You don’t need to head up north or plan a camping trip to connect with nature – there are amazing animals all around us! Let us introduce you to three of your wild neighbors.
They call it mudpuppy love!
Mudpuppies are the second-largest salamander in the western hemisphere. These amphibians may not give off total puppy-dog vibes, but when you see them up-close and in-person, you can’t help but to fall for their charms. There is even a whole celebration in their honor called Mudpuppypalooza taking place March 26 at the Belle Isle Nature Center!
Mudpuppies have wide faces and frilly, external gills on the sides of their heads that act like filters in the water. This means they need to live in clean water to stay healthy. These pups spend most of their time under the cover of flat rocks or slabs of concrete at the bottom of rivers – including our very own Detroit River. They are an important part of Michigan’s aquatic ecosystem, and the Detroit Zoological Society has been collecting data on mudpuppies and water quality in the Detroit River since 2004. Learn more about our monitoring efforts.
Say hi to Michigan’s largest snake!
Black rat snakes can grow to be an impressive 8 feet long – but don’t worry, they are non-venomous and harmless to humans. Rodents, however, are not so lucky. As their name suggests, this species hunts rats and will often enter barns or abandoned buildings in search of food. They use the constriction method of hunting and consume their prey in a single bite! Rat snakes can also be found hiding in tall grasses, under fallen trees or in hallowed out logs, just like our friend here, who just emerging after a taking a nice afternoon nap. The habitats at the Belle Isle Nature Center are designed to mirror the landscape the species might experience in the wild – do any of the elements look familiar to you?
Do I spot a spotted turtle?
If you have visited our Nature Center before, you may be familiar with our turtle pond. This expansive indoor habitat is home to several turtle species, including this pair of spotted turtles. They may be smaller than most of their pond mates, but as you can see from this video, they make up for it in moxie! Spotted turtles can be found in bogs, marshes, swamps, ponds and woodland streams throughout Michigan. They can often be seen basking in the midday sun, but when surprised, spotted turtles will dive underwater and completely bury themselves in the mud. They also retreat to these muddy beds to stay cool on hot summer days. Spotted turtles in Michigan are threatened by habitat loss and from being removed from the wild by reptile collectors. That brings us to a rule that applies to all wild animals – look don’t touch! This is the best way to keep your new friend safe.
The Belle Isle Nature Center is all about making connections. People, animals, natural and unnatural landscapes are all a part of the unique tapestry that is Detroit. Visit belleislenaturecenter.detroitzoo.org to plan your visit. The Nature Center is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and and is always free!
Authored by Christina Ross, media coordinator for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).
The DZS prides itself on being an organization that is committed to celebrating the diversity — not only of wildlife and wild places — but also of our human community. This Black History Month, the DZS honored this commitment by highlighting individuals who have greatly contributed to our organization throughout the years. There is no doubt the DZS is a better place for the animals, our guests and our staff due to their dedication and fortitude. We are proud to shine a light on their accomplishments and offer our deepest gratitude.
Meet some of the people who have helped make the DZS the organization it is today!
Ms. Khadejah E. Shelby was appointed as the deputy director of the Detroit Zoo in 1982 and held this position, along with Belle Isle Zoo director, for 12 years. She also served as acting director for the Detroit Zoo, making her the first Black woman to hold the position of zoo director in the United States. During her time at the Zoo, she developed an appreciation of all animals and worked to share her knowledge with Black children by answering all their animal-related questions. Khadejah took on the personal responsibility of educating Black people about zoo careers by helping to develop a zoo management degree at Wayne State University.
She managed with common sense and openness, knowing the animal care team was — and still is — the foundation of the Zoo. Though she passed away in 2018, Khadejah’s impact can still be felt in our organization today.
“Ms. Shelby was a champion for change,” says Curator of Education Mike Reed, who worked closely with Khadejah. “She was a strong personality and not afraid to challenge traditional barriers. In a time when there were few Black individuals in animal care departments in zoos and aquariums throughout the United States, she worked to give everyone a fair opportunity at the Detroit Zoo.”
