Nikki working on her other Zookeeper duties - shearing a llama
Happy Birthday Domino!
Food art for the animals
We Otter Talk About It
Creative enrichment for the mongoose
An Ocelot Valentine
April Showers Bring May Flowers
Easter in the Children's Zoo
Hanging out with the bats
Chilling out with the goats
Chillin Out in the Contact Area
Zamir the Zebu
Zoo Boo Chats
Nikki relaxing after lots of artwork
Have you ever noticed the amazing art work on the keeper chat sign in the Children’s Zoo?
There is one keeper in the Children’s Zoo responsible for that beautiful art. Her name is Nikki Blakely and she has been with the Houston Zoo for 4 years. Her career here started with a part time position in April 2013 and she was promoted to full time in October of 2015.
Nikki is a primary keeper in our Ambassador Animal Building and takes care of a wide variety of animals. The Zoo’s Ambassador Animals are the animals you see at presentations, events and on Zoomobiles. She is also a primary trainer on several animals, including one of her favorites, Luna the Virginia Opossum.
While Nikki isn’t the only Zookeeper with artistic talents, her art is what you are likely to see as you enter the Children’s Zoo. We always have our Keeper Chat sign out in front of the Naturally Wild Swap Shop to let guests know what the Children’s Zoo chats are for the day. (Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here form more info) As you can see, Nikki has used both flora and fauna for her inspiration. She has also used her talents on some of the enrichment for the animals.
Nikki has been coming to the Houston Zoo her whole life. Unlike many of us, she is a Native Houstonian. She even stayed true to Texas as she chose a college. She attending University of Houston and Texas A & M University earning a degree in Biology. She has raised many animals at home too! She has had horses, fish, birds and even chickens. Currently her pets include a ball python, 2 cats and a dove.
What would Nikki like everyone to know about her job as a Zookeeper? She says the job is very rewarding and in more ways than just being with the animals. It has given her an outlet for connecting her artwork with guest enjoyment to make her job even richer.
The next time you are visiting the Children’s Zoo, take a look at the keeper chat sign. And if you see Nikki on grounds, say hi and let her know how much we all appreciate what she does.
What is Augmented Reality Sand? To describe it in one word – Awesome. In fact, if you come into the Swap Shop and we aren’t at the desk, check to see if we are playing in the sandbox.
It was developed by University of California Davis’ W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences and was supported by the National Science Foundation. It combines 3D visualization applications with a hands-on sandbox exhibit to teach about earth science concepts. It uses a computer projector and a motion sensing input device (Xbox 360 Kinect 3D camera). By changing the levels of the sand, the Kinect detects the distance to the sand below and elevation is projected on the sand, complete with color and contour lines. Already sounds amazing doesn’t it? Ever wish you could create your own lake on a hot day? Or build a mountain to climb? You can even hold your hand out about 2 feet above the sand surface and the program will simulate rain. The rain will drain into the lowest lying areas in the sand. Watersheds, mountains, lakes, rivers. You can make them all!
If we are in a drought, freshwater is not being added to the watershed. A watershed is an area of land which drains to a specific point. (such as the Clear Lake watershed or the Armand Bayou watershed) That lack of rain causes lots of problems. Let’s start with our drinking water. We need it for survival – I mean how would we even make coffee in the mornings?? Then, think about our lawns and all the plants around us. They all need water to survive too. So, do our pets and wild animals – birds, rabbits, squirrels, etc. The issues don’t stop there. If there isn’t freshwater from rainfall coming into the watersheds it can even have an impact on the bay. If enough freshwater isn’t coming into the bay from the watersheds, the salt (or salinity) goes up. That change in salinity can have an adverse effect on plants and animals both. One example is that oysters cannot thrive in a salt level that is too high. And, oysters are big business on the gulf coast. Water is critical to all forms of life – both plant and animal. Understanding water cycles and how a water shed works is fundamental to protecting that valuable resource.
And the other side of that same coin – floods. We are well versed in flooding in our area, aren’t we? What have we seen when hurricanes bring a storm surge? Or when a tropical storm stalls out in our area? Sometimes the drainage can’t keep up and the watershed has more water than it can handle. The rising water can not only cause damage to property but, sometimes even lives are lost. Flooding invades areas that animals would normally be living in causing them to lose their habitat and can cause problems with all the plants around us and leave us stranded.
