Spotlight on Species – Otters!

On July 16th, from 10AM – 3PM, the Houston Zoo will be celebrating a Spotlight on Species (SOS) all about otters!

Did you know that there are 13 different species of otters and that several of the species are endangered?

Did you know we have otters right here in Texas?

Come and learn about Texas otters and otters around the world.  Meet our North American River Otter and

Asian Small-clawed Otter
Asian Small-clawed Otter

Asian Small Clawed Otters that call the Houston Zoo home.

The SOS will take place in both the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo and the Natural Encounters building.  There will be lots to learn along with activities and fun for the whole family.    There will be tables with information and education materials along with special Meet

the Keeper chats at both locations.  It is also going to be Snow Day at the Zoo, and our North American River Otter, Belle, will be

North American River Otter

getting snow to play in!

The Naturally Wild Swap Shop will be participating too!  Any nature reports or nature journals on otters brought in on the day of the SOS will receive DOUBLE points!  Also, if you take the electronic pledge that day to go plastic bag free and come tell us in the Swap Shop, you will earn you 25 points.  If you take the pledge you will also be entered in to a drawing for one of two special otter experiences.

Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here to learn more.

Naked Mole-rats: The Super Heroes of the Animal World

What can feel no pain, is impervious to cancer or Alzheimer’s, and can chew through pretty much anything in a single bound? The naked mole-rat! These little creatures aren’t the prettiest to look at, but they are possibly some of the most fascinating—and superhero like—animals around.

Meet the naked mole-rat!
Meet the naked mole-rat – our super hero!

When a naked mole-rat begins life, he pretty much looks the exact same as he does when he’s an old man – wrinkly, pink, and well…naked. Just tinier. You’ll notice whiskers around his mouth that act as sweepers to push away dirt, as well as teeth that are meant for digging.

You could say naked mole-rats have two mouths, in fact – one for digging, and one for tearing up food, which mainly consists of fruits, veggies, and roots. This is convenient, because the live in massive underground networks, so roots make a lot of sense as food. They are able to close their “second” mouth, the eating one, when digging their tunnels.

Mmm, snacks! Naked mole-rats love fruits, veggies, and roots.
Mmm, snacks! Naked mole-rats love to eat fruits, veggies, and roots.

It’s hard to compare a naked mole-rat to much else in the animal kingdom, but their social structure definitely works like a beehive. Everyone has a role in the colony and it is highly organized. There is a queen of the colony, and if that queen dies, everything falls apart and the other females engage in a fight to the death until a new queen is chosen. That new queen will morph into a baby producing machine, too – her hormones cause physical changes that make her spine actually arch upward so she can hold more babies!

Because they live so far underground, naked mole-rats can survive with little to no oxygen. It’s a good thing they can tunnel well, because their main predators are ground-dwelling snakes. These animals aren’t endangered, but they can be a nuisance to farmers trying to grow crops. Or, if you take it the other way, the farmers provide much excitement for the mole-rats, giving them a steady and consistent banquet!

At the Zoo, we create tunnels for the mole-rats so they can feel right at home!
At the Zoo, we create tunnels for the mole-rats so they can feel right at home!

So if you live underground and it’s pitch black (and your eyesight isn’t that great anyways), how do you tell your friends from your enemies? Smell, of course – and not the best smell either. Naked mole-rats build latrines where they all go to the bathroom, and then they roll around in the latrine so they smell like well…let’s just say the rest of the colony.

At the Zoo, we’ve got 48 naked mole-rats in our Carruth Natural Encounters building, along with other species of mole-rat like Damara mole-rats, another species that is much bigger and much less naked. You can’t miss them when you visit, because there’s a gigantic mole-rat sculpture above their burrows!

The Damara mole-rat: not quite so naked
The Damara mole-rat: not quite so naked

Have mole-rat mania and can’t wait to learn more? Visit us in our Natural Encounters building and ask us about them – you haven’t even heard the half of the crazy facts about these guys.

