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.

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.

Experience a Story of Survival

Nearly three decades ago, a tiny Tahitian land snail called the Partula nodosa was declared extinct in the wild – only 26 individual snails remained. In a final attempt to save the species from being completely wiped from the Earth, those 26 snails were sent to the Detroit Zoo as part of a cooperative breeding program.

Animal care staff worked carefully to provide the best possible living conditions for the snails while focusing on their successful reproduction, which eventually resulted in the rescue and recovery of the species. Thirty years later, there are now more than 6,000 individuals living in North American zoos, all descendants from the original group that came to the Detroit Zoo. In the last two years, 160 of these snails have been sent to Tahiti for reintroduction in the wild.

Visitors to the Detroit Zoo can become a part of this story at Shelle Isle, an exhibit in the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery that features the conservation story of these tiny mollusks. Guests are transported to the Tahitian rainforest, surrounded by tropical plants. A short video tells the snails’ story from a stable population in the first half of the 20th century to their sharp decline in the late 1970s, when an attempt to protect farmers’ crops from African land snails went awry and the Florida rosy wolf snails that were introduced to control the population preferred to eat the Partulid snails. The video also includes footage from the release of the Detroit-bred snails in Tahiti in 2015. Guests are invited to feel the shell of a giant replica of the Partula nodosa and more closely observe its structure and form. A second monitor has a live camera feed into the p. nodosa habitat in a behind-the-scenes area at the Detroit Zoo, giving guests a glimpse of the snails’ daily lives.

A favorite feature in this space is a large, “fallen” log where tiny, exact replica snails sit. Two magnifying glasses attached to the log allow visitors to get a close view of these tiny creatures. Many of them have a yellow number painted on their shell, which represents the way the snails are tagged by scientists before being released in Tahiti in order to monitor their movements and survival. The few that don’t have numbers painted on them are meant to demonstrate the successful reproduction in the wild that researchers have already observed, and the project’s continued success.

For us, an important part of this story is that it focuses not on a charismatic megavertebrate, but on a species that is not well-known, isn’t found on nursery walls or represented in the rows of stuffed animals on a toy store shelf. Conservation is not a beauty contest; all animals are important and the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) works tirelessly to conserve species large and small – including the tiniest and slimiest of snails. By supporting the DZS, you are a critical part of this important work.

– Claire Lannoye Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Amphibian Conservation: Fired Up About Salamanders

From the days of old, salamanders have captured the imagination of humankind. Long ago, when people would place logs in a fire, brightly colored salamanders would often come scurrying away from the flames. Of course, this was because the salamander’s hiding place was burning, but people in medieval times assumed that the salamander was a creature that came from the flames. People supposed that salamanders were imbued with mystical properties and they became the alchemic symbol for the element of fire.

Despite this long-time association with flame, salamanders are unlikely to be found near a toasty fire. There are more than 600 species of salamanders known, and most of them prefer cool, damp places to live. These critters are often found in a variety of places, including under logs, in rock crevices, high in trees, or living in cool bodies of water, ranging from puddles to fast moving rivers.

Unlike lizards, which look similar to salamanders, salamanders have moist, scale-less skin. Salamanders use their unique skin to intake water, absorb nutrients, and even breathe.

Most species of salamanders are born with a larval stage, similar to the tadpole stage of a frog. The larval salamander is aquatic, has external gills, and has no limbs upon hatching. As the larva grows, it develops legs. Many species of salamanders undergo metamorphosis, losing their gills and undergoing other small body changes as they transfer from water to land.

Salamanders are critical indicators of environmental health, and are key players in the health of ecosystems. These animals serve as sentinels for anything that is changing in the environment. Such changes include pollution, disease or climate change. Almost 50 percent of salamander species are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Detroit Zoological Society is working toward preventing these wonderful creatures from going extinct through breeding and release programs, habitat restoration and population surveys.

We invite you to celebrate these remarkable creatures with us during a special event called Salamander Saturday on May 6. National Amphibian Conservation Center staff and volunteers will provide informative zookeeper talks, storytelling, games and crafts. This event is free with Detroit Zoo admission. Sneak a peek at salamanders and learn all about these unique animals during this fun family event.

