The Fascinating Wyoming Toad

Wyoming toads

At around six weeks, the toadlets look like miniature (half-inch) versions of the adults. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

A North American toad is fighting its own battle with chytrid, a battle just as devastating as the one frogs in Panama are facing. The Wyoming toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) is one of the most endangered anurans (frog or toad) in North America. Historically, they were found in the Laramie Basin of southern Wyoming. Up until the mid 1970s, they were common throughout this region, but since then, the population drastically declined. Major threats are loss of habitat, pesticide usage and chytrid fungus. In 1994, the last wild toads were rescued from extinction when they were collected and sent to a captive breeding facility. One day, their tadpoles could be released back into the wild, thanks to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (CMZ), and other zoos and federal facilities now breeding Wyoming toads.

The CMZ Amphibian Propagation and Research Center is a bio-secure area and closed to zoo guests to help keep chytrid fungus and other diseases out of the breeding population. CMZ’s Wyoming toad population for 2011 consists of 17 males and 17 females. However, due to limited space for tadpoles, not all of the toads are bred each year. The Wyoming toad studbook keeper and population manager determine what the best matches are to maximize and maintain genetic diversity. CMZ also monitors the overall health of each toad and decides whether they are fit for reproduction.

During most of the year, CMZ’s goal is to keep the toads healthy and growing with exceptional water quality, properly supplemented feeder insects and regularly changed UV bulbs. As spring approaches, we confirm our recommended pairings and prepare for something somewhat disconcerting for an animal keeper–we have to chill our toads in the refrigerator! In order for them to breed successfully, the toads require a period of cool hibernation as would be experienced in the wild. This is a very delicate time for them because their immune systems are suppressed.

Amphibian Propagation Center

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's Wyoming toad room in the Amphibian Propagation Center. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

A few days prior to hibernating, the toads are not given food. As their metabolism slows, so does their digestive tract, and undigested food could make them sick. Their room is slightly cooled from 75 degrees to 65 degrees and the lights are turned off the day before entering the hibernaculum, which is basically a fancy refrigerator. Each tank of toads has its own tub filled with wet gravel, carbon, sand and moss. The toads are weighed, placed in the tubs and the temperature is set to 52 degrees. The next day, it’s turned down to 45 degrees, the following day to 41 degrees and finally, down t

o a chilly 38 degrees. The toads will remain at this temperature for 35 days, misted with chilled water to maintain humidity and checked on about twice a week. We have to limit the number of checks to reduce the amount of environmental disturbance.

After 35 days, the toads are slowly warmed up in reverse order of the cool down. It’s believed the hibernation helps produce the natural hormones that would trigger reproductive behavior in the wild. The toads are placed back in their normal husbandry tanks and offered a few insects. They should be ready for breeding the next day.

Many species of amphibians are not able to be bred in a captive environment. For the Wyoming toad, it was discovered they require supplemental hormones in addition to hibernation in order to reproduce. The females are given their first hormone injection in the morning and placed in a breeding tank. Six hours later, the males are given a hormone injection and the females their second. The breeding tank has about one-and-a-half inches of water and some plastic floating plants. A recording of Wyoming toad breeding calls is played for 24 hours while the pairs are together. (Hear a sample of the Wyoming toad call) By the next morning, the female should have hopefully produced eggs fertilized by the male.

On June 1, 2011, six pairs of Wyoming toads were placed together at CMZ, and all of them produced eggs! Unfortunately, two of the egg masses were infertile, but in total, CMZ had about 2,000 tadpoles. 1,792 of them were released back into the wild in Wyoming. Based on valuable genetics, CMZ held back 60 tadpoles for future breeding.

Wyoming toad

A Wyoming toad in the wild. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

Each year, staff from CMZ, other zoos and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey Mortenson National Wildlife Refuge for offspring from previous released Wyoming toads. This is a non-public access refuge, and reintroductions were stopped at this site in 2005 due to chytrid. The site allows us to see if the population could continue even though chytrid was present. Tadpoles are now released at a different location, which prevents us from confusing recently released animals with those naturally produced in the wild.

