Let’s start with a quiz: What animals live between the alligator, the meerkats, the giraffes, the rhinos, the Leopard Tortoises, and the zebras and ostriches at the Reid Park Zoo? Answer: Goats, naturally! 

You readers and zoo visitors probably have a lot of questions about goats, but some of them may be answered in our list of FAQs, so let’s go straight to those. 

Q: Are goats the same thing as sheep? If not, how can I tell them apart? 

A: Goats and sheep both belong to the family of animals called bovids, but they are distinct types of animals that differ in appearance and behavior. Goats have thinner, hairy coats, while sheep have thick, wooly coats. Goats have a continuous upper lip, while sheep have a groove in the middle that separates the lip into two parts. Goat tails point up, while sheep tails point down. Most goats have horns, and the horns are relatively narrow and straight. Only some sheep have horns, and those horns are usually thicker and curled at the side of their heads. Sheep have no beards, but most goats do. Sheep graze on grass and other plants low to the ground, while goats browse on grass, shrubs, and branches of trees. And although goats have been domesticated for about 10,000 years, they are generally independent and inquisitive, while sheep are generally more docile and, well, sheepish. 

Q: The goats at the Reid Park Zoo are different sizes and colors. Pretty pretty, really. Are they related to each other? 

A: The Zoo’s goats represent three different breeds: Boer goats (a breed that originated in South Africa), Oberhasli goats (Swiss, originally), and Nigerian dwarf goats (originally from West Africa). They are not a single family, as 4 of 5 of the RPZ’s elephants are. 

Q: Are any other animals evolutionarily/genetically related to goats? 

A: The animal family for goats, the bovids, also includes gazelles, African antelope, bison, sheep, and cattle. Animals in this family are called even-toed ungulates, or Arteriodactyla. 

Q: Can you say more about goats’ beards? 

A: Beards are common on male goats, but some female goats have beards, too. As for the shape of that beard, have you ever heard of a style of beard on men that’s called a “goatee”? Any guesses where that name comes from? 

Q: How about the horns? What are they made of? 

A: Goats’ horns are true horns. That is, they have a core of living bone that is covered by keratin (the same protein as in fingernails and hair). Goats do not shed and regrow their horns the way deer shed and regrow antlers. Both male and female goats have horns, but horns on males are larger and more visible. 

Q: We have also seen goats in petting zoos and on farms, but are there any wild goats anywhere? Are they endangered? 

A: Most of the earth’s wild goats live in mountains in Asia, mainly from Turkey to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are related to domesticated goats, but they are not the same species. Some species of wild goats are considered endangered, although in some cases the remote ruggedness of their natural habitats makes it hard to get an accurate count of their numbers. 

Q: Do goats really eat tin cans? 

A: Not exactly. First of all, those cans are made of steel or aluminum, not tin. But never mind, you want to know whether goats eat them. Sort of, but not really. Goats have a strong bite and can crunch through some tough things, but they can’t chew up or digest metal. They sometimes do eat the labels off cans, though, and in a picture that might look like the goat is eating the can. They also eat paint off license plates. 

Q: What do goats eat, then? 

A: Pretty much any plant, with a few exceptions for plants that are toxic to them. They also eat plant-based material like paper or cardboard. 

Q: During a recent visit to the zoo, I saw a staff member in the goat area holding out a stick with a colored, foam ball at its tip and giving a goat a reward when it touched its nose to the ball. What was that? 

A: You got to see a goat training session! Most of the animals in the zoo participate in training – using only positive reinforcement, never negative reinforcement, or punishment. Training helps animal care staff members to maintain the animals’ health, for instance by allowing staff to draw a blood sample when needed, and to enrich their quality of life. In the case of the goats, a staff member might use a training session to encourage the goats onto a new climbing structure in their habitat, for example. The zoo’s animals are never trained to do tricks or entertain. We plan to write more about training animals at Reid Park Zoo in future blog articles. 

