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Back from the brink: Houston Zoo raising, releasing endangered species

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    These Houston toads were among 634 adult toads that were recently transferred to Texas State University before being released in a pond at Bastrop State Park. (Courtesy: Houston Zoo)

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    Incubators at the Houston Zoo are currently full of Attwater’s prairie chicks like these. They will be released into the wild in coming months, zoo officials said. (Courtesy: Houston Zoo)

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    This green sea turtle was discovered in a fresh water pond in southwest Houston last year and has since been rehabilitating at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s sea turtle facility in Galveston. (Courtesy: Houston Zoo)

Endangered animals in Texas are getting a second chance at life thanks to the Houston Zoo.

The Attwater’s prairie chicken, the Houston toad and five species of sea turtles are being rehabilitated to be released into the wild in coming weeks, according to Peter Riger, the zoo’s vice president of conservation and science.  The grouse-like Attwater’s prairie chicken, which once thrived throughout coastal Texas and Louisiana, are now believed to number less than 100 in the wild.

“The zoo is a vital link to getting these animals back into the landscape,” Riger said. “At this point, they need assistance. Their numbers are too low to rebound on their own.”

Riger said the zoo has recently tended to 200 Attwater’s prairie chicken eggs in its incubators after they were carefully transported from its facility at the Johnson Space Center. Once hatched, they will be released at full maturity within a few months, he said.

“At this point, they need assistance. Their numbers are too low to rebound on their own."

- Peter Riger, Houston Zoo

The Houston toad, which was decimated amid extensive drought and urban expansion in Houston during the 1960s, are believed to be in similar dire straits, with just roughly 250 of the nocturnal amphibians remaining in the wild, Riger said.

A total of 634 adult Houston toads were transferred last month to the zoo’s collaborators at Texas State University, where they were kept in large outdoor holding areas to reacclimate to natural conditions before being released into a pond at Bastrop State Park, the site of the species’ largest known population.  Habitat loss and alteration, particularly the disappearance of breeding ponds, are considered to be the most serious threats facing the 3-inch animal.

The zoo’s Houston toad program began in 2007 when the only known egg strands laid by the animals that year were delivered to the Houston Zoo for so-called “head starting” — a way to begin the toad’s life in captivity to release them later upon maturity.

“Since then, we have been building a population at the Zoo to be sure that the toads will not go extinct, as well as releasing toads into the wild to build the population there,” a posting from the zoo’s blog reads. “So far, we have released more than 20,000 toads!”

Zoo officials are also assisting five species of sea turtles rebound from low numbers, including Kemp’s ridley, green, leatherneck, Atlantic hawksbill and loggerhead varieties. Earlier this month, a total of five green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were brought to the zoo’s clinic after being found stranded along the Texas coast.

For one of the turtles, a green sea turtle, it marked its second visit to the zoo after being rescued from a fresh water pond past year. All of the turtles were later returned to the Sea Turtle Barn in Galveston after examinations and will be released into the wild when fully recovered, zoo officials said.

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