Animal Welfare – Understanding the Needs of Amphibians

The penguins living at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center are not the only water-dependent species being studied by the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW). We are conducting research to uncover indicators of welfare in frogs, toads and salamanders living at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Welfare indicators in amphibian species have largely consisted of body condition scoring and measures of reproductive success, neither of which provide comprehensive understanding of how individual animals are faring. Identifying additional indicators can help us to better understand the needs of amphibians living in zoos.

Due to the catastrophic declines in amphibian populations around the world in recent years, amphibian conservation has become a priority for zoos and other conservation organizations. While many institutions prioritize the management of captive populations of amphibians as one strategy in the preservation of these species, virtually no literature exists today regarding how the captive representatives of rapidly vanishing amphibians are faring. The Detroit Zoological Society created the National Amphibian Conservation Center nearly two decades ago, and it is still the largest facility dedicated to amphibian conservation and care in the world. CZAW is now conducting studies to help understand the individual preferences and behavioral and physiological responses of these animals to captive environments and husbandry practices, as well as individual capacities for coping with stressors of captive environments.

Housing animals in multi-species habitats is a common practice in zoos and aquariums. Some amphibians however, such as poison dart frog species, may be housed together due to their shared environmental requirements and their conspicuous aesthetics. Little research has been conducted on the impact that mixed-species living has on the welfare of the individuals. At CZAW, we have examined how different species partition their habitat and how their behavior may be impacted by one another. This helps us ensure that the needs of each animal are being met.

While much emphasis has been placed on the impacts of captivity on the welfare of large mammals, little attention has been granted to large amphibians living in the care of humans. Japanese giant salamanders are currently listed as Near Threatened by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and their wild numbers are decreasing due to habitat loss and hunting.

These salamanders present a unique challenge when it comes to habitat design, given their potential to grow up to 1.5 meters in length and their nocturnal activity patterns. Traditional ways of housing amphibians may not be as successful for giant salamanders and in turn may impact their welfare. The Immersion Gallery at the amphibian center is being renovated as a new habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders, with the goal of giving the animals increased physical and social choices. We are also developing a project to assess the ways in which this increase in choice can improve the welfare of the individual salamanders.

As we continue to study how amphibians can thrive in zoos, we not only help the individuals, but we can also contribute to the efforts being made to conserve them. Greater understanding of how individual captive amphibians are faring is critical to ensuring their well-being and to meeting ethical obligations of keeping animals in captivity.

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

Take Part in the Detroit Zoo’s FrogWatch USA Conservation Program

By late winter and early spring, many people are looking forward to warmer weather, longer days and the fun the coming months will bring. I also look forward to this time of year, not only because of the warmer temperatures, but also the rains of spring and the wonderful creatures that will wake from their long, winter hibernation.

I am, of course, referring to frogs and toads! Here in southeast Michigan, most amphibians depend on rain to help them get “in the mood” for the breeding season. Soon after moving from deep winter to early spring, frogs and toads will make their presence known in full chorus, emitting sounds that also help to protect them from predators.

In 2011, the Detroit Zoological Society began hosting a local FrogWatch USA chapter to collect data on the frogs and toads living in the tri-county area. FrogWatch USA is an amphibian conservation and citizen science program managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Citizen science programs teach volunteers to collect data using the same protocol and methods, so all data can be can be counted as part of a scientific research project. One scientist working alone could never collect the amount of information a group of citizen scientists can.

There are currently 144 chapters of FrogWatch USA held throughout the U.S. and data has been collected since 1998. Training classes are primarily taught at AZA institutions, but may also be offered at nature centers, museums or colleges. The project focuses on frogs and toads – both amphibians and some of the most sensitive creatures on the planet. They are also indicators of a wetland’s health – if something toxic or lethal invades the wetlands where they live, they will be the first species to become sick, die or disappear.

All monitoring is done outdoors, so it gives volunteers the opportunity to spend time outside in the wetlands and natural areas of their community. Monitoring helps provide important information from each site, such as the diversity, population size and health of the particular frog or toad species that is present; whether or not there are rare or invasive species in the area, and what the overall health of the wetland is. Knowing what species are present at a sight can even help improve the management and protection of a wetland and all species living there.

