It's Groundhog Day! Well, it will be on Sunday…

So if you have been following our blogs a few years, you may have seen this one before. Basically, nothing has changed about Groundhogs Day in the past 200+ years, let alone since early 2013. But for all you newcomers – use this to make you friends believe you are a rodent genius.

Normally, our winters are mild but the past few months has pushed us to the precipice of Arctic disaster. This is not really true but groundhogs are alarmists and feel they take the blame for all weather – good or bad. This year, they take the blame for Houston’s cold weather.

Since you most likely need a little background on the winter vs. rodent discussion, I thought it would be a good idea to re-broadcast some Groundhogs Day (Feb. 2nd) information which also happens to be Super Bowl Sunday.  Groundhogs by the way do not like Broncos or Seahawks. One animal steps on their burrows and the other picks them up and drops them in the sea – let me repeat that this may not be true, Groundhogs just think it to be so.

Lets get something straight, “Groundhog” are not the Nostradamus of the rodent world. They can barely remember which drawer they left their pants in, let alone predict the changing of the seasons.

We do not hear much about weather predicting rodents in Houston as we normally only have two seasons: Hot and humid or gonna be hot and humid soon, but folks in the North go nuts over this critter every February. I am ignoring the past few 20 degree days here in January, it is Houston after all and this should not happen for another 10 years. According to folklore, if a groundhog emerging from its burrow on this day fails to see its shadow, it will leave the burrow, signifying that winter will soon end. If on the other hand, the groundhog sees its shadow, the groundhog will supposedly retreat into its burrow, and winter will continue for six more weeks.

Tradition has it that the early German settlers in Pennsylvania thought the groundhog to be a particularly sensitive and intelligent creature. They decided that if the sun shone on Candlemas Day then a wise animal such as the groundhog would see its own shadow and hurry back to its burrow for another six weeks of winter. The origins go back to ancient European weather lore where they relied on a badger or a bear to help them determine the change of the season. Actually Germans used a hedgehog to predict “a second winter”. Who wants to be standing out in a field when a Badger or a Bear wakes up for the season and is hungry?

What is a Groundhog anyway? Also known as Woodchucks or Whistle Pigs, they are actually Marmots of which there are 14 species and at up to 13lbs, the largest member of the Squirrel family. Woodchucks are true hibernators, relying solely on body fat for winter survival. This begins at the first frost of the season and ends in early Spring. Is there a reason they wake up in early February other than to celebrate this tradition (envision groundhogs in party hats ringing in the new year…)? Emergence is determined by the outside daily temperature and an internal circannual clock which governs biological seasonality. Soon after leaving hibernation, sexually mature woodchucks begin the reproductive process. In essence, they are out looking to protect their territories from other males as well as find a mate, or they need to go the bathroom, possibly both. Humans manage to disrupt some of this by parading around their fields trying to figure out where a shadow is.

A few parting points here. On the news every year we see someone in Gobblers Knob, Pennsylvania with a Top Hat from the Groundhog’s Club Inner Circle (yes, this is for real) picking up Punxsutawney Phil to make his prediction. Do not try this at home! I repeat, keep your hands out of hibernating mammal dens. Next – did you know one of the most critically endangered mammals in North America is a Marmot? The Vancouver Island Marmot to be exact – link over to their website for more information and to see one of the cutest rodents on the planet.

Texas Turtle Update!

Houston Zoo staff joined employees of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) during Monday’s weekly sea turtle survey. We began the morning with LOTS of fog as we jumped on the ferry to get to Bolivar Peninsula. Unfortunately, when we arrived on the peninsula and started looking for sea turtles we found that a few of the newly installed sea turtle awareness signs had been STOLEN! They had simply been unscrewed from their post and taken!

A sea turtle sign with no....SIGN!
A sea turtle sign with no….SIGN!

While we appreciate that the general public must really enjoy the brand new signs designed by the Houston Zoo’s graphics department, we were upset to see that we would need to use signs meant for other areas along the beach to replace the stolen signs. So, throughout our day looking for stranded or injured sea turtles on the beach we hopped out of the vehicle several times to install new signs and replace the stolen signs.

