Easter Egg Hunt at the Houston Zoo

Written by bird keeper Danny Keel

It’s the time of the year for the Houston Zoo’s endangered Easter egg hunt egg-stravaganza! This year’s contributors are eighteen proud Attwater’s Prairie Chicken females. They represent the most endangered species of bird in Texas with less than one hundred in the wild. The zoo houses these wonderful birds at the Johnson Space Center, giving the birds enough peace and quiet to be comfortable.

Each hen has a feisty male on her side to ensure that each egg is fertilized. The males have a most unique appearance during the breeding season. Bold orange eyebrows are accentuated by bilateral air sacs that the males inflate during a breeding display. The display starts with the male stomping both feet on the ground quickly, and it is punctuated by a loud booming sound.

You aren’t on the guest list.


Now to the egg hunt! The hens have a lush playing field giving them plenty of great hiding spots for their nests. It’s possible to walk right by a nest and never know it’s there! The hens are very good at hide and seek.

Not where you want to drop your keys.


Each female loves to nest usually under some overhanging grass or shrubbery. The nest is usually lined with grass, but they will use leaves or it could even just be on dirt. Hens can lay up to thirty eggs in a breeding season, leading to a prolonged Easter egg hunt! Sometimes, the hens will even lay eggs outside their nest, adding a touch of excitement to the hunt (we step carefully when checking for eggs – since we really don’t want any suprises).

The zoo has twenty-two flights for the hens to lay eggs in. When I woke up this morning, I knew they would make this Easter egg hunt special. I searched and searched, looking from pen to pen. The hens did a really good job hiding this year! After a spell, I finally was able to locate a nest.

I’m really glad they put all theirs in one basket.


Jackpot! I must have walked past this nest six times. The game isn’t finished now though, I had to get the eggs back to the zoo. I use a nice cooler with padding to carefully drive the eggs the 26 miles back to the zoo.

We have a separate cooler for the ham and cheese sandwiches.


At that point, the eggs are incubated at the zoo, then seasoned staff cares for the young and prepare them for release in the summer!

Double Point Days in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop

How can you get DOUBLE points in the Swap Shop?  We are again offering double points for Nature Journals on the animals in the spotlight at the Houston Zoo. 


Nature Journals can be as simple as information on sheets of notebook paper.  They can be as detailed and elaborate as you like – the only limit is your imagination.  But remember, the more work you put into your journal, the more points you will get.  So, do some research and get ready for double points!  Please note that in order to get double points, the journal must be on the animal or animals in the spotlight and brought in the day of the event.

The upcoming Spotlight on the Species are as follows:

April 20 – Bear Awareness Day

May 17 – Endangered Species Day

May 25 – Chimpanzee Spotlight on the Species      

Ring-tailed Lemur

August 31 – Lemur Spotlight on the Species

Need more information on the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here.

Guest blogger Mary Kate Kunzinger reporting on how the Ruaha Carnivore Project is saving lions

The Ruaha Carnivore Project, based in southern Tanzania, is located around Ruaha National Park where the world’s second largest lion population lives, making it critically important to lion conservation. It is also home to African Painted dogs, cheetahs, leopards, and spotted hyaenas, all of whom’s populations’ are decreasing. Despite the importance of the area to many carnivore species, it has been overlooked in conservation research. This, along wit human-wildlife conflicts in local villages, led to the creation of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in 2009.

Their mission has two main points: to collect data and conduct research on the wildlife in the area to create more effective conservation strategies and to help local communities to reduce human-carnivore conflict through training and support.

The Ruaha Carnivore Project collects data through camera trapping and direct sightings. Carnivore sighting are reported by anyone in the area, such as National Park staff, tourists, are villagers. Camera trappings are a way to not only become aware of what animals are in an area but to see and identify individual animals. Camera traps work through motion sensing. When an animal walks past, the camera is triggered. Camera traps are becoming common in conservation in many areas around the world. They are incredibly interesting and a great way to learn about animals in the wild. They also make for some interesting photography.

The second part of Ruaha Carnivore Project’s mission is to reduce human-carnivore conflict. So what exactly is human-carnivore conflict? The most common type in the area happens when carnivores kill livestock, an important part of the villager’s livelihood, and villagers kill the carnivore in retaliation or to stop it from attacking again.