The goal of the Augmented Reality Sandbox is for our guests to learn about topography, the meaning of contour lines, watersheds, catchment areas, levees and more. We want to raise public awareness and increase understanding and stewardship of freshwater ecosystems. We hope you will come by and check out the new sandbox.
Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here for more information.
Click here to learn more about Augmented Reality Sand and even find out how to build your own.
Ever see some interesting wildlife at the zoo? That sounds like a funny question but, I’m not talking about the Zoo’s animal collection. What native wildlife have you seen as you go through the zoo? Birds, butterflies, bees and other visiting animals just passing through? What about interesting plants growing on Zoo grounds?
There is now an iNaturalist project called Native Wildlife at the Houston Zoo. Photographs were first uploaded by our Collegiate Conservation Program to start the guide to native wildlife as you enjoy the zoo.
The Collegiate Conservation Program at the Houston Zoo is a 10 week intern program generously sponsored by ExxonMobil. The program focuses on two important aspects of conservation – saving animals in the wild and sharing the conservation message. The program participants must be currently enrolled undergrad students and commit to 30-35 hours weekly for the 10 weeks of the program. The interns work with various regional conservation partners around the city learning from the experts about what they do to help save wildlife. They also spend time on zoo grounds handling animals and sharing our Take Action messages with guests. Want to learn more about our Collegiate Conservation Program? Click here.
Now that the interns have added photos to the project, you can now not only learn from the observations already in there, you can add your own observations too!
iNaturalist is a wonderful program to engage people with nature. You can build your own life list or even a project for your area. Not sure what something is? Not to worry! iNaturalist allows other members to comment on your post to help with the ID. The iNaturalist program will choose the taxon with at least 2/3 agreement to automatically ID the post. It is easy to navigate – your Dashboard is like your Facebook feed. You can follow other members and see what they post. You can access iNaturalist online or in a handy app you can download to your phone. You can see what other things have been posted in the area by looking at observations or places, and can even search by taxon if you are looking for something specific. The Help section of the program has an awesome FAQ guide and Getting Started guide to help you learn the ins and outs of iNaturalist too. You will find the Native Wildlife at the Houston Zoo by going to projects in the app or on line and searching on that project title.
Another added bonus to using the Native Wildlife at the Houston Zoo project is it can earn you points in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop! If you add a photo to the project, stop by the Swap Shop and show the Naturalist what you have added. You will earn points for your posts! Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here to learn more.
The month of May has one of my favorite stones for its birthstone – the emerald. It is also the stone for the 20th and the 35th wedding anniversaries. Why is it one of my favorite stones? Approximately 99% of all emeralds have inclusions, or flaws. And yet, they are one of the most precious and valuable gemstones in the world. It makes me think of all of us. None of us are perfect and yet we are all valuable too, aren’t we?
Emeralds are a variety of beryl and its name comes from the Greek word for green. It is a hard, durable stone with a hardness rating of 7.5-8 on the Mohs Hardness Scale. In comparison, diamond is a hardness rating of 10. Today, they can be found worldwide including Colombia, Brazil, Afghanistan and Zambia. In Colombia, the Muzo Indians had well-hidden and prized emerald mines. They were so well hidden; it took Spanish Conquistadors 20 years to find them!
Emeralds have a long history and there is an abundance of folklore surrounding them. The first known emerald mines were in Egypt and were mined from at least 330 BC. Cleopatra was known to have had a passion for emeralds and even claimed ownership of all emerald mines in Egypt during her reign.
Legends also say an emerald was one of the four precious stones given by God to King Solomon.
It has been believed that placing an emerald under the tongue gives one the ability to foresee the future, to reveal truth, and provides protection against evil spells. It was once also believed that emeralds could cure diseases like cholera and malaria.
Emeralds are also associated with lush green landscapes. Ireland is called the Emerald Isle and Seattle Washington is called the Emerald City. Thailand’s most sacred religious icon is called the Emerald Buddha due to its lush green color even though it is carved from jadeite.
There have been many famous emeralds over the years. Elizabeth Taylor’s emerald pendant sold for a record of $280,000 per carat for a total of $6,578,500. The McKay Emerald is 167.79 carats and is the largest emerald in the Smithsonian National Gem Collection. The Bahia Emerald weighs 752
pounds and an amazing 180,000 carats. It originated in Bahia, Brazil. This amazing stone, one of the largest in the world, is in a complex ownership dispute. Approximately 8 different parties have claimed ownership.
