Water: The Science Beneath the Surface

This post written by Mike Fannin, Manager, Life Support Systems

Life Support Systems?! What the heck does that department do?  From filtration to chemistry, this blog series is a behind the scenes look into the Zoo’s most mysterious department.


Part I: Koi Stream in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo

As anyone with a pond knows, the battle to keep things looking good is a never-ending one. Water can turn green overnight, making it difficult to see fish, and a thick carpet of slime can appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Both of these situations arise from some sort of imbalance in the pond, but the culprit is the same – algae.

There are tens of thousands of types of algae in natural aquatic systems. Mother Nature keeps them in check (just like all other species on the planet) as other organisms compete for resources, food and living space. Man-made water features are not as diverse as they are in nature, so there is little to no competitive pressure; in an outdoor pond, algae are often free to run wild.

This was the case with the newly renovated Koi Stream feature in the Children’s Zoo. The filtration system was upgraded, which made quick work of the single-celled algae that is able to turn clear water into pea soup, but hair algae is not so easily controlled – it is not suspended in the water like the single-celled varieties. If left unchecked, it grows on everything, trapping detritus (such as leaves and leftover food), slowing water flow and clogging filter intakes. In short, it can be an aquatic nightmare.

Algae in the koi stream.

So… what to do? There are a lot of chemicals that can be added to the water to kill algae, but none will permanently solve the problem. In fact, most will end up spawning even more problems! Here at the Houston Zoo, we prefer to work smarter and do things naturally; we needed to create more biological diversity in our aquatic habitat, and we decided that a great start was the addition of a teeny tiny invertebrate, the amphipod.

Amphipods are micro-crustaceans found in aquatic environments all over the world and vary widely in their habits. Some eat plants, others are scavengers, some are fierce predators, and some are even parasites. We needed a plant-eating species to tackle our algae issues, so with a few ampiphods donated by a Zoo volunteer, we began with a 600mL beaker of water with a sprig of aquatic plant and dead oak leaves to hide in. We offered these amphipods different types of algae found in various aquatic systems throughout the Zoo, but they didn’t seem to like any of it… we would have to try another species of ampiphod. Next, we collected a different species of amphipod from the Zoo’s Reflection Pool and offered them the same array of algae that we gave the first group – they didn’t seem to care for anything until we gave them hair algae from the Koi Stream, which they ate immediately.  We continued to offer Koi Stream algae over the next couple of weeks to make sure the novelty didn’t wear off.  Not only were the amphipods devouring the algae, they were growing and reproducing – SUCCESS!

Now that we had found the type of amphipod to address our algae situation, we needed a lot more of them. Three, twenty gallon amphipod breeding aquariums were set up in a secret location (not many amphipods get to have gorillas for neighbors!) We added sponge filters, submersible heaters, and plants, plus leaf litter to make their new home complete. Then, we divided our small colony between the three tanks and added a few dozen individuals from the Reflection Pool to supplement the population.  Once a week, we harvested hair algae from the Koi Stream to feed our new friends and within a few months, the population exploded into the thousands! Now we had the numbers to keep the Koi Stream algae under control, but we didn’t have the habitat to support this large population of hungry crustaceans… We couldn’t put them to work until they had a place to call home.

Amphipods can easily swim around to search for food, but the adults and young need small, confined spaces to hide in. Their preferences are dense aquatic plants (especially the roots) and leaf litter. Leaf litter wasn’t a good choice for us because it could interfere with our ability to keep the filtration system running smoothly. The Koi Stream has some natural hiding spots, but not enough for the number of amphipods we need to effectively control algae. And plants? Sometimes it’s difficult to establish plants in a koi system because koi love to eat plants!

We needed something that would support aquatic plant life while somehow keeping the plants away from the fish, that would also conform to the long narrow shape of our koi exhibit. “Floating islands,” which are planters that float on the water’s surface, allowing plant roots easy access to stream water were our best choice. Not only was this the answer to all the needs listed above, but the dense mesh that makes up the islands also provides ample habitat for our amphipods!