Four-hour volunteer training sessions are offered at the Detroit Zoo just prior to the frog and toad breeding season, which is just about to begin. Each session includes:

  • An overview of what amphibians are and why they are valuable to the environment
  • Descriptions and key characteristics of the types of wetlands found in Michigan where frogs and toads may be found
  • Information about the locations of monitoring sites and the ability for participants to register
  • An explanation of the monitoring protocols that volunteers will use in the field
  • Information about how to identify the 14 native Michigan frog and toad species by their breeding calls (Identifying a species by its breeding call is by far the best part of the process. Even though it may be a bit challenging at first, surveying by ear is easy on both the surveyor and the frogs and toads, and it can be a lot of fun.)

Once training is complete, a volunteer’s first priority is to find and register for a site to monitor.  While most volunteers come in already knowing where they want to survey, some do not and we help them find locations in the area. Some sites are in backyards where frogs have been heard for years and others are in wetlands seen from afar and believed to be full of amphibians. Once the nighttime temperature is above 35 degrees Fahrenheit, volunteers can monitor at their sites throughout the FrogWatch season, typically February to August, at most twice a week.

Monitoring must take place at least 30 minutes after sunset. Darkness not only brings more amphibians to life but it also puts the noisy daytime animals, such as birds, to sleep. Whether volunteers have hiked into a wetland via a trail full of crunching leaves or are sitting on their back porch as quiet as can be, everyone must allow at least two minutes for the creatures around them to acclimate to their presence. Immediately after two minutes have passed, volunteers will listen for exactly three minutes to identify each species they hear. At the end of three minutes, the monitoring session is complete.

Monitoring the same site year after year is a great way to keep track of the health of frogs, toads and wetlands. If we lose amphibians, we lose a very precious resource and some really amazing creatures.

I hope you can attend one of the FrogWatch USA training sessions coming up at the end of this month, in February and in March. It is a fun and easy amphibian conservation program that anyone can take part in! Click here for more information: https://detroitzoo.org/press-release/leap-conservation-joining-frogwatch/

– Rebecca Johnson is the associate curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and works in the National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Amphibian Conservation: Wyoming Toads Prepare for Breeding

A pair of small gold eyes peers out from under a mass of sphagnum moss. In a day or two, this warty creature will complete its climb out from the depths of the sandy soil where he has spent the last 30 days sleeping and “chilling” at a cool 38 degrees. Along with seven other individuals of this species, he will awaken due to an increase in temperature and light. By the time the temperature reaches 74 degrees, he will have completely removed himself from the soil and be sitting atop it, hopefully alongside his companion, a slightly larger female. In the week that follows, events these two small cold-blooded creatures will go through could lead to producing thousands of their species in a matter of hours due to their “explosive” nature.

The Wyoming toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) is one of North America’s most endangered species and one of the amphibians we work with as part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP) at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.  This toad’s wild populations began declining in the 1970s, and by the 1980s was listed as an Endangered Species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Possible causes for the population decline are use of aerial pesticides to eliminate mosquitoes, habitat manipulation, and disease in the form of the amphibian chytrid fungus. Realizing a decline was occurring, the last remaining toads were collected and by 1994, all remaining wild-born Wyoming toads were believed to be entirely in captivity. The IUCN now describes the Wyoming toad as extinct in the wild, meaning any toad currently found in the wild has come from captive breeding, in which the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has been actively involved.

The Wyoming toad SSP is managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The DZS has been a member of this conservation program since 1995 and since 2001 has sent a total of 6,505 tadpoles and toadlets to the wild. All Wyoming toads are the responsibility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), so members of the AZA work closely with them to follow all USFWS permit guidelines for keeping them in captivity. The goal of any captive breeding program is to produce healthy offspring for release into the wild with the goal of rebuilding them into a self-sustaining population. Each toad in captivity is identified and tracked, which helps to pair toads that will produce the most genetically diverse and healthy offspring. Breeding pairs of toads are chosen almost a year in advance so toads have plenty of time to move from one zoo to another to create the breeding pairs.

Although not as well known as Jabari and Kivuli, the giraffe couple at the Detroit Zoo, Wyoming toads Butler and Beverly are a very important couple of toads. They are part of a “bio-secure” population and will never be seen by the public, which ensures they will not accidentally release diseases, known or unknown, into the wild via their offspring. They are held with four other pairs of Wyoming toads in a special room away from all other amphibians, so they will remain free of diseases that could otherwise be found in species not native to the western region of North America.

