Become a Sea Turtle Superhero in 4 Easy Steps

Spring has finally sprung here in Texas, and Texans much like the rest of the animal kingdom are emerging from their winter hideouts to embrace the sunshine. For many, clear skies and warm weather are an invitation to leave the city and make a break for the coast  – after all, who doesn’t want to spend a gorgeous day at the beach playing in the water or trying to land that perfect catch? What you may not know is that it isn’t just humans flocking to Texas beaches this spring, it is sea turtles too! April marks the beginning of nesting season, which means a heightened presence of Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles is likely as summer approaches. A trip to the beach for our endangered friends is not always as pleasant as our trips as they are faced with many threats including plastic left in the water and on land, but luckily we have some simple ways to help make their journey safer so they continue to call Texas home for many years to come!

We want to do everything we can to help save sea turtles, but we need your help! Here are four easy ways you can become a sea turtle superhero:

  1. If you accidentally catch or spot a sea turtle on the beach, call 1-866-TURTLE-5
  2. Going fishing? Place any broken or unusable line in a monofilament recycling bin – line is recycled and made into products like tackle boxes!
  3. Taking a stroll on the beach? Bring a bag with you and pick up trash as you walkalong the shore
  4. Visit the zoo! Just by purchasing a ticket to the zoo you are helping to save sea turtles in the wild by supporting efforts like those mentioned below:
    Look for a fishing line recycling bin like this one next time you need to dispose of line!

Here at the Houston Zoo, we work to save sea turtles in a number of ways. Every Monday, a member of our staff assists our partners at NOAA Fisheries with their weekly sea turtle surveys. Additionally, some sea turtles NOAA picks up when they receive a call are in need of medical care.  These turtles are brought here to our vet clinic where Dr. Joe Flanagan and his team will take xrays, administer medications, perform hook extractions, and anything else the turtle may need. The sea lion team has been organizing and running monthly clean-ups at Surfside Jetty since 2014. Houston Zoo staff and volunteers spend an entire day down at the mile-long jetty picking up trash, recycling, and fishing line to help ensure that this debris is properly disposed of so it doesn’t end up in the ocean where it becomes a threat to animals like sea turtles.

The newest project we are involved in is in partnership with members from the Audubon Texas Coastal ProgramGalveston Bay Area Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -Galveston Bay Estuary Program. This team identified discarded fishing line as one of the biggest threats to wildlife like sea turtles and pelicans, and devised a plan to help solve this problem by working directly with members of the community! The Texas City Dike (TCD) was selected as the area the group wanted to work in because of its reputation as a prime, year-round fishing spot. Once this study area was chosen, the group decided that the next step would be to take a trip to the dike, and collect discarded fishing line from specific locations to see just how much line was present. This collection of line took place on December 4th of last year and thanks to an amazing team of volunteers, we were able to collect a total of 21.9 pounds of fishing line from TCD. Since then, the team has made trips to some of our region’s most popular fishing locations and have conducted surveys with over 200 anglers in order to learn more about their current fishing line containment and disposal practices. From this data, we will come up with several potential messages to test with a focus group of anglers to see what resonates best with them to encourage the recycling of fishing line.

 

 

 

 

Gorilla Doctor Noel Reflects on His Time at Houston Zoo

The following post was written by Dr. Jean Bosco Noheli (Dr. Noel), a Rwandan field veterinarian for Houston Zoo wildlife partner Gorilla Doctors, and 2017 Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior. As part of his Wildlife Warrior award, Dr. Noel spent three weeks in Houston this February receiving training at the Houston Zoo. The Wildlife Warrior program recognizes outstanding staff employed by the Zoo’s existing wildlife conservation partners. Our Admissions’ team raises funds through the sale of colorful wildlife bracelets, and the funds from these bracelets then go to our Wildlife Warriors to receive a training of their choice. The award is designed to increase the recipient’s conservation community network and inspire empowerment by providing opportunities to gain further education through training or experiences.

 

“Last year, I was chosen as a Houston Zoo wildlife warrior by the Admissions team.  As part of this award, I was given the opportunity to train with Houston Zoo veterinarians.  In addition to zoological medicine skills, I gained so much inspiration for the conservation of wildlife sometimes forgotten or ignored in some societies across the globe.

