Amphibian Conservation: Species in Crisis

Let’s focus our attention on the smallest residents living at the Detroit Zoo: amphibians. No other class of vertebrates has the ability to adapt and evolve as quickly in our ever-changing planet as amphibians. They have used every reproductive strategy and developed life stages influenced by environmental factors; they can be colorful, camouflaged and cryptic, regenerate limbs, and have been on Earth for the last 200 million years.

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Currently, amphibians are the most threatened group of animals in the world with 40 percent of all species at risk. This crisis is considered the greatest extinction event in history; it’s also the Earth’s sixth mass biological extinction. While previous mass extinctions have been driven by natural planetary transformations or catastrophic asteroid strikes, the current die-off can be associated directly with human activity. This epoch started when human activities began having a significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) participates in Global Assessments, which provide a comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of biological species as well as a critical dataset for evaluating the health of key elements of biodiversity and identifying threats to their survival. Newly described species emerge yet extinctions are occurring at an even faster rate. Climate change is the most dramatic cause of declines, and it affects amphibians both directly and indirectly, as reproduction is dependent on temperatures and seasonal transitions. Low pond levels expose embryos to more ultra violet (UV) light and UVB radiation is harmful to many species. The shorter periods and earlier opportunities for breeding ultimately reduce the chances of success. Amphibians are also dependent upon water, which makes them vulnerable to desecration when ponds dry too quickly. But since amphibians rely on the environment, they also are excellent storytellers. They can help us determine where pollutants are and if there is misuse of habitat.

When the National Amphibian Conservation Center (NACC) opened at the Detroit Zoo in 2001, it was the first major facility dedicated entirely to conserving and exhibiting amphibians. The award-winning, state-of-the-art amphibian center is home to a spectacular diversity of frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and caecilians, many of which are the subjects of field research and part of cooperative management programs called Species Survival Plans (SSP). Amphibians selected for an SSP are generally threatened, endangered and sometimes even extinct in the wild. The DZS is actively involved in many of these programs, including for the Wyoming toad, Puerto Rican crested toad, Panamanian golden frog, crawfish frog and Mississippi gopher frog. Some amphibians bred at the Detroit Zoo have been released into the wild to boost endangered populations, and others require us maintaining a “captive assurance population” because due to factors in the wild, they cannot be released just yet. When it’s safe for these species to return to their native homes, we have a population ready to release. We have specially designed, bio-secure rooms that can hold each of these species so they won’t be exposed to other amphibians or anything else that may be harmful when they are released.

In addition to maintaining our captive amphibian population and our efforts in cooperative breeding programs, DZS staff participates in several field projects and research programs, offers citizen science training and provides support for wildlife rescues, including those from the exotic pet trade.

– Marcy Sieggreen is the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Editor’s note: Marcy Sieggreen was the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society from 2008 until her passing in 2016. The Detroit Zoological Society established the Sieggreen Amphibian Conservation Fund in Marcy’s memory to continue to advance the work she so passionately championed.

Notes from the Field: Saving the Wyoming Toad

For the past few summers, I have traveled to Laramie, Wyoming for the Wyoming Toad Species Survival Plan (SSP) meeting, which is an effort by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) to cooperatively manage species populations within accredited zoos and aquariums.

First, I fly into the Denver International Airport, which is followed by a 140-mile road trip to Laramie. The trip is full of spectacular views of mountains, canyons, vast plains, huge clouds and pronghorn antelopes. Sometimes I drive the distance alone but this year I made the trip with three colleagues from different zoos. Each of us is a representative for our respective institution, all sharing the same goal of saving one of North Americas most endangered amphibians, the Wyoming toad.

After a stop for groceries and gas, we arrived at our destination for the next five days – a cabin in this remote area of Wyoming. We’re joined there by most of the other members of the SSP – this year, 10 people stayed at the cabin. Most of us have known each other for some time, so sleeping together in a room full of triple-layered bunk beds seems like a week at camp with old pals. But it’s far more than summer camp – we take part in discussions and updates on a number of important topics such as husbandry, health, management, fieldwork and research on this toad.

