Notes from the Field: Detroit Zoo Continues to Save Once-Extinct Snail Species

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is continuing to bolster the wild population of a species of Tahitian land snail called Partula nodosa, which we are credited with saving from extinction. At one point, all the P. nodosa in the world lived at the Detroit Zoo as part of a breeding program that began in 1989 after the species had been declared extinct in the wild. Last summer, 100 of these snails were carefully packaged before embarking on a journey to the tropical island of Tahiti. Last month, an additional 60 snails began their voyage, departing the Detroit Zoo on a path first to the Netherlands before their eventual release into the wilds of the South Pacific.

P. nodosa were once found across Tahiti and other south Pacific islands among more than 125 different species of land snails. These beautifully striped snails were important in the ceremonial jewelry and decorations of native islanders, and the snails served as an ideal study group to learn more about the evolution of diversity.

Much of the Partulid snail diversity was lost because of a botched attempt at what is known as “biological control”, or the control of a pest by the introduction of a natural enemy or predator. In 1967, giant African land snails were introduced to Tahiti and other south Pacific islands to serve as a source of protein for local people. However, some African snails escaped, bred very rapidly, and began eating farmers’ crops, threatening the local economy. To control the African snails, Florida rosy wolf snails were introduced a decade later, but the wolf snails preferred to eat the Partulid snails, which caused the extinction of many of the Partulid species.

For nearly three decades, the DZS has been breeding these snails in a behind-the-scenes area as part of a collaborative effort with other zoos. The project began in 1989 with 115 Tahitian land snails of five different species – while the DZS focused its efforts on P. nodosa, other zoos began working on the others. Our program led to the rescue and recovery of the species – currently there are 4,000 individuals living in North American zoos, all descendants from the Detroit Zoo’s original small group.

Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoo Honored with International Conservation Award

The Detroit Zoo was recently honored along with eight other zoos with the 2016 International Conservation Award from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) for our work with the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center. Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, GRACE is dedicated to rescuing orphaned Grauer’s gorillas, which are among the most critically endangered primates in the world. As the conservation and preservation of wildlife is paramount to the mission of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS), we couldn’t be more proud of this partnership or of this achievement.

Sadly, the Grauer’s gorilla is endangered due to widespread habitat destruction, poaching and threats associated with the ever-growing human population, caused in part by regional conflicts and government unrest. However, GRACE bravely fights against this, taking in the gorillas that have been separated from their birth families and/or confiscated from illegal trading. The rescued animals are provided nutrition and medical care as they explore the facility’s 370 acres – the largest gorilla enclosure in the world – situated within a 1,235-acre forested area of Central Africa. The hope – and the goal – is that these majestic animals will also learn the skills necessary for an eventual return to the wild.

 

Founded in 2009, GRACE is overseen by a dedicated board of directors, which includes Ron Kagan, DZS CEO and executive director, who has also served as board chair. In addition to Ron’s valuable leadership, the DZS’s involvement with GRACE has also included financial and staff support. In 2015, Ron helped secure funds for a new night house enclosure for the gorillas. Also that year, DZS Director of Animal Health Dr. Ann Duncan traveled to the Congo to perform health examinations on 12 gorillas, which had never been done before.

This amazing conservation, welfare and humane education initiative is a wonderful collaboration of important organizations working together with a very special Congolese community to ensure that this population of extremely endangered gorillas survives.

The AZA’s International Conservation Award annually recognizes accredited AZA institutions and conservation partners that make efforts to restore habitats, preserve species and support biodiversity.  Our zoo partners who join us in receiving this award include the Los Angeles Zoo, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Nashville Zoo, Houston Zoo, Dallas Zoo, Sedgwick County Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

We are looking forward to continuing our partnership with GRACE and dedicating our efforts to ensure the safety of the beloved Grauer’s gorilla for generations to come. This partnership is arguably the most exciting, unique and promising conservation, welfare and humane education initiative the Detroit Zoological Society has ever been involved with.

Education: Teaching in the Amazon

The Amazon rainforest is an incredible place, the subject of countless novels and stories. Discovered, explored and exploited for generations, millions of people call this biodiverse and globally important region home. The area is often referred to as the “lungs of the earth” as the plethora of plant life grabs carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and replaces it with life-essential oxygen. In partnership with a Peruvian non-profit organization, CONAPAC, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is preserving the rainforest, one child at a time.

The DZS has partnered with CONAPAC since 1999, supporting children and teachers in rural areas of the rainforest. Each spring, more than 3,000 students and teachers receive a year’s worth of basic school supplies, purchased with money donated by individuals from all over the world. To complement the supplies, all teachers are required to attend a professional development workshop to enhance their teaching skills and increase student literacy.

