Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part II

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

Field days are long and hot. In this blog entry I will walk you through a typical day in the field. With lots of photos!

We wake up at 4:00 am to be ready to head out to the field by 4:45 am. We get to our site at 5:15 am and unload the gear for the day and start opening the mist nets (a net used by ornithologists and biologists to safely gather birds for research and conservation purposes). At 6:15 all the nets should be open and then we wait. Nets are checked every 15-20 minutes for birds. All non-target birds (those birds we are not relocating as part of this conservation effort) are released immediately.

Mist nets are used for to safely catch birds for research and conservation. Here is our team setting up the nets for Mariana fruit doves.
Ellen, a Toledo Zoo staff member safely removes a wild bird from the mist net. Trained zookeepers who work with birds daily assist with this task due to their extensive background and training in handling birds.
A Mariana fruit dove
Birds are transported to a transport crate using soft cloth bags.
These transport crates are used to safely move birds.

There is a second field site for a different bird species, the Rufous fantails. The nets used for this species are not as tall and the mesh is also smaller. The fantails weigh about 8 grams while doves weigh about 75 grams.

Another mist netting site, setup to locate another species of bird, called the Rufous fantail.
Each bird is kept safe in a labeled cloth bag before it is moved to a transport crate.
Transport boxes for the birds.
Each label from the cloth bags is placed on the transport crate to identify the individual bird.

Flies are then collected and put in the box for the bird to eat. The fantails are very active birds and need to eat constantly. We catch flies by placing buckets over a tray of fish. If only you could smell through the internet!

Collecting flies for the birds to eat.
Modified petri dishes are used to collect the flies. The petri dishes are then placed in the box with the bird and the lid is removed quickly so that the flies don’t escape.

Someone makes runs out to both field sites to pick up birds every few hours to take them to the holding room.

At about 4:45 pm we will close up the nets and head back into town.

Next time I’ll tell you what happens to both this fantail and dove when they get to the “bird room”!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

Houston Zoo bird staff is currently assisting the MAC (Mariana Avifauna Conservation) plan. This year I am helping out in Saipan where we will be focusing on two species, the Mariana fruit dove and the rufous fantail.

Mariana fruit dove at the Houston Zoo. The Zoo works to protect all the wild counterparts of the species we have here. Houston Zoo bird staff are currently overseas, ensuring this species is protected in its’ natural habitat.

For those who don’t know, the MAC plan’s goal is to establish self-sustaining populations of Mariana forest bird species on uninhabited northern islands. Due to the invasive brown tree snake damaging the local bird population, it is important to create other healthy populations of local birds where brown tree snakes are not a threat. The work done here is an insurance policy for local birds.

After 3 flights and 24 hours of travel I made it to Saipan. They didn’t waste any time putting me to work either. I spent half of my first day in the field finding fruit doves, more on that later. The second half of the day I helped with community outreach by manning a booth at the Flame Tree Festival.

The Flame Tree Festival is a celebration of the Saipan community and culture of the Chamorro people. The local children perform their musical talents on stage. Local dances are also performed. There are art booths and food stands. The festival seems is very popular and we had a successful night discussing bird conservation.

The photo below is of the booth we had set up. The wheel on the right was popular with the kids. They could spin it and win a trading card with one of 15 local Mariana forest species on it. We had two little boys who kept coming back and spinning it for a new card. It was a lot of fun interacting and educating the public about bird conservation. It’s important to let them know that there are things they can do to participate and help!

Discussing local birds at the Flame Tree Festival.

Next blog l will talk about how a field day runs. In the coming entries we will follow a bird through the whole process of moving to another island!

A Week I Will Never Forget

This blog post was written by Sue Cruver, a Houston Zoo Travel Program participant who recently experienced the wonders of Yellowstone with the Houston Zoo. If you would like to travel with the Houston Zoo, please visit our travel site

It began sitting at my computer one day last fall. I was reading the latest online Houston Zoo newsletter when I saw a section called “Travel with the Houston Zoo.” Curious, especially because I had been thinking about taking a trip somewhere, I clicked on the page and started learning about the different excursions available to people like me – people who love animals and are concerned about their survival in the wild.