Installation of a new sea turtle information sign
Installation of a new sea turtle information sign

This information is vital for Galveston area beach-goers as the public is relied upon a lot of the time to call 1-866-TURTLE-5 when they see a stranded, injured or nesting turtle on the beach.

Newly installed sea turtle awareness signs
Newly installed sea turtle awareness signs

If the public is not informed about sea turtles in Texas, then they cannot assist in sea turtle conservation! We want everyone visiting Galveston and surrounding beaches to be informed and know that they can play a role in saving sea turtles in the wild.

Not only are general sea turtle awareness signs now out on our local beaches, but informative signs telling the public what to do if you accidentally catch a sea turtle are now being installed. These signs use photos and text (which is written in English, Spanish and Vietnamese) so that all audiences can understand what to do if found in a situation with a sea turtle.

What to do if you happen to catch a sea turtle in Texas!
What to do if you happen to catch a sea turtle in Texas!

If you would like to help sea turtles in the wild, check out our website with more information! Just by reducing your plastic use,  calling 1-866-TURTLE-5 if you see a sea turtle on the beach and visiting the Houston Zoo you too can help save sea turtles in the wild!

Elderly Animals at the Houston Zoo: of Sloths and Mole-rats

You’ve probably been hearing a lot of news lately about the babies being born at the Zoo – we’re expecting a baby elephant any day now, and we’ve just helped welcome into the world a number of amazing arrivals, including a De Brazza’s guenon, sifaka, and quite the bevy of flamingo chicks.

One of the newest additions to the Zoo, a baby De Brazza's guenon!
One of the newest additions to the Zoo, a baby De Brazza’s guenon!

What doesn’t make the news, but is equally as impressive, is the longevity of many of our animals at the Zoo. The animal keepers and veterinary staff work hard every single day to give each animal the best care, nutrition, and enrichment possible so that they live long, healthy, happy lives. As a result, we have quite a few “elderly” animals! In this series, we’ll profile several that are particularly near and dear to our hearts.

Succotash, a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth, lives in the Rainforest habitat in the Carruth Natural Encounters Building along with several species of monkeys and birds. She’s around 38 years old – very old for a sloth! In a zoo setting, their lifespan is about 30 years. Her exact age is unknown, since she was caught in the wild and rescued from a private owner in 1975. She came to us in 1986 from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and she’s been here ever since.

Succotash strikes a pose in the rainforest habitat of the Natural Encounters building
Succotash strikes a pose in the rainforest habitat of the Natural Encounters building

As an elderly animal, keepers carefully monitor her health and well-being daily. Her food consumption and bowel movements are tracked and recorded every day. Keepers can usually determine if something’s ailing her based on the records we keep or by the physical activity she exerts throughout the day. If keepers do notice abnormal behavior, we notify our vet staff so that she can be examined and we can obtain urine or fecal samples for diagnosis. Right now, Succotash is doing very well.

Guests can oftentimes see her most active in the morning when she gets her breakfast or when we turn on our waterfall in her habitat. She will oftentimes go toward the waterfall to mist herself. Otherwise she can be seen peacefully sleeping while her diverse array of roommates scamper and play around her.

Another animal in Natural Encounters that’s quite a bit smaller (but no less elderly than Succotash) is Livingston, the Damara mole-rat. You can see Livingston and his mole-rat friends in the upper level of our subterranean habitat.

 

Livingston, the Damara mole-rat
Livingston, the Damara mole-rat

Damara mole-rats are one of two mammal species who are eusocial – they live in colonies with many individual members, but the colony behaves as a single organism. The other eusocial species in Natural Encounters is the naked mole-rat. Like ants and bees, they have a queen who reproduces, workers who gather food, and soldiers who defend the colony against predators, like snakes.

Even though the Damara mole-rats all look similar, with mostly grey fur, we are able to identify them by the unique white markings on top of their heads. You can identify Livingston because he has a completely white face and a white spot halfway down his back.

