The warble of a little green frog searching for a mate. The flight of songbirds winging home from the south. The yellow-throated turtle sunning itself on the rocks. This is the Canadian springtime that conservation efforts at the Toronto Zoo are striving to save.
Grade 3 Wildlife Health Centre,
Lead Keeper — Birds,
Spring is a magical time in Canada. As the mornings grow brighter, the air grows warmer, and the snow begins to melt, we collectively celebrate another winter endured and rejoice at the prospect of a brilliant Canadian summer. Venturing outside for the first time in months, we see and hear Canada’s natural landscape emerging right alongside us.
Colour returns to our gardens and forests. Snakes and marmots emerge from their underground hibernation. Migratory birds, bats, and butterflies begin to soar back from their winter homes in the southern United States and Mexico. Frogs and songbirds serenade us. For Canada’s symphony of wildlife, spring is a time of convergence, heralding the beginning of their brief window to feast, explore, and breed before the next winter is all too soon upon them.
The unbridled magic of spring, however, is also a tenuous and fragile thing. Climate change and habitat destruction have upset the essential rhythms and patterns of so many species, disrupting their reproductive cycles and threatening their survival. Preserving and protecting these species and their springtime renewal is the heart and soul of many conservation efforts at the Toronto Zoo.
“Spring is a huge time for us,” says Wildlife Care staff Gerri Mintha. “Spring is when everything starts to gear up.” Visitors flock to the Toronto Zoo in the spring, eager to see new life and energy in the animal habitats. But there’s so much more going on behind the scenes in the wildlife conservation and scientific research facilities, where animals are stirring in their hibernation chambers, being encouraged to breed in ways that maximize genetic resilience, and, in some cases, feasting on a precise nutritional diet to prepare them for release into the wild.
Spring is a huge time for us. Spring is when everything starts to gear up.
Grant Program Coordinator — Bats,
The birds and the bees or the turtles and the bats
Jon Spero, Lead Keeper of Birds at the Toronto Zoo, spends the spring working with his team at a delicate game of matchmaking among the zoo’s population of eastern loggerhead shrikes. In the wild, these shrikes, rare predatory songbirds nicknamed “butcher birds” for the way they dismember their prey in thorny trees, will be migrating back to their breeding grounds, searching for mates and beginning the annual preparation of their nests. Under human care, however, romance becomes more complicated.
“We have to monitor them very closely for signs that they’re getting along before we actually do the introduction,” says Spero. “The breeding pens include a shared wall, and initially the birds can see and hear each other but they can’t get over to each other, ensuring there’s no fighting. For new pairs we’re looking for singing — since they’re songbirds, that’s usually a good sign. This year we’ll have nine pairs who will hopefully breed for us.”
This work is vital, as the eastern loggerhead shrike is one of the most imperilled birds in North America. In 1997, when only 100 eastern loggerhead shrikes were estimated to remain in all of Canada and only 18 pairs could be found in Ontario, Environment Canada established a captive population to ensure that the unique genetic material of these birds would be preserved. The Toronto Zoo has been involved in the conservation breeding of shrikes since the program’s inception and has released 225 into the wild.
As Spero watches his shrikes pass nuptial gifts of food to each other in an intricate dance of courtship, Donnell Gasbarrini of the Adopt-A-Pond Program will be monitoring the juvenile Blanding’s turtles that are preparing to enter the wild for the first time. “For many reptiles, including the Blanding’s turtle, springtime is the transition from winter dormancy to the summer active season,” says Gasbarrini. “We’ll start to see turtles lying out in the sun, warming up after a long winter.”
There’s so much work to be done across so many species, and it can sometimes seem insurmountable. But, as conservationists and researchers tirelessly pursue the preservation of these species, there are moments of wonder that serve as reminders of what’s possible.
But fewer and fewer of these endangered yellow-throated marvels, known in Indigenous stories as “the turtle with the sun under its chin,” are being seen each spring. Predation and pollution make it ever more difficult for them to survive to reproductive age in the wild. To give the young turtles a head start during a tenuous time of their life, eggs collected by zoo staff are taken into their expert care and incubated safe from predators for up to two years. The juveniles are then released back into their natural habitat in June at a private event that aligns with National Indigenous Peoples Day. This timing is fitting as turtles appear in many traditional teachings and creation stories. Over 500 turtles have been released into Rouge National Urban Park in an effort to save the species, including more than 300 juveniles, which have been given a head start in life through this program since June 2014. When reintroduction efforts began in 2012, there were fewer than 10 individual Blanding’s turtles remaining in the Rouge Valley.
For other threatened amphibians and reptiles, efforts are focused heavily on conservation breeding programs to better understand and support the natural hibernation and reproduction habits of these species under threat by ongoing changes to their environments. In the case of the Oregon spotted frog, its habitat has been reduced to just a few British Columbian ponds, making it Canada’s most endangered frog. Researchers at the zoo are working on both assisted reproductive technologies and genetic banking in a time-critical effort to save this species before its habitat disappears completely.
Simultaneously, other zoo researchers are out in the wild using echolocator technology to track and monitor Ontario’s bat population. As spring approaches, the female bats will be preparing to accelerate their long-delayed pregnancies, having initially mated the previous fall. Unfortunately, in addition to the usual suspects of climate change and habitat destruction, these wild bat populations are also facing an existential threat in the form of an invasive fungal infection from Europe, making the zoo’s conservation efforts particularly urgent. “There are only eight species of bats in Ontario and we could end up with seven of those listed as endangered in the near future,” says Native Bat Conservation Program Coordinator Toby Thorne.
Dr. Gabriela Mastromonaco
Director of Conservation Science, Toronto Zoo
Lead Keeper —
Reptiles and Amphibians,
Springtime brings hope in the form of baby bison
There’s so much work to be done across so many species, and it can sometimes seem insurmountable. But, as conservationists and researchers tirelessly pursue the preservation of these species, there are moments of wonder that serve as reminders of what’s possible. This winter, the Toronto Zoo announced the pregnancy of four of its threatened wood bison, the culmination of a 13-year collaboration with the University of Saskatchewan under Dr. Gabriela Mastromonaco. The zoo’s reproductive sciences and wildlife care teams spent long days shepherding the bison through artificial inseminations (AI) and embryo transfers, in a process that included both high-tech sperm sorting and decidedly low-tech outdoor tarp-covered labs.
And if you ask them, it will all have been worth it if four new bison calves join the herd this spring. These triumphs, of course, are born of collaboration, with interdisciplinary teamwork being the foundation of the zoo’s conservation efforts. These victories wouldn’t be possible without the Toronto Zoo’s many partners such as Wildlife Preservation Canada and Parks Canada, as well as academic institutions including the University of Guelph and Laurentian University. Dedicated teams in all these organizations work together with the single vision of a springtime in Canada where all nature’s creatures may thrive.
After all, zookeeper Mintha reminds us, the ultimate goal of these conservation breeding programs is to not need them. And so, as we revel in another seasonal awakening, let us remind ourselves of the essential stewardship happening at the Toronto Zoo and elsewhere to ensure that the chorus of Canadian spring retains all its voices in years to come.
To learn more about the Toronto Zoo’s conservation work, visit torontozoo.com or to financially support the conservation breeding programs, visit wildlifeconservancy.ca.