Notes from the Field: Protecting Michigan’s Only True Venomous Snake

Michigan is the last stronghold for the massasauga rattlesnake – even though the species was listed as Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are still several healthy populations throughout the state. The Detroit Zoological Society oversees the Species Survival Plan for this animal through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). These comprehensive population management plans work to ensure the sustainability of healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied captive animal populations.

The DZS and other facilities have participated in an ongoing research study at the Edward Lowe Foundation in Cassopolis, Mich., for the past 10 years. Recently, a team from the Detroit Zoological Society, which also included Jeff Jundt, curator of reptiles, and Dr. Wynona Shellabarger, a veterinarian for the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo, participated in the 2018 Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan annual meeting and conducted fieldwork in western Michigan.

This fieldwork consists of spending up to eight hours a day searching for snakes in their native habitat. When one is found, it is sent to a lab on grounds for a physical, which includes being weighed, measured, photographed, sexed, tagged with what is called a passive integrated transponder – if it didn’t have one already – and having blood collected. If the snake is female, it’s given an ultrasound to determine if she’s pregnant. Photographs of any distinct markings as well as the transponder can identify an animal throughout their life if they are located again. GPS data allows the snake to be returned to the exact spot where it was found earlier in the day.

All of the information gathered throughout the week helps draw a picture of the natural history of this species, guide best practices for the land management of the Edward Lowe Foundation and gauge the overall health of the individuals and the population. This year, even though the weather was not as cooperative as past years, the group was able to locate and conduct physicals on 36 snakes, 14 of which were new to the study. The DZS plans to continue leading this important research for years to come. To stay up to date on all things massasauga rattlesnake-related, follow the Species Survival Plan on Facebook.

Also, please join us as we celebrate all things that slither on World Snake Day, Monday July 16, in the Detroit Zoo’s Holden Reptile Conservation Center.

– Rae Karpinski is a reptile zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Saving Tree Frogs in Honduras – Part III

In my previous two blog entries, we examined three critically endangered species of tree frogs in Honduras and shared plans for the Detroit Zoological Society and the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center to begin a head-start program for tadpoles of these species to help increase their populations. If you haven’t had a chance to read these entries, click here and here.

Now, let’s take a peek at what the rescue center facilities look like, and the long-term vision for in-country involvement.

The facilities are currently located in El Jardin Botanico y Centro de Invastigacion Lancetilla, a botanical garden and research center run by Universidad Nacional de Ciencias Forestales. Construction began in 2015 through a collaboration of multiple institutions, including Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, National Autononous University of Honduras, UNACIFOR, Operation Wallacea, Expendiciones y Servicios Ampbientales de Cusuco and the Honduran forestry department. By the spring of 2018, construction was completed and our team inspected the facilities. The team included myself, staff from Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and the rescue center’s co-founder Brandon Greaves. The inspection was to assure that the facilities are ready to provide the best care, biosecurity and welfare for animals that will arrive later in the year.

The ingenious rescue center facilities utilize shipping containers in order to provide housing for the animals. The containers (called “pods”) are ideal for amphibian conservation and care as they are secure, well insulated and easily mobilized should the facility need to be relocated. The pods have full plumbing and electricity, with climate control to suit the needs of our three target species that live in the cool mountain habitats. Each pod is outfitted with a vestibule for caretakers to prepare for a bio-secure entry (which requires clean up and changing clothes).

The pods are outfitted with habitats for up to 1,200 animals (400 from each of the three target species: exquisite spike thumb frog, Cusuco spike thumb frog, and mossy red-eyed tree frog). Water for the animals is treated with reverse osmosis in order to make it safe for amphibians. All water and other waste leaving the pods is cleaned to prevent any contamination to animals of the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens. Live food items (flies, crickets, and other insects) are bred in-house in order to provide ideal nutrition and prevent non-native insect concerns. The individual habitats inside the pods are species specific, catering to the needs of each of the three animals with current, temperature, and substrate. In short…. I would like to live in the pods!

The rescue center facilities are in excellent condition and are ready for animals. As we prepare to bring animals in for head-starting, the rescue team is searching for the perfect local Honduran in order to care for amphibians full time. This individual will train at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center in the care of amphibians. Once head-starting has begun, we will build outreach programs involving local Honduran schools and local researchers. Ultimately, the goal is for the rescue center to be entirely Honduran-run. Our Honduran partners are enthusiastic and we are excited to see their involvement grow.

