Greenprint: Celebrate Earth Day during GreenFest April 16-17

For the fourth year in a row, the Detroit Zoo is hosting our annual Earth Day celebration called GreenFest on April 16 and 17, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. This Zoo-wide event will provide visitors with environmentally friendly activities and tips that can be used throughout the year to increase environmental stewardship.

GreenFest will feature earth-friendly crafts, kids games, zookeeper talks, science experiments, a trail mix station by Kroger, interactive performances by Drummunity and exhibitions from businesses and nonprofits working to keep our planet a healthy place to live.

GreenFest is an initiative of the Detroit Zoological Society’s Greenprint, a strategic plan to improve daily practices and facilities, develop new policies and programs and improve green literacy in the community. All GreenFest activities are free with Zoo admission; each GreenFest guest who brings a cell phone for recycling will receive a reduced admission price of $9.

If you’re unable to join us for GreenFest this year, please consider these three easy activities that will greatly improve your impact on the environment:

  • Plant a tree at your home or a nearby park (with permission from park management) – a single tree can absorb 10 pounds of air pollutants a year and produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen.
  • Upcycle, donate or recycle unwanted clothes and textiles – according to the Environmental Protect Agency, Americans send 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills every year.
  • Commit to eating less meat throughout the year. A lot of energy and water goes into meat product; by simply cutting back on meat consumption you can greatly decrease your environmental footprint.

– Beth Wallace is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: New Penguin Facility is a Veterinarian’s Dream Come True

Anyone who has visited the Detroit Zoo’s Penguinarium probably knows that it is impossible to escape the charm of the penguin. I have been caring for penguins at the Detroit Zoo for more than 20 years, and can attest to this firsthand. I find them to be exceptionally interesting and charismatic animals, and even after all these years, I enjoy every visit to the Penguinarium immensely. More than a few penguins have stolen my heart over the years.

Generally speaking, penguins are strong, feisty birds that rarely develop health problems. In recent years, the penguin flock at the Detroit Zoo has become older, and we have treated penguins for a variety of age-related medical problems. In the course of this work, we realized that there were gaps in the scientific literature concerning penguin health. As a result, we focused our efforts on gaining a better understanding of some of the most important conditions, including cataracts, melanoma and bumblefoot. Our animal health and life sciences departments and the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare all share the same long-term goal of better understanding how we can provide an environment that allows penguins to thrive and maintain the best possible health and welfare.

The new Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a penguin veterinarian’s dream come true. We feel so fortunate to have been able to use our expanded knowledge of penguin health to inform the design of their new home. Every aspect of the habitat is designed to meet their unique needs:

  • The lighting in the new habitat provides a much wider spectrum of wavelengths, with more ultraviolet light and improved nighttime lighting in the red wavelength ranges. The lighting intensity capacity is greatly increased, and can be adjusted to mimic seasonal variation.
  • The flooring has been designed to enhance foot health and prevent development of bumblefoot lesions. In some places, the floor is coated with a resinous material to provide cushioning, and in other areas the flooring has variable rocky textures, mimicking conditions seen in Antarctica.
  • The penguins will have an enormous pool for swimming, and a swim channel that will allow them to circumnavigate the entire habitat. This will result in increased activity levels and opportunities for natural porpoising and diving behaviors and will help them avoid weight gain.
  • The water filtration system is state-of-art, and will include an ozonation capacity and improved water filtration.
  • The air quality will be significantly improved, providing 100% air exchange and improved air filtering.
  • The nesting areas are designed to be easy to clean and allow better chick-rearing success.
  • We will also have more places to temporarily hold animals needing special attention during illness or quarantine, and fold-down stainless steel exam tables for veterinary exams and procedures.

 

 

 

 

Over the years, we have been able to provide treatment and loving care to a number of very special penguin patients and have had a lot of success: We’ve helped chicks who have gotten off to a rough start, restored vision to a number of geriatric penguins with cataracts and significantly reduced the incidence of bumblefoot. Despite these successes, our greatest measure of achievement is in the medical problem that is avoided altogether. We constantly strive to prevent issues from developing, through carefully designed diets, vaccination and parasite prophylaxis, disease surveillance and excellent care. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a big stride forward toward this goal, and we thank the community for their support of this exciting project. Thank you for helping us provide the best possible care to our penguin family.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the Director of Animal Health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Education: Spring has Sprung!

