Anchors for the Ocean: Your Visit to the Zoo Helps Protect Marine Species around the Globe

It is no secret that the Houston Zoo has been hard at work to protect our local marine wildlife by going plastic bag and bottle free, participating in sea turtle surveys and crab trap clean-ups, and organizing staff led jetty clean-ups down in Surfside. Many of you have even joined us on our journey by pledging to go plastic bag free when we hosted the Washed Ashore exhibit back in 2016 – but your impact doesn’t stop there! Each time you visit the Houston Zoo to see marine species like sea turtles and sharks, a portion of your admission ticket goes to support MarAlliance in their work to save ocean wildlife. While the zoo may be surrounded by the hustle and bustle of any major city, many members of our extended zoo family are hard at work saving wildlife in both remote and metropolitan areas all around the globe! One of these partners, MarAlliance, works to protect threatened marine species in Central America, Micronesia, and West Africa.

MarAlliance aims to improve the understanding and conservation of threatened marine species and their habitats, especially sharks and rays, on the Mesoamerican reef. This is done by monitoring the abundance and characteristics of species in key sites, which in turn creates new knowledge that can be shared throughout local and global communities. MarAlliance trains local fishermen to help with research at sea and engage local communities in order to obtain information on sightings of important species. The knowledge gained from this work is shared in many different formats to many different audiences, from the youngest audiences in pre-schools all the way to politicians and other decision-makers. Through this, they hope to inspire a sense of wonder about the ocean, to promote sustainable tourism, and to foster the effectiveness of marine protected areas.

MarAlliance had a fantastic year in 2017 and wanted to share these updates will all of you:

  • Educated thousands of kids on marine wildlife and conservation strategies and took hundreds to meet and study fish like sharks, rays, and grouper.
  • During 233 days of work in the field conducted with fishers, students and community-leaders, thousands of fish were counted as teams swam over 250 km (155 miles) of coastal and reef habitats. This is just shy of the distance you would travel from the Houston Zoo to Austin, Texas!
  • Uncovered new information on fisheries, species behavior and habitats that is pushing the frontiers of science and informing both management decisions and conservation action.
  • Put small tags on little known sharks of the deep waters, and tracked increasingly threatened whale sharks, manta rays and tiger sharks to better understand how they move about in the ocean, and reinforce strategies for protection.

There is never a dull moment for our friends at MarAlliance! We are extremely proud of all of the hard work MarAlliance has put in this year to save marine species, and we can’t wait to see all of the amazing things they are able to accomplish in the new year. Remember, every time you visit the zoo you are helping to support projects like this one – thank you for your help in saving animals in the wild!

The March of the Flamingos: A look into Flamingo “Dating”

Written by Carrie Mansfield


As we approach the spring season, you may notice our Chilean Flamingos becoming more active than usual. Chilean Flamingo courtship happens long before they even begin to build their nests in the summer time. Around January and February, our flock at the Houston Zoo can be seen head flagging, which is one of the first breeding behaviors they start to display. The flamingos will elongate their necks as much as possible and move their heads side to side, looking a lot like flags blowing in the wind.

In March and April, the flock will begin to do wing displays. Some can be seen standing tall and sticking their wings straight out to their sides. Others can be seen leaning forward, like a bow, and flipping their wings straight up to the sky. Some even do a wing display including one of their legs. They will stretch their leg back and to the side while simultaneously stretching their wing on the same side.

Once it gets closer to May, our flock can be seen marching around the island in their exhibit. This is by far my favorite behavior they do, because the whole flock will do it together. This is the indication that the flock is ready to start breeding and they will soon start to pair off. The females will choose the male that has the most impressive dance moves. Once paired off, you can spot the males closely following their female mate wherever they go.

I know a lot of this may be hard to picture, so here is a video from National Geographic of a flamingo flock marching.

Some of our Conservation Education team have also performed an interpretive dance depicting flamingo breeding behaviors. Enjoy.

 

Take some time on your next visit to the zoo to observe our Chilean Flamingo flock and see if you can spot any of these unique behaviors.

And if you’re looking for environmentally friendly ways to impress your sweetheart this Valentine’s day, here are a few things you can do:

  • Make a stuffed animal out of old clothing. The gift will be one of a kind and a great way to upcycle clothes you aren’t using anymore
  • Give a potted plant instead of a bouquet of flowers. A potted plant can be enjoyed for many years
  • If you take your special someone out for dinner, say no to the straw and bring your own Tupperware for leftovers. This will help prevent more plastic waste from entering our oceans
  • Or the best gift of all: create your own jazzy flamingo dance. Who doesn’t love a good dance partner?!