Honduras is a country that does not receive much assistance in conservation, and the Detroit Zoological Society is proud to be a part of this groundbreaking project saving amphibians in this beautiful nation. We will definitely share more updates as we begin head-starting animals soon!

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the director of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Notes from the “Field”: Expedition to the Detroit Zoo’s Otter Habitat

The Detroit Zoological Society conducts field conservation work all over the world; however, a recent venture required traveling only a few hundred feet from my office. Preparatory research for an upcoming trip to Armenia to preserve otters involved traversing the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat at the Detroit Zoo. Otters are classified as Endangered in Armenia, but there is no current data on their status. As part of this project, we will be assessing the status of these animals across Armenia and identifying important areas for protection. Early on, the focus will be on conducting sign surveys along rivers and streams, looking for traces of otters. Becoming familiar with otter tracks and feces was essential before this fieldwork could begin; where better to do such research than inside the otter habitat at the Detroit Zoo?

Armenia is part of the greater Caucasus biodiversity hotspot, and otters are an important part of the diverse fauna. The otters in Armenia are Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra), a different species from the North American otters (Lontra Canadensis) that are present at the Detroit Zoo. However, both otter species are similarly sized and they both have diets that consist primarily of fish, so their feces is likely to be similar.

Detroit Zoological Society animal care staff shared helpful identifying information inside the otter habitat, including the variability and size of the feces, which were less compact than one might expect. Scratch marks often accompany the feces, which also often occurs with snow leopards. In addition, because the habitat at the Zoo is cleaned regularly, it was clear how quickly the feces can degrade. Proper estimation of the age of feces can be important for estimating animal density.

We’ll be sure to report back with findings following our research in Armenia.

– Dr. Paul Buzzard is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which is involved in wildlife conservation efforts on six continents.

Notes from the Field: Saving Tree Frogs in Honduras – Part I

The Detroit Zoological Society is collaborating with the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center to preserve three species of endangered frogs from the cloud forests of the Cusuco National Park in Honduras. The rescue center is an in-country facility that aims to re-populate these three endangered species through programs such as head starting, captive breeding, habitat protection and community outreach.

Amphibians all over the world are suffering extinctions, and the species in the Cusuco National Park are at a particularly high risk. There is a fungal disease, called chytrid, that is causing drastic population declines amphibians globally. Chytrid fungus has been particularly devastating to amphibians that live at higher elevations in the tropics, because the fungus thrives in lower temperatures and high humidity. This fungus likes to live in keratinized skin cells, and because amphibians rely on their skin to breath and exchange nutrients, it can be very deadly. The Cusuco National Park is a protected area that is home to many rare amphibian species who, unfortunately, are subjected to this fungal disease. The Detroit Zoological Society is working with the rescue center to investigate how to help save these animals from extinction.

While there are many species of amphibians in Honduras that need help, we decided to start our mission with three “target species” of critically endangered tree frogs. Once we find the best way to help these species, we can apply what we learned to others locally. These three target species are the exquisite spike thumbed frog (Plectrohyla exquisita), the Cusuco spike thumbed frog (Plectrohyla dasypus), and the mossy red eyed frog (Duellmanohyla soralia). All three of these frogs have been found to have the highest infection rates with chytrid fungus in the Cusuco National Park and are at high risk of extinction. This spring, we conducted fieldwork in Honduras, visiting the natural habitat of the three target species to help gain a better understanding of their behavior. We were able to observe some never-before-seen behaviors of these interesting animals that will help us increase our chances of protecting them.

Before I get too carried away, let me introduce you to the three species!

Photo by Jon Kolby

Exquisite spike thumb frogs are the largest tree frog in the Cusuco National Park at approximately 4 inches long. These frogs are found exclusively in the small protected area of the park, and are listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN. The frogs get their name from the large boney projection that males have on the sides of their thumbs, called a prepollex. It is theorized this special appendage is used for male combat, but combat has not yet been observed in this species. Additionally, the call of these frogs has never been heard (or at least recognized) by human ears.

Photo by Jon Kolby

Cusuco spike thumb frogs also only live in the small protected region of the Cusuco National Park; they are also listed as Critically Endangered. This species also gets its name from a prepollex in the males. Cusuco spike thumb frogs are medium-sized, growing to about 2 inches. Their call is a “quack” noise, similar to a duck. When threatened, these frogs have been observed jumping into leaf litter and burying themselves, which is unusual behavior for tree frogs.

