Otterly Mad Week! Asian Small Clawed Otter

Join the Houston Zoo as we unite with zoos across the country to celebrate Otterly Mad Week Sunday, May 30 through Saturday, June 5

Started last year by the International Otter Survival Fund, Otterly Mad Week aims to educate people around the world about otters and their importance in the environment. 

There are 13 different species of otters in the world, and two of them can be found at the Houston Zoo!

Asian Small Clawed Otters

Asian small-clawed otters are found in Southern India, southern China, southeast Asia, Indonesia, Philippines and are seen in rivers, creeks, lakes, rice fields, coastal mangroves and along seashores.

Their diet mainly consists of crabs, clams, mollusks, frogs and fish. Asian small-clawed otters capture their food with their forepaws, probing in mud and under rocks in shallow water for their prey.  This is unlike most other otter species that catch prey with their mouths. They are the only mammals besides primates capable of using hands with human-like proficiency. They are very tactile and love to explore new things by touching them.

These otters live in extended family groups of 4-12 individuals.  Breeding pairs are monogamous and both parents help raise young. They are very social animals and have a vocabulary of at least 12 calls for alarm, greeting and mating. 
Asian small-clawed otters will nest in burrows along riverbanks or in paddy fields. When not hunting for food, they can be found lounging in the side of a riverbank or shoreline.Keeping fur in a good condition is important so otters spend a lot of time grooming. If their fur gets matted, it can damage their ability to hunt for food or stay warm. Because of their acute sensitivity to pollution and habitat loss they are a reliable measure of the world’s wetlands.

Otterly Fantastic Facts

North American River OtterOtters in the wild spend 40-60% of their day foraging for food.  They are carnivores and may eat fish, crustaceans, shellfish, small mammals, birds, eggs, frogs, and turtles.

Join the Houston Zoo as we unite with zoos across the country to celebrate Otterly Mad Week, Sunday, May 30 through Saturday, June 5.

Dinosaurs! at the Houston Zoo

Visit our Dinosaurs! exhibit all summer long at the Houston Zoo.

We are opening a seasonal Dinosaur exhibit this weekend here at the zoo. Many millions of years ago (before 1960 for you kids out there), dinosaurs were the predominat species here on Planet Earth. But, alas, they have all gone extinct. Thankfully, millions of people are still fascinated with them and we get our basic dino education from Natural History Museums and Discover Channel shows. You can learn about Dinosaurs and get an up close view of what they may have looked like; from the mighty T-Rex and plated Stegosaurus to the massive Brachiosaurus and horned Triceratops and others.

The dinosaurs were part of what is know as the fifth mass extinction – a mass extinction is when there is a sharp decrease in the diversity (animal and plant species) in a geologically short period of time. 65 millions years ago there was a mass extinction called the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event. It is believed this was caused by a mass meteorite event and ended reptilian dominance (i.e., dinosaurs) on Earth.

It is believed we are now in the stage of the 6th Mass Extinction event and amphibian losses are part of the crisis – some notes from our conservation team:

Did you know we are facing the next great mass extinction?
Sadly, it is estimated that half of the planet’s amphibian species are threatened with extinction.

These amphibians have seen the dinosaurs come and go, but millions of years on this planet are still no match for pollution, habitat loss, the pet trade, and disease.

Amphibians hold the answers to future biomedicines, they control the insect population, and they are an important food source for many other animals on the planet and yet many of them will not survive.

The Houston Zoo is helping to restore the Houston toad here in the Lone Star State, a native toad in which only 200-300 animals are left in the wild.

In Panama, we have rescued a number of species from the spread of a deadly disease that is wiping out amphibians all over the world. Many of the species, some now extinct in the wild, will live and breed only in captivity until scientists can find a cure for this disease.

Every time you visit the Houston Zoo, a portion of your ticket sale or membership goes back to fund the important work we are doing to help amphibians in the wild. Thank you!

For more information about our amphibian projects visit

Spotlight on South America

A message from the Houston Zoo’s carnivore department:  


There will be a Spotlight on South America event this weekend (May 29 and 30, 2010) at the Zoo.  The event is designed to foster awareness and appreciation of some of our beautiful animals from that region.  The proceeds earned from this event will go to supporting two community based conservation projects that work tirelessly to ensure the survival of South American species in the wild.  

The first is the Bigal River Biological Reserve, it is a 1000 hectare preserve in Ecuador.  This area is community owned and is home to a variety of species of plants and animals (including Jaguars).  It is part of a much larger track of tropical rain forest along the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes.  The Reserve extends both inside and outside of the Sumaco National Park (which is 190,562 hectares and is one of 3 Biosphere Reserves found in Ecuador).  Approximately 6 km of the Reserve comes in direct contact with the National Park and acts as a buffer zone.  

