Notes from the Field: Seabird Research Reveals Impact of Ice Decline in Antarctica

Where to begin!? I recently returned from a six-week expedition to Antarctica, living and working at the U.S. Palmer Research Station to study the populations of penguins and other seabirds. I’m still in awe of the whole experience.

Palmer Station is the base for a long-term ecological research program, where scientists are studying all aspects of the Antarctic ecosystem. The fieldwork conducted there through the Polar Oceans Research Group has been ongoing for 40 years, resulting in the collection of a lot of data. While scientists have determined that the climate is severely warming and affecting all regions in the world, the greatest effects are seen in Antarctica. Declining sea ice levels are negatively impacting many species of wildlife that depend on it.

Sea ice is crucial to the Antarctic ecosystem, and its loss can have profound effects. One example of this can be found by examining a small crustacean called krill. This animal feeds on the algae that grows underneath the ice and is a primary staple in the diets of many species, including penguins. Declining sea ice means fewer krill, which means less food for the fish that eat them and as a result, a depleted food supply for penguins and the rest of the food chain.

Sea ice losses can occur from both warmer air above it and warmer water below, and increased air and water temperatures means more snow. This makes it difficult for penguins to build their nests and when the snow melts, the nests are at risk of flooding and these birds may find their eggs floating in puddles.

Upon my arrival at Palmer Station, we began conducting a breeding chronology study with two colonies of Adélie penguins on two local islands. We selected a few nests to observe throughout the season – our observations included periods of birds laying their eggs, the chicks hatching, and the chicks heading off on their own. These nests were monitored daily for predation and for the exact dates of chicks hatching. We also chose nests to be assessed for body condition and egg morphometric data. We took measurements and weights of birds and eggs to obtain a sampling data size of a larger population.

As part of another aspect of the program, we counted the number of individual birds in colonies of Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins. One island was home to 6,000 gentoo penguins! Boy, did my thumb hurt that day from using a clicker counter. Unfortunately, most Adélie colonies were in decline from recent years’ data while gentoo numbers were increasing. One of the reasons for this is Adélie penguins rely more on sea ice than gentoos for feeding.

The sea bird program not only involves the study of penguins, but also every other species of bird surrounding Palmer Station, including giant petrels, brown and south polar skuas and kelp gulls. These species were monitored in various ways including mark-recapture, leg band re-sights and nest observation. We even deployed satellite transmitters on southern giant petrels – the data from the first transmitter we analyzed showed that the bird had traveled 1,500 miles in just 10 days!

In addition to bird surveying, we were asked to conduct a marine mammal census by identifying species, behaviors and group size. As a seal keeper, seeing various seal species in the wild was just beyond anything I could have imagined – Antarctica is home to crabeater seals, weddell seals, ross seals, elephant seals, fur seals and the infamous – and dangerous – leopard seals.

The Detroit Zoological Society has worked with the Polar Oceans Research Group for a number of years – its founder, the world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, was a consultant on the design of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. This is the second time a member of our animal care team has been invited to take part in this rare and extraordinary opportunity to conduct scientific research in Antarctica during the austral summer.

– Flo Yates is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Conducting Scientific Research in Antarctica

Hello from the bottom of the world!

As a zookeeper who spends a lot of my time in an “arctic” environment in the Detroit Zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life, I never thought I’d be lucky enough to find myself on either pole and yet, here I am in Antarctica. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is engaged in ongoing field conservation work here alongside the Polar Oceans Research Group, studying the populations of penguins and other seabirds. As part of this project, I joined the team at the U.S. Palmer Research Station on the Antarctic peninsula to live and work for a month during the austral summer.

The route from Detroit is through Punta Arenas, Chile and then aboard the Laurence M. Gould icebreaker supply ship for a four-day ride across the rough seas of the Drake Passage. It was well worth it as we passed icebergs and whales along the way. Other passengers on the ship included biologists, a welder, an artist, IT personnel and others who had various goals once they reached the White Continent. The DZS’s mission for the next month is to take part in a three-person team involved in a long-term ecological research project studying Antarctic seabirds.

Weather permitting, we spend each day taking small boat rides to various islands to conduct as much fieldwork as the conditions will allow. This includes counting various species of birds and marine mammals, attempting to read ID band numbers (placed by biologists on birds’ legs to be able to keep track of age and location over the years) and adding GPS tags to different animals to monitor their movement.

The animals here are so removed from human activity that some species can actually be approached very closely by researchers and not fly away. All of this work is coordinated by the principal investigators and founders of the Polar Oceans Research Group, Dr. Bill Fraser and Donna Patterson-Fraser. Dr. Fraser is a well-respected polar ecologist and consulted on the design of the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

Our research is indicating how populations of seabirds are being altered as a result of the changing climate. For example, adélie penguin populations have declined 80 percent in the area near Palmer Station, while more ice-independent species are moving into the area, such as gentoo penguins (one of four species of penguin who live at the Zoo). I’m so grateful to be here representing the Detroit Zoological Society and studying these incredible wildlife species alongside brilliant biologists.

