Kemp's ridley sea turtles arriving to nest. Photo credit: Hector Chenge Alvarez, courtesy of Gladys Porter Zoo
Kemp's ridley sea turtle arriving to nest. Photo credit: Hector Chenge Alvarez, courtesy of Gladys Porter Zoo
Kemp's ridley hatchlings making their way out to sea. Photo credit: Hector Chenge Alvarez, courtesy of Gladys Porter Zoo
The Houston Zoo is proud to be part of sea turtle protection efforts in our state. Thanks to a dedicated group of organizations and individuals, we are thrilled to announce that Texas and Mexico saw nearly 27,000 Kemp’s ridley nests on our beaches. This is a 35% increase in nests from 2016, which is a great sign for this local species!
Since 2010, the Houston Zoo has treated over 400 sea turtles in our veterinary clinic, many of which are Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Once treated, these sea turtles are brought to the NOAA sea turtle barn in Galveston where they are cared for before being released into the ocean. Our team has also aided in the construction of monofilament (fishing line) recycling bins which provide a location to recycle your fishing line, rather than leave it on the ground, potentially entangling wildlife like sea turtles. Zoo staff also participates in weekly sea turtle surveys to look for stranded or nesting sea turtles, and monthly jetty clean-ups aimed at reducing the amount of trash that ends up in sea turtle habitat.
Last year 25,000 copies of the Houston Zoo Saving Wildlife, Sea Turtle Edition comic book were distributed throughout our community to increase knowledge about our local sea turtle species and the threats they face. As a result of our community’s dedication to saving wildlife, nearly 2,000 Houston Zoo guests pledged to go plastic bag free, keeping plastic out of the ocean that sea turtles may mistake for food.
Your visit to see sea turtles rehabilitating in our Kipp Aquarium helps protect sea turtles in the wild! To learn how you can join the Zoo and fellow Houstonians on their journey to reduce plastic waste and protect marine wildlife click here.
3 of the 4 sea turtles were Kemp’s ridleys, one of the most endangered sea turtle species on the planet (and the smallest in size!). One of these turtles had an injury on its’ shell and Houston Zoo vets performed surgery on the turtle to try to repair the damage. The remaining Kemp’s ridley turtles were brought to the Zoo to ensure they did not accidentally ingest fishing hooks, and our radiographs showed that they had not.
The fourth turtle seen by Houston Zoo vets was a hawksbill sea turtle. This turtle showed signs of internal digestion issues. Zoo vets performed surgery on the turtle and it will recuperate at NOAA’s facility in Galveston until it is healthy enough to be released.
Anyone spending time in the Galveston Bay/Gulf of Mexico area can potentially come into contact with a sea turtle. If you see a sea turtle on the beach or accidentally catch it while fishing, please report it by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5 so a biologist can respond to the turtle and make sure it gets the care it needs before going back into the ocean. Similarly, while fishing, you can ensure the protection of sea turtles by placing your fishing line in monofilament recycling bins so it does not end up in the water, potentially entangling a marine animal.
Aquarium staff members Becky and Denise release the green sea turtle they helped rehabilitate in the Kipp Aquarium
The Foster family with the green sea turtle they rescued from the ship channel
Houston Zoo and NOAA staff with a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, ready for release!
Through our partnership with NOAA Galveston’s sea turtle conservation program, the Houston Zoo spent the last several months rehabilitating a green sea turtle in our Kipp Aquarium. Last Tuesday, the green sea turtle was successfully released into the Bay! NOAA Galveston responds to sea turtle strandings on the Upper Texas Coast, and when medical support and/or rehabilitation support is needed for a stranded animal, the Houston Zoo is proud to work alongside NOAA to provide this care.
Three other turtles were released last Tuesday afternoon, including an injured turtle that was found by the Foster family in the ship channel. The Foster’s reported the turtle to NOAA by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5, and the family was able to assist in its release after the turtle recovered from its injuries. Thanks to local community members like the Fosters, this turtle lived to be rehabilitated and released back into the ocean.
You can ensure Texas sea turtles are protected by reporting any injured or accidentally caught turtle to 1-866-TURTLE-5. Additionally, you can reduce your use of plastic to prevent trash from ending up in our waters, which sea turtles may mistake for food and eat. The Houston Zoo has gone plastic bottle and plastic bag free, and you can too! Try switching to reusable water bottles and fabric shopping bags to reduce your plastic consumption. Find out more about our efforts to reduce plastic pollution here.