Length, relative size, weight, habitat conditions, temperature and wind speed are just some of the data recorded during the survey. Most importantly, though, is collecting a swabbed sample from each found toad to see if chytrid is present. The toads are also given a microchip under their skin for permanent identification, enabling us to know how many different toads are found. If a microchipped toad is caught again, a scanner will tell us.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is very proud to be an important participant in the Wyoming toad recovery program!

Jeff Baughman, Conservation Center keeper, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Zoo Collegiate Conservation Program aims to save endangered amphibians

Houston toad (Bufo houstonensis)

College interns at the Houston Zoo participating in this summer’s Collegiate Conservation Program worked with Zoo conservation staff to build breeding habitats on Zoo grounds with the goal of increasing the population of Houston toads (photo courtesy of the Houston Zoo).

The next generation of wildlife biologists gathered at the Houston Zoo recently to save an endangered species–the Houston toad.

College interns at the Houston Zoo participating in this summer’s Collegiate Conservation Program worked with Zoo conservation staff to build breeding habitats on Zoo grounds with the goal of increasing the population of the endangered amphibians.

In the spring of 2007, parts of the only known egg strands laid by Houston toads that year were collected for a head start by biologists at Texas State University and delivered to the Houston Zoo.

The eggs came to the zoo for several purposes. The first is as a safe guard, or “assurance population,” against a catastrophic event that might cause the Houston Toad to go extinct in the wild.

The second reason was for the potential reintroduction of toads into appropriate habitat. It is hoped the captive toads will serve as a source for individuals who might be reintroduced into historical localities. The third reason is for head starting.

The eggs hatched and about 1,500 toads completed metamorphosis. We performed three releases in 2007 (May, July and September) and another in April 2008. About 1,200 toads were released in total. The remaining toads were kept at the zoo to start the formation of our assurance colony.

Since 2007 we have head started and released about another 20,000 toads at sites in two counties within the toads’ range.

Now the effort is expanding, and with the help of interns from the Collegiate Conservation Program, the Zoo’s conservation department is moving to the next step–breeding Houston toads ‘the old fashioned way’ (that is, without the use of hormones) in habitats on Zoo grounds.

Recently the interns began the construction of a facility in a shaded off-exhibit area at the Zoo that mimics the toad’s natural habitat: sandy soil that allows the toads to burrow until they are ready to emerge for breeding season.

Established this year with a $50,000 contribution by the ExxonMobil Foundation, the Houston Zoo Collegiate Conservation Program is the only zoo conservation internship program of its kind in the nation.

University students working toward degrees in biology, zoology and environmental science are paid over the summer to study various animals in natural habitats as part of the Zoo internship. In addition to working with Houston toads, the interns are assisting with native Texas coastal prairie restoration and an environmental restoration project in the Big Thicket National Preserve.

Brian Hill, Houston Zoo

Press release: Smithsonian Scientists Find Deadly Amphibian Disease in the Last Disease-free Region of Central America

Toad Mountain harlequin frog (Atelopus certus)

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project has established an assurance colony for two species endemic to the Darien, including the Toad Mountain harlequin frog (Atelopus certus), shown here. (Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Smithsonian scientists have confirmed that chytridiomycosis, a rapidly spreading amphibian disease, has reached a site near Panama’s Darien region. This was the last area in the entire mountainous neotropics to be free of the disease. This is troubling news for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, a consortium of nine U.S. and Panamanian institutions that aims to rescue 20 species of frogs in imminent danger of extinction.

Chytridiomycosis has been linked to dramatic population declines or even extinctions of amphibian species worldwide. Within five months of arriving at El Cope in western Panama, chytridiomychosis extirpated 50 percent of the frog species and 80 percent of individuals.