Ruaha Carnivore Project sought to find a solution to this problem by speaking with villagers about what would work for them. A solution that they have found to reduce these conflicts is twofold: to reduce the costs of carnivores and to help villagers benefit from carnivore presence. To reduce the costs of carnivores, multiple methods have been applied, including dogs to guard livestock, noisemakers to scare carnivores away, and helping to fortify livestock enclosures against carnivore attacks. If carnivores can’t get to the livestock, they are less likely to come near the village.


Ruaha Carnivore Project has also developed initiatives to help villagers benefit from the presence of lions. They are working with outside partners to improve education and healthcare in the areas surrounding the project. An interesting project is the Kids 4 Cats, an initiative where schools around the world can partner with a local school to help supply education resources such as textbooks. Just recently, Ruaha Carnivore Project announced their Simba Scholars Class of 2017. This is a group of six students who, through the support of sponsors, have received four year scholarships to a secondary school. This is an amazing opportunity that they probably would not have had without the support of the Ruaha Carnivore Project.

The Ruaha Carnivore Project is incredibly important to both the wildlife and people in the areas surrounding Ruaha National Park. Visit the Lion SSP website here to learn more and find out how you can help this project!



You can learn even more about the Ruaha Carnivore Project firsthand from the director of the project, Amy Dickman. She will be at the Houston Zoo on Tuesday, April 9 as a part of the Call of the Wild Speaker Series. For more information on this event and to RSVP click here

Ending this on an adorable note, here is a picture of an adorable lion drinking, caught by a camera trap


A House Call for Yao


Equine orthopedic specialist Dr. Wyatt Winchell of Brazos Valley Equine Hospital paid a house call at the Houston Zoo on Tuesday morning, checking up on Yao, the Zoo’s month old Masai giraffe who is battling a life threatening bone infection.

Assisted by the Zoo’s giraffe care team led by supervisor John Register, Yao was sedated to allow Dr. Winchell to take x-rays of Yao’s left rear hip and right front shoulder and performed a saline flush of Yao’s right front shoulder joint.

“The front shoulder joint is the location of the bone infection,” said Register.  “There is an infection in the left rear hip, but not a bone infection,” added Register.

After the x-rays were taken, Dr. Winchell performed a saline flush of the front shoulder joint. Fluid from the joint was sampled and will be cultured to assess the status of the infection.  Results of the culture are expected in a few days.

“Yao was sedated around 9: 30 a.m. When the sedation was reversed after the procedure he was up and standing by about 10:45 and nursed immediately,” said Register.

Register described the month old giraffe as stable and steady on his feet.  “Yao and his mother Neema enjoyed some quiet time outdoors in the fenced paddock outside the barn by themselves,” said Register.

“Yao is headed in the right direction,” said Dr. Winchell, who added that he is encouraged by what he saw during his house call.

“Yao is being a good patient,” said Register.  “His appetite is good and he’s gaining weight,” he added.

You Gotta Belize, it is Wonderful! By Primate Supervisor, Dena Strange

Did my title catch your attention? Now that my mosquito, spider, army ant and a couple of unidentified bites are healing up, I thought I should tell everyone about my trip to Belize that was sponsored by the Houston Zoo’s Staff Conservation Fund (donations from Houston Zoo staff  designated for Houston Zoo staff conservation efforts) .

I went down to visit Wildtracks , originally a Manatee rescue/ rehabilitation and release center in Belize. They added the endangered Yucatan Black Howler Monkey in 2010 to their wildlife rehabilitation program and have a successful release program in the nearby Fireburn Forest Reserve. Wildtracks is run by Paul and Zoe Walker and assisted by a dozen or so wonderful volunteers (how to volunteer at Wildtracks link) from all over the globe. Wildtracks is located 2 miles west of the tiny village of Sarteneja in northern Belize (accessed by either 40 miles of dirt road or a 90 minute water taxi…guess which one I chose!).  


The primate department at the Houston Zoo has been supporting Yucatan Black Howler Monkey conservation in Belize for many years (read previous blogs here) and Wildtracks since 2010. Last October the primate department raised almost $4000 during the annual Zoo Boo weekends by selling items (some of it hand-made by staff) and raising awareness of howler monkeys and Wildtracks by creating “ Zoe the Zoo Keeper’s Adventure” .  Zoe the Zoo Keeper is a character primate staff created to help tell the story of wildlife conservation in Belize.  The money raised in October was used to build more caging to house confiscated howler monkeys and to buy fencing for the new pre-release area (an area that prepares them for the wild again) for howlers.


