Texas Sea Turtles Getting Checkups and Returning to the Wild!

This week was a busy one for sea turtles on our coast-and it’s been this way for pretty much the entire summer! On Monday, Houston Zoo staff assisted NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) with their weekly beach survey. It was a fairly quiet day in the way of turtles on the beach, but we did happen to see the enormous amounts of sargassum on the beaches which you may have already heard about.

Sargassum buildup on the Galveston beaches. Unfortunately, trash often washes in during sargassum events as well as wildlife!
Sargassum buildup on the Galveston beaches. Unfortunately, trash often washes in during sargassum events as well as wildlife!

Here is a report from a local news station about the sargassum in our area. While the sargassum may make the beaches less than desirable to visit, they are can be important to sea turtles, especially green sea turtles and plenty of other wildlife! If you venture out onto the beach despite the somewhat smelly conditions, you may be delighted to see some amazing wildlife in the seaweed.

Sargassum is basically huge football fields of brown algae floating in the ocean. When it washes up on the beach, it can help build up the dunes which are great storm protection for us and our homes! Animals like shrimp, fish and green sea turtles love to hang out in these football fields of algae in the ocean-it’s a great way to float around in the busy ocean, and your food is right next to you all the time!

This summer, NOAA has responded to several green sea turtles who have stranded on the beach, in the sargassum. Because green sea turtles are pretty much the exact color of the sargassum, it’s really important to keep your eye out for them if you are driving or traveling on the beach! You can call 1-866-TURTLE-5 if you happen to see a turtle on the beach or in the sargassum. We are still technically in sea turtle nesting season, so if you are so lucky as to see a turtle nesting on the beach (or their tracks) make sure to call the turtle hotline to report it!

A green sea turtle blends in perfectly with sargassum on the beach! Keep an eye out for them this holiday weekend and call 1-866-TURTLE-5 if you see one!
A green sea turtle blends in perfectly with sargassum on the beach! Keep an eye out for them this holiday weekend and call 1-866-TURTLE-5 if you see one!

After traveling through the huge patches of sargassum to complete our sea turtle survey, we were fortunate enough to be able to release one of the Kemp’s Ridley turtles that NOAA has been rehabilitating. This turtle was caught on a recreational hook and line, and thankfully was reported to NOAA who took it to their facilities to give it a full medical checkup and provide care until it was healthy enough to go back to the wild.

A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle that was rehabilitated and released by NOAA staff this week!
A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle that was rehabilitated and released by NOAA staff this week!

And our turtle work did not stop after Monday’s survey! Yesterday, 11 sea turtles visited the Houston Zoo clinic and our awesome vet team to get checkups. Some of these turtles had suspected hooks and needed x-rays and others were turtles that had stranded and needed to get a routine checkup by our vet staff.

Kemp's ridley sea turtle who got a checkup by Houston Zoo vet staff yesterday.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtle who got a checkup by Houston Zoo vet staff yesterday.

All of the 11 turtles were successfully looked at and suggestions were given by the Houston Zoo vet team for each individual’s care. We look forward to seeing these turtles go through successful rehabilitation and then return to the wild!

If you’d like to learn more about the zoo’s efforts to save sea turtles in the wild, check out more info here

If you want to help save sea turtles, take these few simple steps (especially during this busy beach holiday weekend!):

-Leave only footprints when you go to the beach. Make sure to put all of your trash in a can and recycle items when possible. Do not leave tents, fireworks, or other trash on the beach-it is harmful for wildlife and dangerous for the health of our beaches!

-Use canvas bags instead of plastic bags whenever you buy groceries or take items to the beach! The Houston Zoo’s gift shops sells awesome durable sea turtle canvas bags, with all proceeds going back to saving turtles in the wild! Reducing our use of plastic in general helps save sea turtles and other ocean animals.

Sea turtle canvas bags available in our gift shop. All proceeds go towards sea turtles in the wild.
Sea turtle canvas bags available in our gift shop. All proceeds go towards sea turtles in the wild.

