Staff in the Field
Providing excellent care is something at which we excel, so why not share our expertise with other wildlife and conservation experts around the world? From environmental crises to researching species to providing veterinary care, our staff has participated in some unique conservation efforts. Here are some of our most recent adventures:
Armenian Viper Study
In the summer of 2010 and 2011 Utah Hogle Zoo’s Associate Veterinarian, Dr. Erika Travis, was invited by the Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute to participate on a venomous snake project in Armenia! The Saint Louis Zoo’s Curator of Reptile’s, Jeff Ettling, is studying Armenian vipers for his PhD and needed a field veterinarian to assist with medical procedures. The Hogle Zoo enjoys collaborating with other AZA institutions, so this seemed like a good partnership. Since Jeff is an expert herpetologist with many years of experience, we knew Dr. Erika was in good hands despite the dangerous subjects being studied.
The goal of the project was to surgically implant radio transmitters in the vipers in order to track them to gain information on home range, hibernation sites, and nesting areas. Armenian vipers (Montivipera raddei) are classified as near threatened and reside in rocky montane areas above 3000 feet in parts of Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Azerbaijan. They weigh between 180-300 grams. The main study site was in southern Armenia near the border with Iran on the Meghri mountain ridge at 7000 feet in the Shikahogh Nature Reserve. This is a protected area not open to visitors so the team had special permission to work there. Radio transmitters were placed in 4 male and 2 female Armenian vipers and in 2 Blunt nosed vipers (Macrovipera lebetina) (a much larger snake sharing some of the same habitat). The surgeries were done with local anesthesia while the snake was held in a clear plexi-glass snake tube. Six other Armenian vipers were too small to have radiotransmitters placed, but the following procedures were performed: body weight, measurements, blood sample for genetic analysis, and microchip placement for identification. The team’s home base was an old Russian trailer on top of the mountain. After one big day of viper procedures, Dr. Erika slept with 11 vipers right under her bunk; they stayed in snake bags until they were released the next morning. A park ranger was trained to use the radio transmitter equipment to locate each of the implanted vipers. The snakes were tracked weekly up until the snow fell. Jeff Ettling will use the data in his PhD entitled “Landscape Genetics of the Armenian Viper: How does fragmentation impact habitat usage, home range size and population structure?”
The team also traveled to northern Armenia, near the border of Georgia, to work with the critically endangered Darevsky’s viper (Viper darevskii). These are some of the rarest vipers in the world and are quite small (60-80grams). An Armenian colleague studying them for his PhD requested radio transmitters; currently 2 Darevsky’s vipers are being tracked to better understand their movement patterns within their subalpine meadow habitat. We were excited that Dr. Erika was able to perform surgeries and medical sampling on 3 different viper species, to participate in in-situ field conservation, and represent the Hogle Zoo in a remote part of the world.
Polar Bears International Arctic Ambassador Center
Our commitment to conservation of polar bears and preservation of arctic ice is demonstrated in our partnership with Polar Bears International (PBI) as an Arctic Ambassador Center. In 2010, Chris Schmitz, Hogle Zoo's Education Curator, spent 7 days at a PBI Communicator Camp. Campers observed polar bears in the wild and learned about climate change first hand from experts while aboard mobile classrooms on the tundra near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. PBI selected zoo communicators who were already leading initiatives to make a difference. Campers:
- Observed polar bears in their natural setting and experienced the tundra
- Learned how climate disruption affects polar bears and the Arctic
- Established and fortified relationships with field scientists, colleagues, and Churchill residents
- Shared ways to inspire people to action—from individuals to entire communities
- Before leaving, each participant developed a goal and action plan for a community-based polar bear conservation project or a project that supports AZA’s Climate Initiative.
