Notes from the Field: Tiny Shorebirds Get New Chance at Survival

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shore bird that breeds in three distinct geographic locations; the beaches along the Atlantic coast, the shorelines of the Great Lakes, and along major rivers of the northern Great Plains. The Great Lakes population is classified as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the other two populations are classified as threatened.

At one point, this population of Great Lakes piping plovers was estimated to range from 12 to 32 breeding pairs. After extensive observation, scientists found that plover nests were abandoned and concluded that salvaging these abandoned eggs could contribute to the species’ recovery. For almost two decades, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has led the effort to collect these abandoned eggs, incubate them and rear the chicks that hatch until they can be released to join wild plovers.

The DZS operates the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich., and oversees aviculturists from the Detroit Zoo and other Association of Zoos & Aquariums institutions who staff the facility from May through August. The dedicated zookeepers monitor the eggs during incubation and care for the chicks after they hatch. Once they are able to fly, after about four weeks, the birds – that would have otherwise perished – are banded and released into the wild. As they migrate to their wintering grounds, the plovers are identified by birders and photographers who report their findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I spent five weeks this summer at the captive rearing center, working with what I believe are some of the cutest chicks in the world. While our conservation efforts have been incredibly successful over the last 17 years, the Great Lakes piping plover population is still less than 80 breeding pairs annually. This year, seven DZS zookeepers and 12 staff members from eight other zoos helped raise 16 chicks from abandoned eggs to join the more than 90 chicks that wild birds raised.

Adult piping plovers tend to breed around the shores of the Great Lakes on large patches of undisturbed sandy beach filled with cobble. Sometimes, their nests are washed out by waves, a parent is killed by a predator, or an unleashed dog causes abandonment. These nests are closely monitored and when staff has determined that the eggs are not being incubated, they are officially declared abandoned and the eggs are transferred to the captive rearing center. In some cases, such as when a storm is passing through, “dummy” eggs will be placed in the nest while the real eggs are placed in an incubator overnight and then returned the next day.

The captive rearing center has multiple incubators and equipment to nurture each egg and provide the conditions it needs to develop a healthy embryo. After almost four weeks in the egg, a little plover chick will spend two to four days hatching. Newly hatched chicks weigh about as much as three pennies yet are very mobile, looking for food within a few hours of hatching. When a full clutch of four chicks hatches, it looks like four cotton balls on eight toothpicks running around.

Rearing plover chicks properly and assuring they will be ready for release is no easy task. We weigh the chicks every morning and observe them to make sure each bird is thriving. Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate curator of birds and manager of the captive rearing operations, fields any questions from staff. One chick in particular needed a little more help from staff this year as it had difficulty hatching, curved toes, bowed legs and some feather abnormalities (genetic issues that can’t be avoided), but zookeepers did not give up on this little chick, providing antibiotics, extra feeds and extra practice flying. In the end, although a little different, this bird had incredible character running around and flying well.

We routinely feed the birds a variety of insects every few hours while they also learn to forage on wild insects. They grow fast and their flight feathers start coming in within two weeks. At 17 or 18 days old, the piping plovers are starting to stretch their wings and by 25-27 days they should be flying well. We have one flight pen along the beach where the plovers grow, forage and learn natural behaviors; another is attached to our building to give them outdoor access overnight and more space to practice flying.

Plover fledglings are usually released between 28 and 33 days old. This year we reared 16 chicks that were released into the wild. Most releases occur in an area where there are similarly aged wild chicks; often the releases happen at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is an incredible feeling opening the door to the crate and letting these small chicks fly free. They immediately start foraging, bathing and or flying around. With a little luck and some decent wind, they will make it to the Atlantic coast or maybe even the Bahamas, enjoy winter, and return to northern Michigan next spring. On August 14, we released the final four birds of the season at Sleeping Bear Dunes, including the special little chick who needed all the extra help. This bird ran down the beach and almost immediately started flying! Each piping plover is a special part of our Great Lakes ecosystem – please be mindful as you share the beaches with these charismatic yet fragile friends.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Mitigating Human-Bear Conflicts in Armenia

Armenia is a small country in the south Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian seas. Despite its size, Armenia is a hotspot for biodiversity and important for wildlife conservation because of its location at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