Attwater's prairie chicks are here!

The Houston Zoo has already hatched 209 Attwater’s prairie chicks this Spring!

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All of these guys have made it through to the next stage of their lives and will stay with us here at the Zoo until they are ready for release as strong juveniles into the wild!

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Attwater’s prairie chickens are vanishing from the coastal prairies of Texas. It is estimated that less than 100 of these birds are left in the wild, so the Houston Zoo has breeding facilities both behind the scenes at the Zoo and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to help revive the wild populations.  When the birds hatch and grow large enough, they are slowly introduced and then released into the wild, where they will support the already existing populations.

If you are inspired to give these chicks a stronger chance for survival, help them out by learning more, or even donating!

Let the Season Begin: It's Attwater's Prairie Chicken Time!

It’s our biggest and best year yet for breeding a very special local species, the critically endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chicken! We’re very lucky to have gotten a record number of eggs from our flock so far, with more to come.

The very first Attwater's prairie chicken egg of the breeding season!
The very first Attwater’s prairie chicken egg of the breeding season! We do something called candling the eggs, which means looking inside of them, to be sure the future chicks are healthy and progressing properly.

Last year’s breeding season was an incredible success, so we can’t wait to see what this year has in store for us. These eggs will begin to hatch in late April, so get ready to see tons of adorable baby chicks in the very near future!

Attwater's Prairie Chicken chick photo by Mollie Coym
Attwater’s Prairie Chicken chick photo by Mollie Coym

Considering there are less than 100 Attwater’s prairie chickens left in the wild, a successful breeding season at the Houston Zoo is essential for the survival of the species. We partner with a number of other organizations to ensure this humble grouse doesn’t go extinct.

Male Attwater's Prairie Chicken
Male Attwater’s Prairie Chicken

The Houston Zoo is involved in a number of ways, the most important of which is breeding animals in a protected environment that helps bring out their natural behaviors at our Johnson Space Center facility (thanks, NASA!), hatching the eggs at the Zoo, caring for the chicks, and then releasing those young birds into the wild at protected sites once they get old enough.

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Male Attwater’s prairie chicken at Johnson Space Center – thank you, NASA, for helping us protect this critically endangered species!

Letting people know that the Attwater’s prairie chicken exists is also one of our most important jobs – and if you’re reading this, you are already contributing toward this animal’s survival. If people don’t know what the issues are, they can’t care. And if people care, the species won’t stand a chance! If you’d like to learn more and share with your friends, check out Houston Zoo Bird Keeper Danny Keel’s talk about the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken and our efforts to save it!

Attwater Talk – Danny Keel – Houston Zoo from Coastal Prairie Partnership on Vimeo

Sea Turtle Update: Getting the Green Light for Release

Last week, the Houston Zoo vet clinic and NOAA checked out 9 sea turtles: 4 Kemp’s ridleys, 4 greens, and 1 hawksbill. The Kemp’s ridleys have been recovering from injuries at the NOAA Galveston facility, and will be released over the next few months. Threats to sea turtles are primarily people. People in the form of boats, plastic pollution/littering, fishing hooks, etc. The Kemp’s ridleys looked strong and we hope they’ll go on to live happy sea turtle lives.
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The 4 green sea turtles are what is called “cold stunned” turtles. Because turtles are reptiles, they cannot regulate body heat. When the temperature drops quickly, if the turtles are stuck in small inlets of water (shallow water cools much faster than the ocean)and cannot get to larger and warmer water, their tiny bodies begin to shut down. Since green sea turtles enjoy sea grasses and algae, their species is more likely to be in the small bays and marshes that experience the quick drops in temperature. Based on their progress and recovery timeline, the 4 greens visiting us might be released in the future, or allowed a longer recovery to make sure they are as strong as possible.

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This is a hawksbill sea turtle. Notice the beautiful overlapping pattern on the carapace.