Thanks to Casey Norra, Zookeeper in Natural Encounters, for sharing his passion about mole-rats and giving us this fantastic animal information!

Elderly Animals at the Houston Zoo: of Sloths and Mole-rats

You’ve probably been hearing a lot of news lately about the babies being born at the Zoo – we’re expecting a baby elephant any day now, and we’ve just helped welcome into the world a number of amazing arrivals, including a De Brazza’s guenon, sifaka, and quite the bevy of flamingo chicks.

One of the newest additions to the Zoo, a baby De Brazza's guenon!
One of the newest additions to the Zoo, a baby De Brazza’s guenon!

What doesn’t make the news, but is equally as impressive, is the longevity of many of our animals at the Zoo. The animal keepers and veterinary staff work hard every single day to give each animal the best care, nutrition, and enrichment possible so that they live long, healthy, happy lives. As a result, we have quite a few “elderly” animals! In this series, we’ll profile several that are particularly near and dear to our hearts.

Succotash, a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth, lives in the Rainforest habitat in the Carruth Natural Encounters Building along with several species of monkeys and birds. She’s around 38 years old – very old for a sloth! In a zoo setting, their lifespan is about 30 years. Her exact age is unknown, since she was caught in the wild and rescued from a private owner in 1975. She came to us in 1986 from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and she’s been here ever since.

Succotash strikes a pose in the rainforest habitat of the Natural Encounters building
Succotash strikes a pose in the rainforest habitat of the Natural Encounters building

As an elderly animal, keepers carefully monitor her health and well-being daily. Her food consumption and bowel movements are tracked and recorded every day. Keepers can usually determine if something’s ailing her based on the records we keep or by the physical activity she exerts throughout the day. If keepers do notice abnormal behavior, we notify our vet staff so that she can be examined and we can obtain urine or fecal samples for diagnosis. Right now, Succotash is doing very well.

Guests can oftentimes see her most active in the morning when she gets her breakfast or when we turn on our waterfall in her habitat. She will oftentimes go toward the waterfall to mist herself. Otherwise she can be seen peacefully sleeping while her diverse array of roommates scamper and play around her.

Another animal in Natural Encounters that’s quite a bit smaller (but no less elderly than Succotash) is Livingston, the Damara mole-rat. You can see Livingston and his mole-rat friends in the upper level of our subterranean habitat.


Livingston, the Damara mole-rat
Livingston, the Damara mole-rat

Damara mole-rats are one of two mammal species who are eusocial – they live in colonies with many individual members, but the colony behaves as a single organism. The other eusocial species in Natural Encounters is the naked mole-rat. Like ants and bees, they have a queen who reproduces, workers who gather food, and soldiers who defend the colony against predators, like snakes.

Even though the Damara mole-rats all look similar, with mostly grey fur, we are able to identify them by the unique white markings on top of their heads. You can identify Livingston because he has a completely white face and a white spot halfway down his back.

Livingston was part of the small, founding group of Damara mole-rats that came to the Zoo around 10 years ago. His actual age is unknown, but he is believed to be at least 12 years old. Their lifespan is 10-15 years.

Due to his age, Livingston has developed arthritis in his back and hind legs, which affects his movement, but doesn’t cause pain. Each day, keepers give Livingston a supplement to support joint health, similar to glucosamine. He receives regular checkups, which show that the arthritis has not worsened in the two years since he has started this supplement. His weight is also monitored closely to be sure he is eating well.

Livingston is a soldier in the colony and does not let his age stop him from doing his job! He is still regularly seen by keepers patrolling the tunnels and holding an active role in the colony.

Stay tuned for the next blog in our series about elderly animals – next time, we’re featuring our jaguars, Patty the Andean bear, and our amazing grizzlies!

Thanks to Priscilla Farley and Kamryn Suttinger in the Natural Encounters Department for the fantastic information on Succotash and Livingston!

