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From Mussels to Manatees

By Kate Silver
min read

Conservation in America’s Heartland

With corals in crisis all along the coast of Florida, Beth Firchau started thinking about which facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums could help. Her mind went to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio. That is where Firchau, who is the project coordinator for the AZA Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project, got her start, so she knew firsthand about the facility’s willingness to step up when an animal is in need.

“They jumped on board and said, ‘How can we help?’ from right off the bat,” she said.

Columbus is one of nearly two dozen AZA-accredited facilities involved in the long-term coral project; but that project is just one of more than 100 conservation projects in over 40 different countries that the facility is engaged in right now.

“We’re in deserts and oceans, the whole gamut,” said Tom Stalf, president and chief executive officer at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. “I always say from anteaters to zebras, but when I say that, it’s all terrestrial mammals. I need to find some corals that start with a Z.”

Conservation, both for land-based and aquatic species, is in the Zoo’s DNA, dating back more than four decades, said Stalf. “We care about wildlife and wild places. When we are notified that there’s an animal in need, if we have the resources to help we’ll do that.”

Doug Warmolts, who is vice president of animal care, said that partnerships in conservation underlie all of their work, helping the facility connect with visitors in a meaningful way, while bringing purpose to the team.

“This is a business where we all do what we do because we want to make a difference, and we want to feel like we’re making a significant contribution,” he said. “These partnerships allow us to do that.”

When it comes to aquatic conservation, the Zoo is immersed in efforts around coral, manatees, marine fish, freshwater mussels and more. Some of those programs are popular with visitors, while others are carried out away from the public eye.

“They’re not afraid of taking on those efforts that don’t necessarily get the most press, but they do them because it’s the right thing to do,” said Firchau. “That’s another reason I’m so proud of being an alum of Columbus: they showed me that sometimes conservation is just the right thing to do.”

Coral Conservation

The Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project isn’t the Columbus Zoo’s first foray into coral conservation. SECORE International, a conservation organization dedicated to the restoration and protection of coral reefs, started at the Columbus Zoo in the early 2000s with Mike Brittsan, the former director of aquatic sciences at the Zoo (Brittsan is now retired, but still serves as SECORE’s vice chair of the board of directors).

Ramon Villaverde, the Zoo’s aquatics program keeper and dive safety officer, has contributed to SECORE’s global efforts since its early days, performing field work to collect coral spawn of various species and raising the young corals before putting them back on the reefs. That helped prepare him for the work he’s currently doing with the Florida Coral Reef Tract Rescue Project. To date, the Columbus Zoo has welcomed 19 corals into a biosecure holding area that Villaverde designed and built to house the animals, which are threatened by stony-coral tissue loss disease.

“The Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project is creating a Noah’s Ark and holding these threatened corals while researchers and scientists figure out the disease,” said Villaverde. The Zoo is just one of more than 60 partners that have come together to help with the AZA Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project, along with government agencies, universities, and others.

For Villaverde, coral conservation isn’t just a professional endeavor. It’s also personal. He lived in Florida for more than five years, and, as a diver, he’s seen the seascape change dramatically as reefs degrade.

“I want to help bring things back to life, or at least help save what we have,” he said. “The Columbus Zoo supporting this project helps make things a little bit better.”

Aquatic Propagation

As the Zoo continues to care for the corals, the team’s expertise and contributions to other aquatic conservation projects, such as Rising Tide Conservation, is also positioning the facility to do additional important propagation work in the future to assist in the care of the corals and maintain an ecosystem similar to the ocean.

“Snails, hermit crabs, urchins, and crabs help us do our job to keep the environment healthy and happy for the corals,” Villaverde said. To help support sustainable efforts to reduce the number collected from the ocean, Villaverde continues his longstanding aquaculture work with Rising Tide, an international breeding initiative, to raise some marine ornamental fish species at the Zoo. The Columbus Zoo team will consider expanding on this knowledge gained to potentially explore the option of the propagation of invertebrates to enhance the care of these corals as well.

