Wildlife Conservation: Breeding Eastern Tiger Salamanders

Amphibian breeding season is here! That means it’s time to start helping amphibians get in the mood for love and romance.

The Institution of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS) recently awarded a $500,000 National Leadership Grant for the purpose of improving reproduction within captive assurance colonies of imperiled salamanders. The Detroit Zoological Society is one of the primary partners on this grant. My doctoral research focused on salamanders, their reproductive physiology and techniques to help them breed, and that very research was the basis for the recent IMLS grant proposal.

Other partners on the grant include Mississippi State University and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Now that the grant was awarded, techniques must be taught to the other partners so we can all work together in salamander conservation efforts. I recently visited Mississippi State University in order to train the other principal investigators and the graduate students involved on this salamander grant in principles of natural salamander reproduction and performing assisted reproduction techniques with salamanders.

The training session involved eastern tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum), which are regionally threatened and endangered in various areas of North America. Like many species of salamanders, the tiger salamander is very difficult to breed in human care. Similar to other species in the “mole salamander” family, tiger salamanders respond to changes in air pressure and temperature when seasonal rain storms occur. These storms are what cue breeding behavior and are very difficult to replicate in human care. Without the ability to provide the appropriate “mood”, tiger salamanders in human care will not often feel romantically inclined. Natural breeding is always the first goal when breeding animals for conservation, but sometimes this is extremely challenging. In these cases, we use alternative techniques while we perfect replicating the natural breeding environment.

In vitro fertilization is a technique used to assist salamanders and other amphibians in breeding. Most salamander species undergo internal fertilization, in which the female picks up a capsule of male sperm, called a spermatophore, which the male has deposited into the environment. The female holds the sperm in an internal pouch that she later empties over her eggs as the eggs are laid. In in vitro fertilization of salamanders, sperm is collected from males by giving them a massage. Eggs are then collected from the female into a small dish where sperm is placed on top of the eggs. Just add water, and presto, you have salamander babies. Of course, it is never just that easy, but the concept is straightforward.

I trained the other primary investigators and students in other techniques as well, including cryopreservation – or freezing and long-term storage – of salamander sperm and sperm quality assessment. The training was very successful, with nearly 100 tiger salamander babies produced. Now the trainees can go on to teach more amphibian conservationists, and we can save more species by assisting with breeding!

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

Education: Community and Conservation

Four teenaged girls recently assisted the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) with our amphibian conservation efforts by pairing up with staff members to build mudpuppy shelters at the Detroit Zoo’s Ford Education Center. These young ladies were from Oakland County’s Children’s Village, a residential treatment and detention center for youth. The DZS began a partnership with Children’s Village in 2009 to instill respect and reverence for wildlife and wild places within the hearts of these teenagers. The program expanded in 2016 to offer off-site community service opportunities for the residents.

Mudpuppy shelters are an important piece of our ongoing conservation work as we monitor the population of these aquatic amphibians on the shorelines of the Detroit River and the inland lakes of Belle Isle. Mudpuppies are indicators of water quality; they cannot survive in polluted or contaminated water, so their presence is a sign of a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

DZS amphibian staff provided the specifications for the height, width and depth of these cement structures, as well as the materials to make them. The young ladies worked in pairs with DZS staff members, donning thick gloves and using wire cutters to trim heavy-duty wire mesh, before folding and binding it to form the bottom of the shelter. They then layered the cement over the wire mesh and built it into a solid, smooth floor and walls. Separate pieces of wire mesh were then cut to size and layered with the cement mixture to create roofs for the shelter.

Once the weather warms up, the shelters will be placed in the water around Belle Isle in hopes that mudpuppies will find them a desirable place to lay their eggs. They tend to lay their eggs under rocks in their natural habitat, which makes it difficult for researchers to locate the eggs without potentially disturbing them by having to move rocks. With the easy-to-remove roof on these homemade shelters, mudpuppies could lay their eggs inside and DZS staff would be able to lift the top and easily check on the eggs without disturbing them.

The young ladies who helped build the shelters will join us down on Belle Isle in the coming weeks to place them in the water. They will have the opportunity to work alongside DZS amphibian and education staff to record weather, water quality and shelter placement as well as check on previously placed shelters.

These teens are facing many challenges in their lives and working alongside scientists in the field offers them the chance to explore careers they may not have otherwise known about or considered. It is an opportunity for them to try a new experience, build skills and understanding, and give back to the community through conservation.

