Houston Zoo Staff are Saving Bats in Texas

Mexican free-tailed bat at Waugh Dr. bridge

With Halloween just a few days away there’s no better time to spend a few minutes learning a bit more about one of Halloween’s most recognizable symbols – the bat. This time of year we see their image plastered everywhere, but did you know these guys actually live in your backyard? It’s no secret that everything is bigger in Texas, and yes, that means even our bat diversity. In fact, Texas has the largest number of bat species in the country with a total of 33 recorded to date! As a creature of the night, the bat has often been associated with things that scare or strike fear into the hearts and minds of humans, like vampires, rabies, abandoned houses, and our beloved Halloween. Despite their somewhat frightful reputation, bats are actually one of our greatest allies acting as pollinators, seed dispersers, and even one of the primary consumers of flying insects like our honorary state bird – the mosquito! The Houston Zoo loves bats and wants to do everything we can to protect them in the wild. Recently, we were asked to assist with collecting valuable data that would inform future protection plans for Texas bats.

Over the last two years, Zoo staff have been using acoustic monitoring devices to record the calls of bats we have here on Zoo grounds. Following guidance from Bat Conservation International and Lincoln Park Zoo, the sound monitors are placed at a specific location, left to record for four nights, and then taken down.  All of the audio files that the monitors record are saved onto a SD card that can later be removed from the device and transferred to a computer where staff runs the recordings through a software called SonoBat.  This software analyzes the calls and helps staff to identify which bat species made an appearance on Zoo grounds each evening the recording device was running!

Zoo staff and Zoo crew installing bat monitoring devices

So far, five different species have been heard on zoo grounds:

  • Mexican Free-tail bat
  • Eastern red bat
  • Silver-haired bat
  • Northern yellow bat
  • Hoary bat

Collecting this data will inform researchers of which bats are living here in Houston, when they are active, and where they like to spend their time! Learning more about bats and the important role they play will help us to develop programs aimed at changing the public perception of bats and hopefully lead to the protection of many bat species and their habitats. Each time you visit the Zoo, you are helping to save species in the wild – by supporting programs like this one, you’ve just lent a helping hand to a species living right in your own backyard!

Thank you TXU Energy for keeping it cool this summer!

It was hot this summer but thanks to our sponsor TXU Energy we were able to Chill Out at the Houston Zoo.

Every day this summer was a chance to retreat from the heat into the Zoo’s 13 Chill Zones. Zoo-goers found respite at these locations throughout the Zoo.  From underwater fish adventures in the Kipp Aquarium to watching from the Arrival Building as gorillas explored their habitats, taking a break from the sun didn’t mean missing a moment with our animals. Guests who did want their time in the sun brought their swim gear and splashed into the Kathrine McGovern Water Play Park.

It was a hot one this summer, but our animals stayed nice and cool too! TXU Energy provided the animals with ice enrichment treats to help keep them cool all summer long. The meerkats met their match with a meerkat-sized snowman, and our cheetahs slowed down for an ice pop break. The elephants enjoyed daily baths, and the sea lions swam around their chilly pool as well.

Because of TXU Energy’s incredible support, the Houston Zoo stayed open late on Fridays AND Saturdays this summer, so guests could enjoy the animals and special activities in the cooler evening weather. Evening Chill featured activities, music, animals, and more – with different themes like special movie nights on a giant screen, where guests could relax and picnic with family and friends. TXU Energy helped make it snow for the kick-off weekend of Evening Chill, and we wrapped up the summer event with Zoo-themed trivia night. Whether enjoying snow, 80’s night, painting, or music from around the world, our Evening Chill guests stayed cool while being cool.

As we now enjoy the Houston fall, we look back at our amazing summer with gratitude to TXU Energy for helping us all Chill Out at the Houston Zoo.

How You and the Zoo are Helping to Save Bats in Rwanda

When we last caught up with Houston Zoo partners Dr. Olivier Nsengimana and Marie Claire Dusabe, the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA) had just started a new project to help save straw-colored fruit bats in Rwanda! As people all around the globe celebrate bat appreciation month and we prepare for Dr. Olivier’s visit to Houston at the end of this week, it seemed like the perfect time to share some exciting updates from the field.

Marie Claire, Bat Project Coordinator for RWCA, and her team have been hard at work trying to establish the important role that the African straw-colored fruit bat plays in Rwanda’s ecosystem. What is a straw-colored fruit bat, you ask? As you may have guessed, this species got its name from the yellowish or straw-colored fur on its body. It is also known as a mega-bat due to its large size – an individual bat can reach a length of 5-9 inches and can have up to a 2.5-foot-long wingspan! The Central African region, including Rwanda, is known to be home to about 60% of all Africa’s bat species, yet they are the least studied in comparison to other mammals – something the team at RWCA hopes to change.

