National Zoo Keeper Week – Kenny’s Story

From July 19-25, zoos all over the U.S. are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week. Here at the Houston Zoo, we are honored and privileged to have such amazing professionals on our team. We got a chance to sit down with a few of our keepers and hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Kenny Stange – Aquarium Keeper

IMG_20150718_112745467As an Aquarium Keeper at the Houston Zoo, I am responsible for maintaining appropriate water chemistry and animal health for many of the freshwater exhibits in the Kipp Aquarium and the Natural Encounters building. Regular testing of water quality, frequent water changes, and proper maintenance of filtration equipment ensures the best habitat for our aquatic life. Supplements are added to promote plant growth and we also add vitamins to our prepared diets to see that our fish get all the necessary nutrition. I SCUBA dive some of the exhibits to inspect and clean them. Additionally, I enjoy leading keeper chats during the week, where I get the chance to interact with our guests and teach them about the areas I work in.

I work with the Yellow-Bellied Piranha and Amazon fishes in the Kipp Aquarium, take care of the freshwater fishes and turtles in the Natural Encounters building, as well as the Brackish exhibit, where you can find the very interesting and peculiar Four-eyed Fish. A very popular attraction for Zoo guests is the Red-Bellied Piranha exhibit in Natural Encounters and the exciting keeper chats that are presented there.

My passion for aquatic life began as a kid when I spent my summers around the Atlantic Ocean and the many lakes of South Carolina. This fascination increased as I grew and began maintaining my own aquarium at home. The journey that brought me to the Houston Zoo began shortly after graduating from the University of South Carolina with a Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Science. I decided being an aquarist was my calling after completing my degree and spending several years volunteering in the Aquarium Department at Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens in Columbia, South Carolina. I focused on learning everything I could about aquarium husbandry and applied for every aquarium and zoo opening I could find. My persistence and determination to fulfill my dream of becoming an aquarist finally paid off when I got a call from Houston Zoo after three years of diligent searching.

For those wanting to become an aquarist themselves, I highly recommend getting involved in field work, maintaining your own aquarium and volunteering at public aquariums early and often. Read everything you can on the subject. My opportunity here in Houston came from working hard and earning a strong recommendation from my supervisor at Riverbanks Zoo. I wish anyone interested in becoming an aquarist the best of luck. It is an incredibly rewarding experience that allows you to work alongside great people and interact with wonderful guests on a daily basis.

I hope everyone can appreciate that Aquarists at the Houston Zoo are not simply ensuring animals are alive and well fed. Our jobs require a strong foundation in biology, chemistry, animal behavior and even physics. We spend countless hours maintaining exhibits and life support systems, preparing proper diets (not flake food!), and participating in several conservation projects.

 

 

National Zoo Keeper Week – Amy’s Story

From July 19-25, zoos all over the U.S. are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week. Here at the Houston Zoo, we are honored and privileged to have such amazing professionals on our team. We got a chance to sit down with a few of our keepers and hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Amy Lavergne – Senior Zookeeper in the Children’s Zoo

photo-2I have known I wanted to work with animals for most of my life. When I was 5, I went to Brookfield Zoo as a kid and saw their dolphin show. After that, I knew I had to give up my life long dream of working at Dairy Queen to work with animals. I did the zoo crew program at the zoo in my hometown and eventually worked there. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in animal biology, I was able to get a job at the Houston Zoo. Fast forward 14 years and I’m still loving what I do. I’m a primary keeper in the desert/prairie section of the Children’s Zoo.  I take care of bats, mongoose, roadrunners, and various smaller animals every day.  I also train pigs, birds of prey, our skunk, and our bobcat. One of the favorite parts of my job is teaching people about the animals that I take care of.

“What do you want people to know about your job?” – It is a lot of hard work, made even harder in the heat!

Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs

Last year, our aquarium supervisor Mike Concannon embarked on a trip to Key Largo, Florida as part of the Staff Conservation Fund to assist in conservation and restoration for endangered and threatened coral species in the Florida Keys, established by the Coral Restoration Foundation. Since it is the Houston Zoo’s mission to bring conservation and awareness for all the species living here, this daily blog series highlights his journal entries detailing his trip.

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The following series of posts is a recount of a trip I took in May of this year which was made possible by the Houston Zoo’s Staff Conservation Fund. For those who are unaware of this program, it allows staff members to apply for internal grants that are used to fund conservation activities around the globe. Proposals are reviewed by a diverse selection committee who makes decisions on funding every quarter. Every HZI employee is eligible for such a grant regardless of Department.

The most impressive thing about this program is that it relies upon the financial contributions of staff members to function. This says a great deal about the commitment of our staff as a whole.  My work would not be possible without all of their support.

My project is an enhancement to an existing conservation effort being undertaken by the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, Florida. Their focus is the restoration of two severely threatened coral species in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean. Due to a number of factors, staghorn and elkhorn corals have undergone declines approaching 98 per cent in most areas.

