Meerkat Manners

Although they may look like a troop of squirrel-opossums, standing on their hind legs and scurrying about without any apparent organization or technique, in reality, meerkats work together systematically for the benefit and survival of their gang…often with little to no communication.

Living together in groups of 2 to 50, which are referred to as either “gangs” or “mobs,” meerkats’ survival is dependent upon their successful cooperation.
Living together in groups of 2 to 50, which are referred to as either “gangs” or “mobs,” meerkats’ survival is dependent upon their successful cooperation.

Because they do not store food, meerkats spend most of their time foraging for insects, bird and snake eggs, and even scorpions. But when you are the size of a football, dancing around the hot African savannah while hawks and foxes drool at your every move, focusing all attention on food can be risky business. So what does a mobber do? Well, he mobs, of course!

When confronted by a predator, the self-ordained sentinel, or “watch-kat,” of the group alerts the other members of the mob by barking in an alarmed manner. In the event of a potential attack from above, meerkats dive into their burrows for safety and cover any young, vulnerable pups. For some ground predators, however, such as venomous snakes, meerkats literally “gang-up” on the serpent and form a circle around it, snarling and hissing while trying to look big and menacing.

Meerkat at the Houston Zoo
Meerkat at the Houston Zoo

And while most animals, including humans, have been found to have an innate sense of self preservation above the preservation of others (with the exception of one’s own young, or course), meerkats cooperate and sacrifice for one another with little concern for personal reward.

Meerkats bathe, groom, teach, and nap with one another. At only a few months old, gang members learn to keep an eye out for tinier pups, and mature females without pups of their own act as babysitters when mothers are out foraging for food. Perhaps most amazingly of all, any group member will respond to the cries of any hungry pup, redirecting her food search toward the benefit of the helpless baby – even when it means that she herself may go hungry as a result.

Writer: Stefanie Hanselka

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Save a Pika!

I have recently learned more about the cutest animal in the world (sorry Toby the Red Panda, you are still really cute too). It looks like a hamster on steroids or maybe my hamster Chester from when I was 8 (lets just say Chester was not sustained solely on hamster pellets but the occasional slice of cheese pizza as well).

The animal I am referring to also collects and dries wildflowers as if it is running a miniature Bed & Breakfast, and shrieks the noise “Eeep! Eeep!” when distressed. This animal, the cutest animal in the world, is the American Pika.


Sadly, the Pika, is in major trouble people. The culprit? Climate Change. Behind the polar bear, the Pika may be the next poster child for the massive trickle down effects of our warming planet.

The pika, is a lagomorph (in the rabbit family). It is also known as the rock rabbit or whistling hare due to the “eeep!” sound previously discussed. Pikas are native to cold climates mostly in Asia, North America and parts of Eastern Europe. You can find the American version of these fuzzy gems in rocky mountain areas and boulder-covered hillsides, usually at elevations of between 8,000-13,000 feet, between the timberline and down into subalpine forest. It makes its home in rock piles and talus slides.

The Pika was recently spotlighted in a photographic series in National Geographic where they were described as the next victim of climate change. Pikas cannot withstand temperatures over 80 degrees and will perish quite quickly when exposed to these temperatures. They have already vanished from some of their range. They get trapped on what biologists call “sky islands”. As a mountain warms they are not able to go down to lower elevations in search of taller, colder mountains as they will die immediately. Therefore, they are trapped on these sky islands awaiting an unknown and potentially perilous future.

Until someone can come up with a design for a gigantic cooling arctic blast fan to install on the tops of these mountains (not happening) or donating a personal cooling fan for each Pika (not happening), we should try to do more to reduce our carbon footprint, thereby not contributing as much to global emissions & pollutants, and thereby helping to save the Pika!

You can help the Pika by doing these 10 smart things:

Take a gander at the cutie below. “Pika…you had me at eep! You had me at eep!”