The Bigal River Conservation Project was created to help better understand the conservation status of the endangered species present in the area and to find solutions that will ensure their long term survival.  The four main goals of the project are:  1) to create an environmental awareness and encourage protection of local biodiversity within the local communities through education, 2) to facilitate community participation in actions oriented towards natural resources management and biodiversity’s data recollection process, 3) to generate long lasting incomes for the members of the communities from environmentally friendly activities and 4) to protect the Reserve and what is left of the tropical rain forest in the area.  These goals will be accomplished through education, scientific research and surveillance and monitoring of both the Reserve and Park. 

Maned wolf

The second is the Maned Wolf Conservation Project, which also combines research, conservation and education.  It was started in 2001 to improve the conservation of Maned Wolves by assessing the changing landscapes of the species survival.  It is located in the Serra da Canastra, a mountainous region in the Minas Gerais State in southeastern Brazil which contains a variety of Savannah habitats.  The Serra da Canastra National Park encompasses a total of 200,000 hectares, 1/3 of which is regulated and managed by the Brazilian government.  The remaining 2/3 is still under private ownership.  

The project captures and monitors (via radio collars) Maned Wolves year round.  To date they have captured 43 individuals in the study area.  The goal is to gather as much information as possible about Maned Wolves in order to establish conservation actions such as habitat restoration, creation of corridors and management of maned wolf populations.  In addition to studying the wolves, the project also strives to educate the people living in communities in the area about the species and how to live peacefully with them.  The group also mediates conflicts between wolves and farmers to help improve attitudes towards the species.  One way the project is doing this is to provide a prototypes of chicken coops designed to keep out wolves to a dozen farms.  Since the initiation of this project, economic losses have been reduced, chicken production has improved, and many farmers are now advocates for the wolves. 

Come and join us this weekend, and don’t miss the “Carnivore Store” where a variety of paintings of assorted sizes, magnets, photos, and more will be available.  There will also be docents and keepers presenting interesting biofacts to look at and touch in our events area located in front of our newly renovated Jaguar exhibit.  Click here for more details about this event.

December Dreaming

I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about December, and its not just because the temperatures are climbing or that the mosquitoes are swarming, although those things do make me wish summer was over some days. I’m thinking about African Forest, and specifically about the 10 chimpanzees that will be making their Houston debut at the end of 2010.

African Forest started on paper more than 5 years ago

A lot of work goes into opening a new exhibit and adding a new species to the zoo’s collection, so over the next few months be sure to come out to the zoo to enjoy Dinosaurs, baby Baylor, and all the other cool stuff that happens at the zoo every day. When you can’t be at the zoo in person, check back here for some behind the scenes stories of how we’re getting ready for the for the biggest thing  to hit Houston since the World’s Cutest Animal came to town.

A year ago, the future site of the chimpanzee exhibit was just an open field

Sea turtles nest on upper Texas coast!

Fabulous news people.

6 Kemps ridley sea turtle nests have been detected on the upper Texas coast and a total of 82 nests statewide!

The first four nests from our neck of the woods came last Wednesday, 3 female ridleys were subsequently satellite tagged and released back in the Gulf.

Do you want to hear even more fabulous news?

After many patrols over the last several years and sand in really weird places, all of the patience & grittiness finally paid off…

ONE OF THE SEA TURTLES WAS FOUND ON MY PATROL!!!!!! Sorry, could not hold it in any longer. 🙂

Below is a picture of the beautiful girl found on Surfside beach! She did attempt to evade me of course. About 1 hour after I passed this area on my ATV, she crawled out of the water and two beachgoers watched her crawl up to the dunes, dig a hole, and begin to nest. They did the right thing and called 1-866-TURTLE5 and I was contacted by a NOAA biologist to respond- I flew like I have never flew before and came upon a most delightful sight, one of the most magnificent and endagered sea turtles on the planet. Everyone on the beach that day was awe-struck and thankful to be in the right place, at the right time and to be able to sneak a peek at such an amazing wild animal.

Truly a once and a lifetime experience!

We covered her with wet towels to keep her nice and cool until students from Texas A&M Galveston came to excavate her eggs and tag her.

102 eggs were excavated from her nest. Good mamma!

Release of the three Kemps ridley sea turtles. I bet it felt great to be back in the water.

You can track the movement of tagged ridley turtles by visiting the following link. The ladies tagged last week should be up soon.