– Flo Yates is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society who is taking part in a rare and extraordinary opportunity to conduct scientific research in Antarctica during the austral summer.

Greenprint: Using Compost to Fertilize Gardens

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

There are many benefits to composting:

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

How to compost at home:

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

*Avoid placing meat or dairy products in compost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sustainability and Conservation Go Hand-in-Hand

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) award-winning sustainability initiatives go hand-in-hand with our commitment to wildlife conservation – every step we take to reduce our carbon footprint serves to protect the habitats of animals around the globe.

Wildlife are facing great challenges – from climate change and habitat loss to poaching and the exotic animal trade – leaving many species threatened, endangered or teetering on the brink of extinction. Human impact on the Earth has, in many cases, led to these dire situations they are in. More than 40 percent of all amphibians are at risk. From snow leopards to snails and from penguins to polar bears, the DZS is actively involved in wildlife conservation efforts worldwide – in the last two years alone, we were engaged in projects on six continents.

We have the power to make a difference. That’s why our inaugural Wildlife Conservation Gala on Saturday, March 18, is themed “Making a Difference”. All of us can take steps in our own lives to help reverse the crisis many animals are facing. It is our hope that our community will be motivated to join us on our Green Journey and commit to a better future for all that share this magnificent planet.

Our award-winning Greenprint initiative is a strategic plan that guides our operations and all that we do toward a more sustainable future. Our efforts include discontinuing the sale of bottled water on Detroit Zoo grounds – previously the No. 1 seller at zoo concessions – keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually. 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 built the first zoo-based anaerobic digester in the country, which will annually convert more than 400 tons of animal manure into methane-rich gas to power the Detroit Zoo’s animal hospital. We recently unveiled a new parking lot that uses a progressive green design, reducing storm water runoff and improving water quality by filtering pollutants. Additionally, our operations are powered with 100 percent renewable electricity from wind farms, thanks to the support of the ITC Holdings Corp.

Our goal is to inspire others to join us on our Green Journey as we continuously look for ways to reduce our ecological footprint. By downloading our Shades of Green guide, you’ll find a number of actions you can do at home, including:

  • Switch to a reusable water bottle and reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic pollution
  • Bring reusable bags with you to the grocery store
  • Turn off the lights when you leave a room
  • Recycle
  • Plant native species in your garden to create a natural habitat for pollinators such as bees and butterflies

Please also consider joining us on March 18. By supporting the Wildlife Conservation Gala, you’ll help to ensure the long-term survival of critically endangered amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates that represent the diversity of life on our planet. For more information or to purchase tickets to this 21-and-older, black-tie-optional affair, visit https://detroitzoo.org/events/zoo-events/conservation-gala.

Celebrating International Polar Bear Day

Polar bears are iconic animals, known for their incredible ability to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth. These marine mammals are the most carnivorous member of the bear family, with a diet consisting primarily of seals. They have a thick layer of fat and waterproof fur, providing insulation in the cold Arctic climate in which they live.

Sea ice is imperative for polar bear survival; they spend the majority of their lives on the ice, relying on it to find a mate, build a den and hunt for seals. In the last 30 years, scientists have seen a dramatic shift in ice within the Arctic Ocean. The amount of “old ice” – ice that stays throughout the summer – is significantly smaller than what it was 30 years ago. The seasonal sea ice is forming later in the year – and melting earlier – directly impacting polar bears’ ability to hunt. As a result, many polar bears aren’t able to build up the fat reserves they need for the summer when food sources aren’t plentiful, and they starve to death.

We know the climate is changing. As humans, we are using fossil fuels such as coal and gas to drive cars and use electricity. These fossil fuels release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which builds up and creates a blanket effect around the Earth, trapping in heat that would otherwise escape. This trapped heat is causing global climate change and is impacting many species, including polar bears.

On February 26 and 27, the Detroit Zoo will join others around the world in highlighting the challenges that polar bears are facing in the wild. International Polar Bear Day celebrates these majestic creatures while also encouraging the community to not only better understand the impact we have on the environment, but to join us in taking positive action that will help protect vulnerable species.

Each one of us has the power to make a difference. We can change our daily behaviors and use less energy by seasonally adjusting our thermostats, riding our bikes, carpooling with friends or turning off the lights. We can also scale these actions up to our schools or workplaces by encouraging others to join us in this endeavor. Celebrating International Polar Bear Day is a great reason to start, or to take things to the next level.

