Pollinators of the Dark

There are so many pollinators in the world and each one of them is important.

My favorite pollinator?  Bats!

Bats are known for their excellent pest control and seed dispersal, but many people don’t know they are also pollinators. Over 500 species of plants rely on bats for pollination.  The Lesser Long Nosed Bat and the Mexican Long Tongued Bat are found in the southwestern U.S. all the way to Central America and  are just a couple of the bat species working hard to provide us with some of the things we love.

Bats pollinate many of the fruits and nuts we eat such as avocado, cashew, coconut, mango, banana and guava. They also pollinate the cocoa plant that is used to make chocolate!  Who doesn’t love an animal that helps bring us chocolate?

One of the more interesting plants they pollinate is the amazing Saguaro cactus found in the western part of the country. These cacti are the largest in the United States!  They can live 150 to 200 years and reach heights of 40 to 60 feet.  They are found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Western Sonora, Mexico.

There is another interesting plant bats pollinate that provides a product many people are fond of. The Agave plant! This is the plant that is used to make tequila.  If you have ever enjoyed a tasty margarita, you will certainly want to thank a bat!  The agave is a desert succulent – not a cactus.  It is found in hot, dry climates and requires very little water to survive.  Not only is it a nectar source for bats, it is a food source for other pollinators as well.

How can you support our VIPs (Very Important Pollinators)? Become a Houston Zoo Pollinator Pal! Bring pictures, reports, or drawings of pollinators or your pollinator garden to the Swap Shop.  You will be registered as a Pollinator Pal and earn points to spend in the shop!

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

Campers Give Elephants the Gift of Grub Through Beautiful Browse Bouquets

The following post was written by Jesus Campos, a Horticulture Team Lead at the Houston Zoo. 

The horticulture department is constantly trying to find new and interactive ways to educate the public about nature and the important role plants play. Our department is quiet and not the first thing most people think of when they think of a zoo job. Most days we work early hours and behind the scenes to keep the zoo beautiful. Many people don’t realize how many different skill sets are part of the field of zoo horticulture. On staff, we have an arborist, tree climbers, a green house manager, color beds creatives, heavy machinery operators, a plant registrar, irrigation specialists, and browse specialists.

Browse is a form of enrichment that most of our animals receive several days a week. Browse includes edible nontoxic plants and flowers that are grown on zoo grounds and provide additional nutrition and enrichment for the animals. The idea for a browse bouquet class came to us after our browse specialist Maria showed off her flower arrangement skills for a special event. We realized people would love to see bouquets the animals can eat and play with. We presented the idea to Nicholas in the Conservation Education Department and he was extremely receptive.

Recently we had the opportunity to hold a couple of Browse Bouquet classes for zoo camp kids as part of our partnership with the education department. In these classes, we had groups of kids and counselors make flower arrangements using hibiscus flowers, banana leaves, orange kumquats, and many other approved browse plants, all cut from plants we grow here at the zoo. This was a fun and interactive way to teach campers the importance of plants and how they directly affect the animals we take care of here at the zoo. After completing their bouquets, we visited the Asian elephant family where the keepers held a short presentation for us.  The keepers called over the elephant family group to get a snack and the elephants greatly enjoyed it. The children stood there in awe watching as these beautiful giants ate something they had helped create!

The bouquets were a success. The kids were able to pick the flowers they wanted to use and help gather other leaves for the bouquet.  The memorable moment was of course getting to interact with the elephants. We plan to continue these classes and expand upon them with other interactive activities. Hopefully this will translate well with older teens and even adults. The Houston Zoo Camp and Zoo Crew programs help lots of young people learn about the different careers paths that exist in a zoo.

 

School Partner – Ridgecrest Elementary

The Houston Zoo is working toward creating the next generation of saving wildlife heroes. One way we are achieving that goal is by forming lasting partnerships with school groups in and around the Houston area.  These partnerships all look a bit different from one another, but they all have one thing in common: they are inspiring students, teachers and communities to take action to save wildlife!  Ridgecrest Elementary is an example of one school that is partnering with the Houston Zoo to save pollinators through our Pollinator Partnerships.

The partnership between Ridgecrest Elementary and the Houston Zoo started when Ms. Lindsey Duke came to one of our Educator Events. “It all started when I attend my first Educator’s Night Out at the Houston Zoo.  I was so intrigued at what I experienced there and I knew that I wanted my students to experience the same” stated Ms. Duke.  During the event, she learned more about the importance of pollinators, the threats they are facing, and how her students can help.  She decided to reach out to DeAndra Ramsey from the Houston Zoo and start the process of forming a partnership centered around helping pollinators.