Dr. Noel destroying a crab trap after releasing animals that were accidentally caught

On Saturday 17th February 2018, I was lucky to be part of Galveston Bay Foundation’s Crab-Trap Clean-up at the Galveston beach. To me this experience was equivalent to our “Umuganda” which means “community work”. In Rwanda, every last Saturday all our communities come together to perform a selected activity of public benefits or use. Many thanks to Martha Parker, Conservation Impact Manager at the Houston Zoo for driving me all the way to and from Bolivar. With people from Dallas and Houston zoos, we all gathered to clean up the beach and collect and destroy illegal and/or abandoned fishing tools.

Martha Parker shows the team how sea turtles feed on plastic bags

 

 

 

 

 

Once every February this activity is organized as a way to protect and conserve sea animals; mainly sea turtles. My team went to remove garbage from the beach and Martha took the opportunity to talk to the team about how sea turtles are attracted to white plastic bags and will feed on them, which can have fatal consequences.  It was a little bit discouraging being on the beach because by the time we were removing garbage, some visitors who were at the beach were littering – this shows why an education around pollution is needed. My advice to these visitors would be “Enjoy the beach but make sure you keep it clean to protect water and its community”.

Dr. Noel and the team cleaning up the beach

During my stay in Houston; I also realized that people spend most Saturdays working on their gardens, but it seemed very few care about the cleanliness of the city. With my experience with Rwandan Umuganda, I was asking my Houston friends why they couldn’t expand efforts to their neighbors and beyond to make it something to bring people together for a common activity. Umuganda is not only about cleaning or making roads – it is very important for bringing people together, educating one another, and building love.

 

For example; that Saturday one could not tell who is from Rwanda, Dallas, Galveston or Houston because we were one great team for one great cause.”

A great team for a great cause

Your Visit is Helping a Rare Bird in Colombia

Press pause on life for a moment and journey with us to the wilds of Colombia. Upon arrival you meet with your travel partner and guide and embark on an 8 mile hike into the mountains where you will spend the night at a farmers house. You wake with the sun the next morning, listening to the call of howler monkeys as you climb out of your hammock and prepare yourself for a day of hiking. For the next two weeks, your days are full of trekking through the mountains, talking to locals, and setting up camera traps. What are you in search of? A rare and elusive bird – the blue-billed curassow.

This is the exact journey our assistant bird curator Chris Holmes has recently returned from. Chris has been directly involved in blue-billed conservation both in the US and Colombia since joining the Houston Zoo full-time in 2000. Unique to Colombia, there are only a few hundred blue-billed curassows left in the wild due to habitat destruction and hunting. Currently, the only known location of this bird is within a reserve in the southern portion of its range and little research has been done in the northern half, leaving a huge gap in the knowledge base about this species. Chris, who serves as the American Zoos and Aquariums regional program population manager for the species and Christian Olaciregui, the Colombian population manager for blue-billed curassows and head of biology and conservation at Barranquilla Zoo, hope to close this gap by exploring this area of Colombia that has been historically inaccessible. As fate would have it, Proyecto Tití, a Houston Zoo partner working with cotton-top tamarin monkeys just happens to be situated in the Montes de Maria region of Colombia – an area where the blue-billed curassow is believed to live but has been rarely seen. Knowing if these birds are in the area will help to strengthen conservation efforts for this critically-endangered bird species, and will inform next steps as plans for the future are discussed.

Chris’s time in Colombia was not just focused on seeking out blue-billed curassow tracks and setting up camera traps in an attempt to locate the birds – he and Christian also spent a great deal of time talking with local organizations and land owners as they are playing a huge role in leading conservation efforts in the study area. As Chris explains it: “On day two, we walked out of the forest along the riverbed to go back to the City of San Juan as there was a meeting of the Regional Protected Areas System which included, The Colombian Environmental Authority, Proyecto Titi, other regional NGOs, and local farmers to discuss the projects they are working on together.This meeting illustrated the massive amount of work and dedication that is going on in this region. There is a lot of work being put into connecting the National Park through-out this area via a system of corridors, to ensure that there are not any patches of forest that are isolated by cattle farming or agricultural activities. All of these groups have seen successes in having private land owners set aside plots of their private property to remain, or be developed into corridors to connect habitat.”