Our International Polar Bear Day will take place on February 26 and 27 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The events will include zookeeper talks, educational activities and visits with the Zoo’s polar bear mascot. Talini and Nuka, the two polar bears who reside at the Zoo, will receive their usual treats at scheduled times (11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.) so guests can watch the bears enjoy them. This is not only a great time to visit the Zoo and the more than 2,000 animals living within our 125 acres, but it’s also a chance to learn more about how we can work together to save wildlife and wild places.

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

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.

Education: Penguin Center offers Wealth of Learning Opportunities

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is not only a state-of-the-art facility for penguins – the largest of its kind in the world – but it also contains a wealth of educational information about Antarctic explorers, modern-day researchers, and the incredible, fragile ecosystems at the bottom of the Earth.

During a visit to this incredible facility, visitors first enter the South American Gallery and are “met” by Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of his legendary ship, the Endurance. Shackleton led the ill-fated 1914 expedition to complete a transcontinental crossing of Antarctica. The endeavor became a survival story when his ship became trapped, and eventually crushed, by ice in the Weddell Sea. A dock scene tells the incredible survival story of the Endurance crew.

As you descend the entrance ramps and venture further into the penguin center, you “board” Shackleton’s Endurance and cross the Drake Passage to Antarctica. You may be met with a calm sea at day, a starlit night sky or the Drake’s notorious rough seas. Continuing down the ramps, you cross the Antarctic Convergence, which occurs when the moist air above the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans meet the frigid air above the Southern Ocean. The mixing of warm and cold air causes the moisture to condense and create fog. As you make your way below deck, portholes show glimpses of Antarctic wildlife including orcas, krill and leopard seals.

After passing through the acrylic underwater tunnels and the Underwater Gallery, the path brings you to a world of ice. Spotlight on Science showcases the research of world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, head of the Polar Oceans Research Group, and the importance of sea ice for the Antarctic ecosystem. Food sources for many species in the Antarctic region require sea ice for survival. Understanding these ecological changes caused by the shifting formation of sea ice can help us protect ecosystems in the future.

Across the cavernous room, Ice Core Investigations allows guests to explore ice cores, an important tool in uncovering the history of the Earth’s climate. Ice cores are drilled and excavated from thousands of years of compressed snow that has turned to ice. The air pockets trapped between layers serve as a record of what gasses filled the atmosphere over time, allowing us to compare different periods of climate history.

Watch for calving glaciers as you climb the stairs to the Antarctic Gallery. A glacier is a very large piece of ice that is pulled across land by gravity like a slow conveyor belt. Reaching the ocean, ice breaks off from the rest of the glacier and falls into the sea during a process known as calving.

Just outside the Drake Passage Gift Shop, Focus on the Field features the Detroit Zoological Society’s own Matthew Porter, a bird department zookeeper who had the rare and extraordinary opportunity to spend the 2015-2016 austral summer doing field work for the Polar Oceans Research Group in Antarctica. Matthew studied adélie penguins, chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins, brown skuas, south polar skuas and southern giant petrels.

Learning about the Antarctic ecosystem while journeying through Polk Penguin Conservation Center may compel you to want to help in some way. Before exiting the penguin center, visitors have the opportunity to Make a Difference in the Antarctic Gallery. The Make a Difference kiosks guide you in finding ways to help. Whether it is buying your groceries locally, changing your home lighting to energy-efficient light bulbs, or riding your bicycle to work, you can make a difference with every step you take. The machines allow for you to take a picture of yourself, which is then placed onto a digital card that includes your pledge as well as facts about sustainability and the hashtag #MakeADifference. The digital card is emailed to you, with the option of also posting to social media sites to share with your friends and family.

All those who pass through the Polk Penguin Conservation Center have the ability and opportunity to join us in our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife and leave a lasting, positive impact on the Earth.

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

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.

Notes from the Field – Scientific Research in Antarctica

As the only continent on Earth without a native human population – and with the harshest and most extreme climate in the world – Antarctica presents a unique, natural laboratory for scientific research. As challenging as the climate is, it is vital to understanding ecosystems and our impact on the planet.

Half a century ago, the governments of 30 countries collectively formed the Antarctic Treaty System to regulate this natural wonder as a scientific preserve. Now more than 50 research stations are in operation there, with scientists and their support staff numbering a few thousand during the austral summer when conditions are less severe. These include biologists, ecologists, geologists, oceanographers, physicists, astronomers, glaciologists and meteorologists. Even still, the vast majority of the white continent is still little known. Such is the case with the Weddell Sea. Its iceberg-filled waters are unpredictable and treacherous. This is the same sea that captured and crushed Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, 100 years ago.