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes, especially in relation to plant and animal life. Plants and animals depend on these predictable changes to know when to migrate, nest, bloom, leaf out and so much more. People celebrate phenology-related events, such as cherry blossom festivals and monarch butterfly migrations. Before weather predictions were delivered to our email inbox or through an app on our phone, people used to watch for signs in nature to know just the right time to plant their crops or harvest their fields.

Phenology is an essential part of life on earth. As our global climate changes, some cyclical changes are becoming out of sync. Pollinators such as bees and butterflies may respond to earlier-than-usual warm temperatures and find the flower blooms they rely on for nourishment may not be blooming. If birds follow warmer temperatures and return to a nesting area before the bugs emerge, they could go hungry.

Scientists are studying these changes and collecting as much data as they can from all over the world. They are counting on citizens like you and me to help. The USA National Phenology Network is a great resource to learn about phenology and how you can report observations that will help scientists track long-term seasonal changes. Project Budburst is another great resource. This online repository is limited to plants, but it has a wide selection of plant species that you can observe, record data on, and report your findings about to help scientists. Chances are you can find a plant or tree in your yard or neighborhood that Project Budburst would like information on. At the Detroit Zoo, we’re observing and reporting on the flowering crabapple trees that line the walkways by Rackham Fountain.

Each year since 2013, the Detroit Zoological Society has participated in the Journey North Tulip Test Garden project. We plant red emperor tulip bulbs in the fall and mark the area. As spring nears, we watch for the tips of the tulip plants to emerge and then we report our observations to the Journey North Tulip Test Garden database. Animated maps on the Journey North website compile data from observers all over North America to show us when spring is on the way.

The best part of participating in any of these projects is that you’ll find yourself noticing more about the world around you. Even very young children can participate with the help of an adult, creating a new generation of people relying on signs in nature, not just the daily weather report.

– Claire Lannoye Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field – Scientific Research in Antarctica

As the only continent on Earth without a native human population – and with the harshest and most extreme climate in the world – Antarctica presents a unique, natural laboratory for scientific research. As challenging as the climate is, it is vital to understanding ecosystems and our impact on the planet.

Half a century ago, the governments of 30 countries collectively formed the Antarctic Treaty System to regulate this natural wonder as a scientific preserve. Now more than 50 research stations are in operation there, with scientists and their support staff numbering a few thousand during the austral summer when conditions are less severe. These include biologists, ecologists, geologists, oceanographers, physicists, astronomers, glaciologists and meteorologists. Even still, the vast majority of the white continent is still little known. Such is the case with the Weddell Sea. Its iceberg-filled waters are unpredictable and treacherous. This is the same sea that captured and crushed Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, 100 years ago.

We sailed the Weddell Sea as part of a recent expedition to Antarctica with scientists from the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) and the Polar Oceans Research Group (PORG). World-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, head of the PORG, shared his extensive knowledge on board, as he has done as consultant on the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. His research, which spans nearly four decades, operates out of the U.S. Palmer Station on Antarctica and focuses on the ecology of penguins and their habitats. Over the years, Dr. Fraser and his team have revealed a dramatic decline in Adelie penguins in this particular region of Antarctica – an 80 percent drop over the last four decades – due to shifting conditions and disappearing sea ice.

Sea ice remains an essential ecological variable in the Weddell Sea. Somewhat unlike the western Antarctic Peninsula (where the U.S. Palmer Station sits), sea ice is the platform for species survival. During our trek within this sea and our landings at Devil Island and Brown Bluff, we observed tens of thousands of Adelie penguins. The presence of sea ice in this oceanic basin appears to have had a positive effect on this species through processes that are not yet fully understood – but a theory is emerging. Unlike other areas, populations of Adelie penguins are either stable or increasing here. This is a very different situation from the western Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice is diminishing and Adelie populations are decreasing with it. A number of observational metrics including nesting density, chick condition and colony aspect were compared just a few days later during our voyage to the Palmer Station.