Q: Can you drink goat’s milk? How does it taste? 

A: Goat’s milk must be safe to drink, because they sell it in supermarkets and grocery stores, right? Taste is a matter of taste, I suppose. Some people probably love it. I don’t think you can get a goat’s-milk latte at Starbucks, though. 

Q: How about goat’s milk cheese? 

A: One word: yummy! 

Q: Do people use goat hair for anything? 

A: Yes, definitely! For example, hair shorn from the Angora breed of goats is used to make a “luxury fiber” call mohair, which is lustrous and warm, sometimes used to make scarves. And cashmere, another luxury fiber known to be very soft and warm, comes from the shorn hair of cashmere goats. Cashmere goats originally lived wild in the Himalayan mountains, but now live domesticated in large numbers. Shawls made from the fine hair of these goats originally were produced mainly in the Kashmir region of present-day India and Pakistan, which is how the goats and the fiber got the name, cashmere. 

Q: What are some other uses for domesticated goats? 

A: Weed whacking! Goats will eat just about any kind of plant up to the height they can stretch to when they stand on their hind legs – up to about 9 feet high. Because of this, goats have been used for some years to clear brush from terrain that is too steep or littered to be mowed by machine. A new development in this field is bringing in goats to clear brush around buildings in areas that are prone to wildfires. And now, if you want to try goats for clearing weeds at your house, you won’t even have to buy the goats – you can rent them

Q: People used to call me and my little sister kids, but I know “kid” is the word for a baby goat. Did those people really think we were baby goats? 

A: That’s funny, but I know you’re just kidding. Speaking of which, “kidding” is the word for when a female goat gives birth…to kids! 

Q: Where can I get a wooden climbing structure like the one the goats at RPZ have? 

A: You might contact the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. The goats’ climbing structures at the Reid Park Zoo were built by local Boy Scouts, but I’m sure Girl Scouts could build things like that, too. 

Q: Will the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion include goats? 

A: I don’t think goats are part of the current plan for Pathway to Asia, although as I mentioned above, there are wild goats in Asia, so goats in the new expansion wouldn’t necessarily be out of place. 

Q: Why has the Pathway to Asia expansion been delayed so long, and is there any news? 

A: This blog and website always aim to focus on the positive, so I will just say stay tuned, because there may be some good news about the Reid Park Zoo expansion coming VERY soon! 

Tucson is a popular tourist destination for lots of reasons – but travelers often return here because of the warm welcome they receive from Tucsonans .  This open welcome is extended every day the Reid Park Zoo, where the staff is welcoming to all, and especially mindful of guests of all ages who may have special needs.  Research has shown the many benefits of visiting a zoo and interacting with animals, and The Reid Park Zoo meets all ADA guidelines and goes above and beyond  to offer these benefits to one and all.   

For example, if  you don’t like big crowds, they can advise you of the best times to visit.  There are stroller and wheelchair rentals.   The Zoo allows trained service animals to accompany you on the grounds (except inside the aviaries, where lots of birds are just walking around), and the website even has a map to identify areas where the sensory experiences (sounds, smells, and so on) might be a bit more intense.

A magical night

But every other year, there is a magical night at the Reid Park Zoo, only open to special children, (those who are differently-abled or have special healthcare needs) and their families.  DreamNight is a free event where everyone can enjoy the Zoo without concern for social stigma, the overstimulation of larger crowds, or worries about accessibility issues.   And don’t worry – these V.I.P. children and their families never need to miss the annual event – The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum also embraces the joy and importance of this wonderful evening and hosts it on alternating years with the Zoo.   Read on to learn about the many special activities and presentations planned for the Zoo’s 2021 event. 