And finally, the hawksbill. This particular hawksbill sea turtle is undergoing treatment for some issues with the carapace (shell). He’ll need some extra time to recover so that NOAA and the Houston Zoo can monitor his progress.

That’s it for this week’s sea turtle update. Stay tuned for more news as we break into nesting season!

Why wait for Easter for an “egg-travaganza?!”

The Houston toad team at the Houston Zoo has been working up a storm this spring – a storm of Houston toad eggs! As of this writing, the team has bred 23 groups of adult Houston toads (the groups consist of either one female and one male or one female and two male) since the middle of February using assisted breeding methodologies. In total, we have produced ~80,000 Houston toad eggs!! This is more than twice as many as we produced last year and is a tremendous success for our program!! However, I’m sure you are all wondering just what in the world are we doing with all of those eggs??

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Each and every one of the Houston toad egg strands produced at the Zoo going back to the wild to help augment the wild population.  Researchers from Texas State University (TSU) are strategically placing the egg strands in two counties, Austin County and Bastrop County, which are in the historic range of the Houston toad. Both of these counties still harbor small, wild populations of Houston toads that are being monitored by TSU and USFWS.

Researchers from TSU and Houston toad staff and interns are placing the eggs inside protective, wire cages as the strands are placed into the release ponds. Cages? What are those for? One of the biggest complications for the Houston toad recovery effort is that everything LOVES to eat Houston toads – especially their eggs! Birds, fish, aquatic invertebrates, raccoons, you name it; they all love to snack on tasty toad eggs. The cages prevent these hungry critters from feasting on these precious, endangered egg strands, helping to ensure that many of these eggs will survive to make tiny toadlets!
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TSU researchers are monitoring each of the release sites and are on the lookout for Houston toad tadpoles and metamorphs. Are the cages working? Are the eggs going to hatch? Stay tuned to find out!

Finding the Wily, Wild Houston Toad!

While many of us are enjoying these cool, winter evenings indoors in front of the TV with our favorite snack, Houston toad researchers are bundling up, grabbing a thermos of coffee and hitting the road to find the  elusive Houston toad! After the first heavy rain of the year, often near the end of January, Houston toads are hitting the ponds to look for mates.  The Houston toad spends the majority of the year in shallow burrows to escape the extreme Texas temperatures (a process called estivation); therefore the best opportunity to find and count toads is during their breeding season when they are out and about.

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Houston toad male calling

Though some toad biologists slip on a pair of rubber boots and put on a headlamp to look for Houston toads using sight, most researchers search for toads using sound. Sound? How does that work? The Houston toad males have a very distinctive advertisement call, which is the call that they use to tell female toads “Hey, lady! Check me out! I’m over here!” In fact, all species of frogs and toads have a distinctive call that they use to get the attention of the opposite sex. Interestingly, it is not just the males that do the calling. In some species, including another local frog species called the gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor), the females will both call and counter-call (which means to call back) to the males. To hear a Houston toad call, check out the following link:   http://www.californiaherps.com/noncal/misc/miscfrogs/pages/a.houstonensis.sounds.html

 

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USFWS biulogists depolying a SongMeter

To find calling toads, researchers set out in their cars after dark to literally “listen” for Houston toads. The areas that are visited have been previously identified as suitable habitat for the Houston toad, or are locations where Houston toads were either found or heard in the past. The surveys follow a very systematic pattern with dozens of stops, and they often take hours to complete. This year, for the first time in several years, five Houston toad counties are being surveyed at once lead by research teams from Texas State University and USFWS. Fingers crossed that we’re going to find some wild toads!

Another way that researchers find wild Houston toads is through the use of a recording device called a SongMeter. A SongMeter is specifically designed to detect the auditory calls of wild animals.  To detect Houston toads, SongMeters are placed in trees near ponds and are programmed to record sounds during the course of the night. These devices can record two weeks’ worth of sound data! A software program is then used to find the particular waveform that correlates to the Houston toad call. Of course, every Houston toad “hit” found by the software program has to be verified by human ears, which requires hours of listening time.