Bald eagle in Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

When I read about an adventure to “Greater Yellowstone in Winter” to view the wildlife and learn about this outstanding ecosystem, I got excited. It was a trip conducted by Teton Science School’s (TSS) Wildlife Expeditions, based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and a Houston Zoo education and conservation partner.  For so many reasons, I knew it was something I had to do.  As a serious photographer, I envisioned capturing the beauty of the region and the wildlife that wintered there. So, on February 2, 2017, I boarded a plane to Bozeman, Montana for a week I will never forget.

Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

Winter weather can be very unpredictable. I grew up in New Jersey and have lived in Massachusetts, so I knew how the cold and snow can impact travel, and how you have to dress in layers for warmth. But having lived in the Houston, Texas area for the past 43 years, I realized it was going to be a physical challenge to put myself out in that environment again. Winters in Yellowstone have been known to be extremely cold, with temperatures sometimes dropping well below zero. In addition, I was going from a city that is 12 to 17 feet above sea level to altitudes between 6,500 and 8,300 feet. Could I handle it? It definitely was worth a try.

Observe incredible wildlife with the Houston Zoo’s travel program. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

So try I did, and I haven’t been the same since. It was hard to come home.

Yellowstone in winter. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

The week was truly magical. The landscapes were absolutely breathtaking, and I felt like a child again walking in the snow. As for wildlife, there was plenty — bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, wolves, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, bald eagles, mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose, trumpeter swans, a bobcat, and so much more.

Bobcat in Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography.

Seeing Old Faithful, the other geysers, and hot springs in winter was awesome. Everywhere I looked, there was a picture to be taken. And I took many, despite the fact that most days were cloudy and snowy. As I mentioned, winter weather can be challenging; this week, it only added to the adventure.

Visit Yellowstone with the Houston Zoo-more information can be found on our travel page. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

Temperatures weren’t bad at all, ranging between the teens and low 30s. Snowdrifts and an avalanche did lead to some temporary road closures within the park, but these only resulted in some changes to our itinerary.  Much credit for the smoothness of these transitions goes to the incredibly professional TSS staff and guides. They were amazing!

Bison in Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

And “amazing” is not the only takeaway I have from this adventure. I am very impressed with the Houston Zoo’s travel program and how it provides children, families, and retirees, like me, the opportunity to observe wild animals in their home environments. By partnering with the non-profit Teton Science Schools organization, the Zoo was able to add local Yellowstone guides and biologists to lead this trip. These experts knew where to find the wildlife and were able to answer everyone’s questions.

 In retrospect, this trip was not only fun, but also inspirational. I look at my photographs and am transported back to the peacefulness and beauty of the Yellowstone region. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and remember the cold, clean, fresh air.  I focus on the quiet I found there and am less stressed. Instead of listening to the noisy media and tech world that constantly bombards us, I now think about the magnificence of this part of our country and its incredible wildlife. I can’t wait to return.

Sue Cruver

You are Supporting a Wildlife Hero in the Galapagos!

As a supporter of the Houston Zoo, your entry ticket and/or membership allows us to partner with and support organizations around the world that are committed to saving wildlife. One such partner, Ecology Project International (EPI), works on the Galapagos Islands, educating local kids about the wildlife that lives in their area, while engaging them in hands-on activities to protect species (beach cleanups, monitoring sea turtle nests, etc.).

EPI participants collecting information on sea turtle hatchlings in the Galapagos

Through your visits to the Zoo, we have been able to support one of EPI’s staff, Juan Sebastian Torres, in his pursuit of a Master’s degree! JuanSe is the Galapagos Program Coordinator for EPI, and he is currently enrolled in Miami University of Ohio’s Master’s program, the Global Field Program.