Photo by Jon Kolby

Mossy red-eyed tree frogs are the smallest of the three target species, at a maximum of about 1.5 inches, and are also listed as Critically Endangered. As tadpoles, they have a striking green sheen to them, and they perform an odd behavior. They will flip over on their backs to swim – bellies up – in the rapids of waterfalls. Mossy red-eyed tree frogs can be heard calling with a series of chirps and clicks.

The Detroit Zoological Society and the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center have a plan to save these amazing animals. I’ll be sharing more details about this plan in upcoming blog entries, so stay tuned!

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the director of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Notes from the Field: Saving Seabirds in the Falkland Islands

On a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands – the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) second in two years – I met with the governor of the islands and commissioner of the nearby South Georgia and South Sandwich islands, His Excellency Nigel Phillips CBE. We discussed the need and potential for penguin conservation work in the region, and the important role that the DZS can provide. Through our partnership with organizations such as Falklands Conservation (FC), which is working to conserve rockhopper, gentoo and king penguins – three species of penguins living in the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center – and other seabirds, we can not only provide financial support but also scientific expertise in the field. Additionally, we teach, engage and inspire millions of Detroit Zoo visitors about these incredible animals, their plight in the wild, and what people can do to help.

The Falkland Islands, located off the southern tip of South America, provide critical habitats for several species of penguins and other wildlife. However, threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism, and it is essential to establish marine protected areas and assess the impacts ecotourism brings. On our recent expedition with Falklands Conservation, we set out to monitor the population of penguins and other seabirds living on several islands off the easternmost coast of the Falklands – some which had never been visited and others that had not been visited for more than 10 years. The islands were close to the military port near Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, but rather remote, and landing on some of them was quite difficult because of the sea swells and cliff faces. In fact, we weren’t able to land at all on one of the islands called The Mot, and instead used a drone to effectively document the birds’ habitat.

We made some important observations on these excursions. As the sun went down during our drone visit to The Mot, we noted the return of hundreds of sooty shearwater birds returning to their burrows. Shearwaters are a threatened pelagic sea bird and an important indicator of well-managed fisheries, so documenting the location of a new colony was significant. We also documented the first records of Cobb’s wren on another island, which are ground nesting birds endemic to the Falkland Islands and important indicators that the land is free of rats and mice. These rodents have been introduced to many of the islands and have devastated populations of Cobb’s wren and other ground nesting birds. Additionally, we were heartened to see that the habitat at another island, Motley, has recovered tremendously from earlier sheep grazing. The plant life on this island was diverse with rare flowers such as yellow orchids and hairy daisies. Gentoo penguins were also observed at Motley, so it is possible and promising that a previously observed gentoo colony nearby is expanding.

The DZS hopes to establish a long-term project site at the Falklands to analyze the impact of ecotourism on penguin breeding, health and welfare. Tom Schneider, the DZS’s curator of birds, and I investigated several potential sites that have king and/or gentoo penguin colonies. We also had the opportunity to visit the Seabird Rehabilitation Facility, which was designed to accommodate small-scale wildlife rescue efforts, often involving oiled penguins. With increased oil development on the horizon, the number of oiled birds needing proper cleaning and rehabilitation is sure to increase. The DZS has produced educational panels that will be displayed at the facility which detail its history, the impact of oil pollution on seabirds, the extensive process that goes into caring for oiled birds, and several success stories of birds who have recovered and been returned to the wild.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which leads and supports wildlife conservation work on six continents.

Notes from the Field: Project Launched to Monitor Wild Bats at Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is going to bat for a misunderstood species.

Contrary to what pop culture would have you believe, bats are critically important to the environment. They are considered to be essential pollinators in some parts of the world. They also help control populations of insects including mosquitos – which can spread diseases to humans and other animals – and moths, which can significantly damage crops.

In fact, bats are said to save U.S. farmers more than $3 billion a year in agricultural production, according to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), which kicked off Bat Conservation Week (October 24-31) by announcing $1.36 million in grants to find a cure for a disease that is threatening several species of bats. Known as white-nose syndrome, this disease has wiped out more than 6 million bats in North America in the past decade.

The Detroit Zoological Society supports Bat Conservation International (BCI), one of the beneficiaries of the NFWF grant, which is not only working to conserve endangered species of bats, but also to preserve bat “hot spots” around the world and launch a global bat database for the more than 1,300 species of bats existing on the planet.