C. Monique Roberson
In November 1976, Monique Roberson became the first full-time female zookeeper at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) and was later recognized as such by the City of Detroit.
Monique began her DZS career in the guest services department before transferring to the animal care department. At the time, this was uncommon for a woman, and she faced harsh scrutiny from her male coworkers. Even though she was tasked with the hardest jobs and faced continuous discrimination, Monique was determined to make it in this “man’s” profession.
Over the years, Monique took it upon herself to read extensively about the animals she cared for. When a testing system was put in place, she passed with flying colors and was promoted to senior zookeeper. During her time at the DZS, Monique cared for her favorite animals, the primates, and served as the union’s chief steward.
“The DZS went from a male-dominated workplace to a welcoming environment for all,” Monique says when reflecting on her time at the DZS. “Animal care and training and enrichment have evolved practically 360 degrees from my earlier years.”
After 48 years and 4 months of employment, Monique retired on Dec. 31, 2020. During her career, she broke down barriers and paved the way for other women and Black individuals to join the animal care field. We want to take this opportunity to thank her for her years of commitment and honor her as the first full-time female zookeeper in DZS history!
Meet the woman who was considered the heart of the Zoo’s guest relations department for years.
Gwen Lanier worked at the Detroit Zoo for more than 48 years. During her tenure, she witnessed the DZS take great strides toward being an inclusive workplace and performed many different roles on the guest relations team. She likens working on this team to eating a box of chocolates — “you never know what you are going to get.”
“The employees are colorful with their antics, and the guests are unbelievable,” she says. “Working in guest relations will keep your brain charged, body energized and give you a passion for people and their stories.”
One of her proudest work moments is when the DZS adopted a school on the lower east side of Detroit. There, Gwen mentored a student with whom she still stays in touch today! Gwen is also proud that she trained fellow team members how to treat people equally. She had a great rapport with staff and was a confidant for many.
Though she is now retired, Gwen continues to serve as an ambassador for the Zoo. She has seen so many changes in her 48 years and appreciates that the DZS has gone from being a white male-dominated organization to a diverse place where jobs are filled by qualified people regardless of their race, orientation or religion.
Meet Mike Reed, who says his most cherished part of working for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is that he could be a part of “living Black history.”
A zoologist and coordinator of education at the Detroit Zoo, Mike is the longest-tenured member of the DZS team management group. He has spent the last 35 years caring for animals large and small at the Detroit Zoo and on Belle Isle. Throughout his career, he maintained a goal of sparking a love of nature in all youth and showing Black children that there is a place for them in animal-related fields.
Mike made history by being the first educator specifically assigned to the Belle Isle Zoo and Aquarium. There, he helped to create what was, at the time, the world’s largest spider habitat. It was the first major zoo habitat designed, built and maintained by an entirely African American staff.
Mike continued to break barriers by being elected the first Black president of the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education, a statewide environmental literacy group. He was also the first African American to serve as education chair for Youth Day, Michigan’s largest one-day children’s event.
Mike has made a difference in many children’s lives by visiting schools and talking with them one-on-one at events. In 2021, he was profiled in an article by Wayne State University that shared his accomplishments. Mike hopes his story will inspire more young Black Americans to join their classmates in seeking jobs in the sciences, so they can continue to create history.
Finally, let’s meet someone who making history today and moving us toward a more equitable future.
Maurice Anderson is the director of guest relations for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). He is responsible for everything that goes into giving guests a great Detroit Zoo experience —from hiring and training staff to managing the rides and attractions, resolving customer service feedback and much more. You are in good hands with Maurice. He embodies the DZS spirit and has risen through the ranks since his start as a public relations intern six years ago.
“The two most important things that I’ve learned along the way on my journey from intern to my current role are the importance of building healthy relationships within the workplace and the importance of making every aspect of the business a priority,” Maurice says. “The Zoo is a hands-on organization, and we are successful because we encourage open communication, innovation, integrity, caring and equity. Each department and each employee make this organization a world-class Zoo.”
He says his favorite part of his job is how dynamic each day is.
“Within a given day, I am moving from project to project, meeting to meeting, and assisting the DZS team. Each day at the Zoo presents a new challenge, and it allows me to sharpen my skills.”