The Origins of DreamNight

Tucson is a wonderful fit for these DreamNight evenings, but can’t claim credit for coming up with the idea.   We have the Rotterdam Zoo, in the Netherlands, to thank for this wonderful tradition.  The first DreamNight was organized for the Rotterdam Zoo in 1996, starting out to serve children from just one specific hospital who were fighting childhood cancer.   Since then, the inclusiveness, imagination and activities offered during this event have grown exponentially as it has been adopted by more than 300 zoos in 35 different countries!    But the warmth of the reception, the interaction with keepers, animals, and volunteers, and the opportunity to experience a zoo in a fun and carefree atmosphere is central to  DreamNights all over the world.

The good people at the Rotterdam Zoo have a special hope – that all zoos and aquariums around the world will decide to reach out to their communities by hosting their own DreamNights.

 What’s Happening: DreamNight 2021 at the Reid Park Zoo

  • This year’s DreamNight is upon us!  The fun will begin for families in the parking lot, where members of the Fire Department and Pima County Sheriff’s Department will have their vehicles – and even a K-9 unit – to show families and answer questions.   In the front plaza of the Zoo, children and their families can meet the Arizona Ghostbusters – a nonprofit that spreads fun and goodwill, complete with Ghostbuster Uniforms, Vehicles, and of course lots of information about slime!
  • The evening is all about creating magic and enjoyment for everyone, and the Zoo’s staff and volunteers truly cherish the opportunity to be a part of it.   It’s a wonderful time to be in the Zoo, because in the calm of the early evening, the animals often exhibit behaviors that guests might not be able to observe during the day.  Zoo keepers and volunteers will be providing special information about the animals, with presentations about the Alligator, the Jaguar, the Rhinos, the Giraffes, the Lions, and of course the beloved African Elephant herd.   
  • There is truly something planned to delight every child.     As families meander through the Zoo, marveling at the animals, they’ll also encounter some other special guests, like members of our own professional ice hockey team, the Tucson Roadrunners.  If fairy tales or seafaring adventures are more to their taste, they can interact with various princesses from Tucson Ever After and the Magic Glam Princesses, or a group of Bleed’n Heart Cove Pirates, or even Mermaid Odette.  As the sun sets, the twinkling lights throughout the grounds will add even more magic to the evening.
  • If special activities are in order, families can enter the central Event Garden, where children can play lawn games, get glitter tattoos, experience science fun from the UA’s Flandrau Science Center, and even meet some special Star Wars characters.  

The Reid Park Zoo is carrying on a wonderful tradition begun 25 years ago in faraway Rottterdam – and a group of very special children (not to mention some excited adults)  in Tucson can’t wait to be a part of it! 

The Reid Park Zoo Expansion website is not produced by the Zoo. We’re a group of concerned Tucsonans who enthusiastically support the Zoo and want you to know more about the Zoo’s value to our community, and especially the amazing animals that the RPZ works to save every day.

Let’s celebrate a relatively unknown, adorable, and appealing animal that nobody wants for a pet!    Because the Southern Tamandua truly defies description, please just click here to see some images.     How about that winsome face?   How about that handsome vest?  How about that little snout with the same circumference as a pencil?    Granted, the posture is a little odd, but really these creatures are built for life in the trees, which is why most people have never seen one.  

It’s an anteater, but….

The Southern Tamandua  (pronounced “ta –man-doo-wah”) is also called the Lesser Anteater, and they share many habits and qualities with their much larger relatives, the Giant Anteaters.  For example, both love to eat ants and termites (though tamanduas only eat about 9,000 per day, not 30,000 like their giant cousins), they have amazing sticky, barbed tongues and specialized digestion to eat those little arthropods,  they have formidable claws on their front feet, and both varieties of anteater have multi-purpose tails.   Both are also found in tropical and subtropical areas of South America.   

The most striking difference between a  Southern Tamandua and a Giant Anteater is size:   the tamandua can grow to about 2.9 feet in length and only weighs up to 18 pounds or so, while Giant Anteaters can grow up to 8 feet and 150 pounds.  Like other anteaters, tamanduas walk on their wrists with the claws facing inward, so as not to impede locomotion or unintentionally stab something.  And for both creatures, the claws’ main function is to dig into ant or termite mounds or into tree bark in search of food.