The next morning, representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) arrived along with the AZA SSP coordinator to begin the meetings. Besides the zoos and aquariums involved, there are two USFWS facilities in Wyoming that hold, breed and release the toads. Many important topics are discussed with the last being choosing captive breeding pairs for 2016.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) breeds these critically endangered Wyoming toads at the National Amphibian Conservation Center (NACC). Since 2001, the DZS has released more than 6,500 Wyoming toads into the wild as tadpoles, toadlets and adults. In 2007, the Detroit Zoo earned the highest honor on the AZA’s list of the Top 10 wildlife conservation success stories for that year.

The population of toads is maintained in special bio-secure off-exhibit rooms of the NACC. We have enough room to breed four pairings each year, and any tadpoles produced by the pairings are shipped out to Wyoming for release into protected wetlands in efforts to create self-sustaining populations.

Like each of the organizations present, I brought detailed notes on every adult toad in our resident population so that the best pairs could be chosen. Captive Wyoming toads need to be of ideal weight and health to take part in a month-long hibernation, followed by a June breeding event. Through the AZA, there is an identified “studbook keeper” who matches toads pairs that are least related and most likely to produce offspring that will be the most genetically fit.

On the second day in Laramie, we received training for the USFWS field surveys. Field surveys are done three times during the warmer months of the year around Mortenson Lake. This lake is the last known area the Wyoming toad lived before it was removed from the wild to protect the species from extinction. It is also the site of past and present releases of captive-produced tadpoles and toadlets. Present-day releases are more protected and provide several topics for research. Members of the SSP have been assisting with the mid-summer field surveys for more than five years and the training is just the beginning of a two- to three-day process to see how many Wyoming toads can be found around the lake.

The third and fourth day of my stay is spent almost entirely out in the field surveying for toads around the lake. Teams of two or three people carry backpacks full of equipment for data collection. Each plot must be surveyed in a specific allotted amount of time and by walking in an S-shaped pattern. Toads can be found hiding under grass, sitting on hard-packed sandy areas or swimming near the shore of the lake. If a toad is located, the timer is stopped, and data collection starts. Toads are photographed for identification, weighed, swabbed for disease testing and, if large enough, “microchipped”. It is particularly exciting when an older toad or a toad with an existing microchip is found. This usually means the toad has survived one or more very cold winters and may potentially breed in the lake.

Weeks later, back at the Detroit Zoo, I receive the compiled results of the survey. This year, we located and collected data on 224 toads – 129 toadlets that were captive-born and released into the lake this spring; 29 toads that were captive-born, released last year and survived the winter; 33 adult females and 33 adult males. Until next July, go toads!

– Rebecca Johnson is the associate curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: Gorillas in the Congo

Last month, I was able to experience something that was truly a dream come true. For my entire career, I’ve longed to travel to the home country of a species I care for at the Detroit Zoo, and contribute directly to the health and welfare of that species. In October, I travelled to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), which is located in the Kasugho region of North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

GRACE is the world’s only facility that cares for highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) that have been rescued by wildlife authorities after being illegally captured by poachers and traders. Grauer’s gorillas are endemic to this region and only 5,000 remain in the wild. There are currently 14 gorillas being cared for at GRACE, ranging from 3-14 years of age. At GRACE, a dedicated Congolese staff provides daily care, including a diet that includes local fruits and vegetation training for important animal management behaviors and treatment for medical problems. Caretakers also monitor the group while they enjoy a 24-acre forest, which is the largest gorilla enclosure in the world. The Detroit Zoo entered into partnership with GRACE in 2014, and as the Chair of GRACE’s Board, Detroit Zoological Society CEO and Executive Director Ron Kagan has provided and facilitated important support to the project. Most recently, he secured funding for a new night house enclosure that is currently under construction.

I traveled to the Congo with three staff members from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, including a veterinarian who led the team, a veterinary technician and a husbandry expert. Our goal for the eight days at GRACE was to perform examinations on 12 of the 14 gorillas – this has never been done before anywhere in the world, and it was important that we do all we could during these exams to learn about the health problems they may face.

