By B.C. Manion
When Tori Emerick was in grade school, she saw an animal at Lowry Park Zoo that she found captivating.
It was an okapi.
The animal has stripes that are reminiscent of a zebra, but it’s actually related to giraffes.
Her intrigue would, a few years later, become a science project featuring an okapi calf and its mother at the zoo.
The project involved developing a behavioral ethogram of an okapi and her offspring shortly after the calf’s birth.
To complete the work, Emerick spent two hours a day, every day for 17 days, observing okapi behavior.
Initially, the 16-year-old jotted down everything she saw. Zoo personnel helped her develop a more systematic way of recording the behavior.
Instead of constantly writing down behaviors, she observed what the animal did and wrote down behaviors at five-minute intervals. The only behavior she recorded each time it occurred was nursing, and she kept track of how long that lasted.
The idea was to see how the mother interacts with its offspring and how that affects the calf’s well-being, according to an abstract of Emerick’s science project.
Tracking such behaviors is helpful because the okapi neonatal mortality rate in captivity in North America is 20 percent, Emerick noted in her abstract.
“It is hoped that careful observation of mother/calf behaviors can improve these odds,” she wrote. That’s especially important at Lowry Park Zoo because two calves from the same okapi pair did not survive. One died after a few days and the other after a few months.
She observed the okapi mom, Betty, and her calf for two to four hours on average, typically at the same time of day.
“When I first started, he was more active and he would nurse a lot more often. As time went on, he would have spurts of just wanting to rest most of the time,” she said.
Emerick said she enjoyed doing the observations, but admits she had to force herself to stay focused on days when the calf was resting the entire time.
On one occasion the calf was unusually energetic.
“There was one day when the keeper went in there with a rake to move some of the hay from (the calf’s) bed,” Emerick said. “He was just standing in the corner and he seemed calm, but then his ears went back and he actually stomped on the rake. He did not want her to be there. … That was his most unusual behavior.”
Emerick also noted that the calf was born at 64 pounds, nearly twice the size of the average okapi baby. She attributes the high birth weight to his being three months overdue.
At the end of her observations, she wrote, “From what I have observed, I can conclude that the calf is healthy and active, and predict that he will continue to maintain his health if no abnormalities arise.”
Emerick said her dad knows Larry Killmar, vice president of animal science and conservation at the zoo, and helped her connect with him.
Killmar said Emerick proved to be “truly engaged” in the research.
He said the information she helped collect will be useful to compare against behavior of future okapi offspring.
The behavioral data provides meaningful information, Killmar said. “It really paints a picture.”
Emerick said she was interested in the okapi because not much is known about them.
“They don’t even know how many there are,” she said. “They are so hard to observe in the wild.”
Okapis, sometimes referred to as forest giraffes, live in the rain forests of northern, central and eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are difficult to observe because they quickly disappear in the thick forests there, she said.
Emerick’s science fair project yielded a second place finish for her in the zoology category at the Pasco County Regional Science Fair.
Emerick aspires to be a veterinarian. She’s not sure where she will attend undergraduate schools, but she is interested in going to the Royal Veterinary College in London for her doctor of veterinary medicine.
Academy at the Lakes science teacher Amy Jordan said being involved in research projects, like the one Emerick completed, helps bring science to life for students.
“The things they learn in science courses they actually run into this in the field. All of the scientific method that we go over 100 times, and it seems a little ridiculous, suddenly professionals are talking about it in a serious way and applying it and having discussions about controls and what is a legitimate way to make an observation and what’s not. It’s very real,” Jordan said.
Other students benefit from seeing their peers engaged in these activities, too, she said.
“They realize science is a real thing, not just a class.”