This blog post was written by Heather Crane, a Houston Zoo staff member in our Sea Lion Department. The sea turtle release described below would not have been possible without prominent sea turtle conservationists at NOAA Galveston who provided all care and support to rehabilitate the sea turtles mentioned in this blog.
On October 30, 2016 a group of volunteers and I were at a scheduled Sea Lion team Surfside Jetty cleanup when we discovered an entangled green sea turtle. Cleanups are executed monthly by the Houston Zoo Sea Lion Team. Through a partnership between the Houston Zoo and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), fishing line is removed to prevent wildlife entanglement and pollution. We notified NOAA of the entangled sea turtle by calling the sea turtle hotline at 1-866-TURTLE-5. While we waited on a NOAA scientist to arrive, the turtle became more entangled and appeared distressed. My worst fear started playing out before me: this endangered turtle was drowning. Help was still 30 minutes from arriving. I made the decision to enter the water to disentangle and retrieve the sea turtle. My team of volunteers stood close by to assist and ensure my safety. Our Conservation Intern of the time, Taylor Rhoades, also entered the water to free me when my shoes also became entangled in fishing line. The in-water dangers that exist pose a threat and it is not recommended that members of the public enter the water. NOAA biologist, Lyndsey Howell, arrived and removed the fishing line that was tightly wound around the front left flipper of the turtle. She took the green turtle to the Galveston Sea Turtle Facility to begin what would become a seven month rehabilitation and recovery.
On Friday, May 19th, the sea lion team was invited to watch the rescued green sea turtle be released back into its natural habitat. This was an unexpected surprise and a very special and generous invitation from NOAA, which will forever have an impact on my life. NOAA was scheduled to release five green sea turtles on Friday. I was surprised when we were told our team would help release some of the turtles. We got a lesson from the biologists, Lyndsey and Heather, on safe handling and release practices before being allowed to release the turtles. I took the first turtle to the water and when it touched the surface of the water, it knew exactly what to do. I watched it until it disappeared into the water about 15 feet in front of me. Next, my supervisor, Sophie Darling, took a turn releasing a turtle too. After four turtles were released, the only one that remained was the turtle I had rescued in October.
The surprises just kept coming. Not only would I have the opportunity to watch the turtle I rescued go home, I was also going to be the one to release him! I had never imagined I would be part of this endangered animal’s story, and certainly never thought I would see the full circle process. When I peered in to the container in which the turtle had been transported, it appeared healthy and active. And WOW! It had doubled in size too! I would recognize this turtle anywhere, even if it had doubled in size. The posterior edge of the shell had a small hole in it when I first encountered it in October. Additionally, due to the tight fishing line that was wrapped around the front left flipper, there was distinctive line entanglement scarring. As I walked towards the water, I stopped to take a picture with the turtle before wishing it farewell and good luck. As I waded out into the shallows, I only felt excitement. I think I was still in shock that NOAA had included me in this turtle’s journey. I lowered the turtle to the water and it took just a moment for it to start swimming. First, it swam backwards, which both confused and humored me, but then, it swam gracefully away towards the deeper water. As I watched, I could think of fewer greater moments of joy in my life.
The Houston Zoo has empowered me to take an active role in conservation of wild animals. The Houston Zoo’s partnerships with NOAA and other conservation organizations are invaluable and are what make our conservation programming successful. I feel proud to know that this is only one example of how the Houston Zoo lives its mission of saving animals in the wild. Many people have thanked me and have told me how I impacted the life of the green sea turtle I rescued that day. In the end, we both impacted each other. When I reflect upon proud moments of my life and career, this experience will always be amongst the experiences of which I am most proud. I am proud, too, to be a part of team dedicated to ensuring clean waterways through the dedication of time and energy every month to cleaning the Surfside Jetty. And I could not be more thankful to NOAA and all the work they do to rescue, rehabilitate, and release these beautiful and endangered turtles.
To watch a short video of the green sea turtle being released, please visit: Sea turtle release
You can help protect sea turtles in Texas by disposing of fishing line properly. Place fishing line in designated monofilament recycling bins, or take it home with you and dispose of it in your trash so it does not blow into the ocean where animals like sea turtles, fish, dolphins, and birds can become entangled.