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:

 

Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs – Day 1

Prior to arrival in the Keys, a lot of the details of my trip were worked out by Dive Operations Manager Pamela Hughes.  She was very accommodating and professional.  I can’t begin to express how easy she made this endeavor.

Monday, May 19 2014

7 a.m.

In speaking with Pamela Hughes of Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) yesterday, diving today is not likely.  On land, wind gusts approaching 25 mph make for very poor conditions on the water.  I will be meeting with her at Coral Restoration Foundation’s new Education Center, located at the Pilot House Marina at 10 a.m. to get oriented to the program.  Hopefully, the winds die down soon so we can get in the water.

1-Boats
Photo credit: (Dozier’s Waterway Guide)

12 p.m.

The Education Center was quite nice and well put together, with lots of large graphics and hands-on displays.  They even have a newly set up marine aquarium which will eventually house fragments of corals from the nursery.

Photo (above): Coral Restoration Foundation Education Center Grand Opening Party – Credit: www.coralrestoration.org
Photo (above): Coral Restoration Foundation Education Center Grand Opening Party –
Credit: www.coralrestoration.org

 

Photos above: Examples of educational displays at the Center.
Photos above: Examples of educational displays at the Center.

I had the pleasure of meeting CRF staff members Pamela, Ken, Kayla, and Jessica and they were all optimistic about being able to dive by tomorrow.  Pamela showed me around the Education Center and did some hands-on training for the work we would be doing in the nursery and outplant sites.  We pretended to fragment (break), hang (with monofiliament line and double barreled crimps), bundle, tag  and plant coral fragments using painted skeletons and play-do standing in for epoxy.  She also stressed that it was important to scrape and hammer all living material from the immediate area where the epoxy is to be applied to the reef.  Though I’ve used plenty of epoxy in my career to attach corals to live rock, I can’t say I’ve ever strung them from monofilament line.  It takes a bit of practice, and was sure to be more difficult underwater.  Luckily, the “dry run” is well organized and effective.  It’s not easy to communicate complex thoughts underwater with a regulator in your mouth.  You really need to have a good grasp on what you are expected to do before you get in the water.

Pamela Hughes demonstrates fragmentation and outplanting techniques at the Education Center.
Pamela Hughes demonstrates fragmentation and outplanting techniques at the Education Center.

Pamela explains that there are a number of different experimental rigs at the nursery site. CRF continuously tries to improve their technique, but it seems that coral trees are the most effective way for now.  She suggests that they are abandoning the idea of the line nurseries.  Though they are very effective, strong storms leave the corals hopelessly entangled with one another.  And though there have been no incidents, there is some concern that animals like turtles might become entangled.

5-Nursery
An abandoned experimental rig in the nursery. CRF is always trying to improve their designs.

Since diving was not a possibility for today, they asked me to show up at their lab on Tavernier Key in the morning to make coral tags and transport containers.  Hopefully, the winds will die down and we’ll be able to dive tomorrow afternoon.

I’m free for the rest of the day, so I figure I’ll do some exploring.  I spent the summer of 1996 in the Middle Keys volunteering for the Dolphin Research Center and am anxious to see how things have changed.

6 p.m.

I stopped by the Dolphin Research Center and it has changed a LOT since I volunteered there in 1998.  I also stopped by the Sea Turtle Hospital as well.  Both are great facilities that are worthy of your time if you are ever in the area.  After a quick trip to Seven Mile Bridge, I headed back north where I stumbled upon Windley Key State Geological Park.  Surprisingly, it was the highlight of the day.

Credit: Nathan Wolkenhauer
Credit: Nathan Wolkenhauer

Click here to learn more about my visit at Windley Key State Geological Park!

8 p.m.

I wanted to make sure I caught the sunset, so I headed to Marker 88 Restaurant  to grab a tasty Cuban sandwich for dinner.  The service and the view were top notch.  Restaurants facing bayside are few and far between in the Upper Keys, so I was happy to find this one nearby.  It is tradition in the Keys (and I’m sure in many other island communities) to clap for the Sun when it sets, to make sure it reappears tomorrow.  Spoiler alert:  It did.

Enjoying the sunset at Marker 88 restaurant.
Enjoying the sunset at Marker 88 restaurant.

The winds have died down quite a bit, so I have my fingers crossed that diving will be a possibility tomorrow!

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:

 

 

Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs – Day 1 (Windley Key State Park)

Credit: Nathan Wolkenhauer
Credit: Nathan Wolkenhauer

Windley Key State Park has great historical, cultural, geological, and biological significance to the area.  It is the site of a 20th century quarry for Key Largo limestone, which was used to build the Overseas Railroad.  Completed in 1912, the Overseas Railroad was the first terrestrial connection between the mainland of Florida and Key West.  After being largely destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the rail line was abandoned and the remaining infrastructure was sold to the State of Florida.  Utilizing surviving supports, the state converted them to the highway known as U.S. 1 in 1938.  This highway was utilized until the early 1980s, when a new highway was constructed beside it.  The most impressive part of the construction is a bridge that extends all the way from Marathon to Little Duck Key, a seven mile stretch! The original stretch of the aptly named “Seven Mile Bridge” is accessible by foot and is worth a visit.

