Whooping Cranes Weather the Storm with the Help of You and the Zoo

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we were reminded of the importance, and the sheer strength of community. For many months now, Texans all along the Gulf Coast region have been working to rebuild and re-establish a sense of safety and security – a place to once again call home. In the aftermath of any storm, it is not just the people that have to rebuild; and you may not know it, but through a portion of your admission fee to the Houston Zoo, you have been lending a helping hand to a very special community of Texans – the whooping cranes.

Weighing around 15 pounds, the whooping crane has a wingspan of more than 7 feet and is as tall as many humans, reaching a height of around 5 feet, making it the tallest bird in North America! Whooping cranes are best known for their courtship dance, finding mating partners through an elaborate display of kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping. Adult whooping cranes can be spotted fairly easily thanks to their bright white feathers and accents of crimson red on the top of their head. The only remaining self-sustaining population of whooping cranes is the naturally occurring flock that breeds in Canada and winters right here in Texas!

If you were able to attend Nature Connects – Art with LEGO Bricks at the Houston Zoo this past summer, you may recall seeing a striking figure of this beautiful bird. At its feet were a cluster of tiny white dots – a visual representation of the number of whooping cranes that remain in the wild here in the US. One of the rarest birds in North America with an estimated population of 612 world-wide, the whooping crane saw its numbers drop to just 15 in the early 1940s, but with the help of land protection and public education, their numbers have continued to steadily increase. But what happens when natural disaster strikes?

When the cranes arrived in Texas this past fall after their 2,400 mile journey from their nesting grounds in Canada, they returned to vegetative damage from the storm surge, and increased salt content in the inland freshwater ponds that the birds rely on for drinking. Our partners at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) went to work immediately, replacing damaged ground water pumps to replenish the freshwater these birds need to survive. Notified of the situation, the Houston Zoo donated to ICF’s Hurricane Harvey rebuild in Rockport campaign.  The Houston Zoo also teamed up with the International Crane Foundation’s Texas office and established a Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator position that will be funded by the Zoo. Filling this role is Corinna Holfus of Houston, Texas, who will work with partners like the Houston Zoo, groups, and individuals to develop awareness and caring for whooping cranes and foster their commitment to safeguard whooping cranes in their areas. Holfus will form partnerships that include involving hunters, landowners and other members of the community in monitoring and keeping watch over the whooping cranes in their areas.

With the establishment of this position, the International Crane Foundation’s North American Program Director stated “The uniqueness of having the world’s only naturally producing flock of whooping cranes choosing to winter on the Texas coast is something to cherish, take pride in and celebrate. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Houston Zoo allowing the hiring of Holfus we’ll now be able to greatly accelerate and expand our efforts to increase the appreciation, awareness, and protection of this still fragile, slowly expanding flock.” It would seem as though birds of feather truly do flock together, and thanks to the continued support of Zoo goers like you, this native species has an even better chance for a bright future.

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 6

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

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

Day 6:

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

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


Guest Blogger: Maddie Davet – 2017 Collegiate Conservation Program Intern

Maddie Davet is a sophomore at Duke University and was a Collegiate Conservation Program (CCP) intern during the 2017 summer.  Take a look at Maddie’s experience and head to the CCP website to learn more and to apply for summer 2018!

What do you get when you put together thirteen strangers, an endless supply of animal crackers, and one glistening white work van full of gas? I got one of the best summers of my life.

Reflecting on my time with the Houston Zoo’s Collegiate Conservation Program conjures a whole sea of memories – from work to play, and hill country to bay. After 10 weeks spent learning alongside some of the motivated environmentalists I have met to date, it is daunting to gather my thoughts. I have changed for the better, that is for sure. I am armed with renewed passion for conservation, an arsenal of field skills, and a network that spans well beyond Texas’s borders.

One of the greatest opportunities CCP provided me was simply the ability to connect with my fellow interns. As an undergraduate at Duke University, I have met other students from all around the world, studying everything from patent law to molecular physics; however, I’ve struggled to find diverse perspectives within my school’s environmental department. A program like CCP, which selects from undergraduate applicants across the entire country, provides opportunity for diverse dialogues about conservation and sustainability. These conversations were constantly unfolding between our group of interns, and I developed a reputation for jumping into heated discussion every chance I got.

