April’s Featured Members: The Schmalz Family

We love our Members. Their incredible support allows us to make a difference to animals both locally and all over the world. This month, we’re spotlighting a Zoo Member that deserves recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to April’s Featured Members: The Schmalz Family.

We asked the Schmalz’ what being Zoo Members meant to them. Here’s what they had to say. “Becoming a member at the Houston Zoo was an easy choice for our family. As a native Houstonian, I have fond memories of visiting the Houston Zoo as a child and wanted the same for our daughter June. Though the hippo house of my childhood is no more, we cherish the time we spend at the zoo making memories with our new favorite animals. Since becoming members last year, we have visited more times than we can count.

Member Mornings are a standing date on our family calendar and we look forward to having a backstage peek and learning something new every month. A recent Member Morning featuring the Asian Elephants was especially cold and rainy, but we all agree that it is the most fun zoo visit we can remember. The chilly temperature meant only the bravest Houstonians had the pleasure of learning all about residents Thai, Tucker & Baylor from Zookeeper Aaron. What a treat! Since the zoo is centrally located, we often enjoy meeting friends and family for an afternoon of animals and fun. The Houston Zoo is our family’s backyard and we look forward to being members and supporting our city’s landmark for many years to come.”

 From all of us here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to the Schmalz family and all of our Zoo Members. As a Houston Zoo Member, your support truly makes an impact on the growth of our Zoo and conservation efforts. THANKS!

Naked Mole-rats: The Super Heroes of the Animal World

What can feel no pain, is impervious to cancer or Alzheimer’s, and can chew through pretty much anything in a single bound? The naked mole-rat! These little creatures aren’t the prettiest to look at, but they are possibly some of the most fascinating—and superhero like—animals around.

Meet the naked mole-rat!
Meet the naked mole-rat – our super hero!

When a naked mole-rat begins life, he pretty much looks the exact same as he does when he’s an old man – wrinkly, pink, and well…naked. Just tinier. You’ll notice whiskers around his mouth that act as sweepers to push away dirt, as well as teeth that are meant for digging.

You could say naked mole-rats have two mouths, in fact – one for digging, and one for tearing up food, which mainly consists of fruits, veggies, and roots. This is convenient, because the live in massive underground networks, so roots make a lot of sense as food. They are able to close their “second” mouth, the eating one, when digging their tunnels.

Mmm, snacks! Naked mole-rats love fruits, veggies, and roots.
Mmm, snacks! Naked mole-rats love to eat fruits, veggies, and roots.

It’s hard to compare a naked mole-rat to much else in the animal kingdom, but their social structure definitely works like a beehive. Everyone has a role in the colony and it is highly organized. There is a queen of the colony, and if that queen dies, everything falls apart and the other females engage in a fight to the death until a new queen is chosen. That new queen will morph into a baby producing machine, too – her hormones cause physical changes that make her spine actually arch upward so she can hold more babies!

Because they live so far underground, naked mole-rats can survive with little to no oxygen. It’s a good thing they can tunnel well, because their main predators are ground-dwelling snakes. These animals aren’t endangered, but they can be a nuisance to farmers trying to grow crops. Or, if you take it the other way, the farmers provide much excitement for the mole-rats, giving them a steady and consistent banquet!

At the Zoo, we create tunnels for the mole-rats so they can feel right at home!
At the Zoo, we create tunnels for the mole-rats so they can feel right at home!

So if you live underground and it’s pitch black (and your eyesight isn’t that great anyways), how do you tell your friends from your enemies? Smell, of course – and not the best smell either. Naked mole-rats build latrines where they all go to the bathroom, and then they roll around in the latrine so they smell like well…let’s just say the rest of the colony.

At the Zoo, we’ve got 48 naked mole-rats in our Carruth Natural Encounters building, along with other species of mole-rat like Damara mole-rats, another species that is much bigger and much less naked. You can’t miss them when you visit, because there’s a gigantic mole-rat sculpture above their burrows!

The Damara mole-rat: not quite so naked
The Damara mole-rat: not quite so naked

Have mole-rat mania and can’t wait to learn more? Visit us in our Natural Encounters building and ask us about them – you haven’t even heard the half of the crazy facts about these guys.

