Notes from the Field: Scientists Set Sail on Seabird Study

This is Part II of a series about a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands by the Detroit Zoological Society to understand the threats facing populations of wild penguins and seabirds. For Part I, click here.

Conducting scientific research in the Falkland Islands can be logistically challenging. Located 300 miles to the east off the southern tip of South America, this remote territory consists of two main islands and several hundred smaller islands dotting the South Atlantic. Some of these islands have rocky cliffs at the ocean’s edge. Others are completely inaccessible.

With this said, the Falkland Islands provide critical habitats for several species of penguins, seabirds and other wildlife, and such fieldwork is necessary to preserve these populations and understand the risks they face. Threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism in the area.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) was asked by a partner organization called Falklands Conservation to develop a project that would explore the impacts of infectious disease, pollution and tourism on these populations. After months of preparation, a DZS veterinary team embarked on the mission.

Traveling to the Falklands from Detroit is a 50-hour journey. First, you fly to Atlanta and then to Santiago, Chile. The next day, you fly to Punta Arenas, Chile and then continue on to Stanley, the largest city in the Falklands. Stanley has a population of roughly 2,000 people, and about 900 people live elsewhere in the islands. By comparison, there are approximately 450,000 sheep spread over the islands, which amounts to more than 150 sheep per human. There is also an estimated 800 miles of coastline in the Falklands, which is home to four species of penguins and numerous other seabirds.

The DZS’s goal was to take blood and feather samples from penguins living in different locations within the Falkland Islands. Some had experienced the presence of humans, industrial shipping and oil activity and others were far removed from these potential impacts. The team also set out to examine two penguin species, one that tends to forage closer to land and one that travels far out to sea.

The research team’s home base for the expedition was a 55-foot sailboat. Each morning, the team would pack supplies into backpacks, get dropped off on an island and hike to various penguin colonies to collect the samples over an eight-hour period. One day, the team was set up on a beach near a gentoo colony and the next was spent on rocky cliff near a rockhopper colony.

Each penguin was handled for less than 10 minutes, during which time the team conducted a physical exam, took swabs to test for viruses and bacteria, collected blood and used scissors to trim a few feathers for toxicology testing. Afterward, each of the penguins went right back to their colonies and continued their regular activities of grooming and socializing.

In the evenings, our researchers took over every surface of the boat and spent three or four hours centrifuging the blood, making slides and getting samples ready for storage in liquid nitrogen tanks for preservation until our return to Michigan.

In all, the team examined 95 penguins. Our hope is that we can better understand the current health status of these penguins as well as the impacts disease and exposure to environmental toxins and humans may have on wildlife. Ultimately, measures could be taken in this region to ensure important marine habitats – and the wildlife who rely on them – are protected.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Answer the Call – Gorillas are on the Line

Grab your cell phone (if it’s not already in your hand) and go to your most recent calls. Scroll through your list. How many calls did you receive? How many minutes did you spend talking? What about texts – how many have you sent today? What if I told you, that every time you grab your phone, whether it be for a call, a text or to browse your social media accounts, you’ve held the fate of a gorilla in the palm of your hand?

A little heavier than you thought? The topic – not the gorilla. While gorillas can weigh upwards of 500 pounds, a cell phone typically only weighs about 4 ounces. But the actual weight of this issue is so much larger than what can be measured with a scale.

While materials like plastic, nickel, copper and zinc are common in most cell phones, there’s one rare and valuable mineral, coltan, in all cell phones and small electronics that directly impacts the survival of gorillas. Eighty percent of the world’s supply of coltan is found in Central Africa, which is prime gorilla habitat. Imagine having the cell phone equivalent of gold in your backyard. There would be a lot of people showing up at your house with shovels in their hands and dollar signs in their eyes. That’s the situation for coltan and the gorillas.

Coltan is luring miners into the forests, which causes trouble for these animals. Their habitat is becoming logged and dug up so the miners can reach the coltan, and people are bringing in diseases, which the gorillas can easily contract. People are also illegally hunting gorillas – either to eat, sell or trade for more supplies. The more cell phones people buy, the more coltan needs to be mined, and more gorillas are becoming homeless. With their numbers dwindling in the wild as it is, let’s work together to save them.

