'Wild Houston' dives into Bayou City nature

Wild Houston portrays the Texas Gulf Coast city as one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.​ Courtesy of Wild Houston.

June 26, 2024

You may associate Houston with oil refineries and its urban environment, but a new book presents the area as a hotspot for biodiversity and natural beauty. 

Part of the Timber Press Wild Series of nature books for major cities in the U.S., Wild Houston, Explore the Amazing Nature In and Around the Bayou City is an introduction to the Gulf Coastal Plain ecosystem of the Houston area. It's the second Texas title in the series.

Like its predecessor Wild DFW, the book offers a practical field guide on how to enjoy the plants, animals and natural landscape of the ecoregion. 

The 352-page photo-filled guide is divided into three sections: The first explores the natural history of the Houston area. The second acquaints the reader with the species of plants and animals there. And the third is a guide on how to enjoy the natural places in and around the city. 

“That first subsection goes all the way back to Pangea, so it gives you a very quick but relatively detailed view of how Houston got to be where it is today,” says Suzanne Simpson, co-author of the book. 

WIld Houston was published last fall on the heels of Wild DFW's publication. Courtesy of Timber Press.

“Houston at one point in time had some very prehistoric mountain ranges and topography. Houston is well known for being quite flat now — it's the Gulf Coastal Plain. But millions and millions of years ago, it was part of a mountain range that has its remnants in the Ouachitas in Arkansas and Oklahoma. That range extended all the way down to the Gulf Coast area, so that was a fun fact for me as I was doing my research. 

“The second section of the book is a species guide: 101 species that you should know If you live in Houston, and some of those species are going to be very common. No matter where you are in the city or outside the city, chances are you could see that species. Others you'll need to go to a specific location or a specific part of the city to find. So it's a mix of both common, uncommon, unique, sometimes rare — a mix of all the different things that you see while you're spending time in the city. 

“And where you can see those species is found in the third section of the book, which is 25 field trips that you can take. Some of them are centered in the heart of the city — very urban — others are more of a wilderness experience if you'd like to make a day trip and go outside the city.” 


The book offers insight into the unique qualities often overlooked in the more common animal species found in the Houston area and helps readers develop an eye for identifying subtleties in the landscape that are nevertheless major components of the area’s specific ecological character. 

Roseate spoonbills can be seen at coastal parks and refuges in the Greater Houston area, highlighted in Wild Houston. Courtesy of Wild Houston.

“We talk about the opossum —  that's still the only marsupial in North America, but it is a really common find that just about anyone can see,” Simpson says. “And alongside that is the raccoon. And if you took it outside of its context, seeing it every day, they have a lot of really unique adaptations that make them perfect for the city.” 

Among the more unique animals in the book’s list is the flying squirrel, which can be spotted anywhere there’s a suitable habitat for them, such as the campus of Rice University. 

“You can really find them in the midst of the built environment. They're very secretive; you'll more likely to hear them than see them once you learn what a what a flying squirrel actually sounds like. But how cool that we have that species right in the middle of the city,” Simpson says. 

Houston is home to the urban-most population of alligator snapping turtles. Courtesy of Wild Houston.

“Another rare or perhaps lesser known species that's kind of the mascot for the whole thesis of the book is the alligator snapping turtle. That's a species that is ancient. It is a very large freshwater turtle and until recently, and by recently I mean less than 10 years ago, we didn't realize that these turtles have had a long-lived existence in Buffalo Bayou. Buffalo Bayou is our urban-most waterway, so it’s really fascinating to find this species not only present in Buffalo Bayou, but to have a breeding population that is reproducing and actually kind of thriving in the middle of this very urban waterway.” 


Bluebonnets, firewheels and other ubiquitous wildflowers have their place in the book. As do some of the rarer species of plants found only in the Texas Coastal Plain, which are at risk of disappearing unless they’re given more attention. 

The endangered Texas prairie dawn can be found in coastal prairie remnants. Courtesy of Wild Houston.

“We talked about the Texas prairie dawn, which is an endangered species of plants that you can find in some of the Coastal Prairie remnants around Houston, especially on the west side of the city — specifically the Katy Prairie — and what you have in those areas are these things called Mima Mounds where these ancient-formed, small pimples on top of an otherwise flat surface, and this creates a saltier environment. The Texas prairie dawn will be on the edges of those mounds, and that’s their niche. They really need to have that sparse ground cover. They want that direct sunlight and it’s where they want to grow and they don’t want to grow anywhere else.” 

Simpson says the flower resembles a yellow cotton swab and sprawls along the ground. The mounds range from just a few inches tall to a foot in height, and to the untrained eye could just appear to be unremarkable piles in an otherwise flat field. How these ground features were formed is nevertheless a hot topic for debate among geologists. 

"There are a lot of prevailing theories about what formed Mima Mounds, and right now the leading theory is that it was ancient giant pocket gophers, which I think is hilarious and I'm just going to stick to that,” Simpson says. 


The third section of the book brings the first two sections within reach by offering 25 field trips that the reader can take to enjoy the landscape and perhaps encounter the species of the region. 

WIld Houston showcases 25 day trips in the Houston region. Courtesy of Wild Houston.