When in Rome, Call Them Camelopards

The giraffes are pretty hard to miss here at the Houston Zoo, and even in the wild, for that matter. Being as they are the tallest mammals in the world, certainly their tall necks, looming above everyone and everything else, are the first things visible to guests at their exhibit.

There is much more to giraffes than meets the eye.
There is much more to giraffes than meets the eye.

Giraffes seem so docile and friendly, and well, they really…are, even in the wild. Most animal species’ males attack and gore each other while in competition for a mate; giraffes only slam their huge necks into one another, rarely harming their foe. And how do they end these oh so “terrible” fights? Well, one of them gets so sick of it that…he turns around and walks away.

From birth, baby giraffes need to hit the ground running to survive in the wild, literally. Mom gives birth standing up, baby falls over five feet to the ground, 30 minutes later he or she can stand up, and, finally, a mere ten hours later, the little guy or girl is off and running with Mom. How’s that for no-nonsense parenting?

These animals’ large size, a benefit for many reasons, makes bending down to quench their thirst quite tricky (think about it! that neck!) and leaves them wide open to an attack from behind. But hey, that’s okay, because due to their leafy diet, giraffes only have to get a drink once every few days.

Tallest Mammal in the World
Tallest Mammal in the World

But perhaps the most unique thing about these “camelopards,” as they were once called by Ancient Romans, who believed they were a cross between a camel and a leopard, is that they sleep for just 30 minutes every day! Because in the wild they must be constantly aware of approaching predators, they only take five-minute naps about six times daily. Maybe these guys’ true coolest feature should be that they aren’t constantly cranky!

Writer: Stefanie Hanselka

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Mbeli Bai Gorilla Study


Western Lowland Gorilla. Photo courtesy of Thomas Breuer
Western Lowland Gorilla. Photo courtesy of Thomas Breuer

Africa has a mystique. It is awe-inspiring, a living place yet dark and formidable. We can never know Africa. It is full of cultures and heritage, wildlife and wild places.

But, Deepest Darkest Africa is in danger. There is a Congolese proverb which says you do not teach the paths of the forest to an old gorilla. But what if those paths are gone forever? How will the gorilla find its way? And worse, what if the old gorillas have gone away, lost to humans? Who will show the young the paths of the forest?

There is a deeper meaning in all of this as the path leads through the dark impenetrable jungles to clearings in the trees, called Bai’s. These swampy clearings are an oasis in the forest, offering food, water, minerals and a place for wildlife to interact. Gorillas and elephants have been travelling to these bai’s for decades, possibly centuries, shown the way through the forest by past generations.


In the Republic of Congo, the Houston Zoo is working with the Mbeli Bai Gorilla Program in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. Mbeli Bai is the only long-term demographic study on western gorillas which uses direct observations to provide important baseline information on the social organization, demography and behavior of an intact population of gorillas. Detailed studies are also undertaken on the activity of other large mammal species using the bai, such as forest elephants, sitatungas, forest buffaloes as well as otters and many other species.


At Mbeli Bai more than 350 gorillas have been monitored since 1995. The results of the monitoring of individual identifiable animals at Mbeli Bai has provided major and unique insights into the social organization and behavior of this elusive species and has reported many spectacular behavioral observations such as twin births, silverback splash displays, and the first observation of tool use in free-ranging gorillas; findings that have attracted significant international media attention.


Often quoted, 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote for if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another might be lost, until the whole of things will vanish by piecemeal. What he noted then holds true for environments across the world today. If we have the opportunity to protect and hold dear this chain; wildlife, habitat and human communities, then we must take that opportunity and act while the old gorilla can still teach the young, his forest path.


For more information, please go to:

Show your support for wildlife

You can help protect and maintain native species and crucial habitats just by purchasing a Horned Lizard license plate through the Texas Department of Transportation.