Livingston was part of the small, founding group of Damara mole-rats that came to the Zoo around 10 years ago. His actual age is unknown, but he is believed to be at least 12 years old. Their lifespan is 10-15 years.

Due to his age, Livingston has developed arthritis in his back and hind legs, which affects his movement, but doesn’t cause pain. Each day, keepers give Livingston a supplement to support joint health, similar to glucosamine. He receives regular checkups, which show that the arthritis has not worsened in the two years since he has started this supplement. His weight is also monitored closely to be sure he is eating well.

Livingston is a soldier in the colony and does not let his age stop him from doing his job! He is still regularly seen by keepers patrolling the tunnels and holding an active role in the colony.

Stay tuned for the next blog in our series about elderly animals – next time, we’re featuring our jaguars, Patty the Andean bear, and our amazing grizzlies!

Thanks to Priscilla Farley and Kamryn Suttinger in the Natural Encounters Department for the fantastic information on Succotash and Livingston!

How the Zoo Handles Cold Weather – Then and Now

Houston winters rarely approach the category of water-pipe-busting hard freezes.  Yes, it’s happened but thankfully not that often. Still, when you’re caring for 6,000 exotic animals, some of whom find 50 degrees uncomfortable, winter preparations are essential. The Houston Zoo begins winter weather preparations early. Tropical birds are particularly sensitive to cold weather so some bird habitats are wrapped in heavy plastic and others get  wind breaks and keepers make sure gas heaters and heat lamps are all in working order.

Blue-throated Macaw-0002

But in the Houston Zoo’s early days, keeping animals warm and comfortable during the winter involved rather low tech  methodology – lots of hay for some animals, wood burning stoves for others – as this Houston Press clipping from November 1936 indicates.

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Yes, that is a monkey sitting on a box in front of a pot bellied stove.  The raccoons seen at the top of the photo are being housed in the warm second floor of the Museum of Natural History which was on Zoo grounds at that time.   The Galapagos tortoise in the photo bottom left is nestled in a bed of hay having been removed from his outdoor exhibit at the first hint of cold weather and held over the winter indoors.  Although tropical birds were not included in the Houston Press’ photo montage, zookeepers in the mid 1930s employed a similar tactic to today’s Zoo to keep the macaws warm, wrapping heavy fabric curtains around the bird’s containment fencing instead of the thick fiber reinforced plastic tarps we use today.

The  photo montage was accompanied by a bit of poetry, written by Houston Press photographer Francis Miller. He had been working for the Press for 9 years when this article was published, filling mutiple roles as photographer, reporter, and even layout artist.  Miller went on to garner no small amount of fame as a LIFE magazine photographer, working in LIFE’s Washington, D. C. and Atlanta bureaus.  It was Miller who photographed President Lyndon Johnson’s beagles on the White House lawn in 1964, employing rubber bones, dog treats and a harmonica to capture their expressive faces. Miller retired from LIFE magazine in 1968 and passed away on November 5, 1973 at the age of 67, leaving behind a body of work that is still revered and sought after today.

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Action for Apes 2014-The Challenge is ON!

Make no mistake about it, the Houston Zoo is serious about saving animals in the wild. Sometimes, it can seem difficult to save animals that live in Africa or Asia from our homes here in Houston, but don’t you fret-I’m about to tell you how you can do exactly that by simply joining our Action for Apes Challenge and recycling your old cell phone.

chimp grass

What in the world is the Action for Apes Challenge?

A yearly contest put on by the Houston Zoo to see which local Houston school, scout group, community group, organization or business can recycle the most cell phones by the end of APE-ril.

What do we get if our school/business/organization wins?

A HUGE one-of-a-kind painting done by the Houston Zoo’s chimpanzees! The winning group will be able to choose the paint colors to be used by our chimpanzee troop!

The 2013 Winners-Grady Rasco Middle School in Lake Jackson received this unique painting done by the Zoo's chimpanzees!
The 2013 Winners-Grady Rasco Middle School in Lake Jackson received this unique painting done by the Zoo’s chimpanzees!

