Learn About the Wolf-Moose Project on Isle Royal

The Detroit Zoological Society’s top-notch education staff are always hard at work creating original lessons and content for students and families in metro Detroit and beyond. DZS educational offerings teach students to have empathy for wildlife while providing science, technology, engineering and math experiences – particularly for students who are underrepresented in or lack equal access to high-quality STEM learning. In one highly-popular six-part DZS offering, students practice science from the perspective of professional conservationists researching moose and wolves on Isle Royale.

Isle Royale is part of an archipelago in Lake Superior, an island ecosystem that supports plant and animal life through harsh winters and mild summers. It is also home to the longest-running research project dedicated to a predator-prey relationship in the world. Called the Wolf-Moose Project, the study has documented and analyzed the moose and wolf populations living on the island since 1958, investigating the complex and dynamic relationships between predators and prey while considering humans’ role in the changing ecosystem. 

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) supports the work on Isle Royale financially and by sending staff to participate in this study through an annual Moosewatch expedition.  DZS-led Moosewatch teams spend just over a week hiking throughout the island to look for Moose that have passed away. If they find one, they will collect specific bones for the study. Analyzing the bones can provide insight into how the moose died – whether from old age, disease, lack of food or predation from wolves. This information is critical to understanding the health of the ecosystem. 

To bring this powerful story to life for school-age youth, DZS educators created a six-module course for middle and high school students. The on-demand, online learning experience addresses science, literacy and math standards through an interrupted case-study model. In this framework, course participants take on the role of a wildlife biologist who has been tasked with examining data, historical information and other evidence to make an assessment of the health of the island ecosystem. 

Photo taken by Jennifer Harte of Renner at the Detroit Zoo.

Drawing on this information, participants make a recommendation to either continue relocating wolves from the mainland to the islands, in an attempt to slow the rapidly growing moose population, or to let the current populations remain as they are, allowing nature to take its course. The experience is designed to help participants consider the perspectives of several key stakeholders, including conservationists, research scientists and the animals themselves. 

After submitting a recommendation for wolf population management, participants can schedule a time to meet with a Detroit Zoological Society staff member, who can answer questions, provide information about the wolves who live at the Detroit Zoo, and share stories about our conservation work. Several staff have participated in the annual Moosewatch program on Isle Royale and can provide first-hand accounts of the island. There is a charge for this virtual meeting with DZS staff, but the rest of the course is free. 

Gray wolves and humans have a long and complicated relationship. Wolves have been portrayed as villains, both in the media and literature, for generations. The reality is that all animals have an important role in their respective ecosystems, and it is our responsibility to find ways to coexist peacefully. The study on Isle Royale has provided a tremendous amount of information that has challenged our knowledge of predator and prey relationships, and how dynamic they are. This course provides an opportunity for students to learn about these relationships on Isle Royale by making use of real data and experiences – and while building critical skills they will need as our future leaders and decision makers.

Launch the course.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is the director of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.


Amphibian Breeding Season

Spring is the time of year when most amphibians in the wild are emerging from hibernation, breeding, and eventually laying eggs. This pattern also holds true for the animals at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center (NACC). Every year in the early months of spring, the top-notch staff at the NACC facilitate hibernation, breeding and rearing for endangered amphibians from all over the world with the intention of releasing them into their respective habitats in the wild. A few of these species include Wyoming toads (Bufo baxteri), striped newts (Notophalmus perstriatus) and Puerto Rican crested toads (Peltophryne lemur). Amphibians are highly sensitive creatures who rely on the environmental conditions of their native habitats to cue their natural cycles of breeding and to maintain their overall health.  The NACC staff are experts at recreating these environmental cues.

Facilitating breeding in Wyoming toads, for example, is a complex process involving temperature changes and natural material for burrowing. The amphibian staff use a refrigerator to replicate the natural winter cool down experienced by these critically endangered creatures, and to ease them into a state of lowered activity and metabolism. The amphibians are also provided with a special mix of substrate to burrow into during this period – very similar to how Wyoming toads in the wild burrow below the frost line during the cold months.  When they warm up after this simulated winter, the toads at the NACC are ready to breed and are paired up with mates according to the recommendations of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) for Wyoming toads. An SSP is a cooperative breeding program that is overseen by AZA-accredited institutions that breed and house animal species who are endangered or threatened.

Another example of the specialized care required to breed the unique animals at the NACC is found in the reproduction patterns of striped newts. Endemic to the long leaf pine forests of Georgia and Florida, these amphibians are known to congregate and breed in temporary pools during specific times of the year when the water levels are highest.  In order to mimic these events for the striped newts at the NACC, their habitats’ water levels are lowered for a period of time – before being raised dramatically. The natural breeding cues of the striped newts are also replicated in other ways, such as changing their “photo period,” or daylight/nighttime hours, in order to simulate different seasons.  Inside the animals’ habitats, the zookeepers also place specific aquatic vegetation that the newts have been known to prefer as sites for laying eggs.

            Puerto Rican crested toads are among the many amphibians who are known to begin breeding activities during periods of heavy and sustained rainfall. Existing only in several small isolated populations within Puerto Rico, these toads emerge from hiding during seasonal rains to find a mate and reproduce.  Making use of this knowledge, the intuitive keepers at the NACC have produced a “love song mixtape” which includes the calls of male crested toads as well as the sound of heavy rainfall. While this track may not win any Grammy Awards, it serves to stimulate the crested toads into amplexus, which is an embrace used by male toads to hold onto the female and fertilize her eggs.

After countless hours of logging temperatures, researching literature and testing water quality, the real reward comes for the staff at the NACC when these fragile and endangered animals are released into the wild having received a head start towards a brighter future. This year, in the month of June, the amphibian department at the Detroit Zoo released 3,393 Puerto Rican Crested Toads, 634 Wyoming Toads and 41 Striped Newts into native habitats ranging from the dry forests of the Caribbean Islands to the plains of Wyoming. The amphibian staff take great pride in having contributed to the conservation of some of the most important animals on the planet as well as in furthering the mission of Detroit Zoological Society.

– Mark Vassallo is an amphibian department supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society