Conservation Science

Learn more about the conservation projects at the Memphis Zoo

Amphibian Conservation

The Amphibian Extinction Crisis

Large numbers of amphibians have gone extinct or are experiencing rapid population declines. Amphibians are currently the most threatened group of vertebrates; nearly one-third (32%) of the 6,000+ known species of amphibian are threatened with extinction world-wide [IUCN, 2008]. A comprehensive survey from almost 650 experts in 60 countries shows that at least 38 amphibian species are known to be extinct; however, it is estimated that the number more closely approaches 159 because many of the animals in the critically endangered column have not been seen for years and are probably gone [IUCN, 2008]. Of greatest concern is the fact that nearly half of all amphibians are continuing to decline in population, suggesting the number of threatened species can be expected to rise in the near future. In the United States, 21% of its 272 species are threatened or extinct, representing about 57 species [IUCN, 2008]

Amphibian Species Classifications (Data from IUCN, 2008). Bottom right photo copyright Allen Blake Sheldon and top left photo copyright Ken Lucas via Arkive.

Top Right: Mississippi Gopher Frog. Bottom Right: Flatwoods Salamander. Bottom Left: Northern Leopard Frog. Top Left: Chinese Giant Salamander.

Although habitat loss, environmental contaminants, and changing global climates are all affecting amphibian populations in some capacity, many of the reported population declines have occurred in pristine, unspoiled forests. In fact, amphibians occurring at high elevations, having restricted distributions and/or characterized by terrestrial life cycles (do not have aquatic tadpoles) are more likely to be threatened than are species with other characteristics [IUCN, 2008]. For as yet unknown reasons, these species appear to be more susceptible to a rapidly spreading fungal disease known as chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis). Chytrid fungus originated in southern Africa and spread through the international trade of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) [Weldon et al., 2004]. It is still present in the international trade in live amphibians of multiple species, which helps it continue to spread to populations across the globe [Schloegel et al., 2010]. Chytrid fungus grows on the skin of adult amphibians, impairing skin function and ultimately causing death [Searle Gervasi et al., 2011]. Amphibian populations with low genetic variability and decreased amphibian biodiversity are particularly susceptible to high mortality from chytridiomycosis which means that chytrid fungus has the potential to do more damage to already vulnerable populations [Savage Zamudio, 2011; Searle Biga et al., 2011]. The catastrophic epidemics caused by the spread of this fungus have caused mass extinctions of amphibian populations worldwide [Rabb, 1999; Bradley et al., 2002; Williams et al., 2002].

….This extinction crisis is why the Memphis Zoo has dedicated itself to preserving amphibians.

What are Amphibians?

Amphibians are a class of vertebrates including frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and caecilians. The name amphibian stems from the word “amphibious”, which means living on both water and land. Most amphibians go through a two-stage life cycle, with a metamorphosis between the larval (usually aquatic) and adult (terrestrial) stages. All amphibians are cold blooded and most lay eggs, though some species give birth to live young without laying eggs. Almost all amphibians are dependent upon moist conditions, and many require freshwater habitats in which to breed [IUCN, 2008].

Salamander Eggs Wyoming toad tadpoles

Mississippi gopher frog metamorph Adult Mississippi gopher frog

Why Care About Amphibians?

Amphibians are important because they play many integral roles in world-wide ecosystems. As both aquatic larva and terrestrial adults, they can occur in extremely high densities, even to the point of being the most abundant vertebrate in a habitat [Wyman, 1998]. This causes them to function as vital food sources and important predators in both life stages. Most tadpoles and larvae end up as prey for aquatic predators, and adult amphibians are often the staple food source for many predators, such as snakes [Regester et al., 2006; Burton & Likens, 1975]. As consumers, aquatic larvae feed on algae, detritus, and other animals, often completely determining the physical and biological structure of a habitat [Whiles et al., 2006; Ranvestel et al., 2004]. Most adult amphibians are major consumers of invertebrates, including those involved in leaf litter decomposition, pests, and carriers of disease [Wyman, 1998]. The dual lifestyle of amphibians allows them to transfer nutrients and energy between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, making them important for nutrient cycling [Gibbons et al., 2006].

Furthermore, amphibians are often times a kid’s first connection with the natural world, or even pet, instilling a sense of appreciation and wonder for wildlife. They fill our nights with song and are often the first sign that spring is in the air. We have a moral and ethical responsibility for their preservation so that future generations are able to enjoy the evening call of a spring peeper. In addition, thousands of pharmaceutical drugs are made from amphibian secretions that help diseases afflicting humans around the world [see Tyler et al., 2007 for review]. Who knows… the cure for cancer might be from the skin secretion of an endangered gopher frog. If we lose these animals, we have lost a treasure trove of biological resources.

Lastly, amphibians are considered “indicator species”- meaning they are a predictor of environmental health. This is partly because of their amphibious life cycle, which makes them more susceptible to changes in both aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and also because their porous skin causes them to be particularly vulnerable to environmental contaminants and changing global climates. As indicator species, their populations will decline before the rest of the environment appears affected, providing an early warning sign that we are rapidly modifying and polluting our environment.

….Sadly, amphibians are currently in an extinction crisis.

In summer 2012, post-doctoral fellow Dr. Natalie Calatayud (right) and PhD candidate Cecilia Langhorne (left) assist with reproductive training and capacity building for the boreal toad located at Colorado's Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility (NASRF) in Alamosa.

Dr. Andy Kouba, director of conservation and research for the Memphis Zoo (far left), assists staff from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service search for reintroduced Wyoming toads near Laramie, Wyoming.

The Memphis Zoo's Response

The Memphis Zoo is a key player in amphibian conservation both on a regional and national level. Memphis Zoo scientists are conducting innovative research into amphibian reproductive technologies (ART) and biobanking that is being utilized worldwide. Our mission is to support amphibian conservation through Rescue, Recovery, Reintroduction, Research, and Reproductive training:
  • Rescue endangered amphibians threatened with extinction in the wild
  • Recovery of endangered amphibians through captive propagation
  • Reintroduction of endangered amphibians back into the wild
  • Research to support better captive management, ecology and translocations
  • Reproductive technology training and capacity building for zoo, government and non-profit groups involved in captive breeding of endangered amphibians

The Memphis Zoo is currently working on five key signature projects to help save amphibians. The first is the National Amphibian Genome Bank, a project designed to preserve amphibian genetic material for long-term management and scientific research. Second and third, we are working on the captive breeding of four Native endangered frog and toad species and five salamander species. Fourth, we are working on disease surveillance in amphibians, particularly on the rapidly spreading chytrid fungus and ranavirus. Lastly, we are working on a strategic project in China for the conservation of the critically endangered Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus). To learn more about these individual conservation and research projects, see below.

Amphibian Genome Bank

What is a Genome Bank?

A Genome Bank (also called Genetic Resource Bank or Biomaterial Bank) is a frozen storage area designed to preserve genetic materials from animals and may include eggs, sperm, embryos, tissues, blood, hair, or cells. The idea behind a genome bank is that the biological material can be deposited and withdrawn to facilitate genetic management of threatened species or assist with scientific research (e.g. disease). The process of freezing these materials is called cryobanking or cryostorage, and usually involves cooling materials to sub-zero temperatures in liquid nitrogen (-196°C) before placing them into special cryopreservation storage tanks. Prior to freezing, the biological materials are often placed in a buffering solution (solutions that maintain a constant pH) and cryoprotectant (substances that protect biological cells/tissues against damage due to ice crystal formation, osmotic stress, and oxygen generation).  Genome banks allow for the long-term viable storage of genetic materials that would otherwise degrade or become unviable very quickly.

Genome banks, unlike general tissue banks, typically store reproductive cells for the express purpose of propagating a species at a later time. Stored amphibian reproductive cells can be thawed at a later date and used for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) to create viable embryos and tadpoles. Genome banks have been established all over the world for the conservation of charismatic endangered mammal species [Wildt et al., 1997] but have been relatively ignored for amphibians. The benefits of storing amphibian materials in cryobanks are:

  • Protection against reproductive failure and preservation of genetic diversity (stored sperm or eggs allow reproduction of genetically important animals even if they die before reproducing naturally)  
  • Security against local extinctions (animals can be produced using stored gametes for reintroduction to the wild)  
  • Unlimited space (stored eggs and sperm take up much less space than live animals)  
  • Transfer of reproductive cells between breeding facilities (much easier than transportation of live animals)

For more details on the advantages of maintaining a National Amphibian Genome Bank, please see: Kouba and Vance, (2009). Applied reproductive technologies and genetic resourcebanking for amphibian conservation. Reproduction, Fertility, and Development, 21: 719-737. Click here to download PDF

Why Do Amphibians Need a Genome Bank?

Captive breeding colonies of endangered amphibians have been established across the U.S. in response to the extinction crisis, including at the Memphis Zoo. However, many of these breeding programs have the same problem: genetically valuable animals may live out their lifespan before reproducing. Captive habitats often don’t provide the proper environmental cues to stimulate reproduction and mating behaviors like calling or amplexus (when the male frog or toad clasps the female to coordinate fertilization) are often missing. Many researchers are working on figuring out what stimulates breeding for each species(like lighting, temperature, or hibernation), but for animals on the brink of extinction this knowledge may come too late.  However, reproductive cells can be collected non-invasively from animals, stored in the Memphis Zoo’s GRB, and contribute to long-term survival. Long-term storage of these materials after collection is vital to later conduct IVF. Additionally, institutions simply do not have the space to create captive assurance colonies for all 1,991 amphibian species currently threatened with extinction [IUCN, 2008], so another means of protecting our rapidly diminishing amphibian heritage is critical.  Storage of reproductive cells provides an excellent way to preserve the genetic material of endangered amphibian and is a valuable support plan to captive breeding programs.

The 2005 IUCN/SSC Amphibian Conservation Summit in Washington DC created the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan (ACAP; click here for link), which explicitly stated that a genome bank for amphibians would be a vital tool and a valuable asset to amphibian recovery efforts. Amphibians are an excellent model for developing a genome bank because many species display external fertilization in water,have high reproductive rates (up to 5,000 offspring in a single reproductive event), no paternal involvement, and reintroduction of tadpoles is less complicated than for mammalian offspring. This makes the use of genome banks’, coupled with IVF, a significant tool for conservation, potentially producing enormous numbers of tadpoles that can be translocated to the wild.

The National Amphibian Genome Bank at the Memphis Zoo

In 2001, the Memphis Zoo created the first-ever amphibian Genome bank in the United States. Since that time, our zoo has invested a significant amount of resources towards the long-term management and use of the material placed into our genome bank for amphibians.We currently have banked down reproductive cells from five frog and toad species: the Northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens), the Fowler toad (Bufo fowleri), the Mississippi gopher frog (Rana sevosa), the Wyoming toad (Bufo baxteri), and the Boreal toad (Bufo boreas). Both Fowler toad tadpoles and boreal toad tadpoles have been produced through IVF using frozen-thawed sperm held in cryostorage. These initial steps are proof-of-principal that sperm that we’ve cryobanked can be successfully used to conserve and reproduce endangered amphibians. Cecilia Langhorne, a Memphis Zoo Ph.D. candidate, has developed a method for the successful cryopreservation of sperm from toad species with often times greater than 60-70% viable recovery – truly a conservation milestone. Post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Natalie Calatayud, has been working on freezing amphibian embryos from toad species using a ultra-rapid cooling process known as vitrification.

