Author Archive

Conservation On-Site: The Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog

by | January 29th, 2014

As you visit Oakland Zoo this winter and spring you may notice that the animals and projects we are supporting at our Quarters for Conservation booth in Flamingo Plaza have changed.   I would like you to pay special attention to the developing partnership with the San Francisco State University Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog project.   This project teams up Oakland Zoo with San Francisco State University in bringing awareness to and supporting the recovery of this critically endangered species that is found right here in the mountains of California.

Yellow-legged_frog_Point_Reyes

Once one of the most numerous species found in their alpine habitat in the Sierra Nevada, Transverse, and Peninsular ranges they are now one of the rarest despite this habitat being found in some of the most well-managed and inaccessible areas of the state.    During some of the initial research looking into this decline the focus was on the impact and removal of game fish that were introduced to their alpine habitats, such as trout.   The Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog evolved in a habitat where such efficient predators were not common and the eggs, tadpoles, and frogs themselves became easy prey.  With the management and removal of these introduced fish species some areas showed rapid recovery of frogs.    However, some did not, and in fact the overall population continued to decline.    The emerging disease known as the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) was found to be the cause of this continued decline and was attacking the frogs during one of their most sensitive transitions in life, the one between tadpole and juvenile life stages.    The chytrid fungus works by attacking the keratin in the skin of juvenile and adult frogs preventing them from being able to use their skin to respirate and exchange water leading to their deaths, wiping out whole populations.   For some reason the disease does not affect the tadpoles of the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog, but it will remain with them through the several years they spend as a tadpole.    This makes the tadpoles, along with several other frog species that are not affected, a means to not only infect their own kind with this deadly fungus, but to make it almost impossible to eliminate from the environment.

With this revelation the focus to save the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog changed to not only manage and remove non-native fish, but to support the frogs in gaining resistance to the chytrid fungus during this transition in their life.   The support comes in the form of a bacterium called Janthinobacterium lividum.    The bacteria was discovered on the skin of a fellow amphibian, the red-backed salamander, and later discovered to also be present on the skins of Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog in varying levels.   This bacterium has the unique feature of having anti-fungal properties and when found in greater numbers on amphibian skin can help to increase resistance to the chytrid fungus.    Now, in steps Dr. Vance Vredenburg and the San Francisco State University Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog Project.   Dr. Vredenburg has been pioneering skin bio augmentation treatments using Janthinobacterium lividum to support juvenile frogs that are being rereleased or will be re-released into their habitats in both Northern and Southern California.     Through a partnership with San Diego Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, and soon Oakland Zoo, San Francisco State University is hoping to tip the balance for these frogs by collecting them as eggs from their habitat, hatching them in captivity, raise them to juvenile frogs, treating them with this anti-chytrid bacterium, and release them back into their natal ponds and streams.   It is hoped that not only will this prove to provide long term resistance to chytrid, but will be naturally passed between frogs as they naturally congregate together in the shallows off the banks of the rivers and lakes they live.

If you are interested in learning more about the plight of the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog and supporting them as well during their most vulnerable transitions you can join us on Wednesday February 5th at 6:30 p.m. in the Marian Zimmer Auditorium at our Conservation Speaker Series event when Dr. Vance Vredenburg joins us to discuss his work with the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog and the implications his research has to save this and potentially numerous other amphibian species worldwide.

 by Victor Alm, Zoological Manager

 

PBI Leadership Camp — Blog 5

by | October 22nd, 2011

Absolute Commitment – A Group blog

Victor Alm – Zoological Manager, Oakland Zoo

Patty Young – Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Philip Fensterer – Oregon Zoo

Jennifer Funk – Pittsburgh Zoo

As we wrapped up our week out at the Tundra Buggy Lodge we spent our last full day in lecture bringing our time on the tundra full circle.

The Tundra Buggy Lodge -- Camp Headquarters

This was brought home to us as multiple polar bears circled our lodge while we learned about the daily and long term operations of Polar Bears International and what it means to be stewards of our planet.   One definition of Stewardship is the careful management of something entrusted to one’s care.  This is a very relevant definition and strikes to the major point of what is occurring on our planet due to climate change.   We are stewards of this planet and the life and systems that operate on it.   If we are not going to help then who is?  Another major part of our day was conducting our webcast to our own institutions and families.  This was a great opportunity to directly communicate with colleagues back home about our time at camp, what we learned, and describe our experiences. This was followed by a Skype with Robert Buchanan (President of PBI).   He reminded us of why we came here and of our obligation to future generations.

