Wildlife Conservation: Lending Amphibian “Sexpertise” to Other Accredited Zoos

I recently participated in a partnership to save an incredible species of amphibian: the blue spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). This animal is regionally endangered in parts of the Midwest and about 10 years ago, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources started a partnership with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. They wanted to breed these salamanders for release at locations where they once thrived but have now disappeared. Having had little success in doing so thus far, the organizations reached out and requested my amphibian “sexpertise”. I travelled to Omaha to deploy some of my special reproductive techniques with the blue spotted salamander assurance colony living there.

It comes as no surprise that these salamanders proved very difficult to breed. Blue spotted salamanders need an extraordinary amount of “salamander romance” in order to breed naturally. These animals undergo winter brumation (a hibernation-like state). In the spring, they will emerge from brumation when it begins to rain and when the temperature rises in order to migrate to breeding ponds. Their migrations can be over several miles, and most salamanders return to the same pond every breeding season. In captive breeding situations, we attempt to recreate the cues that the salamanders take from the wild in order to get them “in the mood” for breeding. We cool them down and offer them the opportunity to undergo brumation. We place them in rain chambers so they can experience an “indoor storm”. We also attempt to create a naturalistic pond for them to breed in with proper vegetation and leaf litter.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the natural cues we provide artificially are not enough to trigger breeding. Many amphibians are having difficulty breeding in the wild, due to changes in the climate and their habitat. Given that the natural environment is not currently providing ideal cues for breeding, it is especially difficult to perfectly recreate environmental breeding cues for animals in human care. When captive animals do not breed in response to the cues we provide, we often use hormone treatments to give them a little boost. These hormone protocols are meant to trigger breeding behaviors as well as the release of sperm and eggs. In the best-case scenario, the application of hormones will result in the animals breeding on their own. In the worst-case scenario, the animals will not breed on their own after the application of hormones and an in vitro fertilization (an artificial fertilization of the eggs with the sperm in a petri dish) will take place.

We used a combination of natural cues and hormones to stimulate breeding in the blue spotted salamanders. The amount of hormones I gave to the female blue spotted salamanders was determined by how developed their eggs looked on ultrasound. While giving the animals hormones resulted in many interesting behaviors, the salamanders did not breed on their own. After giving them time to breed on their own without success, I attempted in vitro fertilization. In order to perform this technique, I needed to collect eggs from the females and sperm from the males. There was one big problem with attempting this technique – the male blue spotted salamanders were not producing sperm. Fortunately, I had a back-up plan!

The blue spotted salamander is no ordinary salamander. In the wild, many female blue spotted salamanders breed through a special adaptation called kleptogenesis, meaning that they steal sperm. You read that correctly: sperm thieves. Most salamanders undergo internal fertilization. This occurs when the male deposits the sperm in a ball – called a spermatophore – into the environment. Through a courtship dance, the spermatophore is collected by the female. These special female blue spotted salamanders will find and collect spermatophores deposited by males from other, closely related, species (including Jefferson’s salamanders, tiger salamanders, and small-mouth salamanders). This is the part where it becomes complicated. Rather than using the sperm to fertilize their eggs and have hybrid offspring, an enzyme in the sperm activates the egg which begins to grow into an embryo. The rest of the sperm is discarded, and the offspring which develop are essentially clones of the mother. Knowing that blue spotted salamander females are often sperm thieves, I had the Omaha Zoo’s resident male tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) on standby. I was able to collect sperm from the tiger salamanders in order to use in the in vitro fertilization of the blue spotted salamander eggs.

Unfortunately, the eggs did not fertilize with the tiger salamander sperm. While we did not achieve offspring, we learned what we need to do differently next time around. We certainly will not give up on these amazing animals. We will try to breed the blue spotted salamanders again later this year, using slightly different techniques.

Thank you to our partners at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and the Iowa DNR.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the director of the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Greenprint: Using Compost to Fertilize Gardens

Spring fever has officially set in and naturally, one of the things on many people’s minds is gardening. We recommend incorporating “gardener’s gold” as you prep your plots this year: Composting can help you save money while also reducing waste and improving the quality of your soil. As you work on cleaning up your yard, you can add the materials to a compost bin and toss in your organic food scraps – they’ll naturally decompose to create a nutrient-rich fertilizer that will help you grow healthy plants.