Northernmost point of the original Seven Mile Bridge.
Northernmost point of the original Seven Mile Bridge.

Even after the railroad was completed in 1912, quarrying continued for the highly decorative Key Largo limestone that can be found in some of the older architecture of the area.  Though the quarry is now defunct, examples of quarry equipment remain on the land today for visitors to view.

Example of quarry equipment on display at Windley Key State Park.
Example of quarry equipment on display at Windley Key State Park.
Photo of Hurricane Monument, fashioned of Key Largo Limestone.
Photo of Hurricane Monument, fashioned of Key Largo Limestone.

From a geological and biological standpoint, the Windley Key site offers exciting clues to the natural history of the region.  The highest elevation in the entire Keys (16 feet) occurs within the Park, the remains of an ancient reef that flourished here tens of thousands of years ago.

Though initial sedimentation began millions of years ago, the uppermost limestone formations found here are the result of an ancient reef that reached its peak around 100,000 years ago, when sea levels were 25 feet higher than they currently are.  At that time, this ancient reef was under 10 or more feet of water.  A modern reef flourished at this time and it teemed with life.

Later, at the height of glaciation (26,000 ybp), sea levels dropped 350 feet below current levels and these reefs were exposed as land…the predecessors of the current island chain.  As water receded, the life on the former reefs were compacted and fossilized into what is called Key Largo Limestone. It contains a countless number of marine organisms, cemented together with calcareous sediment and is prized for its aesthetic appeal.  This Key Largo limestone differs from Miami Limestone (which is found in Miami and the Lower Keys) in this respect.  Miami limestone is composed mainly of smaller sediments, while Key Largo limestone has numerous inclusions of large marine fossils…a result of being a massive ancient reef.

www.keyshistory.org Greyed area is shoreline from about 6000 years ago until present day. Blue area represents shoreline 125,000 years ago. Red shaded area represents shoreline around 26,000 years ago.
www.keyshistory.org
Greyed area is shoreline from about 6000 years ago until present day. Blue area represents shoreline 125,000 years ago. Red shaded area represents shoreline around 26,000 years ago.
Example of raw Key Largo limestone, found on the quarry walls of Windley Key.
Example of raw Key Largo limestone, found on the quarry walls of Windley Key.

As the last glacial period came to a close, melting glaciers began to refill the oceans.  By about 6,000 years ago sea level had risen to about its current level, leaving the chain of small islands now known as the Florida Keys.  During the sea level rise, as water spilled over the continental shelf, it cut passes between the limestone structures, creating the individual islands of the Keys.  The larger masses in the Upper Keys were able to withstand a lot more flow without channeling and now are able to shield shallow, eastward reefs from the influx of water from the Florida Bay.  Ancient, highly fossilized limestone is preserved near the surface in these areas.  The Lower Keys were more diminutive, so more channeling occurred.  They do not offer such protection to the eastern/southern side, so developed shallow reefs are sparse there.  Miami limestone dominates the upper layers of rock in the south because large amounts of precipitated calcareous sediment have accumulated on top of the lower-lying Key Largo limestone as a result of the influx of warmer, more saline and nutrient rich waters from the Florida Bay.

Looking at a map of the Florida Keys, it is possible to see the difference between these areas visually.  The Upper Keys (north of Big Pine Key) are much longer on an east-west axis than their Lower Keys counterparts.  The Lower Keys have a longer north-south dimension to them, riddled with numerous passes from the Florida Bay to the Atlantic Ocean.

Figure from Halley and Shinn, 1997. (http://sofia.usgs.gov/publications/papers/keys_geohydro/). Note the dramatic differences in geology and structure between the upper and lower Keys.
Figure from Halley and Shinn, 1997. (http://sofia.usgs.gov/publications/papers/keys_geohydro/). Note the dramatic differences in geology and structure between the upper and lower Keys.
Photo Credit: NASA via http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/ocean/limestone.html.
Photo Credit: NASA via http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/ocean/limestone.html.

A thin layer of rich soil developed on the islands, allowing for vegetative growth.  The culmination of the events that created Windley Key provide for a very diverse assemblage of trees on the Island.  The park offers five different hiking trails to explore the habitat, highlighting over 40 species of native trees and plants in the tropical hardwood hammock forest.  Visitors are likely to see many birds, insects and small reptiles, but mammals are sparse  in this island forest community.

A typical view amongst the hardwood hammock forest.
A typical view amongst the hardwood hammock forest.
A laminated guidebook helps you navigate and identify species and points of interest through the use of numbered posts.
A laminated guidebook helps you navigate and identify species and points of interest through the use of numbered posts.

