Friend of Frogs, Savior of Salamanders: Detroit Zoo’s Amphibian Expert Ruth Marcec-Greaves
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Nov. 12, 2020)
Royal Oak, MI- “Ask a toad what is beauty…he will answer that it is the female with two great round eyes coming out of her little head, her flat mouth, her yellow belly, and brown back.” This quote from Voltaire graces the wall of the National Amphibian Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.
Thankfully toads are not the only ones who appreciate the beauty of amphibians.
Dr. Ruth Marcec-Greaves is the director of the center. She’s dedicated her life to learning about the diverse mix of frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts that can be found around the globe. Learning about them – and protecting them.
Amphibians may not get as many social media likes and shares as kittens or ponies, but there are always people peering into the glass enclosures with curiosity on their faces.
One popular habitat houses the Japanese Salamander. The Detroit Zoo has five of these lovelies, with the largest weighing 80lbs. “When you see a frog or a salamander you’re expecting something very small, not something that’s close to five feet long,” she said. “They’re huge.”
Another eye-catching favorite is the Mantella Frog, which is an endangered species native to Madagascar. Unlike most frogs, these tiny orange, red, and yellow frogs spend their days hopping around, looking for food, and being social. They’re a favorite of guests to the zoo, where an army of them (yes, a group is actually called an army) are easy to spot in their lone-standing habitat.
The Poison Dart Frogs are also another popular frog to watch. These brightly colored cuties come in a variety of colors and levels of toxicity, though the ones at the zoo are not toxic to humans. They are native to Central and South America.
PERUVIAN SUPERSTITION AND INTERNATIONAL OUTREACH
While amphibians are well-loved at the Detroit Zoo – which has over 60 species – in some places these creatures are ignored, taken for granted, or even killed.
Peru is one example. For over ten years the Detroit Zoo has participated in a program with Peruvians to help with education, conservation, and tracking.
“Frogs in that general area are not viewed as wonderful things,” Dr.Marcec-Greaves said. “They’re kind of considered bad luck.”
She and her team make visits to Peru, and stay connected virtually in between as the residents track the frogs and send pictures of unusual finds. “It’s been really wonderful to see the people see them as great and wanting them around. When they see the frogs they run up to them and want to be inquisitive and curious about the animals. They wonder about how the animal is, is it healthy. It’s really exciting to see them take an appreciation of these animals.”
But why should people care about these animals that aren’t as warm and cuddly as a cat, or practical as a horse?
“The most obvious thing that anybody would notice is if frogs disappear we would have so many more bugs. Frogs eat lots and lots of insects, and the mosquito population would be overwhelming if we lost our frogs. That would bring diseases and other problems,” Dr. Marcec-Greaves said.
“Frogs and salamanders and other amphibians are important for our entire ecosystem. They’re important for keeping the soil and water healthy, and that’s something that not everybody realizes.
“Tadpoles help keep the water clean and the burrowing species like salamanders help aerate the soil and help eat the little insects in the soil. That keeps the soil healthy and helps trees grow. Ultimately that helps keep our air clean also. So they’re really integral to the entire environment.”
Not only is Dr. Marcec-Greaves teaching this in Peru, she’s been defending amphibians around the globe.
One place that is dear to her heart is Lake Xochimilco near Mexico City. That’s because it’s home of the rare and fascinating axolotl – a freshwater salamander that is highly intelligent and has the ability to regenerate lost body parts faster than any other species. They’re recognizable by their large, mane-like gills.
While they’re not uncommon in captivity, there are believed to be less than 100 axolotls left in their native habitat. The Detroit Zoo has a couple that have been bred in captivity, and one of Dr. Marcec-Greaves points of pride is creating a axolotl mascot for the zoo. She’s also gone to Mexico to study the habitat and look for the elusive creature, whom she credits for solidifying her path towards amphibian expertise.
“Learning about the axolotls and that they were endangered made me more concerned about amphibians. I wanted to help them,” she said.
MUDPUPPIES IN THE DETROIT RIVER
Closer to home, Michigan’s mudpuppies get a piece of Dr. Marcec-Greaves’ heart. There’s even an annual Mudpuppypalooza at the Belle Isle Nature Center, which is also managed by the Detroit Zoological Society.
Mudpuppies live in the Detroit River, feasting on insects, fish, and crayfish. While mudpuppies are not endangered, studying them provides great insight into the health of the waterway. According to a Detroit Zoo blog, “Like all amphibians, mudpuppies are valuable indicators of wetland and habitat health. Since water and air move freely in and out of an amphibian’s permeable skin, they will be the first creatures to become sick or even die from the pollutants or toxins found in the habitat, warning us of any impending problems.”
The team goes to the river to temporarily capture the salamanders and record data such as weight and location. They also insert a microchip into its tail so if it’s recaptured it can be easily identified. The animals are kept in the water and released as quickly as possible to minimize risks to their health.
OTHER MICHIGAN AMPHIBIANS
In addition to the mudpuppies, Michigan is graced with many creatures.
“We have a lot of American toads. They’re one of my favorite animals. I love the way they hop around, and you’ll hear their call quite a lot,” Dr. Marcec-Greaves said. “Supposedly they breed in the spring, but we’ll hear them calling and see them breeding through the summer and into the fall. They’re pretty amorous animals.”
Frogs, toads and salamanders can be found throughout Michigan, including urban and suburban areas. While they’re fun to observe, it’s not a good idea to pick them up, she cautions, as their skin is very sensitive and can easily absorb oils and other contaminants from people’s fingers.
But, those who are curious to see more, it’s easy to create an inviting space.
MAKE YOUR YARD FROG-FRIENDLY
“It doesn’t take much to help,” Dr. Marcec-Greaves said. “Just appreciate your yard. Don’t put chemicals on it. “The easiest thing you can do is put some leaves out in your yard, or rocks, places for them to hide.”
Native landscaping, rain gardens, ponds, and even regular gardens and flower beds can help. “Anything that gives them a little bit of shelter and protection.”
Essentially, she explained, if you build it they will come. “They are everywhere,” she said.
THE NEXT GENERATION OF NEWT KNOWLEDGE
Dr. Marcec-Greaves started out like many kids who were curious about the outdoors. “I was one of those kids that liked to play in the dirt. I would roll over logs and I would find toads and salamanders – they were my favorite. They just always made me happy, the way they move around and everything,” she said.
She went on to study veterinary medicine, and sought out opportunities to learn about amphibians. “There are not a lot of experts in this field. We are a small tight-knit group,” she said. “When I was going to school for this, I did not run into a lot of amphibian experts… I was picked on quite a bit for wanting to be an amphibian specialist.”
It was hard having a passion as rare as the axolotls in a world full of mudpuppies, yet she stuck with it. And now she’s a leading expert whose work makes an ongoing impact around the globe.
“I definitely encourage kids to get into this field, or any subset of animals they are interested in,” she said. “Animals need help, and the weirder the animal the better because they’re usually the ones who aren’t getting a lot of attention… Get into amphibians. Get into reptiles and fish – the ones who get a little less love.
“But of course if they’re interested in mammals, they need help too.”
WAYS TO LEARN MORE
A visit to the zoo can be a great way for kids, and adults, to see animals firsthand. Check out more pictures from our recent visit, and for details about the zoo visit www.DetroitZoo.org.
Those looking for animals in the wild can learn more about Michigan species and where they’re located on the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website.
The DNR takes part in an atlas program where people can send in information about sightings. And the Detroit Zoo is one of many zoos that participates in Frog Watch. Through Frog Watch people can learn to listen for frogs at night and track where calls are heard.