This blog post was written by Taylor Rhoades, Conservation Impact Intern at the Houston Zoo.
It’s just one piece. Surely someone else will come along and pick it up, right? If it’s still there after my meeting I’ll come back and throw it away when I’m not in such a hurry.
How many of us have muttered those phrases to ourselves as we walk by trash on the street or drop something as we are rushing about our day? As easy as it is for us to pick up just one piece of trash and help clean up the areas around us, it is equally as easy, in the hustle and bustle of a huge metropolitan area, for us to disconnect from our surroundings and not think twice about where our litter ends up.
Some of our trash can make its way into our waterways, which lead to larger bodies of water like lakes or oceans. Here in Houston, we often find that trash ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. This body of water that we flock to each summer to escape the Texas heat is also home to hundreds of marine species that may find their homes polluted by debris.
It is because of this understanding that trash in our waterways can negatively impact local animals like sea turtles and pelicans that our Houston Zoo staff began assisting partners at NOAA who initiated a fishing line recycling program at the Surfside Jetty. The sea lion team that has taken the lead on this collaborative effort became deeply invested in this project because of Astro, a former Houston Zoo sea lion who came to us from California with a neck injury that is suspected to have been caused by trash in the ocean. Here at the Houston Zoo our animals serve as ambassadors for their wild counterparts, so whether we are working with sea turtles or sea lions we want our actions both on and off zoo grounds to reflect our mission of connecting communities to animals and inspiring action to save wildlife. As the zoo’s conservation impact intern, I was given the opportunity to join one of these jetty clean-ups on Halloween weekend.
I will be first to admit that participating in a jetty clean-up can be daunting – the jetty stretches out as far as the eye can see, and trash is abundant. Down on the rocks, with waves crashing against me, I found myself determined to reach every piece of trash I could see yet frustrated by how much surrounded me and how difficult it could be to pry bottles and fishing line free. But then, something incredible happened – we saved a sea turtle.
A visitor to the jetty spotted the turtle about 20 feet out from the jetty wall, and recognizing that it was struggling to swim, reported the sighting to zoo volunteers. We immediately notified the sea turtle hotline (1-866-TURTLE-5). Soon, we received instruction to monitor the turtle and have someone stay with it and report any changes. From the shore, it appeared that the green sea turtle was entangled in fishing line and was struggling to free itself. As we awaited, the turtle appeared to becoming more stressed and more entangled. As it fought to get free, it only exacerbated the problem. After thoughtful deliberation and safety planning, it was decided that if this turtle was to survive, it would be absolutely necessary to enter the water and extract the turtle. It is never recommended for members of the public to enter the water to extract a turtle due to the in-water dangers that exist. However, given the circumstances, Heather (the leader of our group) and I waded out to it without hesitation, cut it free, and brought it back to shore where we could monitor it. Shortly thereafter, biologists from NOAA arrived and provided the care the sea turtle needed, bringing it back to their facility in Galveston for rehabilitation. When the fate of another living being is resting quite literally in your hands, the importance of such clean-up efforts hits you on an entirely different level. It is no longer just about picking up trash – it is about how even the smallest of actions can help to prevent a potential life or death situation.
Tired from the endeavor, we began our trek back to the picnic benches to sort through the waste we had collected. We couldn’t help but scan the jetty walls as we walked. After saving that turtle, could we really call it a day when there was more trash to be collected? It was like an itch that had to be scratched – we immediately jumped back into action, picking up pieces as we went. By the end nine of us had collected 70 lbs of recycling, 89 lbs of trash, and 15 lbs of fishing line.
If nine of us could collect almost 200 lbs of waste in a day, imagine the difference we could all make if everyone picked up a piece of trash each day and disposed of it properly. Just one simple action could mean the difference between seeing a sea turtle in distress and seeing it swim freely. With only one percent of sea turtle hatchlings reaching adulthood the turtles in our Texas waters have overcome incredible odds – let’s do our part to keep them healthy!
You can help save sea turtles and other ocean animals by:
Using re-usable bags and water bottles instead of plastic, which can end up in the ocean causing harm to animals!
If you fish, dispose of your used line at home, or in monofilament bins located along the coast at popular fishing spots – this will help to ensure that fishing line does not make its way back into the water
Pick up trash on daily walks or trips to the beach to help reduce the amount of debris that could make its way into our oceans!
