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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humane Education: Monitoring Frogs with Children’s Village

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has conducted programming with Oakland County Children’s Village for more than eight years, instilling reverence and respect for wildlife and wild places through gardening, education and conservation programs. Children’s Village provides a safe, structured environment for children and young adults that includes secure detention, residential treatment and shelter care services. Our collaboration initially began with a humane education-focused gardening program, which is still flourishing, but our programming has evolved over the years and we’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of young people there in various capacities.

One of our most recent endeavors was conducting FrogWatch USA training with some of the teen girls that we work with. FrogWatch USA is an amphibian conservation and citizen science collaborative effort among the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums throughout the U.S. Citizen science programs teach volunteers to collect data using the same protocol and methods, so all data can be counted as part of a scientific research project. One scientist working alone could never collect the amount of information a group of trained citizens can.

I recently went to Children’s Village along with Rebecca Johnson, the DZS’s associate curator of amphibians, to facilitate the FrogWatch USA training onsite. Rather than a traditional four-hour training, which takes place in one sitting, we divided up the training to take place over the course of two days in late March. The girls learned all about amphibians, how to identify frogs and toads by their breeding calls and what information we need to include on the data sheet when we go out and survey. We discussed how monitoring helps provide important information for each site, such as the diversity, population size and health of the particular frog or toad species that are present; whether or not there are rare or nonindigenous species in the area and what the overall health of the wetland is. Knowing which species are present at a site can even help improve the management and protection of a wetland and all species living there.

The girls have been working hard to learn the different frog and toad calls – they’ve been listening to a practice CD and identifying key characteristics that help to distinguish the different calls from one another. For example, a Western chorus frog call sounds like someone is running their fingernails along a fine-toothed comb and a wood frog sounds similar to the quacking of a duck.

Becky and I have accompanied the girls on their first outing to conduct surveys. This work must take place at least a half hour after sunset, so we went to our selected site at 8:30 p.m. There were 10 girls, three Children’s Village staff members and the two of us. When we arrived at our designated location, we remained still and quiet for two minutes per FrogWatch USA protocol, and then we listened and collected data for three minutes immediately following.

We heard a few different birds calling and something rustling in the reeds, which, much to our excitement, turned out to be a muskrat who eventually swam across the pond. A few of us even saw the space station travel overhead! But unfortunately, no frog or toad calls were heard. Fortunately, we’ve seen many American toads and even some tree frogs in the almost nine years that we’ve been facilitating the gardening program onsite, so we know we’ll hear calls soon. In the interim, it’s important for us to note on our data sheet that we didn’t hear anything, just as it will be important for us to document the calls that we will eventually hear.

To have a meaningful impact, we’ll need to collect data at least eight different times – no more than twice in one week – through August. Becky and I are planning to go out for another evening observation soon. After that, the girls and Children’s Village staff will continue on their own. I’m excited to see what unfolds this summer. It’s been an amazing experience for all involved thus far.

– Lisa Forzley is the curator of humane education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

Education: 100 Hopeful Days

We could all use a little hope sometimes, especially when it comes to the environment. That’s why the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) has launched the #100HopefulDays campaign. NNOCCI is a collaborative effort to establish a network of professionals who are skilled in communicating climate science to broad audiences. These efforts are led by the New England Aquarium, in conjunction with some other amazing organizations, including the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA).

The #100HopefulDays campaign will highlight the ways the NNOCCI community is making positive changes in the world. There are people all over this planet who are working together and battling longstanding obstacles to make the world a better place for future generations. We feel it is our responsibility to take care of our natural resources by making practical and feasible choices – however great or small – to protect our environment. Through this campaign, the NNOCCI is sharing all of these actions and aiming to inspire, engage and focus on reasons to hope.

Creating a sustainable future is one of the pillars of the Detroit Zoological Society. Through our Greenprint initiative, our goal is to inspire others to join us on our Green Journey as we continuously look for ways to reduce our ecological footprint. Recent efforts 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 400 tons of animal manure annually into methane-rich gas to power the Zoo’s animal hospital.

Our 20th annual fundraising 10K/5K event, Run Wild for the Detroit Zoo 2016, became one of the first races in the country to eliminate bottled water – instead, disposable bottles filled with fresh H20 were provided to participants after the race. We also no longer provide plastic bags at our gift shops or souvenir stands; visitors are encouraged to bring their own bags or purchase wildlife-themed reusable bags. We also recently unveiled a new parking lot that uses a progressive green design. Permeable pavement was incorporated into the lot with 215 new spaces, which reduces storm water runoff and improves water quality by filtering pollutants.

