Detroit Zoological Society Honored for Environmental Contributions

In recognition of our ongoing efforts in environmental sustainability, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently received the Keep Michigan Beautiful award. This honor, bestowed by Keep Michigan Beautiful Inc., highlights contributions we’ve made to preserve the land around us and create a better future for all.

This includes building an anaerobic digester, which will annually convert 500 tons of animal manure and organic food waste into a methane-rich gas that will power the Detroit Zoo’s animal hospital. We are also keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually by no longer selling bottled water on Zoo grounds. As part of this effort, we have free refillable filtered water stations throughout the Zoo and offer affordable reusable water bottles for guests. We also encourage visitors to purchase wildlife-themed reusable bags at our gift shops as we no longer provide plastic bags for purchases in order to reduce plastic waste. We’re incorporating permeable pavement into new visitor walkways – and even a parking lot – reducing storm water runoff and filtering pollutants. All of these efforts contribute to keeping Michigan beautiful.

All of these actions are guided by the Greenprint, a green roadmap that helps us refine and improve our facilities and daily practices, develop new policies and programs and improve green literacy and action in our community. Join us on this Green Journey! Download the Shades of Green Guide and learn how you can lighten your impact on the Earth.

Notes from the Field: Project Launched to Monitor Wild Bats at Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is going to bat for a misunderstood species.

Contrary to what pop culture would have you believe, bats are critically important to the environment. They are considered to be essential pollinators in some parts of the world. They also help control populations of insects including mosquitos – which can spread diseases to humans and other animals – and moths, which can significantly damage crops.

In fact, bats are said to save U.S. farmers more than $3 billion a year in agricultural production, according to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), which kicked off Bat Conservation Week (October 24-31) by announcing $1.36 million in grants to find a cure for a disease that is threatening several species of bats. Known as white-nose syndrome, this disease has wiped out more than 6 million bats in North America in the past decade.

The Detroit Zoological Society supports Bat Conservation International (BCI), one of the beneficiaries of the NFWF grant, which is not only working to conserve endangered species of bats, but also to preserve bat “hot spots” around the world and launch a global bat database for the more than 1,300 species of bats existing on the planet.

The DZS is committed to the conservation of bats, and supporting BCI is one part of a comprehensive plan. Staff is engaged in a bat monitoring project to determine which of the nine species of bats native to Michigan are using the Detroit Zoo as a wild habitat. An acoustic monitor senses the ultrasonic bat calls and creates a graph showing the frequency and characteristics of the calls. This system also changes the frequency so the calls can be heard by human ears. In addition to documenting which species are present, staff will also be able to determine what behaviors the bats are engaged in while making the calls, such as feeding or socializing. This project will also explore which species migrate from the Zoo during the winter.

Plans are also beginning to turn the former Penguinarium at the Detroit Zoo into a bat conservation center.

Notes from the Field: Tiny Shorebirds Get New Chance at Survival

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shore bird that breeds in three distinct geographic locations; the beaches along the Atlantic coast, the shorelines of the Great Lakes, and along major rivers of the northern Great Plains. The Great Lakes population is classified as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the other two populations are classified as threatened.

At one point, this population of Great Lakes piping plovers was estimated to range from 12 to 32 breeding pairs. After extensive observation, scientists found that plover nests were abandoned and concluded that salvaging these abandoned eggs could contribute to the species’ recovery. For almost two decades, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has led the effort to collect these abandoned eggs, incubate them and rear the chicks that hatch until they can be released to join wild plovers.

