The Threats Facing Amphibians

Written by Chris Bednarski

Panamanian Golden Frog-0001Amphibians all over the world are affected by several factors causing alarming declines in populations. The most concerning issue currently is Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis more commonly known as chytrid or Bd. Bd is an aquatic epizootic(an epidemic of a disease event in nonhuman animals) fungus which causes a disease known as chytridiomycosis. This fungus attaches itself to the skin of an amphibian restricting proper intake of oxygen and osmoregulation, which are two very important duties of amphibian skin. In 1998 the first case of chytrid was documented in Australia, and then in 2004 Dr. Karen Lips documented chytrid in Central America. Dr. Lips noted that populations decline very rapidly, sometimes over just a few weeks! This fungus occurs on every continent where amphibians occur and has caused catastrophic declines or extinctions of almost 200 species of amphibians, even in pristine habitat in just about 30 years.

A species which you may see on exhibit in the Reptile and Amphibian House, the Panamanian Golden Frog, is now a functionally extinct species in its native range. This is due primarily to the chytrid fungus. This fungus much like every other living organism has a “breeding season”, if temperatures are too hot or too cold it lies dormant, but when the temperatures are just right like where the Panamanian Golden Frogs live the fungus multiplies and spreads non-stop. This doesn’t allow for amphibian populations to “hop” back and therefore wipes out an entire species in some cases, in less than a year. Several theories of where this fungus originated, how it has spread so rapidly, and how to control it have been discussed but to date no solid answers have been found.

Other factors, which include pollution of soil and waterways due to pesticides used on lawns and gardens and the improper disposal of batteries, habitat loss for palm oil plantations, paper manufacturing or even wooden chop sticks, global warming, and over collection for the food and pet trade, also play a significant role in amphibian declines worldwide. Many scientists, researchers and biologists agree that amphibians may be the next mass extinction since the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

Guest Blogger Carolyn Jess Talks Zoo Crew

Carolyn-Jess-2014-ResizeWe have invited Carolyn Jess back to help us out as guest blogger in 2016 with a focus on native wildlife. Jess is a high school student who has agreed to be our special guest blogger about wildlife conservation. Carolyn was awarded the Alban Heiser Conservation Award in 2014, presented to her by Jack Hanna. If you would like to contact Carolyn or have comments, you may send them to

Each year, I can’t wait for applications to open up for Zoo Crew. If you’re not sure what Zoo Crew is, it is a summer volunteer program at the Zoo for students 13-17 years old.

I have a few volunteer experiences outside of Zoo Crew. I am currently a member of Brazoswood Student Council and on the Pride and Patriotism Committee. Every Wednesday evening and some Saturdays, I volunteer by making teacher gifts, decorate the hallways for upcoming events, or make inspirational posters for the hallways. I also volunteer as a mentor for our Junior Naturalist program for US Fish and Wildlife. I led a group of Junior Naturalist for plant identification at the introductory meeting and help where I am needed. I also write blogs (like this one!) for the Houston Zoo.

Volunteering is important to me, and I am ready for the daily tasks and challenges of Zoo Crew. I know there is always something different every day that pops up to make my job even more interesting than the day before! Making good decisions and motivating others is a big part of Zoo Crew, and also helps me to be a great leader.

For those that are nervous about applying to Zoo Crew, I don’t feel that there has been an extremely challenging part of the program, so don’t be scared!. I have always learned something new in my time at Zoo Crew, whether is was in Theatrical Interpretation or the bird section, and that is the reason why I volunteer. I want to gain as much knowledge about the Zoo as I can and I know that Zoo Crew is the way to gain that information.

Zoo Crew Group Photo!

By returning to Zoo Crew, I am hoping to get a better idea of my career path in zoology. I know that I want to study zoology, but I’m not sure yet what exactly I want to do. I am hoping that by working Zoo Crew, I can better figure out what I want to do in the zoology field. There are so many different areas and departments of the Zoo that you get to see during Zoo Crew, which is great if you are also interested in working with animals.

One reason that I am so excited about the 2016 Summer Zoo Crew Program is because my heart is in the Zoo. Working with the people and animals at the Zoo is my passion. It represents so much more than families coming out to have a fun day. The Zoo represents a world of causes, like recycling phones, educating the public about problems like palm oil, and saving animals all over the world. I want to be a part of that action and Zoo Crew is another way for me to be closer to what is important to me!