Big News About a Tiny Baby Monkey – Pygmy Marmoset!

We have a new addition to our growing family of pygmy marmosets. A baby was born on July 27 here in the Natural Encounters building at the zoo. Baby was born behind the scenes, but now you can see it in the indoor Rainforest area with its family. We don’t know yet if it’s a boy or a girl.

The baby is clinging to the back of one of its big brothers.
Going for a ride on the back of one of its big brothers.

This is not the first baby for mom Oko and dad Per, and three older brothers and one older sister are all helping to care for the baby. Pygmy marmoset babies are more likely to ride on dad’s or a brother’s back than a female, though everyone takes a turn. The brothers’ names are Macchu. Alejandro and Thrix, and big sister is Calli. Another older sister is already full grown and gone off to another zoo to meet her mate. Before Oko, Per was paired with another female, Mia, and they had babies here as well.

The golden lion tamarins in the Rainforest are curious, but polite. They've seen pygmy marmoset babies before.
The golden lion tamarins in the Rainforest are curious, but polite. They’ve seen pygmy marmoset babies before.

Pygmy marmosets typically give birth to two babies, though a ‘singlet’ is not unusual at all. Single pygmy babies are typically larger than pairs, and “This one is huge!” according to Senior Keeper Abby Varela. “We weighed it on Wednesday and it’s already 36 grams!” Our vets are careful not to disturb the bond between parent and child; instead of weighing the baby separately, they weigh baby as it’s clinging to dad’s back, then weigh dad separately and subtract. Dad is a strapping 140 grams by comparison.

Baby is healthy and already 36 grams, big for a tiny baby pygmy marmoset!
Baby is healthy and already 36 grams, big for a tiny baby pygmy marmoset!

Pygmy marmosets are the world’s smallest true monkeys, typically only about five inches long (not including their long tails). In the wild they live in the rainforests of the Amazon basin of South America. Though they are not currently classified as endangered, their populations in the wild are threatened by habitat loss in some areas as well as the pet trade. That’s why they are part of the Species Survival Plan.

Next time you're at the zoo, stop by and see them in Natural Encounters.
Next time you’re at the zoo, stop by and see them in Natural Encounters.


Baby Saki Monkey – Toumi Has a Little Brother!

The saki monkeys have welcomed a new baby boy into their family! Dalé (pronounced Da-LAY) joins his big brother Toumi, mom Jolene and Dad Harry in the Natural Encounters rainforest.

Dalé saki monkey and his mom Jolene.

Sakis are tree-dwelling monkeys – in the wild they’re found the rainforest of South America, including parts of Brazil and Venezuela. The males have dark hair on their body and cream-colored hair on their faces. Females are a more mottled brown, and saki babies also have this brown hair to blend in with mom for safety as they ride on their backs or bellies. As Dalé grows his hair will become darker to look more like Dad’s.

Harry saki monkey is now a proud father of two boys.
Harry saki monkey is now a proud father of two boys.

Dalé is growing more adventurous day by day. From the day he was born (his birthday is April 17) for the first few weeks, he spent all his time clinging to mom’s belly where he could be kept warm and nurse. Soon he began riding on her back where he could get more of a look around as she climbed through the trees. Now he ventures off frequently to explore and even takes a ride on his brother’s back at times!

Toumi and his baby brother play together often.
Toumi and his baby brother play together often.

Baby sakis, like all mammals, drink milk from their mothers. Last week Jolene presented Dalé with his first solid food, handing him a small piece of a banana she was eating. Dalé tasted it and loved it! Saki monkeys make up most of their diet from fruit, but also eat small amounts of nuts, insects, and vegetables.

Come see the saki monkeys in Natural Encounters and you might get a very up close look!

Look for Dalé and his family in the indoor or outdoor rainforest areas in the Natural Encounters building; they spend plenty of time in each area. You won’t be able to hear their vocalizations indoors through the glass, but this is a great spot to get up close when one of them comes down to the front. If you see the sakis in the outside rainforest you might hear their high pitched chirruping sounds.

