Notes from the Field: Scientists Set Sail on Seabird Study

This is Part II of a series about a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands by the Detroit Zoological Society to understand the threats facing populations of wild penguins and seabirds. For Part I, click here.

Conducting scientific research in the Falkland Islands can be logistically challenging. Located 300 miles to the east off the southern tip of South America, this remote territory consists of two main islands and several hundred smaller islands dotting the South Atlantic. Some of these islands have rocky cliffs at the ocean’s edge. Others are completely inaccessible.

With this said, the Falkland Islands provide critical habitats for several species of penguins, seabirds and other wildlife, and such fieldwork is necessary to preserve these populations and understand the risks they face. Threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism in the area.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) was asked by a partner organization called Falklands Conservation to develop a project that would explore the impacts of infectious disease, pollution and tourism on these populations. After months of preparation, a DZS veterinary team embarked on the mission.

Traveling to the Falklands from Detroit is a 50-hour journey. First, you fly to Atlanta and then to Santiago, Chile. The next day, you fly to Punta Arenas, Chile and then continue on to Stanley, the largest city in the Falklands. Stanley has a population of roughly 2,000 people, and about 900 people live elsewhere in the islands. By comparison, there are approximately 450,000 sheep spread over the islands, which amounts to more than 150 sheep per human. There is also an estimated 800 miles of coastline in the Falklands, which is home to four species of penguins and numerous other seabirds.

The DZS’s goal was to take blood and feather samples from penguins living in different locations within the Falkland Islands. Some had experienced the presence of humans, industrial shipping and oil activity and others were far removed from these potential impacts. The team also set out to examine two penguin species, one that tends to forage closer to land and one that travels far out to sea.

The research team’s home base for the expedition was a 55-foot sailboat. Each morning, the team would pack supplies into backpacks, get dropped off on an island and hike to various penguin colonies to collect the samples over an eight-hour period. One day, the team was set up on a beach near a gentoo colony and the next was spent on rocky cliff near a rockhopper colony.

Each penguin was handled for less than 10 minutes, during which time the team conducted a physical exam, took swabs to test for viruses and bacteria, collected blood and used scissors to trim a few feathers for toxicology testing. Afterward, each of the penguins went right back to their colonies and continued their regular activities of grooming and socializing.

In the evenings, our researchers took over every surface of the boat and spent three or four hours centrifuging the blood, making slides and getting samples ready for storage in liquid nitrogen tanks for preservation until our return to Michigan.

In all, the team examined 95 penguins. Our hope is that we can better understand the current health status of these penguins as well as the impacts disease and exposure to environmental toxins and humans may have on wildlife. Ultimately, measures could be taken in this region to ensure important marine habitats – and the wildlife who rely on them – are protected.

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

Notes from the Field: Studying Penguins in the Falkland Islands

Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) staff are in the Falkland Islands for the third consecutive year to conduct scientific studies on penguin populations. The DZS collaborates with Falkland Conservation (FC) to monitor remote and inaccessible islands with nesting penguin colonies.

DZS staff members are visiting sites that are not a part of the current monitoring network and where penguin censuses haven’t been conducted in years – even decades. The goal of this component of the program is to establish baseline population data, with subsequent visits on a rotating schedule.

This year, the DZS is also working to assess the status of the health of the penguins at two different locations: Berkeley Sound in the east Falklands, where there is heavy shipping activity; and Dunbar in the west Falklands, which has a limited occurrence of industrial shipping and oil activity. The two study sites are separated not only by distance, but also by the prevailing ocean currents, which run in opposite directions.

DZS veterinary and bird department staff are taking blood samples from approximately 100 gentoo and rockhopper penguins for disease surveillance, stress hormones and toxicology testing. Not only will the information gathered provide us with a view of the current health status of the penguin colonies in those two areas, but the information also establishes a baseline level of data that will be valuable in the event of future hydrocarbon exploration.

Visiting these sites is logistically challenging – the trip from Detroit to Dunbar included four flights and more than 50 hours of travel time. Once in Dunbar, our staff were met by the expedition ship that sailed to the island nesting sites. Access to the internet is limited and we have only received preliminary reports back from the field team, but so far, the health assessment research is going well.

Stay tuned for detailed reports from the Falkland Islands field team.

