Penguin nesting project and amphibian conservation to be funded through National Geographic Society Grants
Two of our team members will join the ranks of renowned conservationists like Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, as National Geographic Explorers, working on personal field conservation projects across the globe.
Dallas Zoo’s Animal Care Supervisor of Birds Kevin Graham was awarded a $50,000 grant in support of his project: “Using Artificial Nests to Improve Breeding Success of Endangered African Penguins.” Additionally, Curator of Ectotherms Ruston Hartdegen was awarded $18,955 in support of his project: “Expanding an Amphibian Rescue Center at the Dallas Zoo.”
Kevin Graham on South Africa’s Dyer Island installing the artificial nests.
“Receiving grants of this magnitude from National Geographic Society really shows the advances our team is making in the field of wildlife conservation,” said Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo’s Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation. “These are lifesaving undertakings that Kevin and Ruston have worked at length on – they had to prove successful completion of similar projects with measurable results before being awarded the grants. Now, we can make an even bigger impact for endangered African penguins and near-extinct frogs.”
In addition to caring for Dallas Zoo’s birds, Graham has worked hard to save African black-footed penguins in South Africa for the past three years as the Artificial Nest Development Project Coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). He leads a team that studies, designs and installs artificial nests for the penguins to lay eggs in.
Over the past 100 years, the population of African penguins has declined from more than two million breeding pairs to slightly more than 20,000 breeding pairs left – that’s a more than 98-percent population decline mainly due to improper nests that fail to protect their eggs.
African penguins burrow and nest in guano (a term for their poop), but decades ago, Europeans and South Africans began removing the guano to use as fertilizer, leaving the penguins’ eggs vulnerable to predation, human activity, and the elements. There are currently only 27 natural guano nests left.
An African penguin sits on an egg inside the artificial nest.
In February 2018, Graham joined forces with AZA scientists, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA) to install 200 artificial nests in two South African penguin colonies. After extensively testing various artificial nest prototypes, two designs were penguin-approved. At the end of the testing period, the scientists learned that approximately 96 percent of the nests in the study were utilized by the penguins, just over 80 percent had eggs laid in them, and more than 56 percent had successful chicks.
Over the next few months, the team will build 600 more nests to install, which is where the grant funding will come into play. Long-term, Graham hopes to have 6,000-7,000 nests installed in total.
“Our vision is to eventually achieve large-scale implementation that will allow thousands of penguin pairs access to suitable nesting locations, improving the current breeding success rate, and establishing population sustainability and stability,” said Graham. “There are other threats hurting African penguins – over-fishing, climate change, and marine pollution – but it feels good knowing that right now we’re taking immediate action to save them, and if nothing else, at least we gave them a place to raise kids.”
Hopping to the rescue
With one-third to one-half of all amphibian species worldwide threatened with extinction, conservation action is absolutely critical to preserving herpetological biodiversity. The Dallas Zoo is taking the next step to develop assurance populations of three threatened amphibian species – the dusky gopher frog, the Houston toad, and the Puerto Rican crested toad.
Ruston Hartdegen releases a dusky gopher froglet back into Mississippi’s DeSoto National Forest.
This past summer, we opened a behind-the-scenes Amphibian Rescue Center where our herpetologists are working to produce healthy offspring to release back into their natural environments.
We are already leading efforts to protect the dusky gopher frog, one of the most endangered amphibians in the world. In October 2018, herpetologists released new froglets from our existing dusky gopher frog population into their native habitat of Mississippi, where the frog is endemic to only three small ponds in the DeSoto National Forest.
“Without conservation efforts like our zoological breeding program, many endangered species would become extinct in the wild,” said Hartdegen. “Amphibians are critical to our environment. Known as ‘indicator species,’ they’re used to gauge the health of their ecosystems – the moment they’re in decline, we know that habitat has been compromised due to problems like, pollution, habitat destruction, or disease.”
With the help of the National Geographic Society grant, Hartdegen is expanding the Amphibian Rescue Center to accommodate two new breed-and-release programs – the Houston toad (currently only found in three Texas counties) and the Puerto Rican crested toad (the only native toad on the island) – helping a total of three species increase their numbers while protecting genetic diversity.
A dusky gopher frog at the Dallas Zoo Amphibian Rescue Center before its release.
The National Geographic Society funding marks the first time our staffers have received support from the Society in its history. Since its inception 130 years ago, the National Geographic Society has supported the work of more than 3,000 Explorers in the field.