Report any sea turtles on the beach to NOAA biologists at 1-866-TURTLE-5
Monarch butterflies are unique among butterflies because they migrate every year, traveling up to 3,000 miles. They travel to the warmer climate in Mexico because they cannot survive a cold winter. Part of their migration takes them through Texas. You can see their migration patterns at MonarchWatch.
For the past two months, Houston Zoo staff and volunteers have been taking part in field work here on Zoo grounds by tagging Monarch butterflies. If you have visited recently, you may have seen small groups walking through the Zoo with nets, searching for butterflies.
Tagging is something that is done with many kinds of animals. Tagging tells you where and when the animal was tagged, providing information about how and where the animal travels. This is important because if it is known where the animal has been, protection plans can be set up in those areas.
Tagging a Monarch involves patience and quick reflexes. It may surprise you to know that Monarchs have very good eye sight, they can see the net coming! Catching a Monarch involves creeping up slowly, while keeping the net very low, until you are close enough to catch it in the net. This can sometimes be a challenge if the butterfly is higher up on the plant. Not shying away from a challenge, Houston Zoo staff and volunteers tagged 23 Monarch butterflies this season!
This is 23 butterflies whose migration patterns can be tracked!
You can help pollinators like, Monarch butterflies, in your own backyard by planting native plants. Not sure what to plant? On your next visit to the Houston Zoo stop by the Conservation Stage, located to the right as soon as you enter. The Conservation Stage is lined with native plants and signs letting you know what each plant is! Simply take a picture of the sign and bring it with you when you go to the nursery to buy your plants!
As part of our efforts to save sea turtles in the wild, Houston Zoo staff have the opportunity to participate in weekly beach surveys conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Galveston. NOAA biologists conduct weekly beach surveys to look for dead, stranded, injured, or nesting sea turtles, respond to reports from the 1-866-TURTLE-5 hotline, and collect fishing line from the Surfside Jetty. Below is a summary of one Houston Zoo employees’ experience, Brenda Rico, part of our Call Center team.
My experience out with Lyndsey [NOAA biologist] was great, really thankful for having an opportunity like that. On my survey experience I was able to see what the turtle hospital looks like and just how many of them they [NOAA] care for. I was able to assist Lyndsey in keeping records of the GPS coordinates in case we ran into a turtle that maybe needed rescue. I was also able to assist with recording data on a dead sea turtle we found over at Bolivar Peninsula. A really neat thing that I got to experience was witnessing two necropsies that she performed, to determine how these turtles died, what type of diet they had, and where they were consuming their food from. I learned that turtles can easily drown with fishing line that fishermen might accidentally leave behind, they can grow to be up to 1,000 lbs and they don’t develop fully until adulthood that’s when you are able to identify their sex. We probably went down the beach roughly around 70 miles and at the end of the survey we got to rescue a pelican!
During this sea turtle survey, Brenda also had the chance to release a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that had been rehabilitated by NOAA.
You can help save sea turtles by ensuring your fishing line always ends up in a proper recycling bin. Discarded fishing line can entangle sea turtles, making it difficult for them to swim, find food, and come up for air. You can also help by reporting any sea turtles in our area by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5.
Yesterday, our partners at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) brought 6 sea turtles to the Zoo’s veterinary clinic for medical care. 3 of the 6 sea turtles were loggerheads. 2 sea turtles were Kemp’s ridleys, and 1 sea turtle was a green. All turtles were radiographed and checked by Zoo veterinary staff.
One of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles was accidentally caught on a fishing hook. Dr. Joe Flanagan removed the hook and the turtle will be rehabbed at NOAA’s facility in Galveston, and then released back into the wild. Unfortunately, this was the second time this summer that this turtle was caught by accident by a fishermen and reported to NOAA biologists! For this reason, it is important that all turtles are reported by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5, in the event that the turtle may have ingested several hooks, or have other medical issues that can’t be easily seen.
The second Kemp’s ridley that visited the Zoo was a post-hatchling, meaning it hatched from its egg just this summer! As you can see, at this age, sea turtles are tiny and can become prey to many different species living in or near the ocean. This Kemp’s ridley has a flipper injury and will be rehabilitated by NOAA biologists until it is healthy enough for release.
The green sea turtle who visited the Zoo was also accidentally caught, but did not require a hook removal. It was given x-rays and will be moved to NOAA Galveston for further care.
