Detroit Zoological Society Helps Students Explore Alternative Dissection

Millions of frogs are dissected every year in science classrooms across the country and unfortunately, many of these animals are taken from the wild. With more than half of all amphibian species at risk of extinction, it is critical to leave amphibians in their native habitats.

This summer, the Detroit Zoological Society’s Berman Academy for Humane Education purchased state-of-the-art virtual-reality frog dissection software. Combined with 3-D models, students can participate in an engaging, hands-on humane dissection alternative. In its current form, this alternative dissection approach is instilling a better appreciation for amphibians in classrooms, camps and other education programs.

During the DZS’s Summer Safari Camp at the Detroit Zoo this summer, students entering eighth grade focused on veterinary medicine as a potential career. Through this lens, campers used iPads to explore, rotate and connect how a frog’s physiology works beneath the surface. The augmented reality part of the app allows students to zoom in and manipulate the view of the virtual frog on their tables. Hands-on models of the same species of frog allows them to physically take apart and reassemble parts of the frogs’ anatomy. This experience, combined with a guided tour of the National Amphibian Conservation Center, gave campers the opportunity to see frogs in a different light.

Middle school teachers can schedule their class to visit the Zoo to participate in a Learning Lab focused on virtual dissection. In this program, students use the virtual reality software on a classroom set of iPads to learn about frogs and dissect them, without the cost and environmental impact of taking amphibians from the wild. The software also allows students to go through the process multiple times, to better understand frog anatomy while ensuring wild populations of these critically important species are not compromised.

For more information or to schedule a classroom for the Virtual Dissection Learning Lab, visit https://detroitzoo.org/education/school-groups/ or email us at education@dzs.org.

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

Animal Welfare: Seal of Approval

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is investigating the effect of foraging opportunities on the welfare of the seals who live at the Detroit Zoo. Foraging is a very important behavior category for animals, as it typically involves mentally and physically stimulating behaviors. Wild gray seals may spend up to two-thirds of their time searching for food. Although they do have well-developed hearing and sight, seals often rely on their extremely sensitive whiskers to locate the fish they eat. This is necessary as visual conditions underwater can be poor and swimming fish may not generate much noise as they move. Instead, the fish – and other prey items – create vibration trails in the water and these are the stimuli the seals’ whiskers detect. Research has shown that harbor seals can use their whiskers to distinguish between objects of different sizes and shapes – a skill they can use to select better prey items when hunting.

Seals living in zoos and aquariums don’t need to forage in quite the same way as they would in the wild, and thus may not engage in as many complex feeding behaviors. As part of her residency with the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics, Sara Zalewski worked with DZS staff to design a project examining the impact of three different ways to increase foraging behavior in the gray and harbor seals living at the Detroit Zoo. The seals were presented with fish frozen in ice, fish placed on top of a floating disk and sunken tubes the seals needed to manipulate to allow fish to fall out of holes in the tube. All three items were used to increase the amount of the work the seals would have to do to get to the food. As part of this research, Sara found that the seals differed by both species and individual in how they used the items.

The gray seals interacted with the items most when they were first presented with them, and the harbor seals’ level of interaction increased as time went on. The likely explanation for this is that the gray seals were younger and more dominant, and thus were able to use the items more easily. Once they had their fill of the food, they would lose interest and the harbor seals could begin to investigate the items. Dealing with dominance hierarchies can create challenges when providing animals with resources, and is therefore something we have to keep in mind when thinking about the welfare of all of the individuals.

Another challenge was getting the seals to use the items for longer periods of time. It makes sense that less interaction occurs without the motivation of obtaining food, so there is a need for more challenging devices that require the seals to use more of their foraging abilities. One unexpected outcome was that Georgie, one of the female gray seals, would sometimes use a floating disk as a resting place later in the day. However, it could not support her body weight, so she would lay on it on top of something else, such as a ledge in the pool. Other studies have shown that gray seals’ preferred prey, haul out sites, and feeding locations and techniques differ greatly between individuals. Finding ways that items can serve more than one purpose and allow each seal to make use of them as they choose are also goals.