Since February, the team has been travelling around Rwanda to 12 different locations to conduct monthly counts of straw-colored fruit bats. This data allows researchers to track changes to bat population numbers across the country, as well as make note of any major differences in the number of roosting sites (places where bats gather to rest) being utilized. Next year, the team will begin tagging select bats from each location with GPS units which will help them to better understand where bats go and what might cause movements from one area to the next.  Team members have also spent time collecting bat droppings from colonies of straw-colored fruit bats to gain a better understanding of the role bats play in keeping the forest healthy through seed dispersal. Additional studies on insectivorous bats to find out what insects they are eating will also help the team demonstrate to communities just how beneficial bats can be, whether they are acting as accidental pollinators or controls for mosquitoes and agricultural pests.

While the data collection is invaluable to the project, community outreach is equally as important when it comes to saving these bats, which is why the team has been working with schools and community groups living in close proximity to bat colonies. 489 primary students participated in an RWCA workshop, spending time learning about the life, role, and importance of bats, and each class was given a copy of a “Bats of Rwanda” comic book. Students and community members were also asked to complete a short questionnaire which would allow the team to see people’s current perception of bats and whether or not they believe the species should be protected. Project support groups made up of locals have also been put in place. Participants will work with researchers to monitor bat colonies and perform basic data collection as well as protect any existing colonies from illegal activities.

Projects like this one take a great deal of dedication and collaboration and we are proud to support RWCA’s efforts to protect a species that is often feared and misunderstood. You can help us support this important wildlife saving work by visiting our colony of fruit bats on your next visit to the Zoo. See you soon!

Unusual Pollinators and the Plants They Love

We are all familiar with bees and butterflies as pollinators.  But, did you know there are some very unexpected and unusual pollinators?  Read on to learn about a few of them.

The largest of the pollinators is a mammal!  The Black and White Ruffed Lemur from Madagascar pollinates the Travelers Palm also known as the Travelers Tree.   Compared to the most common pollinators, these guys are huge.  They have a body length of 10-22 inches and a tail length of 24-26”.  Quite a bit bigger than say a monarch butterfly with a 4-inch wingspan.  They primarily eat fruit but seeds, leaves and nectar are also part of their diet.

How about lizards and skinks and geckos?  Oh my!  The Noronha Skink pollinates the Mulungu tree in Brazil.  The Mulungu is used by the indigenous peoples in Brazil as a medicine.  Then there is the Blue Tailed gecko from the Island of Mauritius who pollinates the Trochetia flower.  The Trochetia is the national flower of Mauritius.  In New Zealand, more than 50 geckos along with birds and bees pollinate the metrosideas excelsa tree.  This tree blooms around December and has vibrantly colored blooms earning it the nickname “Christmas Tree”.   AND, in Tasmania a native snow skink visits the Richea scoparia plant. The Richea scoparia blooms in the summer with flowers that make the plant look like it is covered in candles and are a food source for wallabies.

Have you ever heard of a rodent pollinator?  Spiny Mice in Africa pollinate the Protea or sugarbush plant. The Protea got its name from Proteus, the son of Poseidon and the King protea is the national flower of South Africa.    Africa is also home to the Bush baby.  These animals get their name from the childlike wailing vocalization they make, and they pollinate the iconic Baobab Tree.

Australia has some interesting pollinators too.  The Sugar Gliders pollinate the Banksia species and the adorable Honey Possum pollinates several plants.  Honey Possum don’t actually eat honey and live on nectar and pollen.  They feed on Banksia, Bottlebrushes, Heaths and the Kangaroo Paw Plant among others.

Why are all pollinators important?  Without them we would lose 1/3 of the world’s agriculture crops along with essentials like coffee, tequila and chocolate.  What can you do to help?  Plant a pollinator garden!  You can also bring in pictures of your pollinator garden to the Houston Zoo’s Swap Shop.  You will be registered as a Pollinator Pal and earn points to spend in the shop.  That is a win-win!

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

Deep in the Hearts of Texans for Conservation

Thursday night, the Houston Zoo hosted its 11th annual Wildlife Conservation Gala in the zoo’s Masihara Pavilion. This year’s gala was dedicated to raising funds for saving animals right here in Texas, and the event collectively raised more than $750,000.