And don’t get Dalé confused with one of the pygmy marmosets – these are not babies but a different species of full grown tiny monkeys!

Don't confuse him for the baby saki monkey! This is one of our pygmy marmosets that also lives in the Natural Encounters rainforest.
Don’t confuse him for the baby saki monkey! This is one of our pygmy marmosets that also lives in the Natural Encounters rainforest.


Mole Rats Coming Soon! New Home Under Construction

The maze of small tunnels and chambers built into the wall near the rear of the Natural Encounters building has been home to two species, Damara and naked mole-rats. Lately these burrows have been empty, as the mole-rats tunnel behind the scenes while their exhibit is being renovated. If you’ve missed seeing them, you don’t have to wait until they’re back; they come out regularly for Meet the Keeper Talks. Check our Daily Schedule on the morning of your visit to see if they might be featured that day.



Kamryn Suttinger, the keeper who has worked with the mole-rats the longest, treated me with a few cool facts about them while she introduced me to them behind the scenes. Both Damara and naked mole-rats hail from the southern regions of Africa in the wild, though our colonies were born and raised in zoos. Mole-rats are rodents, and those two enormous front teeth grow constantly. Thus the need to constantly be chewing to wear the teeth down, a trait that’s most helpful in the wild. Here at the zoo keepers provide them with plenty of enrichment items to chew on, and sometimes block their tunnels with a sweet potato to give them a sweet reward for their digging efforts.

It is nearly impossible to tell male and female Damara mole-rats apart, says Suttinger, and not long ago we were met with a big surprise as a result. One of the “males” was quarreling with the queen of the colony, and to keep the peace keepers separated “him” out with a few other males into a bachelor colony. To their surprise this colony produced a litter of pups!

After renovations are complete, the naked mole-rats will have an exhibit area near the bat cave in Natural Encounters, and the Damara mole-rats will return to a new and improved exhibit in their current area. One problem with the old exhibit was that only the chambers were visible; the tunnels were behind the scenes where much of the great digging, tunneling and social interactions were happening. The new exhibits will have the tunnels and chambers visible to the public.

We will make an announcement when the renovations are complete and the mole-rats are back out on exhibit. Subscribe to our e-newsletter and get the news in your inbox!

Saki Toumi! Baby saki monkey in Natural Encounters

Post written by Natural Encounters Supervisor PJ Jones.

On the morning June 16th the keepers in Natural Encounters discovered a new addition to the Rainforest exhibit. A baby Saki Monkey was born overnight to parents Harry and Jolene. We had suspected that Jolene was pregnant; she had been gaining weight over the past several weeks and we had seen a tell-tale swelling of the lower abdomen. However without an ultrasound, sometimes we just have to wait and see what happens. We were especially excited with the timing of this event since the new baby was born on Father’s Day and this was the first baby that Harry has sired.

Toumi Saki Monkey with mom Jolene
Toumi Saki Monkey with mom Jolene

Over the past couple of months, the baby has developed well. When baby primates are born, the best thing that you can do for them is to let nature take its course and not intervene with the mother-infant bond unless there is a medical need. Jolene has proven herself to be a wonderful mother. She’s allowing the baby to cling to her at all times and to nurse. At this point all we have to do is observe and watch for developmental milestones. And we have seen some already! At about 2 weeks of age we saw the baby moving around enough to be able to determine that it is a male. At about 5 weeks we started to see him trying to get off his mother. He is now getting brave and beginning to venture away from his mother when she lets him.

We’ve named our new little bundle of joy Toumi and we are excited for you to come and see him. Look for him in the Rainforest exhibit in the Natural Encounters building. He’s not the only baby there either. Recently the pygmy marmoset family had babies too. Both groups might be observed spending time together on exhibit if you happen to come by at the right time. There are 4 different species of primates that call the Rainforest exhibit home: Saki Monkeys, Pygmy Marmosets, Golden Lion Tamarins and Cotton-top Tamarins. At any given point, you may see almost any combination of these monkeys together on exhibit. Come on by and see the newest additions!

