Rattlesnakes: the World’s Most Polite Animal?

When you hear the word “rattlesnake,” what’s the emotion that first comes to mind? Is it fear, perhaps, or maybe a bit of apprehension? We’re here to tell you that actually, there’s nothing to be worried about. And hopefully, you’ll come to think of them like we do: as the world’s most polite animal.

Western-Diamondback-Rattlesnake-0003
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Around Houston, there are 34 total varieties of snakes that can be found. Of these, only 6 are venomous. Of these 6, there are 3 kinds of rattlesnakes, 2 of which really aren’t found in this area much anymore. The venomous snakes include:

  • Copperhead
  • Cottonmouth
  • Coral snake
  • Western diamondback rattlesnake (can be found, but mostly west of Houston and in the Bolivar peninsula area)
  • Canebrake rattlesnake (protected by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department; not really found much anymore)
  • Western pygmy rattlesnake (not found so much anymore)

You can learn more about these animals and how to identify them in this blog.

So chances are, you won’t see a rattlesnake in your yard. If you do, you probably are providing them one or more of the three things they need to survive: food, shelter, and water. At the risk of sounding like your friendly neighborhood homeowner’s association, we recommend that to keep rattlesnakes (and other snakes) at bay, you keep your yard trimmed and mowed, and also remove any piles of brush. They will keep rodents under control, though, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing to keep these guys around!

Canebrake Rattlesnake, Protected by Texas Parks and Wildlife
Canebrake Rattlesnake, Protected by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

At the Zoo, we love our rattlesnakes. We have 14 total species, most of which are visible to guests. Our Curator of Herpetology, Stan, will tell you “that’s not near enough!” There are 37 species and subspecies of rattlesnake, so there’s always something new to see and learn. Stan comes from a long line of rattlesnake loving curators. In fact, former Zoo Director John Werler had a particular appreciation for these animals.

Former Zoo Director John Werler - and no, that's not a rattlesnake around his neck - it's a bull snake!
Former Zoo Director John Werler – and no, that’s not a rattlesnake around his neck – it’s a bull snake!

Why are they so special? Well, we think they are pretty darn polite. They let you know when you’re too close or when they want to be left alone by rattling their tail. What other animal gives you that much advanced notice (and loud notice, at that) to stay away? Plus, they eat rats. There are studies that show that the presence of the timber rattlesnake, found in the Northeastern United States, actually reduces the incidence of Lyme disease because it eats the rodents provide the meal for the ticks that bite the humans. Not bad for a “scary” snake, right?

Hear rattling? You're either really close to a baby human or you're too close to a rattlesnake.
Hear rattling? You’re either really close to a baby human or you’re too close to a rattlesnake.

One of the coolest rattlesnakes in our collection is the Aruba Island rattlesnake. There are only 200-300 left in the wild, and it is a protected species that only lives on the island of Aruba. The government has given this animal special protection, and the population in the wild is now stable. We are in charge of managing this population in zoos, and we do this to help the species survive in case the worst happens and the snakes disappear from Aruba one day.

The Aruba Island Rattlesnake - there are only 200-300 left of these animals in the wild.
The Aruba Island Rattlesnake – there are only 200-300 left of these animals in the wild.

Still worried about getting bitten? There’s one rule that will help you avoid it: if you aren’t bothering the snake, it won’t bother you. If for some reason an accidental bite does occur, it is because either you didn’t see the snake and were way too close to it, or it didn’t see you. If a rattlesnake notices you, it will more than likely warn you or go on its merry way.

We hope we’ve shed some light on rattlesnakes, and we hope you come to the Zoo soon to see them firsthand. We also hope that if you had worries about rattlesnakes, we’ve helped alleviate some of them. If you’re still not a fan, just follow Curator Stan’s good advice: “you don’t have to like ‘em, just leave ‘em alone.” And if you are a fan, spread the word!