Thanks for reading and I hope that you will join us and National Geographic in the celebration of the year of the bird!

Part of the Pride: How You and the Houston Zoo are Saving Lions like Hasani in Africa

As 2017 came to a close, we eagerly welcomed Hasani, a 3 year old male lion, to our pride at the Houston Zoo. He has received a very warm welcome as thousands of Houstonians have made their way to the zoo to catch a glimpse of our new feline friend, but did you know that each time you visit the Houston Zoo to see Hasani and our pride of lions, a portion of your admission ticket goes to support work to save lions in the wild? Houston Zoo conservation partner, The Pride Lion Conservation Alliance was created on the idea that we can do more to save lions in the wild by working together. Founded by six women with over 100 years of collective experience, PRIDE is a new model of collaboration that works across different African countries to save more lions and to inspire and improve future conservation. Collectively, Pride Alliance members lead carnivore conservation efforts in 4 key lion range countries, researching and protecting 20% of Africa’s existing wild lion population. Combining science with community conservation efforts, these projects collectively employ hundreds of local people and engage thousands in efforts each year to address the biggest threats to lions and improve the lives of local people.

Located in Kenya, Ewaso Lions is a member of the Pride Lion Conservation Alliance that works to improve relationships between humans and carnivores through raising awareness of ecological problems and solutions, developing strategies for reducing conflict with carnivores, and educational initiatives that illustrate the benefit of wildlife for local livelihoods. The team at Ewaso Lions has had quite the year, and they couldn’t wait to tell their extended family here at the Houston Zoo all about it!

This year came with its challenges, as parts of Kenya, including the area where Ewaso Lions is based, were hit hard by a very severe drought. The Ewaso Nyiro River dried up in early January and wildlife and livestock converged around small waterholes, increasing the conflict between lions and humans. The river flowed again temporarily in February/March, but it had dried up by June 2017. Fortunately, the rains arrived towards the end of October and carried to November, bringing much needed relief to the region.

While the drought put a great deal of stress on both lions and humans in the area, it did not stop the Ewaso Lion project from seeing a number of incredible successes! Two of the lionesses tracked by the project gave birth to cubs – Nabulu gave birth in late 2016, and Naramat gave birth to 4 cubs in April of 2017. A number of new male lions also arrived in the region, and 6 lions were collared to help identify key routes the lions use to move around within the community landscape.

Ewaso Lions Scouts have been conducting transect surveys to record lion (and other carnivores) sightings and tracks, wild prey and livestock, and incidents of conflict with livestock. They patrol, almost on a daily basis, a total of 24 fixed transects (each almost 2 miles long) distributed across the lion range. Up until the end of October, a team of 25 conducted a total of 665 patrols, covering a distance of 3,477 miles on foot with over 2,000 patrol hours. In addition, the project has trained 20 tour guides and rangers in lion identification, ecology, conservation issues, and data collection using a custom smartphone app. These participants are now certified Lion Watch Guides who help Ewaso Lions gather data on lions by recording sightings during the course of their work.

Through their Mama Simba program, Ewaso Lions has engaged more than 300 Samburu women in conservation. This year the Mama Simba ladies went on 5 wildlife safaris in to Samburu National Reserve, piloted new ideas to help them better dispose of waste, particularly plastic waste which poses a serious threat to livestock and wildlife, and organized 3 events with women from local villages. The ladies brought together women, elders and children from their communities and played a specially designed conservation game.

In addition, a total of eight Lion Kids Camps have been held and 213 Kenyan children have been exposed to conservation education through the Camps. This program is helping to foster the next generation of wildlife heroes in Kenya. Following a special Reunion Camp in August 2015, 66% of children wanted to pursue a career related to wildlife (e.g. conservationist, wildlife vet, tour guide, or ranger), with a further 5% openly supporting conservation while in pursuit of an alternate career.

Talk about a busy year! We are beyond proud of all of the hard work and dedication our family at Ewaso Lions has put in this year to save lions in the wild, and we can’t wait to see all of the amazing things they are able to accomplish in the new year. We’d like to thank all of our guests for supporting projects like this one through the purchase of your admission ticket here at the Houston Zoo. Make sure to stay tuned for updates!

Meet the Mata Mata!