“We would like to save all of the species in the Darien, but there isn’t time to do that now,” said Brian Gratwicke, biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and international coordinator for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. “Our project is one of a few to take an active stance against the probable extinction of these species. We have already succeeded in breeding three species in captivity. Time may be running out, but we are looking for more resources to take advantage of the time that remains.”

The Darien National Park is a World Heritage site and represents one of Central America’s largest remaining wilderness areas. In 2007, Doug Woodhams, a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, tested 49 frogs at a site bordering the Darien. At that time, none tested positive for the disease. In January 2010, however, Woodhams found that 2 percent of the 93 frogs he tested were infected.

“Finding chytridiomycosis on frogs at a site bordering the Darien happened much sooner than anyone predicted,” Woodhams said. “The unrelenting and extremely fast-paced spread of this fungus is alarming.”

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project has already established captive assurance colonies in Panama of two priority species endemic to the Darien—the Pirre harlequin frog (Atelopus glyphus) and the Toad Mountain harlequin frog (A. certus). In addition, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo maintains an active breeding program for the Panamanian golden frog, which is Panama’s national animal. The Panamanian golden frog is critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and researchers have not seen them in the wild since 2008.

Bd infection

Chytridiomycosis is a rapidly spreading amphibian disease that attacks the skin cells of amphibians (shown here) and is wiping out frog species worldwide. (Doug Woodhams, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)

“We would like to be moving faster to build capacity,” Gratwicke said. “One of our major hurdles is fundraising to build a facility to house these frogs. Until we jump that hurdle, we’re limited in our capacity to take in additional species.”

Nearly one-third of the world’s amphibian species are at risk of extinction. While the global amphibian crisis is the result of habitat loss, climate change and pollution, chytridiomycosis is at least partly responsible for the disappearances of 94 of the 120 frog species thought to have gone extinct since 1980.

“These animals that we are breeding in captivity will buy us some time as we find a way to control this disease in the wild and mitigate the threat directly,” said Woodhams, who was the lead author of a whitepaper Mitigating Amphibian Disease: strategies to maintain wild populations and control chytridiomycosis. This paper, published in Frontiers in Zoology, systematically reviews disease-control tools from other fields and examines how they might be deployed to fight chytrid in the wild. One particularly exciting lead in the effort to find a cure is that anti-chytrid bacteria living on frog skin may have probiotics properties that protect their amphibian host from chytrid by secreting anti-fungal chemicals. Woodhams recently discovered that some Panamanian species with anti-chytrid skin bacteria transmit beneficial skin chemicals and bacteria to their offspring. The paper, Social Immunity in Amphibians: Evidence for Vertical Transmission of Innate Defenses, was published in Biotropica in May.

“We are all working around the clock to find a cure,” Gratwicke said. “Woodhams’ discovery that defenses can indeed be transferred from parent to offspring gives us hope that if we are successful at developing a cure in the lab, we may find a way to use it to save wild amphibians.”

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute serves as an umbrella for the Smithsonian Institution’s global effort to understand and conserve species and train future generations of conservationists. Headquartered in Front Royal, Va., SCBI facilitates and promotes research programs based at Front Royal, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and at field research stations and training sites worldwide.

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Media only: contact Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo, 202-633-3081

A sad story with a golden glimmer of hope

Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki)
Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki)

Cute Frog of the Week: May 2, 2011

Critically endangered since 2004, the endemic Panamanian golden frog has suffered a population decline of 80 percent over the last 10 years. An angular, dark yellow frog with a trademark swagger, the golden frog is a symbol of Panama’s abundant biodiversity. It is also well-known for its potent skin toxins, which it uses to protect itself against predators. A single frog’s skin contains enough nerve-disabling poison to kill 1,200 mice! Frequently found in and around high mountain forest streams, the golden frog in its golden-yellow, liberally spotted morph (individuals come in various colors and patterns) visually warns potential predators to stay away.