The Detroit Zoological Society is partnering with other accredited zoos within the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to launch a cellphone recycling program from February 1 through April 30. Our collective goal is to gather 10,000 mobile phones and engage 10,000 children and community members to help save gorillas. In addition to mobile phones, we will also accept iPads, iPods, cameras, chargers, etc., because they, too, contain coltan.

Fewer than 20 percent of old cell phones are recycled. So, whether yours are collecting dust in the garage or in a junk drawer somewhere in your house, consider bringing your old phones and electronics to the Detroit Zoo during the next three months. Donation bins will be set up at the Main Entrance; you can also deliver them to the guest relations associates manning the ticket booths. We’re also looking for local schools to join us in this venture and make a direct impact on saving species. If your school or classroom is interested in helping us protect gorillas, you can email cvankampen@dzs.org. Also, mark your calendar for our World Gorilla Day celebration at the Detroit Zoo on Tuesday, September 24.

– Aaron Jesue is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Eurasian Otter Conservation Continues in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) latest wildlife conservation initiative, preserving endangered Eurasian otters, continued with an expedition to Armenia in late 2018. Their status in this country has declined dramatically in recent years while numbers have also fallen in neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran.

Our first goal of the project is to understand where the otter population currently stands throughout the regions of Armenia that contain separate river systems, which provide suitable habitats for otters. These 13 systems – called watersheds – don’t always show signs of otters inhabiting them, so the DZS is working to identify and prioritize which of those locations are best suited for the preservation of this species.

On our first expedition in June, we discovered that the otter populations the southcentral region of Armenia were significantly greater than expected. If these conclusions are accurate, it would be rare but exciting news in conservation work.

We returned in December and traveled to watershed areas in north and central Armenia to confirm the presence and relative abundance of otters in these regions During these investigations, we confirmed reports of otter conflict with humans in the area. Otters were found to be eating the trout in fish farms that would eventually be reintroduced to Lake Sevan as part of a native species restocking project.

Surveys conducted on foot of the areas near Arpi Lake National Park and Dilijan National Park showed signs of the presence of otters, including tracks, feces and other indicators such as partially eaten fish. These surveys, along with interviews with local residents, suggest that hunting by humans has also led to the decline of otters in the area.

Additionally, photographs downloaded from our trail camera along the Arpa River revealed not only otters, but illegal fishermen. Proof of this activity will help us greatly in making a case to establish a protected area. In addition to documenting illegal fishing in these areas, which depletes otter food sources, we’ve also documented illegal otter trapping efforts. We hope that if this illegal activity can be stopped, migration of otters from neighboring populations will help restore their numers in the area.

Plans for 2019 include reviewing additional trail camera images from Arpi Lake National Park, and surveying the remaining watersheds in Armenia. After completing this work, we will be able to provide a robust update on the status of otters in this country. With that information, we can continue to explore options to set up sustainable protected areas, as well as develop local education programs to enhance otter conservation in these important areas.

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

Notes from the Field: Studying Penguins in the Falkland Islands

Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) staff are in the Falkland Islands for the third consecutive year to conduct scientific studies on penguin populations. The DZS collaborates with Falkland Conservation (FC) to monitor remote and inaccessible islands with nesting penguin colonies.

DZS staff members are visiting sites that are not a part of the current monitoring network and where penguin censuses haven’t been conducted in years – even decades. The goal of this component of the program is to establish baseline population data, with subsequent visits on a rotating schedule.

This year, the DZS is also working to assess the status of the health of the penguins at two different locations: Berkeley Sound in the east Falklands, where there is heavy shipping activity; and Dunbar in the west Falklands, which has a limited occurrence of industrial shipping and oil activity. The two study sites are separated not only by distance, but also by the prevailing ocean currents, which run in opposite directions.

DZS veterinary and bird department staff are taking blood samples from approximately 100 gentoo and rockhopper penguins for disease surveillance, stress hormones and toxicology testing. Not only will the information gathered provide us with a view of the current health status of the penguin colonies in those two areas, but the information also establishes a baseline level of data that will be valuable in the event of future hydrocarbon exploration.