As mentioned before, nature is all about balance. Waste products generated by fish supply nutrients for plant life, and the more fish you have in a body of water, the more nutrients are available. By adding more plants to our koi system, we limit the nutrients available to algae since they are in direct competition with the plants for food. The plants (and floating islands themselves) will also create shade, which will help decrease algal growth, since the algae typically prefers direct sun. Adding voracious algae-eaters, our army of amphipods, will ensure that any hair algae that does manage to grow in the stream will be kept under control. The expected result will be a healthy, well-balanced exhibit with crystal clear water, using nothing but simple filtration and biodiversity.

Be sure and visit often to monitor our improvements to the Zoo’s outdoor aquatic systems – and stay tuned for floating planter updates and photos in our next blog entry, Children’s Zoo Koi Stream: Part II!


The beautification of the Koi Stream in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo is an ongoing team project between the Houston Zoo Water Quality department, Horticulture department and Children’s Zoo husbandry staff.

A Week I Will Never Forget

This blog post was written by Sue Cruver, a Houston Zoo Travel Program participant who recently experienced the wonders of Yellowstone with the Houston Zoo. If you would like to travel with the Houston Zoo, please visit our travel site

It began sitting at my computer one day last fall. I was reading the latest online Houston Zoo newsletter when I saw a section called “Travel with the Houston Zoo.” Curious, especially because I had been thinking about taking a trip somewhere, I clicked on the page and started learning about the different excursions available to people like me – people who love animals and are concerned about their survival in the wild.

Bald eagle in Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

When I read about an adventure to “Greater Yellowstone in Winter” to view the wildlife and learn about this outstanding ecosystem, I got excited. It was a trip conducted by Teton Science School’s (TSS) Wildlife Expeditions, based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and a Houston Zoo education and conservation partner.  For so many reasons, I knew it was something I had to do.  As a serious photographer, I envisioned capturing the beauty of the region and the wildlife that wintered there. So, on February 2, 2017, I boarded a plane to Bozeman, Montana for a week I will never forget.

Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

Winter weather can be very unpredictable. I grew up in New Jersey and have lived in Massachusetts, so I knew how the cold and snow can impact travel, and how you have to dress in layers for warmth. But having lived in the Houston, Texas area for the past 43 years, I realized it was going to be a physical challenge to put myself out in that environment again. Winters in Yellowstone have been known to be extremely cold, with temperatures sometimes dropping well below zero. In addition, I was going from a city that is 12 to 17 feet above sea level to altitudes between 6,500 and 8,300 feet. Could I handle it? It definitely was worth a try.

Observe incredible wildlife with the Houston Zoo’s travel program. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

So try I did, and I haven’t been the same since. It was hard to come home.

Yellowstone in winter. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

The week was truly magical. The landscapes were absolutely breathtaking, and I felt like a child again walking in the snow. As for wildlife, there was plenty — bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, wolves, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, bald eagles, mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose, trumpeter swans, a bobcat, and so much more.

Bobcat in Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography.

Seeing Old Faithful, the other geysers, and hot springs in winter was awesome. Everywhere I looked, there was a picture to be taken. And I took many, despite the fact that most days were cloudy and snowy. As I mentioned, winter weather can be challenging; this week, it only added to the adventure.

Visit Yellowstone with the Houston Zoo-more information can be found on our travel page. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

Temperatures weren’t bad at all, ranging between the teens and low 30s. Snowdrifts and an avalanche did lead to some temporary road closures within the park, but these only resulted in some changes to our itinerary.  Much credit for the smoothness of these transitions goes to the incredibly professional TSS staff and guides. They were amazing!

Bison in Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

And “amazing” is not the only takeaway I have from this adventure. I am very impressed with the Houston Zoo’s travel program and how it provides children, families, and retirees, like me, the opportunity to observe wild animals in their home environments. By partnering with the non-profit Teton Science Schools organization, the Zoo was able to add local Yellowstone guides and biologists to lead this trip. These experts knew where to find the wildlife and were able to answer everyone’s questions.

 In retrospect, this trip was not only fun, but also inspirational. I look at my photographs and am transported back to the peacefulness and beauty of the Yellowstone region. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and remember the cold, clean, fresh air.  I focus on the quiet I found there and am less stressed. Instead of listening to the noisy media and tech world that constantly bombards us, I now think about the magnificence of this part of our country and its incredible wildlife. I can’t wait to return.