Maurice is a great example of what can be accomplished at the Detroit Zoo.
Thank you, Khadejah, Monique, Gwen, Mike and Maurice!
While we couldn’t fit everyone into this blog post, the DZS has been and continues to be shaped by countless Black and diverse individuals — we can’t thank them enough for their work and dedication.
As we turn the calendar to March, remember that Black history’s importance does not end just because February does. The DZS prioritizes diversity and inclusion 365 days a year.
Authored by Luke Grange, senior education specialist at the Belle Isle Nature Center.
“Can we write on this?”
The campers looked hopefully at the butcher paper-covered tables and cups of markers. When they were told that indeed the markers were for drawing on the tables, they happily got to work drawing, signing their names and making their mark.
This was the scene at the Belle Isle Nature Center’s Winter Nature Camp on Jan. 3. Those campers had just arrived at the Nature Center’s first camp since 2019. The campers didn’t seem to mind the layoff as they drew rainbows, birds and the odd video game character as they got to know one another before breaking up into age groups to go explore outside.
The Belle Isle Nature Center’s habitats and interactive exhibits celebrate places in the city where you can connect with the natural world. Similarly, campers experienced both the natural and man-made portions of Belle Isle ― walking on top of deer prints and under willow trees to explore the rarely seen inside of a covered footbridge. Fire hydrants poked up from alongside the trails like steel mushrooms as raptors flew overhead.
Campers loved building their beginner birding skills at Winter Nature Camp. Brittany Leick, program coordinator of the Detroit Audubon, assisted Winter Nature campers in learning to identify seven local, colorful birds and then practicing how to use binoculars. Campers also visited the bird viewing window and learned about the ultraviolet patterns inside the glass that the Belle Isle Nature Center installed to help make the windows bird safe. Campers then got to paint their own bird shapes to put on their windows at home.
The new Belle Isle Nature Center was thoroughly enjoyed by campers. Children visited the young learner’s space to act as ants and move giant seeds and dirt throughout the tunnels. They experienced life in the pollinator hallway as a bumblebee, seeing the normally invisible UV patterns that flowers advertise to insects. Each day, the campers would find something new to do in the space.
At the end of the week, campers were asked to draw their favorite camp activities. Almost everyone mentioned spending time out in nature with the new friends they made. As they had made their mark on the tables over the course of the week, adding to their drawings with each meal and snack, campers had made their own mark with the friendships they had formed.
Authored by Aaron Jesue, animal care specialist for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).
If a gorilla was on the other line, would you answer the call? The DZS and our dedicated supporters certainly would!
Since 2019, the Detroit Zoo has helped answer the call to save gorillas around the world through the Gorillas on the Line…Answer the Call campaign. From February to April each year, we partner with Gorilla SAFE(Saving Animals from Extinction) for its global cell phone recycling challenge. Money raised by recycling used cell phones and small electronics through this challenge directly supports gorilla conservation initiatives in Africa.
If you haven’t heard about the Gorillas on the Line…Answer the Call campaign before, here’s the best part — it’s easy to participate. Participation can be as simple as dropping an old, unwanted phone off at the Zoo or as big as getting a Michigan school or major business on board to collect devices by the hundreds.
The 2023 campaign starts Feb. 1 and runs through April 30, but we can continue sending in items through the second week of September. The DZS also never stops collecting electronics. We keep collection bins out at the Detroit Zoo all year long, so feel free to drop off your unwanted small devices on your next trip to the Zoo!
Now, you may be asking, how can my old electronics save gorillas?
Every device sent to the Detroit Zoo gets sorted, packaged and mailed to an electronics recycling company in Louisville, Kentucky called ECO-Cell. From there, each device gets counted on a national scale for the Detroit Zoo. When the numbers are tabulated, each device equates to a different dollar amount, and that money is directly donated to gorilla conservation initiatives. This means that when you recycle your electronics at the Zoo, you are directly saving gorillas.
