Saving Sea Turtles in the Gulf – Part 1

Greetings from Panama City! The Houston Zoo recently visited Florida with our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to test turtle excluder devices (TEDs) for fisheries across the globe to incorporate into their shrimp nets. These TEDs are critical – and required by federal law – to ensure the safety of sea turtles while fishermen work to provide some of our favorite seafood, like shrimp!

Turtle excluder devices help protect sea turtles, like this guy, from shrimp nets!
Turtle excluder devices help protect sea turtles, like this guy, from shrimp nets!

Every summer NOAA staff spends three weeks in Panama City testing newly-constructed or tweaked TED designs that will, if approved, later be used by fishermen. Turtle excluder devices are used to allow fishermen to catch animals like shrimp, while excluding animals like sea turtles that may accidentally be caught in their nets.

Each year, about 200 sea turtles are driven to Florida from Galveston to test each TED, and about 25 turtles will attempt to swim through each TED. That’s a lot of turtles and swim time! The sea turtles are then released back into the wild after the weeks of TED testing.

Our partners at NOAA Galveston spend all year getting the sea turtles in their care ready for this critical work! This year, they allowed Houston Zoo staff to come along and observe the process of ensuring shrimp nets around the world are safe for sea turtles.

The Zoo’s vet team provides veterinary care to sea turtles brought in from Galveston.

In addition to field work assistance in Panama City this summer, the Houston Zoo helps save sea turtles in a number of ways. One way the Zoo helps is by providing veterinary care to sea turtles brought in from Galveston, sometimes also housing rehabilitating sea turtles at the Zoo in the Kipp Aquarium. The Zoo also hosts sea turtle events at the Zoo to increase awareness, participates in weekly beach surveys to look for stranded or nesting sea turtles, and serves only ocean-friendly seafood to Zoo animals and guests!

Be sure to check back soon for more information on TED testing in Panama City!

Magnificent Madagascar Turtles!

This post was written by Bailey Cheney.

mad close upIf you’ve stopped by the ring-tailed lemur exhibit at Wortham World of Primates recently, you might have seen some turtles basking in the sun. Often, while keepers feed the lemurs, they get asked if they’re real turtles. This is because the turtles sit perfectly still as they enjoy the heat from the sun. The answer is yes; they are real turtles. In fact, they’re Madagascar big-headed turtles (Erymnochelys madagascariensis). These turtles can be found in the western lowland river basins of Madagascar. In the wild, they spend most of their time basking on logs, rocks, and river banks, pretty much exactly what they enjoy doing in our lemur exhibit.

Erymnochelys madagascariensis are fresh water turtles. They eat plant matter as well as fish and small invertebrates. Madagascar big-headed turtles are critically endangered turtles. This decline in wild populations is because of  habitat fragmentation and destruction in Madagascar. Oftentimes, they are forced to move from their habitat because of the agricultural industry in the country. Much of this agriculture and habitat destruction occurs on their nesting grounds as well. This, coupled with the fact that females lay eggs only every other year, does not bode well for the Madagascar big-headed turtle. They are, unfortunately, also caught and killed for their meat and for the traditional medicine trade in Asia. Surprisingly, this is a common plight that many turtle species face.

Mad babies

Because of their critical state, several conservation efforts are being undertaken to make sure that they continue their survival. Collaborations with local Malagasy fishermen and local people is the most important current conservation effort. Locals are being taught how vital these turtles are to the ecosystem and how to avoid damaging them and their nest sites. A conservation program is only as strong as the community who supports it; hence, it is always essential to have the support of the local people. Captive breeding is another conservation effort being undertaken. The Houston Zoo is an active participant in this breeding program. Our Madagascar big-headed turtles have produced several clutches of eggs and will hopefully continue to do so. If you’re interested in seeing their offspring, then you should head over to the Reptile House (they’re pretty cute)! And, of course, you must visit the magnificent adults who share their exhibit with our lemurs!

