Maintaining the Tropics in a Less-Than-Tropical Environment

| April 11, 2014

Whether you originated in the Northern states, or are a Texas native, it is safe to assume that we can all come to the same consensus – this winter was a rough one. Aside from the extra layers of clothing and unpleasant driving conditions, subfreezing temperatures and prolonged cold spells are a cause for concern when you are home to a multitude of tropical and subtropical plant and animal species. Fortunately for us at the Aquarium, most of our plants and animals can be found in our Orinoco Rainforest and Mundo Maya exhibits, where they are able to spend the year in a stable, climate-controlled environment.

If you have been through the South Africa/Madagascar section of the Aquarium the past few months, chances are you’ve seen some of the different ways we keep our outside animals warm and comfortable through the colder winter months. During this time, we rely on a series of water heaters, tarps, and heat lamps to help keep the air and water temperatures elevated. Visibility can be limited during this time, but these modifications are needed to help keep the animals comfortable and healthy.

Owing to the influence of the coastal trade-winds from the Indian Ocean, the local climates on the island of Madagascar are dependent not only on the season, but on the elevation and the location around the coast. Habitats range from tropical rainforest on the east coast, to a cooler, drier climate along higher elevations of the central highlands, to desert conditions on the southwest coast. At the Aquarium we have amphibians and reptiles representing each one of these climates, but even with heaters and heat lamps it becomes difficult to keep these animals warm enough through the winter months. Unlike birds and mammals, the reptiles and amphibians are ectothermic, or “cold-blooded”. This means that they cannot produce their own body heat, and are dependent upon external sources to regulate their body temperature. Ectotherms originating in more northern locations have adapted to seasonal drops in temperature by entering state of brumation, which is very similar to hibernation in mammals where they almost become dormant until the weather warms back up. Because our Malagasy amphibians and reptiles do not employ this survival technique, when the weather starts to get cold, these animals are relocated to their winter-holding enclosures inside, where temperature and humidity can be better maintained.

This spring, as temperatures slowly make their way back up, we will be introducing some new species of frogs, lizards, and snakes to the Madagascar collection. The Painted mantella (Mantella baroni) is a small, vibrant frog from the moist, lowland forests of Madagascar, which is similar to the poison-dart frogs of South America. The Mossy Leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae) is a medium-sized, flat-bodied lizard that has the ability to change its skin color to match its surroundings, with dermal flaps that are used to break up its outline while perching, making it nearly impossible to see while at rest. The Madagascar tree boa (Sanzinia madagascarensis) is a medium-sized constrictor that, unlike its name suggests, can often be found in both arboreal and terrestrial locations. In addition to the new animal species, you will also see a variety of new trees and flowers lining the pathways around the South Africa sections.

In addition to these new arrivals, we will also be bringing back some old favorites, including the Panther chameleons, the Meller’s chameleons, the Madagascar giant day gecko, the Madagascar Big-headed turtle, and the Tomato frogs. Unfortunately, poaching and habitat destruction and modification continue to pose a significant threat to the native flora and fauna of Madagascar. Here at the Aquarium we are involved with the Radiated tortoise Species Survival Plan (SSP) through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and we currently have three of these Critically Endangered tortoises on display. As they get older, in addition to serving as animal ambassadors, these tortoises may go on to breed with individuals from other zoos and aquariums, helping to ensure a future for their species.

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