Sue Cruver

Saving a Critically Endangered Toad Species 7,300 Eggs at a Time

Written by Colin Thompson


While the Houston toad hasn’t been seen in the wild in Houston since 1973, the Houston Zoo currently houses about 400 of them. Every year, we use this captive assurance population to bolster the wild population in Bastrop County. In 2015 we released about 600,000 eggs and in 2016 we released over 775,000 eggs. During the 2017 breeding season, we hope to release even more! Moving those eggs from Houston to Bastrop is no simple task though. This year, we’re taking a closer look at the impact our transport practices could be having on the viability of the eggs after they’re released.

Houston toad eggs are very fragile, as they lack a hard or leathery shell like bird or reptile eggs. Instead, the eggs are suspended in a jelly which forms a long strand. Each female toad lays one egg strand per year, and each strand contains an average of 7,300 eggs, with larger strands reaching over 14,000! To make sure we are using the best possible methods to transport these large masses of eggs, we’re setting aside about 100 eggs from each egg strand to monitor as a “control group”. The “control” eggs stay at the Houston Zoo, while the rest of the strands are driven two and a half hours away to Bastrop County. When we arrive, we remove another 100 eggs from each strand before releasing the majority of the eggs into the wild. We then drive those 100 eggs back to Houston to observe alongside the control group. By doing this, we can see if the development of our eggs is being hindered by the journey to Bastrop County, allowing us to alter our methods for better viability.

So far, we’re finding that the transported eggs are developing at the same rate as the control eggs, which means our transportation methods are not having a negative impact. This is great news for Houston toads! Keep checking back for updates on this year’s Houston toad breeding project, and be sure to visit the Swap Shop and Reptile House to see this awesome native species in person!

Birthday Shenanigans

Written by Kimberly Sharkey


Our twin goat boys just turned 1!

Seamus and Finnegan are West African Pygmy goats that came to the Zoo at just two days old. They soon joined the rest of the herd, where they are now a guest favorite. The Children’s Zoo team decided to give them proper Irish names since their birthday was so close to St. Patrick’s Day.  On Sunday March 7th, we threw them a birthday party didn’t let the rain dampen the festivities. 

Zoo guests joined in on the celebration and sang them Happy Birthday while the boys enjoyed their cake and presents. One lucky girl that shares a birthday with the goats got a chance for a memorable moment and posed for birthday photos with them! The boys loved the attention and we look forward to celebrating many more birthdays with them in the future.  Stop by the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo on your next visit to wish the boys a happy birthday! 


Giant Armadillo Wildlife Warrior at the Zoo

This blog was written by Gabriel Massocato, Houston Zoo Conservation Research Associate from our partner, the Giant Armadillo Project in Brazil. Gabriel is currently training at the Zoo as a part of his Wildlife Warrior Award. This is the first post in a series as Gabriel experiences the Houston Zoo. 

Gabriel meeting a three banded armadillo.

In the first week of getting to know the Houston Zoo I had the opportunity to meet all the different departments that are working together to show the public their species and mainly the field conservation programs that they are supporting in different parts of the world.

One great pride for me was to see all of the employees of the Houston Zoo getting to know my work with Giant Armadillos and Giant Anteaters, my daily work in the field in Brazil, and knowing that I am doing hard work for the conservation of the species in your Zoo.

One of the most important roles for field conservation projects is the support of the zoos, which help us in publicizing the field work and keep us connected with the people who visit the zoo. Each guest is invited to know the projects that the Houston Zoo supports. The support of the Zoo is fundamental for the conservation of species because at the Zoo guests have the opportunity to better know the role of the species and the environmental service that they provide in the ecosystem.

Gabriel spent time with the Houston Toad keepers.

Each department of the Zoo has dedicated a time to share their experiences of the day and the successes of the animals at the Zoo as well as the projects of rehabilitation and reintroduction, like the Houston Toad.

As a Wildlife Warrior, I am very proud to have this opportunity to get to know the conservation programs and environmental education that the Houston Zoo performs daily. You can be sure that I will share this knowledge with the people that I work with.
I am very happy to be part of this huge family of the Houston Zoo. Without the support of the Houston Zoo I will not be able to realize my dreams of working with the fascinating Giant Armadillo and Giant Anteater in the most important stronghold of biodiversity of South America, the Pantanal.

Meeting a Texan Giant Armadillo

We’re Accepting Volunteer Applications!

Written by Shina Bharadwaja


Adult volunteer applications are open through March 31, 2017!