Frog and Toad Conservation

Frog and Toad Reproduction

Frogs and toads (collectively called “anurans”), compose the largest groups of Amphibians, with 5,532 known species [IUCN, 2008]. Of these, 31.6% are currently threatened or extinct. While many zoos and governmental organizations have established captive assurance colonies of frogs and toads for genetic management and reproduction, they often have the problem that genetically valuable animals have low reproductive output or are dying before reproducing. For these reasons, the Memphis Zoo is working to increase reproductive output of four targeted endangered frog and toad species through the development of Amphibian Reproductive Technologies (ART) and biomaterial banking.

The four targeted endangered frog and toad species that are the focus of work at the Memphis Zoo are the Mississippi gopher frog (Lithobates sevosa), the Boreal toad (Anaxyrus boreas boreas), the Puerto Rican crested toad (Peltophryne lemur), and the Wyoming toad (Anaxyrus baxteri). The latter three of the four endangered anurans described above all have active reintroduction programs (either through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or through state wildlife agencies), and have released over 250,000 tadpoles to the wild total. Click on the photographs below for more information on each species.


Figure 1. From left: Mississippi gopher frog, Boreal toad, Puerto Rican crested toad and Wyoming toad

Amphibian Reproductive Technologies

ART is the broad term for anything that involves assisting with or altering the natural breeding behaviors and processes of amphibians. Captive habitats often don’t provide the proper environmental cues to stimulate reproduction, and mating behaviors like calling or amplexus (when the male anuran clasps the female to coordinate sperm and egg release) are often missing. Many researchers are working on figuring out what stimulates breeding for each species (like lighting, temperature, or hibernation), but for animals on the brink of extinction, this knowledge may come too late.  For this reason, scientists must artificially stimulate these behaviors in order to help the species reproduce before they go extinct. The Memphis Zoo is working on using hormone therapy to stimulate natural breeding and to collect sperm and eggs for in vitro fertilization (IVF) and cryopreservation. Often times, these techniques must be modified because the protocols are species-specific and what works in one species may not work in another.

Hormone Therapy for Sperm Collection

The Memphis Zoo is using the common Fowler’s toad (Anaxyrus fowleri), American toad (Anaxyrus americanus), and northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens) to develop non-invasive hormone regimens designed to maximize sperm production for IVF. These techniques have now been applied with great success to the endangered Mississippi gopher frog, Wyoming toad, Puerto Rican crested toad and Boreal toad, producing tens of thousands of tadpoles. Zoo researchers are testing different hormones, and their combinations, to see which are more effective in producing good quality sperm at high concentrations for fertilization. Moreover, we are also evaluating the effect of hormone treatments on breeding behavior as defined by the presence of amplexus (male clasping) and calling in the presence of a female. For toad species, sperm is expelled in their urine and can be easily collected by holding a male toad over a Petri dish until they urinate; a natural defense mechanism when toads are handled or picked up.

Figure 2. Collection of spermic urine from a male American toad (left) and a male Wyoming toad (right).

Hormone Therapy for Egg Collection

Similar to above, we are also using the common Fowler’s toad, the American toad, and the northern leopard frog to develop and optimize hormone regimens for inducing ovulation and egg laying that can then be tested on endangered species. Similar to hormone therapy for sperm collection, zoo researchers are comparing the effects of several different hormones on gopher frog and boreal toad females to see which might be the most effective and how best to prime the ovary to stimulate maximal production of eggs. In 2012, more than 20,000 boreal toads were collectively released into the wild following hormone therapy to stimulate egg-laying.

Figure 3. Eggs being collected and then fertilized from a female Fowler's toad after hormone induced ovulation.

In VitroFertilization (IVF)

Our research lab is conducting IVF for amphibians that are failing to breed naturally, using sperm and eggs collected through hormone therapy. IVF is easier in amphibians than in mammals, because fertilization for most aquatic breeding anurans occurs externally in water. After sperm and egg collection, zoo researchers place the eggs in a Petri dish and fertilize them.We then evaluate the development of the fertilized eggs and count the number of tadpoles and metamorphs. Some of the endangered tadpoles and metamorphs produced as a result of these studies are released into the wild as part of the species’ reintroduction programs. In 2006, more than 2,000 critically endangered Wyoming toad tadpoles produced by IVF were released into the wild (a first for amphibians), and in 2010 the world’s first transfer of non-invasively collected chilled frog sperm was shipped successfully across country from the Memphis Zoo to the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and used for IVF, producing more than 100 critically endangered Mississippi Gopher Frogs.


Figure 4. From left: Wyoming toad tadpoles, a young wild Wyoming toad, an adult Mississippi gopher frog with tadpoles and a newly metamorphed Mississippi gopher frog.

Cryopreservation and Gene Banking Techniques

Here at the Memphis Zoo, we are also evaluating and optimizing cryopreservation protocols of both sperm and embryos. We are first testing protocols using sperm and eggs collected from our common model species (northern leopard frogs, Fowler’s toads, and American toads), and then these techniques are applied to gene banking sperm and embryos from Mississippi gopher frogs, boreal toads, Puerto Rican crested toads, and Wyoming toads. Click here to learn more about the Memphis Zoo’s Amphibian Genome Bank.

Timeline of Scientific Accomplishments

Salamander Conservation

Salamander Reproduction and Release

Salamanders compose the second largest group of amphibians, with 552 known species [IUCN 2008]. Of these, 49.8% are currently threatened or extinct, making them the most threatened order of amphibians [IUCN 2008]. Many zoos and governmental organizations have established captive assurance colonies of salamanders to preserve and breed these animals, but they often have the problem that genetically valuable animals have low reproductive output or short life spans before passing on their genes. In addition, assisted breeding thus far has primarily focused on frogs and toads while very little has been done for salamanders. For these reasons, the Memphis Zoo is working to increase reproductive output of endangered salamander species through the development of amphibian reproductive technologies (ART) and biomaterial banking.

The Memphis Zoo has just begun a project in partnership with Mississippi State University (Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) on improving ART in regards to four targeted endangered salamander species here in the United States, with the goal of increasing the potential for future reintroductions of these species. These four targeted salamander species are the Alabama black warrior waterdog (Necturus alabamensis), the hellbender (Cryptobranchus bishopi), the flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi), and the blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). Only one of these four species has ever been bred in captivity; the hellbender reproduced at the St. Louis Zoo for the first time in 2011 after nearly 3 decades of captive breeding attempts. The first three species are all listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List, while the blue-spotted salamander is listed as common by the IUCN Red List but is rapidly declining in population and has been listed as endangered in some states (e.g. Iowa). Due to poor reproduction in captivity, no reintroductions from captive born animals have occurred for any of these species.  Click on the photographs below for more information on each species.


Figure 1. From left to right: Alabama Black Warrior Waterdog (© Richard D. Bartlett), Hellbender (© Pierson Hill), Flatwoods Salamander (©Danté B. Fenolio), and Blue Spotted Salamander.

Amphibian Reproductive Technologies (ART)

Figure 2. Tiger salamanders at Mississippi State University.

Hormone Therapy for Egg and Sperm Collection We are using the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) and the mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) to develop novel hormone regimens for sperm and egg collection. We are currently testing two hormones, Luteinizing Hormone Releasing Hormone (LHRH) and human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) for their effects on sperm and egg production and breeding behaviors in both male and female salamanders. In addition, we are testing arginine vasotocin to see if specific courtship behaviors can be stimulated as well.

Artificial Fertilization (AF)

Zoo scientists are testing artificial fertilization techniques with the same species mentioned above, using the sperm and eggs collected through hormone therapy. Salamanders have a wide range of reproductive methods depending on the species, ranging from external fertilization (the male releases sperm onto eggs that are released into water) to internal fertilization (the male deposits a spermatophore which the female then picks up into her cloaca or the male deposits a spermatophore directly into the female’s cloaca). For this reason, after sperm and egg collection, our researchers conduct AF in one of two ways: by mixing sperm and eggs together in a Petri dish (in vitro fertilization) or by inseminating a male’s spermatophore directly into the cloaca of a female (artificial fertilization). Then we evaluate the fertility and the development of embryos

Current Progress

Since our research in the salamander lab at Mississippi State University started in Fall 2012, we have successfully achieved hormone-induced sperm production in male tiger salamanders and hormone-induced egg laying in female tiger salamanders. We are currently testing different hormone doses to determine the most efficient protocol to collect eggs and sperm in salamanders. More important developments to come soon!

Chinese Giant Salamander Conservation

What is a Chinese Giant Salamander?

Chinese giant salamanders are the world’s largest amphibians; they can grow over 5 feet in length and weigh over 50 pounds. They diverged from all other amphibian lineages 170 million years ago and represent the very root of the amphibian tree of life.They take at least 6 years to reach sexual maturity and have lived well over 50 years in captivity. Once widespread in the mountain tributaries of the Pearl, Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in central/southern China, Chinese giant salamanders are now Critically Endangered [IUCN, 2008]. They have suffered an 80% population decline since the 1950’s largely due to harvesting for their meat and body parts but also from habitat destruction and water pollution [IUCN 2008]. Poaching is now considered one of the highest threats to remaining giant salamander populations and some experts predict that in the next few decades giant salamanders could go extinct in the wild [Wang et al., 2004; Xie et al., 2007; Zhang et al., 2002]. In fact, the Chinese giant salamander has been ranked as the number two priority out of over six thousand amphibian species in need of conservation assistance, according to the Zoological Society of London’s amphibian EDGE list which ranks the top 100 of the world’s most Evolutionary Distinct and Genetically Endangered species Top 100 EDGE Amphibians, [2012].

Figure 1. Michelle Martin, a past graduate student with the Memphis Zoo, holds a Chinese giant salamander (left), and a giant salamander by itself (right).

This video was produced by the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation intern students that visited the Chinese giant salamander project and its study site. OPCF’s University Student Sponsorship Program (USSP) aims to encourage the next generation of students to consider a career in conservation by giving them a chance to experience a real-life conservation job in the field. OPCF launched this program in 2005 and has since sponsored 181 students by collaborating with the University of Hong Kong, the University of Science and Technology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the City University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and participated in over 76 field research projects in more than 10 Asian countries.

