Science Made Simple: Palm Oil

My name is Ryan and I love science. Join me as I try to make tough science not so tough.

Follow along as I research the issues, untangle the mess, and figure out what you really need to know to help animals and the environment.

 Today’s Topic: Palm Oil

Today I translate some information on palm oil and oil palm (yup, they’re different) to help everyone get a little insight into the issue. Don’t know what palm oil is? Well… chances are that you’ve probably already eaten something with palm oil in it TODAY!

Confusing Science:
The cultivation of the palm Elaeis guineensis boasts the most rapidly accelerating monoculture throughout the world. Global demand for the oil extracted from this species of plant has exploded as a result of the discovery of its far-reaching applications.

What It Really Means:
There is a type of palm tree that is called the oil palm. The oil palm grows fruit, and that fruit is used to make a special oil that people call palm oil. The two terms can be confusing when they’re used close together, so here’s an easy way to think about it:
“Oil Palm” = The whole palm tree from the sprout to the tips of the branches.
“Palm Oil” = The oil that comes out of the fruit of the palm tree.
Palm oil is an ingredient in products we use daily, including much of the food we eat. There’s a good change you’ve already used something with palm oil in it today! It’s in cosmetics, soaps, food, and much more. Because palm oil can be used in so many products, lots of people and companies want it and that means farmers need more land for growing.

This is what oil palm fruit looks like.
This is what oil palm fruit looks like.

Confusing Science:

Southeast Asian island, Borneo, continues to endure excessive deforestation as palm oil producers engage in the clear-cutting of vast swaths of rainforest for the purpose of expanding plantations and crop yields. These rainforests exist as arks of biodiversity, fostering considerable populations of endemic species.

What It Really Means:
Palm oil comes from a plant grown in places that animals like orangutans, tigers, and elephants call home. Unfortunately, the rainforests here are being cut down or burnt to make room for new palm oil farms. This is a really big deal because the rainforests are home to so many different types of animals, and some of those animals aren’t found anywhere else in the entire world. When the trees are cut down, many animals suffer.

Confusing Science:
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) unites stakeholders from the palm oil industry to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. 1,600 members represent 40% of the palm oil industry, covering all commodity supply chain sectors.

What It Really Means:
Even though palm oil might sound like bad stuff, it is actually an important ingredient in many products. Avoiding items with palm oil altogether isn’t a realistic option, and that’s why groups like the RSPO have been formed. The RSPO helps farmers and other people who are involved in making/using palm oil. The RSPO helps them understand that if they make some changes to how palm oil is grown and produced, we can be sure that the rainforests and the animals that live in them will be around for a long time.

What Can YOU Do?: Next time you’re in the grocery store, take a look at the label on what you buy. Just by learning what products contain palm oil can help you understand how important it is to protect the animals that live where oil palms are grown!

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more as I try to make science easier to understand. Never stop learning,


 Have a topic you’d like me to explore? Post it in the comments!

Save a turtle Saturday in the Swap Shop

Saturday, March 7, the Houston Zoo will be celebrating Save a Turtle Saturday! The Naturally Wild Swap Shop will be participating along with the other activities going on though out the zoo.

Geometric Tortoise
Geometric Tortoise

On Save a Turtle Saturday, any item involving turtles or how plastic pollution affects them will receive double points.

That includes:
– Turtle shells, scutes, bones or scales.
– Journals on turtles or tortoises
– Journals on how plastic pollution affects turtles

There are many species of turtles and tortoises in the world and several of them are threatened or endangered. The

IUCN Red List of Endangered Species includes turtles and tortoises that rank from threatened to no longer present

Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle
Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle

in the wild. This list is long, but includes amazing species such as the Central American River Turtle, Geometric Tortoise, Madagascar Big-headed Turtle and ALL six species of sea turtles found in the United States.

One of the biggest hazards to sea turtles is plastic pollution. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and other marine mammals die each year from ocean pollution such as ingestion or entanglement in marine debris. Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and ingest them, leading to blockage and eventual death. Marine debris, including items such as these plastic bags, plastic drink rings and other items, are a huge threat to our marine life.

Don’t know about the Swap Shop? Click here for more information.

Fish of the Week – Post #2

You may have heard about sustainable seafood and know which choices to make, but if you haven’t, no worries – we will break it down for you!

Sustainable seafood is defined as seafood that is either wild-caught or farm-raised that not only sustains current populations, but thrives over the long term. The methods by which the seafood is harvested or raised must not cause undue harm to their natural ecosystems. The Houston Zoo strongly believes that embracing the use of sustainable seafood is one of the best ways we can all contribute to our oceans’ health.