This is one seriously cool turtle.  It is a monotypic genus, which means that it is the only species in the genus.  They live in the Amazon river system in South America and hang out in warm shallow muddy water with lots of vegetative debris.  The shell and skin are excellent camouflage in this habitat, including how the head (with fringes of extra skin with sensitive nerves), looks like mucka mucka leaves (a common aquatic plant).  The snout is a long thin snorkel like tube that is raised to the surface to breathe.

 

Mata matas either ambush or slowly stalk their prey.  When suitable prey is within reach, the head shoots forward and the floor of the mouth lowers.  Just before the mouth reaches the prey, the  mouth opens, creating a vacuum, and prey and water rush into the mouth (which is called the buccal cavity).  The mouth then shuts, but not quite all the way, the floor of the mouth rises, pushing most of the water out, and the prey is swallowed.  This happens so fast, that you can barely see it.  Check it out!

Guest Blogger: Jessica Jones – 2017 Collegiate Conservation Program Intern

This post was written by Jessica Jones. Jessica is a sophomore at University of Houston and was a Collegiate Conservation Program (CCP) intern during the 2017 summer.  Take a look at Jessica’s experience and head to the CCP website to learn more and to apply for summer 2018!


My experience with the Collegiate Conservation Program allowed me to learn about various career opportunities within the environmental field. I started the internship as a Biology major, but at that time I was still unsure of my career path. The internship exposed me to the many jobs related to conservation and to the idea that everyone involved has an impact. The most memorable experiences I had on- and off- zoo grounds involved interacting with the public. Animal handling sparked conversations with zoo guests on the characteristics of the animals along with how we can improve their situation in the wild. One example was sharing the message of one of the ambassador animals, an American alligator named Dr. Teeth. We educated guests on the importance of alligators as they help control the ecosystem population. Through personal interactions with guests who truly wanted to learn about each animal, I realized my passion was sharing the message with others. Another on-zoo grounds benefit was the opportunity to meet with different departments such as development, marketing, education, horticulture, and many more. My encounter with the marketing team expanded my perspective of a business career as I had always been set on science. I learned that marketing was working hand in hand with helping save animals in the wild and that it is an essential part of educating the public.

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What I had learned on zoo grounds developed as we met with many of the partner organizations off grounds. From invasive species removal to dune restoration, I experienced what it would be like to work hands on with the environment as a career. Early in the internship, we were able to experience the emergence of 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats from Bracken Cave. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, and it lasted for hours. This internship educated me on the existence of a colony of bats right here in Houston. My fellow interns and I met a young girl around the age of 8 at the Waugh Bat Bridge. Her craving to learn about the bats was inspirational. I want all children and adults to be educated about the importance of the world around us. This 10-week life changing internship helped me investigate my interests and ultimately alter my career path. I have come to believe my passion for conservation may best be pursued through an influential marketing career where I can connect and inspire people of all ages.

Guest Blogger: Kenneth Nalley – 2017 Collegiate Conservation Program Intern

This post written by Kenneth Nalley. Kenneth is a graduate from Tarleton University and was a Collegiate Conservation Program (CCP) intern during the 2017 summer.  Take a look at Kenneth’s experience and head to the CCP website to learn more and to apply for summer 2018!


Summer 2017 will forever hold a special place in my heart. From the moment I heard about the CCP internship with the Houston Zoo I knew it was special, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Since I had a friend that had done the internship a summer prior I somewhat knew what to expect. I knew that I would learn about regional and worldwide conservation efforts and the Houston Zoo’s role in those efforts. What I didn’t know was that we would be examining what I now see as the most important part of conservation: the human aspect. Throughout the summer I would be taking a greater look at myself through the eyes of 12 strangers.

This summer consisted of a lot of critical thinking. Where do I fit into this puzzle? What is my role in conservation? It starts with learning more about yourself; which is exactly what we did. We took a strength finders test which told us what our top 5 strengths were and then we each shared our strengths with the group. This was a powerful exercise because it fostered a level of understanding and bonding amongst the group that wasn’t there prior. It allowed us to accept and bond over our differences. Throughout the rest of the summer this bond would grow amongst the group, and this better understanding of each other led to a better understanding of people’s role in conservation.