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

Animal Welfare: What’s Heat Got to Do With it?

Have you ever been so worked up about something that it “made your blood boil” or told someone they should “chill out”?  We often equate emotions with temperature and the English language has a number of idioms that reflect this association. As it turns out, there is a real and biologically based reason for this.  As we experience some emotions, our bodies undergo a number of processes, including changes in our temperature. This is the case for other species as well, and research has shown that particular emotions can be assessed using temperature fluctuations.

Finding new ways to evaluate the emotional lives of animals is a critical part of advancing our understanding of animal welfare. It is also incredibly important that we develop methods that are non-invasive, thereby not affecting the animals as we assess their well-being. Infrared thermography is a potential way for us to do just this, and staff at the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) is working on new ways to apply it at the Detroit Zoo. Infrared thermography (IRT) is a type of technology that allows us to remotely measure the temperature of an object using a camera. The images, called thermograms, show different colors to represent temperatures and this allows us to take measurements without having to touch the object.

In recent years, the impact of interactions and relationships with humans on the welfare of animals has begun to receive more attention. As animals living in zoos invariably encounter and interact with humans on a variety of levels, it is crucial that we understand how these relationships affect animal welfare. In some cases, it may be easy to assess how an animal is reacting, but in others, we have to use means that are more scientific. CZAAWE has developed a number of projects to examine human-animal relationships using several methods, including IRT.

There are several types of experiences during which visitors can interact with an animal at the Detroit Zoo. These encounters are entirely voluntary, as the animals (and the visitors) can choose whether they want to participate. The Giraffe Encounter is a lot of fun for guests, and, we presume, for the giraffes as well, but we cannot be sure. Led by Dr. Matt Heintz, animal welfare research associate for the Detroit Zoological Society, we utilized behavior, IRT and hormone data to learn more about the giraffe’s side of the experience. During this public feeding opportunity, the giraffes receive browse (natural vegetation) from the animal care staff and from Zoo visitors. Based on the data, the feeds are indeed a positive experience, but do not appear to be socially motivated. The amount of engagement we saw in the behavioral data, along with a lack of change in cortisol levels – which can tell us if an animal is experiencing stress – and increases in body temperature reflective of stimulation, all point to an enjoyable event for the giraffes. We also measured levels of oxytocin – a biological marker that increases during positive social experiences – and saw no such increases. This leads us to believe that for the giraffes, the feeds are an enjoyable way to score some extra greens, but not because they get to interact with us.

It is important that we ask questions about the perception animals have of their world and any impact we may be having on their welfare. Science is contributing to improvements in animal welfare and one of CZAAWE’s goals is to expand that knowledge and share it to help ensure the well-being of animals living in the care of humans.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

Greenprint: Reducing Harmful Litter One Drink at a Time

Twisty straws, crazy straws, straws with little umbrellas on them – these may seem fun and convenient but the environmental impact of plastic straws far outweighs the benefits of sipping drinks without having to lift them. In fact, the statistics behind straw usage and plastic pollution can be difficult to digest.  According to the National Park Service, Americans alone use 500 million straws every day. Plastic straws are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, which begs the question: Where do all these straws go?

As a part of the 91 percent of plastic waste that does not get recycled, these straws either sit in landfills or become litter that contaminates the environment. This is of special concern for an institution providing care to animals because this piece of litter can be extremely dangerous. Straws can be blown by the wind into animal habitats and ingested by the inhabitants, causing significant harm.

For many, this issue was brought to life in 2015 when a video of a scientists removing part of a straw from a sea turtle’s nostril went viral. The eight-minute video is quite painful to watch, which is why it garnered so much attention and sympathy. The video sparked several movements to reduce straw (and plastic in general) usage, but many efforts were in place long before the internet brought it to mainstream attention.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) stopped providing straws and plastic lids at Detroit Zoo concessions more than 10 years ago, not only preventing some 242,000 pieces of waste from potentially entering animal habitats annually, but also keeping these out of the waste stream. Because for us, this goes beyond animal welfare – it’s about sustainability too. By cutting down on plastic usage, we contribute less to landfills and pollution while preserving oil, a depleting resource. Eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year and at this rate, by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in landfills. We’ve kept more than 2 million straws out of landfills in the last decade by removing them from our concessions.