Thanks to Casey Norra, Zookeeper in Natural Encounters, for sharing his passion about mole-rats and giving us this fantastic animal information!

Why Do Babirusas Like Mud so Much?

Post written and video created by Joy Oria

There’s a good chance when you see our babirusas they’ll be coated in mud. Unable to cool themselves by sweating or panting, babirusas, like other pig species, use wallowing in water or mud to stay cool.

A female babirusa
A female babirusa

Wallowing has the added bonus of providing sunburn protection and removing skin parasites. Recently scientists have considered that perhaps pigs have not evolved functional sweat glands because they prefer to wallow, and that the act of wallowing is in itself pleasurable.

Decide for yourself if wallowing is fun by watching this video of Jambi, our ten year old male babirusa, getting into in a recently freshened mud wallow!

Horns? Antlers? What’s what?

This post written by Memory Mays

If you have recently visited the Houston Zoo, you may have seen some of our baby antelope who are beginning to grow horns.

Surprisingly, horns have several important purposes that not only affect the species’ behavior, but also help them to obtain food, regulate body temperature, and for some species, get the ladies. No animal is born with a full set of horns. It takes time to grow them and for most species horn buds do not appear until they are several months old.

As a horn grows, it develops a system of blood vessels on the interior. This is one feature that makes horns different from antlers. Where horns have blood flowing through the horn, antlers have blood flowing through a skin called “velvet” that covers the bone. Once the antler is fully grown the velvet is shed and leaves the bony structure behind as a mature antler.

Since there is no blood or vital organs found in a mature antler, it is common for the antler to fall off and regrow. Horns, however, cannot regrow. Once a horn breaks off it will remain that way for the rest of the animal’s life.  Antlers also differ from horns because they can develop a shape that resembles branches. Horns do not develop a branch shape. In some species they grow straight or have a slight curve like our Yellow-Backed Duikers. In several other species, horns may form spiral and corkscrew shapes like in our Bongo, Greater Kudu, Giant Eland, and Nyala . On your next visit to the Houston Zoo, stop by to see the different types of horns on some of our antelopes!

Rice University Interns Solve Giraffe Feeder Challenge

Written by Mike Tseng, a summer intern at the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership

When people think of giraffes, enrichment is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But these adorable, tall animals need enrichment as much as any other animal!

Acacia Tree

In the wild, giraffes like to eat from tall acacia trees. These trees have thorns which make it difficult for the giraffes to feed from them, and sometimes there are ants living on the trees, which attack the giraffes when they try to feed! However, the giraffes are well equipped to meet these challenges, too! They have flexible, 18-inch long tongues they use to navigate around the thorns on the trees. These tongues also have thick skin to protect them from thorns and ants.


Thorn on acacia tree – ouch!


In the zoo, the giraffes are safe from threats when they are feeding, but they also don’t have many chances to use their wonderful tongues. Scientific research has shown that when giraffes don’t get to use their tongues often, they can become “bored” and may exhibit undesirable behaviors such as licking trees and fences. In order to avoid such behaviors, the zoo wanted to build a feeder that lets the giraffes exercise their tongues more often.


Interns at Rice University build a giraffe feeder


For the past six months, a team of freshman engineers from Rice University have been working on an enrichment feeder that challenges the giraffes by making them use their tongues for longer periods of time. This feeder also needs to look more natural in the giraffes’ exhibit. The current feeder is a plastic barrel covered with bamboo with holes drilled on the sides, and bamboo branches attached to it. The bamboo branches get into the way of the giraffes feeding, just like tree branches would in the real world. Also, holes in this device are just the right size–giraffes can put their tongues into the holes, but can’t put in their whole snouts, so they can’t eat the hay without using their tongues to grab it!

The giraffe feeder was created through a rigorous engineering design process by the Rice University freshmen, and no less than four prototypes were produced before the final feeder was made. Of course, we didn’t want the giraffes to get hurt using these feeders! The first prototypes went through safety tests before the giraffes used them. One was dropped from 12½ feet over 25 times just to prove that it was durable!  http://youtu.be/Gnp2Mu0YQZc

Even though the prototype is finished, we still don’t know if the giraffes will actually like it!

