Year of the Monkey – Mandrills

Written by Dena Honeycutt

It wouldn’t be Year of the Monkey without discussing the largest monkey! Mandrills are the largest monkey and we have them at the Houston Zoo! When zoo folks talk about monkeys, we sometimes refer to where they are from; we either call them a new world monkey or an old world monkey. As the name suggests, new world refers to the “new world” of Central and South America and old world refers to Europe, Africa and Asia. Mandrills are an old world monkey from western Africa.

There is so much to say about mandrills, I thought I’d answer some common questions and comments that we get about our mandrills:

mandrill tailAre these apes? They don’t have a tail!

Mandrills do have a tail, it is very short. Since mandrills spend most of their time on the ground and not in trees, they don’t really need a long tail. Tails are used by monkeys to help them balance themselves while walking or running on branches.

And the male’s behind is very colorful!

And yes, male mandrills are very colorful on both ends and there is a good reason for that. In the wild mandrills live in dense forests and in very large groups with both males and females. As they travel, the males will lead and bring up the rear of the group. Predators such as leopards are more successful if they attack quickly from behind. The coloration of the male mandrills face and behind are the same pattern so as to confuse predators as to which end is facing them.  Pretty cool, right?

Mandril 2

Oh and the males have really big canine teeth…

mandrill canine


Sensational Snakes: Houston Zoo Puts a Spotlight on Native Snakes

Snakes are a part of life in Texas, and the Houston Zoo is passionate about their conservation. Snakes of all kinds play a vital role in our ecosystem as one of nature’s best pest control agents since they eat rats, mice, and other small animals. Even so, many people don’t like to see them in their own backyard. This becomes a major conflict as the weather warms up and Houstonians start to become more active outside and human-snake encounters become increasingly more common. As cold-blooded animals, snakes thrive in the warmth of Southeast Texas which makes this area ripe for a diverse population of this remarkable reptile.

The Houston Zoo is working hard to change snakes’ bad reputation by participating in a variety of special events created precisely to squelch fears of these valuable animals.

On Saturday, May 7, the Houston Zoo’s snake experts will be sharing their knowledge of local snakes at the Reptile House from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.  From Texas rat snakes to copperheads and cottonmouths to milk snakes, guests will learn all about the snakes that call Houston home. During the event, the keepers will have a variety of local snakes in easy-to-see table top tanks so guests can get closer than ever to these incredible animals.

Keepers will discuss the anatomy and biology of the snakes that live in the area, and what Houstonians can do to help protect these important animals. They’ll also tell you what to do if you become face-to-face with any snake.

Herpetology supervisor Judith Bryja will also represent the Houston Zoo at this weekend’s Lone Star Rattlesnake Days event in Austin. The event is April 30 and May 1 at the Travis County Expo Center and is aimed at changing the way people think about rattlesnakes.

It is doubtful that any other animal group is more feared or less understood by the general public. This persecution has reached such a point that, in some states, “Rattlesnake Roundups” are a popular fund-raising event for organizations like the local Chamber of Commerce or the Jaycees. The largest of these roundups is held each March in Sweetwater, Texas. This event began in 1958 and was advertised as a method of controlling the rattlesnake population in the area. However, it has progressed to the point where now rattlesnakes are collected months in advance often from more than 100 miles away from Sweetwater. They are collected by flushing them out of their dens and hiding areas with gasoline and other toxic substances, which not only harms the snakes, but also any other animals that may be in the same place. They are then kept in substandard conditions and are in poor health by the time the rattlesnake roundup is held. The snakes are sometimes cruelly strung up alive, decapitated and skinned in front of crowds which include children. These horrific events are promoted as safe and educational family fun – but they are not. The best way these events to end is if people stop participating in the slaughter.

In April of 1999, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association adopted a resolution condemning rattlesnake roundups and advising member institutions, such as the Houston Zoo, to oppose these activities. The Houston Zoo is joining with other Texas zoos in their opposition to rattlesnake roundups and encourages educational alternatives that promote awareness and respect for these animals.

Endangered Wild Dogs Form New Pack

Painted Dog Intro-0007-9208For the Houston Zoo’s pair of elderly male African painted dogs, Tuesday, April 26 brought a whole lot of excitement as they were introduced to their new pack mates, three female dogs that recently moved to Houston from a zoo in the UK. The two- and three-year-old females spent the past 30 days in required quarantine and once they were given the all-clear from the staff veterinarians, moved to their new home where they will reside with Mikita (10) and Blaze (14). The new names of the females will be chosen by the keepers who care for them and will be announced soon. 