– Tom Schneider is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: Repairing a Warthog’s Fractured Tusk

The most distinctive features of warthogs are the gently curving tusks that protrude from either side of their face. Each has two pairs of tusks, which are actually constantly growing canine teeth, with the upper pair usually much longer than the lower.

During a recent routine examination of a 3-year-old female warthog named Sansa (yes, after Game of Thrones) by veterinary staff at the Detroit Zoological Society’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex, we noticed that she had fractured one of her lower tusks below the gumline. We couldn’t see the tooth, so we used a metal dental instrument to locate the end of the tooth and then took a radiograph. We could tell that the fracture had occurred very recently and were concerned that the open end of the tooth might allow bacteria to enter. If an infection reaches the base of the tooth, extraction may become necessary, and we wanted to do whatever we could to avoid this.

The size and shape of a warthog’s tusk is similar to the canine tooth of a domestic horse, and we knew that our equine dentist frequently treats his patients for broken canines. We asked Dr. Tom Johnson to come to the Detroit Zoo to help us repair her tooth. Her follow-up exam was less than three weeks since her first exam and already the tooth had grown enough that it was visible at the gumline, which made treatment much easier than expected. We started by cleaning the surface of the tooth and could see that the opening was very small, making infection less likely to occur.

The procedure was very much like having a cavity filled: Dr. Johnson used a dental drill to cup out the area around the opening and then used dental materials to seal and fill the tooth. The filling will remain protected within this recessed area while the tooth continues to grow and be used. The radiographs show that there is very good blood supply to the tooth and we expect that Sansa will be able to heal completely now that the tooth has been repaired. To be certain, we will examine her again in a year, and will take another radiograph to check for any concerns.

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

At First Light: Meeting Sweet Baby Jane

As the lights gradually came on at sunrise behind the scenes at the Detroit Zoo’s Great Apes of Harambee on Saturday, July 14, 34-year-old chimpanzee Abby made her way over to the mesh that separates the neighboring stall. She knocked on the door and vocalized to the other chimpanzees, who were slowly starting to wake up. Curious chimps approached the mesh to greet Abby, and as they looked, they could see a tiny newborn chimpanzee in her arms. Abby greeted her friends and showed them her baby while keeping a safe distance to protect her from any inquisitive poking fingers.

The little one was born just after midnight on what was coincidentally the first World Chimpanzee Day. She was named “Jane” after legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall, in honor of the anniversary of her first visit to what is now Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania to study the social interactions of wild chimpanzees.

During the first few days, Abby remained separated from the rest of the chimpanzee troop to allow her to rest and bond with Jane and for Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) staff to monitor them. While Abby is an experienced mother, having given birth to daughter Chiana 24 years ago (who is a mother herself to 4-year-old Zuhura) it is important for staff to observe a chimpanzee mother and her infant. DZS staff immediately began documenting the frequency that Jane nurses, which should be in short durations every 60-100 minutes. They’ve also been recording maternal behaviors – some of which are simply adorable, such as when Abby holds up her baby, looks at her and then hugs her to her chest. Animal care staff are cautious to not disturb Abby as they make their observations, sitting quietly in the aisle of their holding area with mesh in between them. In those first few days, with Jane sleeping soundly on her mother’s chest between nursings, Abby’s tired eyes would grow heavy and she’d gently give Jane a few comforting pats on her back before falling asleep herself.

Jane’s grip grows stronger each day. She is now holding on tightly to her mom’s chest with both hands and feet, only occasionally needing a little extra support. After a few days of observations, staff determined that Abby and Jane were ready to move to the dayroom of the indoor habitat and meet some of the other chimpanzees. Abby greeted her friends Trixi and Tanya and began to groom with them by the windows while Jane slept in her arms. Abby denied Tanya’s request to touch Jane’s hand, so Tanya settled with looking closely at Jane while she made her nest nearby.

Over the next few days, Abby was reunited with the remaining chimpanzee troop members, including Jane’s father, Imara. They had a chance to see – and try to touch – Jane for the first time. Some were curious, including youngsters Ajua and Akira, who stared in apparent amazement and couldn’t take their eyes off of little Jane, while others such as Nyani barely seemed to notice the infant. Formerly the youngest of the group, Zuhura, almost 5, appeared unsure of what to think of Jane. Zuhura followed Abby everywhere in demand of the attention of her grandmother and curiously wanting to see Jane. Zuhura would repeatedly – and gently – reach out to touch Jane, but Abby would turn away and hold onto the little one tightly while trying to distract Zuhura with some playful tickles. With all 11 of the chimpanzees now together, they often are seen eagerly grooming in the sunlight by the windows, a way that chimpanzees maintain positive relationships with one another.

