Whooping Crane Festival Brings Hope to Storm Ravaged Town

On the last Saturday in February, Houston Zoo staff rose before the sun and piled into a zoo van to make the 4-hour journey south to Port Aransas. While most would be sleeping, the van was full of excited chatter as the team neared its destination – the 22nd annual Whooping Crane Festival! The festival celebrates the yearly return of the whooping cranes to their wintering habitat. Due to Hurricane Harvey, the International Crane Foundation wasn’t sure if the festival would take place this year, but knowing how important this festival is for both the birds and the community, several local partners including the Houston Zoo were able to lend a helping hand to make sure it happened!

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. This section of the Texas coast is the only place where you can see the world’s last naturally-occurring population of Whooping Cranes.

At the festival, zoo staff got to spend the day with Corinna Holfus, the new Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator whose position is being funded by the Houston Zoo. Corinna, a Houston native, was well aware of the post-Harvey struggles Port Aransas was facing when she joined the team in October of 2017. She didn’t always plan on working with Texas species, but when the opportunity arose she recalled how excited she was at the prospect of becoming a “craniac” – a designation shared among crane lovers within the birding community. Since landing the job, Holfus has been working with hunters, landowners, and other members of the community to develop awareness and caring for whooping cranes with the hope of fostering their commitment to safe guard these unique birds. You might think that saving wildlife is the last thing people want to add to their plates when recovering from a natural disaster, but Holfus has found the community’s response to be nothing short of inspiring. “With everything that has been happening here, the whooping cranes have actually become a symbol of hope for the community. So many things feel out of your control, but people realize that they can do something to help these birds, and they have started to rally around them which has been really special to watch.”

While the storm negatively impacted human communities, it actually did a lot to help clean debris and pollution out of whooping crane habitat, which in turn led to an increase in the amount of available food sources. This has ultimately led to some pretty impressive numbers of cranes spending the winter in Port Aransas, with the number reaching a record high of around 431 birds last year. On our day out on the water we saw over 50 whooping cranes – this may not seem like much, but for people like Houston Zoo veterinarian Dr. Joe Flanagan who has been traveling to view the whooping cranes for many years it is quite an exciting turn out. “Back in the 80s to see 50 birds would have meant you had seen the entire remaining population”, he told us while looking eagerly through his binoculars.  One of the rarest birds in North America, 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, with an estimated population of 757 world-wide.

We are so proud to be involved in this work to help save a very unique community of Texans, and thanks to the continued support of Zoo goers like you, this native species has an even better chance for a bright future. Stay tuned for updates on Corinna’s work with the International Crane Foundation’s Texas office!

Local Community Removes Crab Traps from Galveston Bay, Saving Texas Wildlife!

On Saturday February 17th, Houston Zoo staff, including Rwandan conservation partner, Gorilla Doctor Noel, Zoo Crew, and Zoo volunteers worked alongside the Dallas Zoo and Galveston Bay Foundation to clean up abandoned crab traps from Galveston Bay.

This effort is part of a state-wide program that came into effect in 2001 in response to increased pressure on blue crab populations. Abandoned traps can also pose a threat to other wildlife like otters and diamondback terrapins, causing them harm. Fishing gear that is lost, dumped, or abandoned is sometimes referred to as “ghost fishing” because this gear can continue to catch aquatic species even though it has been left unattended.  While these accidental catches have a clearly negative impact on the health of wildlife, they can also cause problems for the commercial fishing industry. Each animal that is caught in an abandoned trap is one less that can be caught in a sustainable and ocean-friendly manner. This means that more individuals must be caught to meet the demands of the seafood market, and as a result there are less animals in the ocean working to keep it and species populations healthy.  How do we help to solve this problem? The answer is quite simple – every February, the community is invited to participate in removing these old traps from the water to protect wildlife!

While some volunteers go out on boats to collect traps, others stay behind to collect trash along the shore. All kinds of trash and recycling are collected – everything from bottles and cans to plastic straws and fishing line; sometimes even things like car tires! Removing debris from the shore is equally important, as it protects species like sea turtles and pelicans from ingesting trash or becoming entangled in line. Once boaters return with traps, they are unloaded and inspected for trapped wildlife. Any animals present in the traps are removed and released back into the water and then the traps are crushed by volunteers and disposed of at designated trap drop locations.