Visiting these sites is logistically challenging – the trip from Detroit to Dunbar included four flights and more than 50 hours of travel time. Once in Dunbar, our staff were met by the expedition ship that sailed to the island nesting sites. Access to the internet is limited and we have only received preliminary reports back from the field team, but so far, the health assessment research is going well.

Stay tuned for detailed reports from the Falkland Islands field team.

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

Notes from the Field: Conducting Scientific Research in Antarctica

Hello from the bottom of the world!

As a zookeeper who spends a lot of my time in an “arctic” environment in the Detroit Zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life, I never thought I’d be lucky enough to find myself on either pole and yet, here I am in Antarctica. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is engaged in ongoing field conservation work here alongside the Polar Oceans Research Group, studying the populations of penguins and other seabirds. As part of this project, I joined the team at the U.S. Palmer Research Station on the Antarctic peninsula to live and work for a month during the austral summer.

The route from Detroit is through Punta Arenas, Chile and then aboard the Laurence M. Gould icebreaker supply ship for a four-day ride across the rough seas of the Drake Passage. It was well worth it as we passed icebergs and whales along the way. Other passengers on the ship included biologists, a welder, an artist, IT personnel and others who had various goals once they reached the White Continent. The DZS’s mission for the next month is to take part in a three-person team involved in a long-term ecological research project studying Antarctic seabirds.

Weather permitting, we spend each day taking small boat rides to various islands to conduct as much fieldwork as the conditions will allow. This includes counting various species of birds and marine mammals, attempting to read ID band numbers (placed by biologists on birds’ legs to be able to keep track of age and location over the years) and adding GPS tags to different animals to monitor their movement.

The animals here are so removed from human activity that some species can actually be approached very closely by researchers and not fly away. All of this work is coordinated by the principal investigators and founders of the Polar Oceans Research Group, Dr. Bill Fraser and Donna Patterson-Fraser. Dr. Fraser is a well-respected polar ecologist and consulted on the design of the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

Our research is indicating how populations of seabirds are being altered as a result of the changing climate. For example, adélie penguin populations have declined 80 percent in the area near Palmer Station, while more ice-independent species are moving into the area, such as gentoo penguins (one of four species of penguin who live at the Zoo). I’m so grateful to be here representing the Detroit Zoological Society and studying these incredible wildlife species alongside brilliant biologists.

– Flo Yates is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society who is taking part in a rare and extraordinary opportunity to conduct scientific research in Antarctica during the austral summer.

Notes from the field: Mitigation of Human-Bear Conflicts in Armenia

The Detroit Zoological Society is conducting ongoing fieldwork in Armenia to assess the population of brown bears and mitigate conflicts that are occurring between humans and bears. Wildlife conservation is an important aspect of the DZS’s mission, and we are renowned for taking a compassionate approach in everything we do. A critical component of this is reducing human-wildlife conflicts around the world. As the human population and land development increases, people are coming into conflict with wildlife more and more from various factors such as predators eating livestock, wildlife raiding crops, and direct threats to human lives.

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.

Little is known about brown bears in Armenia; a recent survey of global human-bear conflicts did not include this data, which we think is important. As we are currently involved in wildlife conservation efforts for Eurasian otters in this country, the DZS initiated a project that would assess the distribution and impact of human-bear conflicts in Armenia by conducting interviews and placing trail cameras in and around villages.

Interviewees indicated that the conflict primarily arose due to bears entering orchards, eating fruit and destroying beehives. At times, bears also killed livestock and posed a threat to humans, and by all accounts, the conflict has increased over the last several years. Data from the trail cameras supported these reports. Many pictures showed bears in villages, including mother bears with twins or triplets, which can pose greater threats to humans, due to a mother bear’s instinct to protect her cubs.

There were also many pictures that showed potential competitors for food such as lynx and wolves, as well as prey of bears including wild boar and bezoar goats. Reports from a bezoar goat viewpoint in the area that was established by the World Wildlife Fund confirmed that bears were preying on young bezoar goats.

We are now working on a manuscript that will detail the level and impact of human-bear conflicts in Armenia and encourage research into conflict mitigation, which could potentially include electric fencing, remote-triggered lights and noisemakers and compensation to farmers for their losses. In addition, we recommend exploring bear-based eco-tourism programs, which could potentially add value from the bears’ presence to the villagers.

– Paul Buzzard, PhD., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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.