Abby and Jane ventured into their outdoor habitat for the first time just shy of Jane’s 2-week-old mark. Dad Imara escorted his family on a few investigative laps around the habitat before Abby decided it was time to lay down and rest again. With plenty of space, Abby has yet to identify a preferred spot to rest with Jane, but she can often be seen in and below the trees, as well as at the windows looking into the public viewing area.

It’s difficult to believe since she is still so tiny, but Jane has grown quite a bit in these last few weeks and is hitting all of her development milestones. After three weeks, Jane is awake more often and starting to look around and focus on her surroundings. She has been holding on to Abby’s chest tightly, rarely needing the support of her mother’s hand on her back, and can pull herself up and push with her legs to adjust her position if she is hungry. Although Jane will still appear small as the weeks go on, she will be making strides in her growth and development. We are all eager to watch her continue to grow and for her personality to begin to shine.

– Melissa Thueme is a mammal supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: Baby Jane’s Prenatal Check-ups

While newborn photos of a female baby chimpanzee have gone viral on our social media accounts, they weren’t the first images taken of little Jane. During mom Abby’s 33-week pregnancy, Detroit Zoological Society staff performed eight ultrasounds of the baby, who is named after legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall.

Staff works diligently with the great apes who live at the Detroit Zoo to develop behaviors that allow us to monitor their health. The gorillas and chimpanzees open their mouths to let us look at their teeth, show us their hands and feet and lean against the mesh to allow the administration of vaccines. Most of the chimpanzees will press their chests toward the mesh so we can take images of their hearts with an ultrasound probe.  Abby quickly learned to position herself and allow us to put the probe on her belly so that we could monitor her growing fetus. After a few practice sessions, we invited an OB (obstetrical) ultrasound technician to the Zoo to take the standard measurements collected during pregnancy in human women.

Abby was a cooperative patient and always appeared excited to see us. She would prop herself on a ledge and eat peanuts during each exam, allowing the peanut shells to pile up on her growing belly.  There are limits to the ways we can position the probe, and we were not always able to get every measurement at every visit. In the early months, we were able to measure the length of the fetus from the crown to the rump; as the baby grew, we measured the circumference of the head and abdomen and length of the long bones, including the femur and humerus. We were also able to see the position of the fetus and measure the heart rate. With each exam, we added data to our growth charts, and were pleased to see steady growth and development. We also became increasingly confident that the baby was a girl.

Abby is the third chimpanzee mom that has allowed us to conduct obstetrical ultrasounds, and since 2008 we have been able to collect measurements from three pregnancies, including youngsters Ajua and Akira. Using these measurements and data from two scientific publications, we were able to make a solid prediction of Abby’s due date – July 14, the date of the first annual World Chimpanzee Day! As this date approached, animal care staff began round-the-clock checks to look for signs of labor. Just three days before the due date, we performed a final ultrasound exam. We were pleased to see that the baby was still growing according to expectations. We could see her face and watch her open and close her mouth and wiggle her arms and legs. Most importantly, we could see that the baby had a strong heartbeat and was positioned with her head down, which is the correct position for a normal delivery.

Anyone who has anticipated the delivery of a baby knows that due dates are not an exact science. But Abby delivered her baby at 12:01 a.m. on July 14, one minute into the day predicted as her due date, and the delivery was without complication. Being able to monitor babies during pregnancy allows us to prepare for any issues that might arise, and to intervene if needed. Abby is a wonderful mom, and is taking good care of Jane. She seemed excited to show off her new baby to the other chimpanzees, and held her against the window for everyone to see. We look forward to watching her grow and thrive in her habitat at the Great Apes of Harambee.

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

Veterinary Care: A Horse of a Different Color

For more than 20 years, Jeff Powers has assisted the Detroit Zoological Society’s veterinary team in providing the best possible care for the hoofstock living at the Detroit Zoo. Jeff is a certified farrier – a craftsman specially trained to trim and balance the feet of horses, and to place horseshoes, if necessary.  All domestic horses need regular trimming to remove overgrowth and prevent the development of hoof problems.

