Come and see the Madagascar Big-headed Turtle Hatchlings!

In September 2012, 5 critically endangered Madagascar Big-headed turtles here at the Houston Zoo were hatched in our Lemur exhibit. . Since they are extremely vulnerable to predation when first hatched, they were immediately taken behind-the-scenes to our Reptile house for safe keeping. There they have flourished! They are now eating turtle pellets, earthworms, black worms, snails, crickets, and duck weed

The hatchlings started out very small, averaging 6.8 grams. They were just a little larger than a US quarter. Now, their average weight is 23.74 grams which is 3.5 times more than what they weighed when they first hatched, and they are almost the length of an AA battery (2 inches).

Since they are out of the danger zone, the turtles are now where everyone can coo and “aww” at how adorable they are. Be sure to stop by the Reptile house and see the first representatives of this species hatched in a North American zoo. When you see them, you might wonder why they have little green spots on their shell. Since we need to be able to identify them to make sure that they are eating well and staying healthy, we need an accurate way to identify them. The adults have a readable transponder under their skin just like the ones cats and dogs are given. Since they are still too small for the transponder, we use a spot of green nail polish on their scutes because it is safe and durable.

Remember: Make sure to advise your little ones not to tap on the glass, as it can stress the animals. . We want to do everything possible to make sure that they stay safe and healthy here at the zoo. These little reservoirs of turtle DNA are very important to the survival of this species and we hope to breed more in the future! And, you can still see their parents floating in the moat or basking on the rocks at the Wortham World of Primates lemur exhibit.

To learn about conservation efforts in the wild, visit the Turtle Survival Alliance.

Notable Noses: Meet the Malay Gharial

Visit the Reptile & Amphibian Building to meet our Malay, or False gharial (Tomistoma schlegelii). It is a highly endangered crocodilian that once ranged throughout much of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Borneo, West Java and possibly Vietnam; preferred habitat appears to be tropical swamp forests. Their most distinctive feature is their long, narrow snout which makes them similar in appearance to another crocodilian species, the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) native to India.

Malay Gharial
Malay Gharial

As adults, Malay gharials can get quite large with males reaching over 5 meters in length while females are smaller. The females build large mound nests and can lay up to 60 large eggs at a time.

Hunting , habitat destruction, and other human pressures have resulted in the extirpation of Malay gharials in Vietnam and Thailand. Malay gharials now occur in only ten river drainage systems in their former historic range. The wild population is estimated to be no more than 2500 or fewer individuals. Malayan gharials are considered to be Critically Endangered by the IUCN and are listed as an endangered species by the United States and are also listed as Appendix I by CITES. The captive population in North America numbers around 40 animals in 14 institutions. Due to their large size and specific habitat requirements, this species has proven to be difficult to maintain and reproduce; there have only been four successful captive breedings in AZA institutions. Because of the small captive population, the AZA has designated the Malay gharial as an SSP red species.

The Houston Zoo has owned a female Malay gharial since 1974. However, due to its large size and our lack of proper facilities for large crocodilians, it has been out on loan since 1981 and currently resides at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans where it is in a breeding situation. Fortunately, though, last October we were able to acquire a three year old animal which had hatched at the San Antonio Zoo. Since it is a juvenile, we will be able to adequately house this animal for the next several years in the Herpetology building, where it is currently on display.

The Malay gharial is located in the Reptile and Amphibian building in a large display along the back wall, directly behind the White alligator exhibit. While you’re in the building, take some extra time to view all the other interesting and colorful species we have on exhibit!

Save a Turtle Saturday in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop

Saturday, March 2, 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.

Three-toed Box Turtle

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 and 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 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,

Green Sea Turtle

  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.

And The Winner Is………..

The Three-toed Box Turtle in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop has a new name!  With over 100 submissions, the Children’s Zoo staff had to take longer than expected to go through all the names.  A vote was held by the staff and the overwhelming winner was……………..Lunchbox!  You can follow this link to the original blog post on the contest


Lunchbox the Three-toed Box Turtle

The name Lunchbox was submitted by Brea Madden and she has been given 50 points to spend in the Swap Shop as a reward for submitting the winning name. 

Lunchbox, formally named Rex, lives in the Swap Shop with her mom, Mindy. While Mindy has been here at the zoo since the 90’s, Lunchbox is very young.  She was hatched right here in the Children’s Zoo on August 11, 2010.   Mindy and Lunchbox are both part of the Zoo’s education collection and often go out for presentations or go on Zoomobiles to classrooms. 

Congratulations to Brea on winning the naming rights!  We hope we will see you soon in the Swap Shop to visit Lunchbox and spend those points!

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

Help give Rex a new name!

Meet Rex.  Rex is a Box Turtle who was born right here in the McGovern’s Children’s Zoo and lives in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.  There is only one problem……Rex is a girl.  When we named her she had just hatched and we didn’t discover that she was a girl until later on. 


Rex, the Three-toed Box Turtle

We want to give our guests 18 years of age and younger in the Swap Shop an opportunity to help re-name Rex.  So, until January 15, 2013 you can stop by the Swap Shop and submit your suggestion for a new name. 