A farwell sunset from the tundra

Leaving camp we are now armed with the tools and knowledge we need to step out and create change. The first challenge we gave ourselves as leaders began at camp and was reducing our own carbon footprint for the week at the lodge.  We took on the no shower eco-challenge. This allowed for the conservation of many resources while adding to the aroma and ambiance of the experience! The most encouraging and supportive part of this final day was getting the opportunity to meet with our Polar Bears International facilitators one on one.  We used this time to finalize our forward action plans for change.   Putting our thoughts on paper, then discussing them as a group helped them to really resonate with us.  We are leaving the tundra this week feeling motivated and confident.  We can make a change.  We are committed to make a change.  We will make a change!

Change is needed!

PBI Leadership Camp — Blog 4

by | October 10th, 2011

Touching the Taiga – Making Connections that Matter

Victor Alm – Oakland Zoo, Zoological Manager

Today we went out on the Tundra Buggy and took a drive to the transitional forest (Taiga); it borders the tundra where we have so far spent most of our time during leadership camp.  On our way there, we were lucky enough to see a gray wolf along with an adult male caribou.

Timber Wolf from Afar

We were also allowed briefly off the buggy, as there were no polar bears in the area, and walked around to experience the landscape. It was incredible as the ground was very spongy and full of the most beautiful mosses, lichens, and cracks in the ground called frost heaves.

The Terrain of the Taiga

However, we are not just here to sight see but to experience the landscape that is used by the female polar bear, for creating maternal dens.  The females do this by digging into low banks and ridges made of peat that supports small trees.   The trees and their roots give stability to the den on the top as well as the hard layer of permafrost (ground that is continuously frozen) on the bottom. With warming temperatures in the arctic, there has been alteration of weather patterns creating a warmer drier environment that is more susceptible to fire and the melting of permafrost. Both of these changes effect the den of the polar bear, making them less stable and prone to collapse.  This can kill bears or cause them to abandon their dens. This has the potential to cause even greater stress on the polar bear population near Churchill, which is already loosing numbers due to loss of their productive sea ice.  On top of this, it has been shown that the melting of permafrost can release another type of trapped gas called methane, which can amplify the warming effects in the atmosphere already seen from increased carbon emissions.

Polar Bear Migrating from the Coast

However, there is still hope and simple things we can do to help such as taking public transportation or carpooling to work. By doing this, you can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases, such as carbon, that are going into the atmosphere.   When small actions are taken collectively, they can be very effective. But, if you want to cause a more lasting and meaningful change in the long-term, you should ask for higher fuel efficiency standards for our vehicles.     This is just one way we can have meaningful impacts towards stabilizing the tundra and taiga ecosystems, polar bear populations, as well as the numerous other ecosystems and animals that face habitat alteration due to a warming climate.

Other examples have been seen with numerous local AAZK (American Association of Zoo Keepers) chapters:  group tree planting or incentives for using home energy efficiency kits.  Check out my next post coming soon which talks about our final day in leadership camp.  Also, continue to follow our group blog from leadership camp

http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/programs/pbi-leadership-camps/groups/keeper-leadership-camp-1

 

PBI Leadership Camp: Blog 3

by | October 5th, 2011

Climate Change:  The Extreme Example of Human Wildlife Conflict

Victor Alm – Zoological Manager, Oakland Zoo

On several occasions at Climate Change Leadership camp we have discussed the human wildlife conflict in regards to polar bears.  The first time was in the town of Churchill, Manitoba with Natural Resource officer Bob Windser who works for Manitoba Conservation.

Bob Windser talking about human wildlife conflict

Bob is in charge of the Bear Alert Program in and around Churchill where they deal with the potential interactions between the residents and the migrating polar bears.  The main reasons for interaction are because polar bears are passing by on their migration north to meet the sea ice (which they depend on for their main food source of seals) and hunger (if they are in poor physical condition).  The response to polar bears can take many forms from deterrence to dispatch.  Deterrence is the preferred method and takes several non-lethal forms.  The first and preferred methods are used to drive bears from out and around town using noise emitting firearms called screamers, bangers, and crackers.  The second is to use paintball guns and white paint on those that are not fazed by noise.  The third is to chemically immobilize bears or trap bears and bring them to a specially designed polar bear holding facility where they can spend several days to a month, depending on the circumstances of capture.  For example, a sow with cubs would only spend a few days.  The polar bears are relocated thirty to forty miles outside of town and if possible back onto the sea ice.  The other Non-preferred method is to put the bears down. It is reserved for situations where the safety of the residents, tourists, or officers is at risk.

Bear Alert Holding Building

Over the last few years, officials have seen an increase in the number of polar bears that have gone  through their program.  More bears are also migrating through  and around town, approximately one month earlier than in years past.  This is unusual because once polar bears leave the sea ice in late spring/early summer, they tend to fast for several months and wait for the return of the sea ice, generally not interested in eating/hunting unless they come across something opportunistically. For a normal, happy, and healthy bear, fasting is not a problem.  But Natural Resource Officers are not always seeing healthy bears; instead, they are seeing them in declining condition.  Due to the increasing sea ice loss  from overall rising global temperature (caused by accumulations of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) bears are having to spend more time on land fasting and less time on the ice fattening up on seals.