We sailed the Weddell Sea as part of a recent expedition to Antarctica with scientists from the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) and the Polar Oceans Research Group (PORG). World-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, head of the PORG, shared his extensive knowledge on board, as he has done as consultant on the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. His research, which spans nearly four decades, operates out of the U.S. Palmer Station on Antarctica and focuses on the ecology of penguins and their habitats. Over the years, Dr. Fraser and his team have revealed a dramatic decline in Adelie penguins in this particular region of Antarctica – an 80 percent drop over the last four decades – due to shifting conditions and disappearing sea ice.

Sea ice remains an essential ecological variable in the Weddell Sea. Somewhat unlike the western Antarctic Peninsula (where the U.S. Palmer Station sits), sea ice is the platform for species survival. During our trek within this sea and our landings at Devil Island and Brown Bluff, we observed tens of thousands of Adelie penguins. The presence of sea ice in this oceanic basin appears to have had a positive effect on this species through processes that are not yet fully understood – but a theory is emerging. Unlike other areas, populations of Adelie penguins are either stable or increasing here. This is a very different situation from the western Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice is diminishing and Adelie populations are decreasing with it. A number of observational metrics including nesting density, chick condition and colony aspect were compared just a few days later during our voyage to the Palmer Station.

Visiting these locations within the Weddell Sea was also important to scouting potential field research sites. No other team or country is doing ecological research here. Given that the Weddell Sea is closer to any other region on the Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice still persists, it offers the most optimal situation to more closely study how sea ice impacts the ecosystem.

These donor-funded excursions are important to the Detroit Zoological Society’s wildlife conservation efforts. They have also yielded significant philanthropic support – our Antarctic expeditions have led to contributions of $15 million for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, and this most recent venture also secured $67,000 for the Polar Oceans Research Group. While fundraising is an important goal, our relationship with Dr. Fraser and PORG is a compelling example of the power and impact of collaboration between the DZS and conservationists in the field.

– Ron Kagan is the executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Two Weeks in the Panamanian Jungle

Recently, I found myself trekking through the jungle, holding a machete, in search of the perfect piece of wood. This wasn’t a typical day of work for me with the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) – I’m usually found in the National Amphibian Conservation Center (NACC) at the Detroit Zoo, changing filters, cleaning misting lines and feeding tadpoles. But on this particular day, I was in El Valle, Panama, a small town situated in the valley of an extinct volcano; the historic home to the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki), a species that is critically endangered in the wild.

The DZS has maintained a breeding population of Panamanian golden frogs at the NACC since the year 2000 as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, a cooperative management program that ensures genetically healthy, diverse and self-sustaining populations of threatened and endangered species. Since I personally care for and breed this delicate species at the Detroit Zoo, it was truly awe-inspiring for me to travel to Panama; to see and experience the tropical cloud forest habitat that was home to the golden frog until the late 1950s, when the last sightings were reported in the area.

Like many amphibian population declines worldwide, the threat to the Panamanian golden frog is a multi-pronged, human-induced sucker punch of climate change, de-forestation and over-collection for the pet trade. Also, a very serious parasitic fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or “chytrid Bd” [ki-trid] became present in the area. This fungus thrives in the environment of a cloud forest and caused a dramatic decline in amphibians through the region.

Despite the thrill of viewing some amazing wildlife on our walk through the Panamanian jungle, I wasn’t there to enjoy the scenery. My purpose in traveling to El Valle was to assist the limited staff at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), a small conservation center dedicated to breeding and researching the country’s most endangered amphibians, as well as educating the community in Panama about the amphibians in the area.

For two weeks, I trained the staff at EVACC on habitat design and maintenance. I shared techniques for designing water features, drilling enclosures for bulkhead placement and “propping” habitats – gathering supplies like logs, plants and rocks to create a naturalistic environment. One day was dedicated to removing and replacing an old “roof ” of a habitat planned for golden frogs, which was the size of a living room. Other days involved finding things like sticks, logs and foliage to prop the habitats, and since all of the animals were from the surrounding area, most of what we were collecting could be found and disinfected within the grounds of the conservation center.

The EVACC’s newly designed habitats would be playing an important role in the “Golden Frog Day” in El Valle, a celebration of the magical amphibian that once lived and thrived among the misty forests of the mountains. Without public support in its country of origin, there could be no future for this animal. With newly renovated habitats and the beauty of this vibrantly colored amphibian, visitors to the center can begin to understand the value of this species and the power it holds as members of the community work to conserve it.

A true reward for all of this hard work and training came several days after leaving Panama, when I received an email from EVACC staff informing me that they had drilled their first tank and were using techniques that I taught them to install a new waterfall feature. While I had ditched my machete and my head lamp, no longer needing to trek into the jungle for my work with the Panamanian golden frogs at the Detroit Zoo, I know that the work we are doing some 4,000 miles away from their home is just as critical to the survival of this incredible species.

– Mark Vassallo is an amphibian department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.