Reptiles and Amphibians

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

‘Living fossils’: Meet our rare reptiles from the dinosaur eras

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What if we told you dinosaurs were living right here is Dallas? That would sound crazy, right? Well, it’s true.

While they’re not the towering, fierce giants of the Jurassic that you’re picturing, tuataras are the only surviving member of a distinct reptilian order, Sphehodontia, which lived alongside early dinosaurs 200 million years ago in the Upper Triassic period.

Māori priest blesses the tuataras during Dallas Zoo’s welcome ceremony.

Their small size and dusty brown scales may not catch the eye of many Zoo visitors, but these “living fossils” have one of the most fascinating stories of all of our residents. Don’t be fooled by their scaly skin and long tails – the tuatara isn’t your average lizard!

Tuataras are incredibly rare. They are found only in remote areas of New Zealand or in a few lucky institutions across the globe. The Dallas Zoo is one of only four U.S. zoos to receive permission to host the rare reptile. Not only does the New Zealand government have to grant approval for the export, but a tribe of native New Zealanders also must agree that the export has direct benefits to the species in the wild. When the tuataras arrived here in 1992, a Māori priest came along with them to perform a special blessing for the animals in their new home.

They may have lived through the extinction of dinosaurs, but unfortunately tuataras aren’t indestructible. Oddly enough, one of the biggest threats to their survival is small enough to fit in your hand – rats! Tuatara eggs must incubate 12 to 15 months before hatching, which gives the rats and other predators plenty of time to sneak into the den to steal a snack.

IMG_3692-tuatara-4x6Fortunately, it’s not too late to save these animals from extinction. The Dallas Zoo has donated thousands of dollars to our tuatara conservation partners in New Zealand to fund work in their natural habitat. Because tuatara eggs are so vulnerable in the wild, one of the best ways to ensure the survival of this species is through zoological breeding programs.

“We’re thrilled to be able to work with tuataras and have the opportunity to share with the public a totally unique and ancient lineage of reptile found in very few facilities across the globe,” said Ruston Hartdegen, Dallas Zoo’s curator of herpetology.

We are fortunate to have not one, but three tuataras in our care, and we hope to see that number rise soon. Unlike most reptiles, tuataras don’t breed until they’re 13 to 20 years old, and our two females and male have reached maturity. Veterinary staff recently performed a check-up and are happy to report that all three are in great health. With a little luck and a lot of patience, we hope to welcome the next much-needed generation of tuataras.


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

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