You can apply for Zoo Crew here! Better hurry, applications close 2/29!

A New Zoo Addition: Houston Methodist Walking Path

Here at the Zoo, spring is in the air! On your next visit, put a spring in your step and enjoy our new Houston Methodist Walking Path. This brisk one-mile path is the best way to stay fit while you visit our beloved animals, and it’s all thanks to Houston Methodist.

walking pathAs a new Corporate Partner of the Houston Zoo, Houston Methodist is committed to keeping our city happy and healthy by encouraging guests to make smart life choices when it comes to exercise and a balanced diet. We take great pride in the activities and diet provided for our animals, and it is important that our guests also exercise and make healthy choices. We’ve partnered with Houston Methodist to ensure a healthy 2016 for all of our zoo guests, staff, and our animals with the new Houston Methodist Walking Path.

There are six Houston Methodist Walking Path signs located throughout the zoo, and they are marked on the Visitor’s Guide and the new Houston Zoo app, available for your smartphone. We encourage you to enjoy the new walking path on your next visit and to learn more about how our animals stay healthy, and how we can make healthy choices every day in our lives as well.

Earn Swap Shop Points with our New Reusable Bag Program!

We’re excited to announce a new way to earn points in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop! Traders in the Swap Shop now have the option to spend 25 points in exchange for a small reusable bag to transport treasures they have found in nature. Here’s the best part: Each time the bag is used to bring items into the Swap Shop for a trade, traders earn 5 points! This new program shows the importance of reusable bags in protecting wildlife and rewards the kiddos that want to make a difference.

swap shop bag

There is roughly 3.15 billion pounds of plastic in our oceans right now and the average American will add to this epidemic by throwing away approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year.

Sea_turtle_2Wildlife like endangered sea turtles and other marine creatures often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods. Recently, we made plastic bags extinct in our gift shops, encouraging adults to also opt for reusable bags to protect marine life.

The Houston Zoo also has an expanding collection of canvas bags artistically designed with images depicting the animals that benefit from a reduction of plastic bags in the ocean. The series includes sea lions, sea turtles, pelicans and more on the way!

Canvas bag

Bull Giraffe Dies After Injury

image002Today, Monday, Feb. 22, our eight-year-old male Masai giraffe was humanely euthanized after he experienced a significant fall. Our keepers and veterinary team worked tirelessly to help the 1.5 ton giraffe to his feet, but when it was evident that he could not stand, the decision was made to euthanize Mtembei.

 Mtembei was the father of our four youngest calves and was well-recognized by his dark coloration at giraffe feedings.

“We are all mourning the sudden loss of this magnificent animal,” said Sharon Joseph, vice president of animal operations. “When a giraffe is unable to stand, it is imperative to evaluate the animal and make every effort to get them back on his feet as quickly as possible. Our giraffe team and veterinary staff immediately began efforts to help Mtembei regain his footing and gave him pain medication, fluids, and supportive care to optimize his chances. However, after several hours it became clear that he would not be able to recover from the injury.”


Save Amphibians by Recycling Your Batteries!

Houston Toad 2

Batteries, Wildlife, and How You Can Take Action

The Houston Zoo cares about animals in the wild, and is taking steps to ensure that everything we do on Zoo grounds is done with the environment and wildlife in mind. If you have a surplus of used batteries, be them alkaline or rechargeable, you can take them to your local recycling center to ensure that the remaining chemicals and substances don’t harshly affect the wildlife that’s directly outside your doors!

Any battery that is disposed of in a landfill (like if you toss them in your normal trash), or that finds its way into the environment, has the potential to leak its old chemicals into the soils and waters that wildlife like amphibians call home.

Because amphibians like frogs, toads, even salamanders, have skin that can easily absorb liquids found in damp soils or the waters and streams they frequent, they can get sick from things like leaking batteries. Often, harsh or foreign chemical interactions can affect populations long-term by changing the behavior of animals, affecting female or male reproductive abilities or even influencing the development of eggs.

The Zoo works to help our local amphibians by recycling our alkaline and rechargeable batteries with a company that specializes in battery disposal. You can do the same by finding your local recycling center; if you’re in Houston you can go to the Westpark Consumer Recycling Center and they will take most options besides alkaline. You can also recycle more than the typical AA, AAA, C, and D batteries – items like power tools, cars, small electronics like tablets or smart phones, hearing aids, watches, and all manner of things take a variety of batteries.