Painted Dog Intro-0005-8715

African painted dogs are also referred to as African wild dogs or African hunting dogs. As one of the most endangered species in Africa, with less than 5,000 left in the wild, the Houston Zoo works with conservationists at Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe to help save this species from extinction. Some of the ways the Houston Zoo helps save these animals in the wild is by providing vital financial support and training to the conservation programs which enables community members to conduct anti-poaching education, rehabilitate injured dogs, reintroduce dogs into the wild, and monitor wild packs. The zoo’s facilities team has also assisted with creating special tracking collars for researchers to use on wild painted dogs. These collars collect valuable data about the painted dogs’ movement patterns, as well as help protect them from deadly snare wire traps set out by poachers.

Houston Zoo Staff Saving Wildlife in the Mariana Islands (Part 4)!

This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas. 

Greetings again from Tinian!

Things have been going fast – we’ve already trapped 40 of the 54 Tinian Monarchs that are to be translocated to Guguan. Along with the birds moved last year, this should assure that there is a “safe harbor” population of birds from Tinian (the Tinian Monarch is found nowhere else in the world). So, should disaster strike in the form of the Brown Tree Snake invading the island, there will be birds safe in another place. The picture below is of a Rufous Fantail just extracted from the net. They are beautiful and curious birds, and will often fly to a nearby branch to investigate what you’re doing.

Ken timo
Rufous Fantail

There are other species of birds here that are not being moved at this time. These are birds that live on multiple islands and are not endangered. These “non-target species” are released when caught. This is me holding a collared kingfisher that I had removed from the net.

steve king
Collared kingfisher

Today there are more people coming in to work on the project. There is a start-up crew, which I’m on, and a close-down crew, the ones coming in tomorrow, and they overlap by about a week. Since we’re doing so well with the trapping, we’ll take a day off tomorrow and spend some time meeting and getting to know each other. Then we’ll head out to the field again and continue trapping. We have most of the Tinian Monarchs, now it’s time to start collecting the Bridled White-eyes. These birds are beautiful, and so tiny! They weigh in at around 7 grams.

So that means the bird room, where the birds are held and maintained until release, is about to get busy! I’ll be working there now, so I’ll write more about that next.

One last thing for today – I took a walk down to the beach this afternoon and wanted to share this picture. It really is a beautiful place!


To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.

Seed Paper – It Grows on You!

At our recent Zoo Ball, we tried something new. Since we’re always looking for ways to be good stewards of the environment, we decided to print our event menus and table numbers on a special kind of paper – seed paper. On the back, we encouraged our Zoo Ball guests to plant them at home instead of throwing them away, an interesting and new way to grow flowers and create a pollinator-friendly space.

This particular paper is first made out of post-consumer materials (recycled paper, cardboard, etc.), and seeds are then embedded into the paper. There are lots of different seed options, and we chose the Black-eyed Susan, as it is a native Texas plant.

Here’s a look at the back of our programs. All those little specs are seeds!

We printed the the menus and table numbers ourselves, which required a heavy amount of trimming and we ended up with lots of scraps.  Naturally, we found a few spots around the zoo that looked perfect to plant the trimmings. Next time you’re at the zoo, be on the lookout for Black-eyed Susan flowers that had a very interesting journey before blooming!

seed paper blog 2


Houston Zoo Staff Saving Wildlife in the Mariana Islands (Part III)!

This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas. 

Friday April 22, 2016

Hello again from Tinian! This was a looong, hot day, but we wound up with 21 mist nets set up! The spots for the nets are cleared using saws, machetes and muscle, and are linked by trails cut the same way. Some are easy, some require some branches to be removed to make way. We cut as little as possible, so our impact on the forest is minimal, but it’s still a lot of work! I’ve included a picture of a cleared trail, and a net all set up. This net is stretched between two telescoping plastic poles. It’s very hard to see the net because it’s made from such fine nylon thread, but that’s the point! The birds miss it too.

martha blog 3
Left-a trail cleared by biologists working to save native birds. Right-a mist net setup to catch birds to move them to another island.