Visiting these locations within the Weddell Sea was also important to scouting potential field research sites. No other team or country is doing ecological research here. Given that the Weddell Sea is closer to any other region on the Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice still persists, it offers the most optimal situation to more closely study how sea ice impacts the ecosystem.

These donor-funded excursions are important to the Detroit Zoological Society’s wildlife conservation efforts. They have also yielded significant philanthropic support – our Antarctic expeditions have led to contributions of $15 million for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, and this most recent venture also secured $67,000 for the Polar Oceans Research Group. While fundraising is an important goal, our relationship with Dr. Fraser and PORG is a compelling example of the power and impact of collaboration between the DZS and conservationists in the field.

– Ron Kagan is the executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field – The Struggle for Life in Antarctica

As soon as I arrived in Antarctica I began observing penguin behavior. After working in animal care and observing zoo penguins for more than two decades, this comes naturally to me – it’s what I do. I not only wanted to develop a better understanding of how penguins exist in their natural environment, but I also wanted to glean any information that would benefit the penguins that live at the Detroit Zoo. My first glimpse of penguins was on the shoreline of King George Island before we boarded the Ocean Nova. I was thrilled to see two chinstrap penguins that came ashore, presumably to rest after foraging at sea. As the ship made its way through the Shetland Islands towards the Weddell Sea, I began seeing small groups of penguins porpoising through the waves. Their torpedo-like bodies are well designed to travel efficiently for what are sometimes great distances in search of food for themselves and their hungry chicks.

 

Thereafter, we visited penguin colonies daily, most of which numbered in the thousands. It was the height of the breeding season and the islands and Peninsula were teeming with birdlife. The Adelie penguin chicks were the first to hatch and most were too large to brood under their parents. They formed small groups, or crèches, which provide protection from skuas and southern giant petrels that were always nearby looking for meals for their own growing chicks. Ravenous penguin chicks were frantically chasing weary parents down incredibly high rocky slopes and across rocky beaches, only stopping when the parents went out to sea. At this age, penguin chicks are only fed once or twice daily as their parents need to make longer trips to find food. When they finally return with full bellies, the chase begins again. The most vigorous chicks will get the largest meal and will ultimately thrive.

A visit to a gentoo colony made the struggle for life very apparent. There were numerous skuas present, more than I had observed at any penguin colony thus far. The later-hatching gentoo chicks were still being brooded by their parents and many were just starting to crèche. They are most vulnerable during this time when both parents must spend more time at sea and can no longer guard them. I was struck by this proximity of predator and prey. Although they seemed to be coexisting somewhat peacefully, it became apparent that the skuas were constantly watching for any sign of vulnerability. I began noticing obvious signs of this.

There is also danger at sea. Leopard seals will typically linger just offshore of penguin colonies during the breeding season looking for an easy meal. Fledgling penguins are especially vulnerable as they venture out to sea for the first time, unaware of what lies ahead. I observed a group of loafing Adelie penguins sharing an ice floe with a leopard seal that was resting just a few feet away – a seemingly peaceful coexistence that could and would change at a moment’s notice. I began to not only see the struggle for life here, but feel it as well.

I have read much literature about wild penguins and the Antarctic environment over the years, but the knowledge that I gained is something that could only be experienced firsthand. I returned home with a much greater understanding of the plight of these wild penguins, and an even greater sense of resolve and satisfaction in knowing that our resident penguins have lives that include great care and welfare, and without the struggle for life.

– Jessica Jozwiak is a bird department supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Animal Welfare: Observing Natural Behaviors in Antarctica

Watching a penguin “fly” through the water is breathtaking. In this medium, they are agile, fast and truly awesome. Having the opportunity to see penguins porpoising in Antarctica was incredible, as this is a behavior we don’t often get to see in a captive setting. They reach high speeds and shoot in and out of the water to traverse long distances, at times avoiding predators, and at times being the predators. This is one of the reasons why, from an animal welfare perspective, the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, with its 326,000-gallon, 25-foot-deep pool, is such an exciting endeavor. This expansive water feature will allow the penguins to display even more of their natural swimming behaviors, minus the predatory dangers, of course!