Here is some additional information to help you come up with name ideas.  Rex was hatched on August 11, 2010 so she is just over 2 years old.  She is a Three-toed Box Turtle and lives with her mom, Mindy, in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.  Mindy and Rex are both part of the Zoo’s education collection and go out to classrooms and other presentations.

On January 16, the Children’s Zoo staff will review the names and choose one for Rex’s new name!  The lucky young person that submitted the name will win 50 points to spend in the Swap Shop. 

Dont know about the Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

Critically Endangered Turtles Hatched at the Houston Zoo!

Adult Basking on a Rock
Herpetology keeper, Chris Bednarski, holding the first hatchlings

Madagascar Big-headed Turtles (Erymnochelys madagascariensis) are facing extinction due to drastic deforestation and illegal hunting. They are ranked at number 16 in the world’s most endangered turtles and tortoises list .  We are proud to announce that we have had five hatch at the Houston Zoo, in our Madagascar lemur exhibit!. The hatchlings are very small, averaging 6.8g each. They are just a little larger than a US quarter, averaging only 28.7mm wide and 32.3mm long. This is the first hatching at a zoo in the United States, and we are one of the only zoos in the world that is currently breeding them.
This unique species can only be found in seven protected areas in western Madagascar: Ankarafantsika, Baly Bay, and Bemaraha National Parks, and the new protected reserves of Manambolamaty, Ambondrobe, Menabe-Antimena, and Mahavavy-Kinkony. They can lay up to 2 clutches of 10-20 eggs a year. The larger the turtle, the more eggs it can lay. The eggs will usually incubate at 86-87.8 degrees Fahrenheit (30-31 degrees Celsius) for around 60-90 days.

Little size, big deal

Often, the females will lay their eggs in the dry season, and the hatchlings will emerge in the rainy season. Ours were seen this past May engaging in preliminary nesting behavior, so we prepared the soil by adding sand to make it more “nest friendly” for the digging females.
Madagascar Big-headed turtles are fairly omnivorous, feeding on the fruits, flowers, leaves and consuming small vertebrates and fish. Here at the Houston Zoo, the turtles eat the vegetation in the exhibit along with a rotating diet consisting of specialized turtle pellets, shrimp, and smelt. Since they can be very aggressive towards each other, especially during breeding season, we took special care to add underwater hiding areas. You can see our seven adults in the water moat of our lemur exhibit, often enjoying the sun on the rocks and along the bank. The hatchlings have been removed from the moat to a safe location behind the scenes at the Reptile House. There they will be sheltered from predators and monitored closely to ensure a healthy life until they are bigger.

Here’s looking at you

There have been successful conservation programs in Madagascar working with the local communities to help reestablish and protect populations in the wild. Organizations such as The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust take local cultures and traditions into account in their conservation efforts. This is a critical step in making programs such as this a success.

For more information about the world’s most endangered turtles and tortoises, click here.

Look out world!

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

The Galapagos Loses Lonesome George

On Monday, June 25, 2012, Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta tortoise, passed away in his enclosure in the Galapagos Islands at more than 100 years of age. Weighing 200 pounds and measuring 5 feet long, Lonesome George was a site to behold and a beloved symbol of species conservation efforts in the Galapagos Islands and across the world.

Lonesome George was found on the Galapagos island of Pinta in 1972 where it was thought that his species of tortoises from this island were completely extinct. Upon his discovery, he became part of a rearing program in captivity at the Galapagos National Park. There were several initiatives with the intent of reproducing him, however after being placed with females of a species found on Isabela Island the eggs that resulted were infertile. Another effort used females from the island of Espanola (closest genetically to the type from Pinta) however the eggs produced were also infertile.

In 2010, the Houston Zoo’s Head Veterinarian, Dr. Joe Flanagan took a trip to the Galapagos to work with Lonesome George and other tortoises like him. Dr. Joe participated in the release of the females from the island of Espanola, assessing their health prior to their introduction to their new habitat with Lonesome George.

Since his passing, conservation officials in the Galapagos are conducting an autopsy to determine his cause of death, though they suspect he may have suffered a heart attack.

Time Article: Lonesome George

Green Tree Pythons are Changing Colors!

– Post by Beth Moorhead

Back in February 2011, we had 18 baby Green Tree Pythons hatch. Since then, many of the babies have found homes at other zoos, but we kept one gorgeous little red one on display with its parents. In late January of this year, the python keeper noticed a slight color change. The brick red was slowly changing to orange! Since then it has been slowly changing from red to orange and now the orange is a bit green! This process should take a few weeks to complete and the little python will remain on display so everyone can enjoy this amazing process!

Hatchlings at 48 hours old. Notice the deep brick red coloration!


At just over 1 year old this python’s color is slowly changing to green – notice the orange and yellowish greens. Even their eyes will change color from red to yellow!


