Summer Science School

During the summer holiday’s myself and Niamh Rennie were fortunate enough to be accepted on to the summer science school courses run by the RZSS. The courses took place at Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park. I attended the course at the Highland Wildlife Park.


On arrival at the Park we were given a tour and taken around the main reserve. The Park specialises in Scottish wildlife and endangered animals that live in the Worlds Mountains and Tundra. It is probably best known for the polar bears. They currently have four: two adult males called Arktos and Walker, a female called Victoria and a young cub called Hamish. Victoria is the UK’s only female polar bear and Hamish is the first polar bear cub to be born in the UK in 25 years. The Park also has one of the most naturalistic enclosures for polar bears in the world.


Fourteen people attended the course in my week at the Park. Each group was given a study animal for the week and my group received the snow leopards. The park has two snow leopards, a male called Chan and a female called Animesh. They are a breeding pair and although they have had no luck yet with a cub the keepers are hopeful for the future. Throughout the week my group carried out various animal behavioural studies of the snow leopards. We wanted to find out how they reacted to different stimuli and to see if there were any trends or patterns in their behaviour.  


After hearing a talk about enrichment we were challenged with creating our own for the snow leopards. Enrichment is basically an object that an animal can interact with which encourages natural behaviours. We created two different types of enrichment, one was scented with Markhor faeces and the other contained food. On the outside of each of the enrichment objects we attached Bison hair. Before we put the enrichment in the leopard enclosure we carried out an observational study deciding that they spend most of their time sleeping. After we put the enrichment in the enclosure they livened up and interacted with the objects. We found out that they preferred the scented enrichment rather than the food. This could have been because the leopards are fed regularly and had eaten a large meal that morning. Trends that we noticed was that the male Chan was the first to check out the enrichment whereas the female Animesh lay down and watched.


As well as studying the snow leopards we also studied the European grey wolf pack in Wolf Wood. The Park started off with a male called Jax and a female called Ruby. In 2016 Ruby gave birth to a litter of six pups then again in 2017 she gave birth to eight pups. We recorded the behaviour of the wolves paying extra attention to how the adults interacted with the younger pups. A lot of the time the pups kept to themselves playing with each other but at times they attempted to play with their older siblings. If they were not in the mood to play the pups would soon know as they would be greeted with snarling of teeth and move away.


Other activities we took part in was setting up camera traps in quieter areas of the Park. Some groups caught pictures of the natural wildlife such as squirrels and hare but my group wasn’t as fortunate. When we looked at our camera trap we found that we only managed to get a picture of two keepers walking by.


We received various talks about enclosure design, stud books and reintroduction projects.  After learning about enclosure design we had the chance to design an enclosure for a randomly chosen species. We had to pretend it was coming to the Park and decide where it would go and what its enclosure would be like. My group was given the striped skunk. We learnt that they are nocturnal so designed an indoor enclosure that mimicked night during the day so that the public could see them when they are at their most active. The indoor enclosure would have a footpath through the inside to see into the different section of the skunks habitats. We designed woodland and grassland areas and also an area where they would have their dens. We called the enclosure “Skunk Land”.


We were taught about stud books which keep track of breeding animals in zoos all around the world. It is someone’s job to make sure that certain breeding pairs are not too closely related. If they are then you will end up with inbreeding. This is because the parents are related which will produce very homozygous offspring, this will affect the ability to adapt and defend against disease.


The RZSS is involved in reintroduction projects, one of which is the reintroduction of the Amur leopards. The Park has a breeding pair of leopards which have given birth to a few cubs earlier this year. The leopards are kept out of view of the public and have minimal interactions with the keepers in an off show breeding facility. This is so the cubs are not familiar with humans and are then eligible to be released in the wild. Amur leopards are a critically endangered species with an estimated 70 left in the wild. The Highland Wildlife Park is working with Russia in efforts to prepare these leopards to enter back in to the wild, increasing the population. In the UK zoos they are not allowed to give the animals live prey, so the Park is working with a reintroduction centre in Russia where they can be given live prey. The leopards will move when the cubs are old enough and their enclosure is built. The enclosure is specially designed to be circular in shape so that the prey are never trapped in a corner. This will prepare the leopards with the skills they will need to survive in the wild.


The Park vet came in to talk to us about what she does and about morals and ethics surrounding the animals.  We watched her carry out a fox dissection. The fox had been shot as part of animal control at Edinburgh Zoo.   


At the end of the week we delivered our presentations to our families. After the presentations we received our certificates to conclude the week.


Holly McNaught  S6