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Nine of The Florida Aquarium’s 10 roseate spoonbills recently were selected to participate in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ AZA Species Survival Plan. The significant development highlights a unique bird that was hunted within a few-dozen birds of extinction. It also underscores the value of the often overlooked but critically important AZA SSP, of which The Florida Aquarium is an enthusiastic participant. The program maintains healthy genetic populations of hundreds of different creatures. With their pink color and weird bill, roseate spoonbills are attention grabbers. Michelle Uhlig, a senior biologist in the Aquarium’s Wetlands gallery, said, “Visitors frequently mistake them for flamingoes.” However, closer inspection shows the long “spoonbill” is far different than the flamingo’s knobby, downturned bill. Author Kenn Kaufman aptly describes the roseate as “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.”
In contrast to the flamingo, the spoonbill is native to Florida, as well as Texas and Louisiana. Most flamingos reported in Florida are thought to be escapees from human care, though some wild birds may occasionally drift north from native grounds in the Caribbean and Mexico.The roseate’s distinctive bill may look strange, but it is efficient. They use it to stir up mucky wetland bottom and flush out prey, which include shrimp, fish, insects, crabs and aquatic invertebrates. “The bills are extremely sensitive and snap shut as soon as they touch food,” said Uhlig. Uhlig also explained the bird’s diet of shrimp accounts for its pinkish color.
Though the Aquarium’s spoonbills are well fed, they still forage in the Wetlands dome, which replicates their natural habitat, including mangroves. Mike Terrell, the Aquarium’s director of husbandry, said, “Visitors can observe their natural behavior up close, with Aquarium staff always nearby to answer questions about the birds. It is a great opportunity to educate and inspire.” Inspiring in its own way is the AZA Species Survival Plan, which Terrell said “is a huge piece of how zoos and aquariums manage their animal residents.”
Under the program, participating institutions follow rigorous procedures to achieve robust and genetically diverse animal populations. A team of specialists carefully plan each species’ survival strategy, which may include transferring an animal to another facility for breeding. The program provides a critical safety net for species whose numbers are dwindling in the wild. Terrell said the AZA Species Survival Plan helped save the California Condor, which was near extinction in the 1980s. The 27 remaining birds were captured in 1987 and bred in the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos. By 1991, captive breeding allowed the large vulture to be reintroduced into the wild, where there are close to 300 birds now.
Terrell said the AZA effort provides wildlife officials “the genetics and lineage” essential to reviving populations of endangered species. The survival program also ensures that zoos and aquariums have access to healthy populations of the different species they display. Terrell explained, “This is a huge piece of how zoos and aquariums manage their animal populations.” Contrary to what some people think, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums almost never capture wild animals for exhibit. As Terrell stressed, “Virtually all our animals come from other institutions.”
Many of the once-wild creatures that remain at the Aquarium are those that cannot fend for themselves because of permanent injuries or because they were abandoned young and had to be hand-raised, and thus became dependent on humans. Indeed, the veterinary staff routinely nurses injured wild animals back to health and releases them. For instance, they currently are rehabbing two juvenile Kemp’s ridley turtles that were hooked accidentally by fisherman. As soon as they have healed and shown the ability to swim and hunt, they will be returned to their natural habitat.
The Species Survival Plan program requires participating facilities to make sacrifices. They may lose an animal for an extended period, or even forever, when it is transferred to another institution for breeding. Some creatures mate for long times, and an animal won’t be returned if it will pose any threat to its welfare. “An individual animal will let you know what it wants,” Uhlig said. What the animal “wants” guides placement decisions. Moreover, the program ensures scrutiny and accountability in animal care.
“If our birds are going somewhere,” Terrell said, “we are going to make sure they are well cared for. Likewise, when animals come here, the other facility is going to make sure we take care of their animals. Since the AZA holds accredited zoos and aquariums to the highest animal care standards, we can always feel confident animals we send to other AZA facilities will receive outstanding care, just as all of our animals do.” Under the Species Survival Plan, a Florida Aquarium penguin has been transferred for breeding to Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park. Soon, two roseate spoonbills will travel to the Jacksonville Zoo for breeding. Two Jacksonville birds will also come to the Aquarium. Terrell said one of its 10 spoonbills was not included in the program because it is used for outreach presentations, and thus could not be transferred to another institution.
The roseate spoonbill in Florida is a species of special concern, with its numbers fluctuating along with the wetlands that furnish its food. The National Audubon Society reports heavy rains over the last year have resulted in a rebound of the Everglades spoonbill population. A few years ago, drought had caused a spoonbill decline in the Everglades, and more birds appeared to be traveling north, including to the Tampa Bay region.
The outlook for roseate spoonbills may be uncertain, but it is far better than it was in 1901, when wildlife officials said only 25 breeding pairs had survived the slaughter of plume hunters. (“Death in the Everglades: The Murder of Guy Bradley, America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism,” by Stuart B. McIver offers a graphic account of that bloody era.) Fortunately, Florida outlawed the hunting of wading birds, and the birds managed a remarkable comeback. However, as Terrell points out, grave threats remain – particularly coastal development and the draining of wetlands.
Without the abundant food supply the wetlands produce, Uhlig explained, the birds “can’t reproduce and feed their babies.” Terrell said one thing everyone can do to help the spoonbill and all Florida wildlife is to reduce plastic use. “Plastic and trash are a real problem. The plastic breaks down into microplastics that are consume by shrimps and then spoonbills. It can be fatal over time. If people want to know what they can do to help, they should always say no to plastic straws and eliminate single-use plastics whenever possible.”
Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune