Reptiles and Amphibians

FIELD NOTES PART I: Saving our state reptile

Reptile Supervisor Bradley Lawrence guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Dallas Zoo reptile team members went out into the field last weekend to check in on the Texas horned lizard population.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (like our state reptile was during the winter months), you know how much we love Texas horned lizards here at the Dallas Zoo. Last weekend we began our 10th year of studying “horny toads” at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in Fisher Co, Texas.

The population in this area of Texas is very healthy, and we have been monitoring them for 9 years now. We are gathering as much data as we can to help us learn what makes a habitat like this so good for horned lizards. We hope to use what we learn to help conserve these fabulous reptiles both in the wild and in our care here at the Dallas Zoo.

Over the next several months, we’ll be providing up-to-date notes from the field to give y’all a first-hand look at what we do. I hope that you will learn more about the Texas horned lizard as well as how they fit into the bigger ecological picture here in Texas.

The team worked against the unpredictable spring weather. Check out that lightning!

The RPQRR is a 4700-acre ranch about 4 hours west of Dallas. Along with horned lizards, we get to experience a rare glimpse of wild Texas that is more and more difficult to find these days.

We start our lizard season in late April or early May, giving them a chance to wake up from their roughly 5 month hibernation. Once they’re awake they start looking for much needed food and also start to think about finding a mate.

We had a very productive first outing. We saw several very healthy looking horned lizards, even though we fought Mother Nature a bit. Spring weather in the rolling plains of Texas can be unpredictable and a little scary.

Stay tuned! We’ll give you more in a couple of weeks.

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Creating a better world for turtles

Conservation Interpreter Grayson P. guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

An endangered black-breasted leaf turtle at the Herpetarium.

With a family tree that began 300 million years ago, turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. There are 356 species of turtles, and they play an essential role in maintaining our environment. Freshwater turtles keep our lakes and rivers healthy by controlling aquatic vegetation; tortoises shape habitats for animals and plants by grazing; and sea turtles’ infertile eggs fertilize coastal dunes. However, while turtles have survived multiple mass extinctions, they are facing threats like never before, and as many as one-third of turtles could be extinct in the next twenty years. The Dallas Zoo is determined to change that.  

This April, we are highlighting endangered turtles and how we can protect them through everyday actions as part of our Protecting the 12 conservation plan, and we hope you’ll join us. The Dallas Zoo has a long history of protecting turtles. We take a two-pronged approach: protecting endangered turtles in the wild and breeding them in human care. We provide funding to many turtle conservation organizations, including the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina, home to breeding populations of thirty turtle species at the brink of extinction. And in turtle biodiversity hotspots such as Madagascar, Myanmar, and India, we facilitate boots-on-the-ground field research and conservation to protect these reptiles.

With our conservation partner, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), the Dallas Zoo is ensuring no species of turtle becomes extinct in the 21st century. One of the most significant threats facing turtles is the illegal wildlife trade. In April 2018, over 10,000 endangered radiated tortoises were found in a poacher’s house in Toliara, Madagascar without access to food or water. It is believed the animals were collected for the illegal pet trade. The TSA led an unprecedented rescue mission to get these animals safe and healthy. Along with other AZA-accredited institutions, the Dallas Zoo sent emergency funds, supplies, and reptile specialists to Madagascar. Our team spent weeks soaking the surviving turtles to give them water and keep them alive. Because of this collaboration, the majority of the turtles lived and were able to be returned to the wild.   

In addition to the illegal pet trade, one of the biggest threats to turtles is plastic pollution. Every day, 8 million pieces of plastic flow through rivers, creeks, and other waterways, and end up into the ocean, threatening sea turtles who mistake it for jellyfish. As part of our movement to protect turtles, we are asking Zoo guests to make a pledge to pick up ten pieces of plastic pollution every Tuesday to keep the land and waters that turtles call home clean and safe. We hope this pledge is just a starting point and inspires our guests to reduce the amount of single-use plastic they use in order to protect turtles and other species.  

When you think of conservationists, you might picture biologists in the field. Here at the Dallas Zoo, we see our guests as conservation heroes because protecting our planet and the animals that call it home is a collaborative effort and everyone’s responsibility.

By picking up plastic pollution, making sure our reptile pets are from reputable breeders, and supporting the Turtle Survival Alliance, we can help protect turtles from extinction. We can’t do it alone and will need everyone’s help to save these magnificent animals which are essential to the wellbeing of our environment. Visit our turtle conservation station at the Galapagos tortoise habitat in ZooNorth through the end of the month to learn more about how you can help, and join us in creating a better world for turtles.

