Banded Mongooses Coming to the Children's Zoo

If you’ve walked through the Children’s Zoo lately, you may have noticed some serious construction. We’re building a habitat for an animal that has never before been featured at the Houston Zoo: banded mongooses!

Banded-Mongoose---By-Warwick-Tarboton
Nope, it’s not a meerkat – it’s a banded mongoose! Credit: Warwick Tarboton

Only 5 zoos currently have banded mongooses. They are very social animals, and they are active during the day. They live in central and southern Africa in a savanna habitat, and you can usually find them around termite mounds. This is why we’re building an artificial termite mound in their habitat, along with plenty of hollow logs, so the mongooses can feel right at home!

Revised-Banded-Mongoose-Rendering---5-21-2013
Drawing of the banded mongoose exhibit

Kids will also have the chance to crawl through tunnels and pop their heads up into a clear dome right in the middle of the mongoose habitat to get an up-close and personal view of them (and a great photo op!).

The tunnels are covered up with plastic while we are working, but you will be able to pop right up in the middle of the exhibit!
The tunnels are covered up with plastic while we are working, but you will be able to pop right up in the middle of the exhibit!

While their habitat will be finished this summer, it may be a bit longer before our banded mongooses can call it home.

It’s a complex process to bring them here to the Zoo, as it is with any animal. First, another zoo that has banded mongooses tells us they would like to send some over to us. Then, we apply for permits in order to bring the animals to our zoo. When the permits go through, we have to figure out how to get them here. In this case, we will fly them here on an airplane.

Gratuitous photo of adorable banded mongoose!
Gratuitous photo of adorable banded mongoose! Credit: BBC UK

After the mongooses get to the Houston Zoo, they spend 30 days in quarantine, away from all the other animals, while we do vet checkups and make sure they do not have any diseases or other problems that may spread to the animals already at our Zoo. After 30 days, they are ready to be introduced to their new home!

Spraying on concrete to create a rocky effect for the outside of the habitat
Spraying on concrete to create a rocky effect for the outside of the habitat

Once the habitat is finished and while we are anxiously awaiting banded mongooses, there will be another adorable inhabitant: an African-crested porcupine.

You'll get to see the African crested porcupine in this habitat until the banded mongooses get here!
You’ll get to see the African crested porcupine in this habitat until the banded mongooses get here!

We will keep you posted as construction progresses!

In Senegal, Helping Chimps

Zoo staff member Martha is in Senegal right now working with the Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation Project, and she’s sending us updates as she gets enough internet access to make that possible! Here are a few updates from Martha:

We spent the last few days in very remote villages called Bofeto and Babouya, right in the corner of Senegal where the country meets Mali and Guinea. We checked on various camera traps to see if the cards were full, and we installed a new camera trap next to a big rocky, shaded water source. Chimp nests were nearby as well as lots of fruit so we think this will be a good spot to get photos.

Kelly from Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation Project an a local villager from Babouya put up a camera trap to hopefully get some photos of chimps!

We ate lots of “caba,” as the local people call it. It is a very sour fruit with lots of seeds, and you break it open and eat the pulp off the seeds. It’s popular with chimps, and it’s popular with us too!

“Caba” fruit, scientific name saba senegalensis – yummy and very sour!

Then, we went to the village of Bofeto teaching kids about how and why animals hide using camouflage: both to get away from predators and also to catch their prey. We went on a hike to find plastic animals hidden in the bush and then talked about why some were harder to find than others-the kids really had fun going out behind their school on this scavenger hunt!

Kids in the village of Bofeto learn all about camouflage

We also had some volunteers come up in front of the group and talk about the animal that they were and where it would hide based on its coloration, and how this would help them either find food, or get away from animals who wanted to eat them.

Kids had a great time wearing the silly hats and since they live right alongside (or in) the forest, they already had a lot of knowledge about animals and how they adapt to their environment, and how it is important to protect the habitats of animals because they rely on them for so many things!

