Education: Out-of-this-world Technology Brings Scientists and Educators to Detroit Zoo

We are thrilled to welcome scientists and educators from all over the world for the 2017 International Science On a Sphere Users Collaborative Workshop April 25-27 at the Detroit Zoo. It is an honor to be the first-ever zoo selected to host this global workshop, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and share how we can engage the community with science by combining important environmental messages with technological advances.

Science On a Sphere (SOS) is a 6-foot spherical display system developed by NOAA that can showcase data simulations as visual media regarding climate, weather and animal movement. While it is used by more than 130 museums, science centers and other organizations to help people understand global connections between land, water and the atmosphere, the Detroit Zoo is one of only three zoos in the country to feature SOS. It is located in the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery and is free with Zoo admission.

The upcoming workshop is titled “Pole to Pole: Connecting People, Places, Animals and Spaces”. Topics will be focused on the various ways SOS can be used to educate audiences of all ages, especially about animals, habitats and the environment. Most of the communication among the SOS community happens online, so having the chance to meet in person once every 18 months is a benefit both personally to those who work on this system, and professionally – giving participants the chance to advance the educational capacity of this technology as a larger group.

If you haven’t spent time with SOS during your Zoo visits, we encourage you to stop and take a look. This amazing piece of technology is regularly updated with different content. If you love technology and want to see the types of data available on a flat screen, using SOS Explorer is a great place to start. This is also a great tool in the classroom, which can complement a field trip to the Zoo either before or after your visit. You can find it at https://sos.noaa.gov/SOS_Explorer/. The content you see on the Detroit Zoo’s SOS is ever-changing, so each time you visit, there’s a good chance you will see and learn something new.

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.

Notes from the Field: Polar Bears in Alaska

Greetings from zip code 99747 in Kaktovik, Alaska!

Kaktovik lies on the far northeast coast of Alaska above the Arctic Circle and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). It is a whaling community with a long history of its people living in close proximity to polar bears. I traveled to Kaktovik in 2014 and again in 2015. This time I am fortunate to be joined by one of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) associate mammal curators, Betsie Meister, who has extensive experience with polar bears and oversees the Arctic Ring of Life, an expansive 4-acre habitat at the Detroit Zoo that is home to polar bears, seals and arctic foxes.

We are here to help colleagues with U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ANWR to study changes in polar bear numbers, as well as polar bear behavior and use of resources in response to the changing climate. As the climate warms, the arctic summer is getting longer and sea ice is diminishing. Polar bears come off the sea ice usually in late August and spend September and a few weeks of October in the area around Kaktovik waiting for the sea ice to form again. Polar bears use the sea ice as their platform for hunting seals, which is the majority of their wild diet. Without access to the ice, the bears are forced to spend more time on land.

The Inupiat community of Kaktovik hunt bowhead whales every fall to store enough food for the winter. After processing the whales on the beach, the whale remains are taken about a mile and half to the edge of town and placed in the “bone pile”. Polar bears come to feast on the remains, which continue to be a strong attractant for weeks. Kaktovik, which is home to approximately 300 people year round, adds a population of polar bears numbering 15-40 and up to 80 in the late summer and fall. As a result, Kaktovik is becoming more and more popular with tourists from all over the world coming to see the polar bears.

The bears primarily stay on the barrier islands just outside of town, but there is a great potential for human-bear conflict, and the DZS is interested in seeing how Kaktovik handles the conflict. Usually, the bears are kept away with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and trucks, but sometimes more force is necessary. Shotguns loaded with “cracker shells” or bean bags are then used to keep the bears away. An important safety measure that has been established is the Polar Bear Patrol. This patrol drives around Kaktovik every night from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. protecting the community from bears wandering into town. This year, there was more whale meat at the bone pile than last year, so bears seemed to stay near the pile and away from town. Last year, while I was in Kaktovik, an incident occurred when a bear consumed some dog food from underneath the house next to ours and entered another house to feed on seal blubber.

We came to Kaktovik a week earlier than last year hoping to also observe brown bears. Brown bears have also been affected by the warming climate. They are moving farther north and coming into more contact with polar bears, overlapping more in resource use and, in some places, even hybridizing with polar bears. At Kaktovik, both bear species have been observed feeding on the whale remains, and the DZS is interested in better understanding the overlap in resource use between these species. Unfortunately, no brown bears were seen this year during our time in Kaktovik, and locals informed us that only two or three brown bears had been seen this year.

Kaktovik is just one of the communities on Alaska’s North Slope that face unique circumstances with our Earth’s changing climate. The increased interaction with polar bears and brown bears is a fascinating situation and will become increasingly important for the management of both species. With continued monitoring of bears on the North Slope, the safety of both the public and the bears will remain the top priority of the community, and the DZS will assist in this effort.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the director of conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society and Betsie Meister is the associate curator of mammals.