The fact that these efforts are already underway in the region is excellent, and will be particularly important should the camera traps provide evidence of blue-billed curassows in the area. Christian and the team in Colombia will continue to check the traps periodically to see what images are recovered, and we can’t wait to see what they find! While we await the results, make sure to drop by and check out the wattled curassow, an endangered relative of the blue-billed curassow, on your next trip to the zoo and come face-to-face with one of the many species you are helping to save in the wild!

 

 

Local Community Removes Crab Traps from Galveston Bay, Saving Texas Wildlife!

On Saturday February 17th, Houston Zoo staff, including Rwandan conservation partner, Gorilla Doctor Noel, Zoo Crew, and Zoo volunteers worked alongside the Dallas Zoo and Galveston Bay Foundation to clean up abandoned crab traps from Galveston Bay.

This effort is part of a state-wide program that came into effect in 2001 in response to increased pressure on blue crab populations. Abandoned traps can also pose a threat to other wildlife like otters and diamondback terrapins, causing them harm. Fishing gear that is lost, dumped, or abandoned is sometimes referred to as “ghost fishing” because this gear can continue to catch aquatic species even though it has been left unattended.  While these accidental catches have a clearly negative impact on the health of wildlife, they can also cause problems for the commercial fishing industry. Each animal that is caught in an abandoned trap is one less that can be caught in a sustainable and ocean-friendly manner. This means that more individuals must be caught to meet the demands of the seafood market, and as a result there are less animals in the ocean working to keep it and species populations healthy.  How do we help to solve this problem? The answer is quite simple – every February, the community is invited to participate in removing these old traps from the water to protect wildlife!

While some volunteers go out on boats to collect traps, others stay behind to collect trash along the shore. All kinds of trash and recycling are collected – everything from bottles and cans to plastic straws and fishing line; sometimes even things like car tires! Removing debris from the shore is equally important, as it protects species like sea turtles and pelicans from ingesting trash or becoming entangled in line. Once boaters return with traps, they are unloaded and inspected for trapped wildlife. Any animals present in the traps are removed and released back into the water and then the traps are crushed by volunteers and disposed of at designated trap drop locations.

In total, 221 crab traps were removed from the water and over 1,000 pounds of trash, recyclable material, and fishing line were picked up from land. These efforts saved a potential 5,300 blue crabs and prevented many other animals from getting caught in abandoned traps! Looking for an easy way to help? Download the Seafood Watch App and use it when grocery shopping or dining out to make sure that the seafood you eat has been sourced in a way that does not harm wildlife. This easy action will help to ensure that marine life will continue to thrive for future generations!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 6

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 6:

This was the last night of surveys for this trip and what a night it was!!!  We decided to visit a stream we have passed a few times on this trip just to see what it looked like.  We all kept pointing this stream out every time we drove by it, but for some reason or another never stopped to check it out.  We parked our car on the side of the road and jumped down into the stream.  From the first second I got down into the stream until the second I left the stream it was “frog-o-mania”!  We saw so many frogs we were having a seriously hard time counting.  We estimate we saw well over 1,000 frogs of at least 6 different species but probably more like 8-12 species.  We found tadpoles and eggs of the Night frogs for the first time in our surveys.  This stream had checkered keelback snakes, wolf snakes, Brook’s geckos and one Indian black turtle!!!  I am a huge turtle nerd and finding a turtle on a night like this just puts the icing on the cake.  If we were not having such a productive night I may have been far more nervous than I was – my nemesis was everywhere… the giant fishing spiders!  With a leg span the size of a dinner plate and the ability to run across water, they make me a bit uneasy when walking forest streams at night.  Thankfully I was too preoccupied with all the amazing amphibians.

I will be hopping onto my first flight around 4AM to come back home to Houston.  I haven’t even left and I already miss being here.  Good thing the team and I will probably be meeting back up in early March to continue our surveys!!!  Until then, cheers.