Want to be fish-friendly? Download the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app to learn about “Best Choice” and “Good Alternative” seafood options. Click here to download the app from the Apple Store or Google Play.

Over the next few weeks, we will feature a new “Fish of the Week” recipe here on our blog site. Each week will feature a sustainably-sourced seafood option along with a recipe provided by our very own Chef Larry. Not only will get you get to hear from one of the Zoo’s top chefs, but you can also prepare meals at home that help protect marine wildlife and their ecosystems!

This week’s recipe is:  Jerk Catfish with Pineapple Rice and Mango Salsajerk chicken

Welcome to a taste of the Islands! An herby, spicy catfish filet on sweet pineapple rice with a cool mango salsa on top. If you’re not a fan of catfish, any firm white fish will work. Other great Sustainable Seafood options are Cobia or Red Drum (also known as Redfish or Channel Fish).


For the Catfish:
6 tbls Jerk Spice Mix
4 ea Catfish Filets
3 tbls Vegetable Oil

Pineapple Rice:
1 cups Jasmine Rice
2 cups Water
½ cup Fresh Pineapple, Diced
½ cup Cilantro, Rough Chopped
¼ cup Toasted Coconut

Mango Salsa:
1 cup Fresh Mango, Diced
¼ cup Red Onion, Diced
½ ea Jalapeno Pepper, Chopped with seeds
¼ cup Cilantro, Rough Chopped
¼ cup Red Bell Peppers, Diced
1 tsp Minced Garlic
2 tsp Lime Juice

Marinating the Catfish:
Rub the catfish with oil then sprinkle each filet with jerk seasoning. Set aside and allow to marinate.

Preparing Mango Salsa:
Combine all ingredients for the salsa and mix well. Hold in the refrigerator for service.

Starting the rice:
In a medium sauce pot, add water and rice. Cook normally.
When rice is cooked fold in pineapple, coconut and cilantro.
Hold for service

Cooking the Fish:
In a med cast iron pan, heat 2 tbls oil and carefully add the catfish to the pan and cook 3 minutes on each side.

Family Style Service – On a large platter, place rice in the center and lay the catfish filets to the top of the rice, then top with mango salsa.

Servings: 4
Degree of Difficulty: Moderately difficult

Cooking Times
Preparation Time: 40 minutes
Cooking Time: 20 minutes

We would love to get your feedback on the recipe above; share your thoughts and suggestions in the comment section below. And be sure to check back next week for a new, tasty recipe to try!

Thanks for doing your part to save wildlife. And remember, every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help save animals in wild!

Turtle Tuesday!

Yesterday, Houston Zoo staff participated in NOAA’s weekly beach survey, looking for injured or sick sea turtles on Bolivar Peninsula, Galveston Island and all the way to Surfside! This survey can take anywhere from 9-15 hours, but is vital in ensuring that any sea turtles on our local beaches are accounted for, and cared for if need be.

It was a cold and blustery day, and while we did not encounter any sea turtles we came across several deceased rays and HUGE jellyfish! Unfortunately, all of the jellyfish were already dead but they were fascinating to look at and study. We still do not know what species of jellyfish we encountered all over the beaches, so if you know-please tell us in the comments section below.

Giant jellyfish on the Texas Coast!
Giant jellyfish on the Texas Coast!
View from above. Can anyone identify this species?
View from above. Can anyone identify this species?

Spending time on our local beaches can provide some amazing insight into the species that live in our oceans, but we rarely have the opportunity to see. Unfortunately, jellyfish like the ones above look very similar to plastic bags floating in the ocean. They have similar movement patterns, floating up and down in the water column. Many sea turtles species mistake these plastic bags for a common food source of theirs (jellyfish) and consume them. We can all make a difference for sea turtles, sea birds, sharks and other marine species by avoiding the use of plastic bags and only using reusable bags. Check out our “This bag saved a sea turtle” or “This bag saved a sea lion” reusable bags in the Zoo’s gift shop-all proceeds from the sale of these bags go directly back to marine animals in the wild.

Sea turtle canvas bags available in our gift shop. All proceeds go towards sea turtles in the wild.
Sea turtle canvas bags available in our gift shop. All proceeds go towards sea turtles in the wild.

Another way to help is to join us for Save a Turtle Saturday on March 7th from 9:00am-1:00pm. Visit the Zoo during this special event to learn how the Houston Zoo works to save turtles around the world, and find out how you can make a difference to your local turtles. Save a Turtle Saturday focuses on the threats and dangers facing marine and land-based turtles around the world. During Save a Turtle Saturday, guests and children can participate in a variety of games and activities to learn more about the threats turtles face, and how you can help! All activities are free with Zoo admission.