This year, the teacher workshops were held in the city of Indiana, in Loreto, Peru, during the last week of June. I attended the workshops to observe first-hand what the investment of time, energy and resources was producing. I was incredibly impressed. This year there were two sets of workshops; one for teachers working in communities on the Amazon, the other for teachers who are working in the communities off the Napo River and its tributaries. The non-profit organization, El Conocimiento Se Comparte (which roughly translates to ‘the sharing of knowledge’), facilitated the content of the workshops on mathematics, reading comprehension and linguistics.

El Conocimiento Se Comparte is a U.S. entity, composed of four siblings who were born and raised in Peru. All four moved to the U.S. as adults to pursue their individual careers. Their goal is to share their talent and passion for teaching with a broad audience, including their home country of Peru. The CONAPAC team coordinated the location and logistical aspects of the workshop, and the El Conocimiento Se Comparte group brought their passion and talent.

For the most part, I was a participant of the workshop proceedings. I sat through each session, gleaning as much information as I could, completely immersed in the native language and enjoying every moment of it. I watched as teachers engaged with one another and with the presenters, asking for more explanation when necessary, inquiring about specific student needs and adaptations, and taking copious notes every step of the way.

Over the course of the next month or two, the board of education in the region will visit the teachers in their schools to observe if they have implemented the new teaching strategies. If they have, they will be eligible for a certificate, which could earn them a raise or a future promotion. When the CONAPAC and the DZS team conducts end-of-year evaluations in November, we’ll also be looking for signs that teachers have implemented the strategies and report back to our donors and the team.

The conservation work in the Amazon continues to be incredibly rewarding, yet also challenging. By providing the opportunity for an education based in conservation, we are empowering the next generation of children who call the rainforest home to protect the ecologically vital ecosystem.

For more information on the Amazon Rainforest Adopt-A-School program, including how to participate in annual deliveries or to support a school financially, visit http://detroitzoo.org/support/give/ or email clannoyehall@dzs.org.

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

Veterinary Care: Suiting up as a Whooping Crane

My job as a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) often has its surprises; for example, one time I discovered that some species of frog turn from bright green to dark green as they become anesthestized. Typically the surprises are the interesting and sometimes unbelievable things I learn about animals. But sometimes what I do during the day is not what I thought I’d be doing when I woke up that morning – like wearing a full-size whooping crane costume and spending a day in a field with some lost birds.

A few weeks ago, the DZS bird department was contacted by the International Crane Foundation, which is based in Baraboo, Wisconsin. They’d been tracking four yearling whooping cranes that were raised at the foundation and were newbies to the whole migration thing. The cranes had made their way to the Midwest from Florida but were thought to have been blown off course on their way back to Wisconsin by a storm that came across Lake Michigan. It was their first year migrating back on their own – who could blame them?

After locating the birds near a cornfield in Michigan, the staff at the Crane Foundation needed a veterinarian’s health certificate stating that the cranes were healthy enough to travel back to Wisconsin. They reached out to the DZS. I jumped in a car with our curator and associate curator of birds and headed about an hour north of the Detroit Zoo into an area where houses were few and far between and the landscape was mostly farm fields. There, we met up with the staff from the Crane Foundation and witnessed four beautiful juvenile cranes come in for a landing just on the opposite side of the pond from us. Unfortunately, “just on the opposite side of the pond” was about 1,500 feet away, and a determination of good health cannot be made from that distance. The next thing I knew, I was handed a pair of binoculars … and a crane costume. Yes; a crane costume!

You see, whooping cranes are highly endangered, and would in fact be extinct in North America if it weren’t for the captive rearing program headed up by the International Crane Foundation. The goal of the program is to create a sustainable wild population of whooping cranes, and this only works if the crane chicks are reared by “cranes”. Thus, human “parents” will dress up in crane costumes – the human body is covered in white, like the white feathering of the crane, and the human hand holds a replica of a crane head, complete with a functional beak, which teaches the chicks how to “be” a crane.

So on this particular day, I found myself meandering across a cornfield in rural Michigan, stopping to “graze” every few minutes, preen my “feathers” and survey my surroundings alongside my fellow “crane”, one of the Crane Foundation staff members. Not long after we started our way across the field, the four juveniles began to notice us and they took interest. Gradually, they made their way over, two moving through the shallow pond while the other two came around the pond’s perimeter. In less than 30 minutes, I was face to face – or rather, beak to beak – with four amazing whooping cranes. Their beautiful yellow eyes sized me up as I looked for any signs of illness, but I found none. After I’d visited with each crane and felt assured of their health, I simply enjoyed the awe — and surprise — of unexpectedly having the opportunity to spend a few brief moments so close to these incredible birds.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and works in the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Amphibian Conservation: Saving the Panamanian Golden Frog

The Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) is a unique and beautiful amphibian from the highlands of Panama. This yellow or orange and black “frog” is actually a type of toad that walks more than it hops. It resides in areas near fast-moving streams and rivers in the mountainous forests within the country. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Panamanian golden frog as Critically Endangered, which is one step before becoming Extinct.