Some say our changing climate could be seen as the ultimate trigger for a human and wildlife conflict; not only with polar bears, but potentially with numerous other species that will be trying to adapt and move as their habitats and natural behavior is altered.

Polar Bear waiting for the sea ice to return

PBI Leadership Camp: Blog 2

by | October 5th, 2011

Absolute Necessity — A Group Blog

Victor Alm — Zoological Manager, Oakland Zoo

Patty Young -Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Philip Fensterer — Oregon Zoo

Jennifer Funk — Pittsburgh Zoo

We had an opportunity to Skype with  Dr. Stephen Amstrup, senior scientist for Polar Bears International, this morning.   WOW!!! What a personable, professional, and knowledgeable man.   Thank you again Dr. Amstrup for your time today and thank you for reminding us how important the ice is to the polar bear.

Polar Bear off the Ice

Opening a discussion about climate change with the fact that sea ice is an absolute necessity to polar bears is a great tool.   The wild polar bear must eat seals and the seal cannot be caught except by ambush from an ice platform.   Despite the evidence that sea ice is disappearing for the polar bear the argument of  uncertainty versus reliability continues to be a hot data topic in the climate change debate.  Although our climate clearly has been warming, we are still seeing natural variation in our weather causing times of both warm and cold weather patterns.   This unfortunately has instilled a certain amount of doubt  about the reality of climate change.  However,  the laws of physics require that as the amounts of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere rise, heat trapping gas will cause the earth to warm.  Without the mitigation of greenhouse gases polar bears will be part of our history and not our future.   Alternatively, by reducing  greenhouse gases we can make a difference with the sea ice levels needed for polar bears as well as make a difference to the many other species tied to climate change.

Arctic Fox -- One of many that could be affected by Climate Change

This is a powerful message that needs a powerful and effective approach when being delivered.   One method we discussed today was using personal connection to our own lives and with those whom we speak with to convey the importance of this message.  We experienced this method first hand today when we had a no cameras allowed polar bear moment.  After seeing the bear on the tundra outside of the buggy, we were asked to safely stick our heads out the windows, close our eyes, feel the wind on our face, smell the air, and know that this is what the bear is also experiencing.  Then, we were asked to think about that bear being gone forever, not just this bear today but all polar bears forever.   This was a very moving and emotional for all of us.  As leaders, it is an absolute necessity for us to leave this camp and take steps to create change in our communities

Stay tuned for more Blogs from Climate Change Leadership Camp.

 

PBI Leadership Camp: Blog 1

by | October 4th, 2011

What’s It Means To Be a Leader

Victor Alm – Zoological Manager

PBI campers by the Hudson Bay

After the flight from the Bay Area to Winnipeg, I finally got a chance to sit down and meet my sixteen fellow campers/ambassadors along with the facilitators of the zookeeper climate change leadership camp hosted by Polar Bears International.  After a short while, I came to realize that the folks at PBI want nothing less than for us to change the world, change the way we live our lives, all to help make a difference in the fight to mitigate climate change and save the planet and biodiversity that we love.

Inspired artic ambassabdor Victor Alm

The camp itself is in investment in us to do this and they want to support us along with the American Association of Zookeepers (AAZK) to come up with and institute action plans in our communities to do just that.   These statements were very overwhelming and spawned a discussion on what it means to be a leader.   One statement on what a leader could look like resonated with me:  A leader is not always the person who is sitting in the front of the room or the loudest voice, but can just be someone who is willing to take the initiative and make those first steps no matter how loud their voice is.  I spent a lot of time that evening tossing and turning thinking about those words and connecting it to two other messages about leadership that the Oakland Zoo has invested  in me over the years and how they can work synonymously with the statement above.  These statements are to lead by example and to focus on the issue or behavior at hand, not the personality or attitude.   When combined they create a trio of principles that may not be the specific pathway a leader must walk, but can aid in finding those first steps down the pathway towards making a difference, towards changing who we are,  and how we can start change through our leadership in our communities.  Having leadership that can facilitate and push change is needed by PBI, by AAZK, by the polar bears, by flamingos, and by all those in the natural world who can potentially be affected by climate change during their daily lives.   When you look at it like that, why not expect yourself to change the world, and why not be enthusiastic doing it?

Polar Bear from Afar

Please check out our PBI camp blog at

http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/programs/pbi-leadership-camps/groups/keeper-leadership-camp-1

Coming soon: A post about my trip to the Churchill Polar Bear Alert Program.