Living on a prairie

Houston conservationist is helping to find new ways to protect local species and ecosystems

Memorial Park, which is currently undergoing a master plan renovation, and other Houston parks can be a great opportunity for introducing urban conservation inside the city limits. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

The Houston toad is a species that was discovered in Harris County in the 1950s. It has a very distinct, loud call that reverberates at quite a high pitch. But the Houston toad's call hasn't been heard in the city of Houston for almost 50 years. The species is locally extinct and critically endangered elsewhere. In fact, it's the most endangered amphibian in North America, says Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership.

"When we think about extinction, we think of the dodo bird or the woolly mammoth," Johnson says. "But extinction is happening right underneath our noses."

The Houston Zoo has a breeding facility for Houston toad, but other than that, it's extremely unlikely that the Houston toad will ever reside naturally in its namesake city.

"We have modified the environment so heavily, that it'd be a bit of a dicey thing to do [to reintroduce the species] because there are so few of them, it's better to focus on an environment where it's still OK for them," Johnson says. The largest population of the Houston toad is actually in Bastrop, however due to the Bastrop fires in 2011, the species is only just recently back to a good place even there.

Johnson is giving a free lecture in April at Rice regarding extinction, where she'll bring her Astros-named Houston toads, Springer and Julia Morales, as her teacher aids.

Changing tides in conservation
As cities like Houston continue to be developed, scientists and researchers are challenged with finding new ways to effect conservation. Johnson says within the industry, there's been a shift in thinking when it comes to preserving nature.

"There's a new burgeoning movement in conservation called urban conservation," she says. "For a long time, if you talked to the traditional conservationists, the idea of conservation is to protect big spaces — the national and state park systems are the perfect example."

But large parks are expensive and a huge undertaking. It's still the strongest form of conservation, but introducing conservation efforts in a city — perhaps in some of Houston's parks, like Memorial Park or Hermann Park — helps not only the species of animals involved, but also educates the local population and forms a connection with residents.

"That has a twofold kind of benefit," Johnson says. "It protects the greenspace so species to live with us, and then also it makes the connection to this place we try to protect."

Of course, this type of effort is new, and there's not a lot of data to show how this would affect the ecosystem and its species, from the migratory and genetic diversity standpoints. Despite the lack of data, Johnson says this type of effort needs to happen.

"We're going to continue to manipulate the world, and maybe if we started thinking about this now, that we can get to a point were we understand enough were we can make these some sort of functioning ecosystem," she says.

Part of the shift in thinking about these ecosystems has to do with new ways of tracking species and understanding their environments.

"Technology is helping us ask a lot of these questions," Johnson says. "Ecology is surprisingly complicated. There's so many variables. ... I think technology and our advance with computing is definitely going to help us understand it."

Using preservation to solve flooding
The educational component is also very important to conservation, and Johnson is making strides on campus with her class. Last year, her department and her class introduced a pocket prairie right on the Rice campus.

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Of course, there are other flood solutions being discussed — some even incorporating tech or even a tube system underground.

"Historically, there has been some budding of heads between the environment and technology, but I really think moving forward, those two fields have to work together. We need to use technology to save the environment," Johnson says. "I think Houston is one of the places where that conversation is starting to happen."

Missing the toads

Courtesy of Cassidy Brown Johnson

The Houston toad has been locally extinct since the 1970s.

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Building Houston

 
 

Axiom Space — along with Collins Aerospace — are teaming up with NASA to create the next generation of astronaut gear. Image via NASA

Two startups — including Houston-based Axiom Space — have been tasked with helping NASA gear up for human space exploration at the International Space Station and on the moon as part of a spacesuit deal potentially worth billions of dollars.

NASA recently picked Axiom and Collins Aerospace to help advance spacewalking capabilities in low-earth orbit and on the moon by outfitting astronauts with next-generation spacesuits. While headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, Collins has a significant presence in the Houston Spaceport.

This deal will help support landing the first woman and the first person of color on the moon as part of NASA’s return to our lunar neighbor. The equipment also will help NASA prepare for human missions to Mars.

Under this agreement, NASA, Axiom and Collins “will develop advanced, reliable spacesuits that allow humans to explore the cosmos unlike ever before,” Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, says in a news release. “By partnering with industry, we are efficiently advancing the necessary technology to keep Americans on a path of successful discovery on the International Space Station and as we set our sights on exploring the lunar surface.”

Axiom and Collins were chosen under an umbrella contract known as Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS). The contract carries a potential value of $3.5 billion.

Michael Suffredini, co-founder, president, and CEO of Axiom, says his company’s “innovative approach to xEVAS spacesuits provides NASA with an evolvable design that enables cost-efficient development, testing, training, deployment, and real-time operations to address a variety of EVA needs and operational scenarios for a range of customers, including NASA.”

Axiom’s partners on this project are KBR and Sophic Synergistics, both based in Houston, along with Air-Lock, David Clark Co., Paragon Space Development, and A-P-T Research.

NASA says Axiom and Collins will own the spacesuits, and are being encouraged to explore non-NASA commercial applications for data and technology they co-develop with the space agency.

The EVA & Human Surface Mobility Program at the Johnson Space Center is managing the xEVAS contract.

NASA astronauts have needed updated spacesuits for years.

“The decades-old spacesuit designs currently in use on the International Space Station are well past their prime. NASA had been working on new suits and showed off a patriotic prototype of a moonwalking outfit — called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU — back in 2019,” according to CNET.

A 2021 report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General called out delays in developing the spacesuits that would make a proposed 2024 human moon landing unfeasible, CNET says. Now, Axiom and Collins, instead of NASA, will create the spacesuits. Demonstration-ready spacesuits are supposed to be ready in 2025.

The spacesuit deal is the latest in a string of milestones for Axiom.

Axiom recently broke ground on its new headquarters at Houston Spaceport. There, the company will build Axiom Station, the world’s first commercial space station.

Axiom also recently welcomed home the crew of Axiom Mission 1 after their successful completion of the first all-private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. The crew came back to earth in a SpaceX capsule. The company has signed agreements with several countries, including Italy, Hungary, and the United Arab Emirates, for future space missions.

Axiom recently tapped Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei as its first international professional astronaut. He currently is being trained in Houston and will serve as a backup on Axiom Mission 2.

Founded in 2016, Axiom employs more than 500 people, most of whom work in Houston. The company expects its workforce to exceed 1,000 employees by 2023.

To date, Axiom has raised $150 million in venture capital.

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