There are many benefits to composting:

  • Reduce landfill waste. Nearly 30 percent of the garbage that is sent to Michigan landfills could actually have been composted.
  • Decrease the amount of greenhouse gases produced by food waste sent to landfills.
  • Improve soil quality by adding compost to gardens.
  • Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers.
  • Save money – use your own compost instead of purchasing fertilizer from a store.

How to compost at home:

  1. Choose an area in your backyard with good drainage and shade.
  2. Start the pile with a layer of twigs or mulch as a base.
  3. Add a thin layer of “green” materials, e.g., fruit and vegetable peelings, grass clippings or weeds.
  4. Cover with a layer of “brown” materials, e.g., dry leaves, twigs, paper or straw.
  5. Moisten your compost pile.
  6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5.
  7. Turn the pile every four to six weeks.

*Avoid placing meat or dairy products in compost.

You’ll be able to use the compost in your gardens in three or four months. If you’d like to speed up the process or don’t have room for an outdoor compost pile, you can purchase a batch-style composter for under $100 at most hardware stores. These bins can be placed on decks and take up less space in your yard.

For more in-depth information on the benefits of composting as well as detailed instructions on how to compost, you can refer to https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home and www.howtocompost.org.

We’re breaking down organic matter at the Detroit Zoo on a much grander scale! More than 500 tons of waste is generated annually by the animals that live here. So, in order to reduce our ecological footprint and move closer to reaching our goal of becoming waste-free, we constructed an anaerobic digester on Zoo grounds. Anaerobic digestion is a process by which plant and animal materials are broken down, producing a methane-rich gas. This renewable energy will be used to power the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo, saving us $110-120,000 a year in energy costs. By diverting manure and food waste from the landfills, we are also reducing the greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change – methane and carbon dioxide – in the atmosphere. The remaining nutrient-rich material will be used as compost to fertilize the gardens throughout the Zoo’s 125 acres.

Next time you are at the Zoo, check out our new sign detailing the anaerobic digestion process and contemplate the impact of keeping 55 wheelbarrows of manure each day out of the landfills!

Join us on our Green Journey and begin composting this spring! Take a look at the many other steps you can take to help us create a more sustainable future by downloading our Shades of Green guide.

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the award-winning Greenprint initiatives.

Preventative Care Ensures Quality of Life for Zoo Animals

Spring has sprung! This time of year brings April showers, blooming daffodils, lawns to mow and the delightful warmth of the sun finally reaching our skin. It also brings mosquitos, an aspect of the season I do not enjoy. While their numbers are still low, they are staging a comeback and before long, I’ll be carrying bug spray with me in my bag.

With mosquitos comes heartworm season, a time when veterinarians and pet owners are reminded of the importance of the preventive care they provide the animals in their lives. Taking preventive measures is the best way to avoid bigger, more difficult problems in the future. At the Detroit Zoo, we have an extensive preventive medicine program that addresses vaccinations, parasite prevention, nutrition and regular examinations.

Vaccinations are one of the most important tools available to prevent disease in animals and people. In zoo medicine, we refer to literature to determine the safest and most effective vaccines available for the species in our care. We also communicate frequently with zoo and animal health colleagues to better understand diseases of concern. Each month, we participate in a One-Health conference call with veterinarians from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and public health officials from the Department of Health and Human Services. We discuss the diseases currently posing a risk to humans and animals alike, talk about the most common diseases and discuss newer threats, such as avian influenza and Lyme’s disease. At the Detroit Zoo, we use vaccines to prevent many of these diseases, including rabies, distemper, leptospirosis and tetanus. Contagious diseases can be introduced to the animals by wild raccoons, skunks, rodents and feral and pet cats that enter the Zoo, and it’s important that we protect susceptible zoo animals. We use vaccines developed for domestic horses, cows and cats to protect the zebras, elands and lions.

Heartworm disease is another focus of preventive care. Heartworm is transmitted by mosquitos and can go undetected until infection poses a serious health risk. You may know that heartworm disease infects dogs and cats, but you may be surprised to learn the array of animals at the Zoo that can be affected. Seals, arctic foxes, bush dogs, lions, tigers, otters and wolverines are all treated year-round with a monthly preventive treatment. I am happy to report that in my more than 20-year career, we have never had an animal test positive for heartworm disease at the Zoo. If your dog or cat is not being treated for heartworm, it’s important to have them tested first, and then to start them on prevention as soon as possible. It’s never too late to get started.

