Written by Mike Tseng, a summer intern at the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership

When people think of giraffes, enrichment is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But these adorable, tall animals need enrichment as much as any other animal!

Acacia Tree

In the wild, giraffes like to eat from tall acacia trees. These trees have thorns which make it difficult for the giraffes to feed from them, and sometimes there are ants living on the trees, which attack the giraffes when they try to feed! However, the giraffes are well equipped to meet these challenges, too! They have flexible, 18-inch long tongues they use to navigate around the thorns on the trees. These tongues also have thick skin to protect them from thorns and ants.

 

Thorn on acacia tree – ouch!

 

In the zoo, the giraffes are safe from threats when they are feeding, but they also don’t have many chances to use their wonderful tongues. Scientific research has shown that when giraffes don’t get to use their tongues often, they can become “bored” and may exhibit undesirable behaviors such as licking trees and fences. In order to avoid such behaviors, the zoo wanted to build a feeder that lets the giraffes exercise their tongues more often.

 

Interns at Rice University build a giraffe feeder

 

For the past six months, a team of freshman engineers from Rice University have been working on an enrichment feeder that challenges the giraffes by making them use their tongues for longer periods of time. This feeder also needs to look more natural in the giraffes’ exhibit. The current feeder is a plastic barrel covered with bamboo with holes drilled on the sides, and bamboo branches attached to it. The bamboo branches get into the way of the giraffes feeding, just like tree branches would in the real world. Also, holes in this device are just the right size–giraffes can put their tongues into the holes, but can’t put in their whole snouts, so they can’t eat the hay without using their tongues to grab it!

The giraffe feeder was created through a rigorous engineering design process by the Rice University freshmen, and no less than four prototypes were produced before the final feeder was made. Of course, we didn’t want the giraffes to get hurt using these feeders! The first prototypes went through safety tests before the giraffes used them. One was dropped from 12½ feet over 25 times just to prove that it was durable!  http://youtu.be/Gnp2Mu0YQZc

Even though the prototype is finished, we still don’t know if the giraffes will actually like it!

Will the giraffes like the new feeder?

Before the project can be completed, the puzzle feeder needs to prove that it indeed enriches the Houston Zoo giraffes. This means increasing feeding time and reducing negative stereotypical behavior in them. In order to prove these things, video clips of the giraffes interacting with the zoo’s cage feeder and our puzzle feeder are being recorded. By comparing the recordings, the Rice University students will be able to know if the giraffe are more enriched by the new feeder.

If you happen to pass by the giraffe exhibit this week, keep your eyes open–you may be able to see the feeder in action! If you’re not going to the zoo, don’t worry; the feeder may also be featured live on the zoo’s giraffe webcam at http://www.houstonzoo.org/webcam/giraffes/platform-cam/! You can also follow the Rice University freshmen’s progress on this and many other projects on their blog at http://rcelinternship.wordpress.com/.

Giraffes eating from the new feeder

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