Notes from the Field: Treating Endangered African Vultures

This is the second in a series detailing the Detroit Zoological Society’s recent vulture conservation fieldwork in South Africa. For Part I, click here.

The Detroit Zoological Society’s latest field conservation project was with VulPro, an organization in South Africa that works to rehabilitate sick and injured vultures in order to return them to vulnerable wild populations. With seven of the 11 African vulture species currently endangered or critically endangered, the DZS is working with VulPro to reverse the crisis literally one vulture at a time.

Through community outreach efforts, sick vultures come to VulPro from as far as eight hours away. They arrive in all sorts of conditions, sometimes with broken bones or open wounds, signs of poisoning or evidence of electrocution, and they’re often dehydrated and starving.

I traveled to South Africa this winter to assist VulPro in their efforts. During my time there, a farmer discovered a Cape vulture on his land that was weak and unable to fly, and a VulPro volunteer drove several hours to collect the bird and bring him back to us. He was an older adult male who we affectionately called “Old Guy”, and when he arrived, he was too weak to stand or even lift his head. We immediately got to work. A brief assessment revealed that he was severely dehydrated. We secured an identification band, placed an intravenous catheter in a vein in his leg, and examined, cleaned and bandaged a wound on his left wing. The wound – as well as bruising along his elbow – were presumably caused by barbed wire and likely left him temporarily unable to fly.

We then moved Old Guy into an ICU unit – a small space that prevented him from pulling on his fluid line but also allows us to see him at all times – which also happened to be the shower in the VulPro director’s house. VulPro is a small but mighty non-profit, and the team makes creative use of every resource available, even if that means sharing the bathroom with a critical vulture patient. After 15 minutes, Old Guy was still quite lifeless, with a heart rate two times slower than a healthy vulture. We continued to keep a close watch, and after 45 minutes on fluids, he was able to stand on his own. Over the next several hours, Old Guy slowly came back to life. He was given a companion vulture overnight and both were moved to the outdoor hospital enclosures in the morning. Over the next few days, Old Guy improved dramatically and began eating on his own. He even got a bit feisty with us, which is a true sign of a healthy vulture.

Over the past two months, Old Guy has continued to improve, and he will be released later this month at VulPro’s release site in the Magaliesberg mountains.

VulPro also conducts many crucial research and population-level conservation initiatives, but saving individuals like Old Guy – one vulture at a time – is at the core of the mission of both the Detroit Zoological Society and VulPro. This truly exemplifies compassionate conservation.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently began a new wildlife conservation project with Eurasian otters, which are classified as Endangered in Armenia and Near Threatened in the whole of their range. Their numbers have fallen dramatically in Armenia and in neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran; therefore, it is essential that we gather data on their status and work to preserve their populations.

Otters are important indicators of the health of aquatic systems. They are found in a wide variety of habitats, including highland and lowland lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, swamp forests and coastal areas. Armenia, which is a small country about the size of Vermont or New Hampshire, is located in the Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian Seas. Despite its small size, Armenia is a biodiversity hotspot important for wildlife conservation because it is located at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

While conducting fieldwork in Armenia this summer, we walked five transects along rivers and streams in Central Armenia to look for sign of otters such as feces, tracks and/or feeding remains. In every Armenian transect, we found feces and/or feeding signs, such as crab shells, within the first 200 yards. We also set cameras along the rivers to document the otters present in those areas. We heard credible reports of otter sightings in several other areas of Central Armenia – including in urban areas – as well as in the south, west and northern parts of Armenia. It appears that otters have made a comeback, which is great news.

Most otter sightings were accompanied by reports of conflict with humans, due to the otters eating fish out of the ponds at fish farms. A major component of this project – as with many wildlife conservation initiatives the DZS is involved with around the world – will be to investigate ways to mitigate this conflict. We plan to track the success of the farmers we encountered who used dogs and/or fencing as methods to protect their fishponds.

We will also be surveying suitable habitats for otters in all of the Armenian watersheds.  This involves overlaying a 6-mile by 6-mile grid on top of a map of Armenia and noting areas within the grid that have a confirmed otter presence. We also plan to obtain robust population estimates using genetic analyses from the otter feces. With this data, we will be able to determine important locations for otters and explore the potential of setting up sustainable protected areas. This project furthers the DZS’s mission of compassionate conservation as part of the effort is to reduce human-otter conflicts and save individual otters while establishing protected areas for otter populations to thrive in the future.