New Zoo Baby: Fantastic Leaf Tailed Gecko

Leaf tailed geckos are a group of super cool lizards who are masters of camouflage.  They mimic dead leaves and twigs.  Their little legs look like tiny branches and their tails look just like dead leaves, all the way down to having veins and raggedy edges.  We are often hard pressed to find them in their enclosure.  Sometimes, you’re looking right at them and don’t even know it.

This species is called the Fantastic, or alternately, the Satanic leaf tailed gecko due to its pointy raised “brow ridges”.

Leaf-tailed geckos are found only on Madagascar.  They really should have had a leaf-tailed gecko as a character in the movie, that would have been awesome.  Populations are decreasing due mainly to habitat loss (sound familiar?) caused by logging, agriculture, and cattle grazing.  They are active at night and eat mostly insects.  Females lay 2 eggs at a time and the hatchlings look like this!

Baby fantastic leaf-tailed gecko
Baby fantastic leaf-tailed gecko

How adorable is that?  No offense to other geckos but I think this one is my favorite.  This little cutie hatched here at the zoo on February 17.

Join us for Save a Turtle Saturday-March 1st!

There is no shortage of events here at the Houston Zoo and we are gearing up to talk all about turtles on Saturday, March 1st from 8:00am to noon. Join us for this special event on Zoo grounds highlighting turtles and tortoises, big to small, and learn how you can help save these awesome reptiles in the wild! You could even win a chance to visit the sea turtle barn in Galveston or a Zoo Family Membership!!

Save a Turtle Saturday Schedule of Events:

8:00-9:00am: Special Members Morning at the Aquarium! Join us in the front plaza for a special Q&A session with the Zoo’s head Vet and Sea Turtle expert, Dr. Joe Flanagan. Learn about his unique experiences working with sea turtles and then tour our aquarium with our expert staff! You’ll even find out ALL  about the green sea turtle we are rehabilitating in our Kipp Aquarium! Not a member? Sign-up now and join us for this event!

Find out how Dr. Joe Flanagan has saved sea turtles on the Texas Coast during a special Q&A at the Members Morning on March 1st!
Find out how Dr. Joe Flanagan has saved sea turtles on the Texas Coast during a special Q&A at the Members Morning on March 1st!

The following activities are free with your regular zoo admission:

9:00am- Sea Turtle keeper chat in the aquarium & feeding

9:00am– Special turtle visit on Werler Lawn!

9:00am-12:00pm On-going activities and information in the following areas:

  • Werler Lawn: Turtle crafts, educational games, and a visit by our turtle mascot!
  • Reptile House: Meet some non-native turtles, find out how they are doing in the wild and what you can do to help!
  • Swap Shop: Bring any item involving turtles or how plastic pollution affects them to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop and receive double points!! This includes: turtle shells, scutes, bones or scales, journals on turtles or tortoises and journals on how plastic pollution affects turtles.
  • Butterfly Pavilion: Learn all about turtles at our Story time, Zooper Challenge and animal encounters at the Butterfly Pavilion!
  • Wortham World of Primates: Did you know that we have turtles in the Wortham World of Primates? Find out about these awesome reptiles who reside with our lemurs and orangutans!
  • Aquarium: Check out the wild sea turtle on exhibit who has been rehabilitated by Houston Zoo staff. Learn about how eating the right seafood can save sea turtles, and take a pledge to use less plastic!
  • Front Plaza: Talk with a member of our Veterinary Staff and hear what it’s like to treat sick and injured sea turtles who are brought to the zoo’s clinic to be seen by our expert vet staff.

The Front Plaza will also feature our raffle-enter and you could possibly win a chance to visit the sea turtle barn in Galveston or a free family Zoo membership! Learn about the dangers to sea turtles in the wild, what is being done to help them, see a Turtle Excluder Device up-close and personal, purchase an Adopt-a-Sea-Turtle package to contribute to conservation efforts and buy a sea turtle bracelet and/or poster to take home as a reminder of how you contributed to save turtles in the wild!

