The Art of Creating Ecosystems

The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden is home to over 350 unique species, representing thousands of different continents, climates and ecosystems. It takes research, creativity and collaboration among Zoo teams to create enriching and naturalistic environments for the Zoo’s animal family. These immersive habitats not only benefit the Zoo’s animals but also Zoo guests who have the opportunity to experience the world‘s ecosystems and fascinating creatures during their visit.

 The start of any new habitat design begins with a vision. Through animal observations and research regarding the needs of specific species, animal care teams are able to determine which habitat features would best help the animals to thrive. Some habitat designs require extra collaboration, as was the case when the Zoo’s Assistant Curator of Herpetology, Seamus Ehrhard, proposed the creation of two new, multi-species habitats in the Zoo’s Herpetarium building. One habitat would become home to the Zoo’s eight critically-endangered Kaiser spotted newts and two semi-aquatic Anderson’s alligator newts, while the other habitat would serve as home to three eyelash pit vipers and six green and black poison dart frogs. 

Habitat one animals: 

Anderson's alligator newts

Kaiser spotted newts


Habitat two animals:

Eyelash pit vipers

Green and black poison dart frogs

Creating naturalistic multi-species habitats requires specific accommodations for both species. This includes a mix of water sources, terrain and space for the animals to exhibit natural behaviors. Because of the scope of this project, Ehrhard requested the expertise of the Zoo’s exhibits team to transform the herpetology team’s vision into a reality. 

The Zoo’s exhibits team consists of two creative individuals, Exhibit Installation Manager, Jerry Webb, and Exhibit Installation Technician, Cliff Casey. Their day-to-day is usually dedicated to creating signage and managing graphic installation projects throughout the Zoo. Though the team has extensive experience designing animal habitats, Jerry and Cliff had never created habitats of the proposed magnitude and intricacy. Despite this, they chose to embrace the challenge and put their creative talents to work.

In the initial discussion phase, the herpetology team requested a number of features to be implemented into the habitat design. The first habitat wish list included a waterfall and pool with underwater viewing for the fully-aquatic Kaiser spotted newts, and an ample amount of ground space for the semi-aquatic Anderson’s alligator newts, as well as climbing opportunities for both species. The second habitat wish list entailed various climbing areas for the arboreal (tree-dwelling) eyelash pit vipers to utilize and ground space for the dart frogs to explore. 

With those intricate details in mind, Jerry and Cliff moved forward to the construction phase. Using recycled styrofoam, the team started the project by sculpting the animals’ future habitat space, while referring to reference pictures and videos of the species’ native habitats. The styrofoam was transformed into a large, waterfall feature, as well as textured rocks and walls, created with handmade stamps.


Once the waterfall was complete, a filtration system was added to ensure consistent, clean water for the newts. The habitats were then coated in an animal-safe epoxy and painted naturalistic colors of browns and grays. Step by step, the team carefully crafted the new habitats with the thought of the animals enjoying the spaces at the forefront of their efforts. The project took roughly five to six weeks from concept to completion.

When the habitats were officially installed in the Herpetarium building, caretakers added luscious trees and plants from the Zoo’s horticulture team for the animals to enjoy. Thanks to Cliff and Jerry’s creativity and dedication, the newts, frogs, and pit vipers are now thriving in their new habitats that closely replicate their wild ecosystems.

Habitat one - Kaiser spotted newts and Anderson's alligator newts: 

Habitat two - eyelash pit vipers and green and black poison dart frogs: 

Several months after installation, caretakers were thrilled to learn that the Zoo’s critically-endangered Kaiser spotted newts bred, and the Zoo’s Herpetarium is now home to six juveniles. Two juveniles are on public view in the habitat, while the others remain behind the scenes. This breeding success is a true testament to the enriching environment that was created for the newts.

Juvenile Kaiser spotted newt

Visit the Zoo Herpetarium building to view these immersive habitats for yourself.

Juvenile photo: Katie Porth 

Posted by Sabrina Heise at 08:53
Share |
Search the site