An Update on Okapi Baby, Miraq

Miráq, our first baby Okapi at the Houston Zoo, is now about 3 months old. Miráq only weighed 40 pounds when he was first born. Now Miráq is weighing in at 195 pounds. It is typical that Okapi calves will nearly triple in size by the end of their first 2 months. Miráq will be full grown when he is about 3-4 years old.
okapi baby

Like any baby, Miráq’s favorite pastime is sleeping in his “fort.” In the wild, Okapi calves will hide in a very well concealed area, normally under a bush, for their first two or three months. The mother will visit frequently to allow the calf to nurse during this time. Instead of a bush, we’ve given Miráq what we call a “fort” which consists of a few hay bales stacked together with a nice fluffy straw bedding underneath. This is where he is most comfortable and enjoys spending most of his time.

okapi baby2Miráq has also really been showing his personality to his caretakers. Miráq is generally a very calm Okapi calf. He is a very curious fellow who loves to look at everything, but he is very hesitant to try or investigate new things. Occasionally he will have a random burst of energy and will run around the yard kicking up his heels and enjoying the day.

The best time you can see how much Miráq has grown will be anytime between 9am and 1pm on any day when the temperature is above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to stop by the Houston Zoo soon to visit this little cutie before he gets any bigger!

Removing Abandoned Traps & Saving Animals in the Wild!

Crab trap removal is dirty work!

This past Saturday, a group of Houston Zoo staff and other community volunteers got together at Fort Anahuac Park for the annual Galveston Bay Foundation (GBF) Abandoned Crab Trap Removal. As a first-timer myself, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect – except that we would get dirty – and, boy, did we get muddy!

We all arrived in Anahuac bright and early Saturday morning to get started on the boot-stompin’ fun. The first boats went out – a couple of Zoo volunteers were lucky enough to join on an airboat – to collect any abandoned crab traps in the bay. When the first few boats returned to the dock, they were STACKED with traps. Volunteers (including myself) helped to get them off of the boats, and then the real fun began. First we checked each trap to see if any animals were left inside – sometimes a crab was removed to be returned to the water – then we stomped! Imagine Lucy from “I Love Lucy” stomping the pool of grapes – that was us, except with crab traps. Talk about fun!

Once they were crushed, the crab traps were put into a large dumpster that would later be sent to a recycling center.

The Chamber County Sheriff’s Department was also helping to retrieve abandoned crab traps this weekend, and I had a chance to ride out in an airboat with a couple of the officers. What a great experience! We rode around for a while before we found our first buoy; I watched as Officer Chris worked to get the first trap out of the water. We rode around a bit more until we found a group of about 6-8 buoys floating in the bay. This go-around, I pitched in, and let me tell you – pulling abandoned traps from the muddy bay is no easy task! Once we cleared the area, it started to rain so we decided to head back to shore with the traps we had collected.

Hitchin' an airboat ride with the Chamber County Sheriff Department
Hitchin’ an airboat ride with the Chamber County Sheriff’s Department
Our rescued snow goose!
Our rescued snow goose!

Along the way, however, we saw a lone bird swimming in the bay, not looking so well. We rode next to the bird and saw her wing looked broken. Of course we couldn’t leave her there alone, so we got her out of the water and brought her back to safety on the shore. Luckily for us, one of the Zoo’s veterinarians was on-site and confirmed the bird’s wing was in need of repair. So, we arranged a ride for our rescued snow goose out to the Wildlife Center in Houston where she is currently receiving medical care.

Not only did we rescue a snow goose, we also saved about a dozen blue crabs and a mullet from the traps. And by the end of the day, we removed 147 abandoned crab traps from the bay!

Why did we get together for this event, you ask? Sometimes crab traps are abandoned in the bay – due to the changing tides or simply forgotten. When left in the waters, they can unintentionally harm aquatic species such as crabs, turtles, birds and even river otters. Every year, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department closes crabbing in Texas waters for a 10-day period, in which volunteers are allowed to remove these littered traps. Since 2002, volunteers have recovered nearly 28,000 traps!

The Houston Zoo staff and volunteers at this year's crab trap removal. What a great group!
The Houston Zoo staff and volunteers at this year’s crab trap removal. What a great group!

Want to get involved? Join the Galveston Bay Foundation next year for the 2016 Abandoned Crab Trap Removal. Check their website for updates:  We look forward to seeing you there!

And, remember every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help us save animals in the wild!

