Notes from the Field: Protecting Amphibian Biodiversity in Peru

You heard recently from one of our education experts about how the Detroit Zoological Society is working with Peruvian schools to conserve the rainforest through outreach and education. Conservation of the biodiversity in the Peruvian rainforest has been a priority of the Detroit Zoological Society for over a decade, and we have many programs in the rainforest that help to achieve this goal. One of our programs focuses specifically on amphibians, and that is where I have the great fortune to visit this incredible location.

Boana calcarata

There are over 600 species of frogs in Peru, with more species discovered every day. With this high number of species, Peru is called a “biodiversity hotspot.” These “hotspots” are very important to monitor for changes, because while there are many species they are all very dependent on one another. Small changes can cause drastic effects. Amphibians are some of the most sensitive animals, because their skin absorbs everything in the environment. If amphibians begins to get sick or have difficulty surviving, that is an excellent clue that something is wrong in the environment. All over the world, amphibians are currently having difficulty with changes we are seeing in the environment- because we are seeing global changes, it is extra important to study the animals in areas like the Amazon, where amphibians are in higher concentration, to try and understand patterns in these changes.

Boana calcarata call image

The convict tree frog (Boana calcarata) is a frog found in the Napo River region. This sound recording and image were made by the National Amphibian Conservation Center during a survey.

In order to keep an eye on the amphibians in the Peruvian Amazon, staff from the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center conducts surveys for frogs twice a year. This means we physically go out and look for frogs. Because we know we cannot possibly see all the frogs, also record the songs of frogs at night. Hearing the songs can help us guess numbers of animals singing and help us to hear the songs of species that are difficult to find on visual surveying. In addition to surveys, we monitor weather data in the Napo River valley. We have our own weather station that collects year-round information about the valley region. We also use small data loggers to collect immediate, specific “microclimate” changes where we visualize species breeding (for example: on a specific plant or under leaf litter). The weather data helps us understand both immediate changes in behavior of frogs, as well as changes in populations over time.

Weather stationDr. Ruth Marcec-Greaves downloads six months’ data from the weather station.

While data collection and surveying are important, fostering appreciation of animals in the local community is the primary goal of the visits to Peru. Our hope is that educating the community and creating excitement in future generations will help to preserve these animals for the future. The “Club de Protectores de Anfibios,” or Amphibian Protectors Club, is a club comprised of high school students that are local to the Napo River valley region. The club was founded in order to help impart enthusiasm for amphibians and the environment.

In Peru, there are many misconceptions surrounding frogs. There is a general belief that frogs are bad luck and should be kept away from homes. When the Detroit Zoo staff visited the Amphibian Protectors Club in June of 2019, the club members taught us how the Amphibian Protectors Club is changing the community. The club members performed a play in which they explained another local belief is that a woman will become pregnant if she spends time around frogs. Told from the perspective of high school students, this was a chilling superstition. Through the play, the students explained that by participating in the club they have learned not only that this is a myth, but also frogs are important for human health and humans need to protect frogs. The club members have taught their friends and families frogs are important and have begun to see more frogs in their villages since this change in attitude.

Night HikeAn Amphibian Protector’s Club member observes a frog up close on a night hike.

The students from the club went on an overnight excursion with the National Amphibian Conservation Center staff, where we visited one of our regular field research sites. We took a late night hike in order to see frogs calling and breeding at this special location. At this site, we saw species of frogs the students do not commonly see in their villages. After a good night rest, the club rose early in the morning to hike to the nearby canopy walkway- a breathtaking experience where the club members were able to look down on the rainforest from the treetops. While these students live in the rainforest, many of them have not seen their tropical home from this perspective. They were inspired by this view, observing the unique habitat of rare and diverse species. One club member called it “the view of the animals,” and asked very advanced questions about some of the plants and insects he observed.