Kids in the village show off their silly hats

Later on, we went to the village of Babouya, where the villagers got to watch a film about chimpanzees. This village lives right alongside a troop of chimpanzees and they loved watching the film and seeing the chimps doing things similar to humans (like using tools and getting frustrated when tools don’t work, and the moms carrying their young on their back, etc.).

Villagers in Babouya watch a film about chimpanzees

Amazingly, we needed assistance putting up my bed sheet for the screen and asked one of the village members to help. We weren’t sure if they were going to put it up on one of their huts, but in about 10 minutes we walked over to the center of the village and they had created their own handmade frame out of bamboo-it was amazing! They were so thankful for us playing the video, almost the entire village came-adults, kids, infants, and dogs (and maybe even some goats).

Stay tuned for more updates as we get them!

"ok glass"…lets go to the zoo

Earlier this year, we were lucky enough to be selected to receive a pair of Google Glass through a contest called If I Had Glass. Now before we go any further, we’ll answer your question of “What the heck is Google Glass?” Below is a stunning video that Google created to promote this amazing piece of technology.

Now that you’re familiar, we’ll continue. In this contest, people had to message Google and tell them what they would do if they had Glass. Glass hopefuls submitted everything from pleading videos, to lengthy descriptions of why their entry was better than everyone else’s. We were excited that Google Glass might allow us to bring a first person video experience to our sea turtle releases, so that became our entry. We wishfully sent off our entry with a mouse click on one hand, and our fingers crossed on the other.

Days went by. Weeks passed. At last, Google began releasing the names of those selected to receive the Glass. And suddenly, we received this:

Glass-tweet
WE WERE PUMPED! It turns out that only 8,000 people were selected out of hundreds of thousands. We couldn’t wait to get our hands on the Google Glass and start creating content.

Fast forward a month or two, and there we were……standing on the Google campus (aka Googleplex), speaking with Jamie who was our extremely nice and friendly one-on-one instructor. Jamie let us pick which color Glass we wanted and then walked us through all the features of how to use it. We spent about an hour learning the system, shook hands with Jamie, and were on our way back to Texas.

Glass

And now, we’re back. We’re back with some pretty crazy ideas, and an incredible resolve to share first person videos of the Houston Zoo. Everyone always asks what it is like to be an animal keeper. With this technology, we won’t have to describe it to you, we can show you! Ride along with one of our carnivore keepers into the clouded leopard exhibit. See what it’s like to lead the sea lion show. Catch a cheetah at the end of the cheetah run. We’re going to do all of this and more!

Check back in with us. We’re working hard to get all these videos to you and we’ll keep you updated! Exciting things are coming, everyone! Stay tuned!

Baby Saki Monkey – Toumi Has a Little Brother!

The saki monkeys have welcomed a new baby boy into their family! Dalé (pronounced Da-LAY) joins his big brother Toumi, mom Jolene and Dad Harry in the Natural Encounters rainforest.

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Dalé saki monkey and his mom Jolene.

Sakis are tree-dwelling monkeys – in the wild they’re found the rainforest of South America, including parts of Brazil and Venezuela. The males have dark hair on their body and cream-colored hair on their faces. Females are a more mottled brown, and saki babies also have this brown hair to blend in with mom for safety as they ride on their backs or bellies. As Dalé grows his hair will become darker to look more like Dad’s.

Harry saki monkey is now a proud father of two boys.
Harry saki monkey is now a proud father of two boys.

Dalé is growing more adventurous day by day. From the day he was born (his birthday is April 17) for the first few weeks, he spent all his time clinging to mom’s belly where he could be kept warm and nurse. Soon he began riding on her back where he could get more of a look around as she climbed through the trees. Now he ventures off frequently to explore and even takes a ride on his brother’s back at times!

Toumi and his baby brother play together often.
Toumi and his baby brother play together often.

