Reptiles and Amphibians

 
 

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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Dallas Zoo hatches the only perentie monitor lizards in the AZA

What hails from Australia, runs as fast as an Olympic sprinter, and is the fourth largest lizard species in the world? The perentie monitor. And who is the only AZA-accredited zoo in North America to successfully hatch them? We are.

Our world-class herpetologists are welcoming three new babies. Weighing about .13 pounds at hatch, these lizards could grow to be 33 pounds and 6.5 feet long.

These little ones are our first perentie monitor hatchlings since 2001, when we became the first AZA facility outside of Australia to reproduce them.

“I am proud of the staff and excited to see hatchlings again,” said Ruston Hartdegen, Dallas Zoo’s curator of herpetology and aquatics. “It’s been a very challenging project and continues to be so. This is the culmination of many years of effort, dedication, and hard work. I look forward to seeing many more hatchlings in the years to come!”

Housing these lizards can be extremely difficult, and you can’t find many outside of Australia. In fact, only two other North American AZA-accredited zoos care for perentie monitors: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and the Los Angeles Zoo. While housing accommodations are challenging, it’s even more challenging to breed them in human care.

One of our newly hatched perentie monitor lizard babies.

“To successfully hatch this species, it takes a lot of time, attention, and care from reptile staff,” said Hartdegen. “Females also need a ton of space to nest. We actually built two large indoor habitats capable of deep nesting just for them.”

The Dallas Zoo has a lot of experience with monitor lizards, which is one reason we’ve been able to successfully reproduce perenties. Up next: Our herpetologists plan to focus efforts on crocodile monitors, a species that hasn’t been bred in North America in 20 years, mostly because of pairing issues with the animals. Dallas Zoo currently cares for ten crocodile monitors, putting us in a good position for success.

“Zoological expertise has been lost for crocodile monitors,” said Bradley Lawrence, reptile and amphibian supervisor. “We’re hoping to lead the zoo community in that soon, too.”

On your next Zoo visit, stop by the Herpetarium to see one of our crocodile monitors and congratulate our reptile keepers on their new perentie monitor babies. (We don’t have plans to make the hatchlings viewable to the public right now, but promise to let you know if that changes!)

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A teacher’s perspective: Working on Dallas Zoo’s Texas horned lizard project

A teacher measures the size of a wild Texas horned lizard for Dallas Zoo’s population research.

Dallas Zoo’s reptile keepers recently ended their eighth year studying the life history of Texas horned lizards on the 4,700-acre Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in Fisher County, Texas. By collecting lizard life history data, we hope to shed valuable light on the ecology of this threatened native Texan that is now in decline throughout much of its range. Earlier this year, Dallas-area teachers joined us for our first-ever Texas Horned Lizard Teachers Expedition. Teacher Cara Kailukaitis shares her story on ZooHoo! 

Reptile Supervisor Bradley Lawrence inserts a tag (similar to a pet microchip) into a lizard.

This summer, I had the pleasure of attending the first-ever Texas Horned Lizard Teachers Expedition offered through the Dallas Zoo. When I saw this on the website, I knew I had to attend. Twenty years ago I

did my high school senior research report on these amazing creatures. Finally being able to study these tough little lizards up close and handle them was very fulfilling.

I have always loved nature and as an informal educator I’ve tried to pass this along to homeschoolers. Working with young children is very rewarding and they often bring a smile to my face. But getting a chance to do actual field work with other professionals and teachers was a great change of pace.

Throughout the expedition weekend, I was able to do transect field studies, examine scat and tracks, and help find and take measurements on the Texas horned lizards. What the schedule failed to mention was

The research team, including Cara pictured third from right.

that we would be diving out of four wheelers and grabbing horned lizards as they tried to scurry away. It felt like I was living an episode of The Crocodile Hunter. All that was missing is the guy yelling “crikey!”

While I went to learn about the Texas horned lizard, I also had the opportunity to meet with the interns at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch where the field trip was conducted. They shared a wealth of knowledge about not only the quail but other flora and fauna in the area.  Seeing their efforts put the techniques we were learning about, like transect studies, into perspective. Rather than being just an idea in a book, these techniques were brought to life in front of us. Their efforts to protect the quail have the added benefit of helping the lizards, as well.

All fun aside, I want everyone to know how important it is to reconnect with nature and preserve our environment. The ranch is an oasis in the middle of oil rigs and empty cotton fields. With 94-percent of Texas land in private ownership, it is doubly important that such places exist. Without this space, Texas horned lizards, quail, and many other indigenous species would be homeless.  While at the ranch I could envision the bison that once roamed across this land and wonder what animals will still be here in 50 years. I would love for everyone to make time for an opportunity like this to see just how interconnected we all are.

I’m so thankful for the opportunity the Dallas Zoo gave me to participate in this event and can’t wait for another field trip! A huge thank you to Colin Johnson with Dallas Zoo Education team; reptile keeper Shana Fredlake; and reptile supervisor Bradley Lawrence for making this trip possible, and the staff at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch for all that you do to help protect this environment for future generations.

*If you’d like to be part of an Educator Workshop, check out all of our upcoming programs.

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Working towards a ribbiting recovery: Rescuing the dusky gopher frog

An additional pond created for the dusky gopher frog in DeSoto National Park

An additional pond created for the endangered dusky gopher frogs in DeSoto National Forest.

It was nearly a year ago that Ruston Hartdegen, the Dallas Zoo’s curator of Herpetology, found himself driving deep into the pine woods of the DeSoto National Forest on a mission to save a species on its last leg – the dusky gopher frog.