Categories: Conservation, Reptiles and Amphibians | 1 Comment

Dallas Zoo staffers awarded nearly $70,000 in funding from National Geographic Society for conservation work

Penguin nesting project and amphibian conservation to be funded through National Geographic Society Grants

Two of our team members will join the ranks of renowned conservationists like Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, as National Geographic Explorers, working on personal field conservation projects across the globe.

Dallas Zoo’s Animal Care Supervisor of Birds Kevin Graham was awarded a $50,000 grant in support of his project: “Using Artificial Nests to Improve Breeding Success of Endangered African Penguins.” Additionally, Curator of Ectotherms Ruston Hartdegen was awarded $18,955 in support of his project: “Expanding an Amphibian Rescue Center at the Dallas Zoo.”

Kevin Graham on South Africa’s Dyer Island installing the artificial nests.

“Receiving grants of this magnitude from National Geographic Society really shows the advances our team is making in the field of wildlife conservation,” said Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo’s Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation. “These are lifesaving undertakings that Kevin and Ruston have worked at length on – they had to prove successful completion of similar projects with measurable results before being awarded the grants. Now, we can make an even bigger impact for endangered African penguins and near-extinct frogs.”

Protecting penguins

In addition to caring for Dallas Zoo’s birds, Graham has worked hard to save African black-footed penguins in South Africa for the past three years as the Artificial Nest Development Project Coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). He leads a team that studies, designs and installs artificial nests for the penguins to lay eggs in.

Over the past 100 years, the population of African penguins has declined from more than two million breeding pairs to slightly more than 20,000 breeding pairs left – that’s a more than 98-percent population decline mainly due to improper nests that fail to protect their eggs.

African penguins burrow and nest in guano (a term for their poop), but decades ago, Europeans and South Africans began removing the guano to use as fertilizer, leaving the penguins’ eggs vulnerable to predation, human activity, and the elements. There are currently only 27 natural guano nests left.

An African penguin sits on an egg inside the artificial nest.

In February 2018, Graham joined forces with AZA scientists, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA) to install 200 artificial nests in two South African penguin colonies. After extensively testing various artificial nest prototypes, two designs were penguin-approved. At the end of the testing period, the scientists learned that approximately 96 percent of the nests in the study were utilized by the penguins, just over 80 percent had eggs laid in them, and more than 56 percent had successful chicks.

Over the next few months, the team will build 600 more nests to install, which is where the grant funding will come into play. Long-term, Graham hopes to have 6,000-7,000 nests installed in total.

“Our vision is to eventually achieve large-scale implementation that will allow thousands of penguin pairs access to suitable nesting locations, improving the current breeding success rate, and establishing population sustainability and stability,” said Graham. “There are other threats hurting African penguins – over-fishing, climate change, and marine pollution – but it feels good knowing that right now we’re taking immediate action to save them, and if nothing else, at least we gave them a place to raise kids.”

Hopping to the rescue

With one-third to one-half of all amphibian species worldwide threatened with extinction, conservation action is absolutely critical to preserving herpetological biodiversity. The Dallas Zoo is taking the next step to develop assurance populations of three threatened amphibian species – the dusky gopher frog, the Houston toad, and the Puerto Rican crested toad.

Ruston Hartdegen releases a dusky gopher froglet back into Mississippi’s DeSoto National Forest.

This past summer, we opened a behind-the-scenes Amphibian Rescue Center where our herpetologists are working to produce healthy offspring to release back into their natural environments.

We are already leading efforts to protect the dusky gopher frog, one of the most endangered amphibians in the world. In October 2018, herpetologists released new froglets from our existing dusky gopher frog population into their native habitat of Mississippi, where the frog is endemic to only three small ponds in the DeSoto National Forest.

“Without conservation efforts like our zoological breeding program, many endangered species would become extinct in the wild,” said Hartdegen. “Amphibians are critical to our environment. Known as ‘indicator species,’ they’re used to gauge the health of their ecosystems – the moment they’re in decline, we know that habitat has been compromised due to problems like, pollution, habitat destruction, or disease.”

With the help of the National Geographic Society grant, Hartdegen is expanding the Amphibian Rescue Center to accommodate two new breed-and-release programs – the Houston toad (currently only found in three Texas counties) and the Puerto Rican crested toad (the only native toad on the island) – helping a total of three species increase their numbers while protecting genetic diversity.

A dusky gopher frog at the Dallas Zoo Amphibian Rescue Center before its release.

The National Geographic Society funding marks the first time our staffers have received support from the Society in its history. Since its inception 130 years ago, the National Geographic Society has supported the work of more than 3,000 Explorers in the field.