Watching a penguin walk on land is a somewhat different experience. They amble around, seemingly less acclimated to solid ground. Having now observed three species of penguins in their natural habitat, I can tell you that despite how they might appear, they are good climbers, managing to navigate over rocky, unstable and slippery terrain to gain access to nesting sites and hungry chicks. They can even move rather quickly, as demonstrated when they are attempting to wean their hungry chicks, who will often run after their parents while begging for more food.

I spent a lot of time observing the penguins at the various colonies we visited while in Antarctica, very similar to what the dedicated staff, residents, interns and volunteers of the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare do right here at the Detroit Zoo. For the gentoos, chinstraps and Adelie penguins we saw, this is the time of year during which they are still spending more time on land, as chicks are getting ready to fledge. I was able to focus on parent-offspring interactions, as well as how young penguins interact with one another in groups referred to as crèches. This is a critical time in the youngsters’ lives, as they prepare to leave the only home they have known so far. I was also able to focus on the type of environmental features that the penguins encounter, and how they interact with them. I was even able to test out our infrared thermography camera to look at temperature gradients between penguins at different population densities.

Having the opportunity to observe animals in their natural surroundings is extremely helpful when you are attempting to understand their needs and determining how to best meet them. You gain a very different appreciation for the challenges they are faced with, and it really makes you think about the level of complexity that comprises any environment. I am incredibly fortunate to have had such an opportunity, and I’m looking forward to sharing what I have I learned for the benefit of the penguins living at the Detroit Zoo. This is the type of care with which we need to approach habitat design, as well as how we assess the welfare of individual animals. A penguin’s natural habitat is full of challenges, both physical and social, but they are challenges that the animals are equipped to deal with. We should be searching for ways to ensure animals living in zoos have the right kind of stimulation – the right kind of challenges – if we want to see them thrive.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Education: Bringing Antarctica to Life in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center

As a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society, I’ve been working on the interpretive plan for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center for the past several years, and the educational value that I received during a recent expedition to Antarctica was immense. All of the decisions that were so intentionally made throughout this multi-year design process are true to the Antarctic experience. What you will see in the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center will be authentic.

The colors we saw surprised me the most. I had expected grays, whites and blues – but the colors we experienced were so much more than just that. Lichens grow there, in oranges, greens and reds. Seeing moss and short little grasses, deep green in color, reminded us of how long it took them to grow in that cold and harsh environment. Kelp is bright red and could be seen floating with the currents near the shore. The icebergs and water are so many different shades of blue. We learned about ice and the visible blue color from all the compacted ice where air bubbles had been squeezed out. We passed many icebergs during our expedition, and I never grew tired of looking at all the crevasses and colors. The landscape was truly incredible.

Renowned biologist and president of the Polar Oceans Research Group, Dr. Bill Fraser, was an incredible person to spend time with on this trip. He did formal presentations for our group, but also interacted with us informally, talking about what he noticed on shore. Hearing him discuss the challenges that penguin species on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula are facing emphasized the impact that the changing climate is having on ecosystems around the world. When we battled brash sea ice on the way to the U.S. Palmer Station – which was a little treacherous – it became clear how harsh this environment is for the researchers and scientists who spend ample time in Antarctica. The people we met at the research station – as well as Matthew Porter, our own bird department zookeeper who has been living and working there the last few months – have a true passion for the work they do. As we toured around the station, it was clear that those who are chosen to work there are an incredible and talented group of people. We peeked in the different labs and learned about their work and life on the base. We developed an appreciation for the important work that goes on at Palmer Station. Part of our interpretive plan in the new penguin center is to focus on the research that is going on in the Antarctic region, and being on the base of this station will help us to build our own capacity for conveying our message to Zoo visitors.

Dr. Fraser was able to open our eyes to how far research has come since he started his work more than 40 years ago. New information that is not yet published ensures that we are on the cutting edge of penguin information and conservation. If Dr. Fraser and his team can better understand the threats to penguins in the Polar Ocean Research Group study area, scientists can utilize methods to better mitigate threats to declining penguin species.

As we near completion of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, this Antarctic experience has allowed us to reshape some of our interpretive elements in the building. It helped us to take a step back and look harder and deeper into the opportunities we have to embody what our experience was like, and inspire our visitors to protect fragile ecosystems around the world, especially those in Antarctica.

 – Carla Rigsby is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.