By using rechargeable batteries you can also ensure that the materials that were mined to make your batteries last for a much longer time period than with single-use alkaline batteries. Rechargeable batteries will go dull over time, but you can get multiple uses out of them and lessen the stress on the environment by finding products and items that you can use over and over before recycling!

How Our Staff Recycles Batteries at the Zoo


Battery Sign Zoo Events

On Zoo grounds we will often offer recycling information that you can see when you visit. We recommend you take your batteries to a local recycling center to ensure they don’t end up in landfills that can encroach on the space of wildlife as well as affect the soils and waters amphibians and other animals call home.

Houston Toad Battery 1.0

Behind the scenes, our staff utilize a special battery drop-off for spent batteries. By encouraging staff to recycle these items the Zoo is able to see how many batteries we use as an organization, and how many we use that are rechargeable! Alkaline batteries are not rechargeable, so taking a look at our staff battery needs shows us where we could potentially get more rechargeable batteries rather than single-use alkaline batteries. We can also weigh our battery recycling over time and see how much space we have saved in landfills and how many batteries have been prevented from harshly affecting our wildlife habitats.Houston Toad Battery 1.3

Be Safe When Collecting Batteries for Recycling


Houston Toad Battery 1.1

Alkaline: these are more often the common batteries like AA, AAA, C, or D as well as 9-Volt. Do not store any of these batteries together without packaging. Once they have been used there is still potential for them to ‘pop’ open as there are residual chemicals that can be discharged and react with other batteries they are near. This could cause injury if someone is nearby. The 9-Volt batteries are commonly used in your fire alarms and are properly prepared for the recycling center by putting duct-tape over the positive and negative transistors (basically, the top two prongs need to be covered so they don’t come into contact with other batteries). Note that some centers do not accept alkaline batteries for recycling.

Rechargeable: these batteries are widely used in items like power-tools, phone batteries, laptop batteries, or even your more common AA, AAA, C, D, and 9-Volt options. There are no alkaline battery options that cannot be replaced with rechargeable options. You will find rechargeable batteries in forms of Nickel Cadmium (NiCd), Lithium-ion (Li-ion), and Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH). All of these batteries have the potential to get hot and should be packaged separately from each other in preparation for recycling; Li-ion should be particularly tended to in ensuring there is no other metal or battery contact once discharged.

This is a sustainability reference document. 

Monkey of the Month: The Monkey with the White Beard

Written by Nicole Gams

Featured this month is the De Brazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus), named after Italian-French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazzas. It is a handsome species with a sleek gray coat, red brow and white beard. They are a type of guenon, which is a genus of colorful old world monkeys endemic to central Africa. The De Brazza’s monkey tends to live near water in swamps, bamboo and dry mountain forests. They will forage on the ground, but are mostly arboreal, which means they like to spend time up in trees. They eat primarily fruit and seeds but also eat leaves, flowers, buds, lizards and insects. Unlike most other guenons, they don’t live around other guenon species and they are very secretive with no alarm call. Instead, they freeze when danger approaches so as not to attract attention. They live in polygynous (multiple male and female) groups anywhere from 5-30 individuals. Some groups only consist of a male and female and their offspring, suggesting occurrences of monogamy in this species. It’s believed that females stay in their natal groups and the males leave to join other groups; however, this is currently being investigated by field researchers.


Here at the Houston Zoo we have a family group of De Brazza’s monkeys. Albert is the father whose job is to protect his family. Other than being almost twice as large (males average 7 kg while females average 4 kg), males and females can be hard to tell apart because they look exactly the same. However, males tend to have a more pronounced red brow and one can always look for the male parts, which are bright blue. If Albert is ever staring you down, he’s not admiring you or your outfit. He’s doing what’s called a threat display, but don’t be offended; I’m sure your zoo attire is just fine!  He’s simply doing his job and he does it very well. Albert can also be found strutting around with an arched tail and shaking tree branches which are both displays of dominance. Amelia is our adult female and Albert’s mate. They have had two offspring while living here: Ruby who just turned two at the end of December, and Flint who just turned one last November. The two youngsters can often be found wrestling and chasing each other around the exhibit. If at first not seen, they are likely heard rustling in the thick bamboo cover. Ruby, being the first born, had only her parents to play with. Albert was a doting father who Ruby may take after just a little too much, as she also will threat-stare and shake branches. Then there’s our newest and still adorable addition, Flint, who has not quite gotten his adult coloring yet. Young are born a bright golden hue and eventually the fur darkens with age. As younger siblings do, he likes to pull on his sister’s hair and tail, enticing her to a game of chase. Flint is very independent at this point; however, he still likes to be near his sister or mom, and still nurses occasionally. De Brazza’s monkeys are mature at 5-6 years of age.