Will the giraffes like the new feeder?

Before the project can be completed, the puzzle feeder needs to prove that it indeed enriches the Houston Zoo giraffes. This means increasing feeding time and reducing negative stereotypical behavior in them. In order to prove these things, video clips of the giraffes interacting with the zoo’s cage feeder and our puzzle feeder are being recorded. By comparing the recordings, the Rice University students will be able to know if the giraffe are more enriched by the new feeder.

If you happen to pass by the giraffe exhibit this week, keep your eyes open–you may be able to see the feeder in action! If you’re not going to the zoo, don’t worry; the feeder may also be featured live on the zoo’s giraffe webcam at https://www.houstonzoo.org/webcam/giraffes/platform-cam/! You can also follow the Rice University freshmen’s progress on this and many other projects on their blog at http://rcelinternship.wordpress.com/.

Giraffes eating from the new feeder

Rattlesnakes Rock!


It’s no secret that the Houston Zoo Reptile House staff love rattlesnakes… but why?  What do we know that you don’t?   For many people, the sight or sound of a rattlesnake results in sheer terror.  Yes, rattlesnakes are potentially dangerous due to their elegant venom delivery system, but they typically give you a warning well before they strike – why do you suppose that is?  Let’s touch on some rattlesnake physiology…


Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)


Rattlesnakes are highly evolved animals.  Their skull is very delicate, having an open framework with fairly thin bones – compare this to a python, which has a reinforced, almost solid skull.  A python needs a heavy skull because they grab and hold their prey, which is often kicking and thrashing about (I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same). A rattlesnake relies on its venom to subdue its meal;  it bites and quickly lets go because a thrashing animal could do some serious and irreparable damage to the snake’s skull.  After envenomating its prey – a rodent for example – the rattlesnake then patiently waits for the venom to do its job.  At this point the rodent may have wandered off before dying, so the rattlesnake tracks it using some pretty cool high-tech equipment:  heat sensing pits (which form infrared images, allowing them to “see” in the dark) and a complex chemosensory system  (allowing them to “taste” their way around with great precision and accuracy).  Using these amazing built in tools, they can safely track the same rodent they bit a few minutes before and eat it in peace without any injury from a struggle.  Check out some amazing rattlesnake footage from David Attenborough’s BBC series “Life in Cold Blood” here.


Mojave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus)


So back to the rattle… when a rattlesnake rattles, it is threatened – something or someone has invaded its personal space.   Although most people are under the impression that ALL snakes are out to get them (especially rattlesnakes), this couldn’t be farther from the truth.   These snakes want absolutely nothing to do with us and will always flee if there is an escape route available.  An animal of our stature could easily kill a snake as small as a rattler – if a human were to accidentally step on one, that fragile skull I mentioned earlier would be crushed.  So if you threaten a rattlesnake (even by accident) and it has to protect itself, its rattle will send you a clear message:  Don’t tread on me!   This audible warning makes rattlesnakes pretty darn polite in my opinion…   But the real reason they give you fair warning is (again) they don’t want a confrontation and  they don’t want to waste venom on an enemy unless they are forced to.  Venom takes a lot of energy to make and the snake would rather use it for its intended purpose (to catch food).  So,if you ever hear/see an agitated rattlesnake in the wild, simply stop, stay calm, locate the snake and slowly back away from it until you are out of harms way.


Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)


Rattlesnakes are often misunderstood and underappreciated animals.  They are unique to the Americas and are found nowhere else in the world – the American Southwest and Mexico boast the highest diversity of species.  They have very caring courtship behaviors and give birth to live young; parental care has even been documented in some species. They have striking colors and markings yet blend in perfectly with their surroundings.  They play the very important role of  predator in many ecosystems and keep populations of other critters under control, while being a prey item themselves for other snakes and hawks.  And come on – they have RATTLES on the end of their tails!  How cool is that?!!