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

Notes from the Field: Saving Tree Frogs in Honduras – Part III

In my previous two blog entries, we examined three critically endangered species of tree frogs in Honduras and shared plans for the Detroit Zoological Society and the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center to begin a head-start program for tadpoles of these species to help increase their populations. If you haven’t had a chance to read these entries, click here and here.

Now, let’s take a peek at what the rescue center facilities look like, and the long-term vision for in-country involvement.

The facilities are currently located in El Jardin Botanico y Centro de Invastigacion Lancetilla, a botanical garden and research center run by Universidad Nacional de Ciencias Forestales. Construction began in 2015 through a collaboration of multiple institutions, including Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, National Autononous University of Honduras, UNACIFOR, Operation Wallacea, Expendiciones y Servicios Ampbientales de Cusuco and the Honduran forestry department. By the spring of 2018, construction was completed and our team inspected the facilities. The team included myself, staff from Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and the rescue center’s co-founder Brandon Greaves. The inspection was to assure that the facilities are ready to provide the best care, biosecurity and welfare for animals that will arrive later in the year.

The ingenious rescue center facilities utilize shipping containers in order to provide housing for the animals. The containers (called “pods”) are ideal for amphibian conservation and care as they are secure, well insulated and easily mobilized should the facility need to be relocated. The pods have full plumbing and electricity, with climate control to suit the needs of our three target species that live in the cool mountain habitats. Each pod is outfitted with a vestibule for caretakers to prepare for a bio-secure entry (which requires clean up and changing clothes).

The pods are outfitted with habitats for up to 1,200 animals (400 from each of the three target species: exquisite spike thumb frog, Cusuco spike thumb frog, and mossy red-eyed tree frog). Water for the animals is treated with reverse osmosis in order to make it safe for amphibians. All water and other waste leaving the pods is cleaned to prevent any contamination to animals of the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens. Live food items (flies, crickets, and other insects) are bred in-house in order to provide ideal nutrition and prevent non-native insect concerns. The individual habitats inside the pods are species specific, catering to the needs of each of the three animals with current, temperature, and substrate. In short…. I would like to live in the pods!

The rescue center facilities are in excellent condition and are ready for animals. As we prepare to bring animals in for head-starting, the rescue team is searching for the perfect local Honduran in order to care for amphibians full time. This individual will train at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center in the care of amphibians. Once head-starting has begun, we will build outreach programs involving local Honduran schools and local researchers. Ultimately, the goal is for the rescue center to be entirely Honduran-run. Our Honduran partners are enthusiastic and we are excited to see their involvement grow.

Honduras is a country that does not receive much assistance in conservation, and the Detroit Zoological Society is proud to be a part of this groundbreaking project saving amphibians in this beautiful nation. We will definitely share more updates as we begin head-starting animals soon!

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the director of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Notes from the Field: Saving Tree Frogs in Honduras – Part II

As part of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) continuing efforts to save amphibians from extinction, we recently introduced readers of the DZS Blog to three species of endangered frogs that live in the Cusuco National Park in Honduras. These species are at high risk of extinction and we aim to help their populations. If you haven’t had a chance to read my previous blog entry, click here.

Amphibians are facing an extinction crisis, and one of the most tangible causes is disease. In my previous entry, I mentioned the chytrid fungus and how it is causing amphibian deaths globally. Many theories exist as to where chytrid originated and how it spread, but regardless of the answer to those questions, the fungus has now been found in almost every environment all over the world. Removing the fungus from the environment does not seem to be a possibility since it has become so widespread, as this could potentially damage the ecosystem and other lifeforms in it. So, the question becomes: How do we save the frogs?

Frogs are most susceptible to chytrid when they are young – tadpoles and juveniles have the highest death tolls as a result of this fungus. The tadpoles of the three target species we are focusing on in Honduras (the exquisite spike thumb frog, the Cusuco spike thumb frog, and the mossy red-eyed tree frog) are especially sensitive to chytrid. The tadpoles have very strong mouths, which they need to be able to use as a “suction” to hold onto rocks in rapid waters of rivers. Doing so is vital to their survival, and as such, chytrid is particularly damaging to these animals. Chytrid is attracted to keratinized skin cells, which are found in the mouths of tadpoles. The resulting infection causes them to lose function of their mouths, which can cause them to have trouble eating and difficulty with “suction” onto rocks. The loss of this suction can cause tadpoles to be swept downstream into unsafe waters.