So over the next couple of months while you’re enjoying your favorite evening TV show, take a moment to think about the field researchers braving the chilly, wet Texas nights on the hunt for the Houston toad. Each toad found (or heard) tells us more about the health of the wild population and gives us another critical piece of information concerning the natural history of this rare species. Good luck toad folks and Godspeed!

First Blue-billed curassow born under controlled conditions!

Wonderful news! The critically endangered Blue-billed curassow, which is native to South America, has been successfully born under controlled conditions! This bird has been losing habitat and is a victim of poaching, leading to still declining numbers in the low hundreds. The Houston Zoo in partnership with Colombian Zoos and wildlife organizations held an incubation workshop last year, and will be doing so again this Febuary 2014, to help teach methodology to successfully produce hatchlings to eventually introduce to and increase wild populations.

It looks like things are headed in the right direction as this week has seen the first Blue-billed curassow hatchling!
It looks like things are headed in the right direction as this week has seen the first Blue-billed curassow hatchling!

 

Adult Blue-billed curassow
Adult Blue-billed curassow

Official Press Release:

The National Aviary Foundation of Colombia together with ACOPAZOA Colombia and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, formed the Captive Breeding Program Blue-Billed Curassow ( Crax alberti ), that includes the monitoring of wild birds , captive breeding and the development of educational campaigns. After two years of signing this agreement as a group, born in the facilities of the National Aviary Foundation of Colombia is the first Colombian Blue-billed curassow ( Crax alberti ) under controlled conditions, this chick is a step towards the conservation of this bird that is endemic to Colombia and according to the IUCN it is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, mainly due to habitat destruction and hunting.

The chick was born on January 16 , with an approximate size of 13.6 cm. and a weight of 121 gr. , based on the beak we can tell it is a female, and she is in perfect condition-she has been observed very active and healthy.

The team at The National Aviary Foundation of Colombia coordinated by zoo staff member Guillermo Gálviz , has worked for 4 years in the reproduction of different species in the family Cracidae, specializing 2 years in the reproduction of the blue-billed curassow ( Crax alberti ), during this time they have achieved many things in the reproduction of these birds including successful fertility and now the birth of this baby , which we hope is not the only chick of this species to be born during this year.

 

Adult blue-billed curassow
Adult blue-billed curassow

The species in addition to the risks it faces in nature, presents difficulties in captive breeding due to their biological behavior, in which the male usually shows aggression toward the generally nervous female, the demand and preference in building material nest, having no more than two eggs per breeding season and the complexity for establishing a partner (each individual chooses his partner) , for these reasons the National Aviary staff has worked hard to achieve these positive results.

The birth of this bird is considered a great achievement for the conservation of the species. We thank ACOPAZOA member institutions , the Houston Zoo and Cracid & Crane Breeding and Conservation Center CBCC Belgium, for their contributions to the conservation of Colombian Cracids .

 

Sea Turtles Get Check-ups at the Zoo!

2 sea turtles visited the Houston Zoo today for a check-up by our Veterinary Staff. Both were green sea turtles that came in from the wild with injuries.

The first green turtle is one that was found late summer completely entangled in fishing line (in fact, the turtle was still attached to a fishing pole when someone found him/her). The turtle suffered terrible injuries to both front flippers, and unfortunately lost one flipper. The remaining front flipper is still recovering-Houston Zoo Vet Staff took a look to make sure it is healing properly. Hopefully with a few months longer in rehab, this turtle will be healthy enough to be released back into the wild. Sea turtles are able to survive in the wild with only 3 functioning flippers, and we have high hopes this turtle will be no different.

Green sea turtle who was entangled in fishing line at the end of this summer. This turtle lost one flipper but can survive with the remaining 3.
Green sea turtle who was entangled in fishing line at the end of this summer. This turtle lost one flipper but can survive with the remaining 3.