Reintroducing Chinese Giant Salamanders

A huge farming industry for captive breeding of Chinese giant salamanders has developed over the last 10 years to meet consumer demand for meat, but breeding in smaller farms is often difficult and wild individuals are still captured to supplement these smaller facilities [CSIS, 2009; Gang et al., 2004; UNEP-WCMC, 2008; Wang et al., 2004; Xie et al., 2007; Zhang et al., 2002]. Fortunately, in order to become certified by the government for the legal sale of salamander meat, farms must release a portion of their animals back into the wild to support conservation and population growth. These reintroductions are typically coordinated by the provincial Fisheries Department and individual breeding farms; however, the burden of monitoring these released animals is the responsibility of scientists associated with regional Universities and Research Institutes. For these reasons, the Shaanxi Institute of Zoology, Memphis Zoo and Mississippi State University have taken up the important task of monitoring in order to assess the habitat use and dispersal movements of released Chinese giant salamanders.

Memphis Zoo scientists will be monitoring 30 giant salamanders through the use of radiotelemetry following their release into the Qinling Mountains of the Shaanxi Province. The goals of this project are to 1) create a spatial habitat model using GIS mapping, 2) assess key regional stronghold areas, 3) understand habitat fragmentation threats, 4) assess the impacts of climate change on salamander movements and reproduction, and 5) assess disease prevalence. These goals will help in determining suitable habitats for future reintroductions, improve microhabitats at captive breeding farms, and pinpoint conservation needs of wild animals.

Figure 2. Top left: 1 year old captive born giant salamander that had just been marked with a passive integrated transponder for identification. Top right: typical giant salamander habitat in the Qinling Mountains. Bottom Left: Collaborators from the Shaanxi Institute of Zoology and Mississippi State University place temperature loggers near a salamander refuge. Bottom Right: Juvenile captive reared salamander that is part of the breeding program.

Habitat Use and Movements
The Memphis Zoo and collaborators are working closely with lead researcher Dr. Zhang Hongxing of the Shaanxi Institute of Zoology to evaluate the movements of released salamanders and the properties of both the water and terrain of the areas that the released salamanders choose as habitat. We are using two different mark-recapture methods to track salamanders post-release. The first method uses Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags implanted in the tails of salamanders. The PIT tags allow for identification of recaptured animals, so that dispersal rates, movement patterns, and range expansions of salamanders (as well as their growth and development) can be measured. For the second method, we are using radio-transmitters implanted into the tails of salamanders. These allow our researchers to monitor the migration of these animals on a weekly basis without recapture. We are also marking both release and recapture sites using GPS to track distances traveled.

Figure 3. Left: graduate student Wang Qijun measuring the body length of a PIT-tagged giant salamander in an Andrias farm in Shaanxi Province, China. Right: Post-doctoral fellow Lu Zhang is using a PIT-tag reader to identify the giant salamander.

After recapture of released salamanders, we are collecting data about the recapture site such as forest and stream topography, canopy cover, and the distance to human influences. These data are being used to develop a model of habitat that is selected for and against by giant salamanders released into the wild. We are also measuring specific water variables of stream sites that salamanders are recaptured from, such as temperature, pH, flow rate, and dissolved oxygen. This information is being used to predict salamander microhabitat preferences as well as improve the water conditions in captive breeding facilities.

Figure 4. Left: Dr. Andy Kouba, Director of Conservation and Research for the Memphis Zoo, tests water quality of wild giant salamander habitat. Right: Dr. Kouba works with graduate students, Zhao Hu and Wang Qijun, on water quality testing.

Reproductive Ecology
Scientists at the Memphis Zoo are beginning a collaborative study with Dr. Zhang Hongxing working on collecting information on the reproductive ecology of the Chinese giant salamander in the wild and captivity, such as age and date of first mating, the number of animals breeding at different breeding farms, egg and sperm production across seasons and in response to water temperature, fertilization rates, embryo development, and the cryopreservation of gametes. We are also recording the success rate of artificial fertilization techniques. We hope to use this information to optimize breeding at captive facilities in order to increase the number of reintroductions possible, and make farms less likely to supplement their stock with wild caught animals.

Disease Impacts
Memphis Zoo scientists and collaborators are surveying for the presence of chytrid fungus and ranavirus disease in Chinese giant salamander hatcheries, in wild populations, and in pre-release animals in order to monitor and study the rapidly spreading ranavirus that is killing hundreds of salamanders in the Shaanxi Province. This information is being used to determine animals that are safe for release as well as the overall prevalence of the disease in captive populations that may affect production. The deadly ranavirus appears to be a serious threat to captive salamanders and its impact on the remaining wild population is unknown.

Figure 5. Left: A juvenile giant salamander that is infected with Ranavirus and showing symptoms of necrotic limbs and lesions around the head. Right: A recently deceased giant salamanderthat had Ranavirus showing the necrotic digits that were eaten away by the disease.

Bird Conservation

The MAC Project

The Memphis Zoo is proud to support the conservation of rare native birds in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). The Marianas Avifauna Conservation program is a partnership between biologists at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, CNMI division of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve a threatened population of Forest Birds endangered by an invasive species, the brown tree snake.

The MAC Project: 2015

By Fields Falcone, China Keeper 

It is a long journey to my destination this year, the island of Tinian. MAC (Mariana Avifauna Conservation) Program participants from a dozen zoos have gathered once again for our annual efforts to spare the birds of Northern Mariana Islands the fate of those on Guam in decades past – vast extinction from the non-native, predatory brown tree snake. Memphis to Chicago to Honolulu to Guam to Saipan to Tinian over two days, most within a 24 hour period… A quick stop in a familiar hotel in Saipan reminds us we are both home and far from home.  

Image 1: Taking off from Memphis at 6am.

Image 2: Flight #5 – a 6-seater from Saipan to Tinian, CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands).

Image 3: Tinian, with Saipan in the background. At the end of the road are the WWII airstrips where the US bomber the Enola Gay took off for Hiroshima with an atomic bomb. 

Image 4: Motel courtyard, Saipan. 

Fueled on adrenaline, we of the 2nd crew arrive on Tinian ready to work. The 1st crew arrived 10 days earlier and commenced the monumental tasks of barging over all the supplies in storage at a local Saipan government office, organizing the bird holding room, and scouting, clearing, and setting up the field camp and first wave of nets to catch Tinian monarchs (a flycatcher endemic to this one island and nowhere else in the world) and bridled white-eyes (found only on three islands in the Marianas). When we have in holding our target number of 50 birds each we will take them by boat to the island of Guguan, where no people reside, and therefore no snakes are found. The mission of the Program, in partnership with CNMI and US Fish and Wildlife offices, is to offer the threatened, endemic bird communities of the populated islands in the Northern Marianas sanctuary from the snake on uninhabited islands, so we do not lose these birds like the majority of the birds lost on neighboring Guam. Sadly, the snake has been observed on all three inhabited islands – Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. 

Image 5: Sydney Oliveira, St. Louis Zoo, helps cut paper to line the bird holding boxes.

Image 6: Ellen Gorrell, Toledo Zoo, holds a Tinian monarch, one of our target birds for this year.

Image 7: Author, Memphis Zoo, with a Micronesian honeyeater. 

While this bird is endemic only to Micronesia, it is found in abundance on many islands and is not a part of the MAC plan. “Incidental captures” such as this jewel are immediately released at the nets back into the habitat. Everywhere you turn on these islands are the reminders of the relatively recent shocks of war, the long history of native and occupying cultures, and the timeless beauty of nature. Every day we are here is a natural and cultural history lesson – from the pamphlets we carry explaining unexploded ordnance safety, to the birds we carry back to the feeding station, every moment gives us pause at how lucky we are to play a small role in this conservation partnership. 

Image 8: WWII is not forgotten on these islands.

Image 9: Ancient native Chamorro lattes – mysteriously large stones erected for housing foundations.

Image 10: Flame tree in partial bloom, Tinian. While not native, the tree is revered in the Northern Marianas. I can see why.

By Fields Falcone, China Keeper 

Netting the birds is complete! With a target number of 50 birds each, we ended with 47 Tinian monarchs and 51 bridled white-eyes. The monarchs posed a challenge… They live deep in the forest and required over 45 net sites to reach our goal, practically a net apiece. The white-eyes, on the other hand, loved to fly out across the WWII runway cross-roads we use as access to the habitat and needed only a few high nets and a little patience. After birds were caught they were brought to a field station and crated for transport back to the bird holding room at the motel. 

Image 1: Chris Johnson, St. Louis Zoo, and Rob Mortensen, Aquarium of the Pacific, set up mist nets for the monarchs deep in the tropical jungle.

Image 2: Rufous fantail caught in the net – this bird will be extracted and immediately released as a “non-target” species.

Image 3: Reba Ourun, MAC Intern, junior at University of Guam and native of Yap, extracts a rufous fantail. Because we are not moving fantails this year this bird will be released at the netting site.

Image 4: Target birds (monarchs and white-eyes) are transported from net to field station in soft cloth bags to minimize stress. At the station they are crated with food (mealworms for the monarchs and papaya for the white-eyes) and water until they are transported back to the bird holding room within two hours.

Image 5: A Tinian monarch reminding us who is boss before being crated.

Image 6: Mist-netting (a low impact method of forest bird capture) makes all of us beam with wonder for this natural world. Kami Fox, DVM, Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, holds a Micronesian honeyeater before it is released at the net site.

Image 7: Forest jewels: a small songbird nest from a past breeding season near a net lane. 

Once the birds are in holding, Hannah Bailey (Houston Zoo), Peter Luscomb (Pacific Bird Conservation [PBC]), and Herb Roberts (PBC) mastermind the complex feeding and accommodations of 2 species with different requirements and temperaments. White-eyes are kept two to a box because they are naturally more social; monarchs are kept separately because they are more territorial. The boxes are constructed by Peter with the birds’ well-being in mind – isolation to offer competitive-free feeding, but with allowances for air circulation and auditory contact with “conspecifics”, or birds of a feather.  Resources can be limited on a remote island in the Pacific, so MAC team members bring food from the States such as mealworms (common sedentary insect prey for birds in zoo collections), but other foods must be procured locally such as fresh fruit. The MAC team also garners flies for the monarchs with ingenious traps devised by Peter and placed over local fish catch we let rot in the equatorial sun. Next on the agenda is to color-band all the birds with unique identification combinations. This will enable the CNMI government to survey for the birds on the remote sanctuary islands long after we have returned to the States to take care of our hornbills, pandas, flamingos, payrolls, and spreadsheets. In just a few days these birds will take the 13 hour overnight journey via boat to their safe new home on the uninhabited island of Guguan, some 160 miles away.  

Image 8: The bird holding room at the LoriLynn Hotel in Tinian. Note: we have hot water most of the time after 5pm this year!

Image 9: Hannah Bailey, Houston Zoo, and Ellen Gorrell, Toledo Zoo, procure wild papaya (non-native to the island but certainly appreciated by the locals, avian and hominid) to feed the bridled white-eyes in the days prior to their translocation to Guguan from Tinian.

Image 10: Searching for papaya we found other foodstuffs… no giant pandas here, but there’s some killer fodder!

Image 11: The tiny colored bands that will adorn and field-identify the Tinian monarchs (inner diameter 2.8mm).  On the search for papaya we crossed paths with history again, from the skeleton of a Japanese internment camp to remains of US Marine vessels that came ashore to secure Tinian from Imperial Japan. While we come together as a team to help this region secure the future of their forest birds, we cannot help but attempt to fathom the depth of impact our nation and others have had on this tiny oasis of dry land in the vast world of Oceania. 