pblog3Although currently listed as least concern on the IUCN red list, their existence is threatened by the clearing of habitat for agriculture and the timber industry. They are also hunted for the bushmeat trade. (Albert and Amelia came to Houston 11 years ago after being rescued from the bushmeat trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is not common practice for zoos to obtain animals from the wild except under dire circumstances such as this one.) They are one of the most widespread African primates that live in forests, but there are low densities throughout their range. Some De Brazza’s populations occur in multiple protected areas, safeguarding them – to some extent – from habitat loss. However, as more forests disappear this could fragment the populations, making it difficult for individuals to move between populations. Natural predators include the large African eagle, leopards, and chimpanzees.

Just by visiting the zoo you are helping to protect animals in the wild, as a portion of the proceeds from all ticket sales goes towards supporting our various conservation partners. One of those partners includes the Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration (HWCC) whose conflict transformation approach has led to reductions in poaching.

It is a privilege to have the animals we have at the zoo and for our guests to be able to experience them so intimately. Come and see this dynamic monkey species at the Wortham World of Primates.

Music of the Night

Written by Tyler Parker

Since it’s almost Valentine’s Day we here at the Zoo would be remiss if we didn’t talk about how amphibians find that special someone.
Amphibians are probably the most commonly heard vertebrate on the planet and this is due to the wonderful chorus that frogs and toads provide every year in the spring and summer, at least in North America.

frog blog1

Each year large groups of males congregate at perennial or vernal pools, ponds, or streams and sing for their mate. The larger the chorus of bachelor frog the more attractive it is for the ladies. Yet, even if multiple different species of frogs or toads are calling at one pond, each species of frog and toad have their own unique and identifiable call. This is how many researchers calculate populations of amphibians by listening to each individual species chorus and count the number of males calling.

This bombastic strategy isn’t the only way amphibians find their mates. Some frogs and toads are unable to call loud enough due to other noise in their environments such as fast moving streams or rivers. These frogs and toads employ the strategy of semaphoring, which is basically flagging or waving of either their front or back legs to stake claim to a territory or attract a mate.

Salamanders and caecilians utilize chemicals called pheromones to attract a potential mate.  Newts attract mates via a skin color change or a physical change in body shape often, with males developing very prominent crest or dorsal appendages.

In all, amphibians utilize a wide variety of ways to attract a special someone, yet all are unique and amazing in their own right.

Extreme Amphibians

Written by Tyler Parker

Amphibians are an extreme and versatile group of animals. They come in three main body types yet they exhibit some extreme variation in size, shape, and function.


The largest frog or toad in the world is the Goliath frog (Conraua goliath) native to West Africa.  This frog measures in at 12.6 inches and weighs up to 7.17lbs. The Goliath frog is followed in sized by the Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) and African Bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersus).  Yet the world’s biggest amphibian title is held by the Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus). This behemoth comes in at a whopping 5.9ft long and weighs in at a hefty 110 lbs. Though its size may be impressive, it has made it a target in its native China as a popular luxury food item and its use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  The world’s smallest amphibian Paedophryne amauensis (no common name given yet) from Papua New Guinea, also holds the title of the world’s smallest vertebrate.  Measuring in at an incredibly small 0.30 inches it beat out the current record holder, a fish from Indonesia by 0.0079 inches. This amazing amphibian can fit very comfortably inside the diameter of a dime.

