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Continuing education in amphibian care

Hello everyone! You’d think that winter would be a slow time for folks that work in a department with a lot of animals that slow down in cooler weather, but you’d be wrong! Aside from normal day-to-day animal care and maintenance of the Scaly Slimy Spectacular complex, some of us have been traveling.

One of my recent travels was to the Detroit Zoo to help teach the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group’s (TAG) Amphibian Management School. Amphibian School?! There really IS such a thing? Why yes, there sure is! I not only went to help out as an instructor, but one of our Herpetology Team members, Char Roe, also went along as a student.

So why would anyone need to spend a week learning about how to care for amphibians? That’s a good question I’ve just asked myself there. Taking care of amphibians is very challenging for a number of reasons. For one, they are very sensitive to their environments. Amphibians absorb all of their water and much of their oxygen through their skins, but they can also absorb other things, so learning how to care for them to fit their exacting environmental needs is very important for zoo professionals. They are also extremely diverse, with the online resource documenting that as of today, there are 7,830 species of amphibians known to science. Considering that for all mammals there are just under 5,500, that is quite a big number! With that many different species spread out over the three orders of amphibians (you remember those, right? Anura [frogs and toads], Caudata [salamanders], and Gymnophiona [Caecilians]), that means that care regimes can vary widely amongst them. Getting a primer on the various groups can really help amphibian care experts hone their skills to better meet the needs of these highly diverse animals. It is also a good way to network with other professionals from not only across the U.S., but from around the world. It is always great to meet up with others to see what they are working on, how they manage challenges, and to just get fresh voices in the discussion. I have certainly learned many things every one of the five times I’ve served as an instructor!

Another good reason for a course like this is that amphibians are in trouble! Currently about one third of the world’s amphibian species are under threat of extinction. The threats are many, and zoos, nonprofits and other organizations have taken up the charge to help prevent extinctions by working with these animals at their organizations. Zoological populations may serve a number of functions, whether they serve as ambassadors for their species, are part of a breeding population to provide a “safety net” should wild populations decline precipitously, or provide zoo-reared offspring to release back into the wild to bolster wild populations. As these institutions commit more and more resources to these efforts, ensuring that the people who care for these incredible amphibians have the best and most up-to-date knowledge of their needs is important.

I’m certainly very proud and humbled to serve alongside the distinguished group of animal care professionals that teach this course. So the next time you visit Scaly Slimy Spectacular, or, for that matter, any amphibian habitats in the zoo world, just think to yourself, “Wow, someone actually did go to school for that!”
Robert Hill
Assistant Curator of Herpetology

Photo: Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) at the Detroit Zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center.

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