Baby sakis, like all mammals, drink milk from their mothers. Last week Jolene presented Dalé with his first solid food, handing him a small piece of a banana she was eating. Dalé tasted it and loved it! Saki monkeys make up most of their diet from fruit, but also eat small amounts of nuts, insects, and vegetables.

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Come see the saki monkeys in Natural Encounters and you might get a very up close look!

Look for Dalé and his family in the indoor or outdoor rainforest areas in the Natural Encounters building; they spend plenty of time in each area. You won’t be able to hear their vocalizations indoors through the glass, but this is a great spot to get up close when one of them comes down to the front. If you see the sakis in the outside rainforest you might hear their high pitched chirruping sounds.

And don’t get Dalé confused with one of the pygmy marmosets – these are not babies but a different species of full grown tiny monkeys!

Don't confuse him for the baby saki monkey! This is one of our pygmy marmosets that also lives in the Natural Encounters rainforest.
Don’t confuse him for the baby saki monkey! This is one of our pygmy marmosets that also lives in the Natural Encounters rainforest.

 

Mole Rats Enjoy Their New Digs!

This Friday, our mole rats got to move into their new, fancy tunnels. And they sure are loving it! Zookeeper Casey was in charge of the move. We followed along with him as he moved the Zambian giant mole rats and the Damara mole rats from behind-the-scenes into their new tunnels. The naked mole rats just had babies, so they are still behind the scenes enjoying a little quality time.

See photos of the move:

Teaching Kids in Africa to Help Protect Chimps

Our chimpanzees at the Zoo are ambassadors for chimps in the wild, helping people that visit the Houston Zoo understand and appreciate them, and hopefully inspiring guests to care about their wild counterparts. What you might not know is that we support the Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation Project in Senegal, and Zoo staff member Martha is there right now to help them with their education programs and helping kids learn about why protecting chimps is so important.

Here is a great example of how educating kids can help a community protect wildlife. This week, in the village of Dalafing, the kids had their end of the school year party. Martha and Faleme staff split kids up into groups and then put giant chimpanzee feet on (how fun is that?!). Then, they had to use their feet and walk over to a stick at the end of a field and back in a straight line.

Students from the village of Dalafing get ready to learn and have fun at the same time!

This fun but important exercise helped show the kids what it would be like as a chimpanzee to go out and forage in an untouched forest, and then return back to his family, which is the line at the back, safely. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that, which is where Part 2 of the exercise comes in.

Next, Martha took pieces of old desks to use as disruptions to the forest habitat. These could represent anything from bush fires to slash and burn agriculture to bushmeat hunters. Kids had to do the same thing as before – get safely to the end of the field to get the stick and come back. The problem is, it takes a lot more time to do that when obstacles are in your way.

A student from the village of Dalafing navigates through the obstacle course wearing some rather large chimpanzee feet!

The point of the exercise? It takes a lot more time for a chimp to get through habitat that is littered with bush fires and all these other obstacles, and it is definitely not safe. These kids are learning that untouched, natural habitat is a good thing, and that it is important to keep these obstacles out of the forest.

Another thing we do is work with the teachers in the village to help us improve our education programs. Kelly, the project leader of Faleme (and coincidentally a former Houston Zoo primate keeper!), is working with Mr. Sitibe, the teacher at the school in the village of Bofeto, to give feedback and suggestions about how to make the program better.

Kelly, the project leader of Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation project, works with Mr. Sitibe, the teach at the school in the village of Bofeto.

More updates to come from Martha – stay tuned!

Houston, We Have Legs!

In the last blog post, we discussed how egg and tadpole development can be broken down into various stages, called Gosner stages. The stages start with the fertilization of the egg (Gosner stage 1) and extend to Gosner stage 46, which is when the baby toad (also called an emergent) absorbs all of its tadpole tail.

emergent-with-tailLate last week, one of our tadpole tanks reached the developmental stage that we have been carefully monitoring for – Gosner 42! Gosner 42 is a really important time point in metamorphosis in which the tadpole starts to develop lungs. This means that the tadpole will soon give up its aquatic lifestyle for a new life on land.