Who has a May birthday and can claim this amazing stone as their birthstone? Singer Tim McGraw, Actor George Clooney, President John F. Kennedy and even Germany’s Red Baron, Baron Von Richtofen.
We often have emeralds for trade in the Naturally Wild Swap. Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here for more information.
Are Diamonds really a girl’s best friend? I guess that depends on the girl. They are the birthstone for April and the stone for the 60th wedding anniversary. Who is lucky enough to call the diamond their birthstone? Actor Russell Crowe, singer Pharrell Williams and author William Shakespeare among others. What else do you know about diamonds? They have an amazing history and there is lots of lore about them.
Diamonds are often found in an igneous rock called kimberlite (named after the South African town of Kimberly where a large volcanic pipe was found) and is always found in association with volcanic pipes over deep ancient continental crust.
Ancient Greeks named diamonds “adamas”, meaning invincible, indestructible, proper and untamed. Greek warriors wore diamonds as they were thought to strengthen muscles and bring invincibility. Many in the past thought that diamonds had great healing power. It was believed they could cure brain disease, pituitary gland disorders and draw toxins from the blood.
Even though there is evidence that diamonds were first traded as early as 4 B.C., it wasn’t until the Renaissance Period which began in the 1300’s, that diamonds were first used in engagement rings. By the 1400’s, diamonds were becoming fashionable accessories for Europe’s elite. In the early 1700’s, India’s supply of diamonds declined and Brazil emerged as an important source. In the late 1800’s, the first great South African deposit of diamonds was found. South Africa was the major source of diamonds for quite a while until sources were found in Australia in 1985 and in Northern Canada in 2000.
White diamonds are the most common color but they can come in many colors Some of the fancy colors include black, yellow, blue, chocolate, pink and even red which is the most rare color.
The largest diamond ever found is called the Cullinan. It weighed 3,106.75 carats and is the largest rough gem quality diamond ever found. It was cut into 105 different diamonds including the 530.2 carat Great Star of Africa and the 317.4 carat Lesser Star of Africa. Other famous diamonds include the Koh-i-Noor, the Hope Diamond, and The Taylor Burton Diamond. The Koh-i-Noor was named for its beauty. Its name translates to mountain of light. The Hope Diamond has been said to be cursed and that bad luck will come to any who own it. And, the Taylor-Burton got its name when Richard Burton gave it to Elizabeth Taylor in an engagement ring.
While the Naturally Wild Swap doesn’t have a diamond for trade, we do have one on display. We do have Herkimer Diamonds for trade – they are actually high quality quartz but are so beautiful they are called diamonds.
Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here for more information.
Amethyst is the birthstone for February and is also the gemstone for the 6th and the 17th anniversary of marriage. While my birthday isnt in February, I do love the rich purple color of amethyst and my birthstone, citrine, is even in the same family as amethyst
Who has a February birthday? Rosa Parks, Babe Ruth, Jennifer Anniston, Abraham Lincoln and more.
It is a purple variety of quartz but, the color can range from a light pinkish violet to a deep royal purple. It is a durable and lasting stone with a rating of 7 on the Moh’s hardness scale. This makes it an excellent option for jewelry. Amethyst can be found worldwide.
There is plenty of history and lore around this beautiful stone. While it is considered a semi-precious stone today, it was a “Gem of Fire” and considered a precious stone in ancient times – at times in history worth as much as a diamond. During the middle ages, amethyst stood for piety and celibacy and was therefore worn by members of the clergy. It was believed that wearing an amethyst ring would keep them well grounded in spiritual thought. In a similar story, during the renaissance, amethyst stood for humility and modesty.
Through history amethyst has also been worn by travelersto protect them from treachery and surprise attacks and it was also believed that it would keep soldiers from harm and gave them victory over their enemies.
Amethyst has been included in royal collections all over the world from ancient Egypt to the British Crown Jewels. Ancient Egyptians believed the stone would guard them against guilty and fearful feelings. Rumor also has it that amethyst was a personal favorite of Queen Catherine the Great of Russia.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. even has an amethyst that weighs 400 pounds!
