Notes from the Field: Update on Eurasian Otter Conservation in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) continued its field conservation work in Armenia this spring to study and preserve declining populations of endangered Eurasian otters.

Armenia is a nation slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts, but in terms of biodiversity and topographic variation, it boasts an impressive richness. A day’s drive can include visits to snowy mountain passes at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet near the spa town of Jermuk, as well as hot and arid lowlands of the Meghri Valley along the Iranian border. It is a landlocked nation in the Caucasus region between Asia and Europe, but its abundant streams and rivers provide ecological and economic lifeblood for the nation. During this spring’s expedition, we spent a little more than a week traversing the serpentine roads as we followed up on leads and evaluated potential otter habitats.

We began this trip in the capital of Yerevan and worked our way through all of the watersheds in the southern half of the country. A consistent theme throughout the week was high water due to heavy spring rains. This limited our access to the riverbanks and made it challenging to select suitable locations to deploy motion-activated cameras and conduct formal surveys. Previous trips to other watersheds in the north, such as Lake Arpi, had recently yielded numerous photographs and video clips of otters with these cameras, with in some cases as many as four individuals in a single frame. This time around, we had to rely on other methods to document the presence of otters in each of the southern watersheds.

Interviews with local conservationists, fish farmers, anglers and hunters proved to be our most valuable resources. Through these leads, we were able to locate and explore otter habitats and document signs such as footprints, feeding remains and scat. We also visited several fish farms, ranging in size from small residential ponds to larger facilities with dozens of cascading holding pools. In most cases, the fish farmers were challenged by otters raiding their stock, and in some cases, significantly threatening the viability of their entire operation. Dogs are frequently used as a deterrent, and one resident with a small fish pond showed us security camera footage of an otter taking shelter in the water until the dogs were distracted and allowed an opportunity for it to escape. In some cases, we were able to provide counsel to fish farmers regarding what type of perimeter fencing modifications would be effective in excluding otters.

The people of Armenia clearly value their biodiversity and have an openness to learning more about the important role that Eurasian otters play in it. Key challenges ahead for the species appear to be direct human conflict, pollution from mining, and habitat fragmentation due to hydroelectric dams. The DZS will continue to work with Armenian researchers to document the distribution of otters and strengthen efforts to establish protected areas for them.

– Brian Manfre is a mammal department supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Quick-Change Veterinary Action from Vultures to Flamingos

During my career as a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society, I’ve learned that anything is possible. In January, I went to South Africa to work on a DZS-supported vulture conservation project, with a plan to do routine health checks and blood testing on 200 vultures, but within a few days, I found myself flying off to another part of the country to help rescue abandoned flamingo chicks.

I was prepared for the vultures, but the flamingos were completely unexpected. Despite the fact that both animals are birds, the list of differences is far longer than the list of similarities, from their diets and method of consumption to their habitats, the way they move and fly, how they build their nests and at what rate they grow.

The Detroit Zoo is home to many of the same species of vultures I was sent to work with at Vulpro, a vulture rescue, rehabilitation and conservation organization in South Africa. During my time with the DZS, I have developed special skills with vultures over the years, and I was ready to do this work. The DZS has a long history of working with vultures and is working with Vulpro to protect these endangered and threatened species. However, after only five days, we received an unusual phone call: A Lesser flamingo breeding colony located at Kamfers Dam, a two-hour flight south in the city of Kimberley, was in serious trouble. The flamingo breeding season was just beginning, but the water in the dam had dried up. This left thousands of young chicks and eggs abandoned by their parents, who had to go elsewhere to find food. VulPro immediately stepped in to help, on the condition that I was willing to oversee the care of the chicks. But I hadn’t prepared for this. Vultures: no problem. Flamingo chicks: not even on my radar. Fortunately, we had just spent the previous five months hand-raising a Chilean flamingo chick at the Detroit Zoo, so I had experiential training. Additionally, I recently devoted two years to studying for a comprehensive exam to become certified as a zoo vet specialist through the American College of Zoological Medicine, so I was prepared for work with nearly any species.

And that’s how our mission suddenly shifted from examining and blood testing 200 African vultures to preparing for the arrival of an unknown number of flamingo chicks of uncertain ages and in varying states of health…as quickly as possible. I needed to formulate the chick feed – a blend of shrimp, fish, eggs, rice cereal and vitamins, determine feeding protocols and schedules, develop a biosecurity protocol, prepare antibiotic and fluid dosages for sick chicks, set temperature and humidity requirements and help the amazing VulPro staff construct appropriate housing for flamingo chicks weighing about 2 ounces when they typically work with 18-pound vultures.

In the field of zoo medicine, you quickly learn who to call when you need help, and in this case, that was Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate bird curator, and Cher Fajardo, the DZS’s bird supervisor. They’ve both gained expertise and amassed a lot of resources during many years raising flamingo chicks. They gave me the exact information I needed, and with the help of VulPro staff, volunteers, and other conservation partners, we were prepared. Within 24 hours, I was on a very small plane flying over South Africa to Kimberley to triage, treat and transport 165 tiny little flamingo chicks.

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

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.