The other undergraduates were just one source of inspiration, however. Between our on-grounds days at the Houston Zoo, the many excursions we made to the Zoo’s local partners, and the handful of global conservationists who skyped in or visited us in Houston, there were a plethora voices to be heard from. I found myself learning everything from how to effectively wield a machete in East Texas to the ins and outs of community outreach in the Brazilian Pantanal. Hearing from all sorts of Zoo visitors and employees, from Exxon’s Communication Director to the CEO of the Zoo to our favorite keeper, was an indelible gift. Their insight, alongside the many experiences I gained this past summer, gave me the confidence to choose a way forward in my own life as a conservationist.

By the end of the internship, after many introductions as the “undecided” girl with an interest in anthropology, I had been inspired to declare my plans. I stood up at the final presentation and proclaimed my intent to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, the formal declaration of which I am writing up today. For that confidence, and for the many memories it accompanies, I will forever be grateful to CCP.

Points on Pepper

Pepper is a 10-month-old Allen’s swamp monkey, daughter of first-time parents Naku and Calvin, and she is the life of the party in her habitat. At almost any given time of the day, you can find her running, jumping, climbing, swimming, or trying to play with the other animals in her habitat, whether they are monkeys, tortoises, or rabbits.

Like most young animals, she is extremely curious about everything around her. She will chase after birds and rabbits, stalk butterflies, catch bugs, and even try to pounce on bees! Bobbi the tortoise lives in the habitat during the summer, and she wasn’t safe from Pepper either. Pepper would follow Bobbi and try to grab her feet as she walked. And once Pepper became bold enough, she decided to hop onto Bobbi’s shell for a ride, albeit a very slow one. Calvin didn’t approve of this and would watch anxiously until Pepper got off.

Pepper also watches her mom, Calvin, very carefully. A lot of young animals learn how to behave from their parents, and swamp monkeys are no exception. Swamp monkeys sometimes like to wash their food, or rub it on rocks before eating it. They will perform this behavior while playing with enrichment items or rocks or anything else they can find. Calvin did this once when Pepper was only a few months old. Before we knew it, Pepper was trying to copy her mom. She grabbed a stick and rolled it on the ground. Calvin is an expert forager. She will spend hours digging through the mulch and dirt in the habitat, looking for bugs or for forage items that we put in there, like bird seed or currants. Pepper has mastered this behavior and will dig through the dirt with enthusiasm. And when she finds a long earthworm, she will go running around with it.

Pepper is an adorable little monkey, but she is also an important ambassador for her species. Not only is Naku a first-time dad, he was also born in the wild. Fifteen years ago, he was rescued from a market in Africa when he was about two years old. Because he was born in the wild, he has some very important genes, which he has now passed on to Pepper.

January’s Featured Member: Laurie Easter

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 January’s Featured Member: Laurie Easter

We asked the Laurie to share a few words about what being a Zoo Member means to her. Here’s what she had to say.

“I have lived in Houston since 1982 and in the 1990’s, I often took our daughters to the Houston Zoo when they were young.  As they became teenagers and developed their own interests, we stopped going together as much and they went on to graduate from college and start their careers.

Recently, however, my daughter Jessica Easter and her boyfriend Cameron Loucks inspired me to become a member of the Houston Zoo once again.  They participate in many of the Zoo’s events, and also support the Zoo’s efforts to protect endangered species and promote education about animals in the wild.  They introduced me to their favorites-primates, big cats, and elephants, although they appreciate all of the animals at the Zoo.  We also plan to make a trip to the Zoo Lights a new family tradition-it is unlike any other holiday experience.

After many conversations about their experiences with the Zoo and the importance of the Zoo’s mission, I initially joined mainly to support the Zoo financially.  Then I discovered a totally new way to enjoy the Zoo.  While taking a foreign exchange student to the Zoo, I discovered the Houston Methodist 1-mile walking path marked on the map.  I like to walk for exercise and overall health, but the treadmill can get boring; the mall is nice but indoors as well, and the city streets require close attention to traffic and intersections.  What better way to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors than to go to the Zoo?  I soon bought a membership online and arrived at the Zoo when it opened at 9 a.m.  Walking through the gates, I joined the usual early morning crowd of young moms with babies in strollers, grandparents enjoying the morning with their grandkids, and some school groups excitedly beginning their day.  I then followed the walking path marked on the map, and after leaving the main plaza in front of the gates, I quickly found myself alone with all of the wonderful animals starting their morning routines, along with the occasional Zoo employee who always gave me a friendly “hello”.  There I was face to face with a silent jaguar, an inquisitive gorilla, a stoic giraffe, and a baby elephant wagging its ears at me.  It was peaceful, beautiful, and quiet (except for the caws of the birds and occasional growl of a big cat), and I marveled at being able to enjoy and appreciate these residents of the Zoo in the calm, uncrowded morning.  Needless to say, my first morning walk was much more of a stroll to allow taking in all that the Zoo has to offer.

