Reptiles and Amphibians

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.

Categories: Reptiles and Amphibians, Volunteers | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Operation saving horned lizards: A successful tagging season in West Texas

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IMG_0509 TX Horned Lizard - Bradley Lawrence CS

Reptile and amphibian supervisor Bradley Lawrence guest-blogs on ZooHoo!.

We are nearly done with our 2016 Texas horned lizard tagging season at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in Fisher County, Texas. At this point, we haven’t crunched any numbers, but as usual on this 4,700 acre preserve, we are seeing many horned lizards, commonly known as horny toads.

This is Dallas Zoo’s seventh year working on the ranch, studying the life history of this Texas icon. Sadly, their numbers have declined drastically over their natural range. Invasive fire ants, over-collection, habitat destruction, and lack of harvester ants (their main diet), have all contributed to the downfall of our official state reptile.

Which is why our reptile team spends many days on this protected ranch each spring and summer, collecting as much data as we can to shed light on what these lizards need to make a comeback.

Spring can bring some violent weather to the rolling plains of Texas, and this year has been a doozy. My first six evenings out west brought six pretty rough storms, high winds, driving rain and some baseball-sized hail.

Precipitation is crucial to the survival of many species at the study site, including horned lizards. So I can’t complain about the rain. I have to take every opportunity to look for lizards in between the storms. When the sun comes out, so do the lizards.

The resources available to all of the wildlife at the ranch this year are great. I hear quail everywhere, and deer, rabbit, rodents, birds, insects are all abundant. It seems that ground squirrel and rat numbers are climbing quickly.

bradley picking up snakeFortunately, I have seen many healthy, robust rattlesnakes this year, too. Rattlesnakes are crucial to rodent control and the ecosystem – they’re the most efficient way to keep rodent populations in check. They keep rodents from overwhelming native plants, as well as our crops. And most importantly, rattlesnakes protect us from many serious diseases carried by rodents.

While in the field, we also record as much data about the rattlesnake population as we can. About ten years ago, this land was used to hunt rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes were driven from their dens, and were stored off-site in inhumane conditions, then transported to cruel “rattlesnake roundup” festivals and slaughtered in a misguided effort to clear areas of these keystone predators.

Now that rattlesnakes aren’t harvested on this preserve (thanks to the current owners), we’re using this opportunity to look at how they’re doing since they’ve been left alone.

We process each rattlesnake we catch in the same way we do with the horned lizards, but with more safety measures. They are weighed, measured, and their GPS location’s noted. We record their microchip number if they have one, if not we give them one. (The passive integrated transponder tag we insert on horned lizards and rattlesnakes is the same kind of chip used to help identify lost dogs and cats.)

Then we send them off on their merry way, and get back on our ATVs in search of more reptiles.

As summer comes to an end, we start to see many horned lizard hatchings. It makes me hopeful for this threatened animal’s rebound and, of course, ends the tagging season on a great note.

WATCH this awesome video of our trip out to the ranch last year.

Categories: Conservation, Reptiles and Amphibians | 1 Comment

Sea turtle mission: Saving the most endangered in South Texas

Sun, sand, sea … and trash, and baby sea turtles, and a firsthand view of how to make a difference.

A team of 50 Dallas Zoo staff, volunteers, members and community supporters traveled to South Padre Island recently – not for vacation, but for conservation. The mission: Kemp’s ridley sea turtle habitat restoration.

Sea turtle conservation is close to the Dallas Zoo’s heart. Our affiliated Children’s Aquarium has a famous blue-eyed sea turtle named MJ that was rescued by Sea Turtle Inc.

The trip was part of the Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Action Team. Typically, the Zoo is called upon to support conservation organizations through funding or donations, but the Wild Earth Action Team takes it a step further with sweat equity.

“Action seems to be the most direct and powerful way to reinforce conservation identity,” said Ben Jones, dean of the Zoo’s Wild Earth Academy and organizer of the Wild Earth Action Team.

Everything comes back to habitat restoration, and that’s the bulk of the Wild Earth Action Team’s work. Locally they’ve cleaned rivers, planted trees and more. In August, the team will create a monarch butterfly habitat at the Dallas Zoo.

“The Zoo wants to activate our network to help animals, to change the world for wildlife, and this is a way to do it,” Jones said.

Click here to register for the next Wild Earth Action Team project and visit to learn more about sea turtle rehabilitation and release.

(Video and photos by staffer Chelsea Stover)

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Categories: Conservation, Education, Reptiles and Amphibians, Volunteers | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Tiny tortoise, gecko hatchlings are a big deal

_MG_1516-baby Forsten's Tortoise


_MG_1511-baby leaf geckoEvery day, people pour past the front gates of the Zoo to witness our enchanting animals. But this month, some of the most fascinating events took place behind the scenes in our herpetology department.

We’re proudly welcoming two new hatchlings that will be much-needed ambassadors for their species: a satanic leaf-tailed gecko and a Forsten’s tortoise.

If you’ve visited our Herpetarium, you may have walked right past the leaf geckos, thinking the exhibit was empty. These reptiles are masters in camouflage and often go unnoticed by an unsuspecting eye. They dwell in the lush forests of Madagascar, where their leaf-like design provides the perfect cover to hide them from predators. Satanic leaf-tailed geckos are facing a significant decline in the wild as heavy logging wreaks havoc on their habitat. Their incredible design also makes them a much-wanted pet, and they’re often captured and sold illegally.

_MG_1232-Satanic leaf-tailed gecko-CBThe Dallas Zoo is one of only two U.S. institutions to successfully reproduce satanic leaf-tailed geckos. Since this gecko can only be found in a remote region, the select institutions that are lucky enough to host the leafy lizard have a large responsibility to reproduce and study the animal. This little lizard makes baby No. 8 for the Zoo and our herpetologists are beaming with joy at the sight of another successful hatching.

Also, for the first time, the Dallas Zoo is welcoming a baby Forsten’s tortoise to our family, a major breeding success. Found only on the single island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, the Forsten’s tortoise is commonly hunted both for meat and pet trade industries, which has left this species in desperate need of help.

“Our reptile team is very excited to be working with these highly threatened animals and we’re proud of the fact that we’re making a significant contribution to the success of these species in zoological care,” said Ruston Hartdegen, Dallas Zoo’s curator of herpetology.

The arrival of these reptile hatchlings shows that with a little help from passionate people willing to fight for their survival, we can make a difference in their well-deserved comeback.

Categories: Reptiles and Amphibians | 1 Comment

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