The Zoo already has the animals, after all, and they reproduce naturally. The challenge, because the offspring are so tiny, is collect them quickly and place them in a safe area where they can grow and develop, away from potential predators and filtration systems that could pose a threat. Another challenge is feeding the offspring: they need to eat live food that is tiny.

“Because of how aquariums are set up, the majority of the offspring gets eaten by cohabitants or they’re taken up by filtration,” said Villaverde. “So, what we do is collect the spawn before it gets taken up by filtration and attempt to rear them.”

To date, Villaverde has already been successful at raising more than eight species of fish, including blue angelfish, two species of clownfish, two species of cardinal fish, French grunts, and lyretail anthias. While the Columbus Zoo has not propagated invertebrates for the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project just yet, Villaverde has also achieved success at raising over eight species of invertebrates, including turbo snails, Batillaria minima and Nassarius vibex snails, rock boring urchins, peppermint shrimp, harlequin shrimp, Berghia nudibranch, dwarf cuttlefish, and birdsnest coral.

Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation

Outside of Florida, there are only two AZA-accredited facilities that assist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership, and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is one of them (the other is Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio). These gentle giants are a favorite among visitors, said Becky Ellsworth, curator of the Shores and Aquarium region.

“I feel like every time that I tell somebody what I do for a living, that’s the first thing that comes up: ‘Do you work with the manatees? Oh, I love the manatees!’”

Since the Manatee Coast habitat opened in 1999, it’s been home to more than 30 manatees that have been injured or orphaned. A female named Stubby has been in residence the longest.

“Stubby is like our big mother figure,” said Ellsworth. “She acts as our surrogate mom for all of the babies and orphans that come in.”

Most recently, Stubby has played an important role in helping to rehabilitate two manatee orphans from Florida, named Tostone and Bananatee.

“We can’t keep her away at all. She immediately goes up to the babies, she pushes them to the surface to help them get a breath of air, and she’ll push them out on into the main habitat from the back pool to show them around. It’s amazing,” said Ellsworth.

The Columbus Zoo team has been working to bulk up the two babies so that they can be returned to Florida. When that happens, they’ll fly by cargo plane to a partner facility, where they’ll be fitted with a tracking device and released into warm water, near other manatees that can help them acclimate.

Stubby, on the other hand, will stay in Ohio. She was injured and has a large portion of her paddle missing and other medical issues, said Ellsworth. So, she’ll continue welcoming other manatees to the Aquarium, while wooing visitors and staff and helping to inspire them to make choices that benefit manatees and other aquatic species.

“She’s just the sweetest. She has truly risen above so many challenges, and she’s just persevered,” said Ellsworth.

Mussels Conservation and Research

Nearly 70 percent of mussels in the United States are extinct or imperiled, making them one of the most endangered taxonomic groups in the country. At the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Freshwater Mussel Conservation and Research Center, the Columbus Zoo—in partnership with The Ohio State University, The Wilds, Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife, USFWS, and Columbus Recreation and Parks—is involved in several local conservation efforts around mussels.

Freshwater mussels live in rivers and streams and serve as filters in the water. They also act as a canary in the coal mine, said Ellsworth.

“When our freshwater mussels start disappearing and dying, you know that the health of the stream is not what it should be,” she said. “They’re toward the bottom of the food chain, so as we lose the mussels we’re going to lose our fish species, we’re going to lose the clarity of our waters, and we’re going to lose the birds that go by the water. It’s all a big chain reaction in an unhealthy river system.”

At the Center, located about three miles from the Columbus Zoo, the partners are working together to propagate and reintroduce the mussel into local waters, and gain a better understanding of challenges that the mussel, and the ecosystem, are facing.

At the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, investment in conservation programs demonstrates the team’s dedication to animals large and small, near and far, flashy and mundane.

“Our guests know that we are a facility that cares beyond our perimeter,” said Stalf. “We’re investing in global conservation, but we’re also very proud of our local conservation.”

Photo credits: ©Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquariums

Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.

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