You can help our local sea turtle population by reporting injured, stranded, dead,or nesting sea turtles by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5. Another way to help is by reducing your use of plastic-bottles, bags, balloons, you name it! These items often end up in our ocean and sea turtles mistake them for food, like jellyfish. When ingested, sea turtles can become sick. If we replace plastic items with reusable items (bags and bottles) and avoid releasing balloons, we can protect sea turtles in their natural habitat! In addition, you can help by placing your discarded fishing line in recycling bins, rather than leaving it on the ground or in the water. This will help prevent animals like sea turtles and birds from becoming entangled in the line.
There are multiple animal exhibits in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop. One of them is home to two Houston Toads: Tina Toad and her friend, Mr. Toad.
The Houston Toad is one of Texas’ most imperiled species. Its range was formerly known to include 12 counties in Texas, but it is now only in a few counties in east-central Texas. The largest remaining populations are found in the Lost Pines region of Bastrop County.
The Houston Zoo has a 1200 square foot Houston Toad quarantine facility, managed by two full-time
Houston Toad specialists, that serves as a location for the captive breeding and head-starting of wild Houston toad egg strands for release. Part of the Houston Toad specialist’s job is to count the eggs in each egg strand!
Look at the pictures in this post. What you are seeing is a picture of one of Tina the Houston Toad’s egg strands. The version with the white dots is an example of how the eggs are counted and marked as they go through the photo of the egg strand.
We recently had a contest in the Swap Shop to guess how many eggs were in the strand. The total in the strand, according to the toad keepers, was 8,533. Our closest guess was from Isabel S. who guessed 8,600. For her expertise in counting toad eggs, she received 100 points to spend in the Swap Shop!
Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here for more information.
You may have heard the news of our adorable female sea lion pup that was recently born at the Houston Zoo. What you may not know is that in between caring for our sea lions, training them, conducting keeper chats, and engaging zoo guests, our sea lion staff is also working additional hours to create a healthier ocean for wildlife right here in Texas.
The Sea Lion Staff assists an ongoing fishing line recycling program which aims to reduce the fishing line on the Surfside Jetty in Surfside, Texas while providing an opportunity for other Zoo staff and volunteers to get involved in work outside our Zoo gates. This program was created through NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Sea Grant at Texas A&M University’s Monofilament Recovery & Recycling Program. Fishing line is a hazard to wildlife such as sea turtles, fish, rays, dolphins, and shore birds because it can entangle animals, making it hard for them to swim or fly and find food. The Sea Lion Staff conducts monthly cleanups on the Surfside Jetty, removing and recycling fishing line from the monofilament bins, as well as collecting line that is caught in between the rocks. In addition to the fishing line, they also recover trash and recyclables.
Here are their accomplishments so far:
• Began program in August 2014 • Pounds of fishing line recycled to date – 94 lbs • Pounds of other trash and recycled items collected to date – trash: 592 lbs, recycling: 429 lbs • Number of staff and volunteers involved to date – 22 staff, 3 interns, 20 volunteers • Number of different departments involved to date – 14 Zoo departments
The Sea Lion Staff became extremely passionate about the issue of marine debris after working with one of our previous sea lions, Astro. Astro was a California sea lion that came to us with a wound on his neck, possibly from becoming entangled in marine debris, possibly a carelessly discarded fishing net or fishing line. After working alongside Astro, the Sea Lion team dedicated their time off, weekends, and work time to reduce the threat of marine debris and entanglement on ocean animals.
If you visit the sea lions at the Houston Zoo, you may get a chance to see a replica fishing line recycling bin and hear about how you can help save ocean animals here in Texas. Our sea lions are not only ambassadors for our ocean-friendly seafood initiative, but they also help us tell the story of marine debris and the dangers of discarded fishing line in our oceans. You can help protect ocean animals by making sure your fishing line doesn’t end up in the water-instead, place it in a monofilament recycling bin! These bins can be found all along the Upper Texas Coast.
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It's Military Monday! To say "Thank You" for your service, we're offering members of the military a discounted ticket to TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights for tonight and next Monday! Learn more, and get your discount code on our website, zoolights.houstonzoo.org/get-tickets. (Psst, we're hosting First Responder Tuesdays, too! Details in the link.) ... See MoreSee Less