 

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 5

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 5:

Tonight was a good night for snakes!  I don’t get to say that often enough…  About 30 feet from where we parked our car I began setting my camera gear up and set up my weather reading device.  I shine my flash light to a spot about 12-20 inches from my bag and I see a snake!  Not just any snake but one of the cutest and most dangerous species in our area, the saw scaled viper!!!!!  All I had to say was the word “saw” and all of my field partners started running to my location.  This is thought to be a very common species in the northern Western Ghats, but I have only seen 6 in my time working here.  This adorable little bundle of venom and sunshine was about a foot long and sleeping nicely on a leaf until it noticed 5 weirdos standing over him.  Once he saw us see him he decided to slither off further into the forest and we were just happy to have caught a quick glance of him.  After that we were all pumped up and ready for a good night of snakes and frogs.  We found a few more wolf snakes of two different species, a large Indian rat snake, several checkered keelback snakes and a bunch of vine snakes.  Finding one or two snakes a night is usually a decent night, but we found a total of 19 tonight! The vine snake is one of my favorite snakes to see in India.  A snake no thicker than a pencil can be 3 feet long!  These snakes specialize in eating lizards and frogs mostly.  You can find them active in the day and night, crossing roads or 50 feet up in a tree.  Beside all the awesome snakes, we found a few frog species and a really cool lynx spider.  Getting asleep tonight will be difficult – we are all pumped up on such a good snake night!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 4

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 4:

So today we got to visit a property we have never had access to, which I was very excited about.  A friend of a friend we stopped to get chai from told us he knew someone that wanted us to come to his property and tell him what kind of animals he had running around.  Our chai friend assured us his buddy was a good guy and had heard about our project.  Regardless to whether we found a bunch of animals on this property or not this was an important day for us.  Much like the Houston Zoo does for the Houston toad, we want to work on land owner agreements.  What we would like is to have a 33-year lease on the property, with the land owner agreeing to not destroy any more land and to not use any harmful pesticides.

We arrived at our new friend’s house, and in true Indian fashion we quickly sat down for a nice conversation and chai.   After this, he took us around his banana and pineapple groves, eventually leading us to the untouched portion of the property.   He told us about all of the snakes he has seen here including what he believes to be a king cobra.  On our tour we noted a few species of frog that do fairly well in disturbed areas, like the Indian tree frog (Polypedates maculatus).  We found an adorable 3 inch long Roux’s forest lizard (Calotes rouxii) hanging out on a leaf and one Travancore wolf snake (Lycodon travancoricus).  This certainly wasn’t one of our more productive nights as far as a species list goes, but we did make a new friend and a possible property to add to our conservation agreement!  This is one huge step to conserving the land and the species that use it!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 3

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 3:

Tonight we headed into one of our sites that we have surveyed pretty heavily over the last couple years.  During the monsoon season, we find many species of frogs along this path – there is a large stone wall covered in geckos and usually a few lizard eating species of snake as well. But the monsoon has passed now and it hasn’t rained here in some time.  This is an important time for us to survey because now we get to document what species are active in the drier part of the year.  We can see that a lot of the grasses and smaller shrubby plants have started to dry out and turn brown.   We noted quite a few leaf eating insects getting their last meals in for the year.  One of my favorites is a katydid that looks like it flew 100 mph into a brick wall and wound up with a flat face.  During the earlier part of the dry season, we have seen that the bush frogs (Pseudophilautus) are still around in decent numbers but they are not calling for mates – we assume they are fattening up for the cooler weather coming.  We encountered several forest lizards (Calotes sp.), both males and females, sleeping soundly on the thin ends of branches.  They choose these seemingly uncomfortable limbs for a good reason!  If any snake or bird land on the tree they are on, the branch will move and wake them up in enough time that they can hopefully escape.  On the large stone wall we found a massive species called a Bombay leaf toed gecko (Hemidactylus prashadi).  Over all we had a slower night than usual, but still noted some cool stuff!