While the origional 180 tadpoles that Hartdegen picked up have now metamorphed into frogs, the Zoo’s work is not done yet. The dusky gopher frog isIMG_9163 Gopher Frog CS still considered critically endangered with populations endemic to only Glen’s Pond, Mike’s Pond, and McCoy’s Pond within the DeSoto National Forest in Mississippi.

These spotted amphibians will remain in human care at the Zoo until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finished developing a full recovery plan for the species. Though the Zoo will retain a number of the frogs as part of the Species Survival Plan program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to identify suitable places for the experimental re-introduction of this species, possibly beginning in 2018.

“The current remaining wild populations are very limited and under intense monitoring. Previous habitats where animals have been extirpated are not likely to recover in a short period of time,” said Hartdegen.

The tadpoles await transport in the research lab at the DeSoto National Forest.

The tadpoles await transport in the research lab at DeSoto National Forest.

In late January, it was Bradley Lawrence, the Zoo’s reptile and amphibian supervisor, who found himself making the nine hour drive back to

the remote Mississippi coast to pick up more tadpoles – but transporting a critically endangered species is no easy task, even the second time around.

The Zoo received four groups of thirty-two tadpoles – over 120 dusky gopher frogs in total. Each group of tadpoles comes from a separate egg mass, meaning that these groups are all of different parentage. In order to drive the tadpoles to the Zoo, these groups were each placed in five gallon buckets filled with water. Using an air pump, oxygen was run to each of the containers for the duration of the trip.

“I tried desperately to keep the tadpoles from shifting around on the drive back. I stopped every couple of hours to check on them,” said Lawrence. “Ultimately, they all made it here safely.”

Like their predecessors, these dusky gopher frogs will be part of the Species Survival Plan program. In the future, some will likely be used in

Bradley Lawrence snaps a selfie with the precious cargo en route to Dallas.

Lawrence snaps a selfie with the precious cargo en route to Dallas.

breeding efforts while others may be released back into their native longleaf pine wetlands – an ecosystem that has been devastated by continued habitat loss. But conservation efforts shouldn’t start and end at the Zoo gates; there’s plenty that you can do at home.

“Many of the world’s amphibians can be helped in the same way whether you live in Texas, Central America, Africa, or wherever: conserve water, don’t pollute, and recycle,” says Lawrence. “Water pollution, loss of habitat, and depleted ground water all hurt amphibian populations.”

Check out these conservation tips from our Green Team that you can follow at home in order to help save the dusky gopher frog.

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Bob Butsch: Our longest Keeper’s Aide volunteer

“Our volunteers are simply amazing! They bring a wealth of knowledge, skill, and enthusiasm that is unmatched. We could not accomplish what we do here without them. Together, we are building a better world for animals.”

~ Julie Bates, director of Dallas Zoo’s Volunteer Services

Long before the Dallas Zoo had an organized volunteer program,_mg_5396-bob-butsch-4x6-cb Bob Butsch spent his Saturdays helping take care of various animals in the Herpetarium where our reptiles reside. For free!

As of today, he’s our longest serving Keeper’s Aide volunteer, having volunteered almost every Saturday for nearly 30 years. (Yes, three decades.) If you do the math, half a day for 50 Saturdays out of the year for 29.5 years totals 5,900 hours! That’s 245 days. Can you imagine having that under your “Volunteer” tab on your resume? Wow.

Additionally, he’s been in the Herpetarium longer than anyone, including keepers and curators. Bob began as a volunteer at the Zoo on Memorial Day weekend in 1987. On a trip to the Zoo with his wife and then 2-year-old son, he wondered about putting his master’s degree in biology to work. He called the Zoo’s Education Department, who told him they had no openings for volunteer docents (who answer guests’ questions). They directed him to the reptile department, who took him in.

He’s had a weekday job for even longer, where he does IT programming for a medical company. But he graduated with his bachelor’s in Biology and Chemistry at the University of Texas-Arlington, then went on to complete his master’s in Biology at the University of North Texas. Volunteering at the Zoo, for him, is a way to exercise his knowledge in a meaningful way.

In 1987, he started out answering guests’ questions as a docent. After his first few months, a reptile keeper took him behind the scenes to give him an impromptu “evaluation.” This simply involved seeing how well he could handle the animals. After he handled a snake with no fear, he became a Keeper’s Aide Volunteer.

In July 1991, Bob Butsch was recognized at Dallas Zoo's volunteer of the month.

In July 1991, Bob Butsch was recognized at Dallas Zoo’s volunteer of the month.

Ever since, he’s worked with various animals in the Herpetarium, including amphibians and reptiles of all kinds. He’s done every job available to volunteers for this department. While he has helped in several different ways, he still must follow the rules specific to volunteers, despite his long career of volunteering.

“As a volunteer, I’m only allowed to do certain jobs,” he said. “In the reptile department, it is very important to follow the rules, because of the dangers that are present with venomous creatures.”

Yet he’s been around on Saturdays for so long that nobody has to watch over his shoulder as he goes about his work. “It’s really flattering when I come in,” he said. “They hardly bat an eye.” That’s the ultimate sign of trust that he’ll do the job right.

He’s seen many changes at the Zoo over the years, like the fact that the Herpetarium used to be an aviary, with birds and reptiles coexisting in the same building. He’s also lived through the replacement of the entire AC unit, taking care of animals out in the lobby so they were out of the way for the workers. And construction, lots of construction, as the Zoo remodeled and improved exhibits.

So why has he continued to volunteer 50 Saturdays out of the year for 29 years? The answer is simple: “The work I do is therapeutic for me, and it’s wonderful to come work in an environment full of happy friendly people who really love what they do.”

As for us at the Zoo, we love having such a dedicated and happy volunteer helping us build a better world for animals.

For information on how you can volunteer at the Zoo, check out our Volunteer page.

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