We are so appreciative of our Zoo Volunteers, who play an important role in nearly every department at the Zoo. Whether you are interested in volunteering with events, animal teams, horticulture, or even administration, there is something for everyone. Our volunteers utilize service shifts to positively impact the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts, locally, and around the world. With diversity in mind, we know that everyone has something unique and important to contribute to our Zoo. Therefore, we strive to provide opportunities where strengths can be applied while serving an important cause.

As a new volunteer, there are many opportunities to personalize your service by choosing from an array of shifts, such as guest service, events, and assisting in the goat contact yard. As our volunteers gain experience, they’re able to take advantage of specialized training opportunities like animal handling, interpretive storytelling, and much more! Volunteers can also join one of our many important (volunteer-run) committees which help the development of programs and shaping of Zoo culture.

If the Houston Zoo sounds like the place for you, join our conservation efforts and become part of our family by applying to be a volunteer! 

Houston Zoo Ambassadors Raise Funds for the Zoo

Written by Brittany Mead

Thank you to everyone who supported the Ambassadors Foodie Fête presented by Northern Trust! Raising more than $73,000 for the Houston Zoo’s animal care, education, and wildlife conservation efforts, this was a truly successful event.

We are especially grateful to Chairs Candace and Brian Thomas for their leadership, the host committee, and our incredible sponsors. You helped make this first Foodie Fête a night to remember for our 200 guests!

 

 

If you are not yet a member of one of our donor clubs, learn more here and join today. The Asante Society, Ambassadors, and Flock all feature amazing benefits and events that bring you closer to yo ur Houston Zoo like never before.

Mosquito Magnet

Mosquitos are naturally attracted to standing water, which is commonly found in items like old tires. When the tire is filled with water, they come in and lay their eggs. Houston Zoo Keepers drain the water twice each week, remove the larvae, and feed it to insects in the Bug House. The water is then re-used to attract other mosquitos. This is an easy and inexpensive way to control mosquitos! Learn how you can make your own.

Teeny Tiny Baby Cardinalfish

Next time you visit Natural Encounters at the Houston Zoo, you might run into a male mouthbrooder. No, not mouth breather, mouthbrooder! In some fish, like the Banggai cardinalfish, the males take the eggs into their mouth after fertilization and incubate them through hatching.

Credit: Dale Martin, Houston Zoo

 

 

Then, the larvae are kept in the male’s mouth for 10 days after hatching and released as teeny-tiny versions of the adults!We’ve recently seen the birth of several baby cardinalfish in the aquariums inside Natural Encounters. You can spy these tiny fishes hiding in the anemones in the Coral Reef aquarium.

You are Saving Baby Tapirs in the Wild

Baby Tapir in the Wild

The Houston Zoo supports researchers saving adult and baby tapirs in the wild. We provide funding and resources for Dr. Pati Medici to protect tapirs by following them with tracking devices. She uses the information she gets from following wild tapirs in Brazil to create protection plans for this important animal in the wild. Here is a message from Pati about Antonio’s birth:

Baby tapir, Antonio, at the Houston Zoo

“The birth of the Baird’s tapir baby at the Houston Zoo is fantastic news for the species conservation! The IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group (TSG) has recently prioritized efforts towards Baird’s Tapir conservation due to the fact that this species is quickly slipping into critical endangerment in Central America and requires urgent attention. In order to achieve the full conservation of the species we must include efforts both in the wild as well as in captivity. The birth of another individual in captivity adds to the captive population we can rely on for research and future integrated conservation programs. Zoos play a major role in tapir conservation worldwide and one of the most important stakeholders to promote and implement tapir conservation. It is important for the public to see a baby tapir at the Houston Zoo in order to get them to care more about and protect this amazing species.”

You can meet Dr. Pati Medici at the Saving Wildlife Expo on March 25, where she will be speaking more about tapir conservation. To learn more and to purchase tickets, visit the Saving Wildlife Expo webpage. By attending the Saving Wildlife Expo and by visiting the Houston Zoo, you are saving tapirs in the wild!

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Don't miss this great event!Spring is coming, and so is Houston’s rainy season! This year you could save $$$ and protect the health our Bay by using a rain barrel! Go to galvbay.org/hzrbw and sign up to attend our Houston Zoo Rain Barrel Workshop (sponsored by LyondellBasell) on Saturday, April 8th! ... See MoreSee Less

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