Sabinga's Updates: Learning About Saving Nature at the Zoo

The Houston Zoo has many ways to get involved with saving wildlife and education. I got a tour of the Houston Zoo’s Naturally Wild Swap Shop by staff member, Charlona. I learned a lot!! The Swap Shop is another place that gives a shot in the arm to conservation! It’s a place where children bring items they found in nature while being aware of rules and laws about not collecting bone or skull from hunted or poached animals.


Each item children bring in is awarded a certain number of points, but one can get additional points by telling story of the animal or plant collected! And more points still if one writes or draws something about that item. This helps children to understand exactly what they collected!

Here is one that amazes me: elephant-resize

This is similar to Save the Elephants education department doing by going to schools and give a topic example “living with harmony with elephants” children make a drawing, a play or essay. Education officer select the best and gives a present; Like a game drive to see wildlife in the park, Save The Elephants T-Shirts, or book and pens.

The Houston Zoo shares successes but still needs everyone out there to contribute to our successes, because everyone from this country and around the world have something special inside themselves and nature is waiting for your ideas, your services, your skills, and your expertise! It’s time for you to show up, absolutely stand up for this nature; you have greatness within you, to protect wild animals and plants from extinction!


Sabinga collecting marine debris in Galveston

The Houston Zoo is excited to welcome a new intern who comes to us all the way from Kenya, in East Africa. Sabinga is in the United States participating in the Community College Initiative Program (CCIP). The Community College Initiative Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State, administered by Northern Virginia Community College onbehalf of the Community College Consortium (CCC) in partnership with Houston Community College. While participating in this program, he will join us at the zoo as an intern to learn all about what a modern-day zoo is like! Sabinga is already part of the conservation community as he has been working with Save the Elephants in Kenya for over 8 years. He will be documenting his experiences at the Zoo and we will share his thoughts with you here on our blog! Stay tuned for more!

The Buzz on the Bug House

Spring is just around the corner, and you know what that means – bugs, and lots of them! Last May, the Houston Zoo unveiled its Bug House with the new wombat exhibit as part of the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo. With more than 30 different species of invertebrates living in the Bug House and less than a year old, our bug zookeepers are thrilled to educate the general public about these important species.

Check out our cactus longhorn beetles, one of over 50 species featured at the Bug House!

“I learned pretty early on that bug education stops at around the second grade, so at around eight years old, you’re no long being taught about bugs in school,” bug zookeeper and “bug guru” Julie LaTurner said. “I think part of the misperception that bugs are bad and gross kind of come from kids not learning about them. So I think the good thing about bug houses, especially now that more zoos have them, is that it breaks down that misperception. And we have to take on that role of the education from where it stopped.”

At first, people may seem squeamish or afraid at the very idea of bugs. However, bugs and spiders play important roles in our ecosystem! From decomposition of dead plants, pollinating our fruit and vegetables and even acting as “pest control” – we have a lot to be thankful for what invertebrates do for us!

“Bugs help break down vegetative matter,” LaTurner. “For example, 99 percent of the world’s cockroaches are ‘good.’  The ones we have out on exhibit are good cockroaches. If we didn’t have insects like cockroaches, we’d be up to our eyeballs in dead plant material lilke fruits and vegetables. Because they break down so much biomass, it in turn helps fertilize the soil so new plants can grow.”

LaTurner handles a young giant wingless phasmid. There are 1.5 billion insects for every human!

People may think handling and caring for all the insects and arachnids comes as an easy task, but there is a lot of work that goes into feeding, breeding and housing these different kinds of species behind-the-scenes.  For instance, almost all invertebrates (with the exception of species native to desert climates) need to have their enclosures misted daily to replicate humidity levels in the wild. Also, all the invertebrates have specific dietary needs since some are carnivorous and others are herbivores.

LaTurner hand-feeds this juvenile giant Asian mantid a cricket. Mantids are the only animals that can turn its head 360 degrees!

“We don’t really have a slow day in here,” LaTurner said. “So if we’re not feeding our herbivores, we have to feed our assassins and mantids. Back here, we have to hand mist a lot of these enclosures, and we have to clean the exhibits to make them look nice, such as cleaning tank fronts, watering plants inside the exhibits and changing out different parts of the exhibit like the dirt. We also have aquatic insects that need daily care.”

Because most of the insects at the Bug House only live up to about a year or two, carefully monitoring the breeding process is also a high priority for bug zookeepers. For example, for two beetles to successfully mate, a male and female need to be enclosed in their mini-habitats with plenty of layers of substrate, or dirt. Mating will not occur if the substrate is too shallow.

Rhino beetles are considered the strongest creatures in the world, with the ability to lift over 850 times its own weight! Pictured above is a male Hercules beetle, a type of rhino beetle.