2023 marks the fifth year of the Gorillas on the Line campaign. The Detroit Zoo has participated every year, and each year we continue to grow and collect more devices to support gorillas in the wild. In our first year, we collected 490 devices and donated $204. In 2022, that number grew to 1,793 devices and $1,242. Since 2019, the DZS has donated 3,532 devices and $2,042. That’s amazing, and it’s because of our group effort — our troop collective.
Last year, the Detroit Zoo finished the challenge third in North America in 2022, following only behind the Toronto Zoo and the Cincinnati Zoo. Overall, participants across the globe collected 10,359 devices and raised $7,540 for gorilla conservation.
Though we have our eyes on first place for this year’s challenge, the important part is that every donation counts. Every device means another dollar going directly to Gorilla SAFE conservation organizations in Africa, so the next time you get a call from a gorilla, don’t leave them hanging! Answer the call and save a species.
Authored by Sarah Culton, communications manager for The Detroit Zoological Society.
The first time she saw Jebbie on an airport tarmac, Elizabeth Arbaugh, curator of mammals for the DZS, knew the small grizzly bear would always have her heart.
“He was so tiny. He fit into a small dog crate,” Arbaugh recalls with a smile on her face. “The moment I saw him, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, we are going to get you home.’”
Arbaugh met Jebbie, an orphaned grizzly bear cub, midway on his journey to the Detroit Zoo, where he spent more than a year growing up after being rescued in Alaska. During his time in Detroit, the cub captured the attention of DZS staff, guests and the greater community. Recently, the time came to say goodbye, and Jebbie went to live at a wildlife sanctuary where he has many acres to roam and play.
Though he may have physically left the Detroit Zoo, Arbaugh says Jebbie could never leave the space he carved out in the hearts of the staff who cared for him.
“His is a story that pulls at all of our heartstrings,” she says, emotion filling her voice. “We all miss him so much, but we know the wildlife sanctuary is a really good opportunity for him.”
Growing up at The Detroit Zoo
Found wandering alone by residents in Tok, Alaska, Jebbie was rescued in June 2021 by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADFG), the agency responsible for native wildlife in Alaska. As wild grizzly cubs spend up to three years with their mothers, Jebbie’s rescuers knew he would not survive on his own, and he was taken to the Alaska Zoo. Jebbie was eventually transported to the Detroit Zoo to receive care and sanctuary.
“He was full of life from the day he got here,” Arbaugh says. “He loved the water; he loved toys; he loved to run — he loved everything.”
Jebbie gained attention outside the Zoo when he was introduced to polar bear cub Laerke. Two days after birth, Laerke had a medical emergency and had to be removed from the den she shared with her mother, Suka, and sister, Astra. After months of round-the-clock care by DZS staff, she moved to the Arctic Ring of Life where she could see the other polar bears and begin being weaned from human care. However, it was clear from the reactions of Suka and Astra that returning Laerke to her family was not an option. After Jebbie’s rescue, Laerke had an opportunity for companionship and socialization with another bear.
After a slow introduction, the two cubs lived inside the Arctic Ring of Life, where they swam, played and grew up together. The two bears’ bond drew international media coverage, and the pair became a favorite among guests who traveled far and wide to see the two in person.
Though their companionship touched the hearts of many, Zoo experts always knew the cubs would eventually need to be separated. That day came nearly seven months later once Jebbie grew larger than Laerke and began playing more roughly than the polar bear would sometimes like.
“Though they eventually lived apart, Jebbie and Laerke provided each other with much-needed socialization,” Arbaugh says. “Their welfare was always our top priority, and we are happy we could provide these two cubs with a friend during a critical time in their development.”
Finding a New Home
Jebbie remained at the Detroit Zoo for several months after he and Laerke separated. Here, he continued to grow and thrive as a fan-favorite among staff and guests alike. However, the animal care team who looked after him knew he would likely move to a wildlife sanctuary at some point. So, when the possibility came for Jebbie to live at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, Arbaugh knew it was an opportunity the grizzly bear cub needed to take.
“In his new home, Jebbie has so much room to be a bear,” Arbaugh says. “He can explore, dig, forage, live with other animals and express young bear behaviors.”