Horned lizard plates fit all vehicles, boat and RV trailers, and motorcycles, and they show that we can all do our part to support Texas wildlife. Each plate costs just $30*, and $22 of every purchase goes directly to projects that implement the Texas Wildlife Action Plan. Learn more and order your plates online at

The Houston Zoo has received support through this program for the management of Texas’ own critically endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chicken

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

My Mom visited the Zoo with her family in 1958.  Make sure your grandchildren still have the same animals to visit on their summer vacations.
My Mom visited the Zoo with her family in 1958. Make sure your grandchildren still have the same animals to visit on their summer vacations.

Imagine this.  You head out with your family to the Houston Zoo. You are walking around enjoying the warm sunny weather, but you start to notice many of the animals at the Zoo are in the Endangered category.  How can the Rhinos be endangered when they have no natural predators?  Poachers.  That just makes you put the ANGER in Endangered.  You love going to the Zoo, and you want to make sure these animals are around when your children take their children to the Houston Zoo.  


Now that you realize many of your favorite animals are going extinct, you and your children can be thinking the same thing- GIFT SHOP!  Look around at some of the tags on products in the gift shop, you will find many surprises from what you might expect.  Many of the gift shop products are bought from rural villages in Africa, Panama, and other impoverished communities.  All 100% of the proceeds are donated to the Houston Zoo Conservation Projects.  These projects give men and women the opportunity to have a higher standard of living, as well as benefiting Gorillas, Snow Leopards, and Rhino Conservation.  When you affect one part of an ecosystem by saving a Gorilla, you also improve the lives of many other animals.


As said on the Lion King, animals live in a “Circle of Life.”  An animal’s survival depends on everything in the ecosystem, including the environment.  Many products sold in the gift shop are made with the environment in mind.  The gift shop has worked with manufacturers to reduce amounts of cardboard packaging and to use recycled products to make puzzles and postcards.  Also, there are Bamboo shirts and BPA free recyclable water jugs.  Even some of the stuffed animals are made out of Soy products. Then, you can carry your goodies in biodegradable gift bags, an affordable recycled animal print bag, or if you are really insane use NO BAG AT ALL!!!   


Feel free to ask any employees about the different ways the gift shop works to benefit the environment and animal conservation.  Just by buying that simple souvenir to remember your trip, you are helping your grandchildren to see the same animals that you know and love!


Pool Party!

Maybe you’ve noticed but its officially hot outside! Cheetahs are native to plains of Africa and Anatolian shepherd dogs are well known for their ability to withstand temperature extremes but everyone appreciates a break on a hot summer day in Houston.

So last week we had a pool party – what better way to cool off? You can see Tusker enjoyed a little wading in the pool – I think he thought it was a big water bowl, since he’s known to put his front paws in while drinking.

hot dog

When Tusker was done, Kiburi went for a little dip, but not all the way in. He just wanted to get his favorite ball out of the water (don’t worry, we fished it out for him after this valiant attempt).

Finally, one of the dogs’ favorite summertime activities (“activity” perhaps being a strong word) is to come hang out in my office. The A/C is on, I keep some toys around, and plenty of people come by to say hello. I used to do this with the cheetahs when they were younger, but my furniture couldn’t take it any more.

clear my calendar this afternoon, please

Members of the Sea.I.A…Well, Almost

Okay, so we’ve all heard of Navy SEALS…but how about Navy…Sea Lions? That’s right, while Deano, Cali, Kamia, and their soon-to-be-named new friend swim and play here at the Houston Zoo, their far-off sea lion cousins are working as highly trained members of the Navy Marine Mammal Program.

Click On My Photo To Vote For My Name
Click On My Photo To Vote For My Name

So what do they do for the U.S. Navy? Sea lions recover pieces of Navy hardware from the ocean floor and reattach them to the machinery from which they originated. Preventing unauthorized trespasses onto and around piers, harbors, and ships comprise the majority of their work. It’s important to note that these animals are never used to attack or confront trespassers.