We asked JuanSe a little bit about his work with youth and wildlife in the Galapagos, and how Zoo support of his degree is helping him improve the work he does.

Can you write your full name, your job title, and what you do for your job day-to-day?

My name is Juan Sebastián Torres Cevallos but my friends call me JuanSe. I work for EPI, a non-profit organization dedicated to develop environmental education programs/courses through science and conservation efforts with scientists and local leaders. I started leading Ecology courses for high school students and now I coordinate the field program in the Galápagos Islands. Every day I work on many aspects of the program in order to provide the best educative experience to our students. I work on itineraries, activities, doing coordination work with our science partners, supervising/supporting our instructor team, improving curricular components of the program among many other tasks.

What made you interested in the environment/nature/wildlife/education?

When I was a naturalist guide in the Amazon rainforest I saw for the first time the potential of environmental education when I took tourists and students into the forest and explained/taught about its unique complexity. Being there in the forest was the best “classroom” to explain how it functioned because the students were able to directly see with their eyes and other senses. I was very happy to reach out people sharing the beauty of an ecosystem I had always been in love and the conservation concerns/challenges it faced. When I had the opportunity to work in Galápagos with EPI I receive unique tools/strategies/structure to develop environmental educational programs and to create unique experiences that will change the perspective of our students working on their knowledge of nature, dispositions to take action and skills to solve problems.

JuanSe (far right) with students and staff from the Galapagos National Park, monitoring sea turtle nests.

What is your favorite part of your job?

When I have the opportunity to be in the field with students.

JuanSe (far left) with students participating in field work to save wildlife.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

Spending lots of time at the office when I have always been an outdoors person… but this challenge is worth it when I know the impact that our programs and my work has on the students.

Why is it so important for an organization like EPI to exist in the Galapagos?

We are the only organization that does environmental education on the islands. We are teaching the new generations why Galapagos is so important and the importance of conserving it. We want to get rid of the existing gap between people and nature.

What made you interested in pursuing your Master’s degree through the Global Field Program?

This is a unique opportunity to improve my work and knowledge in many aspects. My professional skills and duties overlap with many of the skills that can be learned with the Global Field Program. The inquiry component and community work are key to promote conservation worldwide and is totally linked with the work I do in Galápagos and with my personal goals.

You have been in the Master’s program for almost 1 year, what have you learned so far?

I had learn many new things, but specially how research takes place, to find background data through peer reviewed papers, dive into passionate conservation topics and the power of involving community are part of the projects I had done so far.  I have also learned the importance of sharing any idea/project/information with anyone, to receive and provide feedback is a unique skills that had increased my knowledge on several topics.

A Galapagos Tortoise takes in his beautiful surroundings.

How is this program helping you with the work you do to educate kids in the Galapagos?

I have already developed a project to research on the bird mortality on the highway of Santa Cruz Island with support of 12 high school students. I´m also adding more scientific background to the ecology program I coordinate and I’m improving aspects of our curriculum.

Every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help projects like Ecology Project International, and ensure people like JuanSe can continue to do the important work they do to save wildlife.

It’s Just One Piece: Surfside Jetty Clean-up and Sea Turtle Rescue

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.

Astro the sea lion was an ambassador for his species-bringing awareness to the problem of marine debris.
Astro the sea lion was an ambassador for his species-bringing awareness to the problem of marine debris.

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.

Green sea turtle entangled in fishing line off the Surfside Jetty, Texas.
Green sea turtle entangled in fishing line off the Surfside Jetty, Texas.

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.

Houston Zoo staff and intern rescue a green sea turtle entangled in discarded fishing line.
Houston Zoo staff and intern rescue a green sea turtle entangled in discarded fishing line.
Green sea turtle flipper entangled in discarded fishing line.
Green sea turtle flipper entangled in discarded fishing line.
Ball of fishing line mixed with seaweed. Discarded fishing line is a major threat to animals like sea turtles who can become entangled in it, making it difficult for them to swim and find food.
Ball of fishing line mixed with seaweed. Discarded fishing line is a major threat to animals like sea turtles who can become entangled in it, making it difficult for them to swim and find food.