Why do we recycle cell phones to save apes like chimps and gorillas?

Materials found in cell phones, laptops and cameras are mined in areas such as Central Africa, which happens to be where animals like chimpanzees, gorillas and okapis live. When the materials are taken from animal habitats to be used in electronics, the homes of chimps, gorillas and okapis become disrupted and these animal populations decrease. If you recycle your old cell phone with us, then the materials in the phone can be reused instead of getting new minerals from the ground in Central Africa.

How do I get my school, business or organization started?

Just check out our Action for Apes website and follow the steps to get started. Each group will need to complete the registration form found on that page before they can begin.

Is the Challenge difficult?

No way! Saving animals in the wild has never been easier! Just follow these simple steps and your group could be walking away with a one-of-a-kind painting as the 2014 Action for Apes winners in just a few months…

1. Register your group online.

2. Promote the challenge in your school/business/organization. Get others excited about recycling cell phones and saving apes!

3. Collect cell phones!

4. Ship your box (or boxes) of cell phones to the company Eco-Cell by April 30th, 2014 (don’t worry-we’ll send you a shipping label, so it’s easy and free!).

gorilla 2

That’s it! How could you not join our 2014 challenge? Our chimpanzees (and future gorillas) could never thank you enough for your participation! Questions? Contact conservation@houstonzoo.org.

It's Houston Toad Time!

The toad team at the Houston Zoo hopes that everyone had a wonderful winter holiday. Like a lot of people, we have also made some “resolutions” for 2014; however, they don’t involve hitting the gym or finding a hot date!  Instead, we have resolved to release thousands of Houston toad eggs into the wild in and around Bastrop State Park this spring – how about that?!

toadblog1
Houston toad eggs.

While most amphibians are still tucked away in their winter hiding places, the Houston toad is getting ready for the breeding season. The Houston toad breeding season typically starts in late January or early February and can last until the first of May depending on rainfall.  The first heavy rains of the year generally signal the start of the breeding season and though it is pretty cold this time of year, as long as the nighttime air temperature is around 50F, the toads will come to the pond to find a mate!

Just like the wild toads, we are also gearing up for breeding season here at the Houston Zoo.  Like many endangered species that are bred at zoos, the Houston toad program has a breeding plan (called a Species Survival Plan, or SSP) that was designed by toad biologists and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Population Management Center.  Using this plan, specific groups of toads are selected to breed with each other to ensure genetic diversity.

Because we are a release program, we have to make sure that each individual toad is free of any potential pathogens that could be passed to the eggs and then spread out into the wild.   We started an extensive disease screen in October of 2013, and to date we have cleared 90% of our breeder toads!

toadblog2

Interestingly, the weather plays a huge role in our breeding schedule. It would be silly to produce thousands of toad eggs, then not have any ponds to place them in! We very carefully watch the weather before we decide to breed and release eggs. In fact, because the weather and environmental conditions are so critical, we heavily rely on field researchers from Texas State University and USFWS to help us make the decision to breed. Everyone please continue cross your fingers for rain, the Houston toads need it!

The Houston Zoo and our collaborators at the Fort Worth Zoo, Dallas Zoo, Texas State University, and USFWS are gearing up for a huge release of Houston toad eggs this year.  This concerted effort has never been attempted before, but we are excited and ready for the challenge! Could 2014 be the year of the Houston toad? Stay tuned to find out!

Baby Elephant Birthwatch!

We’ve been eagerly awaiting the birth of an Asian elephant at the Zoo for many months now – Shanti, one of our resident elephants, is pregnant and expected to give birth soon. As part of the preparation process, we have trained a dedicated team of more than 75 volunteers to participate in an overnight Elephant Birth Watch program to help ensure the safety of Shanti and her calf.

Shanti and her previous calf, Baylor. She sure is "showing!"
Shanti and her previous calf, Baylor. She sure is “showing!”

