In general, Froglife does not encourage the keeping of amphibians (or reptiles) in captivity. Unlike the animals which have become used to close contact with people through the long process of domestication (farm animals and those that we treat as pets, or ‘companion animals’), there are no domesticated species of amphibians. We accept that people, especially children, can become fascinated and enthused by keeping newts, frogs or tadpoles, and that this can develop into a life-long interest that may encourage that person to contribute to the cause of wildlife conservation. However, the needs of amphibians are complex, and too often ignorance of these needs can lead to suffering and needless death in captivity. This can be particularly the case for non-native species when we add the traumas of being captured in the wild, international transportation, and being put on display for sale in a pet shop. Captive breeding of non-native species can alleviate some of this stress, but not the lottery of being cared for by enthusiastic but inexperienced keepers. Overall then, it is preferable for people to learn about amphibians from books, the media, wildlife ponds in private gardens and allotments, visits to wildlife sites where they can be encountered in their native habitats….and zoos.
Froglife recognises well-managed zoos (and aquaria) as exceptions to our policy against keeping amphibians in captivity. As well as having a broadly educational role concerning the world’s wildlife, zoos aspire to be an important component of the worldwide effort to conserve biodiversity. Where a species is threatened with extinction in the wild, it may be possible to take a small population into captivity and encourage them to breed, establishing a reserve population which can be used to re-populate the natural habitat when favourable conditions return. This practice is known as ex situ conservation. In this article, I review progress on ex situ conservation of amphibians and ask how well zoos are meeting their welfare needs.
The first Global Amphibian Assessment (Stuart et al., 2004) concluded that amphibians are the most threatened of the vertebrate classes, with about one third of species facing extinction. One response to this finding was the launch in 2007 of the Amphibian Ark (AArk) by a consortium of the IUCN and the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Its strategy is to identify threatened species whose survival chances could be improved by an interventionist programme including in-country and out-of-country captive breeding, allied to efforts to mitigate local threats to the species in the wild (Pavajeau et al., 2008). The AArk Newsletter, published quarterly, on open access, provides information on the progress of AArk programmes worldwide.
A major concern is highlighted by a team from Cologne Zoo (Jacken et al., 2020). They surveyed amphibian holdings in 4519 zoos and aquaria. Only about 7% of known amphibian species (=540 species) are currently kept in zoos. The three classes of amphibians are very unevenly represented, with 17.4% of newts and salamanders (=121 species), 6.1% of frogs and toads (=411 species) and only 3.9% of caecilians (= 8 species). Worse still, more than 10% of holdings are just single specimens; breeding success, even when larger populations are kept, is not high; and three quarters of the species kept are not threatened in the wild. Jacken et al. note that their survey did not include a number of good ex situ conservation programmes being run in university departments and museums, but they concluded overall that zoos are not fulfilling the aims of AArk. There can be several explanations for this situation. Although amphibians might seem highly suitable animals for ex situ conservation (for example, they are small, so do not require a lot of space; and they often have high reproductive outputs, with individuals maturing in a short time), in other ways they are highly problematic. For example, they are mostly nocturnal, so active when visitors are absent. Zoos depend for their incomes on paying customers, and need to prioritise species that people like to see. In addition, adult amphibians need live food, mostly insects, and this requires an efficient production facility. The high reproductive output of amphibians can also be a problem: once tadpoles have metamorphosed, how to keep the hundreds, perhaps thousands of offspring when space may be limited? And then there is disease: the high risks to the entire breeding facility from a chytrid outbreak requires a strict biosecure regime, incompatible with visitors (Pessier, 2008).
If AArk is to become successful, it clearly has to do better in encouraging zoos and other wildlife collections to hold more breeding populations of amphibians, prioritising threatened species (as long as a careful assessment concludes that ex situ conservation is an appropriate solution to the threats these species face). However, there is another issue: the psychological welfare of amphibians. There are several manuals of advice on amphibian husbandry, the most authoritative being Poole and Grow’s (2012) resource guide. This deals with food, water, housing, lighting, disease prevention etc. but, like most such guides does not cover behavioural and cognitive aspects of welfare. It has long been recognised that, in captivity, mammals and birds can suffer psychological distress from the lack of stimulation in their environment. This often manifests in the development of repetitive, sometimes self-damaging behaviours known as stereotypies. To avoid these, good zoo-keepers have devised a wide range of husbandry interventions, collectively known as ‘enrichments’, which provide the animals with interests and activities that promote psychological well-being (Young, 2003).
As well as promoting good mental health, enrichments can have another general purpose. Where animals are kept with ex situ conservation in mind, there is a need to prepare them for release into the wild. Enrichments can provide experience of ‘outside’ behaviours such as foraging, predator avoidance and mate-finding, without which survival in the wild is likely to be very brief.