10:00am-Turtle Story time at Butterfly Pavilion

10:30am-Live turtle encounter at the Butterfly Pavilion

10:30am-Turtle Keeper Chat in the Reptile House

11:00am-Turtle Story time at Butterfly Pavilion

12:00pm-Turtle Related Zooper Challenge at the Butterfly Pavilion

Check out the Malaysian Giant Pond Turtles in our Orangutan exhibit moat!
Check out the Malaysian Giant Pond Turtles in our Orangutan exhibit moat!

Save a Turtle Saturday in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop

Saturday, March 1, the Houston Zoo will be celebrating Save a Turtle Saturday!   The Naturally Wild Swap Shop will be participating along with the other activities going on though out the zoo.

Geometric Tortoise
Geometric Tortoise

On Save a Turtle Saturday, any item involving turtles or how plastic pollution affects them will receive double points.

That includes:
– Turtle shells, scutes, bones or scales.
– Journals on turtles or tortoises
– Journals on how plastic pollution affects turtles

There are many species of turtles and tortoises in the world and several of them are threatened or endangered.  The

IUCN Red List of Endangered Species includes turtles and tortoises that rank from threatened to no longer present

Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle
Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle

in the wild.  This list is long, but includes amazing species such as the Central American River Turtle, Geometric Tortoise, Madagascar Big-headed Turtle and ALL six species of sea turtles found in the United States. 

One of the biggest hazards to sea turtles is plastic pollution.  Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and other marine mammals die each year from ocean pollution such as ingestion or entanglement in marine debris.  Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and ingest them, leading to blockage and eventual death.  Marine debris, including items such as these plastic bags, plastic drink rings and other items, are a huge threat to our marine life.

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

Zoo Refugees: Stump-tailed Dwarf Chameleons and Animal Confiscations

When you visit the Zoo, you get to see lots of animals – from elephants to meerkats to jellyfish to Komodo dragons – and each of them has a story. Some of them are facing extinction and are among the last representatives of their species, while others are there because they were injured or orphaned out in the wild and needed a home. Still others, as you will learn here, were confiscated.

So goes the story of several of the Zoo’s most recent arrivals, the stump-tailed dwarf chameleons. These little reptiles were making a journey into the US to become a part of the pet trade. When the chameleons arrived, many had perished and the others were in poor health and severely dehydrated-there were a lot of them, but only a small percentage survived, as they are very delicate animals.

One of the recently confiscated stump-tailed dwarf chameleons
One of the recently confiscated stump-tailed dwarf chameleons

A number of zoos were asked to take in these confiscated chameleons, because no single zoo had the facilities house all of them. That’s one of the great things about zoos – we work together very well, because our mission is the same: to help animals whenever and wherever we can.

We were able to take in 15 chameleons from this confiscation, but by the time we were able to nurse them back to health, only 6 made it. You can visit those 6 animals, now thriving and healthy, in the Reptiles & Amphibians Building.

You can see these chameleons in their habitat inside the Reptiles & Amphibians Building
You can see these chameleons in their habitat inside the Reptiles & Amphibians Building

With reptiles, a lot of the reason why they are coming into the country in the first place is to become pets. Many times they are captured out of the wild and kept in very poor conditions until they can be shipped (often also in very poor conditions). By the time they get to the US, the odds aren’t good that most will survive.

It’s not a bad thing at all to have a reptile as a pet, but it is important to know a few things first before you get started. Here are a few tips if you’re considering it:

  1. Do your research. What does the animal eat? What is its life span? Where does it live, and how will you make a home for it? How does it get water? Stump-tailed dwarf chameleons, like many lizards and some snakes, don’t drink from a water bowl. They actually need to be “rained on” with a mister or else they won’t get the water they need.
  2. Choose an animal at your skill level. Some animals are way harder to take care of than others, so know what you can handle and how much time and energy it will take to care for them. These little chameleons take a lot of work – only try this at home if you’re sure you can handle it!
  3. Find a good breeder that is responsible. You may find a good quality pet store, or you may visit an expo like the one the East Texas Herpetological Society holds each fall.
  4. Ask the right questions. Ask questions of your breeder like “has this animal been captive bred?” If the answer is yes, that’s a good thing. There is no need to take animals out of the wild. Some breeders may say “this animal has been captive born” – that doesn’t count. They may have taken the parents out of the wild, and that is no good at all. Find another breeder.
  5. Be prepared. Purchase all the “gear” you will need for your animal, like caging, lighting, food, water, and more. Go back to your research and be sure to read the instructions on how to set everything up properly too.