In total, 221 crab traps were removed from the water and over 1,000 pounds of trash, recyclable material, and fishing line were picked up from land. These efforts saved a potential 5,300 blue crabs and prevented many other animals from getting caught in abandoned traps! Looking for an easy way to help? Download the Seafood Watch App and use it when grocery shopping or dining out to make sure that the seafood you eat has been sourced in a way that does not harm wildlife. This easy action will help to ensure that marine life will continue to thrive for future generations!

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!

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!

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!

 

 

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!

Sea Turtle Rescues in Christmas Bay, Part 2

Many of you may remember a post from a few weeks back about Justin, a local community member, and sea turtle superhero. Justin has a passion for sea turtles, and while he works full-time in the city, you can find him during his down time saving sea turtles all along the Texas Coast. The last time we caught up with Justin, he and his son Trenton had come to the aid of almost a dozen sea turtles that had been cold-stunned in early December. Since sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, they have to use the environment and sun to regulate their body temperature. If the water temperature drops too quickly and the turtles can’t get to warmer waters, their bodies shut down and need help. With the recent cold front, Justin and his three children Cheyenne, Trenton, and Emma, headed back out to Christmas Bay in search of turtles in need of rescue.

Justin was able to make it out to Christmas Bay four days during the first week of January, braving the worst of the cold weather. Over the course of the week, Justin and his kids picked up a total of 20 sea turtles! Unfortunately, 3 of these turtles had already passed away, but the 17 remaining turtles are receiving care from our partners at NOAA Fisheries in Galveston. The NOAA Fisheries Galveston Laboratory operates a sea turtle research and wild sea turtle rehabilitation center. This facility is the only one of its kind in the world, raising hundreds of turtles each year for fisheries and biological research while also serving as a sea turtle hospital for the upper Texas Gulf coast. The Houston Zoo assists NOAA with weekly sea turtle surveys along the Texas coast, and the veterinary team provides care for any sick or injured sea turtles that NOAA brings in. When speaking of NOAA, Justin said: “I will never be able to thank Lyndsey and the team in Galveston at NOAA enough for the work they do on a daily basis to rescue, rehabilitate, and ultimately release these beautiful animals back into the wild.” As for Justin, he’ll be out there for as long as the turtles need his help – after rescuing his first turtle entangled in line 6 or 7 years ago, he was hooked on what he refers to as both his passion, and obsession. While his wife dedicates her time to pet rescue efforts, Justin says there’s nothing he would rather do with his time than rescue sea turtles and make sure they are able to return safely back into the wild.

If temperatures drop quickly in our area, please be on the lookout for cold-stunned turtles in the bay. If you find one, please report it immediately by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5.

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.

Community Comes Together to Rescue Sea Turtles During Record Breaking Cold-Stunning Event

As we rang in the new year, 2018 treated a large portion of the US to a dose of chilly weather. While we Texans in the southern part of the state normally escape the winter months untouched, last week surprised us with a rapid decrease in temperature, with some areas dropping below freezing. Most of us are able to turn on our heaters and survive the cooler temperatures with relative ease, but our friends in the wild are not always as lucky. This is especially true of sea turtles that rely on the environment and warmth of the sun to regulate their body temperature.

Known for their resiliency, with species dating back to the time of dinosaurs, sea turtles have managed to survive despite the many obstacles thrown in front of them throughout history. As a cold-blooded species living in the ocean, these turtles have adapted to live in tropical or semi-tropical waters which helps to keep their bodies warm. Typically, sea turtles can do just fine during cold spells as long as they are far enough away from shore where water temperatures are at or above 55 degrees, but if temperatures drop very quickly, there is not always time to move away from land. This causes what we call “cold-stunning”, which is very similar to hypothermia in people. Sea turtles experiencing the side-effects of cold-stunning have a slowed heart rate, which decreases circulation and makes it very difficult for them to swim or find food. Cold-stunning is seen most often in our area with green sea turtles that like to hang out in shallow waters in the bays where they can easily feed off of vegetation on the ocean floor. With the onslaught of cold temperatures last week,  305 green sea turtles were rescued on the Upper Texas Coast, with over 2,000 total rescued along the Texas Coast. This was the highest number seen in our area to date, and getting these turtles to safety required the quick-action, hard-work, and dedication of organizations and community members from nearby cities.

Groups worked tirelessly to collect, examine, and care for turtles as they arrived at sea turtle facilities, with our own team of veterinarians joining our partners at NOAA fisheries in Galveston over the weekend to assess the health of the rescued turtles. With warmer water in South Texas, the decision was made to drive the healthy turtles to South Padre for release. How exactly do you transport almost 250 sea turtles to a destination over 400 miles away? On a truck!