LaTurner said since the Bug House is still relatively new, the breeding program is not only a way to ensure and maintain a population of certain species the Zoo offers on exhibit, but also to someday have the ability to trade insects with other zoos in the future.

One way for people to actively help the insect population is to learn how to sustainably garden. To find out more information about sustainable gardening, check out one of our past blog posts for tips like using garlic and planting marigolds.

“A lot of times when people start seeing pests, like roaches and fire ants, they tend to use a broad spectrum of pesticides,” Kevin Hodge said, the curator for carnivores & Children’s Zoo. “Not only will it wipe out the nuisance pests, but it’ll wipe out the beneficial insects as well. So it’s all about learning how to live with them.”

Also, every time you visit the Houston Zoo you help save animals in the wild. Don’t forget to stop by the Bug House!

Year of the Goat – Featuring Elsa

In honor of the Chinese animal zodiac, we’re celebrating the Year of the Goat! We have over 20 different goats representing 5 different breeds. In addition to their different colors, shapes, and sizes, all of our goats also express individual preferences and personalities!

To highlight our goats individual ‘flair’, we’ve decided to feature a different goat each month and share what makes each one so unique and lovable!

Else-resizeElsa the Goat

Our very first ‘Goat of the Month’ for 2015 is Elsa! Elsa is a purebred Saanen goat. Saanen goats originated in Switzerland and are a very popular breed of dairy goat. Elsa is a fairly new edition to our herd here in the Children’s Zoo and she’s becoming very popular with ‘Frozen’ fans!

When Elsa first arrived in the Children’s Zoo she had a fancy name to match her purebred status. Her original name was ‘Standing Ovation.’ Even though Elsa’s proud personality works well with her fancy title, the name is quite a mouthful! Elsa’s pure, white coloring reminded the keepers of snow and we all know that everyone’s favorite Snow Queen is Elsa. A vote was held and Elsa won by a landslide!

Much like the Disney Queen that is her namesake, Elsa is shy around large crowds of people. With some gentle encouragement from her keepers, Elsa is beginning to realize that people can provide a nice pampering brushing session or a good scratch on the head. One of Elsa’s favorite activities is walking on a leash and exploring new areas with her trainer Lyndsey, so you might encounter her in some surprising places around the Children’s Zoo.

Stay tuned for next month’s featured goat!

Get Swap Shop Points for Learning the Goat of the Month!

For those of you that are involved in the Swap Shop here at the Houston Zoo, we are offering an opportunity to earn some extra points this year.  Any child who learns the ‘Goat of the Month’ (either by visiting the blog OR going out to the Contact Area and asking the keepers there) can tell the Swap Shop keeper the name of the ‘Goat of the Month’ and get 5 points placed into their Swap Shop account!  The points are available to first time traders OR frequent fliers but each child can only earn the ‘Goat of the Month points’ ONCE during each month.  For those of you who have never been to the Swap Shop, check it out here!

Science Made Simple: Pollinators

My name is Ryan and I love science. Join me as I try to make tough science…not so tough.

Follow along as I research the issues, untangle the mess, and figure out what you really need to know to help animals and the environment.

Today’s Topic: Pollinators

Confusing Science:
In the United States, the economic monetary value of services provided by pollinating insects is estimated at 24 billion dollars.

What It Really Means:
Bees and other insects pollinate so many plants, that adding up the value of all of the food like fruits, vegetables, and nuts growing because of pollinators equals about $24,000,000,000. Keep in mind, that number is just for the United States!

Confusing Science: 
Public access and support of insecticide applications has resulted in a significant negative relationship to the sustainability of bee colonies. Research is ongoing to determine definitive correlations between non-lethal concentrations of insecticides and lasting colony disorders in bee species; and interesting preliminary studies have been completed which quantify the residual presence of notable chemicals throughout hives.

What It Really Means:
Most home-improvement stores have many different chemicals that are made to kill ants, termites, beetles, wasps, etc. Unfortunately, those chemicals have been wiping out bees all over the world. Because bees land on all sorts of different plants, there’s a good chance at least one has been sprayed with an insecticide. Sometimes the chemicals don’t kill the bee, but cause very serious health problems that may affect its behavior and even how the bee flies. Because bees live in hives, the rest of the hive can be in danger if even one bee returns covered in toxic chemicals. Scientists are working hard to figure out how deadly this can be.

Simple Science Takeaway: Using less insecticides can help bees in a major way.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more as I try to make science easier to understand. Never stop learning,


 Have a topic you’d like me to explore? Post it in the comments!

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