While the Naturally Wild Swap Shop doesn’t have amethyst as large as the Smithsonian has, we do have amethyst for trade. You can get polished stones, amethyst geodes and even cut gemstones ranging from 150 points to 8,000 points. There is also a beautiful amethyst geode cathedral on display.
Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here for more information.
Many of you know that the Houston Zoo staff works on many conservation projects in the field. Our staff travels to Africa, Panama, Galapagos Islands and more to help save animals in the wild. Recently, two of our staff members, Rodney Honerkamp and I, went on a different kind of conservation trip. A monarch conservation visit right in our area!
We were privileged to go to the home of Houston Zoo Asante Society members, Ron and Demi Rand in Pearland. Demi raises and rescues monarch butterflies and has all stages of their life cycle from egg to adult. A lot of her time is spent tending to the many plants in her gardens that feed the butterflies and bees that visit her yard. Her gardens have two types of milkweed, among other pollinator host plants, and have attracted at least six different types of butterflies, multiple species of bees and even moths at night.
Why is the work Demi does for monarchs so important? Butterflies, along with bees,
bats and other animals, are pollinators. A huge percentage of all the food we eat, the cotton used to make our clothes, even coffee and chocolate rely on pollinators. Without pollinators we would lose all those things and more. This year alone Demi has tagged and released over 1,000 butterflies. The tags are
a small sticker placed on the wing and the information on the sticker is sent to Monarch Watch.
Recently, Houston Zoo staff and volunteers took part in field work on grounds tagging monarchs. They tagged 23 monarchs this season! That means there are 23 more monarchs that can be tracked on their 3,000 mile migration to Mexico.
Monarch Watch is a non-profit, education, conservation and research program based at the University of Kansas. They have information on tagging monarchs along with biology and rearing. They provide information about gardening for monarchs and conduct research projects on things like larval monitoring and monarch flight vectors.
There are several other resources you can use to learn more. In addition to Monarch Watch, check out TVbutterfly.org to learn about a monarch way station that one of Demi’s “Monarch Sisters”, Dr. Amy Harkins has built at the Tuscany Village Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation in Pearland, TX. Monarch Gateway monarchgateway.org and the International Butterfly Breeders Association butterflybreeders.org are also great sites.
Facebook has some groups dedicated to monarchs also like the group The Beautiful Monarch.
The day we went to visit Demi and Ron, we were able to watch as 11 Monarchs were tagged and released. This was the reward after weeks of hard work for Demi. She collects eggs she finds on her milkweed and rinses them in a 5% bleach solution to combat the OE parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) that has been attacking monarchs. This parasite does the most damage in the pupal stage.
The affected butterflies can have difficulty emerging or fall to the ground before they fully expand their wings. It takes 4-5 days for the eggs to hatch and then she needs to be sure the caterpillars have plenty of milkweed to eat. The caterpillars will eat voraciously for 2 to 3 weeks then they will pupate into their chrysalis. Demi monitors the chrysalis closely over the 7 to 10 days it takes for the butterfly to emerge. Once they emerge they live in a protected enclosure until they are dry and their wings are fully stretched out. At that point she is able to tag them and release them. If any emerge with issues that prevent them from flying, she has a special enclosure for those butterflies so they will have nectar readily available.
How can you help? Plant your own pollinator garden! You can even work towards having it registered with Monarch Watch as a monarch way station. It will be a place for the migrating monarchs to stop and refuel on their journey south. If you don’t know what to plant, just stop by our conservation stage at the zoo. It is to your right as you come in. You will find signage about native plants to attract butterflies. Simply take a picture of the sign and take it with you to the nursery where you buy your plants.
You can also get involved at the Houston Zoo. Take a picture of your pollinator garden at home and bring the pictures to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop. You will be registered as a Pollinator Pal and receive points to spend in the shop. Also, be on the lookout for pollinators on zoo grounds. If you get a picture of a pollinator on grounds you can also bring that to the Swap Shop for points and be registered as a
Pollinator Pal. Show the Naturalist in the shop the picture and tell them which of the zoo’s gardens you saw it in. Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here for more information.
The next time you visit the Naturally Wild Swap Shop, check out our newest residents. We have received 3 critically endangered Lake Victoria cichlids (Haplochromis perrieri) from the New England Aquarium. Lake Victoria is one of the great lakes of Africa and it is the third largest lake in Africa. Several factors have contributed to the decline of this species in the wild. One of the biggest issues is the Nile Perch. Nile Perch were introduced to Lake Victoria in the 1950’s. This non-native species had a population boom in the 1980’s which coincided with the decline of Haplochromis perrieri from the lake. Sadly, the Haplochromis perrieri haven’t been seen in the wild since the 1980’s.