At the AZA’s recommendation, Butler arrived at the Detroit Zoo last October to be paired with Beverly, who arrived in 2012. Both are now 3 years old, which is about middle aged for a Wyoming toad. In early April, they were placed together into a thermostat-controlled “hibernaculum”, which is used to cool the toads, simulating the hibernation period a wild Wyoming toad would go through during the winter. The toads are kept cooled for about a month to help prepare them for breeding; eggs or sperms may develop and mature as a result of this cooling. The toads are given plenty of sandy soil to bury down into and sleep in just as they would have in the wild, and the Zoo’s animal care staff checks in on them weekly to make sure they are doing well.

At the end of May, the temperature in the hibernaculum will be increased to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the toads will begin to awaken. Once they have climbed out from the soil, we will place them back into regular husbandry for a few days where they will continue to warm up and eat. Recordings of male toads calling are played during this time to condition toads further for breeding. Within a few days of emerging from hibernation, Butler and Beverly will be placed into a breeding chamber with 2-3 inches of water. The pair will hopefully go into “amplexus” within a few hours, which happens when the male positions himself on top of the female using his front legs and squeezes her, encouraging her to lay eggs. He fertilizes the eggs as she lays them, usually in the dark, overnight. Butler and Beverly should lay thousands of eggs, which is typical of toad species. Described as “explosive breeders”, the more eggs they can lay the better the chance offspring have of surviving the elements, diseases and predators. Since this is a captive breeding, we can help the thousands of eggs that Butler and Beverly produce survive into strong, healthy tadpoles.

Approximately two to three weeks after eggs have hatched into thousands of hungry tadpoles, arrangements are made with the USFWS to ship the tadpoles to Wyoming, where they will be released into protected wetlands. These tadpoles will add to those previously produced in captivity sent yearly by the zoos that participate in this program and the USFWS.

The wetlands are monitored during the spring and summer as part of yearly field surveys done to track the health and population of the toads. This year we hope that Butler, Beverly and the three other pairs of Wyoming toads at the Detroit Zoo are able to contribute thousands of healthy tadpoles to the wild population.

– Rebecca Johnson is the associate curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Surveying Mudpuppies; Rain, Snow or Shine

We battled frigid temperatures as we entered the ice-filled water wearing insulated waders for protection against the elements.

This dramatic introduction sounds like the start of an exciting adventure story in some far-off place, but it actually describes some of the unbelievable conditions right here in Michigan where you can find one of the most fascinating creatures – the common mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus maculosus).

This four-legged, fully aquatic amphibian can be found in rivers, lakes and ponds throughout the midwestern U.S., including the waters of the Detroit River. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is actively engaged in many field conservation projects, including surveying the common mudpuppy around Belle Isle. Our amphibian department has conducted surveys since 2009 as a way to learn more about the overall health and population of the salamanders found in the area. Fieldwork for the project is conducted twice monthly at two different sites, and it is never to be done alone; due to the danger posed by the elements, there must always be two people working on the survey. Depending on the weather conditions, surveys at times are limited to collecting water samples; other times it can involve trapping and processing mudpuppies.

Listed as Least Concern by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), little is known about the true population size of mudpuppies – not just in Michigan but also throughout its entire range. Even though this aquatic salamander has a pair of lungs, it uses blood red, feathery gills located on the sides of its head to gain oxygen from the water. It has a rather flat body and wide head and it uses its tail to move through the water. Mudpuppies prefer to hide under rocks and logs during the day and forage on aquatic insects, crayfish and fish.

Like all amphibians, mudpuppies are valuable indicators of wetland and habitat health. Since water and air move freely in and out of an amphibian’s permeable skin, they will be the first creatures to become sick or even die from the pollutants or toxins found in the habitat, warning us of any impending problems.

Fieldwork and data collection for this project is typically a two-day process. On Day 1, we are in the field collecting water samples and data on the weather, and also setting traps. To capture mudpuppies, we use small collapsible minnow traps that we weigh down to the bottom of the river and bait with frozen smelt. We tie the traps to the shoreline so they won’t be lost in the current of the river. We leave them overnight to allow the mudpuppies plenty of time in their undisturbed habitat to wander in, where they will remain until our return the following day.