The Wild Animal Sanctuary is the oldest and largest nonprofit sanctuary in the world dedicated exclusively to rescuing captive exotic and endangered large carnivores. Encompassing more than 10,500 acres of land and more than 120 habitats, the sanctuary provides expert care and rehabilitation, exceptional diets and enrichment, and large spaces in which its rescued animals can roam.
Since Jebbie arrived at the sanctuary in September, sanctuary staff say he is doing well and thriving in his new home.
“Jeb is doing great, and he loves the three other young grizzlies who live in the habitat,” says Patrick Craig, executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary. “There are a couple of older females in there as well, and a couple of older males, but the kids get along with everyone, so Jeb is very happy and loves swimming in his small lake.”
Though she already misses Jebbie, Arbaugh says she is happy to have played a role in helping the little cub she met on an airport tarmac grow into a healthy bear.
“He needed someone to save him, and we were able to take him in and give him a home for as long as possible,” she says, wiping away a happy tear. “He’s my favorite guy, and I’m so happy for him.”
Authored by Amy Greene, nature centers director for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).
The Belle Isle Nature Center reopened in fall 2022 with a whole new interior designed to connect people of all ages with local flora and fauna. It has been thrilling to be open again! As we roll into the winter season, let’s take some time to reflect on the past few months and appreciate our greatest feature — our guests!
Having guests in our building has brought the heart and soul back into the Nature Center. Of course, part of the rhythm of that heartbeat includes the amazing animals, their caregivers and the rest of the staff, but it has truly been a joy to see people exploring the new exhibits and habitats. During the first two days we opened, the golf course across the road hosted a Special Olympics event for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and we had the serendipitous opportunity to host 600 children immediately upon reopening. It brought tears to my eyes to see kids learning, exploring and belonging in the natural world.
It is truly all about connections — our older visitors, who are well beyond school-aged, will often come across one of the habitats featuring local wildlife, turn to someone and share an anecdote that starts with “I remember…!” Hearing stories of how people used to sit on a dock and look for water snakes or turn over leaves to find frogs reinforces the connections between past and present, nature and human. Every day, I look forward to reading the responses people leave on our community feedback wall that detail their personal connections to where they find nature in their own neighborhoods. Hand-written and hand-drawn notes share experiences about squirrels, groundhogs, butterflies, birds, trees and weeds in backyards, schoolyards, parks and places people visit.
Tunnels connect things, too!
It has been exciting to observe people of all ages explore the many tunnels here at the Nature Center. The Young Learner Space features an exploration through an ant or worm tunnel, right down under the crack of a sidewalk. What can you find in there that is part of nature? What did humans leave behind? Can you store food, dig tunnels and spend some time in part of our everyday environment that is often unnoticed yet crucially important? The tunnel under the treefrog habitat offers yet another interesting perspective, as guests can pop up into acrylic “bubbles” right in the habitat for an insider’s view. The space is also home to a replica Detroit sewer tunnel, which offers a walk-through experience showcasing how animals adapt to living in spaces with human infrastructure and how our actions, like keeping trash clear from drains, can have an impact.
Through the tunnels, hallways and habitats, the focus on shared spaces and connection to place-based nature is apparent. Each mural at the Belle Isle Nature Center represents an actual location where those species of animals were spotted in the city of Detroit. It is a powerful feeling to see our guests interact with the features here that provide opportunities to explore their own power and place in the natural world. These exhibits help our guests recognize their impact and belonging as individuals who share their space with other living things.
In the last three months, more than 18,000 people have already visited the Belle Isle Nature Center — that’s a lot of connections! After the long, quiet days of the pandemic closure, and the loud and bustling days of the renovation construction, this everyday simplicity — hearing all those footsteps through the hallways, exclamations of awe, the buzz of childhood questions and the curious conversations about connection to the spaces we share with wildlife and wild places – is truly the beat that keeps our pulse pumping. It’s the best part of the Belle Isle Nature Center!
Ready to experience it for yourself?