Other straw-banning movements have sprung up worldwide, including London’s Straw Wars, Straws Suck, and The Last Plastic Straw Movement, asking people to reject using straws and encourage restaurants to do the same.

Animals are not the only ones who suffer.  Toxic chemicals from plastic waste seep into groundwater and flow into lakes and streams contaminating the water that is eventually consumed by humans and animals. Every piece of plastic waste comes with a negative consequence. When one part of the ecosystem is disrupted, all life suffers.

As an organization dedicated to creating a more sustainable future, the Detroit Zoological Society has taken many steps that yield a big impact on saving the environment. In 2017, the DZS received the Keep Michigan Beautiful award for our environmental contributions. We are keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually by no longer selling bottled water at Detroit Zoo concessions. Reusable bottles are available for guests at an affordable price. We are further reducing our plastic waste by no longer providing plastic bags at our gift shops. Instead, guests can purchase reusable animal-themed bags.

When we walk on this Green Journey together, it can make a big difference for the animals and the Earth. So, without a straw, let’s raise a glass to those dedicated to the cause. No litter goes unnoticed and neither do your efforts for a more sustainable planet.

Stay tuned to the Detroit Zoological Society Blog to learn more about our award-winning Greenprint initiatives and what you can do to help.

Notes from the Field: Saving Seabirds in the Falkland Islands

On a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands – the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) second in two years – I met with the governor of the islands and commissioner of the nearby South Georgia and South Sandwich islands, His Excellency Nigel Phillips CBE. We discussed the need and potential for penguin conservation work in the region, and the important role that the DZS can provide. Through our partnership with organizations such as Falklands Conservation (FC), which is working to conserve rockhopper, gentoo and king penguins – three species of penguins living in the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center – and other seabirds, we can not only provide financial support but also scientific expertise in the field. Additionally, we teach, engage and inspire millions of Detroit Zoo visitors about these incredible animals, their plight in the wild, and what people can do to help.

The Falkland Islands, located off the southern tip of South America, provide critical habitats for several species of penguins and other wildlife. However, threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism, and it is essential to establish marine protected areas and assess the impacts ecotourism brings. On our recent expedition with Falklands Conservation, we set out to monitor the population of penguins and other seabirds living on several islands off the easternmost coast of the Falklands – some which had never been visited and others that had not been visited for more than 10 years. The islands were close to the military port near Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, but rather remote, and landing on some of them was quite difficult because of the sea swells and cliff faces. In fact, we weren’t able to land at all on one of the islands called The Mot, and instead used a drone to effectively document the birds’ habitat.

We made some important observations on these excursions. As the sun went down during our drone visit to The Mot, we noted the return of hundreds of sooty shearwater birds returning to their burrows. Shearwaters are a threatened pelagic sea bird and an important indicator of well-managed fisheries, so documenting the location of a new colony was significant. We also documented the first records of Cobb’s wren on another island, which are ground nesting birds endemic to the Falkland Islands and important indicators that the land is free of rats and mice. These rodents have been introduced to many of the islands and have devastated populations of Cobb’s wren and other ground nesting birds. Additionally, we were heartened to see that the habitat at another island, Motley, has recovered tremendously from earlier sheep grazing. The plant life on this island was diverse with rare flowers such as yellow orchids and hairy daisies. Gentoo penguins were also observed at Motley, so it is possible and promising that a previously observed gentoo colony nearby is expanding.

The DZS hopes to establish a long-term project site at the Falklands to analyze the impact of ecotourism on penguin breeding, health and welfare. Tom Schneider, the DZS’s curator of birds, and I investigated several potential sites that have king and/or gentoo penguin colonies. We also had the opportunity to visit the Seabird Rehabilitation Facility, which was designed to accommodate small-scale wildlife rescue efforts, often involving oiled penguins. With increased oil development on the horizon, the number of oiled birds needing proper cleaning and rehabilitation is sure to increase. The DZS has produced educational panels that will be displayed at the facility which detail its history, the impact of oil pollution on seabirds, the extensive process that goes into caring for oiled birds, and several success stories of birds who have recovered and been returned to the wild.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which leads and supports wildlife conservation work on six continents.

Veterinary Care: What’s in Your Wallet?

Among the items in my wallet is an identification card that says I am a certified Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) technician. As a zoo veterinarian, this certification is very important to me – and to the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) – because it means that in the event of an environmental emergency anywhere in the world, I can be deployed to help. In addition to myself, two other DZS veterinarians, a veterinary technician and six animal care staff members carry these cards and have this expertise.