Double Points in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop

 How can you get DOUBLE points in the Swap Shop?  Any time an animal section has a Spotlight on the Species or other program focused on an animal or plant – bring in a Nature Journal on that topic! 

Komodo Dragon

Nature Journals can be as simple as information on sheets of notebook paper.  They can be as detailed and elaborate as you like – your only limit is your imagination. But remember, the more work you do, the more points you get!   So do some research and get ready for double points!

Need more information on the Naturally Wild Swap Shop and how it works?  Click here

Some of the species that will be in the Spotlight the remainder of 2012 include:


Red Panda

September 22 Spotlight on the Species – Rhinos

October 6 Spotlight on the Species – Komodo Dragon

November 7 Climbing for Cloudeds (Clouded Leopards)

November 10 Spotlight on the Species – Vultures

December 1 Spotlight on the Species – Red Panda

Red Panda Ultrasound

While visiting the Houston Zoo you may have had an opportunity to view the occasional animal training session. Training can be observed daily during our Sea Lion shows and Elephant baths, but did you may also see it happening in any of the animal sections of the zoo? A vast majority of the training takes place behind the scenes and it is critical for helping us to take better care of the animals that live here.

The PVC perch that was made to help orient Keti for the ultrasound.

For the past six months, keepers on the Natural Encounters team have been working with Keti, a female red panda, to train her for voluntary ultrasound. This way we will be able to easily determine if she is pregnant and monitor the development of her cub(s). To begin this process, keepers had to train Keti to accept them touching her on her back and belly. Wild animals are not usually tolerant of being touched, and a high level of trust needs to be established between the keeper and animal. Once this behavior was established, keepers progressively added in all the other factors that might be involved in an ultrasound procedure.

Mock up of a portable ultrasound machine to be used in training.

Members of the veterinary team came by so Keti could learn they were friendly treat dispensers. Practice ultrasound equipment was fabricated from cardboard boxes, aquarium tubing and the casing of a tube of deodorant! A PVC perch was made which would help Keti line up into the perfect position to obtain a great ultrasound image. One by one, Keti was introduced to these items and learned to associate them with treats. It’s a slow but effective process. Below, you can see the results of six months of hard work.


This video was taken at her third ever ultrasound exam. Although we have not yet seen a fetal image, we will continue to monitor her weekly and keep our fingers crossed.

New at the Zoo: Giant Elephant Shrews

The next time you are in the Natural Encounters building, look closely near the ground in the Rainforest exhibit. The two little mammalian vacuum cleaners you’ll see there are recent additions to the Zoo, our Giant Elephant Shrews. “Phoenix” and “Karma” are young brothers, arriving from the Denver Zoo where they were born last year.

Shrews use their remarkably long noses to dig into the mulch and gravel to nab mealworms, crickets, and other parts of their diet. In the wild they forage for a wider range of insects and other invertebrates, so to round out their nutrition our commissary also prepares for them a custom blend of earthworms, cat food, peanut oil, protein powder, and vitamin C.

Though Phoenix and Karma are small, they are full grown adults. There are more than a dozen species of shrews that range in size from tiny pygmy shrews to these “giants.” They are found in parts of East Africa, including coastal forests of Kenya  and Tanzania, though due to their natural ability to hide in the undergrowth and tendency to live far from human habitation, they are very rarely seen in the wild. Their habitat is under threat as well, mostly due to agriculture and logging.

This video shows Phoenix nosing around the lower gravel area and munching mealworms in the Rainforest exhibit; Karma was feeling particularly shy that day and stayed well hidden in the upper mulched area. (We made sure he received plenty of mealworms as well that afternoon.)

Wish Phoenix and Karma a happy birthday when you see them!  They were born on May 27, 2011.


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