“Teaching kindergarten at a new campus I was a little nervous at how the initial pitch of the partnership and garden project would go but it was received with full support from administration and staff. We selected a spot on our campus that had once been a garden but had a lot of potential to be transformed into a pollinator garden”, says Ms. Duke.   In addition to picking the place for the garden and choosing the native plants that will be planted, the students have been learning about how a healthy pollinator population is vital to a healthy ecosystem.  Ambassador animals that are native to this area of Texas have been brought to the campus so that the students can see first-hand the animals they are helping with their work in the garden.

Families came together to work in the pollinator garden during the first Ridgecrest Elementary Garden Day

But it doesn’t stop in the classroom! “My goal was to make this not only a school wide project but also a community/family project.  So we had our first Ridgecrest Elementary Garden Day.  We invited families and community members out to our campus one Saturday and together we weeded and prepared our garden area.  I was blown away but the participation this event received.  To see so many families working together was amazing”, says Ms. Duke.  The Houston Zoo was able to attend the family gardening day and work side-by-side with the students and their families to transform this space into a wonderful pollinator habitat.  Starting a pollinator garden has multiple benefits, including connecting children to nature.  Preparing the space allowed families to get up close and person with a variety of Texas native wildlife such as frogs, snakes, and lizards.

Students were able to get up close and personal with some native Texas wildlife while working in the garden. A small snake quickly became the center of attention once the children learned there was nothing to fear.

As anyone who has started a garden knows, it does not happen overnight. “[We] have continued to work step by step slowly but surely transforming the garden into a space not only for pollinators to come and feast but also a learning spot for all ages.  The students along with their families have designed garden stones which we will use to trim the garden areas.  We painted reading stumps so that classes can go out and observe, write and learn in the garden.  Currently we are holding a coin drive to purchase pollinator plants for the garden and plan to have another Garden Day this spring”, Ms. Duke reported in January.

Students painted reading stumps in the garden. This will allow the entire school to enjoy the garden along with the pollinators.

Through the partnership between Ridgecrest Elementary and the Houston Zoo, the students are making connections with the natural world around them. They are taking action to save wildlife in their very own back yards and becoming wildlife heroes.  “None of this would be possible without our Partnership with DeAndra and the Houston Zoo.  Our students have had so many opportunities already in the first year of this partnership.  They have had ambassador animals come to the school and they have begun to learn about conservation of resources and species.  To hear them randomly throughout the day talking about things connected to our project is so encouraging”, says Ms. Duke.

A few of the families that took action to save pollinators during the Ridgecrest Elementary Gardening Day.

Ridgecrest Elementary has been a shining example of a school that is taking action to save wildlife. Ms Duke’s passion and dedication has inspired the students through out the school to work together to save pollinators and empowered them all to make a difference in their communities.

Everything is Bigger in Texas, Except our Animals! How You and the Zoo are Saving Giant Anteaters and Giant Armadillos in the Wild

If you live in Texas, it is safe to say that you know our state animal is the nine-banded armadillo. My guess is you don’t just know it, you’re proud of it! After all, the armadillo is just another unique symbol that represents just how special the Lone Star State is. It may surprise you to know that not everyone feels the same about their native armadillos, but thanks to your visit to the zoo, we are able to support our extended Zoo family in Brazil that is working hard to spread the word on just how awesome armadillos in their country are! Brazil is home to the Pantanal region, which is the largest wetland in Brazil, and home to the giant armadillo. When Arnaud and his team first started the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project, their goal was first and foremost to make people realize that this incredible prehistoric looking species existed! Many people in the Pantanal region in Brazil did not know about giant armadillos, or worse, some people were scared of them. There are legends that if you see a giant armadillo someone on the ranch will die in the next year. The team wanted to dispel this myth, and let people know that not only are these creatures alive, but if you see a giant armadillo you are very lucky because this animal is so rare! The giant armadillo also plays an important role in the ecosystem, creating habitat for other species, which in turn helps to keep the environment stable and healthy. As the project continues to progress, the team is focusing not just on raising awareness but also on encouraging locals to take action to protect this species.

The last 12 months came with ups and downs, as is the case for most of us as we work our way through the year, but overall 2017 was good to our friends working in the Pantanal. Word is getting out about the importance of the giant armadillo, with it being selected as an indicator species for the creation of protected areas in Mato Grosso do Sul (a Brazilian state) and being named as a priority species for conservation by the World Wildlife Fund. Camera traps have been used to monitor the giant armadillos in the study area, and while two beloved armadillos passed away this year, the other 12 being monitored appear to be doing quite well! In December the team was even lucky enough to capture and collar an adult male giant armadillo that is new to the study area.

