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From aquarium to vivarium… a little about me

I’m Bethany and I am pleased to introduce myself as the new curatorial assistant here at the Manchester Museum Vivarium. Last year I completed my bachelor’s degree in animal welfare and behaviour at the University of Central Lancashire during which I carried out my dissertation on the activity and visibility of different species of poison dart frogs before and after introducing environmental enrichment to their habitats. During this project I watched my frog subjects for over 400 hours and subsequently learnt the individual personalities of each, so if I didn’t love frogs before, I certainly do now!

During my degree I volunteered at a number of small zoos and aquariums in the North West before becoming an aquarist at the Lakes aquarium in Cumbria where I stayed for over three years, gaining experience in caring for fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. For the last two years I have also helped out my local native amphibians as a toad patroller in the Lancashire and Cumbria areas.

My love for wildlife started young, largely through my parents who always enjoyed nature and wildlife and encouraged my own interest. Over the years I was lucky enough not only to have a variety of animals in the home but also to see many species on family holidays.

Namely, one experience that stayed with me was a trip to Costa Rica in 2005 where I was able to see first-hand the life that thrived in the rainforests, some of which species I am now able to work with at the vivarium.

Ten later years, during my own travels when backpacking in Mexico, Central America, the Philippines and South East Asia I was not only able to experience the native wildlife but also the destruction caused to many habitats and witnessed the threats facing many species which inspired me to want to make a difference.

I am excited to start my journey at the museum, to care for a host of amazing species and share my passion for animal care, wildlife and conservation and hope to share many more frog blog posts in the future!

Food for thought (2)

We have known for years that it’s a spider eat spider world. Males get attracted to females, do their job well and get eaten up as par for the course. Spiders have veracious sex lives, and appetites. Spiders are cool, super intelligent, and jumping spiders more than most. But it seems these little creatures are looking for more than just a good jump. Actually, it seems things are a changing diet wise – did you know 20% of male M. sociabilis eat the females –  not sure where that latin name came from but that doesn’t seem so sociable to me.

Ctenidae (wandering spider) eating a tree frog, Ecuador (c) Andrew Gray

Spiders have a varied diet, they will eat almost anything that moves that they can tackle. Some I have seen on my travels will attack, kill, and eat prey items much larger than themselves, including large frogs. In fact in the neotropics amphibians make up a very large part of the food source of arachnids.


Cupiennius getazi (family Ctenidae) feeding on a Scinax eleaochroa, Costa Rica (c) Amanda Bamford

From tadpoles predated upon by water-surface frequenting huntsman spiders to aggressive wolf spiders and sit and wait Ctenids inside bromeliads looking for metamorphs to emerge then consume, they represent a formidable predator of our amphibian friends. But that’s life, and death, and nature. Only the trees that we stand beneath and watch the tree frogs call in and the spiders make their fine webs on will still be there after we all are gone. The trees are what we need to revere and champion for the future for they behold the lives of so many species.



Life in Lockdown

COVID and Great Apes at risk

Thank you DEFRA

Time to Boycott Zoos?

From when I was a small boy I loved animals, and I loved Zoos. I loved everything about animals: Johnny Morris on Animal Magic, all great and small creatures in my back garden, Brian Simmons’ pet shop, my first South American wildlife book, and especially childhood visits with my Uncle Loz to Chester Zoo. I connected with animals in a way most people could not imagine. I enthused about them, knew the latin names at 7 years old, had every other kid in Ashton Gardens, St Annes, searching for frogs and newts; I took my grass snake to Roseacre junior school for ‘Bring a Pet to School day’. Memories! – but good ones!

Fast forward 50 years. My heartfelt sorrow now are Zoos – I now can’t stomach setting foot in one anymore. I should, I’m a zoologist, I link to them, I run a zoo-licenced conservation facility, what’s wrong with me? The truth is I live by the truth, and the truth from anyone who is as clued up as I am about animal conservation is that for profit zoos should be things of the past.

Yes, zoos have played a role in supporting species’ conservation – for a small number of endangered species they have supported some commendable field‐conservation projects. However, out of the 30K plus specimens maintained in captivity in some single UK Zoos the actual number that are critically endangered or of high conservation value are still but a fraction. So why are all the others there one could be forgiven for wondering?

Its clear zoos are now fully focused on being high profit commercial businesses. But how does the care, safety and life quality of the animals feature in their commercial success stories? I have good friends who still work in zoos, they are there because they care passionately for the animals, their well-being and conservation, full stop. They do not buy into giant fake dinosaurs for further public attraction, they do not buy into themed disney-style exhibits, they do not buy into integral themed hotels for local funders and Hey Ho supporters to stay in as they look across a makeshift African plain from their panoramic hotel window! It seems planning costly new accommodation (for human attendees) has been more at the forefront of priorities for some of the more commercial zoos recently, at least until lockdown.