The water samples we collect are taken back to our water quality lab where we can conduct more scientific tests. Keeping track of the water quality of the Detroit River is just as important as the data collected on the mudpuppies themselves. A database of this information will help us notice if severe changes have occurred in the water over time.

On Day 2, we return to the field to collect the traps as well as information on any mudpuppies captured overnight.

In the winter, the coast of Belle Isle can be quite treacherous. On one particular day in March, we faced some challenges as ice floes had moved into the shore overnight and were covering the traps we’d placed the day before. I was accompanied by two of the DZS’s most seasoned field researchers: Paul Buzzard, the director of conservation, and Marcy Sieggreen, curator of amphibians. Wearing insulated chest waders and long gauntlet-style gloves for protection against the icy waters, we did some ice stomping and managed to locate and recover all the traps we’d set.

Turned out we had captured one mudpuppy, so we proceeded to gather additional data – information from the animal, weather conditions and the water. We needed to take great care to keep the mudpuppy in the water at all times; in the winter this protects the skin and gills from freezing and in the warmer days of spring, summer and autumn it protects from the heat. We take measurements, weight and pictures of the animal, and if the salamander is healthy and large enough, a small transponder is implanted in the side of the tail to help with identification if recaptured. As quickly as possible, the mudpuppy is returned to the water in the area where we found it.

On Day 2, if conditions are favorable, we also use a digital boroscope to survey the site further. A boroscope, or a “plumber’s camera” as it’s sometimes called, is a camera at the end of a flexible 5-foot-long cable connected to a video screen. We use it to peek under rocks and logs in search of mudpuppies. This tool is a non-invasive way to learn about what else is living in the river.

As we continue with these surveys, we are exploring what other things the data we collect can show us from further analysis. We also plan to return to surveying areas off the coast off the island of Grosse Ile, which are also known to have a population of mudpuppies.

– Rebecca Johnson is the associate curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Marcy Sieggreen was the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society from 2008 until her passing in 2016. The Detroit Zoological Society established the Sieggreen Amphibian Conservation Fund in Marcy’s memory to continue to advance the work she so passionately championed.

Animal Welfare: Educational Partnerships that Improve Animal Well-Being

In a number of instances, the work we do to enhance the welfare of the animals at the Detroit Zoo is a result of collaboration and partnerships. One such partnership is with Madonna University. Students enrolled in a class that is part of the humane education curriculum join us each semester to undertake projects that will benefit the animals.

We work with animal care staff to select projects suited to each species and the students are responsible for learning about that species to better understand the impact that their project will have on the animals’ welfare. The students are divided into three groups and each group is assigned a particular project. The groups work with mentors from the Life Sciences division and over the course of several weeks, complete their project. On the last day, all of the students get the chance to see the results of all of the projects in order to gain more appreciation of the various ways in which we can positively impact animals living in the care of humans.

Over the course of the last few years, the Madonna University students have participated in projects benefiting warthogs, amphibians, giraffes, gorillas, reptiles, rhinos and birds living in the Free-Flight Aviary, to name a few. This year, the students will help us to modify habitats for giant anteaters, flamingos and kangaroos and wallabies in the Australian Outback Adventure. This will involve the creation of nesting areas for the flamingos, as well as planting shrubs for the anteaters and kangaroos in order to add more complexity to their environments and create additional areas of shade. These types of modifications are important to ensure that animals encounter novelty and have more opportunities to display species-typical behaviors.

This wonderful partnership is an example of how the Detroit Zoo provides educational and inspirational opportunities for students and is always finding ways to design engaging habitats for the animals.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Amphibian Conservation: Species in Crisis

Let’s focus our attention on the smallest residents living at the Detroit Zoo: amphibians. No other class of vertebrates has the ability to adapt and evolve as quickly in our ever-changing planet as amphibians. They have used every reproductive strategy and developed life stages influenced by environmental factors; they can be colorful, camouflaged and cryptic, regenerate limbs, and have been on Earth for the last 200 million years.