We know that tadpoles are reaching this critical time point because they start to grow their front limbs. Did you know that both limbs don’t “sprout” at the same time? While we are monitoring for Gosner 42 stage tadpoles, it is not uncommon for us to see tadpoles swimming around with three legs!

Once one front leg is observable on a tadpole, we carefully collect it from the tank with a net and transfer it to a tank with shallow water and moss. This setup allows the tadpole access to both water and land as it finishes transitioning from gills to lungs.

As of today, we have 19 emergents from our first round of breeding several weeks ago. Several of these little guys still have some of their tail remaining, while others look just like tiny toads! Each emergent weighs less than a gram. It is hard to imagine that in a year they will weigh from 20 to 50 grams!

emergents

We are currently also caring for 47 tiny little toads that were head-started by our collaborators at Texas State University. These little toads are from egg strands collected around the Bastrop area and are the first wild toads to be brought into the facility since 2010. These toads will hopefully add “new genetics” to our captive colony, which is important so that we can maintain high genetic diversity in the eggs, larva, and toads that we release back into the wild in the coming years.

Stay tuned as we post more updates our newest additions!

Turtle Tales 2: Wild Times for Turtlekind

As you may have read in our previous blog about the subject, turtles have some serious problems on their hands these days. But we can’t really talk about what’s happening with turtles in the wild without showing you what turtles we’re talking about. And what better pictures to show than gratuitous photos of cute baby turtles?

Turtle---Madagascar-Big-Heads
Madagascar Big-headed Turtle Babies

The turtles you see above, besides being adorable, are very, very endangered, called Madagascar big-headed turtles. They live in the lemur exhibit, just inside the entrance of the Zoo’s Wortham World of Primates. Lemurs and these little big-heads are both from the same island off the East coast of Africa that is home to dozens of species that you’ll find nowhere else in the world (did we mention that you can travel with the Zoo to Madagascar?).

Map of Madagascar

It turns out that these turtles are hunted very heavily for food, which is one of the reasons why they are critically endangered. And while a turtle feast may not exactly whet your appetite, people in Madagascar do. Now, you might say, “Well why don’t they just stop eating them?” The problem is that telling somebody not to eat these turtles is like telling you not to serve turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a cultural thing, and we’ve got to work hard to help people understand why not eating these turtles will help out the environment.

The story with these turtles is the same around the world, particularly in Asia, with turtles being hunted for food because in certain cultures, bringing home an expensive turtle to eat for dinner is like bringing home a Mercedes Benz. Then there’s the pet trade, which means that people take turtles from their wild habitats so they can be purchased as pets. Finally and most importantly, the places where these turtles live, and the habitat of turtles all around the world, is being lost because of development for palm oil plantations and countless other reasons.

Well that was depressing, wasn’t it? Here’s another cute baby turtle to bring us back up:

Look out world!
Another Madagascar Turtle Baby…collective “awwwww”!

While the threats we mentioned are very important to understand so we know why these animals have almost disappeared, we can’t change the past. What we can do is change what we’re doing and try to help fix things for the future.

What is the Houston Zoo doing to help turtles? First off, we breed these endangered species, along with many others, so that we’ll have them for a long time to come. We were the first Zoo to breed Yellow-headed temple turtles, another very endangered turtle in Southeast Asia, and we were the first zoo in North America to hatch those cuties you just saw above. More than 15 endangered Star tortoises hatched last year, and there are more on the way this year. So we’re trying to do our part.

As for you – what can you do? Well, you’re probably not munching out on turtles, so that’s a good start. The best thing you can do is understand the issues and support organizations that are doing good. The Zoo is one of those, and so is the Turtle Survival Alliance, an organization that we work with frequently to help turtles that are confiscated from people illegally importing animals into the US.