At the end of the trails, an education center helps to fill in where the trail guidebook leaves off.  Displays help to demonstrate the formation of coral reefs and island forest communities.  Information is presented on a level that appeals both to serious scientists and curious children.

Displays in the Education Center focus on coral reef formation and island forest communities.
Displays in the Education Center focus on coral reef formation and island forest communities.

Windley Key State Park is a must see for visitors in my opinion.  If you enjoy birds, reptiles, trees, plants, hiking or history…you won’t be disappointed.

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:

Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs – Day 2

Tuesday, May 20

11 a.m.

I headed over to the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) Laboratory around 9 a.m. to do some prep work for our dives.  The CRF “Laboratory” is actually Ken’s former house.  It’s a bright two story building with a spawning laboratory on the first floor that is maintained by the Florida Aquarium.  In the adjacent room, an air compressor allows SCUBA cylinders to be filled.  Upstairs is mainly equipment storage and workshop space, with a small apartment included for visiting researchers.

I met a few new people in the parking lot.  My trip coincides with that of a group from the Georgia Aquarium, so we hope to get a lot accomplished this week.  The weather has improved over night and we will definitely be diving on the nursery today.

Example of materials used to make tags for coral colonies.
Example of materials used to make tags for coral colonies.

Jessica set me up with the materials to create “Coral Tags”.  These are embossed metal and foam board tags which serve to identify different genetic strains of corals, groups within those strains and the site at which they are planted.  Creating the tags involves imprinting the metal and foam board tags by pounding on the stamps with a heavy hammer.  Then, the letters and numbers are traced with magic marker to make them easier to read.  It’s a lot more meticulous than it sounds.  I was set up on the hot concrete driveway and produced around 100 tags in 45 minutes or so while being chewed on by fire ants.  Unfortunately, because of the size of the tags, you couldn’t stack the stamps up and hammer several figures at once.  There wasn’t enough space, so each figure had to be embossed individually.

 

An example of a foam board tag. This tag signifies that these Corals are sponsored by the The Nature Conservancy (TNC), they are planted at Dry Rocks reef (DR), their genetic code is U72 and they are numbered Cluster 1 (C1). Tags are epoxied around the cluster and allow for easy monitoring.
An example of a foam board tag. This tag signifies that these Corals are sponsored by the The Nature Conservancy (TNC), they are planted at Dry Rocks reef (DR), their genetic code is U72 and they are numbered Cluster 1 (C1). Tags are epoxied around the cluster and allow for easy monitoring.

After I finished with the tags, Kayla took me upstairs and showed me how to rig up some low tech coral transport boxes.  Basically, they are standard milk crates with lead weights zip-tied to the bottom on each side.  The weights are inside of the crate so they don’t affect stability.  These crates obviously don’t hold water but they are placed inside of large plastic tubs that do hold water on the boat.  More importantly, they make transporting fragments around the nursery much easier, so you don’t have to return to the boat as often.  I made these until I ran out of weights.

I grabbed a quick lunch and headed to the Pilot House.

Transport box housing coral fragments for outplanting. Foam tags are visible.
Transport box housing coral fragments for outplanting. Foam tags are visible.
Keys Diver crew assisting with onboarding transport boxes containing fragments from the nursery.
Keys Diver crew assisting with onboarding transport boxes containing fragments from the nursery.

4 p.m.

Though the winds have diminished since yesterday, the water was still really rough.  I’m pretty exhausted and have to admit to a brief bout of seasickness on the way back to the marina.  Think I’ll stick to fruit and crackers for the remainder of the week before diving.

Through the generosity of the Georgia Aquarium, CRF is using a charter boat for the week ahead. Capt. Dave Montgomery of Keys Diver had the boat and SCUBA cylinders ready to go when I arrived.  The Captain and Crew was top notch, both personally and professionally.  Normally, CRF utilizes its own, smaller vessels but our current crew is too large to be accommodated.

We completed two hour-long dives in the nursery with a brief break in between to switch out SCUBA cylinders.  Visibility was relatively poor (10-15 feet) due to the strong surge, but the Tavernier Nursery was still quite impressive.  I buddied up with Jonathon Cole, a long-time CRF volunteer diver, University of Miami student and professional diver.

The first dive focused on removing encrusting fire coral (Millepora spp.) from the coral tree branches, fragging larger fragments and rehanging smaller fragments.  Once larger fragments were cut down from the tree branches, we used heavy duty grout brushes to remove the encrusted fire coral.  Since this type of work requires a lot of hand dexterity, gloves are largely counterproductive.  Unfortunately, that means that your bare skin is exposed to the powerful sting of the fire corals.  Luckily, I’m not as sensitive to it as others, but still don’t consider it a pleasant experience.  When working on the lower parts of the coral trees, you always need to be aware of which way the current is flowing.  If you happen to be downstream (or underneath) where someone is scrubbing you are likely to get a faceful of fire coral dust!