The Detroit Zoological Society is a world-renowned leader in animal welfare, and an important convergence between wildlife conservation and animal welfare is the reduction of human-wildlife conflict. Far too often, humans perceive wildlife as having negative impacts on their productive activities and security – particularly in the case of large predators – which leads to the regular practice of animals being killed. As the largest predator in Armenia, the brown bear (Ursus arctos) suffers heavy persecution from intrusions into farmlands and perceived threats to human life. A recent global survey of the human-bear conflict emphasizes the need for investigations into the effectiveness of various approaches to mitigate the conflicts, such as providing compensation for damage to fields and the use of electric fencing to prevent bear intrusions. This is especially true for Armenia, where there is no current plan to alleviate the human-bear conflict, despite its ubiquity. Fortunately, there is great potential in Armenia for compassionate conservation work that mitigates the human-bear conflict and decreases the intances of humans killing bears in retribution.

I recently convened with our partners with the National Academy of Sciences to document the distribution and intensity of this conflict by conducting interviews and installing trail cameras. In early August, I travelled to the Shikahogh State Reserve in southern Armenia and the Vayats Dzor region in central Armenia. Our team connected with reserve officials, village leaders and landowners, and documented a great deal of evidence of this conflict including damage to orchards, fields and beehives – most interviewees indicated an increase in conflict over the last several years. To verify the presence of bears, we set trail cameras in the Shikahogh Reserve and adjacent villages as well as in the villages of Vayats Dzor.

We also gathered data on other wildlife in the area. For example, at one of the sites in the Vayats Dzor region, we heard reports of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra); the camera we set in this area will take pictures of both bears and otters. Otters are endangered in Armenia and one of the threats comes from hunters mistaking otters for introduced nutria (Myocastor coypus) and other wildlife. There is potential for us to implement an education program that would educate hunters about the protected status of otters in the hopes that it would prevent them from killing these animals. In addition, several of the cameras at Shikahogh were set in areas that are also promising for endangered Persian leopards (Panthera pardus taxicolor). Shikahogh borders protected areas in Iran where underpasses were recently established to act as wildlife corridors. Evidence of leopards using these underpasses would be very significant.

The trail cameras will be moved and reset this fall and additional cameras will be set in new villages. Next spring, we plan to establish a robust estimate of the number of bears in Vayats Dzor by placing cameras in all or most villages. We will also analyze the time stamps on the photos together with the characteristics of the bears photographed. In the coming years, we will document the bear conflict in the Syunik region between Shikahogh and Vayats Dzor as well as northern Armenia and explore ways to mitigate the conflict, such as offering compensation programs, installing electric fencing and facilitating safe bear ecotourism, so the bear presence can positively impact the economy. The camera data will also be used to find important areas to potentially implement protected status. The National Academy of Sciences in Armenia is striving to set up a network of protected areas that will stretch across Armenia, linking Iran in the south with Georgia in the north.

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

Uncovering Turtle Personalities

Several years ago, we developed a project through the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) Center for Zoo Animal Welfare to determine if we could identify specific personality traits in Blanding’s turtles. That’s right – turtles! Personality has been linked to survivorship in a number of species, and as the DZS is actively involved in conservation efforts with the Blanding’s turtle – a species of special concern in the state of Michigan – we wanted to learn more. Two personality traits emerged from our research: aggressiveness and exploration, with individuals ranging from low to high in either category. We also discovered that a connection exists between these traits and how Blanding’s turtles fare in the wild.

Researchers have been monitoring the population of Blanding’s turtles in Michigan for several years and making efforts to ensure their numbers don’t drop any further. Female Blanding’s turtles typically lay eggs this time of year, and they often travel rather long distances to find suitable nesting grounds. This certainly puts them at risk, especially as road mortality is one of the major threats they face. When baby turtles hatch, they must find their way back to water, which leaves them vulnerable to predation. The DZS became involved in a head-starting program for this species in 2011. This means that eggs are incubated at the Detroit Zoo and the hatchlings are allowed to grow up safely until they reach a certain size, at which point they are released back into the wild.

We used a series of behavioral tests to uncover specific personality traits, including what is often referred to as the mirror test. A mirror is placed in the testing space and the turtle can choose to approach it and to interact with it. As amazing as turtles are, they cannot recognize themselves in a mirror and hence perceive their reflection to be another turtle. By examining their reaction, we definitely saw each turtle as an individual. Some were reluctant to approach, some were uninterested, some were trying to interact gently, and some were very adamant that there was only room for one turtle in the pond!

