Animal Welfare – Understanding the Needs of Amphibians

The penguins living at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center are not the only water-dependent species being studied by the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare (CZAW). We are conducting research to uncover indicators of welfare in frogs, toads and salamanders living at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

Welfare indicators in amphibian species have largely consisted of body condition scoring and measures of reproductive success, neither of which provide comprehensive understanding of how individual animals are faring. Identifying additional indicators can help us to better understand the needs of amphibians living in zoos.

Due to the catastrophic declines in amphibian populations around the world in recent years, amphibian conservation has become a priority for zoos and other conservation organizations. While many institutions prioritize the management of captive populations of amphibians as one strategy in the preservation of these species, virtually no literature exists today regarding how the captive representatives of rapidly vanishing amphibians are faring. The Detroit Zoological Society created the National Amphibian Conservation Center nearly two decades ago, and it is still the largest facility dedicated to amphibian conservation and care in the world. CZAW is now conducting studies to help understand the individual preferences and behavioral and physiological responses of these animals to captive environments and husbandry practices, as well as individual capacities for coping with stressors of captive environments.

Housing animals in multi-species habitats is a common practice in zoos and aquariums. Some amphibians however, such as poison dart frog species, may be housed together due to their shared environmental requirements and their conspicuous aesthetics. Little research has been conducted on the impact that mixed-species living has on the welfare of the individuals. At CZAW, we have examined how different species partition their habitat and how their behavior may be impacted by one another. This helps us ensure that the needs of each animal are being met.

While much emphasis has been placed on the impacts of captivity on the welfare of large mammals, little attention has been granted to large amphibians living in the care of humans. Japanese giant salamanders are currently listed as Near Threatened by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and their wild numbers are decreasing due to habitat loss and hunting.

These salamanders present a unique challenge when it comes to habitat design, given their potential to grow up to 1.5 meters in length and their nocturnal activity patterns. Traditional ways of housing amphibians may not be as successful for giant salamanders and in turn may impact their welfare. The Immersion Gallery at the amphibian center is being renovated as a new habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders, with the goal of giving the animals increased physical and social choices. We are also developing a project to assess the ways in which this increase in choice can improve the welfare of the individual salamanders.

As we continue to study how amphibians can thrive in zoos, we not only help the individuals, but we can also contribute to the efforts being made to conserve them. Greater understanding of how individual captive amphibians are faring is critical to ensuring their well-being and to meeting ethical obligations of keeping animals in captivity.

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

Notes from the Field – Peru

Hola amigas y amigos!

Alas, my work this season is almost completed, today is my last day in the rainforest. Since my last post, I ran into staff from the Detroit Zoological Society education department, who were in Peru for the Adopt-a-School program, and who assisted in an overnight adventure with the amphibian club. We all spent the night at a research station where we were able to enjoy an evening walk through the jungle looking for amphibians, the canopy walkway and the next day a morning walk back to the boats. We saw salamanders, several species of frogs and they have been very busy with their observations while I was back in the states.

Marcy - rainforest     Marcy - canopy rainforest

During November, the season begins where the rain becomes heavier and frequent, almost daily. This is when the rivers start to rise. Since I landed in Peru the river has already had a noticeable increase. However, one of the many lakes we visit in high water was still dry enough we could walk to it.

Last night, we traveled by boat to the edge of the narrow stream to hike to the place called Lorenzo Lake. This is one area that we monitor twice a year and expect to see hundreds of amphibians and calls that are nearly deafening. We were not expecting to see so many of the giant hunting ants (locals call bullet ants for the pain they inflict when they bite), we had to be especially careful passing brush from the narrow path carved out by our machete. Many scorpions and beautiful moths plagued the long hike to lake, but the calls we could hear before we docked could even dock the boat. It was a beautiful night!

– Detroit Zoological Society Curator of Amphibians Marcy Sieggreen is doing fieldwork in Peru, studying amphibians in the lower elevations of the Amazon River to see how they are faring with increased human populations and impacts in their habitats.

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.