The main purpose of this trip was to discuss opportunities for conservation collaboration with Wildtracks and the Belizean Forestry Department and explore how the Houston Zoo’s staff might enhance Wildtrack’s progress with rehabilitating and releasing howlers back into the wild. Owning wildlife is illegal in Belize and now that Wildtracks has the facility to accept more howler monkeys, the Belize Forestry Department has stepped up confiscations. However, most Belizeans are completely unaware that owning wildlife including howler monkeys is illegal. After meeting with Rasheda Garcia (Forestry Dept manager) and Paul Walker, we all agreed that the next step is focusing on educating Belizeans. We brainstormed several ideas and have come up with a plan that we hope to fulfill in the coming year!


You can learn more and help support Wildtracks by visiting their website (here) and/or visiting our table during Zoo Boo in October 2013. Mark your calendars and look out for Zoe the Zookeeper!


Chronicles of a Zoo Intern: Jacquelyne Brauneis and the Houston Toad

This post written by Jacquelyne Brauneis

Hello, my name is Jacquelyne Brauneis and I am currently an Intern in the department of Conservation, working on the Houston toad Project. I am a junior at the University of Houston studying pre-veterinary medicine, and I am very honored to have the opportunity to Intern at the Houston Zoo. It’s been a little over a month since I started my internship and already I know it has changed my life in so many ways.

First let me introduce you to the Houston toad (Anaxyrus [Bufo] houstonensis), which unfortunately most people are unaware of.  Discovered in 1940s by John Wottring, they were named after the city of Houston, which they once called home. With their habitats being destroyed the number of Houston toads declined dramatically, and in 1970 they were federally listed as an endangered species (the first amphibian to be placed on the list, but unfortunately not the last). Currently, there are thought to be as few as 250 toads left remaining in the Bastrop, Austin, Burleson, Leon and Lavaca counties. Fortunately the Houston Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Texas Parks and Wildlife, along with Texas State University have partnered in an effort to save the Houston toads.

Interning here with the toads has been unbelievably rewarding, and has taught me a tremendous amount regarding amphibians. A “typical” day revolves around caring for the toads, which includes: general husbandry, medical treatments, preparing them for release (which will by far be the most rewarding experience!), and of course working on my research project.

One of the most surprising aspects of the toads is how cerebral they are. When I arrive in the morning, a few will hop to the end of their tank as if to say “Good Morning!” and will wait for me to come by and say hello. When they get really excited, the males will begin calling (which is used as a mating call in the wild). Once one male starts the other males feel the need to begin calling and soon the room is filled with “talking toads”. As a pre-veterinary student, I have worked with many different types of animals but seeing the toads do this type of behavior is by far the cutest thing I ever seen or heard!

The goal of the Houston toad Project is to release a certain amount of toads back into the wild in order to get their population back to an acceptable number while keeping a captive assurance colony at the Houston Zoo. What is a captive assurance colony you ask? It serves as a colony of toads, which are kept just in case something was to happen to the toads in their wild habitat, assuring that the species won’t simply disappear.

Working with an endangered species like the Houston toad is an incredible experience, and I feel extremely fortunate to be able to work with these animals. The keepers on the project are dedicated and passionate about the toad, which makes the experiences I have had invaluable. By far the most important aspect of conservation that I have learned since beginning of my internship is that no animal is more important than another. These toads deserve a place on this earth, and the Houston toad Project aims to keep that a reality.

Exciting News for our Madagascar Big Headed Turtles

The Houston Zoo is dedicated to the health of our animals.  An important part of making sure that they remain healthy is by giving physical exams done by our veterinary staff.  Some of our animals are a little more complicated to get to their appointments than others.  Located in Wortham World of Primates in our lemur moat are some critically endangered Madagascar Big-Headed turtles.  To get these aquatic animals, we had to drain the water low enough for us to go in with waders and tall  boots.  Since the turtles like murky water, it can be hard for keepers to see them and capturing them requires quick reflexes.  The primate keepers were able to retrieve all seven turtles in record time.