Once we identified the personality traits, we wanted to understand what links there may be between personality and the turtles’ behavior and survival once released into their natural habitat. Field researchers from the University of Michigan-Flint tracked the turtles post-release for two years and shared their data with us.

Based on our analyses, turtles that demonstrated high exploration had better survival rates than those who scored low in exploration. During the first year, turtles that were more aggressive traveled further from their release site, but over the entire course of the tracking period, turtles that were more exploratory traveled the most. Turtles that were rated as more aggressive and exploratory were found basking more often. Turtles will rest in the sun to help thermoregulate. This helps them to be more energetically efficient, but being exposed may put them at higher risk of predation. The different personalities therefore behave in different ways that amount to a trade-off in risks and benefits.

Finally, all turtles, regardless of personality, showed a distinct preference for areas vegetated with cattails. Given this demonstrated preference, we now know that this type of habitat might really benefit turtles in future releases.

– Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Notes from the Field – Wolf/Moose Research Continues on Isle Royale

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) ongoing involvement in the important conservation project Wolves & Moose of Isle Royale – the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world – continued with a recent expedition to this remote island.

 

Isle Royale is located in the frigid waters of Lake Superior. At more than 40 miles long, it is the largest island in the largest of the Great Lakes. This national park is also home to a population of wolves and moose – moose first came in the early 1900s and wolves joined in the 1940s after crossing an “ice bridge” from Canada. For more than five decades, researchers have studied the lives of these animals and their fluctuating populations in order to better understand the ecology of predation and in turn, gain a better sense of our relationship with nature.

 

I recently traveled to Isle Royale with David Anthony, a DZS education specialist, to conduct research for this project. We took the ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota to the Windigo Ranger Station on the southwest end of the island – the opposite side from where we conducted fieldwork in 2016.

 

Because ice bridges form more rarely between Isle Royale and Canada due to the changing climate, the wolf population at this location has dropped to only two closely related individuals. The Wolf-Moose Project currently focuses on how the moose population is responding to reduced wolf predation and how the forest is responding to the increased moose population. While there is a proposal to reintroduce more wolves, it is a complicated issue in part because Isle Royale is also a national park. The National Park Service is expected to decide on this proposal this fall.

 

Once we arrived at Windigo, we donned our heavy backpacks in a light rain for a 5-mile hike to our first camp, which was situated next to a large beaver pond. It was a cold, rainy night and rather unpleasant, but it was a relief that the next day was sunny and we were able to dry out our clothes and equipment.

We hiked 2-3 miles each day, carefully looking for moose bones in the dense forest, traveling up and down ridges and through swamps. On our first full day in the field, we located a nearly complete skeleton with an antlered skull. The skulls and teeth were an especially successful find, because when cut into a cross section, the rings of dentin in the teeth can be counted to age the moose – similar to counting tree rings – which provides important information on the moose population. The bones are also examined for signs of chewing by wolves as well as signs of arthritis – many moose at Isle Royale live longer and are more prone to developing arthritis than moose in areas with more predators.

 With this information, we then try to surmise the cause and time of death to learn more about when wolves were still predating or scavenging moose. Our team also documented the harmful effects moose are having on Isle Royale’s fir trees. Moose rely on the relatively soft fir tree needles for food during the winter, and in many areas, they have continually browsed the tops of fir trees so they stay short and cannot reproduce. With taller, reproducing fir trees becoming scarce on the island, the over-browsing of the short fir trees is a serious concern.

 

After several days, we hiked to our next camp on the shore of a sheltered harbor on Lake Superior. This site was situated next to an active beaver lodge that kept us up at night with tail slapping and the “kerplunk” of beavers diving under water. On our next trek, we found another, even larger antlered skull, and there was more clear evidence of wolf predation – or at least scavenging – with chewed-up leg bones found dragged away to shady trees nearby.

As we wrapped up our journey, we connected with another group of researchers exploring a different part of the island; both teams returned with moose bones and teeth for examination, marking a very successful field expedition.