The 2nd green turtle that Vet staff checked on also suffered from a front flipper injury. Staff from the NOAA-Galveston Lab are unsure as to how this sea turtle became injured, but it was found floating in the ship channel in Galveston. It has wounds near the front left flipper and looks to have suffered a dislocated flipper-this type of injury is very uncommon among sea turtles!

Our Vet Team at the Houston Zoo took x-rays to monitor the flipper injury and hope to see it back in a few weeks for further treatment. A twist to this sea turtle’s story is that this exact turtle was released with the help of the Houston Zoo in May of 2013. The turtle had lost a back flipper several months ago, was rehabilitated in Galveston, and then released into Galveston Bay with Houston Zoo staff help earlier this year. We know the history of this sea turtle because before it was released it was given a flipper tag with an ID number on it. We had hoped this turtle would not have returned with yet another injury, but we are optimistic that the turtle will be returned one more time to the wild and stay there unharmed, thriving in its’ natural habitat.

Green sea turtle with dislocated front flipper. The liquid coming from the turtle is salt water being flushed out from a special gland behind the eye.
Green sea turtle with dislocated front flipper. The liquid coming from the turtle is salt water being flushed out from a special gland behind the eye.

Both turtles will remain at NOAA’s sea turtle facility in Galveston as they rehabilitate. Thanks to the work of the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), these turtles will have another chance to return to the wild!

This time of year is especially tough for sea turtles. When the temperature drops drastically, sea turtles  become stunned or shocked from the sudden temperature drop. They often rise to the top and float into the shore. If you visit Texas beaches this holiday season and happen to see a sea turtle on the beach please call 1-866-TURTLE-5. You can also help sea turtles daily by reducing your use of plastics-products like plastic water bottles, soda pack rings, and plastic bags end up in our oceans and animals like sea turtles and dolphins can become entangled in these items or eat them, mistaking them for food. By using reusable grocery bags and reusable water bottles, you can help save sea turtles each day!

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You can also help sea turtles by visiting the Houston Zoo this holiday season-each time you purchase a ticket or a Zoo membership, a portion of the proceeds go towards saving animals in the wild. 

Saving Sea Turtles in the Wild

How the Zoo saves sea turtles in the wild:

Dec.3 sea turtleOn Dec. 3rd eight sea turtles were brought to the Houston Zoo’s vet clinic after being stranded on the upper Texas coast.  There were 4 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles that recieved medical treatment and check ups after swallowing fishing hooks and 4 green sea turtles were treated after feeling the affects of the sudden cold snap.  After the turtles had physical examinations and received treatments they were transported to the  NOAA Sea Turtle Barn in Galvaston to recover.   They will be released as soon as we are sure they are stable and the weather is a bit warmer.

 Fact:  Our veterinary staff have assisted in saving over 75 injured or stranded wild sea turtles in this year alone.

 

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More ways the Zoo saves sea turtles:

Our staff participates in reducing threats to sea turtles by performing patrols to find stranded and sick turtles and creating signs that give direction to public and fisherman that encounter sea turtles.  For more on our sea turtles saving efforts visit here  .

Come to the Zoo to see the sea turtle in our aquarium.  He was also found stranded and weak on the upper Texas coast and is visiting us until he is strong enough to be released into the wild again.

 

 

 

 

 

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How you can help save sea turtles in the wild:

  • Remember to say no to plastic and use reusable shopping bags and drink cups whenever you can!
  • Every time you purchase a ticket to visit the Zoo or a membership a portion goes to saving animals in the wild.

Releasing Howler Monkeys in Belize – Rescued Pets Go Back to the Wild

Written by Primate Keeper Lucy Dee Anderson

In Belize it is illegal to own a pet howler monkey, and the forestry department confiscates monkeys from people to eventually be brought back into the wild. In June I had the opportunity to travel to Belize and help release two troops of howler monkeys back into a safe spot deep within the Amazon rainforest called Fireburn. (Wondering why they are not allowed as pets? Read all about why having a monkey as a pet is bad for the monkey and for you.)