Encrusting fire coral on bottle. http://biogeodb.stri.si.edu/bioinformatics/dfm/metas/view/31081
Encrusting fire coral on bottle. http://biogeodb.stri.si.edu/bioinformatics/dfm/metas/view/31081

(Special note:  I don’t want to give fire coral a bad name.  The heavy branching forms are quite important, as they help protect inner reef areas from surge.  CRF even has a small section of the nursery dedicated to this growth form of Millepora.)

The strong surge really made these tasks quite difficult.  Trees are only spaced a few feet apart in places and it was difficult to avoid drifting into an adjacent tree while working on them.  Trying to maintain neutral buoyancy a few feet above the bottom while threading monofilament through tiny holes in the fiberglass rods felt near impossible at times.  Often, I would grab on to a tree limb to steady myself only to find a fistful of fire coral!  I didn’t feel I was doing a very efficient job on this first dive.

Working on coral trees in the Tavernier nursery on a much calmer day.
Working on coral trees in the Tavernier nursery on a much calmer day.

After about 50 minutes on the first dive, I headed back to the boat to switch out tanks. Working hard against the surge depleted my air faster than I’d hoped.  The surface swells were pretty big, making boarding a more difficult task.  I decided to add a couple more pounds of weight to my trim pockets to help against the surge.

Adding those two pounds made all the difference in the world!  I felt much more comfortable and effective on the second dive.  I focused largely on prepping new fragments for hanging, which meant I could work on the bottom rather than mid-water column.  The extra weight allowed me to do this with relative ease.  Jonathan broke up older, larger fragments into many more new ones while I attached monofilament line to them with double-barreled crimps.  We hung them back on the tree together.  Things were calming down (or maybe I was just getting used to it) and I observed a fair number of hogfish, angelfish and filefish amongst the trees.

After another 50 minutes, we were both low on air and surfaced.  The surge was even worse than before, making for a difficult exit once again.

The ride back was a rough one, but conditions are supposed to improve tomorrow.  I’m really appreciative of Keys Diver allowing us to stow our equipment at the dock overnight.  Food and sleep…

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:

Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs – Day 3

Wednesday, May 21

9 p.m.

We set out much earlier and made a stop at the Tavernier Nursery.  Corals had been staged the day before while I was fragging and cleaning.  This means they were either placed loose into the milk crate containers I constructed yesterday or were strung on staging trees in bundles of ten on monofilament line.  The milk crates can sit on the substrate but the bundles were hung on special coral trees and ready to go. In the interest of saving time, only Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) employees jumped in to retrieve corals for outplanting.  I stayed on board with the Georgia Aquarium staff and crew.  It didn’t take long.  In 20 minutes or so we had all of our corals on board and ready to go.

(Left) Ken Nedimyer exits the water after retrieving outplants for the day. (Right) Fragments are protected in seawater filled crates for transport to outplanting sites.
(Left) Ken Nedimyer exits the water after retrieving outplants for the day. (Right) Fragments are protected in seawater filled crates for transport to outplanting sites.

Our first two dives at Snapper Ledge focused on planting the Staghorn corals.  Breaking up into groups of 4, we were each given areas to plant clusters (close groupings of 10) on the reef.  For each site, we were given 10 fragments, a fistful of mixed epoxy and a hammer.

The two part epoxy is mixed immediately upon entering the water so that it will be the proper consistency when securing corals.  There seems to be a “goldilocks period” about 20 minutes after mixing where it works best.  Earlier than that and it is a bit soft and later it begins to harden.

The large, branched Acropora cervicornis fragments are laid out on circular area no larger than a hula hoop…usually closer.  By keeping them close together, it increases the chance of adjacent colonies fusing together to make a larger colony.  Three contact points with the substrate is desired because it minimizes the chance of a coral being “rocked” free by the surge.  After contact points are determined, a heavy hammer is used to chip away the biofilm at the crust of the rock at these locations.  Any offending organisms in the immediate area (fire coral or gorgonians usually) are removed.  The encrusting biofilm around the contact points is cleaned down to bare white to allow for maximum bonding strength.  Then, a grape sized daub of epoxy is applied to these areas and the coral is pressed into it.  Oftentimes, after setting the coral aside to apply epoxy, I completely forgot what orientation I had the coral in and had to start over.  Very frustrating!

Excess epoxy is pulled up over the coral tissue around the points of contact.  Then, the strength of the bond is checked (scientifically) by waving your hands furiously around the new outplant.  If it stays put, you can move on, but if it wiggles even just a little bit you have to start over.  That also helps to clear any debris out of the area.  CRF staff applies tags to the substrate with epoxy once each cluster is finished.

CRF Volunteer diver Jonathon Cole finishing up a cluster of Staghorn Coral.
CRF Volunteer diver Jonathon Cole finishing up a cluster of Staghorn Coral.
A scorpionfish seeks refuge amongst a cluster of newly planted staghorn coral.
A scorpionfish seeks refuge amongst a cluster of newly planted staghorn coral.