Since then, I’ve picked up the pace, but still make sure to pause and check in with my favorites—the jaguar, the giraffes, and the elephants.  I also have started to vary and lengthen my route, since one mile is no longer enough to enjoy everything I want to experience.  And as the fall weather arrives, I won’t be alone in my walks-after hearing me describe how much fun I have every morning, my husband plans to join me.  In addition, I’ve added the Zoo to my list of places I must take out of town family and friends to visit, and everyone has loved to experience it.

Medical experts say that almost everyone can benefit from a brisk walk—it’s good for your heart, bones, muscles, and most importantly, your sense of well-being.  I urge everyone to get a Houston Zoo membership, and enjoy the benefits of walking through the lush landscaped grounds.   It costs a lot less than a gym membership, and you’ll not only feel better physically, but you will support the Zoo’s mission to preserve and protect animals and their habitats, and also learn a lot about the creatures with whom we share this planet.”

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

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 4

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

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

Day 4:

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

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

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

Working Together to Save Elephants

By: Dr. Christine Molter

Elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV) is a potentially deadly disease that not only affects elephants in human care, but also those living in the wild. Populations of wild Asian elephants are impacted by this disease in addition to threats like habitat fragmentation and poaching. To understand and combat this disease, veterinarians, researchers, conservationists, and elephant caretakers formed a collaborative team, called the EEHV Asia Working Group. The 3rd EEHV Asia Working Group meeting was hosted by Kasetsart University in Hua-Hin, Thailand. As part of the Houston Zoo’s on-going commitment to investigating EEHV and to save Asian Elephants in the wild, I was able to participate in this group.

Traveling to Hua-Hin is a long process. After more than 24 hours in flight from Houston, Texas to Tokyo, Japan to Bangkok, Thailand and 3-hour van ride, I finally made it to Hua-Hin. A total of 70 attendees from 12 countries made similar journeys to be at the meeting.

The two-day conference started with updates from those different countries and included India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United States, Vietnam, and a summary from all of Europe. Each representative shared their successes and unique EEHV challenges, with common themes of needing more regional laboratories with the ability to test samples for the virus, education for local people working with elephants about EEHV, increased availability of anti-viral medications for treatments, and further wild elephant research. To help address these challenges, discussions and brainstorming sessions took place and the group outlined strategic goals for EEHV efforts in Asia. In addition to defining goals, practical lectures and demonstrations also occurred. I taught elephant blood crossmatching, a necessary step prior to administering potentially life-saving plasma transfusions to elephant calves sick with EEHV, to ensure that the plasma donor and recipient are a good match.


At the end of the conference, an excursion to Kuiburi National Park was planned. We spotted two wild female Asian elephants with 3 calves between them. The sight of elephants in the wild was poignant, as it embodied the goal that everyone at the meeting is working towards together – to save elephants.

The Houston Zoo is a leader in global EEHV efforts. The protocol developed at the Houston Zoo, to monitor, diagnose, and treat this disease is utilized by people all over the world. It is humbling to hear directly from those working with elephants in range countries, that our Houston Zoo protocol provides important clinical guidelines for them. It is through our collective information sharing, research partnerships, global meeting participation, and local support that the mission of the Houston Zoo is achieved – to save animals in the wild.

Many thanks to all who work tirelessly for elephants and to those who diligently organized the EEHV Asia Working Group meeting, especially to Dr. Sonja Luz from Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Dr. Supaphen (Amm) Sripiboon from Kasetsart University, and Dr. Lauren Howard from San Diego Zoo Global for their leadership.

Efforts to combat EEHV are on-going and collaborative. More information about EEHV can be found at www.eehvinfo.org. Previous Houston Zoo blogs on the EEHV Asia Working Group can be found here.

Blue Topaz is the Birthstone for December

December has a beautiful stone as its birthstone – blue topaz. It is also the stone for the 4th and 19th wedding anniversaries. It has become the second most popular stone, second only to sapphire. It is also the state gemstone of Texas!