Canopy

This was an incredibly rewarding trip. The students showed us that their appreciation for the amphibians is making a difference. While I will not see them in person for a few months, the students will continue to speak with me over a WhatsApp chat (they named our group “Whatsappos,” because “sapo” means toad in Spanish). While I am away, the club meets monthly to survey in their home towns and the students will send me photos and descriptions of frogs the see. Over the app, we talk about the species and have a question and answer session. Their excitement is inspiring and infectious, and I am confident their enthusiasm will be what helps save species.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec-Greaves is the director of the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

 

 

DreamNight – A Night to Remember

The Detroit Zoological Society hosted more than 500 guests for DreamNight, a private nighttime event for families that include a child with special needs or chronic illnesses. The goal of this event was to provide an opportunity for families to spend time, all together, in a stress-free environment. This was the first event of its kind held at the Detroit Zoo, and we were delighted with the reception of the event as well as the outcome.

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DreamNight brought families to the Zoo from around Michigan and parts of Canada. Excited and happy faces emerged as guests walked through the front gates. Without the crowds, many were able to make observations of the animals and experience the Zoo, without being overwhelmed. Penguins were a huge favorite with kids and adults alike. Some children needed the quieter buildings to enjoy the animals who live in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, National Amphibian Conservation Center or Arctic Ring of Life.

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We saw looks of pure joy as children, for the first time, watched penguins swimming. Parents showed relief on their faces as they observed their children watching the animals or exploring the hands-on opportunities. Entire families explored activities together  ̶̶  talking and playing through their shared experiences. We were also grateful for an excited group of staff and volunteers, ready and willing to support each family as they explored the Zoo.

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Throughout the event, families enjoyed dinner, courtesy of Service Systems Associates (SSA), our catering partner, who donated a vast majority of the food and labor for the evening. Stations with hands-on activities were spread throughout the Zoo, which invited guests to explore butterfly wings with handheld microscopes or play with sand in front of the camel habitat or weigh out food for an otter’s diet. Face painting, donated by Kaman’s Art Studio, was also available for all who attended. Our Zooper Hero mascots celebrated with us, and were loved by the families in attendance. Many children danced along to the music from a live band and watched a sensory-friendly version of the 4-D movie in the theater.

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We had an amazing time meeting these wonderful families and getting to know them. The Detroit Zoological Society strives every day to ensure that our entire community is welcomed within our organization. We have recently been certified through the The KultureCity® Sensory Inclusive™ program, which helps us to think strategically about how we can prepare guests before they arrive and provide a positive experience while they are here. Staff and volunteers have participated in training to be aware of our guests needs and learn strategies for supporting them during their visits. Sensory-friendly bags, which contain headphones, fidget items and a feeling thermometer, are available to be checked out to use throughout the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. We look forward to hosting future events like DreamNight and ensuring that all families can experience the Detroit Zoo.

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

Kindergartners Detail Good “Zoo Manners” for Guests

It is important for young people to know their voice matters – even as young as 5 years old. At this age, they are at an important developmental stage as they develop self-awareness, are reflective of their own emotions, and begin to recognize emotions in others. It’s an important time to build empathy skills and reverence towards all living beings.

The Detroit Zoological Society received a note from the kindergarten teachers at Bemis Elementary in Troy as they were preparing for a trip to the Detroit Zoo. The teachers were wrapping up a unit on persuasive writing with their students and wanted to provide an authentic writing assignment that would combine literacy skills with their upcoming trip, so they asked their students to brainstorm visitor behaviors that can have a positive or negative impact on the environment and the well-being of the animals at the Zoo.

The class compiled a list of behaviors that could negatively impact animals, including tapping on the glass of habitats in the Holden Reptile Conservation Center or the National Amphibian Conservation Center, not properly disposing of recycling and trash, feeding or chasing peafowl, and straying from public paths. Each student chose a topic and wrote a letter, drew a poster or crafted a petition to persuade all visitors to take care of the Zoo.

Once the letters, petitions and posters were complete, the students recorded a short video sharing why they chose their topic and showcasing their final pieces. They brought all of their work with them when they visited the Zoo. Each of their petitions was read, their drawings admired and their delightful phonetic spelling was decoded.

In addition to practicing persuasive writing skills, the students arrived ready to spend the day enjoying the habitats while acting as ambassadors for the Zoo. The teachers’ mentorship was instrumental in this process. They provided a supportive environment that the students could learn and grow in, ultimately empowering the students to take action.

The Detroit Zoological Society celebrates all young people working towards a better future for all living beings. If you know of a young person who is making a positive difference in their community, we encourage you to nominate them for the Detroit Zoological Society Humane Youth Award to recognize their work. Nominations are open through August 1, 2019. Learn more and submit a nomination here.

