He tries to imitate them by holding large tufts of hay in his mouth, although he is not yet ready for solid food. The sibling rivalry with his sister seems to have evaporated, and the family has adjusted to their new arrival as they companionably stand and graze next to each other. It is common for groups of female onagers and their offspring to develop this social structure, as the dominant female is typically in charge of maintaining social order within the group.
We are extremely happy to welcome an onager foal into our CRC community on June 29, 2008! The foal, a colt, is very cute, especially with his thin frame, very long legs, and big ears. We were fascinated by the way he was very active hours after birth, following his mom around the yard. He lives in a yard with his mother and his one-year older sister. There appears to be a little sibling rivalry going on, with his sister competing for their mom’s attention. For instance, when the foal was nursing, his sister would try to push him out of the way. However, mom is quick to keep her family in line. The colt is nursing very well, and bonding with his mom. He is very shy of people and stays very close to her, especially when we are in the yard collecting urine and fecal samples. He was also a little cautious when he got to go out into a larger pasture for the first time, especially when his mother went ahead of him. She returned to reassure him though, and mother and baby went out on the pasture together. Overall, the first few days after the birth have gone very smoothly, and both the new baby onager and his mother are healthy and doing great!