– Dr. Ruth Marcec is the Director of the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Wildlife Conservation: All Along the Water Tower

Peregrine falcons are a cliff-nesting species whose populations were significantly reduced in the 1950s as a result of environmental contamination by the pesticide DDT. This dangerous chemical accumulated in adult birds and caused thin-shelled eggs, which broke during incubation. The population declined rapidly and by the early 1960s, peregrine falcons were extinct in the eastern U. S.; the last known pair nested in Michigan in 1957. It was one of the first species listed by the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

An effort to reintroduce peregrine falcons into urban environments began in 1982 when chicks were released, or “hacked”, from buildings, bridges and other man-made structures in cities throughout the eastern U.S. Because they strictly hunt birds, peregrines find ample prey in cities with their abundance of pigeons, doves, starlings and other city-dwelling species. This successful reintroduction effort led to peregrines nesting in cities throughout the Midwest and a growing population not only in cities, but in much of their former natural range such as the cliffs along Lake Superior. The now wild peregrine population did so well that they were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999.

Peregrines currently nest at a number of locations in southeast Michigan including in Warren, Pontiac, Southfield, Grosse Pointe and seven different sites in Detroit. They nest in other Michigan cities as well including Grand Rapids, Lansing and Jackson. Many of the chicks are banded with unique combinations that allow for individual identification when they mature and establish their own nests. Locally, the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) veterinary staff works with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the banding effort by performing health assessments as bands are put on pre-fledged chicks.

This past summer, DZS staff and local birders noticed a pair of peregrines perching on the Detroit Zoo’s iconic water tower and hunting pigeons at the Zoo and in Royal Oak. While difficult to see, the male was identified as Justice, a bird hatched in 2012 at the Jackson County Tower Building with a band combination of black/red, 08/P. The female is not banded so we do not know her age or hatch location, but they are a well bonded pair that is still observed around the Zoo.

Often when a pair of peregrines establish a territory such as the water tower with plentiful prey nearby, they will end up nesting at that site. Peregrines lay their eggs on gravel or dirt with minimal nesting material. Because the water tower did not have a proper area for the birds to build a nest, DZS staff worked with the DNR to design and construct a nest box that will meet the needs of the nesting birds. The box was recently installed on the water tower, which was not an easy task. The box is on the southeast side to offer protection from the wind while exposed to ample sunshine. It is visible from the westbound service drive as you wait for the light at Woodward.

We are thrilled that peregrines have chosen the Detroit Zoo as a home along with other native birds, such as the turkey vultures, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants and even the occasional visiting bald eagle. We are optimistic that peregrines will join the species that also nest at the Zoo, which includes wood ducks, green herons and the highly visible breeding colony of black-crowned night herons, a species normally found in secluded wetlands.

– Tom Schneider is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Penguin Conservation Work Begins in the Falklands

When I was told that more people have landed on the moon than on North Island in the Falklands, I was thrilled that I would be able to join those lucky few. Though it may be just a tiny speck on the map in the south Atlantic Ocean, the Falklands are a new horizon for penguin conservation.

Detroit Zoo penguin keeper Charlie Ramsey and I headed to this remote island for a December 2016 expedition on behalf of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) extensive worldwide wildlife conservation efforts. We joined officials from Falklands Conservation (FC) to conduct baseline population surveys of southern rockhopper penguins, black-browed albatross and other sea birds and wildlife on North Island and five other islands nearby that were recently acquired by FC.

The DZS has partnered with Falklands Conservation for several years, and with the recent opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, working with this organization directly in the field was a natural next step. The Falklands are critically important for several species of penguins that are also found at the Detroit Zoo, such as rockhoppers, gentoo and king penguins – but threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism. It is thus essential to establish marine protected areas, and the DZS is working with Falklands Conservation reach this goal.

To get to our destination, we first flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, then to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, where we hopped on a small six-person airplane to Weddell Island and then boarded the ship, Le Sourire, for a four-hour trip to the western edge of the Falklands. Over the calm seas, our journey was highlighted by dolphins playing in the ship’s wake, and as we approached North Island I could see why so few people had ever landed there. In addition to the sheer cliff faces, the only landing spot was occupied by sea lions. We had to scramble up the rock face and then work through thick tussock grass where the animals were resting. I had been warned not to get between sea lions and the ocean, and as they barreled down to the water after being disturbed, I could see why.