Green Tree Pythons (Morelia viridis) are native to New Guinea and northern Australia.  They are found in many zoo collections due to their vibrant green and yellow colors and their tropical arboreal habitat. What many visitors may not be aware of are the amazing colors that newly hatched animals exhibit – either bright yellow or brick red! These colors help them hide in their preferred habitat, which is in low lying tree branches along the forest edge. When they grow to about 22 inches long their color changes to bright green – sometimes this color change can occur in only 8 days! The red and yellow colors are not related to sex or any other trait. Red hatchlings have been found on only a few islands including New Guinea. These pythons are nocturnal so in the zoo we often have to enjoy seeing them on display sound asleep and coiled on tree branches.

The father showing off his gorgeous colors which earn him the name Green Tree Python!


The Houston Zoo has had Green tree pythons in the collection since the late 1960′s. The father has been at the Houston Zoo since January, 1986, and has fathered other offspring in the past. The mother has been with us since October, 2008, when she was evacuated from Moody Gardens after Hurricane Ike.

Rattlesnakes Rock!


It’s no secret that the Houston Zoo Reptile House staff love rattlesnakes… but why?  What do we know that you don’t?   For many people, the sight or sound of a rattlesnake results in sheer terror.  Yes, rattlesnakes are potentially dangerous due to their elegant venom delivery system, but they typically give you a warning well before they strike – why do you suppose that is?  Let’s touch on some rattlesnake physiology…


Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)


Rattlesnakes are highly evolved animals.  Their skull is very delicate, having an open framework with fairly thin bones – compare this to a python, which has a reinforced, almost solid skull.  A python needs a heavy skull because they grab and hold their prey, which is often kicking and thrashing about (I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same). A rattlesnake relies on its venom to subdue its meal;  it bites and quickly lets go because a thrashing animal could do some serious and irreparable damage to the snake’s skull.  After envenomating its prey – a rodent for example – the rattlesnake then patiently waits for the venom to do its job.  At this point the rodent may have wandered off before dying, so the rattlesnake tracks it using some pretty cool high-tech equipment:  heat sensing pits (which form infrared images, allowing them to “see” in the dark) and a complex chemosensory system  (allowing them to “taste” their way around with great precision and accuracy).  Using these amazing built in tools, they can safely track the same rodent they bit a few minutes before and eat it in peace without any injury from a struggle.  Check out some amazing rattlesnake footage from David Attenborough’s BBC series “Life in Cold Blood” here.


Mojave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus)


So back to the rattle… when a rattlesnake rattles, it is threatened – something or someone has invaded its personal space.   Although most people are under the impression that ALL snakes are out to get them (especially rattlesnakes), this couldn’t be farther from the truth.   These snakes want absolutely nothing to do with us and will always flee if there is an escape route available.  An animal of our stature could easily kill a snake as small as a rattler – if a human were to accidentally step on one, that fragile skull I mentioned earlier would be crushed.  So if you threaten a rattlesnake (even by accident) and it has to protect itself, its rattle will send you a clear message:  Don’t tread on me!   This audible warning makes rattlesnakes pretty darn polite in my opinion…   But the real reason they give you fair warning is (again) they don’t want a confrontation and  they don’t want to waste venom on an enemy unless they are forced to.  Venom takes a lot of energy to make and the snake would rather use it for its intended purpose (to catch food).  So,if you ever hear/see an agitated rattlesnake in the wild, simply stop, stay calm, locate the snake and slowly back away from it until you are out of harms way.


Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)


Rattlesnakes are often misunderstood and underappreciated animals.  They are unique to the Americas and are found nowhere else in the world – the American Southwest and Mexico boast the highest diversity of species.  They have very caring courtship behaviors and give birth to live young; parental care has even been documented in some species. They have striking colors and markings yet blend in perfectly with their surroundings.  They play the very important role of  predator in many ecosystems and keep populations of other critters under control, while being a prey item themselves for other snakes and hawks.  And come on – they have RATTLES on the end of their tails!  How cool is that?!!



Those who care for rattlesnakes for a living will tell you that they are peaceful and curious animals.  Working with them on a daily basis allows us to get to know them as individuals – yep, they have distinct personalities and quirks just like every other animal!  Starting to see why we love rattlesnakes so much?  Hopefully you are beginning to understand why we want to protect them.

Rattlesnakes were once well respected and  even symbolized our great country in its infancy.  Now, hundreds of thousands of rattlesnakes are persecuted and needlessly killed every year.  Rattlesnake roundups – events in which these snakes are collected from the wild and slaughtered as a public spectacle – are a severe threat to rattlesnake populations in the state of Texas.  As a native Texan, I am painfully embarrassed that these events persist  – the animals are treated disrespectfully before they are killed (and they are ALL killed) and this sends a horrible message to event attendees, especially children.  Help us put an end to the killing and ask that these yearly festivals be changed to educational ones that advocate respect for nature – before it’s too late for the rattlesnakes of Texas.


Aruba Island Rattlesnake (Crotalus unicolor), the rarest rattlesnake on Earth. Photo: Jeff Whitlock


So take the time to learn more about the fascinating world of rattlesnakes and then spread the word – shout it from the rooftops!! RATTLESNAKES ROCK!!

Still don’t appreciate rattlesnakes?  Think the only good snake is a dead snake?  Hmm… I hope you don’t mind a few hundred rodent house guests because without snakes around, I can guarantee they’ll be moving in soon!



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