The DZS operates the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich., and oversees aviculturists from the Detroit Zoo and other Association of Zoos & Aquariums institutions who staff the facility from May through August. The dedicated zookeepers monitor the eggs during incubation and care for the chicks after they hatch. Once they are able to fly, after about four weeks, the birds – that would have otherwise perished – are banded and released into the wild. As they migrate to their wintering grounds, the plovers are identified by birders and photographers who report their findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I spent five weeks this summer at the captive rearing center, working with what I believe are some of the cutest chicks in the world. While our conservation efforts have been incredibly successful over the last 17 years, the Great Lakes piping plover population is still less than 80 breeding pairs annually. This year, seven DZS zookeepers and 12 staff members from eight other zoos helped raise 16 chicks from abandoned eggs to join the more than 90 chicks that wild birds raised.

Adult piping plovers tend to breed around the shores of the Great Lakes on large patches of undisturbed sandy beach filled with cobble. Sometimes, their nests are washed out by waves, a parent is killed by a predator, or an unleashed dog causes abandonment. These nests are closely monitored and when staff has determined that the eggs are not being incubated, they are officially declared abandoned and the eggs are transferred to the captive rearing center. In some cases, such as when a storm is passing through, “dummy” eggs will be placed in the nest while the real eggs are placed in an incubator overnight and then returned the next day.

The captive rearing center has multiple incubators and equipment to nurture each egg and provide the conditions it needs to develop a healthy embryo. After almost four weeks in the egg, a little plover chick will spend two to four days hatching. Newly hatched chicks weigh about as much as three pennies yet are very mobile, looking for food within a few hours of hatching. When a full clutch of four chicks hatches, it looks like four cotton balls on eight toothpicks running around.

Rearing plover chicks properly and assuring they will be ready for release is no easy task. We weigh the chicks every morning and observe them to make sure each bird is thriving. Bonnie Van Dam, the DZS’s associate curator of birds and manager of the captive rearing operations, fields any questions from staff. One chick in particular needed a little more help from staff this year as it had difficulty hatching, curved toes, bowed legs and some feather abnormalities (genetic issues that can’t be avoided), but zookeepers did not give up on this little chick, providing antibiotics, extra feeds and extra practice flying. In the end, although a little different, this bird had incredible character running around and flying well.

We routinely feed the birds a variety of insects every few hours while they also learn to forage on wild insects. They grow fast and their flight feathers start coming in within two weeks. At 17 or 18 days old, the piping plovers are starting to stretch their wings and by 25-27 days they should be flying well. We have one flight pen along the beach where the plovers grow, forage and learn natural behaviors; another is attached to our building to give them outdoor access overnight and more space to practice flying.

Plover fledglings are usually released between 28 and 33 days old. This year we reared 16 chicks that were released into the wild. Most releases occur in an area where there are similarly aged wild chicks; often the releases happen at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is an incredible feeling opening the door to the crate and letting these small chicks fly free. They immediately start foraging, bathing and or flying around. With a little luck and some decent wind, they will make it to the Atlantic coast or maybe even the Bahamas, enjoy winter, and return to northern Michigan next spring. On August 14, we released the final four birds of the season at Sleeping Bear Dunes, including the special little chick who needed all the extra help. This bird ran down the beach and almost immediately started flying! Each piping plover is a special part of our Great Lakes ecosystem – please be mindful as you share the beaches with these charismatic yet fragile friends.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Uncovering Turtle Personalities

Several years ago, we developed a project through the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) Center for Zoo Animal Welfare to determine if we could identify specific personality traits in Blanding’s turtles. That’s right – turtles! Personality has been linked to survivorship in a number of species, and as the DZS is actively involved in conservation efforts with the Blanding’s turtle – a species of special concern in the state of Michigan – we wanted to learn more. Two personality traits emerged from our research: aggressiveness and exploration, with individuals ranging from low to high in either category. We also discovered that a connection exists between these traits and how Blanding’s turtles fare in the wild.

