Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 6

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 6:

This was the last night of surveys for this trip and what a night it was!!!  We decided to visit a stream we have passed a few times on this trip just to see what it looked like.  We all kept pointing this stream out every time we drove by it, but for some reason or another never stopped to check it out.  We parked our car on the side of the road and jumped down into the stream.  From the first second I got down into the stream until the second I left the stream it was “frog-o-mania”!  We saw so many frogs we were having a seriously hard time counting.  We estimate we saw well over 1,000 frogs of at least 6 different species but probably more like 8-12 species.  We found tadpoles and eggs of the Night frogs for the first time in our surveys.  This stream had checkered keelback snakes, wolf snakes, Brook’s geckos and one Indian black turtle!!!  I am a huge turtle nerd and finding a turtle on a night like this just puts the icing on the cake.  If we were not having such a productive night I may have been far more nervous than I was – my nemesis was everywhere… the giant fishing spiders!  With a leg span the size of a dinner plate and the ability to run across water, they make me a bit uneasy when walking forest streams at night.  Thankfully I was too preoccupied with all the amazing amphibians.

I will be hopping onto my first flight around 4AM to come back home to Houston.  I haven’t even left and I already miss being here.  Good thing the team and I will probably be meeting back up in early March to continue our surveys!!!  Until then, cheers.

 

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 5

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 5:

Tonight was a good night for snakes!  I don’t get to say that often enough…  About 30 feet from where we parked our car I began setting my camera gear up and set up my weather reading device.  I shine my flash light to a spot about 12-20 inches from my bag and I see a snake!  Not just any snake but one of the cutest and most dangerous species in our area, the saw scaled viper!!!!!  All I had to say was the word “saw” and all of my field partners started running to my location.  This is thought to be a very common species in the northern Western Ghats, but I have only seen 6 in my time working here.  This adorable little bundle of venom and sunshine was about a foot long and sleeping nicely on a leaf until it noticed 5 weirdos standing over him.  Once he saw us see him he decided to slither off further into the forest and we were just happy to have caught a quick glance of him.  After that we were all pumped up and ready for a good night of snakes and frogs.  We found a few more wolf snakes of two different species, a large Indian rat snake, several checkered keelback snakes and a bunch of vine snakes.  Finding one or two snakes a night is usually a decent night, but we found a total of 19 tonight! The vine snake is one of my favorite snakes to see in India.  A snake no thicker than a pencil can be 3 feet long!  These snakes specialize in eating lizards and frogs mostly.  You can find them active in the day and night, crossing roads or 50 feet up in a tree.  Beside all the awesome snakes, we found a few frog species and a really cool lynx spider.  Getting asleep tonight will be difficult – we are all pumped up on such a good snake night!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 4

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 4:

So today we got to visit a property we have never had access to, which I was very excited about.  A friend of a friend we stopped to get chai from told us he knew someone that wanted us to come to his property and tell him what kind of animals he had running around.  Our chai friend assured us his buddy was a good guy and had heard about our project.  Regardless to whether we found a bunch of animals on this property or not this was an important day for us.  Much like the Houston Zoo does for the Houston toad, we want to work on land owner agreements.  What we would like is to have a 33-year lease on the property, with the land owner agreeing to not destroy any more land and to not use any harmful pesticides.

We arrived at our new friend’s house, and in true Indian fashion we quickly sat down for a nice conversation and chai.   After this, he took us around his banana and pineapple groves, eventually leading us to the untouched portion of the property.   He told us about all of the snakes he has seen here including what he believes to be a king cobra.  On our tour we noted a few species of frog that do fairly well in disturbed areas, like the Indian tree frog (Polypedates maculatus).  We found an adorable 3 inch long Roux’s forest lizard (Calotes rouxii) hanging out on a leaf and one Travancore wolf snake (Lycodon travancoricus).  This certainly wasn’t one of our more productive nights as far as a species list goes, but we did make a new friend and a possible property to add to our conservation agreement!  This is one huge step to conserving the land and the species that use it!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 3

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 3:

Tonight we headed into one of our sites that we have surveyed pretty heavily over the last couple years.  During the monsoon season, we find many species of frogs along this path – there is a large stone wall covered in geckos and usually a few lizard eating species of snake as well. But the monsoon has passed now and it hasn’t rained here in some time.  This is an important time for us to survey because now we get to document what species are active in the drier part of the year.  We can see that a lot of the grasses and smaller shrubby plants have started to dry out and turn brown.   We noted quite a few leaf eating insects getting their last meals in for the year.  One of my favorites is a katydid that looks like it flew 100 mph into a brick wall and wound up with a flat face.  During the earlier part of the dry season, we have seen that the bush frogs (Pseudophilautus) are still around in decent numbers but they are not calling for mates – we assume they are fattening up for the cooler weather coming.  We encountered several forest lizards (Calotes sp.), both males and females, sleeping soundly on the thin ends of branches.  They choose these seemingly uncomfortable limbs for a good reason!  If any snake or bird land on the tree they are on, the branch will move and wake them up in enough time that they can hopefully escape.  On the large stone wall we found a massive species called a Bombay leaf toed gecko (Hemidactylus prashadi).  Over all we had a slower night than usual, but still noted some cool stuff!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 2

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 2: Cave stream survey

Today we started our surveys around 1:00pm.  Most reptiles and amphibians are not to active during the days in this area but we know of a hidden gem… a cave stream! The land my team has been surveying is a small piece of the Western Ghats that has never been formally surveyed, that being said, the possibilities of finding new species, rare species and documenting range extensions are endless!  Documenting our findings can play a huge role in conserving this beautiful habitat.  That’s what this is all about and what we are all about; conserving the land to conserve and protect the species we are so passionate about. After a short hike over some rocky hills then back down, we enter the mouth of the cave.  For safety’s sake, we only explore the first 100 meters or so inside the cave.  Along this stream we found an adult wolf snake (Lycodon travancoricus), many night frogs (Nyctibatrachus sp.), gigantic Indian bullfrogs (Hoplobatrachus sp.), cave crabs, vinegaroons and cave crickets.  Outside of the cave more Indian cricket frogs (Minervarya sp.) and a ton of spiders.  We also noted hoof prints and mud wallows of an Indian bison called a gaur (Bos gaurus). Not bad for a day time survey in this part of India!

Time for some samosas, chai and data logging.

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 1

Here at the zoo we have over 420 staff members working hard to save wildlife, but our jobs as conservationists don’t end when we leave the zoo for the day. We all want to go above and beyond to do everything we can to save wildlife, and our unique program called the Staff Conservation Fund allows us to do just that! The Staff Conservation Fund was created as a way for staff to participate in wildlife-saving efforts around the globe. Each year, zoo employees can donate a portion of their hard-earned wages to the fund. This fund is then used to provide support to staff members who successfully create or enhance a conservation project and apply for funding to bring the project to life. To date, this fund has made it possible for 63 staff members to carry out 43 projects in 14 countries around the world!

One of the latest projects is being carried out in the northern Western Ghats region of India by Chris Bednarski, a senior keeper in the herpetology department. The Western Ghats is home to one-third of the plants, almost half of the reptiles, and more than three-fourths of the amphibians known in India. Unfortunately, this strip of rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate due to logging and conversion for agricultural uses. In 2013, the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust purchased 3500 acres in this region and began implementing several conservation initiatives. Chris’s goal is to survey within this section of land and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild! Chris has been documenting his trip, and sent us this journal entry to share with all of you about his first day in the field:

“After 22 hours of flights, a quick nap and several cups of chai my team and I were headed to our first survey zone.  It’s a beautiful plot of primary and secondary forest surrounded by several rice fields and pineapple farms.  It is a “sacred forest” that the local villagers have set up shrines and a small temple.  No plants or animals can be removed or harmed within this forest which makes this area so important for us to survey.  Over the years we have documented over 20 species of reptile and amphibian, too many birds to count, leopards, tigers, elephants and amazing invertebrates on this property.   

This is our first survey post monsoon this year and we had high hopes.  Past years have produced well for us and this trip was not a disappointment.  Our searching began at around 6:30pm as the sun was setting and we wrapped up around midnight.  We walked forest paths, streams, and around the temples.  In the lower branches of the trees we documented a critically endangered species of bush frog (Psuedophilatus sp.), in the streams an endangered species of Indian cricket frog (Minervarya sp.), and along the temple walls a plethora of Brook’s geckos (Hemidactylus brookii).  Many other species were found but these were the high lights for sure! 