Venomous snakes found in the greater Houston area

Texas is home to more varieties of snakes that any other state in the Union.  Over 110 species and subspecies are native to Texas.  Of those, 34 varieties can be found in the greater Houston area.  What does this mean to the average person?  Well, it means that eventually, if you live in this area long enough, you are likely to encounter a snake.  Most likely, it will be a non-venomous snake.  Only six venomous species of snakes have been historically found in the Houston area; of these six, the three rattlesnake species are rarely seen and an encounter with one of them highly improbable.  Below is a brief description of each of these venomous species.


Texas Coral Snake

Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius tenere)

This is the most colorful of the local venomous snakes.  The body is completely encircled by a series of wide red and black rings separated by narrower yellow rings, while the head is completely black.  The red and yellow rings are always in contact with each other, which gives us the old rhyme “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, venom lack.”  This remains the best way to distinguish the Coral Snake from certain harmless species of snakes such as the Louisiana Milk Snake or the Scarlet Snake, where the red and black bands are in contact with each other.  The Coral Snake tends to be on the small and slender side, with an adult averaging under 24” in length, although the record length is 47 ¾”.

The Texas Coral Snake prefers living in partially wooded sites with a good amount of organic ground litter.  Hence, it can be found sometimes in urban areas around gardens, wooded lots, or any other places with fairly heavy vegetation or ground cover.  Its diet consists almost entirely of small lizards and other snakes.  This is the only venomous snake in the Houston area that lays eggs.

The Coral Snake is a member of the Elapid family of snakes, which includes some of the most deadly snakes in the world.  Consequently, its neurotoxic venom is much more potent than any of our other venomous species.  Fortunately, the Coral Snake is inoffensive, and bites only if provoked or handled.

 All of the other five species of venomous snakes found in the Houston area are what are known as “Pit Vipers.”  These animals all possess the following characteristics:  They have recurved, retractable hollow fangs for delivering venom, eyes with vertical, elliptically shaped eye pupils, and a heat sensing pit on each side of the head between the eye and the nostril.  Their venom is a complex mixture of enzymes which act primarily on the blood tissues.  All species give birth to live young, and do not lay eggs.

Southern Copperhead

Southern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix)

 This is a light tan/pale brown snake with hourglass shaped crossbands with the narrowest point at the middle of the back.  These crossbands are of a darker color than the rest of the body.  Adults generally range between 24”-36” with a record of 52”.  This animal is the most abundant of the venomous snakes in the Houston area and is responsible for most of the venomous snake bites occurring here.  Fortunately, their venom has a low toxicity; thus, although painful, a Copperhead envenomation does not pose a serious threat to life. 

The Southern Copperhead prefers wooded areas, often in the vicinity of streams or bayous.  It can be encountered in urban parks and wooded lots, where it seeks shelter under brush, boards, rock piles, and other types of human debris. 

Newly born Copperheads measure between 8”-10” and are colored identically to the adults.  The tip of the tail, though, is a bright yellow in color.  This yellow tail gradually fades as the animal grows.

Western Cottonmouth

 Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma)

This animal is also known as the Water Moccasin.  This is a stout-bodied snake that, in general, is rather dark in color; any cross-banding pattern tends to be indistinct and rather ill-defined.  The most prominent feature about this species is its large, flat-topped head which is noticeably wider that the neck.  There also is a wide, dark-brown stripe bordered with white on each side of the head.  Newborn cottonmouths tend to be boldly patterned and, like the Southern Copperhead, have bright yellow tipped tails.  As the animal matures, the pattern darkens and the yellow tail disappears.  The Western Cottonmouth is often confused with several other species of harmless water snakes of the genus Nerodia, which, although ill-tempered and apt to bite, are not venomous.   These species, though, possess a round eye pupil and lack heat sensing pits.  In general, when confronted with a large-bodied, dark colored snake, it is best just to leave it alone.

Most Western Cottonmouths tend to be between 24”-36” in length, although the record is over five feet.  This animal can be found in almost every area that has a permanent source of water; it is especially abundant in the swamps, marshes and slow-moving bayous such as those found around Houston.  They do prefer undisturbed areas over urban areas, but can be found in wet agricultural (such as rice fields) and suburban areas.  Occasionally, the Western Cottonmouth can be found considerable distances from permanent water, usually after heavy rainfalls cause extensive flooding.