When Jeff first started coming to the Zoo, his visits were limited to the Barn. We could see right away that he has a special way with animals and is a talented farrier. At that time, a beautiful Shetland pony named Snowflake lived in our care. During an especially lush late summer, she developed inflammation in both front hooves, a condition called laminitis. We treated her with medications to decrease inflammation and discomfort, and called Jeff to see if there was anything else that could be done. He brought his specially outfitted truck, complete with a forge and anvil used to heat and shape metal. He used his blacksmith skills to design a custom set of small, “heart bar” shoes to help relieve Snowflake’s discomfort and allow her hooves to heal. She was immediately more comfortable and made a full recovery.

Since then, Jeff has joined us during exams under anesthesia to trim the feet of both zebras and Przewalski’s horses. We’ve also enlisted his assistance with a few animals that are not equids, including Dozier, a belted Galloway steer. Perhaps our grandest adventure was trimming the hooves of Raspberry, a male reticulated giraffe. When Raspberry was 10 years old, he developed overgrowth of the tips of both front feet. This changed the way that he carried his weight (a whopping 2,250 pounds!). We spent over a year training Raspberry, and were able to teach him to put each foot on a block so we could use nippers to remove the extra hoof. Despite this success, we could see that Raspberry needed a full hoof trim to get his hooves back into proper alignment. The size and height of an adult male giraffe makes anesthetic procedures very challenging. We developed a meticulous plan to orchestrate all of the necessary tasks – the veterinary staff would make sure that the anesthesia kept Raspberry safe and still while Jeff led efforts to trim the hooves. During the procedure, the vet staff was mainly focused on administering and monitoring anesthesia and supporting Raspberry’s head and neck, but we could see the flurry of activity at Raspberry’s feet. I’m fairly certain it was the fastest hoof trim in the history of hoof trims. In no time at all, Raspberry had four perfectly symmetrical, healthy feet.

I am grateful that Jeff has been able to provide his services to the Detroit Zoological Society and our team at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex over the years. He has been a steadfast asset to us, and is a trusted and familiar face to both the animal care staff and the horses in the Barn. With regular visits every four to six weeks year-round, it’s my estimation that he has trimmed the feet of the donkeys Knick Knack and Giovanni about 200 times each!! We make a good team, and I look forward to years of continued collaboration.

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

Veterinary Care: Rattlesnakes, Kitty Litter and Conservation

Snakes. They seem to evoke either a sense of fascination or a sense of fear – not much in between.

Since biblical times, snakes have often been portrayed as representations of evil, which certainly hasn’t helped their image. However, I have found that it just takes getting to know and understanding these beautiful creatures – their biology and their place in the ecosystem – to gain the respect and admiration that they disserve. I am a huge fan. So, when recently given the opportunity to participate in conservation efforts of an endangered species of rattlesnake – in its natural wild habitat and in our own backyard – I was more than excited!

The Eastern massasauga rattlesnake is a shy and beautiful venomous rattlesnake. It is small by most rattlesnake standards – usually only averaging about 2-3 feet long as an adult, with an intricate light and dark brown pattern down its back. It is the only rattlesnake native to Michigan. While it once ranged widely in the wetlands of the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region, extending north to parts of southern Ontario, because of human encroachment (draining of wetlands for roads, farmland and development), and human persecution (killing out of fear, poaching for private collections) much of the massasauga’s habitat has been lost or become fragmented, and the population is in decline. There is also an emerging disease concern, snake fungal disease, which appears to be affecting wild populations of snakes – including the Eastern massasauga – in Illinois, Ohio, and a number of other states. They are now considered threatened throughout most of their range, and in 2016 were listed as threatened in Michigan under the Endangered Species Act, providing some legal protection for the species.

The good news is that there are still pockets of small but thriving populations in parts of Michigan. There is also a passionate collaborative network of conservation-minded organizations partnering together to actively study these populations. Their efforts in cooperative population management, field research and conservation, and public education help protect and manage massasauguas both in captivity and in the wild.

 

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ (AZA) Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan (SSP) was formed in 2009. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is an active supporter and participant in this program, and our curator of reptiles, Jeff Jundt, is currently the SSP coordinator. This accredited zoo-based SSP network has a dual mission: to maintain genetic diversity of the massasauga through cooperative breeding programs within accredited zoos and aquariums, and to promote its conservation in the wild.  With this mission in mind, the SSP found a perfect conservation partner in the Edward Lowe Foundation.