Baylor College of Medicine Offers Big Help to Komodo Dragon, Smaug

This piece written by Dipail Pathak, Baylor College of Medicine

Baylor College of Medicine and the Houston Zoo previously have collaborated on researching the elephant herpes virus and are now partnering again to help another zoo resident, a 16-year-old Komodo dragon named Smaug.

Baylor faculty in the Orthotics and Prosthetics Program have been working closely with zoo veterinarians and keepers since November to develop an orthosis to help the 7-foot, 200 pound Komodo dragon use his right foot more proficiently.

“About a year ago, we noticed that Smaug wasn’t using his right, front foot normally and that occasionally he was flipping it underneath and walking on the top of his toes,” said Dr. Lauren Howard, associate veterinarian at the Houston Zoo. “So that started the last year-and-a-half of our diagnostic investigation into what was going on with him. We’re still trying to determine why he’s not holding his foot the right way, but in the meantime our goal is to keep him holding his foot upward so he doesn’t continue to walk on the tops of his toes.”
Howard got in touch with Jared Howell, director of the Orthotics and Prosthetics Program at Baylor, to see if he could help. When Howell got the call from the zoo, it was a huge surprise, but he was eager to assist.

Here you can see Smaug folding his foot under.
Here you can see Smaug folding his foot under.

“When a Komodo dragon picks up its foot, it slides forward and they fire their muscles and they are able to put their palm downward. What happened for Smaug is that he wasn’t able to fire his muscles to pull the foot forward, so as he picked up his shoulder to pull the foot forward, it stayed in the flex position and then he would land on it and roll his wrist underneath every single time he took a step,” said Howell. “He’s over 200 pounds, so that’s a lot of weight going onto that hand.”
Howell and colleagues visited Smaug at the zoo and took pictures and videos of him walking and came up with a plan to develop a rubberized spring-loaded device that would allow Smaug to have a natural range of motion at the wrist while still being able to then have it spring up when he took weight off of it so the palm would fall flat on the ground the way it should.

Howell and colleagues then took two casts of Smaug’s limb and came back to their labs at Baylor where they worked on a prototype of the orthosis. After a few iterations and some fine-tuning, they designed an orthosis that worked well for Smaug. The orthosis is made of urethane laminate, which is a flexible material that has tackiness to it to adhere to the scales and is easy to put on and take off.

Judith puts on Smaug's brace.
Judith puts on Smaug’s brace.

But that wasn’t the end of their work. A short while after he was fitted for the orthosis, Smaug developed an infection in his foot, unrelated to the orthosis, which caused some mild cellulitis and swelling of the fingers. Howell and colleagues developed a second device to hold his foot in place while he healed. This device, made with silicone polymer, is also easy to get on and off and pre-positions the hand to help Smaug walk well. Smaug now has both devices and uses them as needed.

“We’ve noticed a difference in the management of Smaug’s right front foot. One thing we were having trouble with was his toes were starting to get swollen and infected from the trauma from how he was carrying the foot. With this latest brace, we were able to keep the toes straight and they healed up – they stopped getting traumatized, the swelling went down and they weren’t infected anymore. What we’re looking at is a long-term goal of keeping this brace on for four to six to eight months and hoping that over time, it will strengthen his arm and maybe help him keep it in the right position,” said Howard.

Howell notes that there was a learning curve in working with the reptile.

“It’s a bit different. You don’t have human tissue, you have scales, different muscle functions and joints that all move in different ways. All of those things added to the challenge, but it was a great learning experience and a lot of fun,” said Howell, who emphasized it was a collaborative effort of the entire Orthotics and Prosthetics Program at Baylor.
Smaug Brace

Snakes and Reptiles – An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

In general, reptiles are a misunderstood and much-maligned group of animals. Literature published as far back as 1735 describes reptiles as “foul and loathsome animals.” Unfortunately, this viewpoint is still held by many people today, especially when snakes are the reptiles being discussed. The unreasonable fear of snakes is quite prevalent in our society and there are many myths and misconceptions concerning snakes and their habits. The general public conception is that snakes are the “enemy” and should be killed on sight. This attitude still persists in spite of overwhelming evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, on the important roles that snakes play in a healthy ecosystem. Areas where snakes are removed often display a population explosion of rodents, usually to the detriment of nearby agricultural enterprises.