In amphibians (and reptiles), there has been a tendency to believe that their behaviours are so simple and pre-programmed that enrichments are unnecessary. In a rebuttal of Dodd and Seigel’s (1991) critique of ex situ conservation for amphibians, Bloxam and Tonge (1995) wrote that amphibian ‘behaviours are less dependent on learning and environmental experience than those of birds and mammals…It has always seemed apparent to herpetologists that, with their relatively r-selected life history strategies1 and their low levels of behavioural complexity, amphibians should be ideally suited to short or medium-term conservation strategies’. These claims were accompanied by not a single supporting reference. It is worth contrasting these attitudes with work on fish, like amphibians, cold-blooded vertebrates and with a similar level of brain development. Much research, related to improving the welfare of fish in aquaculture, has shown that learning is important and that fish can suffer from pain and distress (Sneddon, 2015; Sloman, 2019). In addition, enrichments can promote the development of life-skills in fish (Salvanes, 2013). If this is the case for fish, why not for amphibians?
The most detailed discussion of enrichment in amphibians is the review by Michaels et al. (2014), subtitled ‘a neglected topic’. In comparison with the hundreds of papers on enrichment in mammals, Michaels et al. found only 14 relevant primary research papers on amphibians, and I have noted only a small number published since 2014. An issue is that ‘enrichment’ is rarely used in the titles, abstracts or key-words of papers related to husbandry in amphibians, whereas it is commonly used in the mammal literature. This in itself indicates that the amphibian research community has not yet taken the concept of enrichment on board. One sign of progress, however, comes from a comparison of the amphibian chapters in the 1999 and 2010 editions of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare handbook, which recommends good practice for animals kept for use in laboratories. The main laboratory amphibian, since its earlier use in testing for human pregnancies, is still Xenopus laevis. The chapter by Halliday (1999) makes no mention of enrichment, but Tinsley (2010) discusses several aspects of enrichment such as the provision of covers and shelters. In addition to studies on shelters and their behavioural and physiological benefits, Michaels et al. found papers on the benefits of behavioural complexity: ramps, perches and ‘caves’ improved the welfare of bullfrogs. However, papers on the provision of complex habitats for amphibians too rarely investigate which features make a measurable difference in behaviour (for example, McRobert, 2003). In mammals, enrichments which encourage exploration of the enclosure and active foraging for food have been found to have considerable welfare benefits. We tend to think of amphibians as ‘sit-and-wait’ predators, but some species are active foragers. Michaels et al. found a few papers that investigated the welfare effects of varied food delivery techniques. Altering the position of a food dish increased activity levels in dendrobatid frogs, considered as a benefit. This, of course, raises the question: by what criteria do we consider the welfare of a captive amphibian to be improved? The small number of research studies to date means that this key question remains to be fully explored.
This article is intended as an introduction to the topic of welfare and enrichment, with a focus on amphibians. In a future article to appear in Froglife’s magazine Natterchat, I will review studies on reptiles.
Note 1: r-selected species generally have many offspring, limited parental care and short lives, as compared to K-selected species with small numbers of offspring, often prolonged parental care and long lives. Actually, some amphibians have complex parental care provision, small offspring numbers and some have long lives. In any case, it is not clear why Bloxam and Tonge feel there is a link between r-selected life histories and suitability for ex situ conservation.
Written by: Roger Downie Trustee, Froglife; Honorary senior lecturer, University of Glasgow
Bloxam and Tonge (1995). Amphibians are suitable candidates for breeding-release programmes. Biodiversity and Conservation 4, 636-644.
Dodd and Seigel (1991). Relocation, repatriation and translocation of amphibians and reptiles: are these conservation strategies that work? Herpetologica 47, 336-350.
Halliday (1991). Amphibians. In: Poole, T., editor. UFAW Handbook, 7th edition volume 2. Ps 90-102.
Jacken et al. (2020). Amphibians in zoos: a global approach on distribution patterns of threatened amphibians in zoological collections. International Zoo Yearbook 54, 146-164.
McRobert (2003). Methodologies for the care, maintenance and breeding of tropical poison frogs. Journal of applied animal welfare science 6, 95-102.
Michaels, Downie and Campbell-Palmer (2014). The importance of enrichment for advancing amphibian welfare and conservation goals: a review of a neglected topic. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation 8, 7-23.
Pavajeau et al. (2008). Amphibian Ark and the Year of the Frog campaign. International Zoo Yearbook 42, 24-29.
Pessier (2008). Management of disease as a threat to amphibian conservation. International Zoo Yearbook 42, 30-39.
Poole and Grow, editors (2012). Amphibian Husbandry Resource Guide. Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Salvanes et al. (2013). Environmental enrichment promotes neural plasticity and cognitive ability in fish. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280, 1767.
Sloman et al. (2019). Ethical considerations in fish research. Journal of Fish Biology 94, 556-577.
Sneddon (2015). Pain in aquatic animals. Journal of experimental biology 218, 967-976.
Stuart et al. (2004). Status and trends of amphibian declines and extinctions worldwide. Science 306, 1783-1786.
Tinsley (2010). Amphibians, with special reference to Xenopus. In: Hubrecht and Kirkwood, editors. UFAW Handbook 8th edition. Ps 741-760.
Young (2003). Environmental enrichment for captive animals. Blackwell, Oxford.
Thanks for feedback on the first draft of this article from Kathy Wormald and Sheila Grundy.