Much of the work these animals do has replaced the work of human divers. Due to their exceptional underwater eyesight, hearing, and, or course, swimming capabilities, sea lions can endure the murky, tumultuous underwater environment of the ocean much more comfortably and efficiently than people.

Extremely High IQ
Extremely High IQ

Another important reason as to why sea lions are the animal of choice for such extensive endeavors is that they have an extremely high intelligence level. Some studies have found evidence that these animals may have the ability to reason logically, making it relatively effortless to train them when compared to other less adept species.

The Navy Marine Mammal Program Foundation specializes in working to better understand the nutrition, behavior, ecology, and physiology of these animals in order to generate greater public awareness of their lifestyle and of the importance of their species being protected.

*Our Species of The Week Contributor is Stefanie Hanselka

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CRISIS ZIMBABWE – Poaching Threatens Rhino’s Survival

In 2008 there were 88 confirmed rhino poaching deaths in Zimbabwe – 67 of these were critically endangered black rhinos. This is more than double the number of rhinos poached in 2007 and more than 15% of the country’s entire black rhino population.

Zimbabwe’s black rhino population was nearly wiped out by large-scale,

Rhino care staff in Zimbabwe
Rhino care staff in Zimbabwe

organized poaching in the 1980s, before making a remarkable recovery thanks to intense anti-poaching efforts. The country is now home to the fourth largest population of black rhinos in the world, but these rhinos are once again being poached relentlessly. Zimbabwe is one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world. And due to the continuously deteriorating political and economic situation in Zimbabwe, there has been a dramatic upsurge in wildlife poaching.
For more information, please go to Zimbabwe’s black rhino population was nearly wiped out by large-scale, organized poaching in the 1980s, before making a remarkable recovery thanks to intense anti-poaching efforts. The country is now home to the fourth largest population of black rhinos in the world, but these rhinos are once again being poached relentlessly. Zimbabwe is one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world. And due to the continuously deteriorating political and economic situation in Zimbabwe, there has been a dramatic upsurge in wildlife poaching.

For more information, please go to: For background on Houston Zoo’s involvement with rhino cosnervation:

Give the Gift of Light

You can help light the lives of people in developing countries when purchasing a new Solar Powered BOGO Flashlight through the Houston Zoo.


BOGO means Buy One—Give One.

When you buy a BOGO light, the Houston Zoo will match your purchase with a BOGO light for someone in need in the developing world.
One third of the world’s population—two billion people—make a difficult choice

Bogo Light in Africa
Bogo Light in Africa

every night: use a dangerous and expensive kerosene lantern for light, or live through the night in utter darkness. If the available choice is less dangerous—for example, candles or single-use-battery flashlights—it is no less expensive or harmful for the environment. Two billion people are facing a decision that negatively impacts their health, income, education, and security, every night.SunNight Solar’s BOGO Light transforms the night by offering so many people in need a new choice. Generating clean LED light from rechargeable solar-powered batteries, SunNight Solar’s BOGO Light can go where other fuel-dependant lights can’t: to a poor person in a small village located far away from the electricity grid. And the BOGO Light can do what other lights can’t: change a life.

SunNight Solar’s BOGO Light helps solve the most daunting issues in the developing world: poverty, literacy and education, health and safety, environmental impacts, the empowerment of women, and family security.


With every purchase of a BOGO light from the Houston Zoo, we will donate one light to the village and communities of our conservation partners in the countries we are working to protect wildlife, wildlife habitat and the communities which surround them. In 2008, this included 350 lights sent to villages in Madagascar, Gabon and Malaysian Borneo. In 2009, we plan on shipping lights to Botswana, Madagascar, Republic of Congo and western Panama.

The gift of light can change lives; you can help us make that change today. SunNight Solar’s BOGO Light is available through the Houston Zoo Gift Shop.

And a bit of a side note; back home in Houston, this light proved invaluable during the power outages of Hurricane Ike. No batteries. Just placed outside during the day and it worked for nights before needing to be recharged.

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