The NEW Zoo of Brown County • Owned and operated by Brown County

Skip to Content » American Zoo and Aquarium Association

The “H” in HIPPO

Nov 20 2012
by NEW Zoo Education Dept

The “H” in HIPPO

There are many reasons in our world why plant and animal species become rare and endangered, or under the threat of extinction.  However, environmental scientists and naturalists – like we educators here at the NEW Zoo – have noticed that there are five main reasons that can account for the majority of species becoming threatened.  We us an acronym to help us remember – and teach people– about these five core reasons for animal endangerment.  That acronym is the word HIPPO, meaning that every letter in “HIPPO” stands for something that is causing species to become endangered.  Over our next five blog entries, we’re going to focus on each of these issues – to help you not only understand them better, but also to help you learn how you can avoid contributing to these factors.

The first letter in HIPPO is, of course, the “H,” which stands for HABITAT LOSS.  This is the first “big reason” why species are becoming threatened and endangered.  A habitat is an animal’s (or plant’s!) home, and every habitat provides an animal with the four things they need to survive: food, water, shelter, and space.  When a habitat is lost, or even if it is altered, that can cause serious problems for the animal species that live within it.   While there are some species that can thrive in many different types of habitats (think of a pigeon or common house sparrow, which will feel just as “at home” in the woods as it will in your front yard or even on a sky scraper!), most animal species are adapted to live in a specific type of habitat.

Take, for example, the giant panda bear.  This is a species of animal that is perfectly adapted for life in the temperate bamboo forests of Asia.  Its thick fur keeps it warm even in the snow, and its massive jaws and teeth, and even a pseudo-thumb on its paws, allow it to grip, tear, crush, and chew through even the toughest of bamboo to eat.  A giant panda is specialized to eat that bamboo.  They eat for up to 14 hours a day, and consume over 40 pounds of bamboo every day in order to get the nutrition that they need to survive.  Their bodies are made to consume and digest bamboo, and all their natural instincts help them to survive in that bamboo forest habitat. 

Now, if I were to take a panda bear and pluck it from the forests of China and re-introduce it to the deserts of Africa, or even the deciduous forests of Wisconsin, you can bet that bear would never survive.  It can’t survive in any other type of habitat, because it simply doesn’t have the tools or ability to do so.  So, when a panda bear’s habitat is destroyed, the bear can’t simply “move on” to a different area and survive. A panda may be a very extreme example of an animal that is specialized for one type of habitat – but the truth is that most animals are the same way.  The majority of animals in the world are extremely well-adapted for life in their home environments.  When you lose the habitat, you lose the animal, and that is what leads to endangerment and, eventually, extinction. 

But HABITAT DESTRUCTION isn’t the only part of this that we have to worry about.  Sometimes, a habitat is not entirely destroyed, but it is what we call “fragmented,” or broken up into pieces.  If a road is built running through the middle of a grassland, or if a housing development is created within a forest, then that is what we call HABITAT FRAGMENTATION.  Breaking a habitat up into little pieces can be very devastating for many species and can also cause animals to become endangered and extinct.  One little road, or series of homes, or a shopping mall may not seem like a big deal – but to the animals, they can cause huge problems. 

Imagine if that newly developed highway ends up drawing a line right between a population of turtles’ spring breeding grounds and their annual wintering grounds, where they seek shelter to hibernate from the cold.  That “one little highway” can suddenly make it impossible for the turtles to get from one side to the other – depending on the size and design of the road, it may create a complete barrier – or it may simply mean that large numbers of turtles are killed by cars as they try to cross the highway.  Either way, it means that individual turtles will die, and it also means that the turtles will either not be able to survive the winter, or that they will not be able to lay new eggs and add new individuals (babies!) to the population.  Both options means that the population suffers, leading to that endangerment. 

Even something as large as a panda bear can become trapped in one “pocket” of forest if it is surrounded by development on all sides, as most forests in today’s world often are.  The animals lose the ability to disperse, which means they may have to breed with their own relatives, who are also “trapped” in the same pocket of habitat, causing inbreeding and weakening the population.  Today, scientists and conservationists in China are trying to connect these “pockets” of panda habitats with what are called “corridors” of habitats, so that the animals have ways of moving between the isolated habitats.  These corridors are something that scientists understand are critical to the survival of many different species, not just in China, but around the world. 

 So you can see why habitat destruction and fragmentation are such problems for the wildlife of our world.  If we are to offer endangered species their best chances for survival, it’s part of our duty to help protect their native habitats. 

 So how can you protect endangered and threatened habitats worldwide?  It’s easier than you think!

Try doing some of the following on a regular basis.  These small changes to your daily routine can really make a big difference!

 Recycle and purchase recyclable products and materials whenever possible

  • Turn off the lights whenever you leave a room – even if only for a minute!
    • This saves electricity, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. That helps especially to protect vulnerable ecosystems at the globe’s polar regions
  • Walk, ride your bike, or take public transportation when possible (again, this helps with those carbon dioxide emissions!)
  • Purchase SHADE-GROWN coffee and chocolate products
    • This protects rainforest habitats by encouraging companies to produce chocolate and coffee in the understory of existing rainforest.  No rainforest is cut down to produce these ‘shade grown’ products
  • Purchase orange and other juices (such as apple juice) produced locally or within the United States – for example, buy only the “Florida Orange Juice” brand
    • This protects rainforest habitats, because no rainforests are cut down in the U.S. to produce these products.  Oranges/apples/etc. grown in other countries, like Mexico and Brazil, almost always contribute to the destruction of rainforest habitat
    • How do you know if the orange juice you’re buying comes from the United States?  Just pick up the carton or bottle, turn it around, and read the ingredients! The information is listed right there in black and white, telling you exactly where the fruit was grown.  It’s easy!
  • Support local and global conservation projects
    • One way you can do this is by visiting your NEW Zoo!  We participate in a variety of endangered species breeding programs, as well as contribute annually to different conservation programs around the world. When you support the NEW Zoo, you support threatened and endangered species!

 These may seem like small steps – but every step we take makes a difference.  And that is all that matters.


Tags: , , ,