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25 Oct 2017

WWT’s amphibian expert Jay Redbond tells us about his ‘ribbeting’ job

Posted in Blog posts

Many amphibians spend most of their life around water which makes them especially sensitive to environmental changes. Climate change, habitat loss and pollution are some of the biggest threats they face across the globe.

But helping to raise awareness of these weird and wonderful creatures is amphibian keeper Jay Redbond. He has been in charge of Toad Hall at WWT Slimbridge since it launched ten years ago which draws in thousands of visitors each year.

He took time out from overseeing the biggest collection of amphibians in the UK, to tell us what it is about his job that he finds so ‘ribbeting’.

 

I generally start my day with checking the show tanks, make sure there’s nothing untoward, any lighting issues, deaths, any nasties in the water, anything that needs cleaned. I end my day by checking all the lids. If a duck escapes, you just have to try and catch it. Whereas with these guys, they’ll die. If they get out, there’s no water, no moisture. Ultimately they will dry out and they won’t survive.

I like preparing new tanks. After cleaning the tank, which is the rubbish part, I like setting it up. I have just spent most of the day setting up the Columbian dart frogs, giving them fresh plants, fresh mosses and soil, fresh water. It’s an art. You’re creating a home for the animal but you’re also creating something that needs to look visually good for the visitors. It has to draw them in. It can’t just look rubbish. If it’s dark and gloomy they’re going to walk right past it. Whereas if it’s bright and there are loads of plants in there and it looks interesting then people will look, even if they can’t see the animal, they’re going to keep looking a little longer because it captures their attention and holds it.

When newts are in the water, they’re very smooth and slimy, but when they’re on land, if you see them at the end of winter, they look like lizards. They are very, very dry.

I started off with chinchillas, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs. Then I got a bit bored of mammals but my dad was always into reptiles and amphibians so I asked him to make me a pond for my 7th birthday. I used to net up and count how many newts I would find each year and one year I found an alpine newt which is an invasive species. I kept that as a pet and then I asked for some turtles. I built up a collection and started working at a pet shop from the age of 11 but was getting paid in live food and live animals. I built my own tanks which is why I do a lot of the plumbing here. That’s how I started – I built up a collection of reptiles, amphibians and inverts.

Some of the animals will regrow limbs if they lose them so that’s pretty weird but that’s amphibians at the end of the day.

Strange stuff happens. One of our axolotls was a normal axolotl. It had normal colouration. It got a fungal skin condition and we treated it, with the vet’s advice, with a special, anti-fungal treatment. It’s recovered, but it’s lost its pigmentation that made it look black. Now it’s white. It’s a mutant, like an albino. Not many people have heard of that. In fact I’ve asked a lot of people within the amphibian world and they said they’ve never heard of it. This has never happened before.

I’m learning new stuff every day but what is very interesting is how each animal, even within a species, is different. They are so diverse.

One of the aviculturists spent a day with me and said: “You’re like a scientist aren’t you? You’re like a nerd.”  Because amphibians are so different and not many people have worked with a lot of amphibians, you’re learning all the time. There’s definitely a lot of science to it. I don’t stick them on a pond, give them a nest and hope they breed, I actually have to change the seasonal variation. It happens naturally outside. I have to do it here. I have to reduce temperatures, increase water levels, change the parameters of water sometimes, making the PH rise and so on.

I use redbush tea to rear tadpoles in it because it has antioxidants which helps the skin and prevents fungal issues. It’s got good chemistry. The guys at Paignton Zoo told me about it.

I don’t have an individual favourite but I specialise in tailed amphibians like newts and salamanders which is why I got seconded by London Zoo to work with the giant salamander.

Giant salamanders can reach 6ft. They are like dinosaurs – a prehistoric fossil. They look like Pokemon really.

I was going to go to university and study zoology but this job came up while I was on a gap year deciding what I wanted to do. I went for it and got it. I was quite lucky.

I like birds – they are animals and I like all animals but I was always more interested in something you have to work to see. Finding them is the fun bit. I like going out and lifting up rocks. You’re looking for a needle in a haystack most of the time. I did have a 100% record of finding my target species but I failed that the first time we went to China because we didn’t find the giant salamander – but we did the second time.

The most rewarding part of my job is breeding. We have been quite successful. We have the largest collection of amphibians in the UK. We are close to being fully sustainable which is very important for an amphibian collection. It’s quite hard to achieve because amphibians generally are quite undervalued and are mostly collected for the pet trade.

The reason we have the largest collection isn’t just because I want the largest collection – I do – it’s because we have to use them for handling demonstrations which means you need to rotate animals for visitors’ experience. We get regular visitors and they don’t want to see the same thing again and again, they want to see different animals. We also have the rotation for stress levels to protect the animals.

The surprising thing about my job is how much paperwork I have to do these days. There’s a lot of records to keep from invoices for crickets to designing tanks, which I quite enjoy but it’s still paperwork.

We get a large percentage – just under 10% of our visitors come to the talks annually. That’s pretty good considering we’re just a small exhibit within the vast collection at Slimbridge. We add something different. No offence to the birds but I think we had to diversify because people want to see new things. Changing the name to Wetlands meant we could include other animals. Toad Hall has been here for ten years and it’s still going strong. Lots of people are pleasantly surprised by it.

Global warming is a worry. Although amphibians seem to be able to adapt to live a lot longer they definitely do get affected by climate change which is impacted by disease. Because the conditions aren’t right they are compromised in some way. Pollution and habitat destruction also concern me. It won’t just affect me – our children and grandchildren will miss the chance to see certain species. They’ll be gone.

I don’t just worry about amphibians, globally I worry about all animals including us because it will affect us eventually.

I’m grateful for the members of the public who come in and visit us and the donors who support us. I’m also grateful for all the funding that comes in externally from organisations, from players of People’s Postcode Lottery and for sponsorship too such as the Redbush Tea Company who have helped me.

Amphibians have many medicinal purposes. The Canadian wood frog freezes solid over the winter and then defrosts and comes back to life. It’s cryogenics. Their blood cells can shut down completely without dying and they’re looking at how humans can do that by studying them.

 

Support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery helps Jay, his colleagues and volunteers to provide the best possible conditions for our amphibians to flourish and the facilities for our visitors to enjoy and learn about these fascinating creatures and what we need to do to conserve them.