HAZWOPER training is required for anyone who may be working in situations with hazardous materials. A big example of this is oil, and all the other toxic chemicals involved in an oil spill. If an oil spill were to occur, and if there are animals affected, they will need care and treatment – which puts the people caring for them in harm’s way. HAZWOPER training is not only about the animals themselves – that is our area of expertise as trained animal health professionals – it is about all the other dangers humans could face while trying to save them.

As part of this training, we learn how to protect ourselves from all the things that could be harmful at a hazardous waste cleanup site. In addition to being exposed to many kinds of toxic chemicals and vapors that can be inhaled, we may also have to protect ourselves from heatstroke or frostbite. This training is required by the government in order for us to lend our expertise to help the animals because if one of us were to become ill or injured, it would only add to the challenges of an already difficult situation. It’s similar to the airplane safety measure of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping a child put on theirs – if those of us trying to help don’t keep ourselves safe first, it puts the animals at even greater risk.

HAZWOPER training is labor and time intensive and requires skilled instructors and specific materials. If an emergency were to happen today, one cannot wait weeks or months to undergo the training, because the animals need help now. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – the largest marine oil spill in history – many veterinarians and other professionals trained in animal care wanted to help, but without HAZWOPER training, the government wouldn’t allow it. An estimated 2.2 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf every day for nearly three months. This oil spill affected 400 different species of wildlife, including 8,000 birds, 1,100 sea turtles and 109 mammals. This is exactly why we stay ready – we undergo an eight-hour refresher course annually in order to maintain our certification, which many of us do in our free time, outside of work hours. And because of this, one of the DZS’s veterinary technicians was able to travel to New Orleans that summer and assist with Deepwater recovery efforts.

Thankfully, we haven’t needed to respond to an environmental disaster in the past two years, and frankly, we’d like to keep it that way. But if the worst happens tomorrow and animals need our help, we’ll be on the next plane.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and works at the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Learn more about HAZWOPER training.

Animal Welfare: Shelter from the (Winter) Storm

Baby, its cold outside! The New Year brought some very low temperatures to our area, which can be a challenge for humans and non-human animals alike. Detroit Zoological Society staff take a number of measures to ensure each animal living at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center is comfortable year-round, including when temperatures dip into the negatives.

For some animals, this may mean spending time in behind-the-scenes areas where the temperature is controlled and any impacts of snowfall are removed. Cold-tolerant species, such as the red pandas or the Amur tiger, have the option to enjoy the winter weather or remain inside if they choose – this is part of what allows them to experience great welfare.

In many cases, we also make modifications to habitats to create heated areas and wind shelters – for example, the lions have heated rocks they’re often seeing lounging on – and we often add extra bedding materials to various habitats as well. This way, animals that are less comfortable being inside a building can still “find shelter from the storm”. These different options allow all of the animals to enjoy their home in the same way our heating systems, fireplaces and warm blankets keep us comfortable.

We should be thinking about these things for the animals who share our homes as well. Spending time outside needs to be done more cautiously in very cold weather, even for our furry friends. As domesticated species, they are not as well equipped to deal with harsh weather as wild animals are. There are many steps you can take to protect your companion animals from the cold, even if they do spend time outside.

Winter weather in Michigan often makes us appreciate the other seasons of the year, but there is still much to be enjoyed (and this is coming from someone who moved here from Florida!). We are still treated to beautiful, sunny days as fresh snow blankets everything around us. The 125 acres of the Detroit Zoo offer a great opportunity for us to experience the wonder of winter and marvel in the beauty of wildlife.

Many of the animals at the Detroit Zoo make the most of the cold weather, including the Japanese macaques (aptly also called snow monkeys), bison, otters, polar bears, wolves and bald eagles. You can also see animals including the giraffes, rhinos, gorillas and chimpanzees from viewing areas inside their buildings. The Free-Flight Aviary, Butterfly Garden, National Amphibian Conservation Center and Holden Reptile Conservation Center are great places to spend some time indoors during your visit. And although the Polk Penguin Conservation Center provides a more Antarctic climate for its feathery occupants, it also offers visitors a nice break from the blustery outdoors this time of year. Be sure to catch the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition in the Ford Education Center too – 100 winning images from the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife photography competition. Come out and experience all of this for yourself – the Detroit Zoo is open all winter long!

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