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 2

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 2: Cave stream survey

Today we started our surveys around 1:00pm.  Most reptiles and amphibians are not to active during the days in this area but we know of a hidden gem… a cave stream! The land my team has been surveying is a small piece of the Western Ghats that has never been formally surveyed, that being said, the possibilities of finding new species, rare species and documenting range extensions are endless!  Documenting our findings can play a huge role in conserving this beautiful habitat.  That’s what this is all about and what we are all about; conserving the land to conserve and protect the species we are so passionate about. After a short hike over some rocky hills then back down, we enter the mouth of the cave.  For safety’s sake, we only explore the first 100 meters or so inside the cave.  Along this stream we found an adult wolf snake (Lycodon travancoricus), many night frogs (Nyctibatrachus sp.), gigantic Indian bullfrogs (Hoplobatrachus sp.), cave crabs, vinegaroons and cave crickets.  Outside of the cave more Indian cricket frogs (Minervarya sp.) and a ton of spiders.  We also noted hoof prints and mud wallows of an Indian bison called a gaur (Bos gaurus). Not bad for a day time survey in this part of India!

Time for some samosas, chai and data logging.

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 1

Here at the zoo we have over 420 staff members working hard to save wildlife, but our jobs as conservationists don’t end when we leave the zoo for the day. We all want to go above and beyond to do everything we can to save wildlife, and our unique program called the Staff Conservation Fund allows us to do just that! The Staff Conservation Fund was created as a way for staff to participate in wildlife-saving efforts around the globe. Each year, zoo employees can donate a portion of their hard-earned wages to the fund. This fund is then used to provide support to staff members who successfully create or enhance a conservation project and apply for funding to bring the project to life. To date, this fund has made it possible for 63 staff members to carry out 43 projects in 14 countries around the world!

One of the latest projects is being carried out in the northern Western Ghats region of India by Chris Bednarski, a senior keeper in the herpetology department. The Western Ghats is home to one-third of the plants, almost half of the reptiles, and more than three-fourths of the amphibians known in India. Unfortunately, this strip of rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate due to logging and conversion for agricultural uses. In 2013, the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust purchased 3500 acres in this region and began implementing several conservation initiatives. Chris’s goal is to survey within this section of land and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild! Chris has been documenting his trip, and sent us this journal entry to share with all of you about his first day in the field:

“After 22 hours of flights, a quick nap and several cups of chai my team and I were headed to our first survey zone.  It’s a beautiful plot of primary and secondary forest surrounded by several rice fields and pineapple farms.  It is a “sacred forest” that the local villagers have set up shrines and a small temple.  No plants or animals can be removed or harmed within this forest which makes this area so important for us to survey.  Over the years we have documented over 20 species of reptile and amphibian, too many birds to count, leopards, tigers, elephants and amazing invertebrates on this property.   

This is our first survey post monsoon this year and we had high hopes.  Past years have produced well for us and this trip was not a disappointment.  Our searching began at around 6:30pm as the sun was setting and we wrapped up around midnight.  We walked forest paths, streams, and around the temples.  In the lower branches of the trees we documented a critically endangered species of bush frog (Psuedophilatus sp.), in the streams an endangered species of Indian cricket frog (Minervarya sp.), and along the temple walls a plethora of Brook’s geckos (Hemidactylus brookii).  Many other species were found but these were the high lights for sure! 

Time to get all our data logged into our computers and get ready for the next day of surveys!”  

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We're celebrating the hatching of our first Attwater’s prairie chicken of the 2018 breeding season, with many more soon-to-hatch eggs currently in incubation. The chick marks an important phase in the zoo’s conservation breeding program which is focused on reintroducing the critically endangered birds to their native coastal prairie habitat. ... See MoreSee Less

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Awesome work as usual Houston Zoo!

Wonderful!

Kimberly Jackson

Kelly Turner

Victoria Cantu

Jeffrey Jackson

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Action shot of our little Shallot by Mary from the hoofed stock team. We were going to make a (admittedly bad) joke about pigs flying, but Shallot doesn't need any help being adorable. ... See MoreSee Less

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Action shot of our little Shallot by Mary from the hoofed stock team. We were going to make a (admittedly bad) joke about pigs flying, but Shallot doesnt need any help being adorable.

 

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They named him Shallot tho Anastasia Bolshakov

Love the name!!

What a cutie pie!

Love the name!

very cute 😊

Ellie Wheeler, so cute!

Allison Wagner can we go see this little bug in action

Kaila Sawyer

Heather Marie Romp

John Gray

Haley

Krissey Plemons

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