Detroit Zoo's own Dr. Ruth encourages amorous amphibians

ROYAL OAK, Mich. — Dr. Ruth is bringing her sex-pertise to the Detroit Zoo.

Not to be confused with famed human sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Dr. Ruth Marcec is the new director of the zoo's National Amphibian Conservation Center. She is tasked with inducing frogs and salamanders to make a love connection — something the little critters aren't doing enough of these days.

Experts estimate that around half of the world's 7,600 known species of amphibians is threatened.

"It's very much a crisis," said Marcec. "If you combine all the endangered mammals and birds, that still doesn't add up to the percentage of amphibians that are threatened and endangered."

Among her responsibilities, which include overseeing amphibian care and welfare as well as conservation and research programs, Marcec is tasked with encouraging the cold-blooded vertebrates in her care to get down.

"Amphibians are very difficult to breed in captivity. You need to get the mood just right. They need some Marvin Gaye," she said, laughing. "No. They need specific barometric pressure. They need specific rainfall. Things like that." In lieu of Motown classics, Marcec will rest a tablet computer playing tree-frog mating calls on top of the animals' storage tank.

A veterinarian and reproductive physiologist, Marcec has developed a grading scale for amphibian ultrasound procedures used at zoos and aquariums across the globe, and she travels to other institutions to assist with their amphibian breeding efforts. The 30-year-old is a frequent visitor to Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, where she breeds blue-spotted salamanders and Mississippi gopher frogs.

Marcec shares her breeding successes with the rest of the world. Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles bred at the Detroit Zoo are shipped to their natural habitat in the U.S. territory, while critically endangered Wyoming toads make their way to that state.

All of these efforts to keep amphibian species going are being undertaken for good reason, Marcec said. "If we didn't have amphibians, a lot of our ecosystems just wouldn't exist."

For instance, she said, amphibian larva serve to keep water clean, and salamanders are able to aerate soil.

"If you removed the salamanders from the Appalachian Mountains, the forests would die," she said.

In addition to their environmental importance, Marcec, who sports a tattoo on her wrist featuring her favorite amphibian — the Mexican axolotl — has a more selfish reason to keep amphibians around.

"A lot of people don't recognize how adorable they are," she said with a smile.

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Online:

National Amphibian Conservation Center: https://detroitzoo.org/animal-habitat/national-amphibian-conservation-center/

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Follow Mike Householder on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mikehouseholder

Householder's work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/mike-householder

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