Those who care for rattlesnakes for a living will tell you that they are peaceful and curious animals.  Working with them on a daily basis allows us to get to know them as individuals – yep, they have distinct personalities and quirks just like every other animal!  Starting to see why we love rattlesnakes so much?  Hopefully you are beginning to understand why we want to protect them.

Rattlesnakes were once well respected and  even symbolized our great country in its infancy.  Now, hundreds of thousands of rattlesnakes are persecuted and needlessly killed every year.  Rattlesnake roundups – events in which these snakes are collected from the wild and slaughtered as a public spectacle – are a severe threat to rattlesnake populations in the state of Texas.  As a native Texan, I am painfully embarrassed that these events persist  – the animals are treated disrespectfully before they are killed (and they are ALL killed) and this sends a horrible message to event attendees, especially children.  Help us put an end to the killing and ask that these yearly festivals be changed to educational ones that advocate respect for nature – before it’s too late for the rattlesnakes of Texas.


Aruba Island Rattlesnake (Crotalus unicolor), the rarest rattlesnake on Earth. Photo: Jeff Whitlock


So take the time to learn more about the fascinating world of rattlesnakes and then spread the word – shout it from the rooftops!! RATTLESNAKES ROCK!!

Still don’t appreciate rattlesnakes?  Think the only good snake is a dead snake?  Hmm… I hope you don’t mind a few hundred rodent house guests because without snakes around, I can guarantee they’ll be moving in soon!



Presenting: Paternal Primates

This year in honor of Father’s Day we are having a TOAD-ally Awesome Father’s Day event at the zoo and giving you a chance to name a Houston Toad in honor of Dad.

We have a lot of dads here at the Zoo and they come in (literally!) all shapes and sizes.  In the animal kingdom there is a great deal of variation in the level of paternal care given by dads.   Male seahorses, for instance, carry the eggs of their offspring inside their bodies, then hatch them and give birth to their live babies.  I know, weird, right?
Male seahorses carry the eggs of their young and then give birth to them. This is called ovoviviparity. Use THAT word in your next scrabble game!
Then there are the multitudes of dads in the animal kindom that “Conceive and Leave” as my colleague put it and have zero involvement in the care or rearing of their young.   Many other species fall somewhere between those polar opposites.  
But this blog isn’t about fish, even ones as amazing and mind-blowing as seahorses.  No, this is a blog about primates.  Otherwise I would have to change the title, and frankly it took me several long, agonizing seconds to come up with this one.  
The natural history of a species dictates the paternal and maternal roles, and within the primate group, the entire spectrum of care is exhibited.  Primates are nothing if not adaptable, though, so even within a species, individuals may show more or less paternal care than is usual or expected.   
Orangutans, for example, generally have little or nothing do do with their offspring.  Our male Doc, however, not only tolerates, but often enjoys the company of his son Solaris.  (Doc is also the father of our newest baby, Aurora.) Doc and Solaris even wrestle and play together once in a while.
Solaris and his dad Doc have a laugh together.

Some of the smallest primates, on the other hand, make the best dads.  Among the many species of marmosets and tamarins, it’s the dads who carry the kids around and provide day care.  Mom is there to provide milk and attend the PTA meetings, but dad is the main caregiver and transporter.

A pygmy marmoset dad and baby. Caution: The cuteness of this photo could cause permanent retinal damage!

And speaking of Dad-Of-The-Year awards, siamang dads are well-deserving.  Like tamarins and marmosets, siamang dads are very involved in the lives of their youngsters.  And since siamangs don’t leave for college until they are eight or nine years old, it’s a fair commitment on dad’s (and mom’s, too) part.  Siamangs dads help moms carry their offspring from about 8 months until about two years,  at which time the kid usually gets her first car and is embarrassed to be seen with either parent.

Our male siamang Boomer sadly recently passed away, but he was a prime example of a great siamang dad to his daughters Raya and Leela. Baby Leela plays on top of Dad Boomer while Mom Jambi looks on.


Siamangs and tamarins are (mostly) monogamous, so the male can pretty much count on his mate’s offspring having his genes.  It is to his advantage, then, to put a lot of effort into making sure the kid prospers and goes on to marry the football captain.