Despite its toxicity, the frog has found itself nearly defenseless against chytridiomycosis, the amphibian disease epidemic that has recently devastated frog populations and biodiversity throughout Central America. Because the range of this frog species is limited, extinction seems all too likely, unless human intervention succeeds in keeping the species around in captivity. Fortunately, an in-situ conservation program in western Panama (the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, aptly named EVACC) has led the conservation effort as part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.

Frog declines raise a number of fascinating questions.  For example, recent studies have shown that Panamanian golden frogs are making a last-ditch attempt to ward off infection by thermally killing the pathogen. Fortunately, researchers believe that the chytrid fungus does not thrive at temperatures 5 C above the frog’s normal body temperature. The frog attempts to increase its body temperature above normal levels by moving within its habitat to warmer places. As an ectotherm (a cold-blooded animal), the frog can only control its internal temperature by these behavioral adjustments to its external environment. Nonetheless, these efforts by wild golden frog populations may by in vain. Chytridiomycosis has so far prevailed, but intense conservation efforts in Panama keep hope alive. Panama’s symbol of amphibian beauty continues to awe humans in safe environments like EVACC. Re-introduction of these individuals and any offspring into the wild will, we are assured, only take place if and when the epidemic has abated.

Photo credit: Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

Send us your own cute frogs by uploading your photos here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/cutefrogoftheweek/

Notes from the Field: Finding the Limosa harlequin frog

Jenyva Turner, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo animal keeper

Jenyva shows off an Atelopus limosus the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo team captured during the February expedition. (Photo courtesy of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

Wanted: Adventurous expedition members to hike into the jungles of Panama looking for the rare Atelopus limosus. Must be willing to hike long hours in rugged, muddy terrain and in thigh-deep water, and ready to be wet, hungry, tired, and not afraid of spiders, snakes, scorpions, and lots of insects.

SIGN ME UP!!!

How could I pass up an opportunity to hike, explore, and camp in the jungle, all while helping save a species? This February was my first trip to Panama, however I followed the blog posts from other Cheyenne Mountain Zoo team members during previous expeditions to Panama, so I felt like I had already been there. I knew it was going to be a challenging trip, both physically and mentally. Would we find frogs? That was my biggest concern. As we all know, the chytrid fungus is taking its toll on frog populations around the world and the rare Atelopus limosus is not immune to chytrid’s deadly sting.

Atelopus limosus was our target species since the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project only had one female and four males in captivity. The future of the species appeared to depend on our findings. It was the “dry season” in Panama (although, being from Colorado, rain every day does not seem very “dry”!) and therefore, was the best time to find females, as they would be coming down to the streambeds to lay their eggs. The males would be there waiting.

We hiked along the stream and carefully searched the moss-covered rocks for the small, highly camouflaged black and green frogs. It was tough to be quiet and sneak up on our target as we sloshed around streambeds, stepped over branches, and slipped on rocks. We paid especially close attention to areas of the stream where the water moved a little faster. Atelopus limosus lay their eggs in faster-moving water to reduce competition from other frog species and reduce predation. The tadpoles are specially designed with little suction cup disks on their bellies to help them hold onto the rocks and keep them from being washed away. Pretty cool!

Our team found just four Atelopus limosus during our time in the field, but we were able to give hope to the species as one of those caught was a young female. We handed off our precious cargo to the capable staff at the Summit Zoo, who take their job and role in frog conservation very seriously. They are working hard to care for and propagate many other amphibian species besides Atelopus limosus to ensure the sounds of frogs continue to be heard in the jungles of Panama.

Here’s a video of Antonia Chastain, a member of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo team, finding out first-hand how difficult it is to catch an Atelopus limosus during the February trip:

Jenyva Turner, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo animal keeper (and first-time frog finder!)