KPRC Meteorologist Justin Stapleton emceed the fall evening and spoke of his own connection to the zoo through last year’s journey to Borneo where he got up-close to the Houston Zoo’s efforts to save elephants in the wild. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Executive Director Carter Smith was the evening’s speaker. Carter regaled the crowd with tales of the natural history of Texas and spoke passionately about the work the Houston Zoo is doing to save native species like the Attwater’s prairie chicken and Houston toad.

Nearly 600 guests dressed in their Texas chic attire dined on Texas favorites with a twist. A Gulf coast shrimp cocktail martini was followed by a main course of prime aged NY strip steak medallions with rosemary jus and crispy tobacco onions accompanied by King Ranch enchiladas with wild mushrooms and poblano. Dessert included Texas peach and blueberry crisp with whiskey hard sauce.

Photo credit, Daniel Ortiz for the Houston Zoo

Some of the evening’s most vied for items included a stay for two at Cal-A-Vie Health Spa, four tickets to see George Strait at Houston Rodeo 2019 from a private suite, and Bats and Bubbly on the Bayou with Dr. Cullen Geiselman.

The evening under the Texas stars capped off with the Conservation Gala’s first-ever After Party, chaired by sisters Elise Lubanko and Kaia Kessler, and featured a private concert by country artist Pat Green where guests two-stepped the night away.

This Monkey’s Call Sounds Like a Garbage Disposal

Story written by Houston Zoo primate keepers.

One of the first animals you’ll see when you walk into our Wortham World of Primates are our Black Howler Monkeys! You may hear them before you see them:

Howler monkeys are thought to be not only the loudest primate on the planet, but possibly one of the loudest living land mammals in the world. Their garbage-disposal like call can be heard up to 3 miles away in a dense forest. Our howler monkey troop tends to start calling in reaction to the leaf blowers we have on grounds in the early mornings.

Here at the Houston Zoo we have two howler monkeys. Vida is 23, and Garcia turned 22 on October 2nd. Vida and Garcia were both born here in Houston and are sisters.

Female black howler monkeys are brown.

You may be looking at our lovely, tan-brown, ladies thinking “If they’re called ‘Black Howler Monkeys’, why aren’t they black?” Well, the male monkeys are black, and the females are tan-brown! All howler monkeys are born a tan color to help them camouflage easily in the forest canopy, but the males develop the black color as they get older and the females remain tan in color. Males are also much larger than the females.

Vida and Garcia may be difficult to tell apart by just a glance, but if you study their faces you can tell that Garcia has a much smaller and shorter face, while Vida’s face is wider and longer. Vida tends to be braver than Garcia and is always ready to explore enrichment items or new objects placed in the exhibit by her keepers. Garcia however, likes to wait to see if new things are safe before exploring. Both girls are very smart and participate in regular training sessions with their keepers.

Our howler pair has a variety of favorites that they enjoy. They will always come greet their keepers if there is a fig or hibiscus flower in hand. They react best to food enrichment when there are frozen bananas involved. They love hard-boiled eggs and avocado. The howler monkeys also really enjoy when their keepers hang up mirrors for them, because they absolutely love staring at themselves, and we don’t blame them!

A lot of our guests often wonder why our howlers are sleeping for a large portion of the day, and it’s not because they’re just lazy! In the wild, the howler monkey diet consists mostly of leaves and a small variety of fruits and nuts. Due to the lack of calories in their diet howler monkeys tend to sleep for a majority of their day, about 80%, saving their energy for the important things, like foraging for food and calling to defend their territory!

During the month of October the primate team at the Houston Zoo puts on a Howlerween fundraiser to help raise money for Wildtracks; an organization that cares for and rehabilitate orphaned, injured, and sick howler monkeys back into the wild.

The next time you are walking through our Wortham World of Primates make sure to say hello to our duo!

Snakes Aren’t the Enemy

Written by Judith Bryja

Throughout much of human history, snakes have been among the most maligned and persecuted groups of animals.  The unreasonable fear of snakes is quite prevalent in our society and myths and misconceptions abound whenever snakes are brought up in conversation. The general public conception is that snakes are the “enemy” and should be killed on sight

The news media also plays a role in shaping this attitude.  Most publicity concerning snakes is of a negative nature.  Venomous snakebites often receive extensive local media coverage far beyond the actual threat to human life.  Rarely is it pointed out that the chances of death from a venomous snakebite are considerably less than the chances of dying from a lightning strike or from an insect bite or sting (Bureau of Vital Statistics, Texas Department of Health).

