Bold Frogs or Shy Toads? How Did the COVID-19 Closure of Zoological Organisations Affect Amphibian Activity?

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Jack Boultwood, Michelle O’Brien, Paul Rose
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Amphibians are an understudied group in the zoo-focussed literature. Whilst commonly housed in specialist exhibits and of real conservation value due to the global extinction crisis, amphibian welfare is not often investigated empirically in zoo settings. The limited research that is available suggests that enclosure design (structure, planting and naturalistic theming) has a positive impact on the time that amphibians will be on show to visitors. However, the categorisation of any “visitor effect” (i.e., influences of visitor presence on amphibian activity and time on display) is hard to find. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of zoological organisations in the UK for several months from March 2020, with gradual re-openings from the summer into autumn and winter. This event provided a unique opportunity to study the effect of the lack of visitors, the presence of essential zoo staff only, the wider return of organisational staff, and then the return of visitors over a prolonged period. This project at WWT Slimbridge Wetlands Centre assessed the number of individuals of six species of amphibian—common toad (Bufo bufo), common frog (Rana temporaria), smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris), pool frog (Pelophylax lessonae), golden mantella (Mantella aurantiaca) and golden poison dart frog (Phyllobates terribilis)—visible to observers under different conditions. All amphibians were housed in a purpose-built indoor exhibit of individual enclosures and were recorded when visible (as a proportion of the total population of the enclosure) during closure, the return of extra centre staff and visitor periods. The results showed species-specific differences in visibility, with some species of amphibian being more likely to be on view when the presence of people at their enclosure was less likely or in smaller numbers. Such differences are likely related to the specific camouflage or anti-predation tactics in these focal species. Further study to quantify amphibian sensitivity to, and perception of, environmental change caused by public presence (e.g., light levels and sound) would be useful welfare-themed research extensions. Our results can help inform husbandry, collection planning and amphibian enclosure design to reduce any noticeable visitor effects, and provide a useful benchmark for further, more complex, welfare assessment measures.


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