Harbor seals are an especially playful species, including as adults. However, as animals age, play and exploratory behavior tend to decrease, regardless of the species. Additionally, decreases in their sensory abilities may occur. This means that for Sydney, the older male harbor seal, opportunities may be more challenging or potentially less engaging for him.

In order to create more engaging ways for all the seals to forage, Sara worked with DZS staff to refine the items and will observe Georgie and Jersey, the two gray seals, and Sydney, the harbor seal, to see how the modifications affect their behavior. DZS staff members are creating floating devices that the seals can use to rest – as well as interact with for access to fish – and are changing the design of the tubes so that they rest standing up, rather than lying flat on the bottom of the pool. This should make it a bit harder for the fish to fall out, and will be more stimulating for the seals as a result. Finally, Sydney will have some alone time with the items, to ensure the younger and more agile females don’t deplete the food before he has a chance to interact with the foraging devices. During your next visit, you may see these items in the seal pool at Arctic Ring of Life. Although we are only observing the seals at specific times, incorporating these types of behavioral opportunities is part of our daily comprehensive program of ensuring the environments for all the animals at the Detroit Zoo are ever changing and appropriately complex.

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

Notes from the field: Mitigation of Human-Bear Conflicts in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society is conducting ongoing fieldwork in Armenia to assess the population of brown bears and mitigate conflicts that are occurring between humans and bears. Wildlife conservation is an important aspect of the DZS’s mission, and we are renowned for taking a compassionate approach in everything we do. A critical component of this is reducing human-wildlife conflicts around the world. As the human population and land development increases, people are coming into conflict with wildlife more and more from various factors such as predators eating livestock, wildlife raiding crops, and direct threats to human lives.

Armenia is a small country in the south Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian seas. Despite its size, Armenia is a hotspot for biodiversity and important for wildlife conservation because of its location at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

Little is known about brown bears in Armenia; a recent survey of global human-bear conflicts did not include this data, which we think is important. As we are currently involved in wildlife conservation efforts for Eurasian otters in this country, the DZS initiated a project that would assess the distribution and impact of human-bear conflicts in Armenia by conducting interviews and placing trail cameras in and around villages.

Interviewees indicated that the conflict primarily arose due to bears entering orchards, eating fruit and destroying beehives. At times, bears also killed livestock and posed a threat to humans, and by all accounts, the conflict has increased over the last several years. Data from the trail cameras supported these reports. Many pictures showed bears in villages, including mother bears with twins or triplets, which can pose greater threats to humans, due to a mother bear’s instinct to protect her cubs.

There were also many pictures that showed potential competitors for food such as lynx and wolves, as well as prey of bears including wild boar and bezoar goats. Reports from a bezoar goat viewpoint in the area that was established by the World Wildlife Fund confirmed that bears were preying on young bezoar goats.

We are now working on a manuscript that will detail the level and impact of human-bear conflicts in Armenia and encourage research into conflict mitigation, which could potentially include electric fencing, remote-triggered lights and noisemakers and compensation to farmers for their losses. In addition, we recommend exploring bear-based eco-tourism programs, which could potentially add value from the bears’ presence to the villagers.

– Paul Buzzard, PhD., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently began a new wildlife conservation project with Eurasian otters, which are classified as Endangered in Armenia and Near Threatened in the whole of their range. Their numbers have fallen dramatically in Armenia and in neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran; therefore, it is essential that we gather data on their status and work to preserve their populations.