“People can see many species at some of our swampier locations, so that would be places like Lake Charlotte or Brazos Bend State Park or the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge — people should keep their eye out for the prothonotary warbler. That is a warbler that will hang out in old growth kind of swamp forests. I use the term old growth quite loosely. What I mean is to say mature forests, but you can even find them in forests that are off of U.S. [Route] 59, which is a very busy highway. And in spite of that highway noise and the relative bustle around that area, this very decorative and pugnacious warbler will breed in the cypress trees in those habitats,” Simpson says. 

Readers of the book will discover one of Houston’s most popular natural spectacles that takes place every day during the warm months as the sun sets and the creatures of the night start their routine. 

“The Waugh Bridge Bat Colony is an old favorite that perhaps many people have experienced before,” Simpson says. “And, that is located on Waugh Bridge, which is off of Allen Parkway in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. Thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats will emerge from underneath the bridge, and they will go off and start hunting mosquitoes and other bugs for the rest of the night and then come back and resettle at the bridge.” 

Simpson says a unique ecosystem adaptation has occurred around the bat colony as the black-crowned night herons from nearby Buffalo Bayou Park have developed an appetite for the bats and pluck a few out of the air while they emerge from under the bridge at dusk. 

"If you look at black-crowned night heron on any bird website, you're not going to find Mexican free-tailed bats in its diet preferences. This is a unique situation that they have taken advantage of,” Simpson says. “It’s really cool to see that kind of adaptation.” 

Visit Lake Charlotte to see the largest, westernmost cypress swamp in the country. Courtesy of Wild Houston.

The book also describes the recent transformation of the Houston Arboretum that has come as a result of its own adaptation to a changing climate. 

"The Houston Arboretum is another place that many people have had experiences going to, and the arboretum in the last 10 years has really changed quite a bit, so if people haven't visited recently, they should go because after the major drought that Texas had in 2011, 2012, many of the arboretum trees were very stressed and were dying, Simpson says. 

“Interestingly, a lot of the trees that were stressed and dying were sitting on top of soils that would have historically supported prairie, so the arboretum decided to make a shift in how they manage their habitats to where they now have lots of prairie savannas, lots of grassland ecosystems alongside their more traditional wooded habitats, and so as a result, they're increasing the resiliency to storm and drought events. And we've had plenty of those in state in the last ten years, and the Arboretum has  been able to withstand those. And I think that a fair amount of that credit goes to their adapting what they're managing to the environment. So, the soils are meant to support grassland habitats, and now you're going to see great, beautiful examples of coastal prairie along with the arboretum. There’s still plenty of shade, plenty of wooded areas, but their grassland habitats are a jewel.” 

Among the 25 destinations profiled in the third section, the book highlights Lake Charlotte to the east of the city as an accessible destiny that more Houstonians may want to take advantage of to see the largest, westernmost cypress swamp in the country. 

“It’s basically like our own Caddo Lake that's just less than an hour outside of the city limits. But once you are at Lake Charlotte, you're going to see towering bald cypress trees, Spanish moss — it's really an atmosphere,” says Simpson. 

On the south side of Houston, Attwater Prairie-Chicken National Wildlife Refuge protects a portion of the almost completely vanished coastal prairie habitat and is one of the few spots where such as ecosystem is open to the public. 

"These are places that I want to highlight because it gives the reader an opportunity to experience the prairie that is talked about so much in the book. But the big feature of the national wildlife refuge is that it is home to the endangered Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken,” Simpson says. “They have a managed population. I have been there and never seen it. My co-author John has been there and seen the prairie chickens. So, it's not like a guarantee you're going to absolutely see an Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken when you're there. But you do have that opportunity. 

“The prairie-chickens are very much the size of a chicken, but the males have these very conspicuous yellow throats that they call out during mating season. And that's kind of a very iconic image of the prairie-chicken." 


WIld Houston coauthor Suzann Simpson. Photo by Nicki Koetting.

Authors Suzanne Simpson and John Williams were chosen by Timber Press to write Wild Houston because of their familiarity with the Coastal Plain region. Simpson is a longtime Houston area resident and a certified ecologist with the Ecological Society of America

Williams was born and raised in Victoria, Texas and is a biologist who currently works for an environmental restoration company. He’s also a longtime member of the East Texas Herpetological Society

Wild Houston, Explore the Amazing Nature in and around the Bayou City, is available at Barnes and Noble, on Amazon and from independent book sellers, where you can also find the other Texas title in the Wild Series: Wild DFW, Explore the Amazing Nature in and around Dallas-Fort Worth by Amy Martin, which was released last summer. 

Wild Houston coauthor John Williams. Photo by Bill Bass.

Simpson says the book should appeal to a diverse audience and is intended to dispel a common misperception that the Houston area lacks natural beauty and ecological value. 

“I grew up in Houston, and my teachers would tell me that Houston was basically a wasteland until someone did the good work of developing it, and we all kind of grew up with that understanding — that it was just a useless swamp. What I'm trying to do and what many people in the nature space are trying to do is to debunk that,” Simpson says. “In fact, we’re sitting on one of the most abundant ecosystems in the world. We have so much biodiversity to offer. We’re one of two biodiversity hotspots in the Continental United States. There’s so much offered in this city.” 

“In fact, we’re sitting on one of the most abundant ecosystems in the world. We have so much biodiversity to offer. We’re one of two biodiversity hotspots in the Continental United States. There’s so much offered in this city.” 


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