In the wild they are believed to be in such low numbers that they may no longer be able to sustain as a wild population; in fact, no one has seen a Panamanian golden frog in the wild for quite some time. Massive population decreases are believed to be caused by chytrid fungus, habitat destruction, the exotic animal trade and sedimentation of egg-laying sites in rivers and streams. Now, they exist mostly in captive zoo breeding populations.

One of these breeding populations has been housed in a bio-secure room at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center for 16 years, and has contributed several years of offspring to the Panamanian Golden Frog Species Survival Plan (SSP). SSPs are cooperative management programs through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) that aim to reproduce, genetically manage and possibly reintroduce endangered animals into the wild with the assistance of other wildlife management organizations. In addition to its active role in the SSP, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) employs several other strategies to conserve the Panamanian golden frog in the wild. At this time, there is nowhere identified in the wilds of Panama to safely release captive-bred tadpole or juvenile golden frogs to the wild.

Breeding the Panamanian golden frog in captivity involves understanding the complex conditions found in their wild habitat. They have an interesting life cycle from courtship to final metamorphosis. In the wild, males of this species will perch on rock outcroppings or on top of large leaves that overhang or are near a flowing stream or river. The males then begin to call, thrusting out the vocal sacs on their throats as they produce a low trill vocalization meant to alert females to their presence as well as warn other males to stay away. Since these animals breed and live in close proximity to the loud sound of rushing water, their low-toned vocalizations can be very difficult to hear. For this reason, golden frogs have evolved a type of sign language they can use to communicate to mates as well as rivals. These amphibians have the ability to execute a “wave” using their front legs to take the place of their hard-to-hear vocalization when conditions around the stream are noisy. This type of communication is known as semaphore behavior.

Once a pair of golden frogs has successfully mated in the wild, the female will deposit up to several thousand small round white eggs underneath a rock in a steam or river and away from direct sunlight. This is done because the white eggs lack pigment entirely and would be adversely harmed by the ultra violet (UV) radiation from the sun. This same issue has to be addressed at the Detroit Zoo. The animals are bred inside aquariums in a specially modified room just for this species. After the breeding pairs are chosen for the year, the animals are placed together in an aquarium. Prior to the onset of the “wet season,” misting cycles within the frogs’ habitat are coordinated to simulate the “dry season,” giving the frogs a sense of seasonality, which helps stimulate them to breed. If eggs are laid in the aquarium, amphibian staff must protect the eggs from the naturalistic UV lighting over the breeding tanks by wrapping black trash bags around the aquarium. This simulates total darkness, which allows the light-sensitive eggs to develop unharmed. Once eggs develop pigment, the trash bags can be removed.

Eventually, the eggs develop and a small black and yellow tadpole emerges from the egg casing. These tadpoles are very well adapted to living in fast, flowing stream environments with strong mouthparts which assist them in clinging to the rocks in turbulent water as they scrape away at algae and the microorganisms they depend on for food. At the Detroit Zoo, we reproduce the golden frog food source by smearing a wet algae mix on small plastic food plates and allowing the mixture to dry. Once the algae is dry, the plates are placed in the water and the tadpoles move over and around the plate, scraping off the food with their specialized mouthpart. After several weeks, the tadpoles metamorphose into fully formed little toadlets, which are turquoise green and black in color, a color phase that camouflages them in while living in a forest habitat. They eventually turn mostly yellow or orange and black upon reaching adulthood.

Along with the extensive breeding program, conserving the Panamanian golden frog involves reaching out to the communities where these animals live and educating the public. In 2015, I assisted the staff at a small conservation center in El Valle, Panama, called the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC). This center is dedicated to breeding, exhibiting and educating the public on Panama’s native amphibians. While in Panama, I assisted EVACC with their amphibian exhibits and breeding programs. The DZS is also becoming involved in developing educational materials to better educate an already sympathetic public about conserving their environment and this important amphibian. Recently, DZS Curator of Education Claire Lannoye-Hall has been appointed as the SSP Education Advisor for the Panamanian Golden Frog SSP. Within this role, the Detroit Zoo will be instrumental in developing educational programs and cultural awareness within Panama.