Otters are important indicators of the health of aquatic systems. They are found in a wide variety of habitats, including highland and lowland lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, swamp forests and coastal areas. Armenia, which is a small country about the size of Vermont or New Hampshire, is located in the Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian Seas. Despite its small size, Armenia is a biodiversity hotspot important for wildlife conservation because it is located at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

While conducting fieldwork in Armenia this summer, we walked five transects along rivers and streams in Central Armenia to look for sign of otters such as feces, tracks and/or feeding remains. In every Armenian transect, we found feces and/or feeding signs, such as crab shells, within the first 200 yards. We also set cameras along the rivers to document the otters present in those areas. We heard credible reports of otter sightings in several other areas of Central Armenia – including in urban areas – as well as in the south, west and northern parts of Armenia. It appears that otters have made a comeback, which is great news.

Most otter sightings were accompanied by reports of conflict with humans, due to the otters eating fish out of the ponds at fish farms. A major component of this project – as with many wildlife conservation initiatives the DZS is involved with around the world – will be to investigate ways to mitigate this conflict. We plan to track the success of the farmers we encountered who used dogs and/or fencing as methods to protect their fishponds.

We will also be surveying suitable habitats for otters in all of the Armenian watersheds.  This involves overlaying a 6-mile by 6-mile grid on top of a map of Armenia and noting areas within the grid that have a confirmed otter presence. We also plan to obtain robust population estimates using genetic analyses from the otter feces. With this data, we will be able to determine important locations for otters and explore the potential of setting up sustainable protected areas. This project furthers the DZS’s mission of compassionate conservation as part of the effort is to reduce human-otter conflicts and save individual otters while establishing protected areas for otter populations to thrive in the future.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D. is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Reading, Writing and Recycling: Go Green Back to School

Back-to-school season is in full swing as an estimated 58 million students are preparing to hit the books this fall. Parents and kids all across the nation are shopping for clothes, shoes and supplies, looking for the best bang for their buck. However, one aspect shoppers may want to consider is how their shopping affects the environment. Buying environmentally friendly school supplies and packing eco-friendly lunches can go a long way toward conserving and protecting our planet’s resources.

Here are some tips to help guide you toward a more “green” back to school experience:

  • Buy 100 percent recycled paper and notebooks – be sure kids use both sides of the sheets whenever possible
  • Write with recycled pencils
  • Recycle while at school – Consider which trash can be saved from a landfill
  • Use refillable pens – each pen can last up to a decade

Small efforts can have big impacts. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), each school lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That means just one average-sized middle school creates more than 40,000 pounds of waste each year. Packing a waste-free lunch also saves an average student $250.

Here are some ways you can pack a more sustainable lunch this fall:

  • Adopt reusable bag practices – send lunch in a reusable bag instead of a paper or plastic one.
  • Purchase a refillable water bottle – it takes three times the amount of water that’s in a plastic water bottle to create the bottle in the first place.
  • Reach for reusable sandwich bags and containers – consider perhaps a waxed fabric sandwich bag.
  • Compost peels and pits – some students have compost programs at their schools, but for those that don’t, encourage them to bring their apple cores and cherry pits home.

There are many other ways students – with the help of their teachers – can help reach environmental goals. If 133,000 schools switched to recycled paper, they could save about 6 million trees per year, according to The Green School Initiative. America’s schools spend more than $7.5 billion annually on energy – more than they spend on textbooks and computers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. If school districts worked to conserve 25 percent of that energy, they could save $1.5 billion per year.

Students can also make change themselves by contributing toward green goals through programs such as Michigan Green Schools, which inspires schools to adopt more sustainable practices such as recycling, installing rain gardens and planting edible or native Michigan gardens. Applying to become a Michigan Green School can be pivotal in teaching the next generation essential green practices.

Our future depends on protecting the health and well-being of our children. Educating this generation with the skills to solve the global environmental problems we face is just as important as educating them about math and history. It’s a substantial task to put on such young people, but each small step is one taken toward a more sustainable future.

