Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation Continues in Armenia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Environmental Stewards in the Amazon

Imagine if you were a teacher and your outdoor classroom was the Amazon rainforest. Endless biodiversity of every species of plant and animal you can imagine exists just a step outside your classroom walls. However, your teacher preparation was at a university in a city, and you have no idea where to begin teaching about ecology beyond what you’ve read in a teacher prep textbook. On top of these challenges, the only way to reach the community you’ve been assigned to work in is to take a boat down the Amazon River. The trip takes several hours, which means you’re only home on weekends and rarely have an opportunity to learn with or connect to other teachers.

Such is the case for the dedicated employees of CONAPAC, the Civil Association for Conservation of the Peruvian Amazon Environment, which was formed in July 1990 by a group of teachers, forestry engineers, and employees of the travel operator Explorama Lodges in Iquitos, Peru. Registered with the Peruvian government, its purpose is the conservation of the Peruvian Amazon primary rainforest. Though the staff is small, it serves those most in need of education and other tools for sustainable living in the rainforest, with the help of Explorama Lodges. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has been a partner in this important conservation and education program for nearly 20 years.

As part of the services and support CONAPAC provides partner communities, an annual teacher workshop brings educators in these rural, remote communities together to learn. Earlier this year, Karen Purcell from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology returned for the second time to provide professional development for these teachers. Fluent in Spanish and passionate about birds, she delivers dynamic, hands-on workshops that demonstrates what teachers can do with their students by having the teachers do it with her. Guides from Explorama Lodges, who are also bird experts, assisted by guiding the teachers to understand how binoculars work, how they add excitement to bird observation, and how to identify common species.

Karen created a safe place for the teachers to share their attitudes towards birds, addressing common misconceptions and dispelling myths and legends that often cause people to dislike or even dispatch birds. She prepared them to be citizen scientists, gathering and sharing data on the species they see most in theircommunities. The teachers continue to document their successes and encourage one another through a massive group chat in WhatsApp. While there may not be internet access in these communities, almost all the teachers have a cell phone that has service and a means to charge the phone by generator or solar panel collected energy. Not a week goes by without a teacher posting photos of his or her students looking for birds, drawing them, building replica nests or some other activity. Karen and the team from CONAPAC are all on the group chat, documenting the progress in real time of how the workshop content is being implemented.

In early November, DZS staff returned to the rainforest to assist with end-of-the-year evaluations in each community. Teams of CONAPAC staff, Iquitos Board of Education representatives, local environmental experts and DZS staff traveled to each community to ensure school supplies are being utilized, children and teachers are attending school regularly, and that the teachers are implementing their skills and concepts shared with them during the workshops. The artwork, poems, field work and skits that the communities shared with the teams provided solid evidence that the spring workshops were a tremendous success.

Professional development is an essential part of any profession. The CONAPAC teacher workshops are a vital part of creating the next generation of environmental stewards, providing teachers and students the information and passion needed for protecting the rainforest for generations to come. This year’s workshop was supported through the generous financial support of JBQ Charitable Foundation and Explorama Lodges.  An international donor-base further provides financial support to provide annual teacher and student school supplies. To learn more or to participate in these efforts, visit https://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school/.

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

Humane Education: Recognizing Youth Making a Difference

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has a long history of helping animals. We trace our origins to a group of animals abandoned by a bankrupt circus that came through Detroit in 1883. Concerned citizens responded by generously giving food and money to provide for their care. Our commitment to Celebrating and Saving Wildlife is ongoing, magnified by the support of people in our community who are doing amazing things to help wildlife and wild places.

We want to celebrate the inspiring actions young people are taking to make a difference in the lives of animals. We want to recognize those who are spearheading their own initiatives, from creating awareness of animal issues to fostering empathy for animals through hands-on projects.

This year, to honor students in kindergarten through senior year of high school who are making a positive impact for animals, we are presenting the first annual Detroit Zoological Society Humane Youth Award. From now through November 5, 2018, you can nominate yourself or someone you know for this incredible honor. The nomination form can be found on our website. Nominees will be eligible for one of two categories: elementary school students or middle and high school students.

In 2001, the DZS created the Berman Academy for Humane Education with the focus of helping people help animals. One of the key tenets of humane education is that “we have a responsibility to consciously consider, respect, care for and protect all creatures and the environment”.

Our humane education programming extends far beyond the 125 acres of the Detroit Zoo. It focuses on building reverence and empathy for animals through hands-on, engaging experiences for guests and program participants and by providing opportunities for members of our communities to make informed, humane decisions in their everyday lives. Each and every one of us has the power to make choices and take action that positively impacts animals in large and small ways.

Learn more about the DZS’s humane education programs.

Notes from the “Field”: Expedition to the Detroit Zoo’s Otter Habitat

The Detroit Zoological Society conducts field conservation work all over the world; however, a recent venture required traveling only a few hundred feet from my office. Preparatory research for an upcoming trip to Armenia to preserve otters involved traversing the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat at the Detroit Zoo. Otters are classified as Endangered in Armenia, but there is no current data on their status. As part of this project, we will be assessing the status of these animals across Armenia and identifying important areas for protection. Early on, the focus will be on conducting sign surveys along rivers and streams, looking for traces of otters. Becoming familiar with otter tracks and feces was essential before this fieldwork could begin; where better to do such research than inside the otter habitat at the Detroit Zoo?