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

Animal Welfare: How do You Know if They’re ‘Happy’?

Think about the term, “animal welfare”, and what it means to you. When you encounter an animal – in any setting, be it a zoo, a friend’s house or even your own living room – are there certain cues that help you decide if you feel the animal is having a good or a bad time – or experiencing positive or negative welfare? It may be the animal’s appearance, behaviors, what the space looks like where they live, or perhaps it’s based on your knowledge about that species.

In some cases, it’s relatively easy to determine that an animal is in a poor welfare state. If they’re living in dirty and cramped conditions, don’t have access to social partners – or perhaps too many – or if they have obvious signs of injuries or illness without any indication they’re under veterinary care, it’s likely the animal is not experiencing good welfare. But when you look at other, less obvious factors, such as if the animal is quietly resting in a spacious habitat, or if the animal is moving back and forth in one area of their space, the answers are less clear.

The concept of animal welfare refers to an animal’s physical, mental and emotional states over a period of time. It is based on the individual’s experience, which can be different from one species to another, and from one animal to another. It is not about what is provided to an animal, such as food and water – this doesn’t automatically ensure good welfare. Although having access to these resources is critical to creating conditions that may lead to good welfare, it is actually how the animal perceives those conditions that determines their welfare. We can’t simply measure welfare in terms of square footage, gallons of water or the nutritional content of food items. We must use indicators from the animals themselves, such as behavior, physical condition and even emotional responses.

These indicators represent the three different concepts of welfare. The first has to do with an animal’s ability to engage in natural behaviors, or live in a way it has evolved to. The second involves biological functioning and prioritizes an animal’s physical health. The last focuses on the animal’s feelings and emotional states, with an emphasis on minimizing negative emotions and promoting positive ones. Should we favor one concept over another, it is possible we would miss something important to an individual animal.

If two people were to assess an animal using two different concepts, they could come to conflicting conclusions about that animal’s welfare state. This is why we incorporate aspects of all three of these concepts when evaluating animal welfare. This allows us to gain a much more holistic picture of the animal’s experience and to consider all of the factors that impact their well-being.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation Continues in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) latest wildlife conservation initiative, preserving endangered Eurasian otters, continued with an expedition to Armenia in late 2018. Their status in this country has declined dramatically in recent years while numbers have also fallen in neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran.

Our first goal of the project is to understand where the otter population currently stands throughout the regions of Armenia that contain separate river systems, which provide suitable habitats for otters. These 13 systems – called watersheds – don’t always show signs of otters inhabiting them, so the DZS is working to identify and prioritize which of those locations are best suited for the preservation of this species.

On our first expedition in June, we discovered that the otter populations the southcentral region of Armenia were significantly greater than expected. If these conclusions are accurate, it would be rare but exciting news in conservation work.

We returned in December and traveled to watershed areas in north and central Armenia to confirm the presence and relative abundance of otters in these regions During these investigations, we confirmed reports of otter conflict with humans in the area. Otters were found to be eating the trout in fish farms that would eventually be reintroduced to Lake Sevan as part of a native species restocking project.

Surveys conducted on foot of the areas near Arpi Lake National Park and Dilijan National Park showed signs of the presence of otters, including tracks, feces and other indicators such as partially eaten fish. These surveys, along with interviews with local residents, suggest that hunting by humans has also led to the decline of otters in the area.

Additionally, photographs downloaded from our trail camera along the Arpa River revealed not only otters, but illegal fishermen. Proof of this activity will help us greatly in making a case to establish a protected area. In addition to documenting illegal fishing in these areas, which depletes otter food sources, we’ve also documented illegal otter trapping efforts. We hope that if this illegal activity can be stopped, migration of otters from neighboring populations will help restore their numers in the area.

Plans for 2019 include reviewing additional trail camera images from Arpi Lake National Park, and surveying the remaining watersheds in Armenia. After completing this work, we will be able to provide a robust update on the status of otters in this country. With that information, we can continue to explore options to set up sustainable protected areas, as well as develop local education programs to enhance otter conservation in these important areas.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Families Find Joy at the Detroit Zoo During Stressful Times

Research tells us that when children experience major life stressors, such as domestic violence or homelessness, they can begin to shut down and stop taking in information. The Detroit Zoological Society has begun a new outreach campaign with our evening program, Nocturnal Adventures, that offers the opportunity for private groups to explore the Detroit Zoo through guided tours, activities and storytelling in a more personal setting.