Visit us any day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. – the Belle Isle Nature Center and its programs are free! With unpredictable winter weather, the nature center provides a climate-controlled oasis where you can still get that great outdoor feeling. The cozy stone fireplace and birdwatching window are fan favorites this time of year. You can also embrace the cold and join us forWinterfestfrom 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 28. Guests will have the opportunity to trek through the trails on snowshoes, make a feeder to care for birds in the winter, learn about animal adaptations and winter survival, and much more. Night owls will also enjoy our monthly Nature at Night series that features different native nocturnal species. This Friday, Jan. 20, local partners from the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center and Detroit Audubon will be on-site with fun activities, such as a guided hike to search of owls, followed by an outdoor fire to warm you up. Follow our Facebook page to stay connected with us and your fellow nature lovers. Just like the seasons, there is always something new to experience at the Belle Isle Nature Center.
Authored by Dr. Kylen N. Gartland, manager of applied animal welfare science for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).
Making a happy home requires an abundance of care, creativity and finesse – especially when that home is for gorillas!
The Detroit Zoo’s Great Apes of Harambee habitat is home to three adult male gorillas, Chipua (Chip), Kong-Mbeli (Kongo) and Pendeka (Pende). You may notice something unique about this group – there are no females! Chip, Kongo and Pende are part of a bachelor group. Although gorilla family groups are generally composed of one adult male, multiple adult females and their juvenile offspring, gorillas may also form bachelor groups composed of multiple young and maturing male gorillas. These bachelor groups provide individuals with opportunities for a healthy social environment with companions with whom to form complex and lasting relationships.
Forming a successful bachelor group is no small feat. Zoo staff and managers must consider a plethora of variables such as age, personality and family history. Although many all-male gorilla groups are formed when the individuals are juveniles, the relationships and dynamics within the group may undergo any number of changes as individuals grow and mature. The ideal management strategy for a group of 10-year-old gorillas can look very different from that for a group of 20-year-olds. What’s more, gorillas develop unique personalities and preferences, just like humans! Plans for long-term care and well-being must integrate not only group needs but individual factors as well.
Chip, Kongo and Pende have been a cohesive social unit for more than 20 years, due in large part to the excellent care provided by the Detroit Zoological Society team! Zoo staff are always on the lookout for new information that can help us manage the complex inter-relationship between time, group-level needs and individual-level preferences that leads to a happy, healthy home.
One way animal care staff can ensure the gorillas are living in optimal conditions is through tools such as Qualitative Behavioral Assessments (QBAs). QBAs are keeper rating tools that allow expert care staff to evaluate the well-being of a given animal based on subtle cues like movement, posture, dynamic expressions, and individualistic indicators of emotional states. Using QBAs, care staff and welfare scientists can collaboratively explore new and innovative strategies for maximizing animal well-being.
Recent nationwide work between members of the DZS’s Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) and experts at other zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) created opportunities to investigate overnight housing. This work suggested that groups of younger gorillas may thrive with the constant access to group members provided by social overnight housing, while groups with more mature gorillas may benefit from the space and solitude provided by individual overnight housing. Judging what is right for each individual and each group is an ever-evolving challenge, as an individual’s well-being varies over time. The gorillas at the Detroit Zoo provided a unique opportunity to investigate overnight housing, as the group has historically been managed on a rotation with three nights spent together socially and the fourth night spent solitarily.
To make this investigation possible, CZAAWE staff members came together with mammal supervisor Melissa Thueme and other members of the primate care team to create and validate a QBA tool just for gorillas! This tool, called the Gorilla Behavioral Assessment Tool (GBAT), combined CZAAWE staff’s scientific training with the primate care team’s gorilla expertise. Using the GBAT, primate care staff conducted three months of daily evaluations of Chip, Pende and Kongo from June to August 2022. Once the primate team had collected the data, it was time for CZAAWE to step in! CZAAWE staff used statistics to analyze the data from the GBAT evaluations to look at differences between the overnight housing conditions.
With a lot of input from the diverse supporting departments — and more than a little math — staff concluded that the gorillas generally demonstrated increased welfare from being housed separately overnight as compared to being housed socially. Individuals were more curious, less anxious and less aggressive with other gorillas! With these data in hand, the primate care team transitioned to housing the gorillas separately every night.