Image 12: Defiant remnants of Camp Chulu, the Japanese internment camp in Tinian.

Image 13: An eerie Japanese munitions depot carved into the topography of Tinian. Rotting oil drums still pepper the floor of the cavern.

Image 14: A Micronesian starling takes off from its post on top of a decomposing US Marine amphibious landing craft near Tinian’s north shores.

Image 15: Chulu Beach (aka “White 2”), one of the sites where the US Marines landed to take Tinian from the Japanese.

Image 16: A small crab chooses its final resting place on a rusting WWII transmission on Chulu Beach, Tinian.

Image 17: The 2015 MAC closing crew summarizes the day’s accomplishments at the evening meeting at the LoriLynn Hotel on Tinian.

By Fields Falcone, China Keeper 

The boat that will carry these seedling sub-populations of monarchs and white-eyes to the sanctuary island of Guguan has been delayed. In many ways we are just in a situation of “island time”, which in other circumstances could be a quaint if only slightly irritating reminder to slow down our first world pulses. However, while all birds’ weights and temperaments are checked daily through non-invasive observation (the birds can be weighed without handling through a method built into each individual box), the birds will now be in holding longer than expected, and we all feel anxious as we try to provide the best care we can for these 100 individuals and their future progeny.  

We are beginning to inventory and pack supplies, and with each twine neatly tied and mist-net mended, we remember the oohs and aahs of the intensive field days behind us. No one is missing the midday heat, however... 

Image 1: The nets are furled and packed away now.

Image 2: Herb Roberts, retired West Zone Curator at the Memphis Zoo and co-creator of Pacific Bird Conservation with Peter Luscomb, the non-profit that spearheads the MAC Program in partnership with the CNMI government, readies to release his last catch of the season, a subspecies of the collared kingfisher found only on Saipan and Tinian.

Image 3: A last glimpse of the native fauna as we depart the WWII runway where the field camp was located.

Image 4: With trapping complete, after the 0500 wakeup call for bird husbandry duties there’s time to order our first hot breakfast since arriving. 

Research is an important component of the MAC Program and any translocation, and as the tides of biologists shift and our translocation work continues over the years, we plan ahead for future scientists and students to concentrate efforts on monitoring the birds on the snake-free islands. We have a new contact at the Saipan CNMI office, an avian biologist who plans to nurture the monitoring phase over the next several years. As the MAC Program grows in resources and networks, we hope to increase our involvement in monitoring, a logistically complex but critical aspect of the long-term plan. These uninhabited islands are expensive and challenging to reach, considering all supplies (and people, and the birds themselves) must be helicoptered or boated on.  

In order to foster more detailed survey work and future research questions, we mark the birds on their legs with unique combinations of color bands and an aluminum band that is numbered. The numbered bands offer bird-in-hand ID if recapture data are collected through mist-netting on the islands, and the color combos offer field-friendly survey IDs with binoculars. This process needs to be rapid and low-impact on the birds, and each takes about 90 seconds from start to finish. 

Image 5: Author (Memphis Zoo) bands a bridled white-eye with 3 colored bands. Together with the aluminum band placed on the bird’s right leg during a health assessment the first day of capture, these create a unique identification observable in the field. Health assessments were conducted on all birds by the MAC 2015 veterinary team: Deidre Fontenot, DVM, and Lydia Castro, Disney’s Animal Kingdom; and Kami Fox, DVM, Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

Image 6: Hannah Bailey (left top, Houston Zoo), keeps detailed records on band numbers and combos during banding and throughout daily care. The bands require a small “spoon” that spreads the tiny plastic ring apart to then slide on the leg of the bird. It can then be gently pinched to create a seamless ring. Each bird takes about a minute and a half to band, at which time a veterinarian can simultaneously assess disposition. Typically two other team members help catch up the birds to streamline the process. 

Trees. I have always felt a deep and kindred reverence. The flame tree in particular here speaks to me, speaks to all. This year we have come later than our usual spring trip to time with calm seas, but we have also hit a peak in flame tree flowering. Their gracefully sloping branches, fire-tipped when in flower, have their own angular growth algorithm that resonates in the eye like a fractal. These trees, native to Madagascar, were first planted in the Marianas in the 1960’s and now inspire festivals, art, love, and faith here in the islands. Large jungle trees such as the banyan are believed by the native Chamorro of the Marianas to be inhabited by taotaomo’na, spirits of the ancient people of the islands. 

Images 7 and 8: Old flame trees shading the remnants of a 1940’s Japanese Shinto shrine.

Image 9: A banyan tree in rarely trekked forest.

Image 10: Coconut palms line many of the beaches in Tinian. 

With this delay in boat departure, the beach beckoned between net repairs and wild fly and papaya collection for the birds. Astounding to the senses, the reef calms oncoming waves into gently lapping rhythms, while the fish inhabiting the corals challenge the visible color spectrum. I borrowed an old snorkel and mismatched goggles, pinched my nose shut with my fingers, and floated into another world.  

Image 11: Taga Beach, Tinian, CNMI.

Image 12: The only traffic in town is this beach pileup for the best siesta spot.

The MAC Project: 2014

After two days of travel and five flights we are on the island of Tinian, Herb Roberts and I, and a fresh team. We came from zoos all over the country again this year – St. Louis, Honolulu, Ft. Wayne, North Carolina, Toledo, Houston, Wichita… Missions this year are to move the second group of 50 rufous fantails (first group moved last year), from Tinian to Sarigan. Mariana fruit doves and golden white-eyes will be brought from Saipan to AZA Zoos to augment captive populations. Tinian monarchs will also be caught, held briefly, and released for a stress study. We are splitting up this year – we have a few days together on Tinian and then half the group will move to Saipan. Bittersweet – the core returning group only have a few days together. But new faces on both teams are in for a wild ride!

Quick refresher – The MAC Program (Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program) was started by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) government, US Fish and Wildlife, Herb Roberts (Memphis Zoo/Pacific Bird Conservation), and Peter Luscomb (formerly Honolulu Zoo/Pacific Bird Conservation) to save the birds of the CNMI from the brown treesnake, a non-native snake that caused extinction and extirpation of most of the birds on Guam and is threatening the human-inhabited islands of the CNMI. With the participation of AZA Zoos, birds are moved to uninhabited islands without the snake to establish safe populations, and brought into Zoos as assurance colonies.

Tinian… quiet, small, very few street names. The size of the inner 40 loop of Memphis, but mostly just bush. Tinian… the site where the Enola Gay was launched with an atomic bomb headed for Hiroshima. Green and lush, where east meets west and takes a nap at high noon.

Our trapping site is along the WWII airstrips. It is eerie, walking along the old asphalt on this first day, seeing my first Tinian monarch, native only to this island. Thinking back on the Memphis Zoo’s first Tinian fledgling survival for the AZA captive program just last year, so difficult to propagate, yet here they come down from the branches and peer curiously at us.

Hotel accommodations, more like an old camp. The AC is sort of working, the purported hot water is not, the shower spits less than a spring sprinkle. We’ve found one restaurant with fare from Japanese teriyaki to Thai curry to hot wings. And thus the adventure begins…

Image 1: Flying in a 6-seater over Tinian’s WWII airstrips where the Enola Gay was launched in WWII. Our trapping site is here.

Image 2: Welcome to Tinian!

Image 3: The groups awaits the barge that will bring our supplies from Saipan.

Image 4: First view of the water, as the barge approaches in the late afternoon, only an hour late – not bad for island time.

Image 5: A blurry shot of my first Tinian monarch!

Entry 2
Headed out this morning at 5am with high hopes – we caught 10 rufous fantails by 8am yesterday morning! Unfortunately the morning was cut short – squalls. Left at 5am only to drive into a gully-washer, then a steady rain.  Yesterday morning we actually had to bail early only because US troops were staging a military practice exercise on the runways near our sites (no ammunition!), so we were politely asked to vacate by 8:30am to avoid being part of the mission. 

Tinian, The MAC Project, Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program
Image 1
: Sunrise over a WWII airstrip near the bird trapping site. 

We have a total of 31 fantails in holding so far, with a goal of 48 and a need for a few extras in case some of them don’t gain weight in holding – we want only the healthiest, less stressed birds to go to Sarigan. New site, new island for me – Herb and Peter scouted an old site they used in 2010, and this fresh team picked out sites to put up our nets and place a bird processing base camp. 

Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program, The MAC Project, Ken Reininger, NC Zoo
Image 2
: Ken Reininger, General Curator, NC Zoo, finishes setup of one of the net lanes. This net is furled, and when open will reach approximately 4m high and 12m long. 

Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program, The MAC Project, Herb Roberts, Memphis Zoo, Bridled White-Eye, Sandy Wilson, Sedgewick Co. Zoo,
Image 3:
 Herb Roberts removing a bridled white-eye from the net with Sandy Wilson, DVM, Sedgwick Co. Zoo, observing. This species has already been translocated, so we immediately release “incidental captures” at the net sites after recording date, net, time, and species in the records. (Photo by Kim Kessler, Zookeeper, Honolulu Zoo

Fields Falcone, Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program, The MAC Project, Memphis Zoo, Rufous Fantail
Image 4
: Taking my first rufous fantail out of the net for the season! The birds hit the net and gently fall into 1 of 4 pockets created by trammels running along the length of the net.  The “mist nets” are so fine that they are hard for the birds to see. I’ve walked into them myself! (Photo by K. Kessler

At the bird processing station, rufous fantails are banded and other metrics taken, then placed in a transport box and fed flies in the field before being transported back to the holding room at the hotel. Tinian monarchs are only held in the field for a few minutes and the first fecal is collected for a stress hormone study being conducted by Disney. 

Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program, the MAC Project, Joe Smith, Ft. Wayne's Children's Zoo, Memphis Zoo, Fields Falcone
Image 5
: The bird processing station – in this photo I am blowing on a fantail to look for fat deposits and general body condition with the aid of Joe Smith, DVM, Ft. Wayne Children’s Zoo. 

Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program, the MAC Project, Memphis Zoo
Image 6
: The monarchs are so curious! They come down and investigate what we are doing, and in this case we had one that just hung out in the box for a little while after being given the green light to fly off. Eventually he shot out, landed above the camp, and scolded at us! (Photo by J. Smith

We have our first CNMI intern! Shirley Taitano is a natural resources management student at Northern Marianas College in Saipan, and she joined us for a week in Tinian to participate in all aspects of the MAC Program – field work, husbandry, prepping for translocation, and the hours of brainstorming we do… She has proven to be a quick study and an invaluable asset to the program this year. 

Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program, The MAC Project, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Shirley Taitano
Image 7
: Shirley Taitano, MAC Intern, extracts her first Tinian monarch! (Photo by J. Smith

Hoping for dryer weather for the duration… it’s been a little “iffy” the entire trip. Between the weather, the rustic accommodations, and the booney bees (little wasps that leave their mark!), we are up for the challenges! I’ll fill you in about fly-trapping for the fantails another day… with the forewarning that flies like decay… 

Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program, the MAC Project, Herb Roberts, Memphis Zoo
Image 8
: Herb takes one for the team on the way back from the field – only so many dry seats available! (Photo by K. Kessler

Mariana Avifauna Conservation Program, the MAC Project, Micronesian starling
Image 9
: A juvenile Micronesian starling watches the action from a safe distance.

Entry 3

It was touch and go… netting birds in the rain is risky and challenging, but with a finite number of days to complete the mission we persevered. Herb and the Saipan team are long gone, working nets to capture Mariana fruit doves and golden white-eyes for AZA zoo captive programs – the AZA populations are in need of genetic and gender ratio replenishment for those species after some years of slow but steady breeding success. Here on Tinian, our last few days were wet and weary, a bird here and there, closing the nets down in downpours, moving nets, all to reach the minimum 48 birds. In a grand finale Shirley and Ken set up one last new net between showers and captured the last 3 birds to bring us to 51 – 3 extras in case we have any birds we need to release because of weight gain issues, but if all fare well, all will be moved to Sarigan. Then it was field site breakdown – never as exciting as setup, but a time to reflect on the successes to date. 

Sunrise, The MAC Project, Tinian
Image 1
. Sunrise over the airstrip near the bird netting site.

Kim Kessler, Honolulu Zoo, The MAC Project,
Image 2
. Kim Kessler, Zookeeper, Honolulu Zoo, raises the nets for the last morning of trapping.

bridled white-eye, The MAC Project
Image 3
. Young local – a just-fledged bridled white-eye on the trail to one of our nets. We re-routed for the remainder of netting to give him wide berth and undisturbed time with mom and dad.

Eric Jeltes, St. Louis Zoo, Ellen Gorrell, Toledo Zoo, The MAC Project
Image 4
. Eric Jeltes, Zookeeper, St. Louis Zoo, and Ellen Gorrell, Zookeeper, Toledo Zoo, wait with quiet patience for the birds to hit the nets.

Tinian monarch, The MAC Project
Image 5
. A Tinian monarch caught and held for a fecal sample, then immediately released. Tinian monarchs will be the target translocation species for 2015.

The MAC Project
Image 6
. Shirley breaking down field camp. 

We are hoping for a Monday morning translocation. It’s Sunday morning here (Happy Easter everyone!), and we won’t know if the copter pilots will deem the route safe weather-wise until late afternoon. As soon as we get word we will go into hyper-drive, coordinating an all-hands efficient system to color-band all the birds, and move them to 6-box transport crates rather than the individual holding boxes so they can all fit on the plane. The next move they will make will be flying out of the boxes to their new island! 

While we AZA folks don’t do the monitoring of the moved populations, the CNMI biologists will be back out on Sarigan to do extensive surveys for a 10-day period later this year. They will be able to check on all populations – the bridled white-eyes, golden white-eyes, Mariana fruit doves, and rufous fantails that have been moved in in 7 separate events since 2009. 

Before the Saipan crew left, we took a quick tour of sites worthy of much longer pondering. The atomic bomb pits, where both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were held before being launched off this island, just a short drive down the abandoned airstrips from our field camp. The pocked bluffs of the east side of Tinian, where US Forces still hold mortar fire and response drills. A Japanese shrine, where fruit doves coo and the jungle slowly reclaims a pocket of tranquility during peace and war. 

Enola Gay, Tinian, The MAC Project
Image 7
. The pit that held the atomic bomb before it was loaded onto the Enola Gay and launched over Hiroshima, Japan.

Tinian Island, The MAC Project
Image 8
. The cratered US mortar practice range on the northeast bluffs of Tinian Island.

Tinian, The MAC Project
Image 9
. Japanese Shinto shrine from the 40s, built by a sugar company. Most of Tinian was converted to sugar cane fields and occupied by the Japanese starting in the 20s.

Mariana Fruit Dove, flame tree photo, Tinian Island, The MAC Project
Image 10
. Mariana fruit dove in a leafless flame tree. While not native to the CNMI, flame trees seasonally leaf out and bloom with outrageous color, inspiring festivals and local pride.

sunset, beautiful sunset photo, Tinian Island, The MAC Project
Image 11
. Sunset through a skeletal flame tree. Blooms will abound by summer. 

Now the process of feeding and cleaning takes most of the day and all hands on deck – 6am, 10am, 1pm, and 4pm duties all have begun to bleed into one another, and with our small Tinian crew of 7 we fit in human meals when we can. These fantails are flycatchers in their ecosystem – they prefer flying prey, which means we need to offer them such. The other species we work with are fine with a plate of mealworms, perhaps some fresh fruit, or in the case of the doves, 3x daily hand-feedings. The fantails bring a whole new factor into the mix – how to cultivate live flying prey, get said prey into the holding boxes, and have enough food for 4 feedings x 51 birds a day! Luckily, they transition to eating some mealworms as well, so they get a buffet at mealtimes. Peter has fashioned ingenious methods for attracting and trapping flies– rotting fish in sequence, and building trap buckets that sit over the fish to capture the bugs. He keeps a rotation of about 10 buckets buzzing. At mealtime we fill these small petri dishes with a hole in the bottom which can be slid into the holding boxes and the lids removed at the last minute. Truly husbandry genius. But I wish I could take a picture of the smell… Peter has books to write on these techniques – one-of-a-kind methods developed over a long career with AZA and other organizations moving all sizes and species of birds to safe habitats. 

Tinian Island, The MAC Project, Lori Lynn Hotel, rufous fantail, bird room
Image 12
. The epicenter for the 2014 Tinian MAC Program: the Bird Room at the Lori Lynn Hotel. Each rufous fantail has its own box, constructed specifically to minimize stress and maximize air circulation. The backs have open screens, out of sight of passing caretakers to lessen disturbance. Front doors slide up and bottom trays slide out for ease of feeding and cleaning. These boxes work for holding smaller species; larger boxes are used for doves. Each breaks down into a dozen pieces and a small package the size of a flattened shoebox.

Dr. Sandy, The MAC Project
Image 13
. Dr. Sandy gets her hands dirty loading flies for the 1pm feeding.

rufous fantails, The MAC Project
Image 14
. Dr. Joe serves up one portion of the dinner menu for the fantails.

Lori Lynn Hotel, rufous fantails, Tinian Island, The MAC Project
Image 15
. Dusk at the Lori Lynn Hotel. Fantails are settling in, a cat fight in the distance, and a final rooster crows. 

And now we wait for word on Monday. Band them, crate them, load them, and off they will go!

Entry 4

With showers on Tinian, the worst fears set in that we would not get to move the rufous fantails today. Luckily the helicopter pilot was wise to nature’s tricks – It’s Just Rain. No squalls, no lightning, nothing to threaten a tiny aircraft over a large ocean. 

I found out the day before that I would be accompanying the birds in the copter to their new island!!! Paul Radley from the CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife and I would ride out to Sarigan, hike the birds a short distance into the primeval forest patch where other releases have taken place, and let the birds go. Then we would do a short bird survey for all translocated species – bridled white-eyes, golden white-eyes, Mariana fruit doves, and rufous fantails. I had my binoculars ready and my expectations beyond Cloud 9! 

The night before, Peter Luscomb, co-director of MAC and Pacific Bird Conservation, weighed the fantails one last time to check that all were in good standing. His weighing method is to minimize handling – he developed a perch within his hand-made holding boxes that can be lifted, and a scale placed beneath, so the bird can simply hop on the perch. All 51 were deemed ready for takeoff! This is quite a feat for wild-caught flycatchers – his system of fly-feeding with supplemental mini-mealworms is the culmination of years of trial and error to keep weight on these challenging birds. Hooray! Then we moved into Team Tinian mode, with all members having a specific task to catch, color-band, and crate the birds for tomorrow morning’s flight. All were safely in their transport boxes within 1.5 hours, our assembly line a well-oiled machine. Then it was settling in for a fitful night’s sleep for the humans. 

Image 1
. Peter Luscomb (Pacific Bird Conservation) weighs the rufous fantails one last time before release. (Photo J. Smith)

Image 2
. The Tinian MAC team works seamlessly to color-band and crate the birds for transport the next morning. Clockwise from the left: Ellen Gorrell (Toledo Zoo) waits to crate the bird after banding, Kim Kessler (Honolulu Zoo) preps the crate, Shirley Taitano (MAC Intern/Northern Marianas College) catches the bird in the net with Dr. Joe Smith (Ft. Wayne Children’s Zoo), Fields Falcone (Memphis Zoo) color-bands each bird, and Dr. Sandy Wilson (Sedgwick Co. Zoo) records data. (Photo J. Smith)

Image 3
. Each rufous fantail receives a unique combination of 3 tiny color-bands along with the aluminum numbered band. CNMI biologists will be able to identify individuals in the field on future surveys of Sarigan. (Photo E. Gorrell

We loaded the birds in the rain and took off from a casino parking lot on Tinian, the only available heli-pad on the island. Within moments my first awe-inspiring sight was a full rainbow, a calming scene with my pulse racing as the island dropped away and all that was left was blue. After a quick stop on Saipan for a fuel topoff, the world as I have never seen it flowed by for the 50 min ride, 1500 ft up, at 130 mph. The skies cleared, and we passed other islands in the Mariana volcanic arc, saw tiny white dots of pelagic birds making their living in an environment that would swallow us, and eventually Sarigan came into view. 

Image 4
. Complete rainbow over Tinian shortly after helicopter liftoff.

Image 5
. First view of our destination: Sarigan. 

We landed in a clearing of ferns rimmed with coconut trees – the island was in the past a coconut plantation, though the people, goats, and pigs were cleared off decades prior. Large patches of native forest remain and recover from past inhabitants. After a brief spell to let the birds acclimate in their new forest, we began freeing the birds. How to describe the feelings as all 51 birds shot out of transport and into prime habitat! Afterwards, Paul and I surveyed for previous releasees, hearing bridleds, goldens, doves, and a few fantails, though they might have been the birds we just released. It was late morning and quite windy, so seeing was difficult – songbirds are typically on siesta at that hour, and wind further hampers their movements. I also saw and heard my first Micronesian megapodes! And possibly my last, as they are endangered and only found on a few islands in the Pacific. 

Image 6
. The fantails have landed!

Image 7
. The primeval forest of Sarigan.

Images 8 and 9
. Fantails departing their transport boxes into their new habitat.

Image 10
. Endangered Micronesian megapode sighting.

Image 11
. Mission accomplished! The ride back to Saipan was serene and overwhelming at the same time – knowing all the birds made it to their new home gave me mental space to completely surrender to the scenery. Riding shotgun, the pilot took us over Anatahan, which most recently erupted in 2007 and continued to brew into 2008. Thrill Of A Lifetime. 

Image 12 and 13
. Approaching Anatahan, the most active island in the Mariana volcanic arc.