The Panamanian golden frog holds a special place in the Panamanian culture. Signifying good luck, the golden frog can be seen on lottery tickets and in gift shops all around the country. The history of this little amphibian within Panama can be illustrated by the presence of “rana dorada” or golden frog, in some of the petroglyphs within the country dating back to pre-European contact. Perhaps those ancient artists were hoping for a little luck as they etched images of this mystical amphibian into the rocks of the cloud forest. Hopefully, with a little of that same luck and continued dedication from the Detroit Zoological Society and its conservation partners, the Panamanian golden frog will not disappear from history for good.

– Mark Vassallo is an amphibian department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society, and works in the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Notes from the Field: Recovering American Martens

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is continuing its efforts on an American marten conservation project in the Manistee National Forest. This spring, I was given the exciting opportunity to assist collaborators from Grand Valley State University and Busch Gardens on this project. Martens are small, weasel-like carnivores that became extirpated (locally extinct) from the lower peninsula of Michigan in the early 1900s because of habitat loss and unregulated trapping. Martens were reintroduced back to the Manistee Forest more than 30 years ago, and since 2013, veterinary and animal care staff from the DZS have been helping to study the success of the marten reintroduction by looking at animal health, kit survival and habitat use. This work involves collecting martens in live traps and then anesthetizing them in order to perform physical exams and collect samples of blood, hair, urine and feces. The DZS uses Hav-A-Heart traps, humane traps that close in such a way that they do not harm the animal. The traps are set carefully to ensure that martens have a nice snug spot. We cover each trap with pine needles and leaves for warmth and nest building, and ensure the martens have a snack and a source of water. The collected samples are then tested for disease. The project also uses GPS and radio tracking collars to gather information on marten habitat use and determines which forest types they prefer.

My time spent in Manistee involved daily morning checks of approximately 30-40 live traps for martens. If a marten is in a trap, it is then transported to the bed of a pickup truck in order to induce anesthesia and be examined. Special care is taken to monitor the marten’s body temperature to be sure that it does not become too hot or too cold during the procedure, and after samples are collected, a GPS collar may be placed on the marten to track habitat use. When the procedure is complete, the marten recovers in a small, dark wooden box until it is stable enough to be released. Once stable, a staff member opens a little door on the box and the marten runs off back into the forest. This entire process usually takes about 30 minutes from beginning to end.

During my time assisting with the project, I spent many hours riding down narrow, bumpy and winding two-track forest trails. Some of these trails were quite precarious, but travelling them gave me the opportunity to see migrating birds, deer, a porcupine and even a black bear! We were able to collect samples from four martens and place GPS collars on three of those four, dramatically increasing the amount of data collected on marten habitat use. These GPS collars were purchased with financial support from the DZS, and the data will be used in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service to decide how the forest can best be managed to facilitate recovery of the marten population. It was thrilling to be a part of this project and I am thankful to the DZS for allowing me this opportunity.

– Erica Campbell is a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society and works in the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Notes from the Field: Monitoring the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) leads the Eastern massasauga rattlesnake Species Survival Plan (SSP), which is a comprehensive management plan through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) that works to ensure the sustainability of healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied captive animal populations. The DZS is also one of several organizations within the AZA that participates in a long-term study of a particular population of Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in Michigan.

The Eastern massasauga rattlesnake is the mitten state’s only venomous viper, and is listed in Michigan as a species of special concern, which means it is threatened or endangered throughout its range. This SSP is a special one because each year, representatives from participating zoos attend a meeting in conjunction with an “in situ” study, which means that it takes place in the field.

This year marked our eighth monitoring a particular population of Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in the southwest part of the state, and it was our best year to date – we found more than 100 snakes! This includes snakes that were found in previous years as well as newly identified individuals. The process involves gathering information on each snake in the field and then taking it to a lab where it is weighed and measured. We also determined if it is a male or a female and if female, whether it is pregnant (massasaugas give birth to live young). If the snake has never been found before, it is marked with a transponder tag – similar to those implanted in your pet dog or cat – so we can scan the animal and take measurements if it is found in the future. After the information has been gathered in the lab, the snake is then returned to the exact location where it was found.

Monitoring a seemingly healthy population over time gives us insight into natural fluctuations of the population size, male-to-female sex ratio, individual growth rates and reproductive success. As years goes by, the data will also begin to tell us life history data such as longevity of the species and how old animals remain reproductively active. All of this information assists the AZA zoos in how they manage the captive population as well as the state departments of natural resources in their management of the wild populations and the lands on which they are found.

– Jeff Jundt is the curator of reptiles for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Holden Reptile Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.