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LOE Lookback - It’s All Happening at the Zoo

Air Date: Week of

We kick up some dust and bring back zoologist Donna Fernandes to Living on Earth. In our show’s early days, she was a regular guest when she worked at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo and entertained us with her talks on animal behavior. Now head of the Buffalo Zoo, Fernandes speaks with LOE’s Steve Curwood about promiscuous female flies, lesbian seagulls, transvestite fish, and creative animal sexual strategies.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. This month, we’ve been digging through the Living on Earth archives and updating some of the stories from our early days. Steve Curwood founded our program 20 years ago, and he joins me now. Steve, what do you got for us this week?
CURWOOD: Well, you know, Bruce, we sorted through loads of recording tape and it brought back memories of not only the serious stories, but when we also had some fun. You may remember back then we had some regular guests, and one of our favorites worked at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. Her name: Donna Fernandes.


FERNANDES: These are alligators. It’s a rather romantic call, loud and robust. But until I had done this program, I really was not aware of the fact that there are mating calls in alligators.

CURWOOD: Donna Fernandes is a zoologist, and now she’s head of the Buffalo Zoo. And one of her favorite things, back when she was a regular on our program, was to introduce people to animal behavior through educational programs. And so we thought we’d bring her back again, and she joins us from the studios of WNED in Buffalo. Hi there, Donna!

FERNANDES: Hi, it’s wonderful to be back on your program again!

CURWOOD: And nice to hear the sound of that alligator - the love call of a male alligator. Sounds like a Harley Davidson!


Chinchillas can make good pets but be prepared – they need a lot of attention and a big cage for a daily dust bath to rid their coats of insects. (Photo: Eric Lee)

FERNANDES: Yeah, it really does. And apparently, if you hear it in your neighborhood, it’s quite something. I’ve often played that at talks that I give and most people don’t recognize it, unless you’re from Florida and then people will always raise their hands and say, ‘I know what that is!’ because it’s very loud and very distinct.

CURWOOD: And we had you on the show to talk about all kinds of things in the animal world. I remember, for the Father’s Day show, you talked about deadbeat animal dads. And in the cold of winter, you illustrated how animals survive the frigid weather. And you also gave advice on animals you see in the zoo that some people keep at home as pets. Let’s take a listen now to what you said about chinchillas:

FERNANDES: These are chinchillas. If you want to give a lot of attention to a chinchilla, they’ll do okay as a pet. They’re very shy so you can’t just sort of jump in there and expect them to respond to you. You have to really get them used to you and handle them very gently. And they have certain requirements: they have to have a dust bath every day so you have to provide a cage large enough to incorporate several features into their home.

Donna Fernandes works with creatures great and small. (Photo: Eric Lee)

CURWOOD: A dust bath?

FERNANDES: Yeah, they sort of clean themselves, kicking up this gray dust. It’s what they do sort of with soil in nature and they really need to do that.

CURWOOD: So that was back then. How do you feel about that advice now?

FERNANDES: It still pertains. When we do programs with our chinchillas, we often demonstrate the dust bath, and we put the chinchilla in and you’ll see it basically kicking up the dust and using that to rid insects that might be on the coat.

CURWOOD: Now, let’s listen to some other advice you had for people who keep iguanas.

FERNANDES: Interesting problems you have to solve if you get an iguana. Their diet changes. When they’re young, they eat insects. And then as they get older, they switch to fruits and vegetables. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that and their iguanas die during that growth period when they switch over from their diet.

They need very specific lighting requirements: full-spectrum lighting in order to synthesize several vitamins that they need. And also, with an iguana, you should very much think about their ultimate size. I wish pet stores would include a fully grown adult specimen in their exhibitory because I think if people saw a five foot iguana, they would think twice about getting an eight inch baby iguana.

CURWOOD: Now, Donna, do you mean five foot with the tail?

FERNANDES: Yeah, that’s about a good, decent size, yeah - five foot long including the tail, yeah.

CURWOOD: And how long does it take for an iguana to get to be that size?

FERNANDES: Several years. So a lot of times, we’ll get calls when an animal is about four or five years - is about when the owner would want to place it somewhere else. But you do find some pet owners that are pretty dedicated and they’ll sometimes devote an entire room of their house to their iguana, you know, place. And they’ll have a really nice propping of trees for them to climb, and a water source, and they really make a little tropical habitat in their own home for a full-size iguana.

CURWOOD: Yeah, a bedroom and, of course, your own bathroom - I mean, that fills up the bathtub!

FERNANDES: It could.

CURWOOD: (Laughs). So one of the biggest responses we’ve ever had on our show at Living on Earth was your…well, your Sex at the Zoo talk. And let’s take a listen now to an excerpt from the archives where you describe how a male hanging fly woos a female one:

FERNANDES: There’s sometimes courtship feeding, where males have to prove their worthiness by offering her some sort of dead insect if she’s a hanging fly. And so females will copulate only if they get an insect prize, and the duration of copulation is related to the size of the prey - so that if you give her a really big insect, she’ll let you copulate with you for 25 minutes; if you give her a small little midge, you’ll only get on her for five minutes.