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My philosophy before CCP was that people were the reason we are in this mess. Our selfishness and greed has destroyed habitats, altered our climate, and devastated wildlife. There were people like me—nature-loving, wildlife enthusiasts—and people like them. Now, thanks to the growth I experienced this past summer—I only see people. I met some of the nicest people from EXXON Mobil, who were so generous with their time and investment in us. I was able to see things from different perspectives; no right or wrong…just different. I learned and now understand that we are all in this together. Conservation is not just people who work in this fields issue, we can’t save the world alone. This effort belongs to us all—and we must be willing to listen to everyone. That’s the biggest truth I took away from this summer, and for that, I will be forever grateful for it has shaped my future in this field.

 

 

 

February’s Featured Members: The Costigan 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 family of Zoo Members that deserve recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to February’s Featured Members: the Costigan family.


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

“My husband Quentin and I have been members since fall of last year, when we initially signed up for a small family membership.  We are both animal lovers and advocates, and we come to the zoo several times a year just to admire the critters and pet the goats. 🙂  My sister Rebekah and her husband Ryan moved home to Houston in June of this year, after living in Denver for 7 years.  They came home with my 2 year old nephew Rory and my 4 year old niece Ivy Anne in tow, who were born in Denver and loved the Denver Zoo, so we decided to go ahead and get the big family membership so we can all bring the kiddos to the Houston Zoo whenever we want (and when the weather cooperates!).  We took them for their first trip in September and got the family membership at that time.

We are proud to support the efforts of the zoo, and to teach Rory and Ivy Anne the importance of conservation and animal husbandry, as well as educating them about animals all over the world and how critical they are to OUR survival, as we are to theirs.  The residents at the zoo allow us to show them creatures from all over the globe; mammals birds, reptiles, and fish, and to see them in native environments. Our favorites are the cats – the big cats and the little ones!  Ivy Anne got to give a high five to a sleeping lioness through the viewing window, which was her favorite part of the entire day.  We hope to be able to participate in the program where you get to give the lions some water with a squirt bottle – that was the neatest thing ever!!  My sister and her husband are raising my niece and nephew to be caring and responsible contributing members of society, and the zoo helps us toward that goal.  Plus, we get to pet the goats (That’s my favorite part, and yes, I’m a grown woman of 45 LOLOL!)!”

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

Meet the SPARK Team

Have you ever seen the SPARK team at Houston Zoo?  This dynamic team is waiting to engage, inform and entertain you every time you walk through the Zoo gates!

SPARK stands for:
Spontaneous interactions
Passionate staff
Awe and inspiring guest reactions
Relationship building
Keeping guests 1st

The team is made up of three amazingly creative individuals who interact with more than 120,000 guests each year.  Bennett Dones, interpretative program supervisor, has been with the team since it was created “before 2000.”  Bennett can be seen weekdays at the Zoo.  He is constantly “roaming” around and his favorite interactions are those spontaneous moments with guests as he walks around the Zoo.  He loves to tell stories and jokes.

Sarah Fern rejoined the team in 2016 after spending a few years in a school environment.  She is here Wednesday through Sunday.  Sarah loves to surprise guests with carousel tickets or telling stories about our amazing elephant herd.

Celina Burgueño joined the team after graduating from college in 2017.  Celina loves performing various programs at the Houston Texan’s Enrichment Zone where she can be seen leading a marching band or introducing guests to our animal athlete ambassadors. She can be seen on Thursday s through Mondays.

Every day, find Sarah, Celina or Bennett presenting some of their favorite animal ambassadors at the Conservation Stage and other locations across the zoo. Will you get to meet Charles the Chuckwalla, a Houston Zoo legend, or take a picture with Ernie, the North American porcupine? Whoever you meet, the SPARK team is sure to teach you all about your newest friend. As you walk through the Children’s Zoo, stop by the Houston Texan’s Enrichment Zone to catch the latest presentation. Daily programming may include a chance to meet some animal athletes, make some noise as you audition to become a member of the Houston Zoo Recycle Band, or even save the Zoo from trash villain Disastra at the Conservation League of Heroes. Any time throughout the day, you can catch the team on one of their daily storytelling walks, in front of a favorite habitat and ready to tell you all about the amazing animals that call Houston Zoo home. Wherever you see them, SPARK is sure to awe and inspire you with spontaneous programming for the whole family.