For all of these efforts and more, the Detroit Zoo was named one of Michigan’s and the nation’s 2016 Best and Brightest Sustainable Companies by the National Association for Business Resources as well as the 2015 Best-Managed Nonprofit by Crain’s Detroit Business.

Learn more about our Green Journey and download our Shades of Green guide to help lighten your impact on the Earth and the animals that share it with us. If you’re looking for reasons to feel hopeful and be inspired, follow the #100HopefulDays campaign at @_NNOCCI on Twitter. We can all make a difference and we need to start today.

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

Greenprint: Wild (and Efficient) Lights

As the holidays draw near, Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo is now in full glow – more than 5 million LED lights are illuminating buildings, trees and more than 200 animal sculptures in an impressive display over 29 nights.

While this event lights up the night sky, efficient energy use is still paramount at the Detroit Zoo. All of the lights used to decorate the Wild Lights path are light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which consume 80 to 90 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and last for up to 100,000 hours, versus just 3,000 hours for incandescents. This is a solid economic investment that reduces the amount of energy used, saves money (prices for LEDs have come down in the last couple of years), and their durability leads to a decreased number of holiday lights that end up in landfills.

For those who are considering making the switch, Home Depot and Lowes both offer recycling programs for old holiday lights. In addition, we’re offering an opportunity for Wild Lights attendees to bring in their old lights for recycling in the events pavilion at the Detroit Zoo.

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Over the last three years, the Detroit Zoological Society has invested more than $3 million into energy efficiency projects, which results in utility costs savings of nearly $275,000 annually. Most recently, DTE Energy provided the Zoo with an energy-use assessment in order to further explore additional energy-reduction measures.

While Wild Lights uses energy, the LED lighting means it is 80 to 90 percent less wattage than it would with incandescent lighting. This is important because during these shorter, darker days, holiday lights make everything magical and well, brighter!

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoo Honored with International Conservation Award

The Detroit Zoo was recently honored along with eight other zoos with the 2016 International Conservation Award from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) for our work with the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center. Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, GRACE is dedicated to rescuing orphaned Grauer’s gorillas, which are among the most critically endangered primates in the world. As the conservation and preservation of wildlife is paramount to the mission of the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS), we couldn’t be more proud of this partnership or of this achievement.

Sadly, the Grauer’s gorilla is endangered due to widespread habitat destruction, poaching and threats associated with the ever-growing human population, caused in part by regional conflicts and government unrest. However, GRACE bravely fights against this, taking in the gorillas that have been separated from their birth families and/or confiscated from illegal trading. The rescued animals are provided nutrition and medical care as they explore the facility’s 370 acres – the largest gorilla enclosure in the world – situated within a 1,235-acre forested area of Central Africa. The hope – and the goal – is that these majestic animals will also learn the skills necessary for an eventual return to the wild.

 

Founded in 2009, GRACE is overseen by a dedicated board of directors, which includes Ron Kagan, DZS CEO and executive director, who has also served as board chair. In addition to Ron’s valuable leadership, the DZS’s involvement with GRACE has also included financial and staff support. In 2015, Ron helped secure funds for a new night house enclosure for the gorillas. Also that year, DZS Director of Animal Health Dr. Ann Duncan traveled to the Congo to perform health examinations on 12 gorillas, which had never been done before.

This amazing conservation, welfare and humane education initiative is a wonderful collaboration of important organizations working together with a very special Congolese community to ensure that this population of extremely endangered gorillas survives.

The AZA’s International Conservation Award annually recognizes accredited AZA institutions and conservation partners that make efforts to restore habitats, preserve species and support biodiversity.  Our zoo partners who join us in receiving this award include the Los Angeles Zoo, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Nashville Zoo, Houston Zoo, Dallas Zoo, Sedgwick County Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

We are looking forward to continuing our partnership with GRACE and dedicating our efforts to ensure the safety of the beloved Grauer’s gorilla for generations to come. This partnership is arguably the most exciting, unique and promising conservation, welfare and humane education initiative the Detroit Zoological Society has ever been involved with.

Notes from the Field: Monitoring the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) leads the Eastern massasauga rattlesnake Species Survival Plan (SSP), which is a comprehensive management plan through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) that works to ensure the sustainability of healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied captive animal populations. The DZS is also one of several organizations within the AZA that participates in a long-term study of a particular population of Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in Michigan.

The Eastern massasauga rattlesnake is the mitten state’s only venomous viper, and is listed in Michigan as a species of special concern, which means it is threatened or endangered throughout its range. This SSP is a special one because each year, representatives from participating zoos attend a meeting in conjunction with an “in situ” study, which means that it takes place in the field.