Shanti is 23 years old, and she is mom to Baylor, who is now 3 years old. She is the tallest female elephant in the herd, and she can be identified right now by also being the widest…calves can weigh 250-300 pounds at birth, so it’s quite understandable!

Birth Watch volunteers and Elephant keeper staff watch Shanti via closed circuit cameras 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The volunteer commitment is a weekly 4-hour shift, and everyone involved goes through an extensive training to be sure they know Shanti’s normal behaviors and can detect signs of labor. If Shanti is thought to be going into labor or not acting normally, the volunteers call the Elephant staff right away.

At first, volunteers stay overnight and watch the cameras between 4 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., and Elephant staff took the daytime shifts. Because we are nearing Shanti’s expected due date, Elephant keepers now sleep in the barn overnight just in case labor starts so they can react quickly, and the volunteers monitor the cameras.

The barn in the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat where Shanti and the rest of the herd sleeps - it's also where birth watch takes place!
The barn in the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat where Shanti and the rest of the herd sleeps and birth watch takes place!

Shanti also has quite a bit to do in preparation for birth. She takes daily walks to be sure that she keeps up her exercise and doesn’t gain too much weight, and her progesterone levels are monitored daily at this point to see if there is a drop. When the level drops to near zero, it’s a pretty good predictor that labor will be happening between 2 and 15 days from that point.

Signs of labor that the volunteers are trained to detect include lifting of the tail, swatting with the tail, straining, restlessness, squatting, and increased vocalizations. The most obvious sign is if her water were to break, and at that point, the animal staff goes into action.

Stay tuned to the Houston Zoo blog for updates – the next one you likely will see is a baby calf announcement!

First Blue-billed curassow born under controlled conditions!

Wonderful news! The critically endangered Blue-billed curassow, which is native to South America, has been successfully born under controlled conditions! This bird has been losing habitat and is a victim of poaching, leading to still declining numbers in the low hundreds. The Houston Zoo in partnership with Colombian Zoos and wildlife organizations held an incubation workshop last year, and will be doing so again this Febuary 2014, to help teach methodology to successfully produce hatchlings to eventually introduce to and increase wild populations.

It looks like things are headed in the right direction as this week has seen the first Blue-billed curassow hatchling!
It looks like things are headed in the right direction as this week has seen the first Blue-billed curassow hatchling!

 

Adult Blue-billed curassow
Adult Blue-billed curassow

Official Press Release:

The National Aviary Foundation of Colombia together with ACOPAZOA Colombia and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, formed the Captive Breeding Program Blue-Billed Curassow ( Crax alberti ), that includes the monitoring of wild birds , captive breeding and the development of educational campaigns. After two years of signing this agreement as a group, born in the facilities of the National Aviary Foundation of Colombia is the first Colombian Blue-billed curassow ( Crax alberti ) under controlled conditions, this chick is a step towards the conservation of this bird that is endemic to Colombia and according to the IUCN it is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, mainly due to habitat destruction and hunting.

The chick was born on January 16 , with an approximate size of 13.6 cm. and a weight of 121 gr. , based on the beak we can tell it is a female, and she is in perfect condition-she has been observed very active and healthy.

The team at The National Aviary Foundation of Colombia coordinated by zoo staff member Guillermo Gálviz , has worked for 4 years in the reproduction of different species in the family Cracidae, specializing 2 years in the reproduction of the blue-billed curassow ( Crax alberti ), during this time they have achieved many things in the reproduction of these birds including successful fertility and now the birth of this baby , which we hope is not the only chick of this species to be born during this year.

 

Adult blue-billed curassow
Adult blue-billed curassow

The species in addition to the risks it faces in nature, presents difficulties in captive breeding due to their biological behavior, in which the male usually shows aggression toward the generally nervous female, the demand and preference in building material nest, having no more than two eggs per breeding season and the complexity for establishing a partner (each individual chooses his partner) , for these reasons the National Aviary staff has worked hard to achieve these positive results.

