Education: Community and Conservation

Four teenaged girls recently assisted the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) with our amphibian conservation efforts by pairing up with staff members to build mudpuppy shelters at the Detroit Zoo’s Ford Education Center. These young ladies were from Oakland County’s Children’s Village, a residential treatment and detention center for youth. The DZS began a partnership with Children’s Village in 2009 to instill respect and reverence for wildlife and wild places within the hearts of these teenagers. The program expanded in 2016 to offer off-site community service opportunities for the residents.

Mudpuppy shelters are an important piece of our ongoing conservation work as we monitor the population of these aquatic amphibians on the shorelines of the Detroit River and the inland lakes of Belle Isle. Mudpuppies are indicators of water quality; they cannot survive in polluted or contaminated water, so their presence is a sign of a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

DZS amphibian staff provided the specifications for the height, width and depth of these cement structures, as well as the materials to make them. The young ladies worked in pairs with DZS staff members, donning thick gloves and using wire cutters to trim heavy-duty wire mesh, before folding and binding it to form the bottom of the shelter. They then layered the cement over the wire mesh and built it into a solid, smooth floor and walls. Separate pieces of wire mesh were then cut to size and layered with the cement mixture to create roofs for the shelter.

Once the weather warms up, the shelters will be placed in the water around Belle Isle in hopes that mudpuppies will find them a desirable place to lay their eggs. They tend to lay their eggs under rocks in their natural habitat, which makes it difficult for researchers to locate the eggs without potentially disturbing them by having to move rocks. With the easy-to-remove roof on these homemade shelters, mudpuppies could lay their eggs inside and DZS staff would be able to lift the top and easily check on the eggs without disturbing them.

The young ladies who helped build the shelters will join us down on Belle Isle in the coming weeks to place them in the water. They will have the opportunity to work alongside DZS amphibian and education staff to record weather, water quality and shelter placement as well as check on previously placed shelters.

These teens are facing many challenges in their lives and working alongside scientists in the field offers them the chance to explore careers they may not have otherwise known about or considered. It is an opportunity for them to try a new experience, build skills and understanding, and give back to the community through conservation.

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

Notes From the Field: Conserving Common Terns

Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the director of conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Since 2007, the Detroit Zoological Society Photo by Cher Fajardohas been working to restore the population of common terns on the Detroit River, and more recently on Lake St. Clair. DZS staff monitor, improve and create suitable nesting habitats respectively on Grosse Ile, Belle Isle and the restored lighthouses on Lake St. Clair through a partnership with the Save Our South Channel Lights organization. Each year, staff members also attach colored leg bands to common tern chicks to monitor their movements in the Great Lakes.

Photo by Cher FajardoIn early July, several staff members successfully attached leg bands to more than 30 chicks at one of the lighthouses on Lake St. Clair. Gathering the flightless chicks is a hazardous time for staff as the adult terns swoop down to protect their young. Amid the squawking adult terns, DZS staff quickly and gently placed several chicks at a time into small holding corrals. Other staff then attached leg bands promptly and efficiently to avoid undue discomfort to the chicks. The chicks were then released close to where they were collected to avoid additional stress. A total of 118 chicks have been banded by DZS staff over the last two years.

This year, with water levels especially high Photo by Cher Fajardoin the Great Lakes, some common tern nesting sites have been flooded out. Thus, the nesting sites at the Lake St. Clair lighthouse and also on Belle Isle are particularly important. DZS staff have improved the habitat at both of these areas by clearing vegetation and, in the case of the Belle Isle colony, establishing a predator-proof fence. So far this season, two common tern chicks have fledged (reached sub-adulthood) at Belle Isle. In addition, the first chick from Belle Isle was banded. In the past several years, only one common tern chick has fledged at Belle Isle.

This year’s high water has also delayed the life cycles of many animals – including common terns – and more than 100 eggs still remained to hatch when we banded the first chicks on July 1. DZS staff will continue banding and monitoring to enhance common tern conservation.

– Paul Buzzard