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!

Successful rescue of a green sea turtle on the Surfside Jetty! If you see a sea turtle on the beach or in need of help, please report it by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5.
Successful rescue of a green sea turtle on the Surfside Jetty! If you see a sea turtle on the beach or in need of help, please report it by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5.

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

 

 

Zoo staff assist partners at NOAA with sea turtle surveys

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. 

During survey, Brenda helped release a Kemp's ridley sea turtle that was rehabilitated by NOAA
During survey, Brenda helped release a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that was rehabilitated by NOAA
Brenda happily releasing this sea turtle back into the wild!
Brenda happily releasing this sea turtle back into the wild!

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. 

This is a monofilament bin located on the Surfside Jetty. You can recycle your fishing line in bins like this one.
This is a monofilament bin located on the Surfside Jetty. You can recycle your fishing line in bins like this one.

6 Sea Turtles Receive Care at the Houston Zoo

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.

Houston Zoo vet team removing a fishing hook from a sea turtle caught by accident in Galveston
Houston Zoo vet team removing a fishing hook from a sea turtle caught by accident in Galveston
Hook successfully removed!
Hook successfully removed!

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.

Kemp's ridley hatchling
Kemp’s ridley post-hatchling

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.

Green sea turtle brought to the Zoo by NOAA biologists to receive medical care
Green sea turtle brought to the Zoo by NOAA biologists to receive medical 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.

Can you count toad eggs?

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

Tina Toad's egg strand
Tina Toad’s egg strand

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!

The egg strand after it has been counted
The egg strand after it has been counted

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.

Penny Makes Her Move

Well, my plan worked! I have moved into a beautiful new room in the Ambassador Animal Building!   I have directed

Look at this awesome cat tree!
Look at this awesome cat tree!

my staff…..I mean the zookeepers, on what to put in my room and how to arrange it.

I have cat trees, boxes, kennels, and lots of toys. So many things to keep me happy and busy.  And, the keepers talk to me and keep me company all the time. I feel so regal in this new spot that I am considering wearing my tiara.

Perhaps I will wear my tiara
Perhaps I will wear my tiara

My next door neighbor is Peanut, the Aardvark. She is a very pleasant neighbor.  In fact, she sleeps most of the day so she is no bother at all.  Denver the Macaw gets a little loud sometimes, but that’s ok too.  I can handle it – even though I might have to have a talk with him at some point.  There are chinchillas, rabbits, birds, and reptiles here too.  I have some amazing neighbors.

I still get to go out in the zoo.  My handlers bring me out on my leash to visit and see zoo guests. I also get to go to presentations and classrooms.   I still go to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop from time to time too.

I will miss getting to say hello to the regular traders at the Swap Shop, but this new room is amazing!

The beautiful Penny in her new room.
The beautiful Penny in her new room.

Don’t forget about me.   I sure won’t forget about you.  I still love all my pals that come to the Swap Shop.  When you are at the zoo, keep your eyes open.  You never know where or when you will see me.

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

Galapagos Conservation Partner Furthers his Education in Belize!

The Houston Zoo works to save animals around the world, and we are able to do that because of our nearly 2.5 million annual guests who visit us. One of the biggest aspects of our conservation work is to support communities around the world that live next to wildlife. By providing them training, tools, and the ability to develop their skills-they can then protect the animals that are native to their area. The Houston Zoo partners with Ecology Project International (EPI) in Galapagos-a conservation education program that takes youth from the Galapagos Islands out into nature to conduct field research, and learn about the incredible species that call the Galapagos Islands home. Because of your ticket purchases to enter the Zoo, we have been able to provide funding to one of the EPI staff to further his education and receive a Master’s degree from Miami University of Ohio through the Project Dragonfly/Global Field Program. Read below to hear in his own words, about his experience in his first field course in Belize.