An additional project run by the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project called Anteaters & Highways is also running smoothly. The team continues to conduct road surveys and regular monitoring to assess the impact of encounters between giant anteaters and vehicles. Reflective tape on the tracking collars of anteaters being monitored appears to be working well, as none have been killed by vehicle collisions. Biologist Vinicius Alberici who is joining the Anteaters & Highways team started his field work in 2017, and in November, with the help of the team, he was able to place 20 camera traps in the study area which will help greatly with continued monitoring efforts.

Perhaps the most exciting news Arnaud shared with us is that one of the landowners the project works with recently placed a huge outdoor banner on the MS-040 highway, that includes the logo for the project and the importance of protecting wildlife! This was a pleasant surprise for the team, as this land owner was initially very skeptical of the project and not fond of the team conducting research on his land. Arnaud states “He is now one of our strongest supporters in the region and really embraced our cause.” You can see a photo of this banner in the gallery above.

This is all very exciting news, and we cannot wait to share more updates from Arnaud and his team as we begin our journey into 2018! Each time you visit the zoo, a portion of your admission fee goes towards supporting projects like this one – a big thank you to everyone in our community that is helping to save wildlife! Don’t forget to stop by and visit our giant anteaters on your next visit to the zoo!

 

 

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 3

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 3:

Tonight we headed into one of our sites that we have surveyed pretty heavily over the last couple years.  During the monsoon season, we find many species of frogs along this path – there is a large stone wall covered in geckos and usually a few lizard eating species of snake as well. But the monsoon has passed now and it hasn’t rained here in some time.  This is an important time for us to survey because now we get to document what species are active in the drier part of the year.  We can see that a lot of the grasses and smaller shrubby plants have started to dry out and turn brown.   We noted quite a few leaf eating insects getting their last meals in for the year.  One of my favorites is a katydid that looks like it flew 100 mph into a brick wall and wound up with a flat face.  During the earlier part of the dry season, we have seen that the bush frogs (Pseudophilautus) are still around in decent numbers but they are not calling for mates – we assume they are fattening up for the cooler weather coming.  We encountered several forest lizards (Calotes sp.), both males and females, sleeping soundly on the thin ends of branches.  They choose these seemingly uncomfortable limbs for a good reason!  If any snake or bird land on the tree they are on, the branch will move and wake them up in enough time that they can hopefully escape.  On the large stone wall we found a massive species called a Bombay leaf toed gecko (Hemidactylus prashadi).  Over all we had a slower night than usual, but still noted some cool stuff!

Give the Gift of the Photo Ark this Holiday Season

If you’re searching for the perfect holiday gift to give this season, kids and adults of all ages will fall in love with The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore. Not only is this book a stunning collection of over 6,000 species marking the halfway point for Joel’s project, but it also includes animals from right here at the Houston Zoo!

In addition, Chris Holmes, Houston Zoo Assistant Curator of Birds, is featured in this book as a conservation hero for his work with critically endangered blue-billed curassows. Unique to Colombia, there are only a few hundred of these birds left in the wild due to habitat destruction and hunting. One way to make sure blue-billed curassows don’t go extinct is to make sure this species and its’ genetic diversity is represented in zoos. This ensures that if there are any major decreases in the wild, there is a genetically diverse population that could possibly be released to boost wild populations. Chris, using his unique skills developed with the Houston Zoo’s blue-billed curassows, partnered with the Colombian Zoo Association to save these birds in the wild through sharing knowledge gained from successful breeding efforts, providing the resources needed for a successful breeding program in-country, and collaborating in the creation of a five-year conservation plan. In January 2014, the National Aviary of Colombia became the first Colombian zoo to breed the blue-billed curassow in its native Colombia.

The Photo Ark project adds a creative twist to the world of wildlife conservation, using striking studio portraits of animals as a way connect people to wildlife and, in turn, inspire them to take action to save the animals we share the planet with. By using black and white backgrounds, all species – big and small, become equals, reminding us that each of these creatures have a voice, and a vital role to play in keeping our planet healthy for future generations.

Joel Sartore, the creator of the Photo Ark, is a longtime friend of the Houston Zoo, having photographed here many times in the past, and speaking at the zoo’s conservation gala back in 2016. We are proud to partner with Joel, and the feeling is mutual –

“Having friends in the world of zoos is critical in building the Photo Ark, and Chris Holmes is a perfect example of this. He’s worked for years with birds, especially in Columbia. People trust him, and his expertise, honed over years of hard work. With his recommendation, this allows me to work literally anywhere that he has established relationships. It’s remarkable and so appreciated. Indeed, without good references from folks like Chris, the Ark simply would not be able to proceed.” – Joel Sartore

Stop by the gift shop on your next visit to the zoo to pick up your copy! To explore the Ark and learn more about this incredible 25-year project, click here.