Over the past two days, teams from Moody Gardens, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Texas Master Naturalists, Turtle Island Restoration Network, NOAA Fisheries, Texas A&M and the Houston Zoo met down in Galveston before sunrise to transport turtles from their holding tanks into containers which were then loaded into the back of a truck that the NOAA team would drive to South Padre. Yesterday 72 sea turtles made their trip south, where they and the NOAA team were greeted by staff and volunteers that helped to get the turtles off of the truck and into the ocean for release. Once the NOAA team returned the turtles to the wild, they hopped back in their truck and made the trek back to Galveston in order to repeat the process all over again the next day. By 8am this morning, our collective group had another 82 turtles loaded up and ready to go. A second truck carrying 93 sea turtles being held at Moody Gardens was also prepped for the drive down south. The turtles should be close to reaching their destination by now, and will be released back into the wild later this afternoon. It is truly amazing what we can accomplish when we come together as a team to reach a common goal. We wish our sea turtle friends the best of luck as they head back out to sea, and we are grateful for the opportunity to be part of a community that comes together to protect wildlife.

If temperatures drop quickly in our area, please be on the lookout for cold-stunned turtles in the bay. If you find one, please report it immediately by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5.

With Your Support, the Houston Zoo is Providing Shelter for Cold-Stunned Butterflies

 

Monarch butterflies are perhaps one of the most well known butterfly species thanks to the legendary monarch butterfly migration that takes place each year. These tiny insects can travel up to 3,000 miles annually in search of a warm and cozy place to call home for the winter. Their destination? Mexico! Here in Texas we are lucky enough to be in the middle of one of the monarch migration pathways, so each summer and fall we witness these beautiful butterflies all around town. But what happens when our flying friends get caught in an unexpected cold spell?

Generally, butterflies won’t fly if it is below 55 degrees, and if the temperature falls below 40, they lose their ability to crawl. There have been documented occasions where a rare snowfall has taken place in their winter roosting areas in Mexico, but most are able to survive this because they are sheltered by forest cover. Those that do not receive this shelter can survive in the snow for a while due to the natural insulation snow provides, but extremely low temperatures can be life threatening, especially if the butterflies are wet and ice crystals form on their wings.  That being said, when the latest cold front hit Houston, everyone on Zoo grounds was on high alert looking for monarchs in need of help. Staff in the Children’s Zoo set up a butterfly tent in the Swap Shop as a refuge, and sure enough, reports of cold-stunned butterflies started coming in. So far, butterflies have been brought to the Swap Shop for shelter and warmth by members of the Horticulture and Children’s Zoo staff, as well as Zoo guests. When the butterflies were first brought to our team of caretakers, they weren’t moving, and one was even thought to be dead. Fortunately, after a little bit of time in the warmth, they began to warm up their bodies by shivering and fluttering their wings.  The team will continue to care for these butterflies until warmer weather returns and it is safe for them to be released back into the wild. 

For the past two years, Houston Zoo staff and volunteers have been taking part in field work here on Zoo grounds by tagging monarch butterflies. If you have visited recently, you may have seen small groups walking through the Zoo with nets, in search of butterflies. Tagging is an extremely useful tool, as it can provide information about how and where the animal travels. Because all the migrating monarchs are concentrated in just a few locations during the winter, they are especially vulnerable to harsh weather and to human activities that disrupt or destroy their habitat. This can reduce the number of monarchs that leave the overwintering sites in the spring, and a reduction in milkweed and nectar sources can cause a decline in the number of monarchs that make it to Mexico for the winter. By tagging the monarchs and tracking their movements, protection plans can be set up in key areas that will help to ensure their survival. 93 monarch butterflies have been tagged on zoo grounds since 2016 as part of a project run by Monarch Watch.

While we all do our best to stay warm this winter, don’t forget to keep an eye out for monarchs that may need your help! Each time you visit the zoo, a portion of your admission ticket goes towards saving wildlife, which makes it possible for us to help local species like the monarch butterfly! If you are on Zoo grounds and see a cold-stunned butterfly, notify a staff member and they will help you get it safely to the Swap Shop. You can help pollinators like the monarch butterfly in your own backyard by planting native plants. Not sure what to plant? On your next visit to the Houston Zoo stop by the Conservation Stage, located to the right as soon as you enter. The Conservation Stage is lined with native plants and signs letting you know what each plant is! Simply take a picture of the sign and bring it with you when you go to the nursery to buy your plants! For more information on how to raise and protect monarchs and other butterflies, click here.

 

 

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