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Finds Endangered Frog In The Jungles of Panama

Limosa Harlequin Frog

Limosa Harlequin frog. Photo B. Gratwicke, Smithsonian Institute

A Cheyenne Mountain Zoo team led by President Bob Chastain is back in Colorado after spending nine days in the jungles of Panama as part of a global effort to save amphibian species on the verge of extinction due to chytrid fungus. The team was searching for the endangered Atelopus limosus harlequin frog, and collected one female, two males, and a juvenile (sex to be determined). Until this trip, there was just one Atelopus limosus female and four males in captivity in the world. The female found by the team is especially important in creating a viable, sustainable population.

“I saw first-hand how grave the situation is, and it’s sobering,” said Chastain. “But there’s no time for despair. There’s work to be done and we have to dig in. As Americans, we are no strangers to digging in and dealing with monumental problems.”

Over one-third of the world’s amphibians are threatened with extinction. The rapidly spreading chytrid fungus is taking a huge toll, wiping out 30% – 50% of species in its path, species which could hold the key to significant medical advances against HIV, cancer, and other diseases.

“The forest is getting quieter and quieter,” said Chastain. “During our first trip in November of 2009, the sound of frogs was almost deafening. That’s not the case anymore.”

This was the fifth expedition for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. The team of five spent as many as 13 hours a day hiking the remote, mountainous area of Cerro Brewster looking for the Atelopus limosus, a half-dollar-sized frog that blends in with the dark rocks and green moss. The only tools at their disposal were walking sticks to move leaves and rocks.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Chastain.

When a specimen was found, the team swabbed the frog to check for chytrid. Each frog was then placed in a plastic bag and transported to a bio-secure breeding facility at Panama’s Summit Zoo, where another Cheyenne Mountain Zoo staffer assisted with veterinary care.

“We’re seeing entire populations go extinct before our eyes,” said Chastain. “By finding these frogs and treating them, we’re at least giving them a chance at survival. In the words of ecologist Aldo Leopold, to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo hopes by getting involved before amphibians are gone forever, future generations of scientists will have the resources necessary when it comes to curing environmental disasters and making medical history.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is a founding partner in the international Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project initiative. The organization’s mission is to establish amphibian assurance colonies and develop methodologies to reduce the impact of the chytrid fungus so captive amphibian species may one day be re-introduced to the wild. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was joined this trip by representatives from other Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project partners, including Houston Zoo’s El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Summit Zoo. Zoo New England oversaw the veterinary support. Africam Safari, ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente), Defenders of Wildlife, and Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park also fund and provide support for the project.

WATCH THE VIDEO INTERVIEW HERE

Katie Borremans, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

The story of the deer and the frog

The story of “The deer and the frog”

The deer and the frog

Frogs and conservation are part of many traditions and cultures.

Once upon a time, there was a deer that always made fun of small wild animals, especially frogs. “You guys are slow, weak and small,” the deer used to say and to demonstrate his strength and speed, he challenged one of the frogs to a race. The intelligent frog accepted the challenge and together the frogs planned a way to beat the deer. They agreed that each of them would wait every few meters and relieve the other and as a result, deceive the deer. The race started and the deer took the lead, but after a while the frog was ahead of him. The deer sped up and took the lead again until the frog overtook him again. Close to the finish line, the deer got tired and lost the race, not knowing that many small frogs with agile minds proved him wrong.*

 

If you follow this blog, you know that a group of zoos, governmental and nongovernmental organizations motivated by and concerned about the current crisis facing amphibians started this project to rescue and conserve some of the most endangered frog species in eastern Panama. It is easy to understand what motivates a scientist, a veterinarian, a zookeeper or an environmentalist to conserve a species, but we often forget that there are people whose cultures are based on the respect for nature, conservation of many species and the dissemination of this knowledge through the generations.

Hand-carved frog taguas by Lanky Cheucarama

One of the rescue project's frog keepers, Lanky Cheucarama, carves these beautiful frog tagua nuts. Can you tell which is real and which is fake?