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Texans come together to save our state reptile

Although Texas horned lizard populations are increasing thanks to community efforts, there is still work to be done.

Head west on I-20, and in no time, you’ll notice large, red formations of sedimentary rock standing like mountains amid the mostly flat, arid earth and rolling plains. This is Rotan, Texas  – far from the impressive view of Downtown Dallas’ protruding skyscrapers. Here you’ll find many creatures that dominated these parts in the days of the Wild West still making their homes. However, the thousands of snakes, lizards and insects that are all well adapted to survive these harsh conditions, are no longer thriving as in those days not long ago.

Recently, a group of Dallas Zoo staff members, interns and volunteers took the drive to the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch to study one reptile who has made the ranch its home – the native and beloved Texas horned lizard. The facility was established in 2007 for the purpose of enhancing the abundance of the northern bobwhite, a ground-dwelling quail native to the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch preserves 4,720 acres of land to maintain the natural brush cover necessary for quail conservation efforts. This undeveloped land is the ideal setting for the scaly Texas horned lizard. The brush cover provides shelter from predators, which is essential, as their toad-like bodies tend to slow them down.

Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in Rotan, Texas

“The area is managed for quail, with shortgrass and tallgrass prairie land, which is also vital to horned lizards and their prey, harvester ants. Horned lizards live in a similar niche as quail and benefit from the preservation of this land, as do many other animals,” Dallas Zoo reptile keeper, Shana Fredlake observes. “This is native habitat for these animals, so keeping it pristine helps this population stay stable and helps us observe their natural behaviors and monitor growth rates.”

Although the horned lizard was their primary focus, the group was also delighted by the company of a few tarantulas and snakes, even stumbling across a rattlesnake; a real treat for Dallas Zoo reptile supervisor, Bradley Lawrence who has a special fondness for the noisy, venomous reptile. Lawrence believes the conservation work being done today has also benefitted other reptile species native to Texas.

“Most folks in Texas will do anything they can to protect, donate and manage land for horned lizards. They don’t know it, but this helps conserve other species that are not looked on as favorably,” Lawrence shares.

Our research team studied Texas horned lizards in hopes of restoring their population.

The community’s willingness to pitch in and help the conservation of the Texas horned lizard is promising, but much work still needs to be done. Despite conservation efforts to reverse the decline of the species, the horned lizard remains state-threatened.

“The Texas horned lizard has disappeared from about 60% of its former range here in Texas due to invasive fire ants, over-collection, and habitat destruction,” Lawrence adds. Despite the numbers, he remains hopeful for the species: “They are charismatic, gentle reptiles, and everyone that sees them falls in love.”

“It makes me happy to see Texas have a state reptile and that people love this reptile,” Fredlake says. “If we can coexist without destroying every part of their habitat, there is a chance to bring them back to all parts of their former range.”

By studying population density, habitat preference, diet, sex ratios, and activity patterns, we’ve developed a greater scientific understanding of our state reptile and how to best contribute to its conservation. For more information about our Texas horned lizard conservation efforts, click here.

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Dallas Zoo sends help to Madagascar after nearly 11,000 critically endangered tortoises were seized from a residential home

Jorge Chavez, one of our tortoise experts, is en route to Madagascar to help with an unprecedented wildlife trafficking crisis. Last week, nearly 11,000 radiated tortoises were confiscated from a residential home in the city of Toliara, located on the southwest coast of Madagascar. This seizure is the largest for tortoises in the history of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) – one of the world’s leading turtle and tortoise conservation organizations, and a Dallas Zoo conservation partner.

A portion of the radiated tortoises living on the floor of the home./Turtle Survival Alliance

Right now, the critically endangered tortoises are receiving initial in-processing, health evaluations, triage, hydration, and food at a temporary facility. Sadly, hundreds of tortoises have already died from dehydration, malnutrition, and illness.

Led by the TSA, the Dallas Zoo is part of more than 20 institutions accredited by The Association of Zoos and Aquariums that’s helping send funds, supplies and emergency assistance to Madagascar. Our team of veterinarians, vet techs and zookeepers will arrive in Madagascar this weekend as part the first of three waves of help.

Known for their beautiful shell with a striking star pattern, radiated tortoises are a valued animal in the global illegal pet trade. This species has declined by more than 80 percent in the last 30 years, leaving these tortoises vulnerable to extinction in the wild in our lifetime.

Stay posted on our Facebook page as we share Jorge’s updates from the field over the next two weeks. If you’d like to help in this rescue effort, please donate now to the Turtle Survival Alliance.

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