These fears persist despite overwhelming evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, on the important roles that snakes play in a healthy ecosystem.  Many scientific articles point to the value of snake species in food chains in temperate and tropical ecosystems.  Areas where snakes are removed often display a population explosion of rodents, usually to the detriment of nearby agricultural enterprises.

Out of all snakes, the rattlesnakes probably have received more unjust notoriety and have been persecuted needlessly more than any other group, especially in the United States.  It is doubtful that any other animal group is more feared or less understood by the general public.  This persecution has reached such a point that, in some states (seven, to be exact), “Rattlesnake Roundups” are a popular fund-raising event for organizations such as the local Chamber of Commerce or the Jaycees.  The largest of these roundups is held each March in Sweetwater, Texas and shows no sign of diminishing in spite of recent criticism by many private herpetological organizations, various nature and conservation societies, and many animal welfare groups. Roundups are cruel affairs.

Slowly, however, the bad reputation that snakes have had is changing, even when rattlesnakes are involved.  Several traditional roundups are now educational festivals where snakes are not killed and people can learn about them and see them up close.  One fairly new event that the Houston Zoo supports is Lone Star Rattlesnake Days.  LSRD will be held this October 12-14 at Texas Discovery Gardens in Fair Park, Dallas in conjunction with the Texas State Fair.  There will be lots of snakes to see up close, venom extractions done by professionals, activities for the kids, and zookeepers to talk to.  Please visit www.rattlesnakepreservationtrust.org and the Lone Star Rattlesnake Days Facebook page for more information.

See Them, Save Them: Your Visit to the Zoo is Saving Black Bears in Texas

When you think of Texas wildlife, a few animals probably come to mind – armadillos, cougars, longhorns, rattlesnakes…maybe even the whooping crane. Chances are the American black bear wasn’t on your radar, but thanks to its gradual return to Texas it soon will be. Many years ago, four of the 16 subspecies of black bear once roamed the state of Texas. Unfortunately, as the lone star state grew in popularity with settlers throughout the 19th century, the number of black bears began to dwindle as a result of habitat loss and unregulated hunting of the species. By the beginning of the 20th century, seeing a black bear within state lines was considered extremely rare. Today, at least two subspecies of black bear are making their way back into Texas due in large part to the growing populations of black bears in the surrounding states of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, but for those of us living outside of East Texas the black bear remains largely unheard of.

The recent opening of the Hamill Foundation’s Black Bear Exhibit at the Houston Zoo gives Houstonians the opportunity to see the bears up close and learn about what the Zoo is doing to protect them in the wild. The Zoo is participating in state protection planning through the Texas Black Bear Alliance. The alliance is focused on ensuring black bears return to their historic range in Texas by bringing together individuals, organizations, and state and federal government representatives to support the species’ recovery. Because black bears are still considered a rare species in the state, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department investigates each reported sighting in order to gain a better understanding of the number and rate at which black bears are returning to Texas. Having a clearer picture of the population size allows researchers to create wildlife management plans as well as offer educational outreach activities to community members living near black bear habitat.  In conjunction with these efforts the Zoo designed the Texas black bear reporting signs that are used all over the state.

Living outside of the black bears’ home range can make it tricky to know what actions you can take to protect this native Texan. Thankfully, small changes to your everyday routine can make a big difference. Bears need trees to live, so by using less paper or recycled-content paper products, fewer trees are cut down meaning you are contributing to saving black bears in the wild! Consider going paperless for billing or even when purchasing tickets for your next visit to the Zoo. Just last year the Houston Zoo saved 735 mature trees by committing to better paper choices and using digital documents! And remember, every time you visit the Zoo, you’re helping to save black bears like our very own Belle and Willow in the wild. See them, Save them – its as simple as that.

For the 11th annual Wildlife Conservation Gala at the Houston Zoo, we’re shining a spotlight on the species and habitats of the Lone Star State! We’ll come together as Texans to raise the funds our Zoo needs to keep saving Texas wildlife like the American black bear.

October’s Featured Members: The Phillips 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 October’s Featured Members: The Phillips Family

We asked the Phillips family to tell us a little about what being Zoo Members meant to them.

The Phillips family is comprised of parents Jennifer and William, as well as their adult daughter Catherine and teenage son Andrew who are both volunteers in addition to being members of the Houston Zoo.