The DZS is proud to invest in studies like these that support care staff in making the best possible management decisions and offer opportunities for cross-departmental collaborations. With the support of four other AZA-accredited zoos, we have set out to establish the GBAT as a reliable and useful tool for zoos across the United States and beyond! Stay tuned for more exciting updates as we continue this study.
Authored by Matthew Porter, bird care team member for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).
Happy National Bird Day! To celebrate, let’s talk about how the Detroit Zoo takes part in one of the greatest community science projects on earth, eBird.
The website ebird.org is home to a giant database of bird observations run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Through this website, there is an abundance of information about birds across the globe.
EBird brings together the community and scientists to understand the ranges and movements of birds around the world. Once involved, we are all scientists at work. This collaborative effort harvests a massive data set that would never be attainable without the efforts of everyone involved. Our efforts compiled together advance avian science and conservation worldwide. Last year, on a single day in October, more than 34,670 people from 185 countries reported 80,000 checklists observing 7,453 bird species!
Over the last couple of years, our staff has invested lots of time to help with this worldwide effort. What we have found is that there is more avian diversity than we previously thought at the Detroit Zoo. Some birds call the Detroit Zoo home year-round. Others come here to breed in the summer, while some come here for a winter home. Many species use the Zoo from March through May and August through November as a very important migratory stopover. This land is a green island in the middle of suburbia and a great, safe stopover refuge. Our buildings have bird-friendly glass, and we continue to plant native plants to provide the appropriate food and ecosystem many species need.
Last year, more than 100 species were reported by Zoo staff and citizen scientists surveying Zoo grounds. You can join in on the fun by signing up for an eBird account at ebird.org. The website has lots of information and tutorials on surveying and best practices. There is also an easy-to-use app that can make surveying more efficient. Once enrolled, you can become part of this worldwide effort to assist with bird conservation.
Here at the DZS, we are always looking for more ways to engage with the community so that people, animals and the natural world can thrive together.
While we’ve been making the holidays bright with our annual Wild Lights event, a celebration featuring millions of twinkling lights decorating the Detroit Zoo, we know the season wouldn’t be complete without gifting something back to our community. That’s why we are partnering with Mittens for Detroit all Wild Lights long!
Mittens for Detroit is a local nonprofit that collects new, warm mittens and gloves for families in need. The items are then distributed through schools, veterans’ groups, senior centers, shelters, medical facilities and other like organizations. Since establishing itself in 2010, the organization has delivered more than a quarter million pairs of gloves and mittens to children, teens and adults in Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Dearborn and Pontiac.
“The pairs raised at Wild Lights will be immensely helpful, as we can process them quickly and they will be on hands within a week or so of their donation,” says Wendy Shepherd, Mittens for Detroit executive director. “We greatly appreciate once again the community outreach that this fantastic event brings.”
Last year, our Wild Lights guests helped us collect nearly 800 pairs of gloves and mittens. This year, we are aiming for 1,000 pairs — but we need your help to cross the finish line! When you plan your trip to Wild Lights this season, help us give back by bringing in a pair of new, unused gloves or mittens to donate to those in need. Wrapped collection boxes can be found at the Detroit Zoo’s entrance. Wild Lights runs select evenings through Jan. 8.
Together, we can ensure the holiday season is merry, bright and warm for all.
Authored by Mark Vassallo, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) Amphibian Department Supervisor.
The cloud forest of central Panama is a unique and mysterious place, full of rare creatures and plants that call these moisture-laden peaks home. At night, the jungle writhes with life as the nocturnal world takes over the mountainsides. In this veil of darkness and nestled in the elevations of these dense jungles, some of the earth’s rarest amphibian species reside. Many of these species are yet to be described by science, and others are considered to be extinct. As I gazed up at the gathering rain clouds on the volcanic peaks of El Valle, I could not help but wonder which of these potentially extinct amphibians could still be out there.
I have been traveling to El Valle, Panama for the last seven years to work with the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC). This organization is run by Edgardo Griffith and Heidi Ross, a husband-and-wife biologist team, who have dedicated their lives to the conservation of Panama’s most endangered amphibians. Usually during these trips, I am undertaking projects involving the installation of life support and infrastructure or helping troubleshoot specific husbandry issues that arise in one of the modified shipping containers in which EVACC houses seven species of Panama’s rare and endangered amphibians, including the iconic Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus Zeteki).