Tomorrow we’ll open the nets and start catching birds. We would have begun today, but we didn’t have enough flies. Yes, flies. We set up a flytrap with tuna (that’s a WHOLE tuna) as bait, and collect them to feed to the birds that we catch. Tinian Monarchs, one of the target species this year, are fly-eaters. They will eventually start eating meal-worms, but for the first few days we feed them live flies. I’ll tell you later how we get them into the bird box without letting them go! I’ll describe the bird boxes in future posts as well, the boxes are ingenious and allow us to keep the bird healthy until it’s released.

One last thing – I was walking through the woods today listening to Mariana Fruit Doves call. This island was blasted flat in World War II, defoliated and some even paved over. There are 5,000 people presently living here. Still, after all that, there are native birds left to sing to us. Lets hope we can keep that going!

A beautiful Mariana Fruit Dove. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Adams, Houston Zoo.
A beautiful Mariana Fruit Dove. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Adams, Houston Zoo.

To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.

Houston Zoo Staff Saving Wildlife in the Mariana Islands (part II)!

This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas. 

Tinian, Thursday April 21st.

This was the first day of field work. Today we cleared underbrush in the forest to make trails, along which we will set up our mist nets. So why are we here trapping birds? The short answer is the brown tree snake. This is an aggressive predatory snake that loves birds. After its accidental introduction to Guam, it wiped out nearly all native birds on the island. There are no snakes on the island of Tinian at this time, but it could happen in the future that the brown tree snake makes it here, and that would be disastrous for the local avifauna (birds). So birds are trapped, and then moved to another island that doesn’t have a population of brown tree snakes. Then, should the snake make it to Tinian in the future, at least some birds will be safe on another island.

Brown tree snake. Photo courtesy of, Isaac Chellman
Brown tree snake. Photo courtesy of, Isaac Chellman

To do this though, we have to get the birds! So that brings us back to today’s job – clearing a path and space in the forest to put up nets. The nets are 36 feet long, and are stretched between polls (telescoping plastic poles). When open they are about 10 feet from top to bottom. So space must be cleared to stretch them out, with enough clear vertical space to raise the nets up. This picture shows us clearing a net lane prior to putting up the poles and net.

Clearing space to setup mist nets
Clearing space to setup mist nets

Tomorrow – more work in the forest! Then we’ll open the nets and see what we catch!

To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.

Houston Zoo Staff Saving Wildlife in the Mariana Islands!

This blog was written by Steve Howard, a member of the Zoo’s Bird Department. Steve Howard received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Steve documents his work overseas. 

Blog entry. 5:30 AM Thursday 4/21

Hello from the Mariana Islands!

I’m returning to the Marianas to continue working with Pacific Bird Conservation on the MAC Plan (Mariana Avifauna Conservation). Once again we’ll be trapping birds of two different species – the Tinian Monarch and the Bridled White-eye to translocate to another island and release. These birds are moved from one island to another due to the threat of predation by an introduced species, the brown tree snake. The islands where these birds are being moved do not currently have brown tree snakes, and this translocation will help ensure the birds’ survival.

Tinian Monarch, photo courtesy of the Memphis Zoo
Tinian Monarch, photo courtesy of the Memphis Zoo
Bridled White-Eye, photo courtesy of Pacific Bird Conservation
Bridled White-Eye, photo courtesy of Pacific Bird Conservation
Loading supplies on the island of Saipan
Loading supplies on the island of Saipan

So, 20 hours of flights later, I’m here on Tinian! We started out on Saipan, getting all the equipment out of storage. The pictures show us in the process of removing all the crates and boxes from the storage unit and loading it in the truck to take it to the port. It’s then stacked on pallets and put on the barge for Tinian. Yesterday we unloaded the bird boxes that we’ll need to keep the collected birds, and supplies maintain the bird room. Setting up the bird room is a lot of work. There are 85 bird boxes to assemble and a load of stuff to unpack and organize, so it took 9 of us about 6 hours to get it done. So glad we have a team!

Storing supplies needed for the bird translocation process
Storing supplies needed for the bird translocation process

Today we’ll take all the field supplies to the field and set up out there! This part is a little tedious, but it’s still conservation work! Every little thing we do these first days will lay the groundwork for what comes next – the fun part.

Still to come – why do we do this?

To find out more about our Houston Zoo staff saving wildlife, click here.

Conservation Education Staff Travel to Belize – Day 2

After a very…noisy…first night at Wildtracks, we woke up to a beautiful Belizean morning.  We walked around the first floor of the sanctuary, found some breakfast in the kitchen, and enjoyed watching the sunrise from the back patio.