Image 14
. The east side the Anatahan caldera. We could smell sulfur as we flew over. Approaching Saipan, with Tinian off in the distance where my adventures began, the pilot pointed out a WWII Japanese shipwreck slowly returning to the elements within the island reef. As looked back on the aerial view of the island one last time, my heart beat with love for this far away land that has begun to feel like a second home. 

Image 15
. Approaching landing on our return to Saipan, with Tinian visible in the distance.

Image 16
. Japanese warship wrecked during WWII.

Image 17
. The beautiful land and sea of Saipan.Saipan mission wrap-up, tearful goodbyes, and homeward bound soon…

Entry 5
A separate group of MAC folks, after helping set up on Tinian, set off to Saipan to start the whole process over for the other objective this year: to bring Mariana fruit doves and golden white-eyes into AZA zoos to augment the captive populations. 

Herb Roberts, Mariana fruit dove studbook coordinator, was hoping to get 12 female doves, as they are in short supply. With the rain on Tinian reflective of cooler, wetter weather on Saipan as well, trapping was challenging. Fruit doves are best targeted by food source – look for what they are eating, and place the nets between roosts and the food. In the last two years the trap team was lucky – the weather had been typically dry before arrival, and the food was concentrated. This year forage was everywhere… in the low-growing field where we have had past luck catching birds moving down from the treetops to the shrubs, but also in the tops of the trees where vines offered forage aplenty, out of reach of our net set ups. With patience – we are talking 14 hour days with in some cases ZERO doves – the team caught 5 males and 7 females. The Disney veterinarian team surgically sexed the birds as they came in, and if more had been caught, males would have been released and females kept. But we counted our 12 beautiful blessings. The males’ genetic contribution to the captive population will be carefully applied. 

The final challenge will be to finalize all the transport arrangements – it’s difficult enough for the humans! They will be escorted to Houston by team members, and from there moved to other participating AZA zoos. With only a week before departure, one plane had been chartered and the rest of the legs were aligning to make the journey possible. 

Image 1. Lending a hand on the last day of Mariana fruit dove trapping. With low daily numbers I felt incredibly lucky to get to bring one in. 

Golden white-eyes were captured more quickly – the high number goal was 20, and at 19 the team shifted to dove efforts. Called “canario” locally, this golden yellow bird is only found on 2 islands in the world.

Something amazing happened one morning in the bird room on Saipan – Hannah Bailey (Houston Zoo) was quietly playing a song on her phone as she entered data, and, starting as a whisper, then with a gradual crescendo punctuated with high-pitched cheeps, the goldies sang an orchestrated chorus! I thought it was part of the song it was so perfectly tuned and timed to the music. I will never forget it! 

Image 2. A golden white-eye in the field in Saipan.

Image 3. Saipan spider near one of the dove nets.

Image 4. Micronesian honeyeater at the dove netting site. 

A key component to making conservation stick is getting the word out. Disney participants Leanne Blinco and Deidre Fontenot, DVM, have spearheaded MAC’s outreach program for the last 2 years, and this year they lined up the most exciting event yet – a booth at a 3 day Environmental Expo with conservation and natural resources groups showcasing their work in the Marianas to hundreds of elementary school children. Kids were bussed in, and MAC team members took shifts giving 10 minute talks to each class about what MAC does, and what THEY can do, to save the unique birds of their islands. 

Image 5. Peter and Herb prepping for the next group of kids at the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality Environmental EXPO in Saipan. 

We always have a rash of birthdays during the month long trip with overlapping 2 to 4 week shifts. We had a bash at a restaurant one night – when we are all together, we can take over a place! With half the team departing the next day, we had a final gathering on the lanai of the hotel, told war stories and showed off the proud scars of the field season, and enjoyed the company of new and old friends, all in the MAC family. And some of us said goodbye… 

Image 6. Birthday bash at a seafood restaurant in Garapan, Saipan.

Image 7. The 18 member 2014 MAC team. 

On the last afternoon, I finally made it to a local Saipan beach for an hour, no snorkel, only appreciation for the opportunity to watch the sun, sky, sea, and sand intermingle for a breath or two. Deeply grateful. 

Image 8. Wing Beach, Marpi, Saipan.

The MAC Project: 2013

And they're back! Herb Roberts and Fields Falcone traveled back to Saipan to continue their work with the MAC Project. Follow along here for all the 2013 trip updates.

Day 1 Everyone arrived safely after 4 flights and 24+ hours of travel, luggage and all (last year I was the unfortunate one to have my bag take a detour to Japan for 2 days!). The 8th year of the Mariana Avifauna Conservation (MAC) Program is underway, the birth child of Herb Roberts (Memphis Zoo) and Peter Luscomb (formerly Honolulu Zoo, current co-founder of Pacific Bird Conservation). Today we will pull all the Bird Room supplies out of storage and set up individual housing for 50 rufous fantails and 25 Mariana fruit doves.  

One air unit has to be out the first night here at the motel, and it was Hannah Bailey's (Houston Zoo) and mine of course! A few hours' sleep on a cot in another room and Day 1 has begun. Roosters crowing, cats fighting, dogs in the street - our humble accommodations are in the heart of the small settlement of Garapan on Saipan. A lovely rain this morning, the humidity is thick as gnats but the air is clean on this small island in the Marianas, surrounded by reefs and water, endless Pacific water. A shower this morning, I got up early and walked down to the water to say "hello" and "goodbye"  - we will only see it through the car window until all the birds are safely captured, housed, and translocated to a sanctuary island free of the brown tree snake, a non-native predator threatening extinction for the native forest birds of the island. A rainbow: a good omen I think.  

Fields Falcone, Zookeeper

Day 3 It's 4AM and we need to have the crew heading to the site by 5:30 so I will be quick. Day 2 we set up the bird room with individual holding areas for the target birds - 64 in all. These are amazing boxes that Peter designed and we put together and take apart every year. After Herb's and Peter's many years of experience they have learned how to provide comfortable, stress-free holding for each species they work with - the doves have their own style of box, the smaller birds a different style, and everything down to the perch and the diets are specific, the product of many years of trial and error. I will tell you they have really worked the error out of it! 

That afternoon in the blazing heat we scouted our first capture site - we are focusing on the Mariana fruit-dove first, as they usually take a long time to catch in any numbers. The site is public land used for cattle much of the year, but there is enough fruit growing on vines and shrubs to attract the elusive fruit-dove. Net placement is key - they can be all around you, but if you don't take the time to see where the birds are flying - from roost to food source - your efforts will be futile. We macheted some narrow corridors in low brush on the edge of the forest, set up 12 meter long nets about 10 meters high on long conduit poles, and readied all the equipment for today. We are using a net mesh size that will not hold smaller birds, they literally fly right through! - to minimize incidental captures. When we do have the occasional other species, we remove and immediately release them. We opened the nets at 6AM and waited... we check the nets every 30 minutes in the early morning and every 15 when the sun starts to hit them. Fairly quickly we had the first dove! Great site scouting by experts. We caught several, put in 2 new net lanes before the day was done for a total of 5, and closed up at 5PM. 

Throughout the day Hannah and one of the vet staff taxi birds back to the bird room at the motel every 2 hours. Now we basically have 2 operations going - husbandry duties involving Bird Room maintenance, hand-feeding all doves captured, and eventually care for the rufous fantails we will catch, and field operations. It will be non-stop for the duration, until all the birds are loaded onto the helicopter and heading to their new paradise a few islands away. 

Image 1
Bird netting lanes - the nets are nearly invisible, but look for the poles along the edge of the forest. 

Image 2
Ellen Gorrell, Toledo Zoo, with a successful removal of a Mariana fruit-dove from the net. The bird will be placed in a holding box and transported to the Bird Room within 2 hours. 

Image 3
Fairy terns overhead at the bird netting site.

Day 5 With unprecedented efficiency and aplomb, all the Mariana fruit doves have been caught! We are on 3 times a day dove feeding. Herb has learned over the years that these doves take too long to acclimate and transition to captive self-feeding, and we want our birds fattened up before release, so Herb and Hannah (with help from the team) hand-feed them during the interim before release on the translocation island. This is one of the unique aspects of this project - most bird translocations are catch-and-release within 24 hours with minimal captive care before release. The MAC program insures we are sending only birds that maintain good weight for at least 10 days before release. As determined by vet and zoo curator staff, if any birds seem compromised, they will be released and new birds will be caught to replace them. 

Next onto rufous fantail work. We have a major snafu - the fly pupae Peter ordered to be overnighted in intervals for the fantails, which are essentially flycatchers and need aerial prey in holding for a few days before they will transition to mealworms and other "sedentary" foodstuffs, have been disappearing in route, arriving days late, and are mostly DOA. Peter and Herb have been at this a long time, and have done everything "the old-fashioned way" in their past. Time to resort to old methods. Peter has set up dead fish in undisclosed locations around the island with flytraps and exclusion cages (to keep carrion lovers out). You gotta do what you gotta do. 

Yesterday 2 of our members moderated and gave a talk to an island conservation group about the project in conjunction with government wildlife biologist Paul Radley, our coordinator on the island for the translocation. The highlight was a young local named Betty who drew Ellen a picture with a big heart that said "I love birds" as a thank you. Thank you, Betty! Then last night was the weekly island street festival along the main street - BBQ skewered delectables; young coconut sweetened, wrapped in banana leaf, and grilled; bacon empanada; minced chicken with lime and green onion wrapped in a soft tortilla; oh joy. And after intermittent downpours all day, a sunset to bring you to your knees.

Image 1
Herb Roberts (Memphis Zoo) and Peter Luscomb (Pacific Bird Conservation) on target species behavioral watch. 

Image 2
Fields Falcone (Memphis Zoo) readies a Mariana fruit dove for the transport box. The bird will be safely nestled into a larger holding box within 2 hours back at the Bird Room.

Image 3
Hannah Bailey (Houston Zoo) preps the food for the 5:30AM Mariana fruit dove hand-feeding. 

Image 4
Herb Roberts (Memphis Zoo) and Ellen Gorrell (Toledo Zoo) participate in an educational lecture open to the public on Saipan.

Image 5
Sunset off the main street in Garapan, Saipan.

Day 8 Today we head back out in the field to catch rufous fantails. Yesterday we had to stop at 4 birds because of the fly situation, but Peter and Jeff Pribble (Birmingham Zoo) have been modifying the traps to keep ants out, and the dead fish are doing their job to attract prey for the fantails. Peter has fashioned these individual fly feeders from small petri dishes with a hole in the lid that can be slid into the holding boxes. The hope is to transition the fantails to mealworms and easier food items until they are flown either to the sanctuary island or to AZA zoos (8 total to augment insurance colonies at the Honolulu and Memphis Zoos). Dead fish in 90 degrees with 100% humidity - fine work, gentlemen!  

We will be heading out shortly for netting - decided to lay low this morning and let this flycatching species forage their own hearty breakfast before bringing them in. Until then it's Bird Room maintenance - Eric Jeltes (St. Louis Zoo) and Jimmy Breeden (Honolulu Zoo) are cutting paper for the bottom of the cages - long rolls of curling, annoying craft paper, but they are patient with their mission. 