Chimps, on the other hand, live in large multi-male, multi-female groups, and since the ladies don’t “limit their options”, so to speak,  it’s basically anybody’s guess who the kids belong to.   Most of the time, child care is up to mom, but as the kids grow and learn how to be chimps, the involvement of the adult males is important.  Big brothers especially, play with and look out for their younger siblings, but most big males, even the tough guys, enjoy playing with the youngsters. 

Willie the Kid and two adult males play with each other. One of them is his dad, but since we didn't show them the genetic test results, they don't know that. In the foreground, Willie's mom Lulu wonders when she might expect dinner to be served .

It has even been recorded more than once in the wild that seemingly unrelated adult males have “adopted” very young kids when they have lost their moms.  They will protect and even carry the infants through the forest, looking out for them as best they can.  Now if that doesn’t warm your heart this Father’s Day, nothing will! 

Happy Father’s Day to all you Dad’s out there looking out for your little ones!

Celebrate Dad by giving him a memorable Father’s Day gift this year–name a Houston Toad after him!  With your gift, you help support the Houston Toads, a critically endangered species native to Texas.  Click here to learn more about Houston Toads and how you can further the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts that help ensure their survival.


Apes (gorillas, chimps, orangutans, siamangs and gibbons) are very special animals that have unique adaptations that give them the aptitude to accomplish astounding tasks. An adaptation is a characteristic that evolves over time to help an animal be better suited to its habitat. These adaptations give animals the natural ability to do things that other species cannot. 

Willie makes a bamboo tool to fish for treats


 Every morning we wake up and get dressed. It is a simple task that we do every day with the only real tough decision being what we are going to wear. Not much thought goes into how we will put on those clothes. Now, imagine how much harder it would be to do those simple tasks without thumbs. Thumbs allow our chimps to hold onto sticks to get items out of the termite mounds. Having an opposable thumb is just one of several adaptations that apes and other primates have.
Apes also have a rotary shoulder joint which allows them to brachiate (swing) and hang from their arms. Some apes do this better than others. Gibbons can brachiate at speeds as high as 35 mph and can travel as far as 20 feet in one swing! So, maybe we should change the name “monkey bars” to “ape bars”.

 Come visit us this Ape-ril to see our fantastic animals display their ape-titude!
Written by Primate Keeper Tina Carpenter


Bee-lieve it or Not…

Blue Faced Honeyeater Photo courtesy of: www.plantbiology.siu.edu

Honeyeaters are important pollinators of many Australian flowering plants.  All 170 species of honeyeaters have a unique adaptation:  a long tongue with a brush-like tip that they use to get nectar from flowers.  The tongue can be extended into the nectar about 10 times per second!

Honeyeaters aren’t the only birds that help pollinate.  Honeycreepers, sunbirds, Brush-tongued parrots, and hummingbirds are just a few of the birds all over the world who are pollinators.  There are 2,000 bird species globally that feed on nectar, the insects, and the spiders associated with nectar bearing flowers. 

For more Bee-lieve it or Not facts, come join the Houston Zoo in celebrating National Polinator Week on June 26th and 27th. We will have tables and chats from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. all about our favorite pollinators.  Bee sure to  record your pollinating adventures in a nature blog to share at the Swap Shop!

Bee-lieve it of Not…

Bumblebee on Lantana

In the U.S., the economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion each year.  Bumblebees are highly efficient in pollinating many crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cranberries, and blue berries.  Yumm!  Best of all, most bumblebees won’t bother you unless you bother them.  When gardening at home, please consider using native plants.  Most of all, be kind to pollinators, consider going organic.  Insecticides tend to kill indiscriminately and will eliminate a lot of your pollinators.  The larger the variety of wildlife in your yard or garden (insects, birds, toads, lizards, etc.) the less “pest” insects you will have.  Naturally!

For more information on creating a native garden, visit: http://www.xerces.org/pollinators-south-central-region/

For more Bee-lieve it or Not facts, come join the Houston Zoo in celebrating National Polinator Week on June 26th and 27th. We will have tables and chats from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. all about our favorite pollinators.  Bee sure to  record your pollinating adventures in a nature blog to share at the Swap Shop!

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