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

Help us Protect a Billion Birds from Untimely Deaths

Every year, thousands of avid birders flock to important birding areas in the state of Michigan, hoping to see or hear a few of the millions of birds that are migrating to their breeding grounds. Birds migrate north to their breeding grounds mid-March through May; they then migrate south to their wintering grounds mid-August through October. Unfortunately, many migratory birds will meet an untimely death by colliding with glass or manmade structures, a phenomenon known as a bird collision or bird strike. It has been estimated that up to 1 billion bird-collision deaths occur every year in the U.S., according to the American Bird Conservancy. As humans continue to build structures that contain glass, the threat of bird collisions will also continue.

Birds and humans have a different visual system – we see the world differently. Glass appears invisible to birds and becomes a dangerous barrier they are unable to avoid. Oftentimes as a result, birds will fly directly into windows, causing fatal injuries. In some cases, a bird will fly away after a collision, but it will likely succumb to its injuries elsewhere.

The good news is that there are many things we can do to prevent these collisions from happening. Windows with blinds on them can be made safer to birds by keeping them partially or fully closed. Moving plants away from windows without blinds can prevent birds from thinking they can land on them. Moving bird feeders to within 3 feet of windows or more than 30 feet away from windows can prevent these collisions. There are also a variety of window films that reduce reflection on the outside of windows: ABC BirdTape can be hung vertically – 4 inches apart, or horizontally – 2 inches apart. One of the most common preventative measures people use is decals. Decals come in many shapes and forms but the most common type used is a bird silhouette decal. Companies and homeowners can also build bird-friendly buildings by incorporating reduced visibility of glass, incorporating designs in/on glass and minimizing the use of glass.

 

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The Detroit Zoological Society believes it’s important to take care of all birds, not just those that live at the Detroit Zoo. The DZS has been committed to tracking and preventing bird collisions on Zoo grounds since 2013. All newly hired employees are required to attend orientation and learn how to recognize and report bird collisions to their supervisors. Bird department personnel have used a variety of measures including ABC BirdTape, custom CollidEscape window film and bird decals to prevent collisions. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center has specially designed “fritted” glass, and we recently incorporated custom ORNILUX Bird Protection Glass into the renovated giraffe building – this glass contains a patterned UV coating, making it visible to birds but transparent to the human eye. Detroit Zoo visitors have access to educational flyers and displays about bird collisions at various locations throughout the Zoo and ABC BirdTape is available for purchase at the Zoofari Market.

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We encourage the community to take preventative measures to protect wild birds from colliding with windows in their homes, schools and businesses. Residents and property managers of high-rise buildings, apartments and condominiums can participate in the Detroit Audubon’s Project Safe Passage Great Lakes by turning off all building lights at night on unoccupied floors and spaces. Lights left on in buildings overnight are a major cause of nighttime collisions that kill millions of birds.

– Bonnie Van Dam is the associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Experience a Story of Survival

Nearly three decades ago, a tiny Tahitian land snail called the Partula nodosa was declared extinct in the wild – only 26 individual snails remained. In a final attempt to save the species from being completely wiped from the Earth, those 26 snails were sent to the Detroit Zoo as part of a cooperative breeding program.

Animal care staff worked carefully to provide the best possible living conditions for the snails while focusing on their successful reproduction, which eventually resulted in the rescue and recovery of the species. Thirty years later, there are now more than 6,000 individuals living in North American zoos, all descendants from the original group that came to the Detroit Zoo. In the last two years, 160 of these snails have been sent to Tahiti for reintroduction in the wild.

Visitors to the Detroit Zoo can become a part of this story at Shelle Isle, an exhibit in the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery that features the conservation story of these tiny mollusks. Guests are transported to the Tahitian rainforest, surrounded by tropical plants. A short video tells the snails’ story from a stable population in the first half of the 20th century to their sharp decline in the late 1970s, when an attempt to protect farmers’ crops from African land snails went awry and the Florida rosy wolf snails that were introduced to control the population preferred to eat the Partulid snails. The video also includes footage from the release of the Detroit-bred snails in Tahiti in 2015. Guests are invited to feel the shell of a giant replica of the Partula nodosa and more closely observe its structure and form. A second monitor has a live camera feed into the p. nodosa habitat in a behind-the-scenes area at the Detroit Zoo, giving guests a glimpse of the snails’ daily lives.

A favorite feature in this space is a large, “fallen” log where tiny, exact replica snails sit. Two magnifying glasses attached to the log allow visitors to get a close view of these tiny creatures. Many of them have a yellow number painted on their shell, which represents the way the snails are tagged by scientists before being released in Tahiti in order to monitor their movements and survival. The few that don’t have numbers painted on them are meant to demonstrate the successful reproduction in the wild that researchers have already observed, and the project’s continued success.