Image 1
Field site where we color-banded and released non-breeding rufous fantails last year. After our netting for this year is complete, we will search to see if those birds are still using the same territories. 

Image 2
In between net runs, a time for camaraderie. Zoo folks tell the best stories!

Image 3
Field holding boxes. They are transported back to the Bird Room at the motel within 2 hours of the first capture. 

Image 4
Past the spit of land on Saipan, the island of Tinian in the distance. 2014's conservation efforts will focus on the Tinian monarch, found only on this small island in the middle of the Pacific.

Day 11 I was on morning field crew today, an 8 hour stint in the woods ending just after 1pm (you calculate the start time...). Today was mostly breakdown of Site A and set up of Site B - after catching all the Mariana fruit-doves here, we have caught the first wave of rufous fantails and need to move to a new site to capture the rest, around 20 more. The Bird Room is becoming more and more time-consuming with currently ~35 birds - the Mariana fruit-doves need 3 feedings a day, the fantails up to as-often-as-needed depending on how they are adjusting to the food we are offering. Throw in cleaning, taking weights, vet care, fly harvesting - all hands on deck. 

Peter is generally overseeing the fantail work, and Herb the dove work, but the two are constantly putting their heads together and brainstorming as issues arise. Great minds don't always (thankfully) think exactly alike, but they always come together with a solution. The rest of us chirp in when we have insights, and all ideas are considered. Go Team MAC! 

After fieldwork a few of us, hot and grubby, stumbled into an eatery-by-day, bar-by-night in walking distance from the motel for a burger. (Or pad thai depending on your taste - most kitchens cater to the multicultural possibilities and/or the specific talents of the cook in Saipan.) Lo but if the Memphis Grizzlies game wasn't on, LIVE! 15 hours and a calendar day ahead here, I joined in the joy of our game 2 win in the semi-finals with what I would consider minimal conniption (though perhaps the locals were a bit underwhelmed). 

Back at the motel as I reflect, there are 6 kids playing on a 2nd floor balcony not 8' x 4', chattering shrilly in a mix of tongues, something keeps flying over the balcony, resembles small patties of grits or some other porridge. The Eurasian tree sparrows can't get enough of it. Late afternoon, 88 degrees and humid with a tepid breeze. Still with the freshness of the air I prefer the community lanai. Wish us luck in the field tomorrow.  

Image 1
Rufous fantail captured for translocation to a sanctuary island free of the brown tree snake. 

Image 2
Bridled white-eyes incidentally captured in fantail nets and immediately released. This species was translocated in previous MAC Program phases, and sanctuary island populations are successfully breeding. 

Image 3
The Fly Kings: Jeff Pribble (Birmingham Zoo, foreground) and Peter Luscomb (Pacific Bird Conservation and MAC Program Co-Founder) harvest island flies to feed the rufous fantails being cared for by MAC Program participants prior to translocation.

Day 15 We have finally trapped all the rufous fantails - we had one that just decided mealworms were not to his taste, so we released him to insure we only had birds amenable to the relocation process. Then came the 2 day deluge... Saipan does not typically see constant rain, even in the "rainy season" - intermittent showers are the norm. This put a damper on fieldwork, so we fed, cleaned, inventoried equipment, and helped with a (soggy) outreach project the Disney's Animal Kingdom (DAK) team scheduled for the farmers' market. DAK participant Leanne Blinco has initiated a project focused on educating the island residents about MAC's work and Saipan birds. I ended up in a long conversation with a local shrimper about Chamorron views on balancing traditional customs and the needs of local threatened species - these two issues can often be in conflict.

In between showers this morning a few of us went out to Site B caught the replacement fantail. We were hoping to conduct more behavioral studies on territory size and social spacing in these flycatchers, but we were unable to find any late nesters as we had hoped. Last year we color-banded several non-breeding fantails and followed their movements, looking at how much space they used to forage and if they defended territories. We found they did remain in the same general area over a week's time, but when we returned this year we did not find any of these birds in the area. It would be interesting to note if breeding birds either remain near their nesting area during the off season, if they return to the same nesting territories year after year, and if pairs show within year or between year pair fidelity. But without breeding birds we won't be able to look into this in the time we are here.

Last year Disney initiated a pilot stress study analyzing fecal hormones in fantails. To further this work, this year we have been collecting samples from the Bird Room, but one thing that is not known is the baseline corticosteroid stress level in this species in the wild. To tackle this, and in lieu of the behavioral work, I have been focusing on netting fantails, holding them in a species-specific field box for 10 minutes and collecting any fecals, and then releasing them. The rain has put a damper on this, but we are persevering.

Back on the lanai, I am listening to fellow keepers tell hilarious stories of in-house pranks, cantankerous parrots, the best zoo visitor questions, and in the background the house geckos making their little kissing noises. The Mariana fruit doves are still being hand-fed 3 times a day, and the fantails 3 to 5 times, depending on the individual bird. Herb continues to care for his doves like a doting uncle, and Peter relentlessly pursues the tastiest flies on Saipan. Their passion and dedication to the cause humbles me.

Image 1
Ellen Gorrell (Toledo Zoo) and Fields Falcone (Memphis Zoo) help the Disney's Animal Kingdom with their MAC Program outreach project at a community farmers' market.

Image 2
Eric Jeltes (St. Louis Zoo) and Herb Roberts (Memphis Zoo), with help from Jessica Clark (Houston Zoo), remove rufous fantails from a mist net.

Image 3
Loading flies for individual rufous fantail servings.

Image 4
Herb Roberts (Memphis Zoo) hand-feeding a Mariana fruit dove in holding before being translocated to the uninhabited island Sarigan.

Image 5
"Canario" in native Chamorro, the golden white-eye, incidentally captured and released during 2013 mist-netting for rufous fantails. This species was the focus of 2 previous MAC translocation phases and has been observed breeding on the sanctuary island.

Final day Hard to believe we board the first of 4 planes in less than 12 hours. After 3 years participating, there is a part of me that belongs to this island, this US Commonwealth of tiny dots in the Pacific ocean. I have now seen the movie that the National Park Service American War Memorial Museum plays 5 times, depicting the roles our servicemen, native Chamorro and Carolinians, and the Japanese played and the traumas they all endured on this island in WWII, and I cry every time. You can feel the struggle in the sand, and the sounds of war and surf echo off the cliffs. Nature heals, vines grow and cover old bunkers, and the human spirit seeks joy, but the effects of war are long-lasting.

Tuesday afternoon we readied the birds for transport via helicopter to their new home, the island of Sarigan. We had an effective assembly line of catching, color-banding, and crating each bird, the whole process taking no more than 2 minutes with the fantails and 4 with the doves because they also received their last hand-fed meal. Bird Room manager Hannah Bailey gave me the honor of banding the rufous fantails - their tiny legs take the smallest size standard bands made.

After loading up the birds, the helicopter took off at 9am with Hannah in tow - she accompanied the birds and met Division of Fish and Wildlife biologists already stationed on the island. The biologists will camp for 8 days and census birds on the island - previously there have been 2 bridled white-eye, 2 golden white-eye, and 1 Mariana fruit-dove translocation to Sarigan, so they can look for unbanded birds of these species to know there has been breeding on the island. Already it looks like both the white-eyes have taken off, so we will be especially excited to hear about the doves, and to find out how the fantails were faring their first week. Hannah also helped the team on the island place transmitters on 10 of the doves so their post-release movements can be tracked. We will all be waiting like expectant mothers to hear the news.

Then it was time for cleanup - all the bird boxes break down into 8 parts, and all have to be washed and stored in the special crates Peter has built. He is a mastermind of such things.

A few days ago I went out alone one more time on a dry day to try to get enough fecals for the Disney fantail stress study. Endocrinologists can do a lot with a little, but these fantails don't produce much and we were just a little shy of the goal. I am happy to say mission accomplished! I used to work for the Research department at the Memphis Zoo and have a specialized appreciation for the importance of "samples"... I also incidentally caught and released my favorite bird on the island, a Micronesian kingfisher. With that awesome bill he let me know how he felt about the brief time in the net!

Peter and Herb through their organization Pacific Bird Conservation have plans through the 2030's to insure all Mariana species will live into perpetuity on uninhabited islands. Next year they will trap Tinian monarchs and bridled white-eyes on Tinian and move them to Pagan, and also capture a few Mariana fruit doves on Saipan to be brought back to AZA Zoos for their captive breeding programs, another level of insurance against extinction of this gorgeous bird.

It has been an incredible trip, with incredible people. We all bring our talents and ideas together and get things done! And make and reinforce lifelong friendships. I can't express my gratitude for the opportunity.See you back at the Zoo!

Image 1
Flags outside the National Park Service American War Memorial Museum, Saipan.

Image 2
Color-banding rufous fantails prior to release on the island of Sarigan.

Image 3
Rufous fantails and Mariana fruit doves in their transport boxes prior to the helicopter transport.

Image 4
Herb Roberts (Memphis Zoo, 3rd from right) imparts wisdom to Hannah Bailey (Houston Zoo, 3rd from left) prior to her helicopter ride escorting the birds to their new island.

Image 5
Peter Luscomb (Pacific Bird Conservation) says goodbye and good luck to his avian charges loaded in the helicopter.

Image 6
Leanne Blinco (Animal Care Manager, left) and Dr. Deidre Fontenot (Veterinarian, right) of Disney's Wild Animal Kingdom help the team break down all the bird holding boxes.

Image 7
Micronesian kingfisher caught and released while trapping rufous fantails.

Image 8
Herb Roberts and Peter Luscomb, co-founders of Pacific Bird Conservation, ponder the future on the helicopter pad with the island of Tinian, the site of trapping next year, in the background.

Image 9
The MAC team enjoys a meal together.

The MAC Project: 2012

Two members of the Memphis Zoo family, Herb Roberts, Curator of Birds and Researcher Fields Falcone recently adventured  to the wilds of the Mariana Islands as part of the Mariana Avifauna Conservation (MAC) Program. With the use of technology, we were able to follow their experiences as they happened, and we have compiled some of their blogs, tweets and facebook posts about this adventure.

(above) Herb Roberts and Fields Falcone of the Memphis Zoo stand proudly by the bird transport boxes before loading.  

Day 1 We all tried to sleep off the 26 hours of travel, wokeup the next morning not exactly refreshed but ready for adventure. Unpacked all the field equipement, set up the bird room, repaired nets,and got to know each other or reacquaint with old friends.  

Day 2 inthe field 6AM to 630PM, it is hot and muggy in the forest.  We set upthe first array of 11 nets - cleared vegetation with as minimal impactas possible, then put up 6 to 10 meter high and 12 meter wide mist nets -and opened by 2PM.  We have caught 11 golden white-eyes already with agoal of 60 for release on a sanctuary island that does not have thedreaded non-native brown tree snake that is decimating the MarianaIslands' native birds. More to come! Happy Birthday, Ellen Gorrell fromfrom Toledo Zoo! Not a bad birthday present - goldies in the hand!  