My name is Juan Sebastián Torres, I’m an Ecuadorian guy that lives in the Galápagos Islands and just a few months ago I was able to start a Master´s Program with Miami University as part of a Fellowship between the Houston Zoo and Miami´s graduate program called Project Dragonfly-the Global Field Program.

Juan Sebastian Torres, one of the Zoo's conservation partners from the Galapagos Islands, visits Belize to further his education!
Juan Sebastian Torres, one of the Zoo’s conservation partners from the Galapagos Islands, visits Belize to further his education!

As part of the program a field course in Belize – Central America took place at the end of June. In Belize, me and a group of 23 students from the US had the amazing opportunity to explore unique places in this little country. Belize’ s Zoo and its Tropical Education Center were our base homes, what a great place to begin this journey. At the Tropical Education Center the Savanna Forest was a new world to me and I was excited for all the wildlife nearby, lots of birds, iguanas, snakes and even small mammals like agoutis were wandering around. Among many of the activities we did in this site we had the opportunity to be a part of a research activity about Yellow headed Parrots and learn about the conservation challenges that these birds face.

JuanSe visiting the Belize Zoo!
JuanSe visiting the Belize Zoo!

The baboon sanctuary was another place I had the opportunity to explore. It was very interesting to see how this community manages itself to live in harmony with Howler Monkeys and at the same time do many economical activities that involved the conservation of this species, no doubt a great example of community-based conservation. This community gave me and the rest of my partners the opportunity of a local home stay experience; we all were located with different families and spent one night together. This shared time with a host family provided a great cultural immersion to learn more about Belize and its inhabitants and their culture. After the time spent at baboon community we headed to “Altun Ha”, an archeological Maya site that preserves pyramids and other ancient buildings built by this unique civilization.

The field course participants at the baboon sanctuary-a location dedicated to conserving howler monkeys.
The field course participants at the baboon sanctuary-a location dedicated to conserving howler monkeys.

Afterwards we went to Tobacco Key, a little island on the coast; part of the Great Caribbean barrier reef.  At this place we explored the coral reef, what an extraordinary biodiversity; I was totally overwhelmed every time I got my head into the water. During the time on the Key we did research on different topics, my group studied the change of behavior that fish species have with human presence, very interesting and funny. We had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Research Station nearby, it was great to see their facilities and learn the research they do.

Tobacco Caye, Belize
Tobacco Caye, Belize
Juan Sebastian conducting marine transects to find out more about fish behavior in Belize.
Juan Sebastian conducting marine transects to find out more about fish behavior in Belize.

Many inquiry activities were part of this experience, the ones that were already mentioned above and others I was able to be part of; for example a very curious study about Spider Monkey behavior at Belize Zoo and Epiphytes abundance on palm trees at the Tropical Education Center.

We had the opportunity to learn about other research projects and the people behind them, for example we knew Jamal, a person better known as the Manatee Man and who provided us great information about manatees and the conservation efforts behind them. We went with Jamal to look for manatees near the coastal zone of Belize City, it was a unique experience to observe this incredible animal and even more rewarding to know how Jamal is struggling for their conservation. A similar example was another man called Celso, who showed us the work he is doing for the conservation of tapirs, the iconic animal of Belize.

Jamal-a Belizean committed to saving local manatees!
Jamal-a Belizean committed to saving local manatees!
Signs in the waters of Belize telling boaters to slow down to protect this species.
Signs in the waters of Belize telling boaters to slow down to protect this species.

All these inquiry activities came with the guidance of our incredible instructors Jill Korach and Joshua Meyer who did a terrific job surfing through all of our doubts and questions and providing vital knowledge and guidance with the topics assigned to study on this course.

No doubt I took a lot back home, I have many ideas in my mind that could be implemented not only in the Galápagos Islands but in Ecuador as well, I feel very passionate about community-based conservation and citizen science. I will probably do my Master´s Plan on this topic.

After this experience I only have a lot of gratitude with all the people that supported me to be part of such life experience. Thank you!

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