The DZS is committed to the conservation of bats, and supporting BCI is one part of a comprehensive plan. Staff is engaged in a bat monitoring project to determine which of the nine species of bats native to Michigan are using the Detroit Zoo as a wild habitat. An acoustic monitor senses the ultrasonic bat calls and creates a graph showing the frequency and characteristics of the calls. This system also changes the frequency so the calls can be heard by human ears. In addition to documenting which species are present, staff will also be able to determine what behaviors the bats are engaged in while making the calls, such as feeding or socializing. This project will also explore which species migrate from the Zoo during the winter.

Plans are also beginning to turn the former Penguinarium at the Detroit Zoo into a bat conservation center.

Notes from the Field: Tiny Shorebirds Get New Chance at Survival

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shore bird that breeds in three distinct geographic locations; the beaches along the Atlantic coast, the shorelines of the Great Lakes, and along major rivers of the northern Great Plains. The Great Lakes population is classified as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the other two populations are classified as threatened.

At one point, this population of Great Lakes piping plovers was estimated to range from 12 to 32 breeding pairs. After extensive observation, scientists found that plover nests were abandoned and concluded that salvaging these abandoned eggs could contribute to the species’ recovery. For almost two decades, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has led the effort to collect these abandoned eggs, incubate them and rear the chicks that hatch until they can be released to join wild plovers.

The DZS operates the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich., and oversees aviculturists from the Detroit Zoo and other Association of Zoos & Aquariums institutions who staff the facility from May through August. The dedicated zookeepers monitor the eggs during incubation and care for the chicks after they hatch. Once they are able to fly, after about four weeks, the birds – that would have otherwise perished – are banded and released into the wild. As they migrate to their wintering grounds, the plovers are identified by birders and photographers who report their findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I spent five weeks this summer at the captive rearing center, working with what I believe are some of the cutest chicks in the world. While our conservation efforts have been incredibly successful over the last 17 years, the Great Lakes piping plover population is still less than 80 breeding pairs annually. This year, seven DZS zookeepers and 12 staff members from eight other zoos helped raise 16 chicks from abandoned eggs to join the more than 90 chicks that wild birds raised.

Adult piping plovers tend to breed around the shores of the Great Lakes on large patches of undisturbed sandy beach filled with cobble. Sometimes, their nests are washed out by waves, a parent is killed by a predator, or an unleashed dog causes abandonment. These nests are closely monitored and when staff has determined that the eggs are not being incubated, they are officially declared abandoned and the eggs are transferred to the captive rearing center. In some cases, such as when a storm is passing through, “dummy” eggs will be placed in the nest while the real eggs are placed in an incubator overnight and then returned the next day.

The captive rearing center has multiple incubators and equipment to nurture each egg and provide the conditions it needs to develop a healthy embryo. After almost four weeks in the egg, a little plover chick will spend two to four days hatching. Newly hatched chicks weigh about as much as three pennies yet are very mobile, looking for food within a few hours of hatching. When a full clutch of four chicks hatches, it looks like four cotton balls on eight toothpicks running around.

Rearing plover chicks properly and assuring they will be ready for release is no easy task. We weigh the chicks every morning and observe them to make sure each bird is thriving. Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate curator of birds and manager of the captive rearing operations, fields any questions from staff. One chick in particular needed a little more help from staff this year as it had difficulty hatching, curved toes, bowed legs and some feather abnormalities (genetic issues that can’t be avoided), but zookeepers did not give up on this little chick, providing antibiotics, extra feeds and extra practice flying. In the end, although a little different, this bird had incredible character running around and flying well.

We routinely feed the birds a variety of insects every few hours while they also learn to forage on wild insects. They grow fast and their flight feathers start coming in within two weeks. At 17 or 18 days old, the piping plovers are starting to stretch their wings and by 25-27 days they should be flying well. We have one flight pen along the beach where the plovers grow, forage and learn natural behaviors; another is attached to our building to give them outdoor access overnight and more space to practice flying.

Plover fledglings are usually released between 28 and 33 days old. This year we reared 16 chicks that were released into the wild. Most releases occur in an area where there are similarly aged wild chicks; often the releases happen at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is an incredible feeling opening the door to the crate and letting these small chicks fly free. They immediately start foraging, bathing and or flying around. With a little luck and some decent wind, they will make it to the Atlantic coast or maybe even the Bahamas, enjoy winter, and return to northern Michigan next spring. On August 14, we released the final four birds of the season at Sleeping Bear Dunes, including the special little chick who needed all the extra help. This bird ran down the beach and almost immediately started flying! Each piping plover is a special part of our Great Lakes ecosystem – please be mindful as you share the beaches with these charismatic yet fragile friends.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.