Lanky Cheucarama is Wounaan and one of the keepers at Summit Zoo for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. The Wounaans are one of seven ethnic groups found in Panama and they occupied the eastern region of Panama (the Darien) and the Chocó region in Colombia. Its inhabitants are principally engaged in the sale of hand-made crafts. Baskets woven by women and carved wood and tagua (vegetable ivory) by men are some of the products offered to tourists who visit the Wounaans.

Lanky began tagua carving at the age of 12, taught by his father Chafil and uncle Selerino, two of the most outstanding artists in their community. Frogs are among the most common animals carved in tagua and take between three days (for the simple ones) and up to one week (for the most elaborate tagua) to carve. Lanky’s hand-carved tagua nuts are modeled after the frogs in the rescue project and available for sale here (proceeds support the rescue project).

For many indigenous communities in Central and South America, frogs have played an important role within their cultures. It is well know that some dart frog’s poison was used to hunt animals and was even used in weapons during fights with other indigenous groups. K’up’uur (frog, in wounaan language) is found in dances, songs, fables, art, medicine and other rites. This is why we know how important they are for this group.

Here at Summit Zoo, we always learn something new about Lanky’s culture and some of our team members and volunteers have been lucky to visit and meet his community and his family. It’s interesting to realize how even though we have come from different backgrounds; we all have the same interest: to protect and preserve what nature has to offer. By learning from each other and sharing our knowledge, we are able to save frogs and many other endangered species.

Purchase one of Lanky’s beautiful hand-carved tagua nuts modeled after the rescue project’s frogs here (proceeds support the rescue project).

*This is a story told to the children in Lanky’s community.

-Angie Estrada and Lanky Cheucarama, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project

Detailing the Darien: Defenders Magazine Profiles a Riveting Rescue Expedition

Mark Cheater

Mark Cheater accompanied the rescue project to the Darien last year, writing about it for Defenders magazine.

Ever wonder how scientists find and protect rare amphibians? I wanted to find out, and I persuaded the folks at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project to let me accompany them on an expedition to the Darien region of Panama last June in search of rare Toad Mountain harlequin frogs. I discovered that not only is working in the field physically demanding—spending long hours hiking through jungles and up rivers to find and capture the frogs—but it’s also dangerous, involving frequent encounters with venomous snakes and scores of biting insects. To learn more about the hazards and rewards of rescuing  imperiled frogs, check out my story—and an accompanying behind-the-scenes slideshow—in the new issue of Defenders magazine:

http://www.defenders.org/newsroom/defenders_magazine/winter_2011/rescue_at_toad_mountain.php

Mark Cheater, Defenders of Wildlife

The Sounds of the Rescue Project

While I was in Panama at the end of August, one of the things that stuck me the most were the sounds. I didn’t experience what it’s like to be in an area of the rain forest where you’re deafened by frog calls (and as we know, those places are diminishing quickly), but I took my time to learn some new calls while out searching for the little (and sometimes big) guys. And sometimes the sounds were particularly meaningful–such as the sound of a lone La loma tree frog, Hyloscirtus colymba, calling in one of the rescue pods at Summit Zoo, indicating his comfort with his environment and readiness to breed. Below I share some of the noises that I recorded while there and many of which are cherished by anyone familiar with the project, including volunteers:

Shipping container turned rescue podSounds inside the rescue pod (.wma)

Toad Mountain harlequin frogToad Mountain harlequin frog calling in the rescue pod (.wma)

CricketsCricket breeding room (.wma)

Leaf-litter toad (Bufo typhonius)A chorus of leaf-litter toads in the rain forest (.wma)

Red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis calidryas)Red-eyed tree frog calling in the wild (.wma)

Túngara Frog (Engystomops pustulosus)Tungara frogs calling back and forth in the wild (.wma)

Smokey jungle frog (Leptodactylus pentadactylus)Smokey jungle frog defense call (.mp4)

–Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo