Water: The Science Beneath the Surface

This post written by Mike Fannin, Manager, Life Support Systems

Life Support Systems?! What the heck does that department do?  From filtration to chemistry, this blog series is a behind the scenes look into the Zoo’s most mysterious department.


Part I: Koi Stream in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo

As anyone with a pond knows, the battle to keep things looking good is a never-ending one. Water can turn green overnight, making it difficult to see fish, and a thick carpet of slime can appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Both of these situations arise from some sort of imbalance in the pond, but the culprit is the same – algae.

There are tens of thousands of types of algae in natural aquatic systems. Mother Nature keeps them in check (just like all other species on the planet) as other organisms compete for resources, food and living space. Man-made water features are not as diverse as they are in nature, so there is little to no competitive pressure; in an outdoor pond, algae are often free to run wild.

This was the case with the newly renovated Koi Stream feature in the Children’s Zoo. The filtration system was upgraded, which made quick work of the single-celled algae that is able to turn clear water into pea soup, but hair algae is not so easily controlled – it is not suspended in the water like the single-celled varieties. If left unchecked, it grows on everything, trapping detritus (such as leaves and leftover food), slowing water flow and clogging filter intakes. In short, it can be an aquatic nightmare.

Algae in the koi stream.

So… what to do? There are a lot of chemicals that can be added to the water to kill algae, but none will permanently solve the problem. In fact, most will end up spawning even more problems! Here at the Houston Zoo, we prefer to work smarter and do things naturally; we needed to create more biological diversity in our aquatic habitat, and we decided that a great start was the addition of a teeny tiny invertebrate, the amphipod.

Amphipods are micro-crustaceans found in aquatic environments all over the world and vary widely in their habits. Some eat plants, others are scavengers, some are fierce predators, and some are even parasites. We needed a plant-eating species to tackle our algae issues, so with a few ampiphods donated by a Zoo volunteer, we began with a 600mL beaker of water with a sprig of aquatic plant and dead oak leaves to hide in. We offered these amphipods different types of algae found in various aquatic systems throughout the Zoo, but they didn’t seem to like any of it… we would have to try another species of ampiphod. Next, we collected a different species of amphipod from the Zoo’s Reflection Pool and offered them the same array of algae that we gave the first group – they didn’t seem to care for anything until we gave them hair algae from the Koi Stream, which they ate immediately.  We continued to offer Koi Stream algae over the next couple of weeks to make sure the novelty didn’t wear off.  Not only were the amphipods devouring the algae, they were growing and reproducing – SUCCESS!

Now that we had found the type of amphipod to address our algae situation, we needed a lot more of them. Three, twenty gallon amphipod breeding aquariums were set up in a secret location (not many amphipods get to have gorillas for neighbors!) We added sponge filters, submersible heaters, and plants, plus leaf litter to make their new home complete. Then, we divided our small colony between the three tanks and added a few dozen individuals from the Reflection Pool to supplement the population.  Once a week, we harvested hair algae from the Koi Stream to feed our new friends and within a few months, the population exploded into the thousands! Now we had the numbers to keep the Koi Stream algae under control, but we didn’t have the habitat to support this large population of hungry crustaceans… We couldn’t put them to work until they had a place to call home.

Amphipods can easily swim around to search for food, but the adults and young need small, confined spaces to hide in. Their preferences are dense aquatic plants (especially the roots) and leaf litter. Leaf litter wasn’t a good choice for us because it could interfere with our ability to keep the filtration system running smoothly. The Koi Stream has some natural hiding spots, but not enough for the number of amphipods we need to effectively control algae. And plants? Sometimes it’s difficult to establish plants in a koi system because koi love to eat plants!

We needed something that would support aquatic plant life while somehow keeping the plants away from the fish, that would also conform to the long narrow shape of our koi exhibit. “Floating islands,” which are planters that float on the water’s surface, allowing plant roots easy access to stream water were our best choice. Not only was this the answer to all the needs listed above, but the dense mesh that makes up the islands also provides ample habitat for our amphipods!

As mentioned before, nature is all about balance. Waste products generated by fish supply nutrients for plant life, and the more fish you have in a body of water, the more nutrients are available. By adding more plants to our koi system, we limit the nutrients available to algae since they are in direct competition with the plants for food. The plants (and floating islands themselves) will also create shade, which will help decrease algal growth, since the algae typically prefers direct sun. Adding voracious algae-eaters, our army of amphipods, will ensure that any hair algae that does manage to grow in the stream will be kept under control. The expected result will be a healthy, well-balanced exhibit with crystal clear water, using nothing but simple filtration and biodiversity.

Be sure and visit often to monitor our improvements to the Zoo’s outdoor aquatic systems – and stay tuned for floating planter updates and photos in our next blog entry, Children’s Zoo Koi Stream: Part II!


The beautification of the Koi Stream in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo is an ongoing team project between the Houston Zoo Water Quality department, Horticulture department and Children’s Zoo husbandry staff.



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This morning, we humanely euthanized our male, 20-year-old jaguar, Kan Balam. Due to the tremendous care provided to him by his keepers and our veterinary team, Kan Balam lived well beyond his expected lifespan. Jaguars expected lifespan in the wild is between 12-15 years.

The carnivore staff and veterinary team made the decision after his quality of life began to decline. Quality care and continuous advances in veterinary medicine extends animals’ lives longer than ever, with most felines in human care living well beyond previous generations. Because of this, all cats, including domestic house cats and jaguars, often spend a significant phase of their lives as older animals, and are at a higher risk for geriatric complications.

Read more about Kan B, and the love his keepers had for him on our blog: www.houstonzoo.org/blog/mourning-loss-geriatric-jaguar-kan-balam/
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This morning, we humanely euthanized our male, 20-year-old jaguar, Kan Balam.  Due to the tremendous care provided to him by his keepers and our veterinary team, Kan Balam lived well beyond his expected lifespan. Jaguars expected lifespan in the wild is between 12-15 years. 
 
The carnivore staff and veterinary team made the decision after his quality of life began to decline. Quality care and continuous advances in veterinary medicine extends animals’ lives longer than ever, with most felines in human care living well beyond previous generations. Because of this, all cats, including domestic house cats and jaguars, often spend a significant phase of their lives as older animals, and are at a higher risk for geriatric complications.

Read more about Kan B, and the love his keepers had for him on our blog: https://www.houstonzoo.org/blog/mourning-loss-geriatric-jaguar-kan-balam/

 

Comment on Facebook

Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur; happy kitty, sleepy kitty, purr purr purr #RIP #bigbangtheory

I know he lived a lot longer due to the excellent care he got at the Zoo.

Is this the one that had the limp?

This was my daughters favorite critter at the Zoo. We always went to say hello to him before anyone else whenever we went. When she was 7 years old we sent a post out to out neighborhood on Halloween saying Paisley was asking for pocket change donations in lieu of candy for Halloween and all amounts would be donated to Kan thru the zoo. She raised over $40 in coins! I still have the letter from the zoo thanking her for her donation. He was a sweet boy and will be missed. 😔

I saw him limping about 2 weekends ago. The first time we walked by he was fine. When we walked by on the way out he was limping and moaning pretty loudly. I wondered what happened but I figured his keeper already knew or would find out shortly. Super Sad. He was always a lively one.

Dunno if the Zoo staff considered him a pet but he was certainly a family member, and because of that i offer this: RainbowBridge Author Unknown Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart. Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....

Jaguar habitat is in the Zoo or Jungle's? ??or is only entertainments for person's? ??$$$$$$$!.Sorry animals the person's don't love you ..

Thank you Houston Zoo for taking such good care of him and all the animals! I've been going to this zoo since I was little bitty. I always enjoy it.

Aww. When interning in the carnivore dept he was one of my faves. So smart! Ashley remember when Angie was teaching him to do the moonwalk after Michael Jackson passed?

Aww I’m so sorry for the loss, I’ve seen him many times, he was absolutely gorgeous! I’m glad that you guys were able to make him comfortable, sometimes the best thing we can do is let them be at peace. Will miss this handsome guy; play hard at the Rainbow Bridge friend, day hi to my cat, Junior for me!! Much love to the HZI staff!!

Jaguars are one of my favorite and he seems like a sweet boy. I'm so sad but I'm happy he can be painless and be free now. RIP❤️

Beautiful jaguar ....so grateful for the Houston Zoo keepers and veterinary team that gave their time and efforts to share this awesome jaguar with us for so many years.

Thank you for doing what was right and kind for Kan Balam even though it was hard and painful for you. That’s true love for an animal. ❤️

What a great long life he lived because of his excellent care at the zoo Thoughts go out to his keepers and the entire Houston Zoo staff

Thank you to you and your staff for the years of quality care given this magnificant creature.

Sending love to the keepers that are broken hearted right now. And thank you for all the care you’ve given.

RIP Kan Balam. You have given the visitors so much pleasure just watching you over these years. You were taken care of by top notch professional handlers, etc.

I'm so sorry for your loss. Thanks for taking such great care of him so he was able to live a long life. My thoughts are with his keepers and all who adored him. <3

I am soo sorry for the loss of this handsome fella Kan Balam. May he rest in peace and run free or any pain over the rainbow bridge.. My heart and prayers go out to each and every one of the staff at the Zoo.

Aww, so very sorry for your loss, Houston. Condolences to his keepers and all who loved him. ((((Lorie Fortner)))) He surely lived a long life with the great care he received at Houston.

Katie Rose Buckley-Jones I won’t ever forget the time you asked him to bring something and he ripped off a piece of cardboard and tried to hand it to you ❤️ thank you for introducing me to him. Sending you guys many hugs

He was well-cared for and most of all well-loved. My heartfelt condolences to those missing Kan B as well as me. What an amazing ambassador for his kind. What a beautiful old gentleman. Thank you for loving him into old age and giving him peace.

So sorry to the keeping staff for your loss i cant imagine how youre feeling :( his old age is a testimony to the amazing care he received

I will miss him. The last time I saw him he looked tired, and it appeared his foot was bothering him.

Sad to hear of this. Thanks for taking such good and compassionate care for him and the other animals.

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Social Media Guy to Sea Lion Keeper: Can you send me a pic of you working with the sea lions in this chilly weather?

Sea Lion Keeper: Sure... (sends picture next to sea lion statue)

SMG: I'm still using this.
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Social Media Guy to Sea Lion Keeper: Can you send me a pic of you working with the sea lions in this chilly weather?

Sea Lion Keeper: Sure... (sends picture next to sea lion statue)

SMG: Im still using this.

 

Comment on Facebook

Are there some zoo animals that enjoy this weather?

SMG is another reason why Houston Zoo is the best Zoo!

Happy New Year “sea lion keeper “ 💖💖

More snow for TJ and Max ❤️ lucky them!

Are we positive that’s the statue rather than it really just being that cold? 😛

That’s my best friend Sophie for ya! 😂

Brrrrr

Omg the Zoo is so awesome 😂😂😂 Alana Berry

Omg be warm sweetoe

Haha!! Good one!

Sweetie 💞

Ashley Jucker 😂

Mike DePope

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