Between the four divers in my group, we planted around a dozen clusters before doing a quick maintenance run on established colonies.  Basically, diseased or damaged areas of the corals are removed and any broken pieces are reattached.  Offending organisms, including predators and encroachers are removed from the site.  Growth of planted colonies in the area is impressive and many have fused together to make a larger colony.  We headed back to the boat.

Jonathan checks out an established outplanting cluster.
Jonathan checks out an established outplanting cluster.
Jonathon does some maintenance work above a massive brain coral (Colophyllia natans) at Snapper Ledge. This colony is one of the largest in the Keys.
Jonathon does some maintenance work above a massive brain coral (Colophyllia natans) at Snapper Ledge. This colony is one of the largest in the Keys.

After boarding, the most exciting development was the announcement that we would be planting some Elkhorn fragments (Acropora palmata)along with the Staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) we’d been working on all morning!  CRF staff had picked up some fragments from the nursery at Snapper Ledge while we were planting Staghorn corals.

Acropora palmata has only been farmed in the nurseries since 2009, and it is much more difficult to farm and outplant efficiently.  In 2012, CRF performed the first ever outplanting of farmed Elkhorn Corals in the United States.  Staghorn branches like a tree, making it easy to find three small points for attachment to the substrate.  In contrast, the smaller Elkhorn fragments are generally squarish blobs of dense coral growth.  This requires epoxy to be applied around all of the edges of the piece.  It requires a lot more epoxy to attach a much smaller fragment of Staghorn.  Also, since there is no real balance point, it is difficult to position it naturally.  In terms of farming, the Staghorn is not as easily maintained in a tree setup and are sometimes still grown on blocks and disks.

A disk-grown colony of Elkhorn coral. Most of the fragments we worked with were much smaller and less developed than this one. Photo: www.coralrestoration.org
A disk-grown colony of Elkhorn coral. Most of the fragments we worked with were much smaller and less developed than this one. Photo: www.coralrestoration.org

We moved on to Pickles Reef to plant the Elkhorn.  This final dive of the day involved fewer corals but was much more difficult.  Surge was extremely heavy in this area and at times you were forced to hang on to the bottom just to stay in place.  Forests of gorgonians swayed back and forth violently with the surge.  Fragments of Elkhorn coral were much harder to secure than the Stagohorn.  Acropora palmata is planted in clusters of 3, spaced no further out than the diameter of a basketball.  I have to admit that the end result of these plantings is not as aesthetically gratifying as the Staghorn, but perhaps more important to the ecosystem.  I’m very proud to have played a part in this important process.

Less than creative arrangement of Elkhorn fragments.
Less than creative arrangement of Elkhorn fragments.

Acropora palmata in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic serves the same function as barrier islands in the Mid Atlantic states.  It serves as a buffer against storm surge on the mainland.  Historically, massive stands of Elkhorn covered shallow water flats.  This causes large swells to break and dissipate energy that otherwise would be borne by the coastline.  It is estimated that the reef crest dissipates around 90% of wave energy that is otherwise destined for the shoreline.  When combined with intact mangrove banks on the islands themselves, erosion is held in check.  Development of the shorelines and damage to the reef compromises this natural protection, however, and more damage is incurred during storms.

By dissipating this energy and creating a barrier, the Elkhorn corals can also create refuge for many organisms that are not tolerant of such strong surge. Indeed, it is clear that even fish diversity is higher close to restoration sites.

It was quite challenging, but we finally got all of the fragments planted and headed back to the boat.  I am exhausted from fighting the surge on that last dive, not to mention spending almost 4 hours in the water today.

After cleaning up, I met with the Georgia Aquarium crew, Ken and his wife at a deli/pizza place just down the road.  Ken is quite charismatic and very good about making sure he spends an adequate amount of time with each of his volunteers, which is important.  It makes you feel valued and he’s very genuine.  That’s a very attractive and useful quality, especially for someone who gets his funding through grants and donations!

Time for some sleep…four more dives planned for tomorrow.

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:

Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs – Day 4

Thursday, May 22

6 p.m.

30-Keys diver
Captain Dave and crew from Keys Diver provided excellent service, having everything ready when we arrived at the dock.

We met up early again for a full day of diving.  Winds had died down quite a bit and the water was quite calm for the trip to the nursery.  Visibility was much improved and fish were everywhere.  I was finally able to take in the entire scene.  Countless coral trees floated in the distance and hogfish swarmed among the live rock farm.

Given the improved conditions, along with a little experience, I was much more efficient on this dive.  I partnered up with Pamela Hughes from Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) for the first two dives.  The first dive centered on bundling corals for transport and outplanting.  Pamela would remove large colonies from the upper limbs of the tree and break them into several large fragments.  Then, I would string, bundle and tag each cluster of ten.

After several bundles were completed, we swam them to the edge of the nursery where they were hung on “staging” trees.  On these specialized trees, bundles are simply slipped over the arms for short term staging.