Photo credit: Christopher Austin, Louisiana State University via National Geographic
Paedophryne amauensis – Photo credit: Christopher Austin, Louisiana State University via National Geographic


Amphibians come in many extreme shapes, all of which help them to survive in their natural habitat.  The most unknown group of amphibians has to be the caecilians; in appearance they look like scale less snakes or large segmented worms. This is augmented by the fact that most subterranean caecilians, have no or small vestigial eyes and weird tube like tentacles that come out of their nose.  Caecilians aren’t the only amphibians that look extreme though, take the Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis).  This frog is again almost completely subterranean; it even eats underground, yet when the monsoons come to the Western Ghats of India these frogs surface to call and mate in the fast moving rivers and streams that are formed from the rains.

Photo credit: SD Biju, University of Delhi via National Geographic
Indian Purple Frog – Photo credit: SD Biju, University of Delhi via National Geographic


giant waxy monkey tree frog
Giant Waxy Monkey Frog

Though size and shape are an extreme in which we categorize amphibians, others in this order are equally extreme in the way in which they behave and survive in their natural habitats while dealing with extreme conditions.  Spadefoot toads cocoon under the ground in the deserts until the rains return and it is incredible that amphibians survive up north where it is cold almost 6 months out of the year. How do they do it? The North American wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) handles this situation by allowing itself to freeze solid by protecting its blood and vital organs with anti-freezing peptides produced by it and from the prey it eats.  The same is true of frogs that are exposed to extreme heat yet have no means to escape it by burrowing.  The giant waxy monkey tree frogs (Phyllomedusa bicolor) are able to produce their own natural sunscreen and wipe it all over their bodies to prevent drying out through desiccation.  Finally what’s more extreme than an animal that doesn’t breathe on land using lungs?  There is a whole family of salamanders called Plethodontidae that don’t have any lungs at all.  They breathe through their skin exclusively and are one of the largest families of salamanders in the world.  The most amazing thing is most of these salamanders are located here in the United States.

It’s extremely incredible how diverse amphibians are.


Whistle While You Work – Zoo Volunteers Are Awesome

Written by Tammy Buhrmester

Santa Claus may have a workshop full of elves, but that is no comparison to the Houston Zoo Volunteers!

Volunteers working at the enrichment workshop

Recently, on a cool Saturday morning, a group of Houston Zoo Volunteers and the primate department worked together during an enrichment workshop to construct enrichment for the primates. Twenty volunteers and two staff members gathered together from 9:00AM-1:00PM, making enrichment of all sizes and shapes, out of many different materials.

The four hours consisted of the volunteers dividing up into groups of two or three and following “recipe cards,” which guided them in making the enrichment items. The “recipe cards” consisted of ingredients (supplies needed), step-by-step instructions, and pictures of the final product. The construction of the “toys” consisted of measuring, drilling, sawing, PVC cutting, weaving, filing, cutting fire hose and chopping wood. Some volunteers came prepared with drills in hand. All these materials had been prepared by primate keepers prior to the workshop.

Volunteers and Primate Keeper Tammy with the finished hoop hammock

Siamang Berani using a spinning hoop hammock

Pied tamarin Ricardo using a worm feederYou may wonder why we are making “toys” for the primates. The main reason is for enrichment. Enrichment means encouraging an animal’s natural response by stimulating natural instincts and behavior. The items that were made encourage the use of their natural behaviors to get a treat that is placed inside, or smeared on the item. They might have to roll a clear tube to get the worms, nuts or currants out. They may have to find a stick in their enclosure to access the peanut butter or yogurt that is smeared on or in the lid or in holes made in large blocks of plastic. The apes will have to think about how to twist and turn their PVC puzzle feeders to line up the holes in order to get the treat out of the puzzle. The lemurs have to figure out how to open up a coconut that was split in half and hung on a rope to get the peanut out. It is all about them being active and encouraging them to use their innate instincts to get the treat out.

After the four hours were up, the volunteers made 235 enrichment items consisting of: 25 boomer balls, 10 nut rollers, 10 coconut puzzles, 20 lid fishers, 3 spinners, 20 cutting board puzzles, 34 treat logs, 100 foraging boards, 7 ape twist and turn puzzle feeders and one large spinning hoop hammock.
All this equals: tons of fun!

Orangutan Kelly enjoying using a raisin board

These items will allow the primates and the babirusa hours of fun for a very long time. Without the volunteers, it would not have been possible to make all of these “toys” so quickly.
Houston Zoo Volunteers rock!

We thank you, and our animals do, too!

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