More than 220 individuals who are coping with difficult life circumstances have had the opportunity to share a positive experience together during these private evenings at the Zoo through our partnerships with HAVEN, Turning Point, First Step, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter and the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team. It is our hope that by fostering a sense of wonder and wow for the natural world within these children and their guardians, we can bring them some peace and even joy during their otherwise stressful and challenging times.

The program is made possible through a Kellogg Foundation grant, and includes transportation, dinner, a tour of the Zoo and an education program that focuses on the stories of rescued animals who have found sanctuary at the Detroit Zoo. These animals have either suffered injury in the wild or come from unfortunate circumstances requiring intervention and oftentimes specialized care. Toward the end of the evening, there is a craft activity for the children and then the family is able to sit around a bonfire and make s’mores together.

It’s important that we provide this opportunity for these families to visit the Zoo in a safe and less stressful environment. Each visit – which they may not have otherwise had the chance to have – allows these families to spend time together in nature and make observations of the magnificent animals who live at the Zoo.

We look forward to what the future will bring as we continue to build relationships within our community.

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

Animal Welfare: In the Dark – Aardvark Well-Being

If you share your home with an animal companion, have you ever wondered what he or she does when you are not home? Some people install cameras that allow them to use their phones to take a peek at what their dog is up to, or where the cat is spending her time. We also wonder about what animals do at the Detroit Zoo when we are not here, and this is especially true for nocturnal animals who are most active when we are sleeping. Aardvarks are one of those species, and the Detroit Zoological Society has been using cameras to study their behavior.

Aardvarks are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and not only are they primarily nocturnal, but they are also fossorial, meaning they dig and burrow underground. This makes them even more challenging to observe, as you can imagine! The four aardvarks who live at the Detroit Zoo are cared for by the night keeper unit, whose hours allow for expanded opportunities for animals, including those who are active later into the night. The staff come up with creative ideas to engage the aardvarks and stimulate natural behaviors.

We installed a number of infrared cameras in the habitat, allowing us to record what the aardvarks do and where they choose to spend their time. Initial research revealed that they had specific preferences, such as sleeping in culverts, which are reminiscent of underground burrows, and that their activity levels varied by individual. Roxaanne, one of the females, preferred to stay up much later than the others, for example. Additionally, we found that when the aardvarks engaged in more investigative behaviors, they had lower fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) concentrations. Decreased levels of FGMs have been correlated with lower stress levels and overall positive welfare. By taking behavior and hormones into account, we get a more comprehensive picture of the well-being of the aardvarks under different conditions.

Jennifer Hamilton, DZS animal welfare programs coordinator, worked with the animal care staff to develop a new project aimed to increase behavioral opportunities for the aardvarks, by specifically targeting more foraging and investigative behaviors. Jennifer and a small team of dedicated volunteers watched more than 220 hours of “aardvark television”. Talk about binge-watching reality TV! In addition to the behavioral data, the care staff once again collected daily fecal samples on each aardvark so that we could analyze them for FGMs.

Higher levels of investigative behaviors were again linked to lower levels of FGMs. This suggests that these types of behaviors are important for aardvarks and need to be encouraged. The behavior data also showed that foraging opportunities were used for longer periods of time when initially presented, but that investigative opportunities were used more as the night went on. As part of the project, the aardvarks were presented with seven opportunities once a week for eight weeks. We were able to confirm that the aardvarks did not lose interest over time, meaning that repeated interactions don’t bore them! Finally, the aardvarks’ use of the opportunities differed based on their location. The aardvarks have access to different spaces, which vary in their substrates and features. One of the spaces has a very large and deep dirt area, and the aardvarks spent less time engaged in the extra opportunities provided when in that habitat. This may be indicative of a flexible value system, with less value placed on additional opportunities when overall conditions may already be more stimulating. This is an important concept as we explore what type of choices are meaningful to animals and how to create environments that enable them to thrive.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.