Day 3 begins... 430 in the morning isn't particularly charming, even ona Pacific Island!  The drive to the forest shows peeks of blue waters,distant glimpses... but we have work to do.

(above) Memphis Zoo Curator Herb Roberts takes data on a white-throated ground dove in Saipan, Mariana Islands  

Day 4 and we have all the golden white-eyes we need for thetranslocation!  All the birds are doing well in temporary holding - theyare fed and cared for all day by bird curators and keepers fromparticipating zoos.  I am learning so much about aviculture, it is anhonor to be working with this group.  Our next mission is to look forthe Mariana fruit-dove... elusive at best.  We hope to translocate a fewof them as well - there is a small population on the sanctuary islandof Sarigan that is in desperate need of augmenting.  It may have takenus only 3 days to catch the 48 goldies, but it may take us the rest ofthe trip to find and net 10 of the doves!  

Day 5 and we are scouting the island for fruit-doves, needlein a steep and rocky haystack... The weather is typical for this time ofyear - HOT. Usually around 90 in the day and very humid. Iced Tangnever tasted so good! 

Day 6 and we are still looking for good locations to set upnets for the fruit-doves - we can hear them and occasionally see them,but finding a flyway where they will actually come into our nets is awhole different ballgame.  If we meet our dove goal we have two projectsto initiate on rufous fantails - collecting fecal samples for a stresshormone study, and mapping territories by color-banding their legs andwatching their movements in the habitat.  Stay tuned! 


(above) Mist-net near papaya trees (look for pole on right) usedfor capturing fruit-eating birds for conservation project, Saipan,Mariana Islands  

Day 7 Rise and shine. Cool from overnight showers, cooler Ishould say. Low 80's by 11AM with subsequent heavy humidity. Gold Bondis gold around here! We use a larger mesh net to capture fruit doves,otherwise they pop right out, and the smaller species literally flyright through, so there are far fewer incidental captures (thus somewhatdeflating net checks - it is always, always a treasure to extract abird from a net and release it, none of us ever lose the enchantment). Alittle page-turning and nodding off against the base of trees today. Atthe end of the day yesterday 3 of us waited for a couple of others tohike off the cliffs where they have some other dove nets placed. Ajuvenile island collared-dove (non-native, common on the island) landedon the hood of the vehicle by camp and seemed enamored of hisreflection, not a meter from us. We offered a little papaya whichwhetted his appetite. He flew onto the arm of my chair and lingered for afew moments, then flew down in the center of our circle and mindfullyforaged around our feet unphased. The dove gods have spoken. 

Day 8 Got permission to set up in a cow pasture where Herb andPeter Luscomb, retired General Curator of the Honolulu Zoo and one ofthe main coordinators of the MAC Program, have had luck netting birds inprevious years. 2 manned the cliffside nets while the rest of the fieldcrew bushwhacked net lanes (with care taken to take out as littlevegetation as possible) in a thorny open field of chest-high lantana anda green berry related to tomatoes that the doves have been seen leavingthe treetops to gorge on. No hits by the afternoon but we were visitedby a herd of curious, well-fed cows! 

Day 9 Nets open by 6AM, we got our first dove at 7:15AM! Allrushed to witness the excitement of netting our first Mariana fruitdove, possibly the most gorgeous bird I have ever held. Tears... By 11AMwe had 7 birds and some incidentals (the Micronesian starling puts up apainful fight!) but it's siesta time for the birds. Hannah Bailey,Curator of Birds at the Houston Zoo, has been coordinating the bird roomwhere translocation birds are temporarily held. We all sign up for 5AM,midday, and 5PM shifts to help feed and clean, weigh and assess thebirds. From years of experience with the species of focus out here andthe expertise of participants, the MAC Team has learned optimalhusbandry regimens and holding containers (custom built by Peter bothfor transport and for the bird room for each species) for each species.The years of trial and error have yielded a well-oiled machine underHannah's, Herb's, and Peter's oversight. As Day 9 comes to a close, weare 2 shy of the target number of 10 for doves, so another early morningin store. Tonight most of the team went to the Thursday night openmarket for random meat-on-a-stick and various island foods wrapped inbanana leaves and grilled, with the bonus prize of a local children'sdance contest! 

Day 10 No birds by 8AM, a bit of a disappointment. We areshifting nets around as we watch their movement in the thorny field.Husbandry is at a peak of activity. The 59 goldies are doing well, andthe doves are being tube-fed hand-rearing formula to plump them up fortransport. If we can finish out the doves we are starting to assemble asub-team for the 2 rufous fantail studies we are hoping to initiate. Offto fill the Tang cooler...

(above) Golden White-eye caught in a mist-net on Saipan, Mariana Islands, for translocation to a nearby nature preserve island.

Day 11 All 10 doves are in holding for translocation! Theyproved more of a challenge than expected... but we got 'em! Herb andHannah continue to feed them by hand, and all the goldies are doinggreat. We are starting to inventory equipment and break down and storewhat we can, and the rufous fantail project has been initiated. This isthe pet project of Peter and me - the fantail is not in trouble from aconservation perspective as it is found throughout the Pacific and onthe east coast of Australia. However, flycatchers in general aredifficult to maintain in zoo assurance colonies because of their uniquebiology, so we are trying to determine the social biology factors thatmay contribute to these challenges. In particular we are looking atterritory size in the Saipan populations by color-banding individualsand monitoring their movements. 

Day 12 Fantail project in full swing, the first 7 birds havebeen banded! They are adorable birds... and so fussy! They make thiscall when you hold them, basically cursing at you, brave little 6 gramfluffs! I am completely taken by them. (But I say this about all thebirds...) Tomorrow we will band as many as we can in a few hours andthen just start monitoring - even without concentrated effort today were-sighted two of the banded birds multiple times, so it is a good signthat they are not moving too far. No one has looked at actual territorysize per se on Saipan, only density of birds (they are REALLY thick inthese forests), so it will be interesting to see how much theirterritories overlap, especially outside of the breeding season. Nextyear if they are still on nests when we get here, like they were lastyear, we hope to compare breeding vs. non-breeding territory sizes, andsee whether our 2012 banded birds are still there. In other news peopleare starting to leave and the little family we have over here isstarting to break up - always sad. But good times have been had by all. 

(above) Fields Falcone color-bands a golden white-eye.

Days 13-15 Spent two fun days capturing and color-banding rufuousfantails on one site. Because the birds aren't breeding right now, wewere not sure if we would ever see them again! (No one has looked atwhether the birds keep strong territories in the off-season, but they donot migrate in the Marianas. In Australia these same blrds migrate forthe winter.)  We banded 12 total and have already had 4 incidentalre-sightings of banded birds! They have unique color combinations so wecan tell them all apart. IF we get a good look... it is a 6-8 gram bird,about warbler size, but they are showy and love to flash those longtails rather than hunker down on a branch so they are a good species forthis. In a few days we will return to start for more formal surveys. Inthe mean time we had a long, exciting day yesterday preparing all thebirds for their big trip. Ironic to be flying birds on a helicoptor...It took us the entire afternoon, but we got an assembly line andhand-netted all 50 golden white-eyes (a quick process because eachholding box has a small sliding door on the side just the size of asmall net so we simply flush them in), checked aluminum bands already ontheir right legs, added unique colorband combinations, and to half ofthe birds added a radio transmitter. Then they were placed in theirfield transport box - these are smaller, and each set holds 4 individualbirds.  They are mostly solid with one side of mesh - the less thebirds see, they calmer they are. Goldies are very aggressive with eachother in small spaces so they have all had their own holding boxes theentire time. The 10 Mariana fruit doves were also moved into theirslightly larger transport carriers. We all had our role, from data entryto keeping all the boxes in order. I put the colorbands on each bird,something I did a lot in my previous work. TODAY IS RELEASE DAY! Thereare already 3 biologists from the local fish and wildlife governmentoffice on the island for 10 days to re-sight birds moved in previousyears - 2 batches of bridled white-eyes and one batch of goldens arealready out there. All are banded, so if they see unbanded birds we knowthere has been nesting! This has already been seen in the bridleds.After this our work is done with the goldies and the doves - then startsthe massive breakdown, cleanup, and inventory... plus the continuedrufous fantail observations. And hopefully we will fit a trip to thebeach in there!


(above) Fields Falcone checks the holding boxes.   

Day 16 All the birds were successfully released! Twoparticipants, Ellen Gorrell of the Toledo Zoo and Ann Tieber of the St.Louis Zoo, accompanied the birds on the copter and met the biologistsstationed out there for 10 days of surveys.  Helicoptered over to thepreserve island Sarigan an hour away, when the bird doors were openedthe goldies shot out of their holding boxes like little yellow rockets,and the doves needed a little coaxing (they are naturally a weecautious). BEST NEWS: the biologists camping on the island have alreadyseen unbanded golden white-eyes, which means last year's 24 translocatedbirds are breeding!  There are a lot of elated folks involved with theproject over this news.  Cleanup continues, the 60 bird boxes all breakdown into 10 pieces each which must be washed, bleached, and stored fornext year.  All mist-nets are due for repairs, net poles tied togetherand loaded on top of vehicles for transport to the storage facility,every food cup and perch inventoried.  But it's a cheery group enjoyingthe collective successes of the trip.  Today Pete and I  looked forfantails again and sighted 5 of the 12 banded birds, one of them 6times, so we are hopeful about the long-term viability of the project. And we all got out in the water for a little while! 


(above) A coral reef beach. 

Days 17-18  The trip is coming to a close, we leave at 3AMtomorrow. All is cleaned, packed and stored, and we did our finalfantail surveys yesterday. With only 12 birds color-banded we hadregular resights of over half, which is a great return especiallyconsidering they are not breeding! (we would assume they are lessterritorial with no nests or babies to protect) Today is all for fun -some will go snorkeling and some of us are going to WWII memorials and alittle trinket shopping. Last night was the neighborhood street fair -lots of island BBQ (on skewers) little savory wraps, and sweet rice andcoconut grilled in banana leaves, oh so good. There is an asounding mixof cultures - the native island Chamorro, Thai, Chinese, Filipino, andlots of Japanese tourists. Because Saipan is a Commonwealth of the US,English is spoken everywhere, but you hear many other languages allaround you. Saipan is definitely in an economic slump, with many 90'stourism resorts simply shuttered... buildings that would be heavilyvandalized in a mainland US city but here only the vines scroll thewalls. Woke up to the last humid sunrise laced with palm fronds for awhile. Our motel is in a residential area where roosters crow, mangydogs roam, and pregnant cats abound. There is a forward-thinkingspay-neuter program but there's a long way to go. Basically there aretwo main roads on this side of the island, and we are between them, inthe "town" of Garapan - the island is divided into towns which are morelike neighborhoods. This is one of the largest ones, with several gasstations and a few restaurants and lots of beleaguered locally ownedshops. AND a McDonalds, the big city! Blog to be continued... next year!See you all soon, we have missed you!

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