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”: 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.

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.

Notes from the Field: Mitigating Human-Bear Conflicts in Armenia

Armenia is a small country in the south Caucasus Mountains of west Asia between the Black and Caspian seas. Despite its size, Armenia is a hotspot for biodiversity and important for wildlife conservation because of its location at an intersection where wildlife converge from Eurasia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

The Detroit Zoological Society is a world-renowned leader in animal welfare, and an important convergence between wildlife conservation and animal welfare is the reduction of human-wildlife conflict. Far too often, humans perceive wildlife as having negative impacts on their productive activities and security – particularly in the case of large predators – which leads to the regular practice of animals being killed. As the largest predator in Armenia, the brown bear (Ursus arctos) suffers heavy persecution from intrusions into farmlands and perceived threats to human life. A recent global survey of the human-bear conflict emphasizes the need for investigations into the effectiveness of various approaches to mitigate the conflicts, such as providing compensation for damage to fields and the use of electric fencing to prevent bear intrusions. This is especially true for Armenia, where there is no current plan to alleviate the human-bear conflict, despite its ubiquity. Fortunately, there is great potential in Armenia for compassionate conservation work that mitigates the human-bear conflict and decreases the intances of humans killing bears in retribution.

I recently convened with our partners with the National Academy of Sciences to document the distribution and intensity of this conflict by conducting interviews and installing trail cameras. In early August, I travelled to the Shikahogh State Reserve in southern Armenia and the Vayats Dzor region in central Armenia. Our team connected with reserve officials, village leaders and landowners, and documented a great deal of evidence of this conflict including damage to orchards, fields and beehives – most interviewees indicated an increase in conflict over the last several years. To verify the presence of bears, we set trail cameras in the Shikahogh Reserve and adjacent villages as well as in the villages of Vayats Dzor.

We also gathered data on other wildlife in the area. For example, at one of the sites in the Vayats Dzor region, we heard reports of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra); the camera we set in this area will take pictures of both bears and otters. Otters are endangered in Armenia and one of the threats comes from hunters mistaking otters for introduced nutria (Myocastor coypus) and other wildlife. There is potential for us to implement an education program that would educate hunters about the protected status of otters in the hopes that it would prevent them from killing these animals. In addition, several of the cameras at Shikahogh were set in areas that are also promising for endangered Persian leopards (Panthera pardus taxicolor). Shikahogh borders protected areas in Iran where underpasses were recently established to act as wildlife corridors. Evidence of leopards using these underpasses would be very significant.

The trail cameras will be moved and reset this fall and additional cameras will be set in new villages. Next spring, we plan to establish a robust estimate of the number of bears in Vayats Dzor by placing cameras in all or most villages. We will also analyze the time stamps on the photos together with the characteristics of the bears photographed. In the coming years, we will document the bear conflict in the Syunik region between Shikahogh and Vayats Dzor as well as northern Armenia and explore ways to mitigate the conflict, such as offering compensation programs, installing electric fencing and facilitating safe bear ecotourism, so the bear presence can positively impact the economy. The camera data will also be used to find important areas to potentially implement protected status. The National Academy of Sciences in Armenia is striving to set up a network of protected areas that will stretch across Armenia, linking Iran in the south with Georgia in the north.

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

Notes from the Field – The Struggle for Life in Antarctica

As soon as I arrived in Antarctica I began observing penguin behavior. After working in animal care and observing zoo penguins for more than two decades, this comes naturally to me – it’s what I do. I not only wanted to develop a better understanding of how penguins exist in their natural environment, but I also wanted to glean any information that would benefit the penguins that live at the Detroit Zoo. My first glimpse of penguins was on the shoreline of King George Island before we boarded the Ocean Nova. I was thrilled to see two chinstrap penguins that came ashore, presumably to rest after foraging at sea. As the ship made its way through the Shetland Islands towards the Weddell Sea, I began seeing small groups of penguins porpoising through the waves. Their torpedo-like bodies are well designed to travel efficiently for what are sometimes great distances in search of food for themselves and their hungry chicks.

 

Thereafter, we visited penguin colonies daily, most of which numbered in the thousands. It was the height of the breeding season and the islands and Peninsula were teeming with birdlife. The Adelie penguin chicks were the first to hatch and most were too large to brood under their parents. They formed small groups, or crèches, which provide protection from skuas and southern giant petrels that were always nearby looking for meals for their own growing chicks. Ravenous penguin chicks were frantically chasing weary parents down incredibly high rocky slopes and across rocky beaches, only stopping when the parents went out to sea. At this age, penguin chicks are only fed once or twice daily as their parents need to make longer trips to find food. When they finally return with full bellies, the chase begins again. The most vigorous chicks will get the largest meal and will ultimately thrive.

A visit to a gentoo colony made the struggle for life very apparent. There were numerous skuas present, more than I had observed at any penguin colony thus far. The later-hatching gentoo chicks were still being brooded by their parents and many were just starting to crèche. They are most vulnerable during this time when both parents must spend more time at sea and can no longer guard them. I was struck by this proximity of predator and prey. Although they seemed to be coexisting somewhat peacefully, it became apparent that the skuas were constantly watching for any sign of vulnerability. I began noticing obvious signs of this.

There is also danger at sea. Leopard seals will typically linger just offshore of penguin colonies during the breeding season looking for an easy meal. Fledgling penguins are especially vulnerable as they venture out to sea for the first time, unaware of what lies ahead. I observed a group of loafing Adelie penguins sharing an ice floe with a leopard seal that was resting just a few feet away – a seemingly peaceful coexistence that could and would change at a moment’s notice. I began to not only see the struggle for life here, but feel it as well.

I have read much literature about wild penguins and the Antarctic environment over the years, but the knowledge that I gained is something that could only be experienced firsthand. I returned home with a much greater understanding of the plight of these wild penguins, and an even greater sense of resolve and satisfaction in knowing that our resident penguins have lives that include great care and welfare, and without the struggle for life.

– Jessica Jozwiak is a bird department supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.