CURWOOD: (Laughs). Now, Donna Fernandes, that was back then - you were giving the Sex at the Zoo talk. And I understand you’re still doing the Sex at the Zoo programs, and I do remember you once saying that anything you see in human sexual behavior, you can see in the animal kingdom - and often in spades!

FERNANDES: Right, I actually have three different topics I do on animal courtship and mating. The first one is the one you originally saw back in Boston. But since then, I’ve developed one that’s all about, sort of, promiscuity and infidelity. And it really focuses on why females would want to have multiple sex partners - because people often understand that males could get more females pregnant if they had lots of opportunities, where a female mating with multiple males can’t generally increase the number of her pregnancies. But there are some advantages for sleeping around. So I talk about that, and then -

CURWOOD: Whoa, okay, well wait a second - so what are these advantages for the females to sleep around?

FERNANDES: Well sometimes they want to confuse males as to paternity, because they can get protection from multiple males if they all think that they’re the father of the child. They can get resources, food, from multiple males if they all think that, potentially, they may be the father.

Sometimes, just like that hanging fly we talked about, if you mate multiple times, each time you mate you’re going to get a little nuptial gift or a piece of food for the privilege of mating with you. So I have, sort of, my top ten reasons to sleep around for females.

CURWOOD: And what species are you talking about?

FERNANDES: Oh, it’s a variety of things. We’ll see it in a lot of primates, lions, a lot of insects - birds will often sneak copulations with their next door neighbor when their own male is off getting more nesting material. If there’s a particularly handsome next door neighbor that might be a little bit more attractive than their own male, they’ll want to have those genes for their son - but maybe that male already has a mate, so they want to sort of get their mate to take care of their own offspring but sneak fatherhood with the next door neighbor so they will have more handsome sons.

CURWOOD: And what about homosexuality?

FERNANDES: That’s my third topic that I cover - it’s homosexuality, transvestism, and sex change. Those really are very un-related topics in the animal world, but they sort of run together in sort of being alternative reproductive strategies. And I was asked about that for my very first talk - was there homosexual behavior in animals - and I was surprised when I started researching it, but it’s very, very common in both males and females as a strategy.

A really good example is in gulls in California. If there’s a shortage of males, two females will pair up - and it’s called lesbian gulls - and they’ll both build a nest together. They’ll seek copulations with neighboring males to get sperm, but they’ll both lay eggs in the nest, they’ll take turns incubating the eggs, and they’ll both feed the eggs. So it’s the only opportunity to have reproductive success if there aren’t enough males to go around.

So there’s lots of situations like that. Male-male homosexual behavior is sometimes practicing courtship, where a young male will solicit courtship from another male to learn the courtship song appropriately or to learn appropriate behaviors from an older, more experienced male.

CURWOOD: And what species is that?

FERNANDES: You’ll find that in different beetles and roaches and things - and fruit flies as well - where they’ll do that. So there’s quite a number of species that exhibit same-sex sexual behavior. And then transvestism is really an alternative word for female mimicry, where you’ll have males that will sneak into the territory of other males by posing as females.

Donna Fernandes is CEO and President of the Buffalo Zoo. (Photo: Eric Lee)

So they’ll adopt the body coloration or behavior of a male, like the swim behavior. And so they’ll sneak in, pretending: ‘I’m a female, I’m a female, don’t kick me out of your territory.’ And so the males will let them in, and then when a real female comes in, these sneak females, which are really males in disguise, will try to copulate with those females. So it’s sort of a sneak strategy.

CURWOOD: And what species is that?

FERNANDES: You’ll see that in certain fish where you’ll have that strategy. In bluegill sunfish, that will often happen where you’ll have that sneak strategy. And then - sex change was my PhD. So there's lots of species that start as one gender and switch to the other at some point in their life. Like shrimp switch from males to females. Coral reef fish - some go from males to females, other go from females to males. I studied terrestrial slugs, and they start out males and then become females later in the season.

CURWOOD: So I suppose this is a political question, Donna Fernandes, but there are all these folks who are worried about family values. What you’re telling me in the animal world - anything goes!

FERNANDES: Right. You’ll basically see every kind of strategy out there. If it’s going to help you perpetuate your genes, it works for you. And so you’ll see a lot of strategies throughout the animal kingdom for reproduction because there’s so much competition that if you can come up with some unique way to gain more mates or more reproduction than your fellows in the gene pool, that particular gene is going to perpetuate.

CURWOOD: Donna Fernandes heads the Buffalo Zoo, Buffalo, New York. Thanks so much for coming back again to Living on Earth!

FERNANDES: You’re quite welcome!

GELLERMAN: Donna Fernandes talking with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood.



LOE Archive Father Knows Best? A Look at Animal Dads.

LOE Archive Exotic Pets, Purchase with Care.

LOE Archive how animals winter.

LOE Archive Sex at the Zoo.


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