While those types of jobs are on the docket for this trip, we also have an important task to complete that will bring us into the upper reaches of the cloud forest in the hopes to hear a sound that could mean some hope for the imperiled amphibians of Panama. The sounds we are hoping to hear are the calls of thought-to-be-extinct amphibians, including Raab’s tree frogs (Ecnomiohyla rabborum), large and highly unique arboreal frogs who lays their eggs in tree cavities and can glide through the air to evade predators. In the last year, EVACC has begun the process of deploying audio loggers in some of the area’s hard-to-reach elevations to listen for the calls of amphibians like the Rabb’s tree frog that are widely thought to be potentially extinct.
The audio loggers are sturdy boxes that contain a microphone, batteries and SD cards accompanied by a digital screen. The idea is that these listening devices, which are programmed to turn on during the dusk and nighttime hours, will pick up the call of one of these rare frogs. If a call from one of these frogs is detected on the logger recording, this would give the biologists at EVACC a very good lead on the areas where intensive surveys could take place to potentially locate this species.
Armed with some GPS coordinates, batteries, fresh SD cards and rough information about the audio logger’s location from a member of the last group who placed it, we headed up the mountain to start our journey. As we began to climb, the heat and humidity was intense — our clothes were soaked in less than an hour. Large biting ants were swarming our boots as the incline steepened, and we came to a crossroads in the trail. We had reached the GPS coordinates but realized that these coordinates could not be correct. At this point, we decided to attempt to leave the trail and start climbing up what seemed like a cut in the dense jungle, which may have been caused by mudslides and heavy rains, certainly nothing even resembling an actual trail. The going was difficult as the clouds began to gather. Buckets of heavy rain soon began dumping on us, causing the mud to loosen and give, making the more vertical sections especially precarious. In addition to watching your footing in the jungles of Panama, it is also important to watch where you put your hands. Eyelash vipers and stinging insects of all kinds tend to rest on branches and sticks at about eye level. All of these thoughts were keeping our senses sharp as we broke through clearing after clearing, each time hoping that this was the top of the mountain and the audio logger would appear like a shining beacon amongst the dense jungle. Yet, each time the clearings revealed even more vertical walls of vines and thick jungle vegetation to climb. Our resolve was fading, but we pressed on. At one point, my balance gave way, and I fell face first into the side of the muddy slope. As I raised my head, I noticed I was face to face with a tiny gem of a frog. It was a blue-bellied poison frog (Adinobates minutus). This toxic little frog was just staring back at me, probably wondering why a silly, hairless ape had bothered to climb this far up a mountain during a thunderstorm.
The rain was finally letting up, and this gave us a little boost as we could see some sunshine emanating from what looked like a break in the jungle ahead. As we approached, sharp painful sensations started overwhelming my hands and wrists. We were wading through a large column of sharp bladed grass, which when brushed against, caused a paper cut like lacerations on the skin. Once we emerged from the brush and into the clearing, we realized we had reached the top. The jungle was so dense there was no real spot to even look out to enjoy the view. We immediately got to work searching for the audio logger. I looked left then right and passed through some thick brush. Then I saw it — a strip of white that stood out in the landscape of green. It was one of the zip ties used to attach the logger to the tree. We had found it! After several minutes of exulted celebrations and numerous high fives, we swapped out the SD cards and batteries, the unit was reprogrammed, and we locked up the protective case. The trip down was more like a ride down a luge course made of mud. This did make the process faster but certainly not any safer.
Once we finally arrived back at the EVACC grounds, we were exhausted and coated in mud and insect bites but satisfied and content that we had achieved a seemingly insurmountable challenge. After a shower and a cold beverage, I walked out into the moonlight on the grounds of EVACC. Once again, the clouds were beginning to gather around the El Valle mountains, and my eyes settled on the tips of those green jungle peaks, wondering if the logger we had reset for another four months would record a sound of hope.