The objectives were to conduct physical wellness exams to make sure the gorillas are healthy and to build capacity within the GRACE staff. Most orphaned gorillas suffer from malnutrition and are in poor shape when they first come into human care, and examinations under anesthesia allow a thorough exam to be performed and blood to be collected for testing. During the procedures we worked closely with staff members to demonstrate techniques and discuss observations. The team also transported several diagnostic tools to the site for the exams. A veterinarian from Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda brought a portable X-ray machine and took images of several animals that have had orthopedic injuries in the past. The veterinarian at Disney was able to secure the loan of a portable dental X-ray unit that we used to take radiographs of the teeth to ensure that normal adult teeth are forming below the visible baby teeth. A recently donated ultrasound machine was used to perform cardiac exams on the gorillas as well. With all of these diagnostics being performed, it was especially important that we work efficiently as a team – we discussed our exam plans and responsibilities before each procedure, and worked very well together. During the afternoons, we provided lectures to the staff at GRACE, and shared information about dental health, heart disease and training for important behaviors that allow care to be provided. The staff is very appreciative of opportunities for learning and improvement, and was a very attentive and interactive audience.

In all, my trip to GRACE was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. The people at GRACE were very welcoming and gracious and greeted us with a ceremony that included a traditional song and dance prepared just for our team. We were able to observe the gorillas in their forest enclosure, which is the closest I’ve come to seeing them in the wild, and a very special experience. It was wonderful to work with a group of people so committed to the care of these amazing animals. Everyone had to work very hard to allow these health checks to happen, and at the end of week, we celebrated with a party and shared the very American dessert “s’mores” with the staff. I am very thankful to the Detroit Zoological Society for providing me with the opportunity to travel to the Congo, and honored to be able to serve the people and gorillas of GRACE.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the chief veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Notes from the Field: Two Weeks in the Panamanian Jungle

Recently, I found myself trekking through the jungle, holding a machete, in search of the perfect piece of wood. This wasn’t a typical day of work for me with the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) – I’m usually found in the National Amphibian Conservation Center (NACC) at the Detroit Zoo, changing filters, cleaning misting lines and feeding tadpoles. But on this particular day, I was in El Valle, Panama, a small town situated in the valley of an extinct volcano; the historic home to the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki), a species that is critically endangered in the wild.

The DZS has maintained a breeding population of Panamanian golden frogs at the NACC since the year 2000 as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, a cooperative management program that ensures genetically healthy, diverse and self-sustaining populations of threatened and endangered species. Since I personally care for and breed this delicate species at the Detroit Zoo, it was truly awe-inspiring for me to travel to Panama; to see and experience the tropical cloud forest habitat that was home to the golden frog until the late 1950s, when the last sightings were reported in the area.

Like many amphibian population declines worldwide, the threat to the Panamanian golden frog is a multi-pronged, human-induced sucker punch of climate change, de-forestation and over-collection for the pet trade. Also, a very serious parasitic fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or “chytrid Bd” [ki-trid] became present in the area. This fungus thrives in the environment of a cloud forest and caused a dramatic decline in amphibians through the region.

Despite the thrill of viewing some amazing wildlife on our walk through the Panamanian jungle, I wasn’t there to enjoy the scenery. My purpose in traveling to El Valle was to assist the limited staff at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), a small conservation center dedicated to breeding and researching the country’s most endangered amphibians, as well as educating the community in Panama about the amphibians in the area.

For two weeks, I trained the staff at EVACC on habitat design and maintenance. I shared techniques for designing water features, drilling enclosures for bulkhead placement and “propping” habitats – gathering supplies like logs, plants and rocks to create a naturalistic environment. One day was dedicated to removing and replacing an old “roof ” of a habitat planned for golden frogs, which was the size of a living room. Other days involved finding things like sticks, logs and foliage to prop the habitats, and since all of the animals were from the surrounding area, most of what we were collecting could be found and disinfected within the grounds of the conservation center.

The EVACC’s newly designed habitats would be playing an important role in the “Golden Frog Day” in El Valle, a celebration of the magical amphibian that once lived and thrived among the misty forests of the mountains. Without public support in its country of origin, there could be no future for this animal. With newly renovated habitats and the beauty of this vibrantly colored amphibian, visitors to the center can begin to understand the value of this species and the power it holds as members of the community work to conserve it.

A true reward for all of this hard work and training came several days after leaving Panama, when I received an email from EVACC staff informing me that they had drilled their first tank and were using techniques that I taught them to install a new waterfall feature. While I had ditched my machete and my head lamp, no longer needing to trek into the jungle for my work with the Panamanian golden frogs at the Detroit Zoo, I know that the work we are doing some 4,000 miles away from their home is just as critical to the survival of this incredible species.

– Mark Vassallo is an amphibian department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.