The more people that take the steps to help pick out the right pet, the less confiscations and “bad guys” there will be, and the better off the animals in the wild will be too. And while there are only 6 left, those little stump-tailed dwarf chameleons are not only adorable, but they are also important ambassadors to help tell the story of how we can help out animals by being responsible with our choices.

A stump-tailed dwarf chameleon is not even as big as your finger!
A stump-tailed dwarf chameleon is not even as big as your finger!

Why You Should Not Be Afraid of Snakes

It’s October, Halloween is approaching, and you know what that means: Monsters! Ghosts! Goblins! Zombies! Snakes!!

Wait a minute, snakes? Why are snakes associated with Halloween and all these other scary things? Halloween comes in autumn, which is associated with cooler weather in many areas of the country, which means that snakes probably won’t even be out.

Cottonmouth snake
Cottonmouth snake

Snakes are some of the least understood, most feared, and most persecuted group of animals. It is estimated that over 50% of people are nervous or anxious in the presence of snakes while another 20% are absolutely terrified. Many people think that all snakes should be killed on sight, despite the fact that snakes play an important role in controlling rodent populations and only bite if they feel threatened. In fact, snakes will go to great lengths to be left alone! Have you ever thought about the rattles on a rattlesnake? Many people think the sound of the rattles is a sign of aggression from the snake when actually the opposite is true; this is the snake’s method of saying “I’m letting you know that I’m over here; please leave me alone.”

coral-snake-w
Coral snake

There are around 117 varieties of snakes in Texas and they range in size from less than 12 inches to almost 10 feet. The Houston area is home to 34 different types of snakes. Of these, only six are venomous. Of these six species, three (Western diamondback rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake, and the canebrake rattlesnake) have been pretty much exterminated in Houston and are almost never seen. The other three venomous snake species in Houston are the copperhead, the cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin) and the Texas coral snake.

Southern Copperhead snake
Southern Copperhead snake

How can you tell these snakes from other snakes? The absolute best way is just to memorize what these three species look like, and then stay away from any snake that looks like them! When you think about the different things that people memorize every day (computer passwords, stats for all the Texan football players, etc.) it isn’t so difficult. Another general rule is to just leave any snake you see alone and let it go about its business; the snake will return the favor and leave you alone, also. And remember; statistics show that a person is over seven times more likely to die as a result of a lightning strike than from a venomous snake bite.

So, the next time you see a snake, don’t be afraid! Just leave it alone. However, as you walk away, you may want to say “thank you for helping to get rid of the rats and mice around here.”

Healed Sea Turtle Released, but The Beach is Covered in Trash

Yesterday was Monday and that means it was time for a sea turtle survey. If you are interested in what a sea turtle survey is all about and how we get to help out with them, start here.

During this survey, we were lucky enough to go the entire day without coming across a single dead sea turtle. The day got even better, as Lyndsey from NOAA told me that we had a small Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle to be released. We carefully prepared the turtle for release.

Turtle-2
Metal tags are placed to allow plenty of room for growth.

Turtle-1
Preparing a sea turtle for release is more involved than simply placing it on the beach and waving goodbye. The turtle must first be cleared to be released and deemed fit for release based on any medical concerns that particular animal may have.

 

We weighed the turtle, and tagged it with metal identification tags. These tags will last approximately 20 years and provide important information that can be obtained if this turtle happens to wash in. A microchip similar to those used in domestic animals was injected into his shoulder to help out with identification as well.

After all the prep work was finished, this guy was ready to go. Lyndsey placed him on the quiet beach and he was free again to enjoy the ocean. Best of luck, little sea turtle!