Tree Kangaroo Conservation Project
Although tree kangaroos are no longer at the Hogle Zoo, you can find them in Papua New Guinea and Australia. One of our Hogle Zoo veterinarians, Dr. Erika Travis, has been an active part of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP) which led her to the high mountain rainforests of Papua New Guinea on two field expeditions. While in the field, Dr. Travis worked with the endangered Matschie’s tree kangaroo and performed anesthesia to facilitate physical examination, sample collection and radio collar placement. Local researchers then continuously collect data on the tree kangaroos to learn more about their peculiar habits in the mountaintops. All the animals appeared quite healthy and I personally saw each tree kangaroo returned safely back to the forest. A huge thrill was finding a joey in its mother’s pouch. Understanding the biology and health of this species is important in developing a sustainable conservation plan. One huge accomplishment of the TKCP is establishing a conservation area that encompasses more than 150,000 acres of land that will benefit the tree kangaroos as well as other unique species. In addition, the TKCP has educational and human health care programs for the local villagers. After visiting the field site, the team spent time at the local zoo, The Rainforest Habitat, which showcases endemic species only. The zoo keepers are dedicated and appreciate the specialized veterinary care and husbandry tips from their US counterparts. “It gives me great joy to combine my love for wildlife and travel and visiting Papua New Guinea was like a scene out of National Geographic. I have left part of my heart in the rainy forest where the tree kangaroos live.”
Panamanian Amphibian Crisis
Amphibians around the world are facing a pandemic crisis, the chytrid fungus. Supporting the work of the Houston Zoo, Hogle Zoo sent staff to Panama to lend their skilled hands. At the El Valle Amphibian Rescue Center, zookeeper now Animal Care Supervisor, Jeff Landry helped care for frogs being treated for this fungus. " I was so surprised at how quiet it was and how much algae was growing, " says Jeff. “This was do to the lack of frogs in the rainforest and because some frog tadpoles feed off the algae. With no frogs reproducing, there are no tadpoles, which has big consequences on the environment.” Until the scientists can determine how best to deal with the fungus, the rescue center at Ell Valle serves as an ark for some very unique species.
Zoos across the country are working together to tackle this issue. AZA has named 2008 as Year of the Frog to recognize the significance of this crisis.
Jill Cox, one of the Zoo’s ocelot keepers, participated recently in a study through the Dallas Zoo, to learn more about ocelots and other small species in northern Mexico. Jill and other participants worked with field biologists to radio-collar ocelots and jaguarundis. They also aided in tracking the cats to determine their home ranges, habitat use, and their population densities. Jill comments, “I was very excited to see jagarundis and ocleots in them in the wild. It was really interesting to see what the habitat was like; not as tropical and wet as I had expected it was more dry and deciduous.” Not much is known about these elusive species, and populations of small cats have declined dramatically in the United States and Mexico because of human encroachment and loss of habitat. Research from studies like this will help scientists develop a conservation strategy to preserve these cats in the wild.
The Wyoming Toad Recovery Project
Assisting the Wyoming Toad SSP and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to with the Wyoming Toad Recovery Project is an annual project for the Zoo. Wyoming toads are listed as an endangered species. As their natural range is within a 30-mile radius of Laramie, the toads are a sensitive species. In 1996, the USFWS partnered with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to develop a captive-breeding program as well as to reclaim toad habitats. Since then, thousands of tadpoles have been released into protected areas. Although the population seems to be increasing, the USFWS has not been able to systematically monitor the release sites to determine the success of the project. Starting in 2008, AZA’s zoos have been assisting with the surveys, and our Zoo has been a main contibutor. Using GPS units, volunteers set up transects (a designated piece of land) around Lake Mortenson and began to look for toads. In each transect, they were given an allotted period of time to look for toads. When a toad was found, volunteers took its photo, and then measured, swabbed for chytrid, weighed, sexed and tagged it. Tagging is the placement of a microchip, just like the ones used in pet cats and dogs. By tagging a toad, it can be determined if this was an animal that was caught before. If it was, a history of the animal can be developed. Volunteers also took an assessment of the environmental conditions, such as the wind, sun and what type of vegetation the toads were found. Results of these surveys are still preliminary but we are finding young of the year, which indicate there is some reproduction – suggesting that there is hope for a sustainable population.