The news media also plays a role in shaping this attitude. Most publicity concerning snakes is of a negative nature. Venomous snakebites often receive extensive local media coverage far beyond the actual threat to human life. Rarely is it pointed out that the chances of death from a venomous snakebite are considerably less than the chances of dying from a lightning strike or from an insect bite (Bureau of Vital Statistics, Texas Department of Health).

Judith-blog-resizeOut of all snakes, the rattlesnakes probably have received more unjust notoriety and have been persecuted needlessly more than any other group, especially in the United States. It is doubtful that any other animal group is more feared or less understood by the general public. This persecution has reached such a point that, in some states, “Rattlesnake Roundups” are a popular fund-raising event for organizations such as the local Chamber of Commerce or the Jaycees. The largest of these roundups is held each March in Sweetwater, Texas. This event began in 1958 and was advertised as a method of controlling the rattlesnake population in the area. However, it has progressed to the point where now rattlesnakes are collected months in advance often from over 100 miles from Sweetwater. They are often collected by flushing them out of their dens and hiding areas with gasoline and other toxic substances, which not only harms the snakes, but also any other animals that may be in the same place. They are then kept in substandard conditions and are in poor health by the time the rattlesnake roundup is held. The snakes are often cruelly strung up alive, decapitated and skinned in front of crowds which include children. These horrific events are promoted as safe and educational family fun.

In April of 1999, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association adopted a resolution condemning rattlesnake round-ups and advising member institutions, such as the Houston Zoo, to oppose these activities. The Houston Zoo is joining with other Texas Zoos in their opposition to rattlesnake roundups and encourages educational alternatives that promote awareness and respect for these animals.

Judith-blog-resize2Slowly, however, the bad reputation that snakes have had is changing, even when rattlesnakes are involved. This can be seen in the ever-increasing numbers of successful herpetological societies that are being established in North America, and also by the increasing popularity of non-venomous snakes as pets.

If you’d like to learn more about these awesome and unique American critters, the second annual Texas Rattlesnake Festival will be held in Round Rock, Texas on April 11-12, 2015. No animals are killed, harmed, or abused. Instead, it is an educational event where people can learn about the different species of rattlesnakes in Texas and the beneficial role they play in a healthy ecosystem.

Then on June 12-14, 2015, the fourth annual Snake Days will be held in Sanderson, Texas. This one isn’t specifically about rattlesnakes, but about snakes in general. It includes a day of informative lectures by herpetologists, a photo contest, fake snake contest, vendors selling herpetology related products, and a fundraiser, proceeds of which benefit Texas Parks and Recreation’s Wildlife Diversity Department.

All animals have a role in their respective environments, including rattlesnakes. Please avoid roundups, support humane and educational events, and leave snakes alone if you find them in the wild. And of course, visit us here at the Houston Zoo where we love rattlesnakes! We have eleven species on exhibit and are always happy to talk to zoo guests about them.

East Texas Herpetological Society – March 2015 Meeting

Join us for the East Texas Herpetological Society’s March 2015 meeting at the Houston Zoo. This event is free and open to the public!

EMMA-CanebrakeWho: Guest Speaker – Tim Cole
When: Saturday, March 21, 2015
Where: The Houston Zoo – Brown Education Building
6200 Hermann Park Drive Houston, TX 77030

– Refreshments at 7:00 PM
– Talk Begins at 7:30 PM

Part of this meeting will cover the Texas Rattlesnake Festival. This event features educational talks, over 45 subspecies of rattlesnakes, venom extraction show, scavenger hunt, face painting, photo booth, vendors, and more. This is a family(and snake-friendly) event in Round Rock, TX that features rattlesnakes and works to teach about these species which are often misunderstood. 