Turtle-4

Further down the beach, we came across a disturbing sight. It was trash. Trash as far as you could see, and it was mostly plastic. Some notable items included a refrigerator, concrete mix, and about a million random other pieces of plastic. This is what our beach looks like, Texans.

Turtle-6

If you go to the beach, clean up your trash! This trash gets washed and blown into the ocean. Sea turtles mistake plastic for an easy jellyfish target and take bites out of it. Common sense tells us that plastic is not conducive to a healthy diet. If you go to the beach, bag your trash and take it to one of the many trash cans located along the beach.

Turtle-bites
Notice the little bites out of this cup. You can tell these are turtle bites from the little sea turtle beak marks. A hungry sea turtle bit this hoping for a jellyfish and instead got a stomach full of plastic.

Help out sea turtles and the environment by packing out what you pack in. Don’t leave any trash and clean up those beaches!

Third Hatching of Endangered Madagascar Big-headed Turtles!

The Madagascar big-headed turtle was once widely distributed throughout the rivers and lakes of western Madagascar.  However, overexploitation from a growing human population has drastically reduced and fragmented its range.  One of the most endangered turtles in the world, this species is included on the Turtle Conservation Fund’s top 25 endangered turtles list and is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.

big-headed-turtles-5

In December, 2005, two male and five juvenile female big-headed turtles were confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and donated to the Houston Zoo.  In 2008, these turtles were transferred to the moat surrounding the lemur display at the Zoo’s Wortham World of Primates.  In order to keep the turtles outside year-round, a swimming pool heater was installed to keep the moat warm during the winter months.  Since these turtles can be aggressive towards each other, underwater boxes fashioned from roofing tiles and bricks were added to the moat so that the turtles could hide in them when needed.

big-headed-turtles-2

Since the first egg hatched in September 2012, the Houston Zoo has now successfully hatched a total of 17 turtles from three different clutches.  The first clutch was laid and five turtles hatched in the lemur habitat inside a special nesting area prepared by the primate keepers.  Pictures of these hatchlings were posted on the Houston Zoo’s Facebook page and resulted in over 20,000 likes – the most recorded by any Houston Zoo animal!

big-headed-turtles-3

The second and third clutches were discovered by Zoo reptile & amphibian staff while they performed routine checks of the nest sites. These eggs were carefully dug up and incubated.  A second clutch was discovered on March 5, 2013 – three animals  hatched after 76 days on May 19.  The third clutch was discovered on June 22 and was divided into two groups.  One group  resulted in five hatchlings on August 22.  The second group was incubated at slightly lower temperatures to see what incubation temperature was most ideal.  Four turtles hatched from this group on September 4.

big-headed-turtles-4

Hatchlings have had an average weight of less than .02 pounds.  The average shell measurements were 1.3 inches long and 1 inch wide (that’s a tiny turtle!).  The young turtles began feeding immediately on a diet of aquatic turtle pellets and romaine lettuce.

This is believed to be the first time this species has reproduced in an institution accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, so needless to say, we’re pretty excited!

Turtle Tales 2: Wild Times for Turtlekind

As you may have read in our previous blog about the subject, turtles have some serious problems on their hands these days. But we can’t really talk about what’s happening with turtles in the wild without showing you what turtles we’re talking about. And what better pictures to show than gratuitous photos of cute baby turtles?

Turtle---Madagascar-Big-Heads
Madagascar Big-headed Turtle Babies

The turtles you see above, besides being adorable, are very, very endangered, called Madagascar big-headed turtles. They live in the lemur exhibit, just inside the entrance of the Zoo’s Wortham World of Primates. Lemurs and these little big-heads are both from the same island off the East coast of Africa that is home to dozens of species that you’ll find nowhere else in the world (did we mention that you can travel with the Zoo to Madagascar?).

Map of Madagascar

It turns out that these turtles are hunted very heavily for food, which is one of the reasons why they are critically endangered. And while a turtle feast may not exactly whet your appetite, people in Madagascar do. Now, you might say, “Well why don’t they just stop eating them?” The problem is that telling somebody not to eat these turtles is like telling you not to serve turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a cultural thing, and we’ve got to work hard to help people understand why not eating these turtles will help out the environment.