In general, cichlids are very popular with fish enthusiasts. There are many varieties with a huge range of colors to choose from. There are well over 1,000 cichlid species in the wild and it is estimated that there are several hundred species in Lake Victoria alone.
Cichlids are only found in tropical and subtropical zones of Africa, the Americas and Asia. In Africa, they are found mostly in the lakes of the great rift valley in east Africa – Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika and of course, Lake Victoria. They vary in size from the smallest at 1.4” to the largest species at 28-32” in length.
What are some of the most interesting things about cichlids? These fish can change color to reflect their mood – such as aggression, stress or being ready to spawn. They live in very different habitats including rocky shorelines, sandy or muddy bottoms or shores with and without vegetation. Most cichlids are omnivores, eating things like mosquito larvae, tiny crustaceans and worms. Some are pure carnivores and specialize in hunting smaller fish. There are also cichlids that are strictly plant or algae eaters. Some cichlid species are mouth
brooders. Mouth brooders hold eggs in their mouths to hide them from predators. Even after hatching, the babies are allowed into the parent’s mouth if they are in danger.
Our new cichlids are found I Lake Victoria over sand and mud in the littoral or shoreline zones. They can reach a total length of approximately 2.5 inches. The females are primarily gray with some black markings, while the males of the species show more color. They are hunters, eating fish for their diet. They are also mouth brooders and hold the eggs in their mouth until they hatch.
Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here for more information.
Have you ever been out in nature and found something you thought was amazing? Ever wish you had a way to get your kids more engaged with nature? The Houston Zoo has a way to help!
Nature journals are a great way to explore and learn about nature. Kids (and adults too!) can write about, sketch, or paint things seen in nature. It is a great way to document what you have seen and you can even go back later to research if you want to learn more about a particular item.
There is a wonderful website and blog at scratchmadejournal.com with a lot of great information on nature journaling. The author even has some printable pages to get you started! Click here to check out her awesome blog and get some amazing ideas about nature journals. She includes examples, recommendations on supplies, and a list of places to find more help and examples. Included on her blog are posts geared towards nature journaling specifically for kids. You don’t have to be a award winning artist or write like a novelist – just record what you see and add sketches as you see fit. And the more you journal, the better they get!
Do you know the best benefit to nature journals? Kids 18 and younger can bring their nature journals to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop to earn points! The points can be used in the shop to get some amazing things like bones, shells, minerals or even a re-usable bag that kids can take home and enjoy. Need more information on the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here to learn more.
The first ever Texas Pollinator BioBlitz will be taking place from October 7th to October 16th. This is a statewide effort to observe and identify as many pollinators, and pollinator habitats as possible and the Houston Zoo will be participating!
How can you participate at the zoo?
First, take pictures of any pollinators you see and the plants you see them on around the zoo. Some of the pollinators you might see are butterflies, honey bees, and bumblebees. Then, take those pictures to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop and you will be registered as a Pollinator Pal and will receive 50 points to spend in the shop. Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here for more information.
Second, you can share your photos or videos of the pollinators on Instagam or iNaturalist. On Instagram, posts should include #SaveThePollinators.
Why are pollinators so important to us? They make our daily lives better in so many ways! Without pollinators we would lose much of the fruit and vegtables we eat every day. We would also lose chocolate,
coffee, tequila even cotton. Our meat would be effected too because we would lose the plants that the cattle and other animals eat.
Come out to explorer your Houston Zoo and help us save pollinators.
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See "Hotel Transylvania" at the Zoo this Saturday at 7:15 p.m. New this fall, we've got even more Halloween fun for the entire family. Dress in your best costume and visit the Zoo for a spooktacular Zoovie Night.
The movie begins at 7:15 p.m. Activities & games will run from 5:00 - 7:00 p.m. Only guests attending the movie screening will be allowed to remain in the Zoo after 7:00 p.m. ... See MoreSee Less
Yesterday, Houston Texans Ryan Griffin, Tom Savage, and Nick Martin and their families made some new friends at the Houston Zoo. Thanks for spending your day off with us, guys -- Go Texans! ... See MoreSee Less