Topaz comes in a wide range of colors, from the colorless white topaz to pinks and blues among others. Blue topaz in nature is rare and when it is found it tends to be a light blue. The vivid blues on the market today are usually created by treating white topaz with irradiation and heat. It is a durable stone with a hardness rating of 8 on the Mohs scale. They can be found worldwide including in South America, Australia and Africa.

Another stone that is often confused for topaz is citrine. Citrine is in the quartz family and is a completely different stone. Citrine is a yellow form of quartz. In the days before modern gemology, it was often mistaken for topaz. Finding a natural citrine is rare. Most of the citrine on the market today is heat treated amethyst. Who knew if you heated amethyst it turned yellow? Citrine has a hardness of 7 on the Mohs scale and the color varies from lemon yellow to reddish brown.

Topaz is a silicate like the quartz family but has a hardness of 8. Topaz also has a wider variety of color. They can come in yellow, pink, green, purple, orange, blue and white which is clear.

Like many gemstones, there is a lot of history and lore around blue topaz.

Blue topaz has long been considered a symbol of love and affection and has been said to aid in one’s sweetness and disposition. In ancient Egypt, it was a symbol of Ra, the sun god. In Europe it was linked to Apollo, another solar being.

Ancient Greeks believed that topaz gave them strength. Other ancient civilizations believed blue topaz to have cooling powers and was used to help relieve burns and cool boiling water. Many believed that wearing a topaz ring would keep death from coming prematurely and would control insomnia and greed.

In Africa, healing rituals with topaz were practiced establishing communication with the spirit realm.

Some notable blue topaz includes -The El Dorado Topaz is the largest faceted gemstone in the world at 31,000 (yes, that’s 31 thousand) carats. The American Golden Topaz is a whopping 22,892.5 carats and is on display at the Smithsonian Institute.

There is often blue topaz for trade in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop. Don’t know about the shop? Click here for more information.

SMG’s Borneo Travel Log, Thursday

Thursday: We are finishing up our time here in Borneo. This afternoon, we went for a boat ride to visit a tree planting project run by Hutan. It’s an all female run project and these women are doing great work to reforest a large tract of land that was previously clear-cut but a palm oil plantation. In the evening we toured a small tributary to survey wildlife and we came across a family of long-tailed macaques that were eating on a branch overhanging the water. We stopped to enjoy the view for a bit and then headed back around sunset.

Houston Zoo’s SMG (Social Media Guy) is on the trip of a lifetime to Borneo!

From Dec. 1–11, 2017 the Houston Zoo and Houston’s KPRC Channel 2 are traveling to southeast Asia and the island of Borneo to document the work you are supporting to protect the counterparts of the wildlife that you see when you visit the Zoo. Houston Zoo conservation associates who have dedicated their careers to protecting elephants, orangutans, pangolins and a whole host of other amazing species on the world’s third largest island will give us an in-depth look at what it means to save species from extinction.

We’ve created a special webpage to follow their exciting journey around the world, go behind the scenes, and learn more about how we can all save animals in the wild. Follow along with SMG!

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At 8:00 p.m., KPRC2 / Click2Houston will air a one-hour special about saving elephants, orangutans, crocodiles and more in Borneo. Tune in or set your DVR, you don't want to miss this! Read about the special and why it is so important here: www.houstonzoo.org/elephant/tune-kprc-tomorrow-night-learn-saving-elephants-borneo/ ... See MoreSee Less


At 8:00 p.m., KPRC2 / Click2Houston will air a one-hour special about saving elephants, orangutans, crocodiles and more in Borneo. Tune in or set your DVR, you dont want to miss this! Read about the special and why it is so important here: https://www.houstonzoo.org/elephant/tune-kprc-tomorrow-night-learn-saving-elephants-borneo/


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Very good special! We will be visiting the Zoo Saturday!

Sabrina Polk

Houston Zoo shared KPRC2 / Click2Houston's photo.
Houston Zoo

Tonight is the night! Don't miss this incredible one-hour special. Set those DVRs for 8:00 p.m.! ... See MoreSee Less


Tonight is the night! Dont miss this incredible one-hour special. Set those DVRs for 8:00 p.m.!


Comment on Facebook

I can't wait to finish my degree and be a part of something like this someday! Hopefully with this wonderful facility!! 😍

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