No, I remember as a boy seeing the Chimpanzees at Chester Zoo – to be honest it was one thing from my memorable visits that really saddened me. Since then the keeping of wild mammals and birds in captivity in particular has never really sat well with me, mainly because I think their needs and requirements simply cannot be met. Back then I saw the little chimps looking sad, but I thought that’s ok you know, in time they will have a new place, something really befitting of a species that is so close to us humans, this is a cool zoo – I love it.

The cylindrical chimpanzee house/exhibit, often referred to in the zoo world as the goldfish bowl, was the result. Even before, providing the chimps with an outside space and life without bars had been a big move forward in zoo terms, and George Mottershead who had started the zoo had won an Mancunian award for taking his exhibits to the next stage in animal husbandry AT THAT TIME.. he must have been so proud. Ironically, George, the founder of Chester Zoo was driven by ‘His dislike for the Belle Vue Zoo and the conditions in which animals were housed there, which had a familiar ring about them to his own personal experiences as a lad at the London Zoo’.

All I hear about George Mottershead is good. However, I wonder if he would be so proud to know that all these years on, with all the new developments and resources available, that some of the same Chimpanzees still reside within that same exhibit. Maybe if George was still around they would now have the best exhibits imaginable, and the extensive 400 acres owned would be dedicated to just supporting endangered species, kept in optimum conditions, with quality rather than quantity being the focus. But perhaps that’s not a good business model for those now making the decisions or benefitting from the profit.

George Mottershead helped establish new ways forward in animal husbandry, that was his legacy, that was what Chester Zoo was originally all about. Since, with the millions of pounds over the years that Chester Zoo has grossed, the fact that this chimp exhibit still awaits replacement speaks volumes. From the oldest chimpanzees (50 year old plus) and newcomers born into a life of enclosed captivity, who wake each day let within the same glass walls of the pyramid with daylong public viewing, to the growing number of African-evolved wild animals allowed out to pasture on cold rainy English days, is subjecting such intelligent wild creatures to this kind of life really befitting of our time? I wonder what the chimps would say if they could make their feelings known to the real Company Directors?

I have experienced Zoos all my life and this wrong upsets me more than ever. I have seen a lot of change but if conservation rather than profit was the main aim then the zoos concerned would be different already. I am well placed to know the score, all the arguments for and against: Educational benefits V the isolation and unnatural surroundings of a captive environment; Captive breeding V never being able to be released in their lifetime; Half the longevity in captive elephants V those in the wild; How visitor numbers through the till are so important to some V how important it is a magnificent giraffe gets to enjoy the African sun on its back – and how far and fast it gets to run In the Wild..



Kasia to Canada

Today Kasia returns home to Canada after being with us in the Vivarium for the past 3 years. During this time she has been a highly valued and fully involved member of the team, who brought with her a great Canadian combination of enthusiasm, passion, and care, to help us deliver our programmes and maintain our important animal husbandry standards. She will be greatly missed.


We would sincerely like to thank her for all her hard work, commitment, and support during her time with us and wish her health, happiness, and every success in the future.


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Nature Recovers

Last week I visited a beautiful SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) in Little Lever, Bolton. The comically named – Nob End, is a remarkable site, situated at the confluence of the rivers Croal and Irwell, in an area once dominated by industry and which still bears the obvious scars.

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The unassuming landscape of SSSI Nob End © Matthew O’Donnell

Once a dump for industrial by-products such as sulphuric acid and washing soda, the area has developed an unusual soil chemistry, making it unique in the region for it’s unusual and diverse assemblage of plant life leading to its designation as a SSSI. Nob End is perhaps most famous for its rare orchids, of which it is home to several species, which thrive in this human made calcareous soil.


Fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea) © Matthew O’Donnell

This area is a fantastic example of nature’s ability to heal itself, even from some of the most serious levels of disturbance. Something I have been reminded of on an almost daily basis during lockdown. Lots of urban parks and green spaces within the Greater Manchester region have benefitted from a decreasing level of management, with meadows appearing where once only ‘green deserts’ (lawns) were present. Lawns, although aesthetically pleasing to many, offer little habitat for biodiversity.


Management is still an essential part of any long-term rewilding process, and leaving disturbed sites to rewild naturally is a difficult process, often these areas are dominated by a few hardy pioneer species, and might never return to a balanced ecosystem. But defining the right process of management is essential. Troublingly, the latest return to normality I have witnessed has been the widespread use of weed killers and pesticides to ‘control’ these spontaneous meadows that have popped up, and provided much needed habitats for much of our embattled flora and fauna.

These chemicals have an incredibly damaging and long lasting effect in the environment. Killing not only the targeted ‘weeds’ but also the pollinators, soil fauna and amphibians to name but a few groups. Some have even been shown to have harmful impacts on human health. My proposition is that we challenge our local councils to look at imaginative ways of managing our local green spaces, learning lessons from past successes in sites like Nob End, and help give nature a chance to recover.



Thank you DEFRA!