This year marked our eighth monitoring a particular population of Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in the southwest part of the state, and it was our best year to date – we found more than 100 snakes! This includes snakes that were found in previous years as well as newly identified individuals. The process involves gathering information on each snake in the field and then taking it to a lab where it is weighed and measured. We also determined if it is a male or a female and if female, whether it is pregnant (massasaugas give birth to live young). If the snake has never been found before, it is marked with a transponder tag – similar to those implanted in your pet dog or cat – so we can scan the animal and take measurements if it is found in the future. After the information has been gathered in the lab, the snake is then returned to the exact location where it was found.

Monitoring a seemingly healthy population over time gives us insight into natural fluctuations of the population size, male-to-female sex ratio, individual growth rates and reproductive success. As years goes by, the data will also begin to tell us life history data such as longevity of the species and how old animals remain reproductively active. All of this information assists the AZA zoos in how they manage the captive population as well as the state departments of natural resources in their management of the wild populations and the lands on which they are found.

– Jeff Jundt is the curator of reptiles for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Holden Reptile Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Amphibian Conservation: Breeding Puerto Rican Crested Toads

April is an important time for the Detroit Zoological Society’s amphibian conservation programs. Three of the four animals we work with at the National Amphibian Conservation Center (NACC) that are a part of Species Survival Plans (SSP) are preparing to take part in precisely planned and scheduled breeding events. The outcome is the release of captive-born offspring into the wild to aid in the increase of their populations.

First up for the season is the Puerto Rican crested toad, Peltophryne lemur. The PRC toad, as we like to call them, has been part of a well-managed SSP since 1984. Habitat loss and competition from the invasive cane or marine toad (Rhinella marina) are believed to have been primary causes for the toad’s decline. Listed as critically endangered by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), collaborative efforts by the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources have aided the recovery of this toad in the wild. More than 300,000 captive-bred tadpoles produced by 20 zoos have been released to the wild since 1982. Since the year 2000, the Detroit Zoological Society has produced more than 45,000 tadpoles for this program. In 2015, three clutches of eggs laid produced 22,571 tadpoles for release – the largest amount the Detroit Zoo had ever sent. Ongoing research and the creation and protection of pond habitats have also assisted in the recovery of this toad in its natural habitat.

You may be wondering what it takes to produce thousands of tadpoles from toads half the size of the palm of your hand. The breeding season starts with the assignment of four breeding pairs from the SSP. Each toad in captivity is identified and tracked using a studbook. Specialized software chooses pairs of toads that will produce the most genetically diverse offspring. By mid-March, we know who these eight toads are and we can begin preparing them for breeding.

Each toad must be easily identifiable – if you think all toads look alike you’ll be surprised to know that wart patterns and throat markings are very unique, although reading glasses are sometimes needed to make the proper ID. Toads are conditioned by slightly cooling and drying their environments out for a month-long period. A thermostat-controlled refrigeration unit keeps the toads cooled precisely at 66 degrees Fahrenheit. While the toads are “sleeping”, their primary zookeeper works diligently on preparing the breeding tanks where the pairs will breed and the eggs will develop. At this same time, veterinarians prepare a schedule of specialized breeding hormones that will further assist in ensuring that eggs are laid and fertilization happens at the right moment.

Upon their exit from cooling, they return to normal husbandry to warm up and eat for a few days. Breeding calls of male toads are played to encourage breeding behaviors. Males are first to go into the breeding tanks, followed hours later by the females. If all the preparation works, pairs of toads will be in amplexus – which happens when a male is positioned on top of a female and he squeezes her to encourage egg-laying – before we leave for the evening, followed by a morning of tanks full of eggs.

It takes two to three days for eggs to hatch and another couple of days for tadpoles to begin swimming around and actively eating. Tadpoles can be some of the hungriest creatures you will ever encounter. Keepers spend the next 10 days keeping them fully fed by offering them algae pellets, powdered diets and romaine lettuce sometimes three times a day. At the same time, all those foraging tadpoles create a lot of waste, so keepers spend the rest of their time keeping their water clean with frequent water changes.

During all of this, we keep a very important date in the backs of our minds – the last big event in our PRC toad breeding season. Any facility that breeds the PRC toad needs to ship them to Puerto Rico for release on the same date. The release of the tadpoles is timed with the season in which the tads would grow and develop the best in the wild. Tadpoles also need to be shipped at a certain age, before they get too big and begin to develop appendages.

Amphibian staff can spend well over 24 hours collectively counting and packing the tadpoles into Styrofoam-protected shipping boxes. Heavy-duty fish shipping bags are used, doubled up and filled with oxygen to keep tadpoles healthy and safe on their trip to Puerto Rico. Approximately 24 hours later, they will reach their new home in a pond located in a well-protected forest in Puerto Rico. As they develop and grow, they will add to the wild population and one day, hopefully, participate in creating many more thousands of tadpoles!

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