Animal Welfare: Inspiring the Next Generation

Do you know what it’s like to be a giant anteater? How about what the world looks and sounds like if you are an 18-foot tall giraffe? High school students taking part in the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) animal welfare summer camps had the unique opportunity to experience just that.

Over two weeks, 31 students participated in activities based on the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics’ “From Good Care to Great Welfare” workshop, which annually draws professional animal care staff from around the world. The goal of these immersive exercises is for the students to better understand the world from the perspective of another species.

What we pay attention to in our everyday lives is based on what is meaningful to us. When we make an effort to put ourselves in the place of another being (or as close to it as we can), we become aware of the factors that may impact them, even things we had never noticed before. The students noted that when they were “anteaters”, they focused more on what they could hear and smell. When they were elevated to the height of Jabari, the male giraffe who lives at the Detroit Zoo, they could see the neighboring golf course. They wondered if that is an interesting thing for the giraffes to see. Not all humans like golf, but what do giraffes think of the view? Different species – and different individuals within a species – have different preferences, and we have to pay attention to that to ensure they experience great welfare.

In addition to the immersive exercises, the students also studied the behavior of the two giant anteaters at the Zoo to better understand how they use their habitat and which environmental features they seemed to prefer. They used all of the knowledge they gained to design a new habitat for the anteaters as their final project. It was really impressive to see everything they incorporated into their models, and the reasons they gave for the choices they made. The students participated in a lot of other activities, including working with a staff member from the Humane Society of Huron Valley on positive reinforcement training with one of the amazing adoptable dogs from the shelter. DZS staff made videos documenting the camps, and it was so great to hear how the students are going to take this information with them and apply it to their own lives, including with the animals that share their homes. We had a great time working with everyone and sharing knowledge to inspire the next generation to be aware of and champions for animal welfare.

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

Preventing Pollution? Rain Gardens are a Solution

An average annual rainfall for Michigan is more than 31 inches, which equates to more than 52 million gallons of rainwater per year. That much rainwater can severely damage downspouts and create pollution. A rain garden is an environmentally friendly and attractive way to filter and return storm water runoff from surfaces such as sidewalks and roof tops, while protecting our groundwater and waterways. They can be created on your own property using just a few steps – ultimately minimizing the pollution that emerges from the rainwater gushing out of downspouts.

First, determine if you have a suitable site for a rain garden. The ideal spot is one that is:

  • Fed by only one or two downspouts
  • Far from a septic tank, drain field, or wellhead
  • Free from trees

Next, follow these easy steps:

  • Find an outdoor space that can absorb water, ranging from 100 to 400 square feet. A rain garden should be about 20 percent the size of the roof, patio or pavement area draining into it.
  • If there are trees in the area, make sure they can handle wet soil conditions for lengthy periods of time to ensure that your rain garden is set up for success.
  • Remove the grass and dig a hole at least 2 feet deep.
  • Lay an inlet pipe used for catching the storm water. These small pipes can be purchased at any hardware store for under $20.
  • Add native vegetation, and you’re all set!

The benefits of rain gardens are tremendous. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, they are easy to maintain and improve water quality by filtering out pollutants. And perhaps the most magnificent benefit is that they attract wildlife such as birds, butterflies and insects who use the plants as a food source.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is working to protect storm water on the grounds of the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. We built a rain garden near the Ford Education Center, which collects rain water from the roof of the 38,000-square-foot building and is maintained throughout the entire year, incorporating native Michigan plant species. The downspouts drain into the garden through a pervious pipe located 3 feet below the surface. We’re in the midst of creating a second rain garden near American Coney Island. Native, drought-resistant plants have already been planted and we plan to build a mock house with gutters and rain barrels. Signage will educate guests about how they can incorporate rainwater collection and rain gardens at their homes. In addition, we have incorporated permeable pavement within parking lots and public walkways, which also reduces storm water runoff and improves water quality by filtering out pollutants.

We all have an impact on the planet – projects like these are simple steps we can take to make sure it is a positive one.