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Pamela Hughes working on staging tree.

After resupplying our air, we headed back down to restock the tree we had been working on.  Smaller fragments were made, strung and hung back on the bare limbs to start the process over again.  In 8-12 months, those small fragments will be ready to be fragged and outplanted themselves.

On the way back to the surface, we grabbed our bundles from the coral tree and headed to the boat.  After submerging all of our corals, we headed to Dry Rocks for outplanting.  On the way to Dry Rocks, Ken said he estimated we had over 200 corals on board for planting.  I would be buddying up with him for our last two dives.

Our first dive at Dry Rocks focused on planting Staghorn corals on ledges.  This site was much different than the others we had worked on, which had relatively flat bottom contour with a few outcroppings of rock or isolated ledges.  Dry Rocks is largely spur – and – groove formations separated by white sandy bottom.  Since the walls of the canyon were relatively tall, this meant that you could not “lay on the bottom” while epoxying corals…you had to remain floating.  That made it a bit more difficult to get the job done, but a much more interesting dive.

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Example of spur and groove formation at Dry Rocks. A very large brain coral obstructs one of the sandy grooves.

While hammering rock to secure my fragments, I encountered one of the pesky predators of Acroporid corals.  The bearded fireworm emerged from a hole in the rock as soon as it sensed the fragments nearby.  These animals are capable of engulfing the branch tips of Acropora cervicornis and eating the live tissue.  Affected colonies can be recognized by tissue recession at the tips.  These denuded branches can allow algae to colonies the skeleton and wipe out the rest of the colony.  In other words, they are unwelcome in outplanting sites.  Since my cluster was about 10 feet above the groove, I simply swept it over the side.  Hopefully it was a tasty meal for a properly equipped predator.

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Example of a fireworm. The cottony “tufts” are bundles of highly irritating (even painful) “bristles” used for defense. http://flowergarden.noaa.gov/image_library/inverts/iridescentfirewormgps.jpg

We finished our outplanting, switched out air cylinders at the boat and headed back down for maintenance and documentation of the site.  Ken led me along the grooves to photograph, film and maintain previously planted colonies as well as the ones we had just planted.  It seemed like we were stopping every few feet to document growth, predation and disease in a different colony.  This is a testament to the amount of work that Ken and his team have done over the past few years.  I didn’t see any natural colonies of either species at Dry Rocks, only the ones CRF had planted, and they were numerous.  Several colonies showed signs of damage from cryptic predatory snails that Ken dispatched whenever spotted.  The fishes seemed to enjoy the escargot treat that resulted.  This type of maintenance and documentation continues for several years after outplanting.

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Ken documents new outplantings and checks for stability.
A coral colony that has been ravaged by predatory snails.
A coral colony that has been ravaged by predatory snails.
Ken Nedimyer shows me predatory snails that he removed from young Elkhorn outplants.
Ken Nedimyer shows me predatory snails that he removed from young Elkhorn outplants.

While surveying colonies, we eventually made our way to the attraction that most divers and snorkelers remember about this site, Christ of the Abyss.  “Il Christo degli Abissi” is one of three bronze statues Italian artist Guido Galletti created for underwater display.  Placed at the site in 1965, it stands about 8 feet tall and is quite impressive.  Corals have been allowed to encrust certain parts of the statue and Ken has plantings directly behind it.  It is one of the most photographed underwater scenes in the world and is far more accessible to tourists than the Christ statues off of Italy and Grenada.

Christ of the Abyss at Dry Rocks
Christ of the Abyss at Dry Rocks

We continued on with maintenance and documentation but all  too soon, we were running low on air and resurfaced.  Though I will be diving again tomorrow with the crew from Georgia Aquarium to do some maintenance work, this is was my last dive with the CRF staff.

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:

Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs – Day 5

Friday, May 22

11 a.m.

The Georgia Aquarium crew made an early trip to make a deep dive on a nearby wreck, while I stayed behind to make some coral trees.  The workshop is set up on Ken Nedimyer’s home property and consists of a couple of drill presses beneath sunshades.  Volunteer Jonathon Cole, and later Ken, tutored me on construction of the structures.  They need to be very precise in order to maintain rigidity.  The cross (horizontal) beams are fashioned from fiberglass rod while the central (vertical) structure is PVC piping.  Ken has constructed very simple but effective wooden guides to help keep everything straight.  Slots for the horizontal rods are drilled at alternating 90 degree angles to one another to maximize the amount of corals that can be hung on a single tree.  A total of ten holes are drilled in each set of horizontal arms, from which corals are suspended with monofilament line.  In the past, they had as many as 16 holes but that caused too much crowding with rapid coral growth.  A modern coral tree holds 100 fragments in total.

Captain Sonny constructing a coral tree.
Captain Sonny constructing a coral tree.

Once everything is drilled, the horizontal arms are inserted through the PVC “trunk” and epoxied in place.  By the time 1130 rolled around, I had finished two trees.  I wanted to do more, but needed to meet up at the Marina for my last two dives of the trip.