Examinations are another important part of preventive care. Every day, the animal care staff observes each animal at the Zoo, noting any abnormal appearance or behavior to the veterinary staff. Many health problems are detected through these diligent observations, but we also periodically perform a  hands-on exam to be sure we aren’t missing anything. During examinations, we take radiographs to check for arthritis; feel for bumps and skin problems; examine the eyes with an ophthalmoscope, and use ultrasound to check the heart and abdominal organs. We do a careful dental exam and scale and polish the teeth – this is often the most important thing we do to improve health. During these exams, we also collect a blood sample and run tests to get an impression of overall health and check for diseases of concern.

One of the most rewarding things as a veterinarian is to find a problem before it becomes life threatening and fix it. With close observations, exams and regular care, we tip the odds in favor of finding problems early and being able to intervene, but this is not always possible. Last year, I lost my beloved golden retriever to cancer after a very sudden illness. Even though I miss her, I am at peace because I know that there isn’t anything I could have done to change her end-of-life story. Here at the Zoo, the animal care and veterinary teams strive to do the same. We do all that we can to find problems early, to treat illness when possible, and to help animals nearing the end of their lives maintain the best-possible quality of life. I’m proud of the care that we provide the animals at the Zoo, and glad to share these stories.

– Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Animal Welfare: Ensuring the Well-Being of Senior Animals

It’s a fact of life: With every day that passes, humans and animals get older. And just like humans, as animals go through life, maturing from infants to older adults, their needs change.

Animals living in accredited zoos and aquariums have constant access to resources such as food and veterinary care. They also don’t face predatory pressures as they would in the wild and as a result, they can live very long lives – far longer than they would in the wild. As zoos continue to evolve, so has our understanding of what it means to care for aging animals. Careful monitoring of their health and any physical limitations that may challenge them as they grow older allows us to make adjustments as necessary.

Older animals may not be able to move around as easily as they once did. We may therefore need to modify their physical surroundings to ensure their ability to use their space fully. Advances in veterinary science mean that we can treat any concerns that arise – and in some cases, act proactively to prevent them. Just as some of us may be providing supplements to older cats and dogs sharing our homes, similar measures are also available to treat age-related ailments of animals living in zoos. For example, animals can develop cataracts; several of the crested penguins living at the Detroit Zoo have undergone surgery to address their visual impairments. This has allowed them to better navigate through their wonderful new home at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center and to more fully interact with the other penguins.

Zoos have a profound responsibility to all of the animals in their care, including a commitment to ensuring great lifelong welfare. The staff at the Detroit Zoo care for and about each individual animal, through every stage in their lives. As we celebrate Senior Day on April 26, we honor both our human and animal friends in their golden years. For the animals at the Detroit Zoo, this includes Kintla, a 33-year-old grizzly bear; Bubbles, a 46-year-old chimpanzee; Knick-Knack and Giovanni, 23-year-old miniature donkeys; Homer, a 25-year-old Hoffman’s two-toed sloth; and Lily, a 26-year-old Przewalski’s horse.

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Education: Out-of-this-world Technology Brings Scientists and Educators to Detroit Zoo

We are thrilled to welcome scientists and educators from all over the world for the 2017 International Science On a Sphere Users Collaborative Workshop April 25-27 at the Detroit Zoo. It is an honor to be the first-ever zoo selected to host this global workshop, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and share how we can engage the community with science by combining important environmental messages with technological advances.

Science On a Sphere (SOS) is a 6-foot spherical display system developed by NOAA that can showcase data simulations as visual media regarding climate, weather and animal movement. While it is used by more than 130 museums, science centers and other organizations to help people understand global connections between land, water and the atmosphere, the Detroit Zoo is one of only three zoos in the country to feature SOS. It is located in the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery and is free with Zoo admission.

The upcoming workshop is titled “Pole to Pole: Connecting People, Places, Animals and Spaces”. Topics will be focused on the various ways SOS can be used to educate audiences of all ages, especially about animals, habitats and the environment. Most of the communication among the SOS community happens online, so having the chance to meet in person once every 18 months is a benefit both personally to those who work on this system, and professionally – giving participants the chance to advance the educational capacity of this technology as a larger group.