They were taken in separate tubs to our veterinary clinic where our lead veterinarian, Dr. Joe Flanagan, was able to identify each turtle with a microchip reader.  Each turtle was weighed and measured.  After a thorough physical exam, Dr. Joe was able to give a clean bill of health to all seven turtles.

Not only were the turtles healthy, but the ultrasounds found that all of our females were ovulating properly and radiographs showed that 2 of our females had eggs.  Since the ground is still too cold for the eggs to be able to develop,  the vet induced the females to lay their eggs in the safety of our clinic.  The two females laid a total of 33 eggs!  We have taken those eggs and put them in two separate incubators behind the scenes of our Reptile house.  Each species has very specific temperatures  needed to  incubate eggs.  One incubator is set at 28.5° Celsius (83.3°F) and the other at 30.5° Celsius (86.9°F).  Since we are the first zoo in North America to hatch these turtles and there is very little data about their husbandry and management, it is hard to say exactly how many days it will take for the turtles to hatch, but we will be keeping a hopeful  eye out for emergence starting in May.

Keep a lookout in our lemur exhibit for any nesting activity.  When you are looking at the left bank of the lemur island, look for the special area keepers have made with a mixture of sand and dirt to make it easier for the turtles to dig in.  This is where  last year’s hatchlings  emerged – and we are very eager to have a repeat clutch of eggs laid in the very same spot!

To learn about conservation efforts in the wild, visit the Turtle Survival Alliance.

Come and see the Madagascar Big-headed Turtle Hatchlings!

In September 2012, 5 critically endangered Madagascar Big-headed turtles here at the Houston Zoo were hatched in our Lemur exhibit. . Since they are extremely vulnerable to predation when first hatched, they were immediately taken behind-the-scenes to our Reptile house for safe keeping. There they have flourished! They are now eating turtle pellets, earthworms, black worms, snails, crickets, and duck weed

The hatchlings started out very small, averaging 6.8 grams. They were just a little larger than a US quarter. Now, their average weight is 23.74 grams which is 3.5 times more than what they weighed when they first hatched, and they are almost the length of an AA battery (2 inches).

Since they are out of the danger zone, the turtles are now where everyone can coo and “aww” at how adorable they are. Be sure to stop by the Reptile house and see the first representatives of this species hatched in a North American zoo. When you see them, you might wonder why they have little green spots on their shell. Since we need to be able to identify them to make sure that they are eating well and staying healthy, we need an accurate way to identify them. The adults have a readable transponder under their skin just like the ones cats and dogs are given. Since they are still too small for the transponder, we use a spot of green nail polish on their scutes because it is safe and durable.

Remember: Make sure to advise your little ones not to tap on the glass, as it can stress the animals. . We want to do everything possible to make sure that they stay safe and healthy here at the zoo. These little reservoirs of turtle DNA are very important to the survival of this species and we hope to breed more in the future! And, you can still see their parents floating in the moat or basking on the rocks at the Wortham World of Primates lemur exhibit.

To learn about conservation efforts in the wild, visit the Turtle Survival Alliance.

Guest Blogger Carolyn Jess Busy Fundraising for Ocelots

We have invited Carolyn Jess back to help us out as guest blogger in 2013 with a focus on native wildlife. Jess is a 12 year old student who has agreed to be our special guest blogger about wildlife conservation. We first met Carolyn in October 2011 when she came out to the Zoo to meet our special guest Jack Hannah. If you would like to contact Carolyn or have comments, you may send them to conservation@houstonzoo.org.

Operation Ocelot was busy fundraising this month.  March 3 was the day I celebrated my 12th birthday with a party at my house.  When I invited my friends, I gave them a page of information, with pictures too, about the ocelot, where it lives, and why it is an endangered species.  I also gave my friends information on what they can do to help the ocelot to survive.  One EASY way for them to help was for them to give me a donation instead of a birthday gift.   I explained that the money I collected would be sent in to Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Center.  Dr. Michael Tewes, Coordinator of the Feline Research Program, uses the funds I send in to purchase the remote camera systems that are used in South Texas.  The cameras monitor the ocelots that live in the scrub land there.   I know that asking for money for the ocelots is an easy gift for people to give me.  They don’t have to ask me what I want or what size clothes I’d like.  Most parents just chose to write a check to the research center.  I think it is much easier than going out to buy a gift.