Jennifer and William: We have been members of the Houston Zoo for so long that I can’t remember not being a member!  We have experienced the tremendous amount of growth and change the Zoo has gone through and eagerly anticipate the newest additions to Bears and Texas Wetlands. One of the reasons we continue to enjoy visiting year after year remains in the fact that nothing remains the same from visit to visit.  Each time we visit a different animal or feature catches our eye and attention!  On recent visits I have particularly enjoyed the Red River Hogs, the Mole Rats, and the growth of last summer’s babies – Pepper and Joy.  We also appreciate that the Zoo has extended its outreach to aid endangered species in other countries and promote ways that we can help the environment just by changing a few habits. My car is now stocked with reusable shopping bags.  My children also shamed me into forgoing plastic straws for plastic free July!

I love the flexibility our membership brings so that we can just drop in for a quick visit or for a special event. When my kids are volunteering, I frequently arrive an hour early and make it a point to visit a different area. The Zoo Cool Nights in particular have been a lot of fun the past few summers.  It is so pleasant and magical to be in the Zoo as it gets to be evening and many of the animals are more active.  Our original membership was a gift from my parents and it has definitely been the gift that keeps on giving!

Catherine: Being a member of the Houston Zoo from a very young age introduced me to many causes that I remain passionate about to this day. I loved volunteering at the Zoo as a teen, so I decided to continue my journey as an adult volunteer! I now attend college in San Antonio, but I always make it a point to come volunteer during school holidays and breaks. I have volunteered for about 8 years now and have been a member of the Zoo for a much longer period of time! What keeps me coming back to the Houston Zoo is its authenticity and demonstrated passion for both conservation and guest service. I feel so honored to be even a small part of an organization that does so much for our community and natural world. I’m sure many volunteers and members alike feel the same. If you have any interest in being an adult volunteer I highly recommend applying!

Andrew: I was so lucky to be a Zoo member throughout my childhood. Some of my favorite memories have involved the Houston Zoo, including being part of Zoo Crew. Being involved in this educational program for Teenagers 13 to 17 years old has taught me how to conserve and protect animals in a world dominated by single-use packaging, negative attitudes, and uninformed people! My volunteer engagement this summer has been as member of the Teen Leadership Council/Lead Naturalist. This position allowed me to mentor the Zoo Crew Explorers as they underwent two weeks of educating Zoo visitors about our six unique Take Action Initiatives (Plastic Recycling and Reduction, Sustainable Seafood, Paper Reduction and Recycling, Electronic Device Recycling and Reduction, Pollinator Awareness, Sustainable Palm Oil). I’m already looking forward to next summer’s adventure!

From all of us here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to the Phillips 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!

Houston Zoo Wins Five Major Awards

On September, 24, 2018, during the annual conference of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in Seattle, the Houston Zoo was presented five major awards to recognize its substantial contributions in wildlife conservation and volunteer engagement.

The zoo’s volunteer program staff and corps received Top Honors for Volunteer Engagement, noting that in addition to supporting zoo operations and guest service needs, its volunteers regularly champion conservation efforts both on and off zoo grounds. Over the past two years, Houston Zoo volunteers have donated more than 42,00 hours of service to further the organization’s mission to connect communities with animals to inspire action to save wildlife.

Top Honors in North American Conservation was awarded to Houston Zoo and Ft. Worth Zoo for support of, and participation in the Houston Toad Recovery Program, a comprehensive effort combining the creation of assurance colonies, successful re-introduction into the wild, and community engagement and education.  As a winner of this prestigious award, the program will receive $25,000, thanks to the generosity of the Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation.

Additionally, out of four winning submissions for the William G. Conway International Conservation Award, the Houston Zoo was named in three.

The Houston Zoo shared Top Honors in International Conservation Award with the Minnesota Zoo and North Carolina Zoo for the Scaling Up Community-based Black Rhino Conservation in Namibia Project, which has played a significant role in reducing poaching by 83% over the past five years. Rhino tourism activities have generated over $1,000,000 since 2012.  This acknowledgement also comes with a $25,000 award, which will be used to continue the important work on the ground in Namibia.

A Significant Achievement Award for the Lowland Tapir Conservation Project was presented to the Houston Zoo, along with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Walt Disney World Resorts, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, supporting the crucial long-term work of Dr. Pati Medici, a leading researcher working with tapirs in South America.

A Significant Achievement Award for the Okapi Conservation Project was also presented to Houston Zoo, joining eight institutions protecting the world’s largest population of okapi in the turbulent environment of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The zoo is honored to be recognized with these awards and proud to be part of an impressive group of organizations and wildlife conservation partners making a positive global difference for wildlife.

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