Edward Lowe invented Kitty Litter, the country’s first packaged cat litter. He went on to develop Tidy Cat and other brands of kitty litter and was a successful entrepreneur. He and his wife Darlene later established the Edward Lowe Foundation, located in southwestern Michigan, in the heart of some of Michigan’s best massasauga habitats.

The foundation also has dual missions: to promote entrepreneurship through training and support programs, and to promote local land stewardship. When the foundation’s interest in knowing more about massasaugas and how they and other species of plants and animals were being impacted by land management practices emerged, a perfect conservation partnership was formed. The Edward Lowe Foundation property not only has beautiful meeting facilities and a willingness to host the massasauga SSP participants and other researchers and biologists interested in local wildlife and plant conservation, it sits in the heart of native wetland habitat where a strong population of these rattlesnakes are still found. The SSP participants have been meeting each May at the Edward Lowe Foundation facilities since 2009 and have been part of a collaborative long-term population study.

I was invited to one such meeting this spring. With invitees from more than 20 participating zoos, it made for a large but enthusiastic group. The amount of herpetological experience and knowledge present was quite impressive! These folks LOVE what they do, and they are passionate about massasaugas and the work they are doing to contribute to their conservation. I can also tell you that it is hard work.

My experience in snake field conservation stems mostly from my participation in Virgin Island, Mona Island and Cuban boa field conservation programs. The habitats of these beautiful non-venomous snakes are generally hot, rocky, arid, coastal and depression forest terrains found on small islands in the Caribbean, and most fieldwork studying them is done at night when these animals are more active. Not so with the massasauga.

In the spring, these rattlesnakes are emerging from their overwintering hibernation sites – mostly crawfish holes along and within wetland areas interspersed with tall cattails and reeds. These habitats are laden with muddy sink holes, tall reeds, poison sumac and ticks. It can be 80 degrees and sweltering in the morning, and then pouring rain and 50 degrees in the afternoon. None of these are deterrents for the SSP meeting attendees.

Interspersed daily between the SSP business meetings to review and make recommendations regarding captive population management and breeding, we attendees were eager to get out into the field to study the wild population. Those of us participating were often in the field for four to eight hours of the day in search of rattlesnakes.

Dressed in field gear covering us from head to toe to protect against the poison sumac, mosquitoes and ticks, and wearing heavy rubber wading boots, we carried special snake restraint tongs, cloth bags and buckets for safe capture of any venomous snakes we encountered. (All participants have been trained in safe approach, handling, and restraint of venomous snakes.) With this cumbersome preparation, we happily ventured into the designated wetland habitats in search of the elusive massasauga!

Admittedly, my skills in the field were limited. I am happy to say that I only lost one of my boots to the muddy abyss and came away without a sumac rash, but did not have any luck finding massasaugas on my own. I was of most use in the lab, where I could put my veterinary skills to work on any snakes delivered so that important biological data could be collected, recorded and processed. I teamed up with two long-standing massasauga biologists and researchers, Linda Faust and Eric Hileman, along with SSP veterinarian Randy Junge, all of whom led this part of the project and kept everything organized and running smoothly.

Each snake brought in was given a physical exam, weighed, measured, and had a small amount of blood collected for testing and DNA studies. They were also photographed (coloration patterns on their skin are unique identifiers) and tags were placed if they were of sufficient size. Females were given ultrasounds to record their stage of follicle development. All of this information was carefully recorded and is being compiled for current and future use for population and land management studies.  The snakes were released back to the location they were found usually within one or two hours. I am happy to report that of the 55 snakes that were found this year, all appeared healthy with no evidence of emerging snake fungal disease. What a meeting!

I have been a zoo veterinarian for more than 25 years, and have much experience working with massasaugas and other venomous and non-venomous snakes in the zoo setting. I hope I have kindled some passion for snakes in some of those who may read this.

I have been given many wonderful opportunities while working with the Detroit Zoological Society. I must say, it never gets old working with people who are passionate about what they do, and being able to participate in projects that make a difference, no matter how small your role may be.

– Wynona Shellabarger DVM, is a Detroit Zoological Society veterinarian who works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.