As a zoologist and Curator of a Zoo-licenced animal collection I want to thank DEFRA for what they are doing to keep us all, and the wildlife we work to conserve, as safe as possible at this time. You may be wondering why Zoos, wildlife parks and nature centres are not able to open at the moment, especially when we have seen flocks of people sunbathing on the beaches. This is because its less to do with social distancing and getting the economy going and more to do with the actual protection of us and the animals – the public needs to grasp that we contracted COVID from wild animals, and understand that many other species could easily catch it from us – and in turn they could potentially re-infect us after its mutated into something even worse.

Zoologists and biologists are currently working around the clock to try and understand how the virus could impact other species and which other animals may be highly susceptible .. its a race against time, but so important we get a clear understanding before opening the floodgates and then realising our biggest mistake.

The reason a visit to the zoo right now is different from going to the park or beach is that most zoos have tens of thousands of exotic animals within a small area .. and that means any mistake could have a catastrophic effect if it was to get out of control. We have all spent time waiting to see how COVID-19 affects our life, but what hasn’t been on the news is how it could affect the animals around us. It’s not fair to open the zoos just for our entertainment until the proper research is done – People sometimes forget that the world is made up of a lot more than themselves and whilst we focus on what’s effecting us humans many forget that animals around the world are also at risk.

For example, did you know that in Madagascar researchers are now self isolating and have rules that are not for just human contact but to help protect Lemurs thought to be at great threat from COVID. All the great apes, including Orangutans, Chimpanzees, and Gorilla’s all rate as very highly likely to be fully susceptible to COVID and if they get it it could affect them with much more strength than it does us humans. Can you imagine the shame if we wiped out the same critically endangered zoo creatures we’ve all put so much effort into trying to conserve, just through our eagerness and irresponsibility. We already know we can pass the virus to animals, and they in turn can pass it back to us – recently 10,000 mink had to destroyed directly because of this. How long do you think it would be before that happens from a zoo animal if we’re not careful. We are only just in the very early stages of this crucial work with a limited number of zoo animal species’ susceptibility assessed, based on prediction modelling.

I really feel for all my good friends and colleagues who are struggling in the zoos at the moment. My heart goes out to them. I don’t know what the answer is.. but maybe its not opening the gates just yet..

Thank you again DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) for being responsible and waiting until we may obtain some real information to properly understand the susceptibility and involvement the many different wild animals play in the bigger COVID picture. Not allowing zoos to open yet is the right move – its so important we don’t open too soon as there is still some incredibly important work to be done before we know its safe for all.

As a zoologist who’s spent many years in conservation working with endangered species I would like to urge the public to consider the impact of what a family day out could do to extinguish all the vital research that biologists, not only in zoos but around the globe, have been working on to protect us and our wildlife. Let’s remind ourselves that we are the second most effected country in the world by COVID-19. Here in the North of England we still have an R-rated infection figure of more than 1, we know that this virus can already mutate and if a zoo animal was to pass it back to us then all the work being put into a virus vaccine is wasted. Since the start, this virus its still just as deadly, so is it right to be rushing back into everyday life and even thinking about taking children (the highest carriers of the virus) to the zoo? Now you have a zoologist’s perspective would you risk walking through the free flight bat cave, a lemur enclosure, or a potential sneeze drifting in the wind to a baby orangutan?

Once again, a heartfelt thanks to every single person working to save our planet.

Lemur exposure to COVID Emergency

Great Apes under threat of COVID

Mink pass COVID back to Humans

Outstanding Public and Community Engagement Award

Panama Wildlife Conservation Charity (PWCC)

Help save Vanaqua

Important message from Darren Smy:

Atelopus varius zeteki, (c) Andrew Gray, Courtesy of The Vancouver Aquarium.

Dear Friends, as you may have heard the Vancouver Aquarium is facing a crisis. While we are closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19, our animal care teams are still at work ensuring our animals continue to receive the highest level of care. But this costs money, and without support we could be facing permanent closure in a couple of months. If you are able to help, please donate: https://vanaqua.org/saveva. No gift is too small to make a big difference!

For those of you that are not familiar with the work the Vancouver Aquarium has been involved with or continues to carry out please watch the video in the above link.

One other first I didn’t see mentioned is that we were also the first to breed Canada’s most endangered amphibian, the Oregon spotted frog (Rana pretiosa), under human care and have been continuing to do so for more than 10 years and this has led to other institutions that form the Oregon Spotted Frog Recovery Team to also breed these animals for release. The offspring produced are released back into the wild to help sustain and boost existing populations to prevent thier loss from the Canadian ecosystem forever.

The online gift shop is still open for those that would like to donate that way https://vanaquashop.org/

The Vancouver Aquarium is a not-for-profit organisation and 85% of its operating budget comes from visitors at the front gate, cafe sales and gift shop purchases. Without that income the aquarium would not be able to function for long.

The aquarium is enjoyed by many people from all around the world and especially locals (those with kids particularly, who are probably all wishing it was open right now!) who I am sure would miss this educational resource and all the research and conservation projects that it continues to pioneer and provide. If you are in a position to donate and help out then please do!

Stay safe everyone and once things can return to some sort of normality hopefully the Aquarium will still be here for you to come and enjoy.



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