Time to get all our data logged into our computers and get ready for the next day of surveys!”  

Can you count toad eggs?

There are multiple animal exhibits in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop. One of them is home to two Houston Toads: Tina Toad and her friend, Mr. Toad.

The Houston Toad is one of Texas’ most imperiled species. Its range was formerly known to include 12 counties in Texas, but it is now only in a few counties in east-central Texas.  The largest remaining populations are found in the Lost Pines region of Bastrop County.

The Houston Zoo has a 1200 square foot Houston Toad quarantine facility, managed by two full-time

Tina Toad's egg strand
Tina Toad’s egg strand

Houston Toad specialists, that serves as a location for the captive breeding and head-starting of wild Houston toad egg strands for release. Part of the Houston Toad specialist’s job is to count the eggs in each egg strand!

The egg strand after it has been counted
The egg strand after it has been counted

Look at the pictures in this post. What you are seeing is a picture of one of Tina the Houston Toad’s egg strands.   The version with the white dots is an example of how the eggs are counted and marked as they go through the photo of the egg strand.

We recently had a contest in the Swap Shop to guess how many eggs were in the strand. The total in the strand, according to the toad keepers, was 8,533.  Our closest guess was from Isabel S. who guessed 8,600.  For her expertise in counting toad eggs, she received 100 points to spend in the Swap Shop!

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

They are Toadally Texan!

Some of the most amazing things about Texas are all of the fabulous native wildlife species.  Texas has a long and rich natural history – from the Horned Lizard, to the Nine Banded Armadillo, to the state flying mammal, the Mexican Free-tailed Bat.  But, some of our native species are in jeopardy.

Meet Tina Toad.  She is one of the Houston Zoo’s ambassador animals and is a retired Houston Toad that was a part of the Zoo’s breeding program.  After laying over 10,000 eggs (yes, Moms, I said 10,000), she was retired and came to live in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.  Recently, we were able to get a picture of her with another kind of Texan.  Kurtis Drummond, safety with the Houston Texans, came by along with Bethany and Brianna from the Houston Texans Cheerleaders.

The Houston Toad is one of Texas’ most imperiled species.  Its range was formerly known to include 12 counties in Texas, but it is now only in a few counties in east-central Texas.  The largest remaining populations are found in the Lost Pines region of Bastrop County.  Habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation are the most serious threats facing the Houston Toad.  Red fire ants can also have a devastating impact by killing young toads and altering local insect and arthropod populations which the toads feed on.

From Left to Right: Sr. Naturalist Suzanne, Houston Texans Cheerleaders Bethany and Brianna, Texans Safety Kurtis Drummond and Sr. Keeper David.
From Left to Right: Sr. Naturalist Suzanne, Houston Texans Cheerleaders Bethany and Brianna, Texans Safety Kurtis Drummond and Sr. Keeper David.

Their habitat is associated with deep sandy soils within the Post Oak Savannah of east central Texas.  The toads burrow into the sand for protection from cold weather in winter and hot dry conditions in the summer.

Breeding season peaks in March and April.  Large numbers of eggs are produced; however, each egg has less than one percent probability of survival.  Eggs hatch within seven days and tadpoles turn into tiny toads in as little as fifteen days.

The Houston Zoo has a 1200 square foot Houston Toad quarantine facility, managed by two full-time Houston Toad specialists, that serves as a location for the captive breeding and head-starting of wild Houston toad egg strands for release.  Approximately 1,950 Houston toad tadpoles were transferred from the Houston Zoo to Texas State University for release into native habitat as of January 2015.  The zoo also has established a collaborative, conservation-based Houston Toad research project with local universities including Rice University and the University of Saint Thomas.

To meet Tina the Houston Toad, come by the Naturally Wild Swap Shop between 9AM and 5PM any day the Zoo is open.

 

Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here to find out more.

 

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.

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. 

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Over the past few days, our veterinary team has helped three sea turtles in need of special care. We are happy to partner with our friends at NOAA to help the sea turtles and give them a second chance in the wild. ... See MoreSee Less

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Over the past few days, our veterinary team has helped three sea turtles in need of special care. We are happy to partner with our friends at NOAA to help the sea turtles and give them a second chance in the wild.

 

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Sarah maybe they will have some to see again!!

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