Keepers at Melbourne Zoo have been waiting seven years for their giant tortoises to breed. Now they are hoping some bathroom sexy times will do the trick, installing a shower the tortoises can turn on by themselves to see if Aldabrachelys gigantea find a freshly washed companion an aphrodisiac.
Zoos don't have a great history when it comes to animal welfare, but today many are willing to go to great lengths to ensure their inhabitants’ health and comfort. For Melbourne Zoo that increasingly involves technological innovations, rolling out first-of-a-kind facilities tailored to suit specific inhabitants.
Fresh from the announcement this year of a reptile swim-gym, the two latest examples are a tortoise shower and a foot-checker for the little penguins.
The giant tortoises at Melbourne Zoo are provided with ponds to dip in and some enclosures have misters, but a tortoise can't just duck in and out. Reptile keeper Adam Lee told IFLScience that humans have hosed them off on hot days, knowing they are not adapted to dry heat. That’s work intensive and the tortoises' opinion is hard to gauge, so the team investigated an option where the tortoises could turn the showers on and off for themselves.
The zoo consulted researchers at RMIT University about adapting motion sensors for several species that might wish to cool off. Most sensors, like those used in offices to turn the lights out when no one moves, were not responsive to the great reptiles' geologically slow movements. Yet in the end, a suitable arrangement was found and installed in the love nest, where the team hope the century-old Little John and Jean (80) will do their bit for the continuation of the species.
“As far as we know we’re the only facility with a motion-activated shower for the Giant Tortoise,” Lee said in an emailed statement, and just in time for Melbourne's record-breaking heatwave.
The zoo has two tortoise enclosures, and the team rotate Little John between sharing with Jean and a “bachelor pad” with Wilbur, in the hope absence will make giant hearts grow fonder and the couple will mate when they are reunited. So far, there has been no rewarding (slow) patter of little tortoise feet.
“Each of the tortoises has their own personalities and... Jean is not interested in playing with the stuff we give her,” Lee told IFLScience. Little John, however, is more keen on novelty and has taken to the shower, even if Lee says he is “still working it out.”
Surprisingly, the motion sensors that respond to emus and kangaroos have proven more difficult to operate, and have yet to be deployed.
Meanwhile, however, the zoo has met with success a device that both weighs little penguins and checks their feet for disease. After stepping in a cleansing foot bath, the penguins are weighed – a key measure of penguin health. They then walk across a see-through box with an embedded mirror that allows keepers to check their feet for a bacterial infection known as bumblefoot, which plagues them in both the wild and captivity.
Keeper Elizabeth Liddicoat said that while podoscopes for foot checking are used for other birds, the design of this one is unique in the world. The sea birds have proved swifter adapters than the reptiles and are, Liddicoat claimed, “embracing it with open flippers.”
Wild penguin populations have suffered sudden crashes in recent years and the zoo's birds represent a vital genetic reserve, as well as being ambassadors for the marine environment.