Marcy Blog 4

Currently, amphibians are the most threatened group of animals in the world with 40 percent of all species at risk. This crisis is considered the greatest extinction event in history; it’s also the Earth’s sixth mass biological extinction. While previous mass extinctions have been driven by natural planetary transformations or catastrophic asteroid strikes, the current die-off can be associated directly with human activity. This epoch started when human activities began having a significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) participates in Global Assessments, which provide a comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of biological species as well as a critical dataset for evaluating the health of key elements of biodiversity and identifying threats to their survival. Newly described species emerge yet extinctions are occurring at an even faster rate. Climate change is the most dramatic cause of declines, and it affects amphibians both directly and indirectly, as reproduction is dependent on temperatures and seasonal transitions. Low pond levels expose embryos to more ultra violet (UV) light and UVB radiation is harmful to many species. The shorter periods and earlier opportunities for breeding ultimately reduce the chances of success. Amphibians are also dependent upon water, which makes them vulnerable to desecration when ponds dry too quickly. But since amphibians rely on the environment, they also are excellent storytellers. They can help us determine where pollutants are and if there is misuse of habitat.

When the National Amphibian Conservation Center (NACC) opened at the Detroit Zoo in 2001, it was the first major facility dedicated entirely to conserving and exhibiting amphibians. The award-winning, state-of-the-art amphibian center is home to a spectacular diversity of frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and caecilians, many of which are the subjects of field research and part of cooperative management programs called Species Survival Plans (SSP). Amphibians selected for an SSP are generally threatened, endangered and sometimes even extinct in the wild. The DZS is actively involved in many of these programs, including for the Wyoming toad, Puerto Rican crested toad, Panamanian golden frog, crawfish frog and Mississippi gopher frog. Some amphibians bred at the Detroit Zoo have been released into the wild to boost endangered populations, and others require us maintaining a “captive assurance population” because due to factors in the wild, they cannot be released just yet. When it’s safe for these species to return to their native homes, we have a population ready to release. We have specially designed, bio-secure rooms that can hold each of these species so they won’t be exposed to other amphibians or anything else that may be harmful when they are released.

In addition to maintaining our captive amphibian population and our efforts in cooperative breeding programs, DZS staff participates in several field projects and research programs, offers citizen science training and provides support for wildlife rescues, including those from the exotic pet trade.

– Marcy Sieggreen is the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Editor’s note: Marcy Sieggreen was the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society from 2008 until her passing in 2016. The Detroit Zoological Society established the Sieggreen Amphibian Conservation Fund in Marcy’s memory to continue to advance the work she so passionately championed.

Education: What is a Species Survival Plan?

Red pandas Ta-Shi and Shifu have produced several adorable cubs at the Detroit Zoo, most recently little Tofu. North American river otters Whisker and Lucius have sired a couple pups and reticulated giraffes Kivuli and Jabari are well known for their now 13-foot-tall calf Mpenzi. Pairings like these and the offspring that follows are not by chance; each is carefully planned out and managed through what is known as a Species Survival Plan (SSP).

The 230 accredited zoological institutions that comprise the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) work together through these cooperative management programs to ensure genetically healthy, diverse and self-sustaining populations of threatened and endangered species. More than 450 species are apart of an SSP throughout zoological institutions in North America, overseen through a comprehensive population management system, which includes a Studbook and a Breeding and Transfer Plan. Each of these identifies population management goals and makes recommendations to ensure the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied animal population.

The Detroit Zoo has individuals from 98 of these species under its care, including 38 birds, 30 mammals, 24 reptiles, four amphibians, one fish and one invertebrate. Many of these species are animals that require immediate attention to save the remaining wild populations. Our cooperative breeding efforts have proven extremely successful – for example, the Detroit Zoo has been credited with restoring the population of a Tahitian land snail called partula nodosa, once extinct in the wild. Additionally, in May of last year, 22,571 Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles bred at the Detroit Zoo were released into the wild of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. In 2014, a record 3,945 Wyoming toad tadpoles bred at the Detroit Zoo were released into the wild. This long-running effort was previously recognized as No. 1 on the AZA’s list of the Top 10 wildlife conservation success stories.

AZA institutions and partners work together to carefully monitor SSP species both in the wild and in zoo populations. Organizations will often move SSP animals to other zoos and aquariums so they can mate with individuals to ensure a long-term healthy future for the species. Breeding recommendations are made with consideration given to each animal’s social and biological needs as well as transfer feasibility.

Be sure to look for the SSP logo on animal signage as you explore the Detroit Zoo on your next visit. Each time you see the logo, you’ll know that there are countless individuals working at zoos, aquariums and in the field around the world to do everything we can to save and rebuild the remaining populations of these species.