Once my friends had left my party (I had 24 friends show up), I collected $420.  I set a goal of $400 every year, and it always feels good to meet and beat that goal.  I have sent that money in to Dr. Tewes and HOPE that he makes a big discovery of an ocelot population that he didn’t know existed, but in reality, I know that probably won’t happen.  I am glad that there are people like Dr. Tewes who care about the ocelot as much as I do and want to help this animal to get off the endangered list.  My best present I could get would be for the ocelot to get off that list, but until then, I’ll keep collecting money at my birthdays and teaching as many people as I can about the ocelot.  If people know what changes need to be made to help our endangered animals, we can make a difference.

If you would like to help the ocelot, there are a few things you can do.  You could have a bake sale, garage sale, or ask for donations instead of gifts at your next party.   You could start a club at your school about endangered animals in Texas.  There are a lot of things you can do to help our animals.  You just have to try.

Houston Toads: Caring for 2,000+ Houston Toads

Interested in finding out what it is like taking care of 2,000+ Houston toads? In this week’s blog post we are going to take you through a typical day here in the Houston toad facility.

Like most of the animal departments here at the zoo, our day starts at 7AM sharp. The first order of business is to clean all 144 tanks in the quarantine building – that’s a lot of tanks! Each tank is divided into two sections: a dry portion that has a deep layer of moss for burrowing, and pool area, where toads can soak and drink. After the water from the previous day is drained from each tank, the tank is sprayed down and any leftover food or fecal matter is removed. After cleaning, the tank is filled up again with clean, reverse osmosis water (just like the fancy bottled water you pay big bucks for!)

Remember that in the last post we mentioned that toads prefer living in sandy soil. There are several reasons that we don’t keep our toads in sand in captivity. The first reason is that the sand is very difficult to clean; therefore waste products quickly build up in the tank which could potentially make the toads sick. Also, have you ever tried to move a wheelbarrow of wet sand? It’s heavy! A tank full of sand is very difficult to move, which would overly complicate our daily cleaning regime.  Sand is also somewhat pricy, so for as often as we disinfect each tank, it would get very expensive to continue to buy new sand.

Instead of sand we use a moss from New Zealand that is collected from an area where no amphibians are found. This is important because it reduces the possibility that this moss could have an amphibian disease that could be transmitted to our toads. This moss is also slightly alkaline (basic) which reduces bacterial growth.  The moss is light weight very easy to use. We make sure each tank has a deep layer of moss so that the toads can burrow down into it just like they would in sand in the wild.

In conjunction with cleaning and refilling each tank, we also collect fecal specimens to be submitted to the veterinary clinic.  This routine health screening ensures that our captive colony toads are free of parasites.  After the morning husbandry is done, we then spend time feeding the toads.  Feeding occurs on a regulated schedule, because like most captive animals, we don’t want to feed them too much to maintain their health! We mainly feed the adult toads large crickets, but we also supplement this cricket diet with waxworms and mealworms. The younger toads eat smaller crickets, fruit flies, and bean beetles.

After the toads are fed, the remainder of the day is spent taking care of the bugs that we use for food (we grow the small crickets, flies, and beetles ourselves), building new or fixing old tanks, performing medical treatments, or working on our own research projects or the helping out with the projects of our collaborators. Occasionally we get out for a Houston toad keeper chat, so check the zoo website in the next few weeks if you are visiting the zoo and want to catch us!

Like all conservation programs, teamwork is absolutely required for its success. Not only do we rely on our external partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and Texas State University, we also get tremendous support internally from the zoo. The aquarium provides us with most of our water, the vet staff gives us an incredible amount of medical support (it’s a lot of work to keep 2,000 toads healthy!), and keepers from Herpetology and the Children’s Zoo regularly lend us a helping hand with the day-to-day husbandry. We have also had a fantastic group of interns and volunteers whose enthusiasm and hard work continues to inspire us to make our program better. Thanks to everyone who has lent us a helping hand, we couldn’t do it without you! Stay tuned next week for a “guest blog” from one of our current interns, Jacquelyne Brauneis!

Search Blog & Website
[jetpack_subscription_form title="Subscribe to the Blog" subscribe_text="Enter your email address to subscribe and receive new blog posts by email."]
Houston Zoo Facebook Page
Animals In Action

Recent Videos