Armenia is part of the greater Caucasus biodiversity hotspot, and otters are an important part of the diverse fauna. The otters in Armenia are Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra), a different species from the North American otters (Lontra Canadensis) that are present at the Detroit Zoo. However, both otter species are similarly sized and they both have diets that consist primarily of fish, so their feces is likely to be similar.

Detroit Zoological Society animal care staff shared helpful identifying information inside the otter habitat, including the variability and size of the feces, which were less compact than one might expect. Scratch marks often accompany the feces, which also often occurs with snow leopards. In addition, because the habitat at the Zoo is cleaned regularly, it was clear how quickly the feces can degrade. Proper estimation of the age of feces can be important for estimating animal density.

We’ll be sure to report back with findings following our research in Armenia.

– Dr. Paul Buzzard is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which is involved in wildlife conservation efforts on six continents.

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.

Wildlife Conservation: Breeding Eastern Tiger Salamanders

Amphibian breeding season is here! That means it’s time to start helping amphibians get in the mood for love and romance.

The Institution of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS) recently awarded a $500,000 National Leadership Grant for the purpose of improving reproduction within captive assurance colonies of imperiled salamanders. The Detroit Zoological Society is one of the primary partners on this grant. My doctoral research focused on salamanders, their reproductive physiology and techniques to help them breed, and that very research was the basis for the recent IMLS grant proposal.

Other partners on the grant include Mississippi State University and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Now that the grant was awarded, techniques must be taught to the other partners so we can all work together in salamander conservation efforts. I recently visited Mississippi State University in order to train the other principal investigators and the graduate students involved on this salamander grant in principles of natural salamander reproduction and performing assisted reproduction techniques with salamanders.

The training session involved eastern tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum), which are regionally threatened and endangered in various areas of North America. Like many species of salamanders, the tiger salamander is very difficult to breed in human care. Similar to other species in the “mole salamander” family, tiger salamanders respond to changes in air pressure and temperature when seasonal rain storms occur. These storms are what cue breeding behavior and are very difficult to replicate in human care. Without the ability to provide the appropriate “mood”, tiger salamanders in human care will not often feel romantically inclined. Natural breeding is always the first goal when breeding animals for conservation, but sometimes this is extremely challenging. In these cases, we use alternative techniques while we perfect replicating the natural breeding environment.

In vitro fertilization is a technique used to assist salamanders and other amphibians in breeding. Most salamander species undergo internal fertilization, in which the female picks up a capsule of male sperm, called a spermatophore, which the male has deposited into the environment. The female holds the sperm in an internal pouch that she later empties over her eggs as the eggs are laid. In in vitro fertilization of salamanders, sperm is collected from males by giving them a massage. Eggs are then collected from the female into a small dish where sperm is placed on top of the eggs. Just add water, and presto, you have salamander babies. Of course, it is never just that easy, but the concept is straightforward.

I trained the other primary investigators and students in other techniques as well, including cryopreservation – or freezing and long-term storage – of salamander sperm and sperm quality assessment. The training was very successful, with nearly 100 tiger salamander babies produced. Now the trainees can go on to teach more amphibian conservationists, and we can save more species by assisting with breeding!

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

Animal Welfare: A Compassionate Approach to Toad Conservation

Staff members from the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) National Amphibian Conservation Center and Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics are collaborating to find out what toads like. By doing so, we can ensure we are providing for their welfare while they’re in our care and also contributing to the conservation of this species in the wild.

Wyoming toads (Anaxyrus baxteri), also known as Baxter’s toads, are considered extinct in the wild, and their numbers must be bolstered each year by reintroductions of individuals born and reared in the care of humans. They can be found in two locations within the Laramie Basin in Wyoming, thanks to efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other dedicated organizations including the Detroit Zoological Society.

Wyoming toads were abundant until the 1970s when their numbers began to plummet due to the spraying of aerial pesticides, habitat alteration and the fungal infection caused by chytridiomycosis, which is decimating amphibian populations worldwide. By 1984, the species was listed as endangered and in 1993, that listing changed to extinct in the wild. That year, what were believed to be the last 10 remaining Wyoming toads were brought into a facility to safeguard them and begin a breeding program in the hopes of one day reestablishing the species in the wild.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums started an official Species Survival Plan for the Wyoming toad in 1996, a program in which the DZS has been very active, including releasing thousands of toads hatched at the Detroit Zoo since 2001. Through the efforts of this collaborative breeding program, more than 1,500 Wyoming toads are currently believed to live in the wild.

Because breeding success continues to be a great concern for this species, the Wyoming Toad Species Survival Plan established strict guidelines for habitat setup at the participating institutions. The habitats are rather sterile to reduce the potential development of any disease processes and consist of a dry area typically made of PVC, a water feature, a basking lamp and a shelter. This type of setup was necessary to properly monitor conditions to promote higher survival rate and breeding success. Due to the success of the reintroduction program, new habitat parameters can be explored, providing the toads with a more stimulating environment.

It is important that we assess how this affects the toads and what preferences they might have. To that end, habitats are being created that provide the toads with a choice between the standard habitat and one that has more naturalistic elements, such as soft substrates, multiple shelters and water features of varying shapes and sizes. With the assistance of our current resident, Emilie Gupta, we will be studying the toads to determine if this choice is important to them. Providing animals with choices and agency – or control – over certain aspects of their lives has been proven to positively affect welfare in some animals. This research will augment what we know about amphibian well-being and will add a compassionate dimension to this conservation success story, in which ensuring the welfare of individuals is a critical part of protecting the species.

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