Despite its relative abundance in the Houston area, the Western Cottonmouth is responsible for few bites.  However, its venom is far more toxic than the Southern Copperhead and can cause extensive tissue damage, even though fatalities are extremely rare.  Consequently, these animals should not be molested or handled.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)

This species is the most abundant and wide spread of all the venomous snakes in Texas.  However, it prefers more sparsely vegetated and arid terrain than that found in the Houston area.  In fact, this species is not found in Harris County, although specimens have been recorded on Galveston Island and in Brazoria County.  The Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake is the second-largest venomous snake in the United States, and has been known to reach over seven feet in length; only the Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake is larger.  Average lengths, however, generally range between three and four feet. 

This large, heavy-bodied snake can be most easily recognized by its black and white banded tail (hence its other name “Coontail”).  The back is patterned with light-bordered dark diamond-shaped blotches.  The head is large and is wider than the neck. 

The Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake can be easily provoked; when threatened, it will throw itself into a defensive posture and buzz its rattle loudly.  This species accounts for the majority of venomous snake bites in Texas; the large potential venom capacity makes a bite from this animal a very serious matter.  It is fortunate that this animal is not found around the Greater Houston area proper.

Canebrake Rattlesnake

Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus atricaudatus)

This is a grayish brown to pinkish brown snake with a series of dark colored, jagged, chevron-shaped cross bands along its back.  The tail is a glossy black, giving this animal the moniker of “velvet tail”.  The Canebrake is also large-bodied, and can reach over six feet in length, although between three and five feet is a more common adult length.  Its diet consists mostly of small mammals.

 This species prefers moist lowland forests near rivers and lakes such as found in southeastern Texas.  Although never abundant, this snake is seldom seen, and is now so rare in Texas that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has declared it to be a protected species.  

In general, this rattlesnake is relatively mild-tempered and not easily excitable.  Combined with the fact that it prefers to inhabit areas far from human habitation, bites are extremely rare.  However, envenomations from this species can be fatal.


Western Pygmy Rattlesnake

Western Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius streckeri)

This is a small, grayish-colored rattlesnake with a tiny rattle and a row of small dark spots down the middle of its back.  In addition, there are often similar rows along the sides of the body.   The harmless Hognose Snake has similar markings and is often confused with the Pygmy Rattlesnake.  Adult Pygmy Rattlesnakes are usually between 15”-20”, although the record is slightly over 25”. 

This is another uncommon snake in Texas, and is primarily restricted to wooded and open lowlands of the upper Texas coast.  Usually there is a source of standing water nearby.  Sightings of this snake, even by professional herpetologists, are rare. 

Historically, this snake has accounted for very few bites in and around Houston.  No fatalities have been recorded for this animal, even though it will bite when provoked.

What can I do to avoid snakes?

Snakes are remarkable creatures and have the same needs as any other animal.  Their three most basic needs are food, water and shelter.  Any place that provides these essential elements has a good chance of harboring one or more snakes.  Chances are that if you are encountering snakes around your house and yard regularly, you have an area somewhere that is harboring rodents.  So the first rule of thumb is to keep your house and yard well trimmed and cleaned.  Wood piles, brush piles, tall grass, trash, etc., will attract rodents and the snakes will follow their food source. Keep bushes trimmed so that their branches are off of the ground.  Seal off any gaps that may lead into the house or garage to keep snakes from accidentally finding their way into your residence. 

If you are out hiking or in the field, wear long pants and boots.  Watch where you step and don’t put your hand or foot anywhere without looking first.  Many accidental snake bites have two things in common; you don’t see the snake and the snake doesn’t see you.

If you by chance encounter a snake, our best advice is to leave it alone.  Do not try to pick it up or capture it unless you are absolutely sure it is non-venomous and are prepared to be bitten.  Snakes will not bite unless they are provoked or feel that their life is in danger.

Of course, you could always move to Ireland.

Do commercially available snake repellents work?

A picture is worth a thousand words…

Baja Escape with the Houston Zoo

Are you looking for a fantastic experience that will satisfy both your sense of adventure and your desire to learn about and conserve wildlife?  Have you explored the Zoo Travel Program  link under the Conserve Wildlife  tab on our website?  Here you will literally find a world of opportunity for exploring new territories, both near and far.  A staff member from the Houston Zoo accompanies each trip and we are joined by guides at the various destinations that are experts on the areas in which they live and work.  The zoo’s conservation department works hard to establish on-going relationships in the areas we visit which affords zoo groups that oft sought after “inside scoop” on the animals and ecosystems.

