Going to the zoo at TAU

There are about 40 species of mammals, 100 species of birds and 80 species of reptiles and amphibians - all indigenous to Israel.

biblical zoo 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
biblical zoo 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Somewhere between the fat sand rats, pink flamingos, the herd of gazelles and the pack of wolves is a compact little facility where Tel Aviv University (TAU) zoology professors carry out their research. One of two university zoos in the world (the other one is in Germany), TAU's 24-dunam (six-acre) zoo - The I. Meier Segals Zoological Garden - is a living laboratory for scientists and a learning center where private groups and schoolchildren get to peek into Israeli wildlife research and nature conservation. Although it sits on the edge of the TAU campus in Ramat Aviv and is flanked by highways, the TAU zoo is somehow very wild. Unlike large commercial zoos that entice high volumes of visitors, the TAU zoo takes visitors by appointment only. That's because most of the animals are not caged but are free to cavort and behave naturally. One can find about 40 species of mammals, 100 species of birds and 80 species of reptiles and amphibians - all indigenous to Israel. No more than 20 people at a time can embark on a guided mini-safari by foot in the outback of Ramat Aviv. As guides working under the university group Nature Campus, TAU students get experience and sometimes a little extra income to help fund their studies. The zoo is home to hundreds of animals, including jackals, but "We don't have elephants or giraffes," says zoo director Prof. Arnon Lotem from the Faculty of Life Sciences' Department of Zoology. "We mainly offer a collection of animals that are Mediterranean in origin and also endangered species." Other animals, such as peacocks, are reared and kept because they serve as good models for learning certain concepts in nature, says Lotem. "Male peacocks have a unique display and mating system." True to the scientific and natural approach to keeping and maintaining the animals as wild animals, they have no pet names like Cookie or Fluffy. "Scientists tend to be dry," chuckles Lotem. He says that everyone who comes to the zoo likes the gazelles. The cutest animals, he adds, are the fat sand rats and some of the other rodents. "We have Webcams and an infrared system to track the fat sand rats running around in the dark," Lotem says. Fat sand rats resemble squirrels without a tail. The zoo is home to eight of the rats, which are indigenous to the Rift Valley between the Dead Sea and Eilat. They are active both day and night, which is unusual, he says. The TAU zoo began as a means to preserve, protect and educate Israelis about their indigenous animals. The zoo's founder Yehoshua Margolin, a naturalist, thought that new immigrants to Israel should know their land by getting to know the wildlife. Later the zoo was developed by the founder of nature conservation in Israel, Prof. Heinrich Mendelssohn, who was the first to establish a core sample of endangered species indigenous to Israel for breeding. He worked mostly with raptors, such as the lappet-faced vulture, griffon vulture and white-tailed eagle. Today, in conjunction with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the Nature Reserves Authority, the zoological garden is a center for conservation and education-related activities in Israel. TAU researchers examine the breeding cycles of a multitude of species with the aim to maintain a captive-breeding core and release animals and their offspring back into nature when possible. Some investigate the effects of global warming. Since the captive-breeding program began at the zoo more than 20 years ago, the conservation efforts have borne fruit. Because of the TAU zoo, the white-tailed eagle can again be found in the Hula Valley, and lanner falcons and griffon vultures hover in the skies above the Carmel Mountains. "It's very rare that a university is also inside a zoo," says Lotem, the zoo's scientific director. "Our zoo is as old as the university, which first had its campus in Abu Kabir." The zoo's founding fathers Mendelssohn and Margolin, he says, thought that in order to educate students about zoology one needs to keep a collection of Israeli fauna. From that idea, a zoo was developed to be as close to nature as possible. Sometimes the animals fight. "It is really a wild place here, like in Africa. There are mongooses in Tel Aviv. Sometimes they enter the zoo through holes in the fence and kill birds, but that's all part of the process," says Lotem, referring to predatory hierarchies in nature. This year in particular, adds Lotem, "We have more snakes. Some of them simply come and go. No part of the zoo is really sterile." There is some order to the zoo, even though the animals are not caged. Certain plots of territory and space are reserved or held by the animals. "You can't put raptors close to their prey," explains Lotem, retelling an unusual story in which the birds, predatory in nature, by chance started rearing one of the chicks given to them for food. "It happened at a time when the kestrels were feeding their young, and they ended up treating him like one of their own, until one day they killed him." A herd of gazelles walk about freely in the