 The tails of these two relatives are also distinct.   When you picture an anteater, you probably think of a bushy tail that can be used for balance, to wrap around as a blanket, and as an important part of camouflage.    The tamanduas’ tails are really different – they are prehensile and play a big role in helping them climb and stabilizing their positions in trees.  They are covered with short fur on top, but none on the tips or underneath.  They are also used for balance on the ground,  especially when a tamandua needs to wave her frightening, 16-inch center front claws at a predator.    The tamandua is pretty ungainly on the ground, so when confronted by an enemy, running away is not an option, although a quick escape up into the trees might do the trick.  But they do have….

A secret Weapon!

Move over, skunks!   One of the tamanduas’ best defenses against predators like jaguars, margays, and cougars can deter them from quite a distance – a distinctive and distinctively foul odor!   When feeling threatened, or marking territory, these solitary creatures can use their specially-equipped anal glands to emit this most unforgettable aroma, reminding all comers that approaching them is not a pleasant experience.   After all, tamanduas just want to be left alone to forage and rest about 8 hours a day, mostly up in the trees, and to sleep the rest of the time.  Those 9,000 ants don’t provide energy to do much else.    Most tamanduas are nocturnal, maybe because they are often surrounded by swarms of flies and mosquitos during the day (could it be due to the secret weapon?) and prefer to forage under better circumstances at night.

Human/Tamandua Interaction

Well, there’s not much!   In the Amazon, some indigenous people sometimes bring tamanduas to their dwellings in order to control ants and termites.   And they are sometimes hunted for the tendons in their tails, which are used to make rope.  Luckily, the IUCN categorizes them as being of least concern – they are not in danger due to the illegal pet trade, perhaps because they’re not often seen up in the trees, or even in zoos.   

However, many U.S. zoos do have tamanduas, but usually behind the scenes.   This is the case at the Reid Park Zoo, where Southern Tamanduas (they have 3 at present) are considered Ambassador Animals, and occasionally make an appearance on the grounds and participate in educational programs in the community.    If you’re lucky you may get to see one – but whatever you do, don’t get too close or startle him (you do not want to experience the secret weapon)!    In fact, the Reid Park Zoo is especially good at tamandua care and husbandry – so far, they have been able to send 7 offspring to other zoos in the U.S., and right now one youngster is still living with his mother in Tucson!

(The Reid Park Zoo Expansion website is not produced by the Zoo! We’re a group of concerned Tucsonans who want you to know about the current and future animals that our Zoo is working to save, and the value in interacting with nature)

Well, it may not be one of those questions that keeps you awake at night, but if you’ve ever been to a zoo with a large, scaly, toothy,  primitive-looking,  grinning aquatic creature that may not move a muscle, you may have wondered whether it was an alligator or a crocodile.  These two are frequently confused, but really are separate species, and have been for the last 70 million years or so.   And one deserves their shared fearsome reputation way more than the other!


According to the Crocodile Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are 24 distinct species of crocodilians living on earth, and they’re classified into three families:   the Alligatoridae, the Crocodylidae (also called “true crocodiles”), and the Gavialidae, which only include two species, Gharials and Tomistoma.  The Alligatoridae family includes Caimans, too, and there are really only two types of actual alligators, the American Alligator and the Chinese Alligator.  The Crocodylidae is a much bigger family, because these creatures live all over the world – there are 14 distinct species.  

Back to the question!   Alligator or Crocodile?

First of all, there are some well-known differences between these species.  If you see one in the wild, you can probably identify it just based on your own location – Alligators live in the southeastern U.S. and in eastern China; Crocodiles live in Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, North America (one teeny area), South America, and Central America.   And if you’re near salt water, then it’s most likely a Crocodile.   

Unless you happen to be in Dade or Monroe Counties in Florida, or in the Florida Keys, where the American Alligator and the American Crocodile coexist, pretty peacefully in general.  In fact, this is the only area in the world where the two species comingle, but they never breed because they are too genetically different.       