Learn More About the East Texas Herpetological Society

The Cameroon Stumptail Chameleon

Did you know that dwarf chameleons have a very unique way to deter predators and rival chameleons? They vibrate like a cell phone!

At the Houston Zoo, guests can see a pair of male and female Cameroon stumptail chameleons inside the Reptile and Amphibian House. The pair came to the Zoo under tragic circumstances just one year ago.  In October 2013 the Zoo’s herpetology department received the two chameleons from a United States Fish & Wildlife confiscation.  During the raid, more than 500 of these tiny chameleons were confiscated from someone attempting to illegally import them into the pet trade in the US. These animals came into the United States in despicably poor condition, severely dehydrated and overcrowded.  Of that original 500, only around 50 animals survived to be sent to different AZA accredited facilities.  The pet trade and habitat loss due to illegal logging are the major threats to the survival of this and many other species.


This is a very small species of chameleon reaching a staggering length of 2-2.5”.  Stumptail chameleons have a very short lifespan of only 1-3 years on average.  They live in evergreen to semi-evergreen wet forests of Western Africa.  Typically, this species will lay 1-2 eggs up to six times a year.  It takes 45-100 days for the hatchlings to emerge.

Once at the Houston Zoo after a brief stay in the Veterinary quarantine holding building they made their way to the Reptile and Amphibian building.  Almost one year to the day of their arrival, our first baby stumptail chameleon was born on exhibit with mom and dad. This little one is only 3/4″ long and a mere 0.4 grams! We hope this is the first of many to come!


A New Anole

Written by Monty Criswell

The Hispaniolan Giant Anole (Anolis ricordi) is a large anole that inhabits the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which comprises the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  It is thought to be widespread throughout the island; however, the species has not yet been evaluated by the IUCN.  This anole is considered a “crown giant”, which means that it spends most of its time on the highest trunks and branches of trees.  Although not the largest anole species, the Hispaniolan Giant Anole can reach a size of 11-12 inches in total length and weigh 90 grams. Their diet mainly consists of a variety of insects and other invertebrates, but due to their large size, they can even prey on small vertebrates such as baby birds.  Another physical characteristic that sets crown giants apart from other anole species are the massive, casqued heads and spiky crests running down their backs.


All anole species have dewlaps, a longitudinal flap of skin under the neck, which can be extended and retracted and are usually a different color than the rest of the body.  Anoles use their dewlaps to ward off predators by making themselves appear much larger than they actually are, as well as for male anoles to attract females.  The baby Hispaniolan Giant Anole born at The Houston Zoo, the first to be bred here, hatched on Saturday, June 14, 2014, weighing only 2.5 grams.  These anoles are a uniform green color as babies and change to a dark reddish brown upon maturing. adult-anole-resizw

Not Your Usual Box Turtle

Photograph © National Geographic/George Grall

There is a turtle in the state of Coahuila, Mexico that doesn’t act like a regular box turtle.  This turtle is semi- aquatic.  It has the handy dandy hinges so that it can close itself up for protection but it spends at least as much time in the water as it does on land.  This turtle only lives in the Cuatro Cienegas Basin in Coahuila and inhabits permanent and seasonal wetlands.