Researchers have been monitoring the population of Blanding’s turtles in Michigan for several years and making efforts to ensure their numbers don’t drop any further. Female Blanding’s turtles typically lay eggs this time of year, and they often travel rather long distances to find suitable nesting grounds. This certainly puts them at risk, especially as road mortality is one of the major threats they face. When baby turtles hatch, they must find their way back to water, which leaves them vulnerable to predation. The DZS became involved in a head-starting program for this species in 2011. This means that eggs are incubated at the Detroit Zoo and the hatchlings are allowed to grow up safely until they reach a certain size, at which point they are released back into the wild.

We used a series of behavioral tests to uncover specific personality traits, including what is often referred to as the mirror test. A mirror is placed in the testing space and the turtle can choose to approach it and to interact with it. As amazing as turtles are, they cannot recognize themselves in a mirror and hence perceive their reflection to be another turtle. By examining their reaction, we definitely saw each turtle as an individual. Some were reluctant to approach, some were uninterested, some were trying to interact gently, and some were very adamant that there was only room for one turtle in the pond!

Once we identified the personality traits, we wanted to understand what links there may be between personality and the turtles’ behavior and survival once released into their natural habitat. Field researchers from the University of Michigan-Flint tracked the turtles post-release for two years and shared their data with us.

Based on our analyses, turtles that demonstrated high exploration had better survival rates than those who scored low in exploration. During the first year, turtles that were more aggressive traveled further from their release site, but over the entire course of the tracking period, turtles that were more exploratory traveled the most. Turtles that were rated as more aggressive and exploratory were found basking more often. Turtles will rest in the sun to help thermoregulate. This helps them to be more energetically efficient, but being exposed may put them at higher risk of predation. The different personalities therefore behave in different ways that amount to a trade-off in risks and benefits.

Finally, all turtles, regardless of personality, showed a distinct preference for areas vegetated with cattails. Given this demonstrated preference, we now know that this type of habitat might really benefit turtles in future releases.

– Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Greenprint: Plastic in the Great Lakes

Approximately 21.8 million pounds of plastic flow into the Great Lakes every year, more than half of which ends up in Lake Michigan, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology. For another way to grasp this fact, think of it this way: The plastic pollution in Lake Michigan is about the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with plastic bottles.

Photo by Rachel Handbury

While this study was the first to document our plastic problem, it is only the first step toward solving it. Perhaps imagining 100 pools full of plastic bottles will inspire members of our community to make the choice to limit their consumption of plastic altogether.

Approximately 80 percent of the litter on the shorelines of the Great Lakes is plastic, researchers estimate. This includes plastics that quickly sink to the bottom, as well as surface plastics like microbeads, fragments and pellets, plastic line and Styrofoam, which is often consumed by wildlife and likely causing harm.

Through our award-winning Greenprint initiative, the Detroit Zoological Society has taken steps to reduce plastic waste by eliminating the sale of bottled water at Detroit Zoo concessions and no longer providing plastic bags for purchases made at gift shops. Affordable reusable bottles and bags are instead available for purchase. We are also currently working on reducing the plastic packaging of items sold in Zoofari Market, Drake Passage Gifts and the Arctic Outpost. Please join us on our Green Journey by making a green New Year’s resolution to reduce your own plastic waste in the following ways:

  • Bring reusable bags on every trip to the grocery store.
  • Drink from a reusable water bottle and fill it from the tap.
  • Store food in glass containers instead of zip-top bags.
  • Pack waste-free meals using a lunch box.
  • Avoid plastic packaging. If the items you currently buy have excess plastic packaging, speak up to the manufacturer.
  • When ordering beverages in a restaurant, request that the server brings them without straws.
  • Avoid using disposable party-ware at your next event.
  • Read labels and do not purchase products containing microbeads.
  • If no plastic alternative is available for purchases, consider buying in bulk to avoid unnecessary plastic packaging.

Let’s keep the Great Lakes beautiful and safe for wildlife!

– Rachel Handbury is the manager of sustainability for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the implementation of Greenprint initiatives.