If you haven’t spent time with SOS during your Zoo visits, we encourage you to stop and take a look. This amazing piece of technology is regularly updated with different content. If you love technology and want to see the types of data available on a flat screen, using SOS Explorer is a great place to start. This is also a great tool in the classroom, which can complement a field trip to the Zoo either before or after your visit. You can find it at https://sos.noaa.gov/SOS_Explorer/. The content you see on the Detroit Zoo’s SOS is ever-changing, so each time you visit, there’s a good chance you will see and learn something new.

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

Greenprint: Trash from Great Lakes Turned into Art at Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently partnered with ArtRoad Nonprofit, an organization that provides art-based activities, instruction and supplies to elementary schools in southeastern Michigan that are lacking in art programs.

In addition to the incredible educational opportunities this organization shares with hundreds of students annually, they also reuse donated items within their art projects in order to reduce waste. This aspect of the organization especially appeals to us as we continue with our Greenprint initiatives and award-winning efforts to create a more sustainable future.

I recently had the opportunity to volunteer in an ArtRoad classroom, where we worked with students on repurposing various items into works of art. The students greeted me with a warm welcome, and knowing that I work at the Detroit Zoo, created penguin art using recycled vinyl for the birds’ feet.

In turn, I provided the students with journals that DZS staff created using recycled millage signs. We hope these journals will help the budding artists capture their imaginations on paper.

Recently, ArtRoad collaborated with the Alliance for the Great Lakes to collect recyclable materials and debris from the shorelines of Lake Michigan. Using these items, more than 150 elementary school students spent two months creating five fish sculptures, one for each of the five Great Lakes. This effort aims to bring awareness about the effects plastic pollution has on freshwater ecosystems.

We are excited to be able to share this educational and impactful project with Detroit Zoo visitors – these fish sculptures will be on display April 22-July 9. It’s only fitting that the art exhibition will be unveiled during GreenFest, our Earth Day celebration, and will be on display during Sunset at the Zoo, our annual fundraising gala that carries a theme this year of “Green is the New Black”, celebrating our groundbreaking efforts in sustainability.

Our recent initiatives include discontinuing the sale of bottled water on Zoo grounds – keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually – and building an anaerobic digester which will convert more than 500 tons of animal manure annually into methane-rich gas to power the Zoo’s animal hospital.

Be sure to check out the ArtRoad exhibition on your next visit to the Detroit Zoo!

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Greenprint initiatives.

Amphibian Conservation: Fired Up About Salamanders

From the days of old, salamanders have captured the imagination of humankind. Long ago, when people would place logs in a fire, brightly colored salamanders would often come scurrying away from the flames. Of course, this was because the salamander’s hiding place was burning, but people in medieval times assumed that the salamander was a creature that came from the flames. People supposed that salamanders were imbued with mystical properties and they became the alchemic symbol for the element of fire.

Despite this long-time association with flame, salamanders are unlikely to be found near a toasty fire. There are more than 600 species of salamanders known, and most of them prefer cool, damp places to live. These critters are often found in a variety of places, including under logs, in rock crevices, high in trees, or living in cool bodies of water, ranging from puddles to fast moving rivers.

Unlike lizards, which look similar to salamanders, salamanders have moist, scale-less skin. Salamanders use their unique skin to intake water, absorb nutrients, and even breathe.

Most species of salamanders are born with a larval stage, similar to the tadpole stage of a frog. The larval salamander is aquatic, has external gills, and has no limbs upon hatching. As the larva grows, it develops legs. Many species of salamanders undergo metamorphosis, losing their gills and undergoing other small body changes as they transfer from water to land.

Salamanders are critical indicators of environmental health, and are key players in the health of ecosystems. These animals serve as sentinels for anything that is changing in the environment. Such changes include pollution, disease or climate change. Almost 50 percent of salamander species are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Detroit Zoological Society is working toward preventing these wonderful creatures from going extinct through breeding and release programs, habitat restoration and population surveys.

We invite you to celebrate these remarkable creatures with us during a special event called Salamander Saturday on May 6. National Amphibian Conservation Center staff and volunteers will provide informative zookeeper talks, storytelling, games and crafts. This event is free with Detroit Zoo admission. Sneak a peek at salamanders and learn all about these unique animals during this fun family event.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the Director of the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.