The birth of this bird is considered a great achievement for the conservation of the species. We thank ACOPAZOA member institutions , the Houston Zoo and Cracid & Crane Breeding and Conservation Center CBCC Belgium, for their contributions to the conservation of Colombian Cracids .

 

A Blonde Baby is Born!

In the Primate department, we are rarely surprised by a new baby. However, on New Year’s Eve Day, a keeper came in to discover a breathtakingly beautiful new baby: a De Brazza’s guenon. The keeper, Lucy Dee, was so astonished that she almost couldn’t believe what she was seeing: a golden blonde infant clinging to the mother, “Amelia”.

lynnblogpic1
Amelia

Most infants born in the zoo are not surprises: we know when the breeding occurred, we know how long the gestation is, and we know about when to expect the new arrival. However, in this case, we were all completely gobsmacked. Once we recovered from the shock, celebrations began. All of us felt that this baby’s arrival was special in a number of ways. First, the parents were imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. It is highly unusual for zoos to have any wild-born primates anymore, as the days of zoos capturing mammals for exhibit has been long-gone for decades. The vast majority of primates are born in zoos and then traded within institutions to ensure genetic diversity – the Species Survival Plan decides where they should go to breed to keep the population healthy. However, this pair was confiscated after their discovery in an African bushmeat market, and shipped to the USA back in 2006. We very much hoped for offspring because descendants of wild De Brazza’s monkeys would be an important addition to the gene pool of this species in North America. Secondly, this species is not the most endangered African primate, but it is declining because of loss of valuable rain forest habitat and the bushmeat trade.

http://www.bushmeat.org/bushmeat_and_wildlife_trade/what_is_the_bushmeat_crisis

Breeding animals that are declining in the wild is one of our biggest and most important goals. But, no progeny was forthcoming for seven long years. Then, this past June, we needed additional space in our indoor facility because we were receiving a new group of mandrills, and the De Brazza’s pair shared the mandrill area. We are lucky to have a heated outdoor off-exhibit area available, so we decided to move them there while the extended mandrill introductions were ongoing. The guenons settled in to a routine nicely in their new home, and we turned our attention to mandrills.

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Infant at one week
Photo credit: Lucy Dee Anderson

We may have been lulled into complacency after such a long time without a baby from this pair, so truly, it was an ecstatic staff that broadcast the news about this new infant to the rest of the team. Most of the crew had never even seen a De Brazza’s guenon baby before, and were amazed to see the blonde coloration. Adult De Brazza’s are some of the most stunning of the African monkeys, and this baby was no exception. Brilliant colors seem to be a hallmark of all the guenons and the infant lived up to what will be beautiful adult markings.

We were impressed with Amelia’s calm demeanor as she groomed and nurtured her new infant. She seemed completely at ease in her new role as a mother, and the sire, Albert, seemed quite protective of his expanded family.

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The sire, Albert.

Now that they are ensconced in their cozy area and have been doing so well with the new young one, we have decided to leave them in place until the infant is older so as not to disturb them. We will keep everyone apprised about the baby’s growth and development until they do go back out onto exhibit. Sharing this lovely surprise with the world is an enjoyable if unexpected treat for us!

 

 

Penny, The Mighty Insect Hunter

Penny
Penny

 Hello everyone, Penny here, and I am on a mission.

As many cats are, I am a mighty bug hunter.  In the past, I have been happy hunting crickets or flies, but now I have something bigger in mind.

Rainbow Scarab
Rainbow Scarab

Right next door to the Swap Shop (where I live), a new building is being built.  Believe it or not – it is

Velvet Ant
Velvet Ant

going to be FULL OF BUGS!  I could hunt for days in there!

Some of the insects have already started coming in to prepare for the Insectarium.  Now how do I get to hunt those bugs?  I will have to form a plan.

Some of them I don’t really want to hunt.  There are Rainbow Scarabs that eat poop.  I thought only dogs ate poop.  And the velvet ant?  It has a sting so painful, it is nicknamed “cow killer”.  I don’t want to mess with those.  I am going to be watching very carefully out my window as this building is going up and waiting for my chance.

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