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles See Nesting Boom

The Houston Zoo is proud to be part of sea turtle protection efforts in our state. Thanks to a dedicated group of organizations and individuals, we are thrilled to announce that Texas and Mexico saw nearly 27,000 Kemp’s ridley nests on our beaches. This is a 35% increase in nests from 2016, which is a great sign for this local species!

Since 2010, the Houston Zoo has treated over 400 sea turtles in our veterinary clinic, many of which are Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Once treated, these sea turtles are brought to the NOAA sea turtle barn in Galveston where they are cared for before being released into the ocean.  Our team has also aided in the construction of monofilament (fishing line) recycling bins which provide a location to recycle your fishing line, rather than leave it on the ground, potentially entangling wildlife like sea turtles. Zoo staff also participates in weekly sea turtle surveys to look for stranded or nesting sea turtles, and monthly jetty clean-ups aimed at reducing the amount of trash that ends up in sea turtle habitat.

Last year 25,000 copies of the Houston Zoo Saving Wildlife, Sea Turtle Edition comic book were distributed throughout our community to increase knowledge about our local sea turtle species and the threats they face. As a result of our community’s dedication to saving wildlife, nearly 2,000 Houston Zoo guests pledged to go plastic bag free, keeping plastic out of the ocean that sea turtles may mistake for food.

Your visit to see sea turtles rehabilitating in our Kipp Aquarium helps protect sea turtles in the wild! To learn how you can join the Zoo and fellow Houstonians on their journey to reduce plastic waste and protect marine wildlife click here.

Saving Snakes in India

The Houston Zoo is proud to announce a new conservation partner, Murthy Kantimahanti. Murthy is the founder and lead conservation biologist for the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society. He has been working closely with communities in providing education and human-wildlife conflict intervention strategies.

Murthy works in the Eastern Ghats, located in Southern India, to mitigate human-snake conflict and build local community support in snake conservation. Fear and lack of knowledge about snakes has led to a rise killing of many snake species, including the king cobra. Murthy and his team are working to transform the fear of snakes into a respect and appreciation for the important role that snakes play in the ecosystem. Snakes are an important species to control rodent populations that spread deadly diseases.

With the support of the Houston Zoo and you, the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society will be able to give school presentations, awareness talks at universities in towns and community centers in rural areas with human-snake conflict. Through this work, communities will learn how to identify venomous vs. non-venomous snakes, as well as learn valuable snake bite and first aid skills.

Please join us in welcoming this amazing conservation partner to the Houston Zoo family. With every visit to the Houston Zoo, you are helping save animals, like the king cobra, in the wild.

Friend The Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society on Facebook to learn more!

Houston Zoo Closes Due to Inclement Weather Forecast

The Houston Zoo’s leadership team has been monitoring the path of Hurricane Harvey, and has made the decision to close the zoo Friday, August 25 through Sunday, August 27. The safety of team members, guests and animals is the zoo’s top priority, and the leadership team made this decision with that in mind. The decision on whether the zoo will reopen on Monday, August 28 will be made as the weather event continues.

The animals will be cared for during the storm by a select group of team members who will stay at the zoo throughout the weather event. The animals have safe and secure barns and night houses that have been constructed to weather storms like this one.

Celebrating a Wildlife Warrior

Photo Courtesy of Painted Dog Conservation

Enock Zulu, 2016 Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior from Painted Dog Conservation, now wears his Wildlife Warrior badge with pride as a part of his uniform. Zulu has been leading the ever-growing anti-poaching team for many years and the Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior award allowed him to travel to work with another anti-poaching project.

While visiting the other anti-poaching team, he was inspired by their use of domestic dogs in assisting with sniffing out snares and poachers. He came back with the idea to implement a domestic dog assistance unit program at Painted Dog Conservation.

Photo Courtesy of Painted Dog Conservation

Soon, Wildlife Warrior Enock Zulu will be managing a K9 unit to help his anti-poaching team be more effective in protecting wildlife. The Houston Zoo is providing funding for their dog assistance unit facility.

Congratulations Zulu! The Houston Zoo is proud to have him as a part of our team!

You too are helping Zulu and the Painted Dog Conservation project every time you visit the Houston Zoo, as a portion of every ticket and membership goes to saving animals in the wild!

African Painted Dog and pup
Photo Courtesy of Painted Dog Conservation
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