Enrichment v.2.0

Our dedicated staff of keepers at the Houston Zoo work tirelessly to provide novel and interesting enrichment items for our numerous animal residents. Many people are aware that enrichment helps stimulate natural behaviors, promote physical and mental well-being as well as giving our guests the opportunity to see how amazing the animals truly are. Enrichment for our animals must also be safe, and depending on the animal may also be a bit unruly or cumbersome. An excellent example of this is Tucker, a juvenile bull Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) playing with a very large log.

Tucker the Asian Elephant
Now this item brought hours of enjoyment to Tucker and our other elephants at the Houston Zoo. However, at a certain point it is time for these items to be retired. Sometimes our animals will play with an item until it is no longer safe, or until it becomes boring. At this time, it’s best to dispose of the item and find something else… or is it?

jon log

 

Here we have our Lions (Panthera leo) getting the opportunity to play with the very same log. Of course, a log built for an elephant can be a bit too large for a lion, so our staff have cut these sections of log to be a more appropriate size. These logs still weigh quite a bit (two animal keepers were needed to move them into the yard), but our lionesses were able to move them around with ease. In fact, they were able to throw them around without much exertion.

This time of enrichment is immensely rewarding. Not only do our lions get new toys, but they also have a very interesting smell thanks to living with our elephants for so long. We’re also recycling our enrichment items and reducing our environmental impact. While the log was no longer appropriate for our elephants, with a few modifications it becomes a wonderful new source of enrichment for our large carnivores!

Turtle Tales: Behind the Scenes with Keeper Chris

There are some pretty amazing turtles at the Zoo, but what you see is only half the story! Come with us behind the scenes as we take a peek into the turtle building and meet Chris B., one of the Zoo’s Reptile Keepers and a passionate advocate for turtle conservation.

With 5 ½ years of experience at the Houston Zoo alone, Chris loves turtles. He’s seen them in the wild all over the world, but the one place he appreciates most for turtle observation is…wait for it…Texas!

“People should realize that they are very lucky living in Texas,” Chris said, while cleaning exhibits and filling up pools for the turtles. “Around here, I’ve seen 6 unique species of turtles in a single day in the same ditch. It took 2 ½ weeks of hard work, trekking through jungles in Sumatra, to see just 3 species!”

With such knowledge about turtles, you’d have to guess that his favorite turtle species would be pretty special. It’s called a Black-breasted leaf turtle. This turtle is about the size of your hand as an adult, brown in color, and doesn’t really look all that special upon first glance. But we’ve all learned not to judge a book by its cover, right?

Black-breasted leaf turtle
Black-breasted leaf turtle

The Black-breasted leaf turtle is from Southeast Asia and is considered endangered by IUCN, as many turtles are. And according to Chris, this turtle is seriously something special. The female lays huge eggs – the one we saw was almost 1/5 the size of the entire turtle who laid it. Can you imagine having a baby that big??

“These guys have long necks, big bug eyes, and they live in a pretty amazing habitat – the mountains of Vietnam and southern China. And they are crazy! You put a bunch of earthworms in their tank, and once one of them grabs one, the other turtles just go nuts trying to grab the rest of the worms.”

Despite the perks of working with adorable turtles all day, Chris doesn’t take his job lightly. Every opportunity to talk to a guest is a chance to educate them about what’s happening in the world with turtles and how they can help.

Madagascar Big Headed Turtles
Madagascar big-headed turtle babies! These guys are seriously endangered.

So, what is happening with turtles? All over the world, their numbers are declining at an alarming rate because they are sold as pets, eaten as food, and used as medicine, and also because their habitat is decreasing.

An organization that has stepped up to help out is called the Turtle Survival Alliance. Their job is to prevent extinction and promote recovery of turtle species around the world. The Zoo also works with them to help care for and house animals that have been confiscated by the government when people try to bring them in the country illegally.

To learn more about the problems facing turtles in the wild (they’re a lot more complex than you might think!), stay tuned for another blog very soon!

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