We safely arrived at the first penguin and albatross colony. In addition to gathering albatross fecal samples and penguin feathers for diet analyses, we also wanted to test how well a drone could be used for population surveys of the colonies. Charlie expertly flew the drone up to 275 yards high and at distances over 875 yards away, capturing incredible images of the colonies that were close enough to count individual birds and far enough away to see additional colonies over the whole island. The drone proved a very cost-efficient way to survey the island and shots of the cliff sides also helped the folks with Falklands Conservation to better appreciate how much they were being used by nesting birds.

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North Island was the focus of our expedition because it has not been grazed by sheep or cattle and remains relatively pristine. We also used the drone to assess the recovery of tussock grass on three other FC islands which varied greatly in condition. One had been only lightly grazed and tussock remained in dense stands as at North Island while the others were quite barren with tussock only starting to recover. Facilitating this recovery is one of the primary focuses of Falklands Conservation, and pictures from the drone will provide valuable metrics for comparison.

By the third day at sea, the weather had become more typical for the Falklands, with periods of relative calm interrupted by hail squalls. The rough seas prevented a return flight from Weddell Island so instead, we headed north to the ship owner’s farm near Dunbar. This proved fortuitous because the next day as the weather calmed a bit, we were able to observe two large colonies of gentoo penguins before the flight back to Stanley. We also had the opportunity to visit the rescue center which cares for oiled penguins. At the moment, the center only cares for a few penguins at a time but with increased oil development planned in the area, the number of oiled birds needing proper cleaning and rehabilitation is sure to increase. The Detroit Zoological Society is a leader in oil emergency responses, and with potential disasters looming in the Falklands, there may be opportunities for us to partner with FC in the future, using our training, experience and expertise in this area in addition to conducting further research.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Arriving in Antarctica

Reporting back from blue water. We experienced some rain, but only light winds as we sailed through the infamous Drake Passage, offering us the “Drake lake” not the “Drake shake”! Throughout the Passage, many more feathered companions greeted us including Wilson’s storm petrels, slender-billed prions, light-mantled albatross and more. The light-mantled albatross is a majestic flyer that glided around our boat effortlessly.

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During our fourth evening on the boat, icebergs and pieces of ice started to consistently drift by while the rain changed to snow. We were getting close! By early afternoon on day five, the boat entered the 16-mile-long Neumayer Channel, which is a breathtakingly gorgeous passage. We cruised through incredible snow-covered cliffs, while icebergs of varying beautiful hues of blue floated past us. A couple ghost-like snow petrels made an appearance. Snow petrels are a pure white bird with black eyes and a black beak and are found in southern Georgia and Antarctica. We eventually passed Port Lockroy, which has a British research base and the nearest post office. Then, in the clearing as the clouds parted slightly, we could see a small collection of buildings: the U. S. Palmer Station and my home for the next couple of months.

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A handful of gentoo penguins came to the edge of the ice to greet us while we were landing the boat. It was nice to feel the hard ground under our feet after the wonderful five-day voyage. Since we landed in the evening, we hung out for a while at the station, meeting the very friendly current residents and then headed back to the boat for the night. The following morning, we got right to work unloading our gear, followed by a half-day of orientation. After orientation, I found my way down to a small hut, which is known as the “birders” office. The “birders” is a station nickname for our group that does bird research. I am joining three fantastic, expert field biologists to do field work/research on gentoo, adelie, and chinstrap penguins, southern giant-petrels, brown skuas and more. Much of the work involves long-term ecological studies and is associated with figuring out the bird’s relationship to and impact from climate change. This work is overseen and guided by the principal investigator, the world-renowned polar ecologist Dr. Bill Fraser, who also consulted with the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) on the design of the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, a spectacular facility under construction at the Detroit Zoo.

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Also while I’m down here, I will be able to absorb knowledge that can be brought back to the Detroit Zoo’s already expert penguin staff. Conservation and animal welfare are priorities of the DZS and this incredible opportunity will allow us to continue to improve the already excellent welfare we ensure for animals. The Detroit Zoo, home to the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare, is known internationally for our animal welfare program, and we are always challenging ourselves and our industry to continue improving. Starting tomorrow, I will jump into the field and will report back soon. Thank you for reading!

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending the next few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.