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Ritchie the howler monkey. Photo by Ruth Linton.

In Belize is ‘Wildtracks’, a non-profit organization that shelters the howler monkeys and rehabilitates them. This can involve medical needs, special feedings and/or socialization with other howler monkeys. Wildtracks receives animals aged from a few months old to adulthood. Each animal is eventually put into a group with other monkeys and once they become a cohesive group, they are ready to move on to the next step. This next step is the pre-release area, which is an area of forest fenced off by electrical fencing.

At Wildtracks, they have two pre-release areas, and they had two troops of monkeys to release this year. Nicky, Sultan, Livvy, Willow and Hazel had been living with Wildtracks for a year. The other troop, Charlie, Paz, Mia, Fern and Ritchie, had been at Wildtracks for about half a year. I was able to help them with this year’s release at Fireburn, an area of protected forest that traditionally had howler monkeys in it; therefore a great place to do a release! So…picture it; a bumpy ride on the back of a truck on a dirt road, then a beautiful boat ride across a lagoon, then a tractor ride deep into the jungle, then an hour trek even deeper into the jungle – this is how you travel to Fireburn Reserve!

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Igor the howler monkey. Photo by Ruth Linton.

When we went to the reserve, there were several steps to accomplish in order to free a monkey:

1. Go to Fireburn and build release caging – this involved bringing a generator, drill, ladder and several panels of caging deep into the jungle!  This will be the monkeys’ home for a couple of days and also a home base once they are released.

2. Next we bring the monkeys to the jungle and put them in their release cages.

3. Allow the monkeys to get used to their surroundings, while feeding them fruit and  freshly cut leaves from the forest, called browse.

4. Release the monkeys!

5. Monitor the monkeys to make sure they are doing well and eating well. They will be provisioned with food for about 3 months until they start to eat on their own.

This was my second trip to Belize. I was there three years ago to meet some monkeys that were being rehabilitated and assist with the project. When we released the first troop of monkeys this year, that first group that I met three years ago came to see what was happening! It was so rewarding to be able to see the monkeys I met before being wild and free in the jungle again. One of those monkeys’ names was Eden. She had been confiscated as a baby, so small she could fit in your hands. When I first met her she was still being bottle-fed and was very wary of newcomers. It broke my heart to think that she had been taken away from her mom in the forest and was someone’s pet. When I saw her this year she was huge! As a fully grown adult at this point, she was swinging in the trees, howling and fully a part of her new troop. This gives me a good feeling that the 2 troops we released this year have a very good chance of thriving in the jungle of Belize!

Rehabilitation and release of any animal is a difficult and time consuming process. Although everything went extremely well overall, there were three monkeys that will need to wait until next year to be released. Livvy unfortunately broke her arm a day before the release and has had extensive medical care that is ongoing. Paz lost the rest of his troop and could not find them and so had to be returned to Wildtracks to try again next year, and Sultan, who was showing great movement and independence in the trees at Wildtracks, was simply not ready to be out in the wild and will also be tried again next year. Although these are setbacks, looking at the big picture, seven howler monkeys were successfully released this year!

My trip was made possible through the support of the Houston Zoo Staff Conservation Fund. The Fund is the donations of many Zoo employees, pooled together to support a select few of our staff’s proposals. It allows us to actively participate in conservation at many different levels and in places from Texas to far-flung areas like Belize. In the primate department, for the past 4 years we have raised awareness and provided funding for howler monkey conservation each October during our event called ‘Howlerween’. In addition to contributing funds, we travel to Belize and help them with whatever they need, from carpentry to assisting with medical procedures.

Thanks to this Fund and Wildtracks, I was able to contribute to conservation and have an amazing learning experience this past June!

The howler monkeys we have here at the Houston Zoo are ambassadors for the monkeys in the wild, and I hope to see all of you come to the Houston Zoo to see our amazing howler monkeys in action!

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