The story with these turtles is the same around the world, particularly in Asia, with turtles being hunted for food because in certain cultures, bringing home an expensive turtle to eat for dinner is like bringing home a Mercedes Benz. Then there’s the pet trade, which means that people take turtles from their wild habitats so they can be purchased as pets. Finally and most importantly, the places where these turtles live, and the habitat of turtles all around the world, is being lost because of development for palm oil plantations and countless other reasons.

Well that was depressing, wasn’t it? Here’s another cute baby turtle to bring us back up:

Look out world!
Another Madagascar Turtle Baby…collective “awwwww”!

While the threats we mentioned are very important to understand so we know why these animals have almost disappeared, we can’t change the past. What we can do is change what we’re doing and try to help fix things for the future.

What is the Houston Zoo doing to help turtles? First off, we breed these endangered species, along with many others, so that we’ll have them for a long time to come. We were the first Zoo to breed Yellow-headed temple turtles, another very endangered turtle in Southeast Asia, and we were the first zoo in North America to hatch those cuties you just saw above. More than 15 endangered Star tortoises hatched last year, and there are more on the way this year. So we’re trying to do our part.

As for you – what can you do? Well, you’re probably not munching out on turtles, so that’s a good start. The best thing you can do is understand the issues and support organizations that are doing good. The Zoo is one of those, and so is the Turtle Survival Alliance, an organization that we work with frequently to help turtles that are confiscated from people illegally importing animals into the US.

Turtle Tales: Behind the Scenes with Keeper Chris

There are some pretty amazing turtles at the Zoo, but what you see is only half the story! Come with us behind the scenes as we take a peek into the turtle building and meet Chris B., one of the Zoo’s Reptile Keepers and a passionate advocate for turtle conservation.

With 5 ½ years of experience at the Houston Zoo alone, Chris loves turtles. He’s seen them in the wild all over the world, but the one place he appreciates most for turtle observation is…wait for it…Texas!

“People should realize that they are very lucky living in Texas,” Chris said, while cleaning exhibits and filling up pools for the turtles. “Around here, I’ve seen 6 unique species of turtles in a single day in the same ditch. It took 2 ½ weeks of hard work, trekking through jungles in Sumatra, to see just 3 species!”

With such knowledge about turtles, you’d have to guess that his favorite turtle species would be pretty special. It’s called a Black-breasted leaf turtle. This turtle is about the size of your hand as an adult, brown in color, and doesn’t really look all that special upon first glance. But we’ve all learned not to judge a book by its cover, right?

Black-breasted leaf turtle
Black-breasted leaf turtle

The Black-breasted leaf turtle is from Southeast Asia and is considered endangered by IUCN, as many turtles are. And according to Chris, this turtle is seriously something special. The female lays huge eggs – the one we saw was almost 1/5 the size of the entire turtle who laid it. Can you imagine having a baby that big??

“These guys have long necks, big bug eyes, and they live in a pretty amazing habitat – the mountains of Vietnam and southern China. And they are crazy! You put a bunch of earthworms in their tank, and once one of them grabs one, the other turtles just go nuts trying to grab the rest of the worms.”

Despite the perks of working with adorable turtles all day, Chris doesn’t take his job lightly. Every opportunity to talk to a guest is a chance to educate them about what’s happening in the world with turtles and how they can help.

Madagascar Big Headed Turtles
Madagascar big-headed turtle babies! These guys are seriously endangered.

So, what is happening with turtles? All over the world, their numbers are declining at an alarming rate because they are sold as pets, eaten as food, and used as medicine, and also because their habitat is decreasing.

An organization that has stepped up to help out is called the Turtle Survival Alliance. Their job is to prevent extinction and promote recovery of turtle species around the world. The Zoo also works with them to help care for and house animals that have been confiscated by the government when people try to bring them in the country illegally.

To learn more about the problems facing turtles in the wild (they’re a lot more complex than you might think!), stay tuned for another blog very soon!

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