Tickets for Tapirs: How Your Visit to the Houston Zoo is Saving South America’s Largest Land Mammal

Last February, the Houston Zoo celebrated the birth of Antonio, a Baird’s tapir, and quite possibly the cutest bundle of joy any of us have laid eyes on. It certainly was a treat to see Antonio sporting his watermelon-like stripes and spots as he readily greeted his adoring fans. These days Antonio is sporting a new, more mature look, but thanks to a portion of your admission ticket going towards saving animals in the wild, we are able to help protect baby tapirs like Antonio in Brazil with the help of our friends at the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative (LTCI). Over the past 12 months the team found a total of 53 tapirs, including 28 new individuals that had never been seen before. Overall, for the past 21 years, the team at LTCI has found 144 individual tapirs, and 94 of these were radio-collared and monitored for extended periods. Finding tapirs and processing data on individuals before they are released back into the wild helps conservationists understand more about them, which then helps to create protection plans for them. This project continues to build the most extensive database of tapir information in the world and has been successfully applying their results for the conservation of tapirs in Brazil and internationally!

You may remember that the Houston Zoo hosted the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group (TSG) Seventh International Tapir Symposium back in November. Patricia Medici, the chair of the Tapir Specialist Group, also happens to be the coordinator for LTCI. During the symposium, LTCI launched their environmental education curriculum called TAPIR TRACKS, which will be used in schools and focuses on tapirs and conservation.  In the coming months, the team hopes to have the curriculum translated into Portuguese and Spanish. In Brazil, the curriculum will be presented to the Brazilian Ministry of Education (federal level) and State Departments of Education for inclusion as part of the formal curriculum in primary schools.

For the past three years, the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative has been functioning as a base for training and capacity building for members of the TSG and other tapir researchers and conservationists worldwide. To date, the project has hosted 16 TSG Fellows. Each of these fellows spent two weeks in the field with the LTCI staff, which provided everyone involved with multiple opportunities to share ideas and experiences, to discuss future tapir conservation initiatives, and to establish collaborations and partnerships. Multiple new tapir research and conservation programs are now being designed and implemented in Brazil and other Latin American countries because of the TSG Fellowship Program.  In 2017, the project hosted TSG Fellows from Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Peru.

In early September 2017, camera-traps were installed in front of 15 underpasses that lie beneath the MS-040, a major highway in the LTCI study region. This was done as part of a plan that the team has developed with the hope of reducing the number of road fatalities seen when tapirs and motor vehicles come into contact with one another. Over the past 2 years, the team has recorded 95 tapir deaths connected to road collisions, and these encounters can be extremely dangerous for people as well. The camera traps that were installed in front of the selected underpasses will record data for 6 months in order to evaluate how often these pathways are used by tapirs and other wildlife. The ultimate goal of the LTCI is to use the results of this study to develop similar plans for at least three other highways in the state, in an effort to make traveling safer for both tapirs and people. 

The LTCI team also carried out 50 interviews with members of the local community in order to gauge how they feel towards tapirs and view interactions with them. The amount of information gathered through the interviews was truly incredible, and the team aims to have the data analyzed by early this year! 

We are blown away by how much our family in Brazil were able to accomplish in 2017, and we can’t wait to see all of the amazing things they are able to do in the new year. We’d like to thank all of our guests for supporting projects like this one through the purchase of your admission ticket here at the Houston Zoo. Make sure to stay tuned for updates!

Mourning the Loss of Our Geriatric Jaguar, Kan Balam

This morning, the Houston Zoo humanely euthanized its male, 20-year-old jaguar, Kan Balam.  Due to the tremendous care provided to him by his keepers and the Houston Zoo 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.

Kan Balam was well known as one of the carnivore department’s most intelligent animals. The great-grandfather knew about 30 different behaviors and found joy in attempting to outsmart his keepers who dedicated their lives to caring for him.

 

“When caring for aging animals, we first do everything in our power to make sure they have a great quality of life,” said Lisa Marie Avendano, vice president of animal operations at the Houston Zoo. “We manage their diet and exercise, as well as their medication if necessary. It is never an easy decision to euthanize an animal, but it is one we make with the animal’s well-being as the top priority. With world-class animal keepers, four incredible veterinarians, and a complete veterinary hospital complex, our animals receive the best care possible, and that includes end-of-life decisions.

Kan Balam was born at a zoological facility in Mexico. His keepers often refer to him as “Kan B” for short. Before coming to the Houston Zoo, he had an altercation with another jaguar and lost part of his front right foot and for many years received laser acupuncture and annual chiropractic adjustments.

Jaguars range covers South and Central America, with some venturing north into Mexico and southwestern US. They are listed as near threatened by International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and their numbers continue to decline mostly due to habitat loss. The Houston Zoo is protecting jaguars in the wild by providing support to conservation partners in Brazil who work with the Brazilian government on saving the forested homes of these beautiful cats.

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