Photo by Jon Kolby

This is all devastating; however, we came up with an idea for how we might be able to help.

What if we could remove tadpoles from the stresses of the environment during the stage in which they are most sensitive to chytrid? Using our skills and expertise in caring for amphibians, we might be able to nurture them in a pristine environment. The lack of stress would potentially prevent symptoms of the fungus from appearing. Alternatively, if symptoms did arise, caretakers could treat the fungus to assure survival. Then, when the animals have reached adulthood, they could be returned to the wild.

This method of rearing animals through sensitive stages is called “head-starting”, and is a method frequently used with amphibians. It has shown to be beneficial in instances just like this, where adults survive better than offspring. Long term, the hope is that the increased population from the head-started animals would be enough to booster the population into stability.

Photo by Jon Kolby

The Detroit Zoological Society and the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center are ready to start head-starting animals. Facilities have been built in Honduras in order to provide tadpoles a safe place to live and grow until they are ready for release. In an upcoming entry on the DZS Blog, we will go inside the rescue center’s facilities and show you what the tadpole rearing experience will look like!

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the director of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Notes from the Field: Saving Tree Frogs in Honduras – Part I

The Detroit Zoological Society is collaborating with the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center to preserve three species of endangered frogs from the cloud forests of the Cusuco National Park in Honduras. The rescue center is an in-country facility that aims to re-populate these three endangered species through programs such as head starting, captive breeding, habitat protection and community outreach.

Amphibians all over the world are suffering extinctions, and the species in the Cusuco National Park are at a particularly high risk. There is a fungal disease, called chytrid, that is causing drastic population declines amphibians globally. Chytrid fungus has been particularly devastating to amphibians that live at higher elevations in the tropics, because the fungus thrives in lower temperatures and high humidity. This fungus likes to live in keratinized skin cells, and because amphibians rely on their skin to breath and exchange nutrients, it can be very deadly. The Cusuco National Park is a protected area that is home to many rare amphibian species who, unfortunately, are subjected to this fungal disease. The Detroit Zoological Society is working with the rescue center to investigate how to help save these animals from extinction.

While there are many species of amphibians in Honduras that need help, we decided to start our mission with three “target species” of critically endangered tree frogs. Once we find the best way to help these species, we can apply what we learned to others locally. These three target species are the exquisite spike thumbed frog (Plectrohyla exquisita), the Cusuco spike thumbed frog (Plectrohyla dasypus), and the mossy red eyed frog (Duellmanohyla soralia). All three of these frogs have been found to have the highest infection rates with chytrid fungus in the Cusuco National Park and are at high risk of extinction. This spring, we conducted fieldwork in Honduras, visiting the natural habitat of the three target species to help gain a better understanding of their behavior. We were able to observe some never-before-seen behaviors of these interesting animals that will help us increase our chances of protecting them.

Before I get too carried away, let me introduce you to the three species!

Photo by Jon Kolby

Exquisite spike thumb frogs are the largest tree frog in the Cusuco National Park at approximately 4 inches long. These frogs are found exclusively in the small protected area of the park, and are listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN. The frogs get their name from the large boney projection that males have on the sides of their thumbs, called a prepollex. It is theorized this special appendage is used for male combat, but combat has not yet been observed in this species. Additionally, the call of these frogs has never been heard (or at least recognized) by human ears.

Photo by Jon Kolby

Cusuco spike thumb frogs also only live in the small protected region of the Cusuco National Park; they are also listed as Critically Endangered. This species also gets its name from a prepollex in the males. Cusuco spike thumb frogs are medium-sized, growing to about 2 inches. Their call is a “quack” noise, similar to a duck. When threatened, these frogs have been observed jumping into leaf litter and burying themselves, which is unusual behavior for tree frogs.

Photo by Jon Kolby

Mossy red-eyed tree frogs are the smallest of the three target species, at a maximum of about 1.5 inches, and are also listed as Critically Endangered. As tadpoles, they have a striking green sheen to them, and they perform an odd behavior. They will flip over on their backs to swim – bellies up – in the rapids of waterfalls. Mossy red-eyed tree frogs can be heard calling with a series of chirps and clicks.

The Detroit Zoological Society and the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center have a plan to save these amazing animals. I’ll be sharing more details about this plan in upcoming blog entries, so stay tuned!

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the director of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

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.