Keeper Diary for 06.05.21

Written by Jack Williams, Manager of Lakeland Wildlife Oasis

We're coming up to National Vegetarian Week, a diet which has seen significant take-up in recent years, for a variety of environmental, personal, and animal welfare reasons.

While we humans have plenty of choice, most animals are constrained by evolution, habitat and physiology. Our snow leopards are the top carnivores of their ecosystem, whereas our opportunist meerkats are prime omnivores, as happy in the wild to snack on fruit, roots and eggs as beetles, spiders, and even scorpions.

In great timing, we've had some characterful new arrivals who look set to be real poster-girls for National Vegetarian Week: Gundis. Sometimes called "the most interesting rodent you've never heard of!", these true herbivores nibble on roots, berries, flowers and bark.

Living in colonies on rocky desert outcrops in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, they're about the size of a roly-poly guinea pig, with sandy fur, gorgeous big eyes, long whiskers and large ears to detect predators.

A completely new species for the zoo, they're already proving a big hit, as, unlike most rodents, they're not nocturnal. They like to forage in the cooler mornings and evenings, then bask all day in the sun. And when they do want to move, despite short legs, they are surprisingly quick!

We've made sure their enclosure is an ambient 25 degrees, and a toasty up to 35 degrees under the heat lamp. The ultimate siesta-lovers, their flexible rib cages enable them to flatten out like pancakes to absorb maximum heat when basking; and means they can squeeze into tiny passageways between the rocks.

All three of our Gundis are girls: Beyoncé, Michelle and Kelly and we hope in time to introduce some males for a breeding programme- perhaps Jay-Z? They have a remarkable range of loud and individual vocalisations, and in time both keepers and regular visitors should be able to tell them apart by call.

Totally adorable, they've already endeared themselves to me by having a special toe on their back feet, which they use to comb their fur! Eating fruit, grooming in the sun, and chatting all day: these laidback vegetarians clearly have it sorted.