Sunrise over a peaceful lagoon; our first morning in Belize was beautiful

Since we arrived late the night before, we had not had the opportunity to meet all the volunteers that help Wildtracks do the amazing work they do.  And there were MANY volunteers to meet.  It seemed as if they were coming out of the woodwork.  We had a wonderful morning and met all the volunteers that had literally come from around the world to work at Wildtracks.  Their stories were many and varied, and they hailed from places that ranged from Canada to the UK to Australia.  It was so inspiring to see all these people come together to further conservation efforts and to be able to share a little bit of our story with them.

The main building on the Wildtracks grounds. This building housed the kitchen, the primate nursery, as well as some of the sleeping quarters for staff and visitors (including us).

Paul Walker was kind enough to give a tour of the facilities during the mid-morning hours.  We saw their enclosures for manatees that had been injured in boating accidents as well as their pre-release enclosures that opened up into the lagoon.  Manatees are able to slowly become accustomed to the life outside the safety of Wildtracks, which greatly enhances their chances of survival.

A manatee that had injuries from a boating accident currently undergoing rehabilitation.
A juvenile manatee in the lagoon pen
The lagoon pens that house the manatees during the soft-releases and acclamation periods

We also toured the primate facilities at Wildtracks.  Yucatan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and Geoffroy’s spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) both call Belize home.  Both species are under pressure from habitat loss and the pet trade.  Wildtracks works with the local officials as well as other conservation organizations to find these primates that are often housed in deplorable conditions, removed them from the pet trade, and work to provide the health care and nutrition they desperately need.  Once the primates return to good health, the work of rehabilitating them for life in the wild begins.  Paul and Zoe Walker, along with all the volunteers at the Wildtracks facility, have had an amazing survival rate post-release of both species of primates.  Research has been done that not only shows individual monkeys are surviving, but thriving to the point of raising families of their own in the forests of Belize.

Yucatan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) undergoing rehabilitation
Geoffroy’s spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) undergoing rehabilitation.












The amazing lunch prepared by the amazing Wildtracks staff.


After our busy morning, we were able to share a delicious lunch with everyone at Wildtracks. During lunch, one of the past interns that completed research at Wildtracks gave a presentation over her work documenting post-release behaviors of individuals.  Her work showed just how successful Wildtracks has become at introducing these primates back into the wild and ensuring their survival.

We were able to spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying the beautiful Wildtracks facility and ensuring everything was ready for our conservation conference that was starting the next day.  We also distributed the supplies that the Primate Team at HZI had sent down, along with T-shirts, printed material, and other goodies for everyone at Wildtracks.

A few of the volunteers at Wildtracks listening to the lunch time presentation

Along with Paul Walker, Zoe Walker, and Emma Farlow (Wildtracks Education and Outreach Coordinator), we left Wildtracks around 5:00 p.m. to start our journey to Belmopan, Belize.  It was roughly a 4 hour drive.  We arrived at Belmopan safely, checked in to the Hibiscus Hotel, and had dinner at the restaurant before turning in for the night.

Elizabeth Fries, Zoe Walker, Paul Walker, and DeAndra Ramsey leaving Wildtracks to go to Belmopan

Celebrate Tapirs with the Houston Zoo

Written by Mary Fields

Bairds Tapir-0013-6217It’s a pig! It’s a bear! It’s an anteater! Those are just some of the animals that people call tapirs on a day to day basis, but you can learn exactly what a tapir is and much more at our Tapir Spotlight on Species event!

On April 23rd and 24th, the Houston Zoo will be holding a Tapir Spotlight on Species from 10:00 am until 3:00 pm each day. Throughout the day we will have fun activities for everyone to play, a photo-op, and a chance for you to help enrich our tapirs!

The Houston Zoo is home to two Baird’s tapirs, Noah and Moli. You may remember Noah from last year’s SOS, but this will be Moli’s first time celebrating World Tapir Day with the Houston Zoo! Moli came to us from Zoo New England this past summer to be our breeding female. Baird’s tapirs have a gestation that lasts about 400 days or 13 months. Baby tapirs look quite a bit different than their adult counterparts; they are born with stripes and are only about 15 pounds!tapir sos blog

The Houston Zoo will also be celebrating Earth Day on April 23 & 24. Tapirs and many other species are losing habitat due to deforestation for palm oil. Come by our tapir yard to learn all about helping tapirs and the other species that share their habitat!

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