zoo. They can be viewed by a Webcam, walking in the pond and grazing on the grass of higher learning. But the zoo, says Lotem, ultimately offers a great model for breeding ecology. "I have students coming from other universities in Israel, but most of the time they can't have their research set up like it is here." A dominant section of the zoo is a public area where visitors - accompanied by a guide at all times - can view and learn about native flora and fauna. There is also a small area for picnics. Another section of the zoo is for research purposes. "Schoolchildren don't visit there - that area is more isolated," Lotem points out. The most exciting time of the year for Lotem is the early spring, when birds are roosting. "During breeding season we see a lot of courtship, but I think every season here is unique. In the winter there is more action, and hundreds of birds come to roost just before dark. There is also breeding activity in the summer." The large metal entrance gate to the zoo looks locked, but it is not. On a Sunday morning, three adolescent rust-brown chickens run across the entrance leading to the research labs and offices. Upstairs in one of the offices is zoologist Yoram Yom Tov. Mentored by the zoo's founders in the early days, Yom Tov went into zoology "by chance" and eventually went on to become the zoo manager. Today, however, he is focusing on research that keeps him in the lab and takes him around the world. "Yehoshua Margolin [the zoo's founder] loved nature because he grew up on a farm," says Yom Tov, "but he knew that most Jews who grew up in the Diaspora didn't know what zoos were. 'To love their country,' said Margolin, 'Jews must study nature,'" he says. "The zoo here has three purposes," Yom Tov reiterates. "It is for students working on master's or doctorate research degrees; for nature conservation; and for education." The university runs several enrichment programs for schoolchildren at the zoo, most of them from Israel's social and geographical periphery. Yom Tov's own research base is in the zoo, but he also travels worldwide studying how land mammals and birds adapt to warming climates, specifically to global warming. There is a principle in science, he says, that he is studying. Known as Bergmann's rule, it explains why animals in cooler climates gain weight in a linear manner. The rule attempts to address why wolves in Canada can be up to five times fatter than the same species of wolf living in countries like Saudi Arabia, and impacts how scientists assess the effects of global warming on animals. While studying the effects of global warming from Alaska to Denmark, Yom Tov found some unusual results. Animals in some latitudes, especially northern ones, were not following the rules of body size laid down by Bergmann's rule. Instead of becoming smaller, the animals are bigger. As the world heats up in some places, countries that previously offered inhospitable climates to mammals and birds are suddenly offering animals Club Med conditions with an endless buffet of food. Yom Tov's conclusion: Global warming isn't affecting the world's species equally. He travels around the world with his wife, a chemist, and they study (she as his assistant) the heads and body sizes of mammals and birds in university and museum collections dating back 50 years. They see how bodies have changed with time and also use a great deal of specimens from Israel. "When one studies animals, one cannot look at the wolf alone or its prey, the hare," explains Yom-Tov, who challenges popular adaptation theories. "The world is changing. The wolf is changing. And humans are changing. We have to look at global warming as a global phenomenon. Everything is connected." Sometimes the changes or aberrances from what had been previously found in science has nothing to do with global warming, Yom Tov believes. One also has to look at how human behavior has changed and affects the animals that share our land. "Human garbage is everywhere, and agriculture has improved. As for my research at the zoo, it is really one brick in a very big building for understanding climate change." Yom Tov is one of many teachers and graduate students from TAU's Department of Zoology who carry out research at the small and intimate zoo. More than half the staff at the Zoology Department is doing or has done research at the facility at some point in their career. There are scientists with offices and computers inside the zoo, while others do their lab work there or keep research animals housed in the facility. Research topics include ecology, behavior, physiology, endocrinology and applied entomology. The zoo also hosts and helps organize activities to train teachers and pupils on animal and plant conservation. The zoo also trains staff from the Jewish National Fund, SPNI, and the Nature and Parks Authority. If you're planning a trip to the zoo, note that there is no booth to buy tickets. And since the animals (including the wolves and jackals) are running wild in some places, it is wise (that is the policy) to call and book in advance. Entrance is NIS 20 each for a group of 20. To book a tour, call Nature Campus at (03) 640-5148 or e-mail teva@tauex.tau.ac.il Live cams live from the zoo can be seen at www.tau.ac.il/lifesci/zoolive. To bring in injured wild animals, call (03) 640-9056.