An animal with a very restricted range is already more susceptible to extinction; add to that the fragmentation of their habitat due to manmade canals and wells and exotic invasive plants, and you have a recipe for disaster.  So as you can imagine, the Coahuilan box turtle is endangered.  We are happy to have them here at our zoo and after 65 days of incubation and weighing in at a whopping 4.8 grams, we are especially happy to announce the hatching of our newest baby-a Coahuilan box turtle!

baby turtle

Springtime and Snakes

Hello, and welcome to spring.  With the warm weather, your odds of encountering a snake go way up, and Texas has lots of snakes.   From 7 foot rat snakes, to the diminutive earth snake, Harris County snakes are quite variable.  Most are harmless, but we do have a few venomous species.  On Saturday, May 31, the Herpetology  ( reptiles and amphibians) Department will be hosting a Save our Species event focusing on local area snakes.
Copperhead snake
Unless you know them well, snakes can be very difficult to identify.  We will have 8 of the most common snakes of Harris County out of their exhibits and in aquariums so you can get a good and safe close up look at them.  We’ll have lots of information and photos, some fun things for the kids, and staff on hand to answer any questions you may have.  We hope to inform, educate, alleviate fears, have some fun, and hopefully save some snake lives.  Please join us!

Cleaning up crab traps to save animals in the wild

aaDSCF1936One of the biggest threats to marine animals is being entangled or trapped in garbage.  The Houston Zoo houses many marine animals and is committed to doing everything we can to protect their counter parts in the wild.

Houston Zoo staff participates in keeping our upper Texas Coast clean by joining in garbage removal efforts.  Every year we assist the Galveston Bay Foundation and others in the removal of abandoned wire crab traps. Crabbing is closed for almost two weeks each year in February and during that time all traps are assumed abandoned and considered litter.

Crab traps, when used responsibly, can harvest the crabs you see in markets and at restaurants. But, when forgotten about, they invite all sorts of marine wildlife to work their ways into the traps to try to get at the bait. All sorts of marine animals like turtles, or even otters, can find themselves stuck in a crap trap and unfortunately perish due to lack of air (yes, even marine turtles need air!)

photo3This year, we recovered over 200 traps at the Crab Trap Clean up!  Many people volunteered their air boats and man power to pull out as many abandoned traps as possible. Each trap is scanned for wildlife remains to document and report the devastating effects of these forgotten “ghost traps”.  This year an otter skeleton was found in one of the traps and helped remind us of the importance of these removals.

How the Houston Zoo Helps save animals in wild:

  • We help with weekly beach surveys to find stranded and injured sea turtles on Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula (~80 miles of beach)
  • We provide medical attention for stranded and injured sea turtle found on the Texas coast.
  • We hold some injured sea turtles at our Kipp Aquarium until they are healthy enough to be released.

The Houston Zoo is committed to protecting animals in the wild, and you can be too!

You can help save animals in the wild by reducing your use of materials that end up in beautiful areas like the oceans. 

By reducing your use of plastic you can ensure that you are having a direct impact on what sea animals are ingesting and getting tangled in, and you can know you are saving animals in the wild. The more you recycle the plastic you do have to use, and the more alert you are toward what an impact you can have, then the less garbage there will be out there for our wildlife to come in contact with.

Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle
Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle

How You save animals in the wild:

  • Use biodegradable garbage bags(found at most grocery stores) and pet waste bags! They break down naturally, and don’t leave harmful chemicals behind.
  • Avoid using plastic! Buy a reusable water bottle and reusable canvas grocery bags instead of the plastic alternatives. By Using a canvas bag you can eliminate the use of 1,000 plastic bags!
  • Visit the Houston Zoo-a portion of every ticket purchased goes towards saving animals in the wild!

Remember that wildlife may see a direct impact with garbage like plastics, but it is us who also have to deal with the consequences of the quality of our environment that we live, breath, and drink in daily!


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Houston Zoo shared from the Houston Chronicle's live video.
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Today, we took snakes (and our snake expert!) over to the Houston Chronicle to talk about why these amazing animals are awesome. Check it out! from the Houston Chronicle
Today our friends from the Houston Zoo are at the Houston Chronicle to show us a few of the snakes from their collection and to answer some of your snake-related questions. As the weather warms up many Texans will be seeing more snakes in the wild and they have some tips on safety around them.

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