For us, an important part of this story is that it focuses not on a charismatic megavertebrate, but on a species that is not well-known, isn’t found on nursery walls or represented in the rows of stuffed animals on a toy store shelf. Conservation is not a beauty contest; all animals are important and the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) works tirelessly to conserve species large and small – including the tiniest and slimiest of snails. By supporting the DZS, you are a critical part of this important work.

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

Wildlife Conservation: Lending Amphibian “Sexpertise” to Other Accredited Zoos

I recently participated in a partnership to save an incredible species of amphibian: the blue spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). This animal is regionally endangered in parts of the Midwest and about 10 years ago, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources started a partnership with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. They wanted to breed these salamanders for release at locations where they once thrived but have now disappeared. Having had little success in doing so thus far, the organizations reached out and requested my amphibian “sexpertise”. I travelled to Omaha to deploy some of my special reproductive techniques with the blue spotted salamander assurance colony living there.

It comes as no surprise that these salamanders proved very difficult to breed. Blue spotted salamanders need an extraordinary amount of “salamander romance” in order to breed naturally. These animals undergo winter brumation (a hibernation-like state). In the spring, they will emerge from brumation when it begins to rain and when the temperature rises in order to migrate to breeding ponds. Their migrations can be over several miles, and most salamanders return to the same pond every breeding season. In captive breeding situations, we attempt to recreate the cues that the salamanders take from the wild in order to get them “in the mood” for breeding. We cool them down and offer them the opportunity to undergo brumation. We place them in rain chambers so they can experience an “indoor storm”. We also attempt to create a naturalistic pond for them to breed in with proper vegetation and leaf litter.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the natural cues we provide artificially are not enough to trigger breeding. Many amphibians are having difficulty breeding in the wild, due to changes in the climate and their habitat. Given that the natural environment is not currently providing ideal cues for breeding, it is especially difficult to perfectly recreate environmental breeding cues for animals in human care. When captive animals do not breed in response to the cues we provide, we often use hormone treatments to give them a little boost. These hormone protocols are meant to trigger breeding behaviors as well as the release of sperm and eggs. In the best-case scenario, the application of hormones will result in the animals breeding on their own. In the worst-case scenario, the animals will not breed on their own after the application of hormones and an in vitro fertilization (an artificial fertilization of the eggs with the sperm in a petri dish) will take place.

We used a combination of natural cues and hormones to stimulate breeding in the blue spotted salamanders. The amount of hormones I gave to the female blue spotted salamanders was determined by how developed their eggs looked on ultrasound. While giving the animals hormones resulted in many interesting behaviors, the salamanders did not breed on their own. After giving them time to breed on their own without success, I attempted in vitro fertilization. In order to perform this technique, I needed to collect eggs from the females and sperm from the males. There was one big problem with attempting this technique – the male blue spotted salamanders were not producing sperm. Fortunately, I had a back-up plan!

The blue spotted salamander is no ordinary salamander. In the wild, many female blue spotted salamanders breed through a special adaptation called kleptogenesis, meaning that they steal sperm. You read that correctly: sperm thieves. Most salamanders undergo internal fertilization. This occurs when the male deposits the sperm in a ball – called a spermatophore – into the environment. Through a courtship dance, the spermatophore is collected by the female. These special female blue spotted salamanders will find and collect spermatophores deposited by males from other, closely related, species (including Jefferson’s salamanders, tiger salamanders, and small-mouth salamanders). This is the part where it becomes complicated. Rather than using the sperm to fertilize their eggs and have hybrid offspring, an enzyme in the sperm activates the egg which begins to grow into an embryo. The rest of the sperm is discarded, and the offspring which develop are essentially clones of the mother. Knowing that blue spotted salamander females are often sperm thieves, I had the Omaha Zoo’s resident male tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) on standby. I was able to collect sperm from the tiger salamanders in order to use in the in vitro fertilization of the blue spotted salamander eggs.

Unfortunately, the eggs did not fertilize with the tiger salamander sperm. While we did not achieve offspring, we learned what we need to do differently next time around. We certainly will not give up on these amazing animals. We will try to breed the blue spotted salamanders again later this year, using slightly different techniques.

Thank you to our partners at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and the Iowa DNR.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the director of the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.