6 p.m.

The Georgia Aquarium  sponsors an outplanting site at Molasses Reef.  We made our way there to do some maintenance work on Staghorn Coral clusters that had been planted previously.  Without the guidance of CRF staff, it felt a little bit disorganized and overwhelming at first but we quickly got accustomed to our surroundings and got started.

Though most clusters were pretty healthy and exhibited good growth, many had broken free from their epoxy anchors.  This site is located in a relatively shallow area with a fairly flat bottom.  Lack of three dimensional structure allowed for stronger surge and made attachment more difficult.

Lack of structure on the flat bottom made reattachment more difficult.
Lack of structure on the flat bottom made reattachment more difficult.

After an hour of maintenance work, we returned to the boat to resupply on air.  Our last dive would be purely for enjoyment!

The second dive was excellent. Molasses Reef has a lot of variability in structure and marine life.  We spent the majority of our time working through the spur-and-groove formations, which where riddled with numerous caves.  It was teeming with life.  We saw both hawksbill and green sea turtles, green moray eels, a huge school of midnight parrotfish crunching away at the reef, nurse sharks and a seemingly endless number of various colorful reef fishes.  Unfortunately, in an hour of exploring I only spotted two natural colonies of Elkhorn coral.  Hopefully, within a few years, they will return to prominence due to the hard work of the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) staff.

One of only two mature Elkhorn colonies I observed at Molasses reef.
One of only two mature Elkhorn colonies I observed at Molasses reef.

Luckily, I’ll be returning again later in the year.  This has been an amazing experience with an even more amazing organization.  Stay tuned for my next round of blogs!

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Special thanks to Ken Nedimyer, Pam Hughes, Jessica Levy, Jonathon Cole and Kayla Ripple of the Coral Restoration Foundation. I am very grateful to my Curator, George Brandy III for suggesting this project in the first place.  Without his guidance, I likely would have never gotten involved with such an amazing project.   I am also very appreciative to the media-related support given to me by Ryan Draper of the HZI Graphics Department and logistical support provided by the Conservation Department.  Lastly, I would like to again thank everyone who helped to fund this project through the Staff Conservation Fund.

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:

Conservation All the Way from Central America

The Houston Zoo is saving wildlife around the world.  We collaborate with people working in the wild to protect the counterparts of the animals we have at the Houston Zoo.  We have great admiration for our sharks, rays and turtles that live in our aquarium and we are passionate  about keeping these species safe in the wild.  To that end, we provide funds and enhancement for a conservation organization in Central America called the Mar Alliance.  They are committed to ensuring the protection of marine animals through research, education and conservation efforts.

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Last year our Zoo staff provided photo cataloging training and fundraising and planning guidance to enhance the Mar Alliance conservation efforts.  This year Mar Alliance expressed a need for clearer and more effective marine conservation messaging through video.  The marine wildlife conservation community struggles with connecting public to their protection efforts.  Effective video is critical to inspire conservation action and support for ocean health. Our Houston Zoo videographer has a lot of experience with effective wildlife saving messaging so he assisted Mar Alliance with a manual and offered his expertise for a workshop in Belize for marine conservation organizations in the area.

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Conservationists from Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Mexico attended and gained a deeper understanding of effective shooting, storytelling and editing techniques.   Participants were from marine wildlife research, law enforcement, environmental education, community capacity building and rehabilitation.

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The workshop started with a full day of classroom work on day 1 and day 2 consisted of a field trip to Shark and Ray alley and other amazing snorkeling sights in Belize to collect footage.   Over the following 2 days they applied their newly acquired skills and worked with the Zoo’s videographer to create short, quality conservation videos.

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This workshop empowered and strengthened people from 9 different conservation organizations in Central America.  It provided new connections and built networks to enhance future marine conservation efforts.  The Houston Zoo believes that long-term conservation is a collective task and is proud to partner with conservation organizations like Mar Alliance who strive to encourage collaboration within the wildlife conservation community.

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Every time you come and visit our sharks, rays and turtles at the Zoo you help us support saving their counterparts in the wild.  A portion of your admission or membership goes to wildlife saving efforts like these, so thank you Houston!

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Houston Zoo Facebook Page

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?

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.

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. 😔

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 ..

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....

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?

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

Sorry to hear about your loss. We also lost a jaguar(melanistic variety) at Reid Park Zoo about a year ago. Nikita was 21 years old and was euthanized due to health-related issues. Sad, but they have a GOOD life at the zoo! No predators, a steady food supply, medical attention, loving kindness from her keeper(s) and admiration by the public. Geriatric animals have unique problems and we are blessed to get to know them as long as we do.

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.

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.

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.

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 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. ❤️

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

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❤️

The Houston Zoo staff has lost several animals this year and I am sure each one is so hard to go through.

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!!

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.

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

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 😂

Lauren Gonzales

Mike DePope

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