Notes from the Field: Recovering American Martens

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is continuing its efforts on an American marten conservation project in the Manistee National Forest. This spring, I was given the exciting opportunity to assist collaborators from Grand Valley State University and Busch Gardens on this project. Martens are small, weasel-like carnivores that became extirpated (locally extinct) from the lower peninsula of Michigan in the early 1900s because of habitat loss and unregulated trapping. Martens were reintroduced back to the Manistee Forest more than 30 years ago, and since 2013, veterinary and animal care staff from the DZS have been helping to study the success of the marten reintroduction by looking at animal health, kit survival and habitat use. This work involves collecting martens in live traps and then anesthetizing them in order to perform physical exams and collect samples of blood, hair, urine and feces. The DZS uses Hav-A-Heart traps, humane traps that close in such a way that they do not harm the animal. The traps are set carefully to ensure that martens have a nice snug spot. We cover each trap with pine needles and leaves for warmth and nest building, and ensure the martens have a snack and a source of water. The collected samples are then tested for disease. The project also uses GPS and radio tracking collars to gather information on marten habitat use and determines which forest types they prefer.

My time spent in Manistee involved daily morning checks of approximately 30-40 live traps for martens. If a marten is in a trap, it is then transported to the bed of a pickup truck in order to induce anesthesia and be examined. Special care is taken to monitor the marten’s body temperature to be sure that it does not become too hot or too cold during the procedure, and after samples are collected, a GPS collar may be placed on the marten to track habitat use. When the procedure is complete, the marten recovers in a small, dark wooden box until it is stable enough to be released. Once stable, a staff member opens a little door on the box and the marten runs off back into the forest. This entire process usually takes about 30 minutes from beginning to end.

During my time assisting with the project, I spent many hours riding down narrow, bumpy and winding two-track forest trails. Some of these trails were quite precarious, but travelling them gave me the opportunity to see migrating birds, deer, a porcupine and even a black bear! We were able to collect samples from four martens and place GPS collars on three of those four, dramatically increasing the amount of data collected on marten habitat use. These GPS collars were purchased with financial support from the DZS, and the data will be used in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service to decide how the forest can best be managed to facilitate recovery of the marten population. It was thrilling to be a part of this project and I am thankful to the DZS for allowing me this opportunity.

– Erica Campbell is a veterinary technician for the Detroit Zoological Society and works in the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Notes from the Field: Monitoring the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) leads the Eastern massasauga rattlesnake Species Survival Plan (SSP), which is a comprehensive management plan through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) that works to ensure the sustainability of healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied captive animal populations. The DZS is also one of several organizations within the AZA that participates in a long-term study of a particular population of Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in Michigan.

The Eastern massasauga rattlesnake is the mitten state’s only venomous viper, and is listed in Michigan as a species of special concern, which means it is threatened or endangered throughout its range. This SSP is a special one because each year, representatives from participating zoos attend a meeting in conjunction with an “in situ” study, which means that it takes place in the field.

This year marked our eighth monitoring a particular population of Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in the southwest part of the state, and it was our best year to date – we found more than 100 snakes! This includes snakes that were found in previous years as well as newly identified individuals. The process involves gathering information on each snake in the field and then taking it to a lab where it is weighed and measured. We also determined if it is a male or a female and if female, whether it is pregnant (massasaugas give birth to live young). If the snake has never been found before, it is marked with a transponder tag – similar to those implanted in your pet dog or cat – so we can scan the animal and take measurements if it is found in the future. After the information has been gathered in the lab, the snake is then returned to the exact location where it was found.

Monitoring a seemingly healthy population over time gives us insight into natural fluctuations of the population size, male-to-female sex ratio, individual growth rates and reproductive success. As years goes by, the data will also begin to tell us life history data such as longevity of the species and how old animals remain reproductively active. All of this information assists the AZA zoos in how they manage the captive population as well as the state departments of natural resources in their management of the wild populations and the lands on which they are found.

– Jeff Jundt is the curator of reptiles for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Holden Reptile Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.