One of the most understated, yet biologically diverse areas to be found anywhere is right in our own backyard in Baja California, Mexico. When someone mentions biological diversity most people think of the Amazon, or the Serengeti.  But the Sea of Cortez, which separates the Baja peninsula from mainland Mexico, is one of the most biologically rich areas on the planet.  The Sea of Cortez contains a series of small islands, many of which are home to species of reptiles and cactus that are endemic only to each particular island.  The waters of the area are perhaps most famous as the calving grounds of grey whales but they also teem with many other whale and dolphin species, birds, manta rays, whale sharks , and my personal favorites, California sea lions.

Our Baja Escape  scheduled for December 10th – 15th offers the opportunity to explore the Sea of Cortez aboard a National Geographic ship.  The ship is small which allows it to navigate the waterways in the Sea of Cortez.  A smaller ship means fewer guests so you’ll have ample opportunity to interact with the National Geographic biologists aboard.  The ship also boasts an ‘open bridge’ which means guests are free to visit the bridge and see what it takes to navigate a ship through challenging waterways.

We’ll have time not only for drinking in show-stopping sunsets and whale watching from the ship’s deck but also for hiking, kayaking and zodiac trips around the islands that we visit.  Of course the part I am most looking forward to is snorkeling with the sea lion residents on Islas Los Islotes.  This group of sea lions is well used to having humans snorkeling around their home beaches and the youngsters often come out to see what these awkward masked and flippered creatures are up to.

This is truly a destination that rivals anywhere on the planet for beauty and wildlife viewing opportunities so check out the links above and book your adventure to Baja and the stunning crystal blue Sea of Cortez.

World Environment Day June 5th

We tend to hear quite a bit about Earth Day here in the US, but we rarely promote World Environment Day.

The theme of World Environment Day 2010 is “Many Species. One Planet. One Future.” It echoes the urgent call to conserve the diversity of life on our planet.  A world without biodiversity is a very bleak prospect. Millions of people and millions of species all share the same planet, and only together can we enjoy a safer and more prosperous future.

Take a look at this short video:

This years “Global Host Country” is Rwanda, home to the endangered Mountain Gorilla and the World Environment Day Organizaers are asking everyone, everywhere to Take A Stand for the Gorillas! Let us come together to support the protection and conservation of gorillas in Rwanda. For every activity or positive environmental action organized and registered on the WED website, $10 will go toward gorilla protection. Their target is to reach a minimum donation of $50,000USD.

The Mighty Blue Duiker


Anyone remotely following what’s going on at the Houston Zoo knows by now that dinosaurs will be visiting the zoo this summer.  You can’t miss the advertising.  There are billboards all over town, it’s posted on the website, and even the  zoo wide PA system give out a mighty roar to let everyone know the dino’s will be here soon!

Well, it seems all that great advertising didn’t get through to our golden lion tamarins (GLT’s) living at Natural Encounters.  Apparently we forgot to warn them about all the dinosaur excitement. But they found out in a big…or was that small…..way when we put them in the outdoor rainforest a few days ago. 

The GLT’s have been living in the indoor rainforest for a couple of months now because of work being done in the area and also because we introduced a blue duiker named Gouda to the outdoor rainforest area.  If you haven’t seen him yet, blue duikers are hoofed animals from Africa.

Hoofed animal, you think to yourself.  That could mean anything from the fairly small Thompson’s gazelle to something like the might eland.  Well, blue duikers are on the smaller end of the hoofed stock size scale. Fairly diminutive really. Tiny even.  Gouda stands a towering 13 inches at the shoulder and weighs in at all of 7 pounds. 

Here at Natural Encounters, whenever we introduce a new animal to a mixed species exhibit we usually take it slowly, adding one species at a time for the new kid to meet and get used to.  We thought the GLT’s would be a pretty simple introduction with Gouda because these monkeys are generally fairly laid back and not aggressive to the other animals.

When the GLT’s first spotted Gouda they were a bit unsure but curious.  They can be territorial so they are always wary of new animals in their home.  But Gouda did not seem at all bothered by these bright orange monkeys watching him so he decided to get up and go for a stroll.  As luck would have it, with unplanned, yet impeccable timing, the dinosaur roar on the PA system went off  just as the monkeys were warily watching Gouda getting up. The huge roar combined with this new thing actually moving was more than they could take.   The GLT’s are now quite sure that this tiny animal has a mighty roar and clearly should not be in their area.  They spent the rest of the day vocalizing angrily at an indifferent Gouda.

It was an amusing moment for the staff, if not for the GLT’s.  Only time will tell if we can convince the monkeys that Gouda is not a roaring, fearsome creature, but hopefully his sweet ways and gentle eyes will win them over in the end.

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