Let’s say you see an American Alligator and an American Crocodile side by side (from a safe distance, of course):   there are a few sure-fire ways to tell them apart.

Head shape:   Alligators have a u-shaped nose.   Crocodiles’ heads are shaped like a long-skinny V.  If you have great binoculars or a zoom lens, you may also be able to see their

Teeth:   When alligators close their jaws, their upper teeth are visible outside their mouths.   When crocodiles do the same, you can see both the upper and lower teeth outside their jaws.   Now, if the light is good, you may be able to see different

Color:  Alligators are usually dark gray – and Crocodiles are mostly light tan or olive color.   But this is affected by their environment, since concealment is an important hunting and survival strategy for them.

General Differences

Size:   Though the two species are similar in size in South Florida, in general crocodiles are larger, growing to about 19 feet, while alligators can reach around 14 feet in length. Record weight for a crocodile is 2,000 pounds, and for an alligator, only half that.    Again, a lot depends on the environments in which they live.

Speed:   Because of their long, muscular tails, both are quick and efficient swimmers.   Alligators can reach about 20 mph in the water, while crocodiles have been clocked at a maximum of 9 mph.  On land, both can “sprint” for a short time, but again the Alligator wins the race, barely:  gators can run about 11 miles per hour, while the consistent crocs run like they swim, at 9 mph.

Strength:  Since crocodiles (especially huge ones like those in Africa and Australia) are so big, they definitely are stronger than alligators.   A good measure of this is the “bite force” of the two species.  The record psi (pounds per square inch) bite force for a croc is 3,700 pounds.   The Alligator record is 2,900 psi – but you wouldn’t want to be in range of either of those sets of jaws!  Which brings us to the matter of…..

Aggression:   We know that both alligators and crocodiles have a reputation as fierce predators and scary, aggressive creatures that would love to hunt you down.    The truth is that Crocodiles are far more dangerous to humans than their smaller cousins the alligators.   In fact, most American Alligators would prefer to be as far from humans as possible – they might only attack a human if they mistook one of us for prey, or if they were defending a nest or their young.  The best advice is to give them space!   

Crocodiles, especially Australian saltwater varieties and the infamous Nile Crocodile, are more aggressive  – and as they are so large with those scary, powerful jaws, are much more to be feared by humans.   In fact, there’s actually a website called CrocBITE which keeps a database of crocodilian attacks worldwide, and they have found definitively that the Nile Crocodile is the one we should give the MOST space.      

But this is good advice for any kind of encounter with a wild animal!  Whether you happen upon a rattlesnake here in the desert, a bear in the mountains, or a gator or croc in the wetlands, the best advice is to calmly steer clear and respect the animal’s territory and space.   


So come to the Reid Park Zoo and meet their American Alligator –  but when the Reid Park Zoo expansion opens and you rush to see the Komodo Dragon, please keep in mind that he is not as closely related to the alligator as you think!    Read on if you’d like to know why crocodilians are more closely related to birds than to lizards………

The Very Beginning – The Archosaurs

Common sense tells us that two types of reptiles, such as alligators and crocodiles, that look so similar, surely have a common ancestor, and they do.   Surprisingly, this is also a common ancestor of BIRDS, so that same common sense will fail you if you assume that the alligator or crocodile you’re wondering about is just a giant aquatic lizard.  

Though crocodilians ARE reptiles, they are much more closely related, genomically speaking, to birds.    Oh, and to the delight of children especially, who can guess this without being told, they are also closely related to dinosaurs, which may account for their uniquely primordial charm.  Reptiles evolved from amphibians approximately 320 million years ago, and mammals and birds evolved from reptiles about 120-180 million years later.

Archosaurs, also called “The Ruling Reptiles,” exist in the fossil record from the early Triassic period, 245 million years ago.  They were classified by scientists in part because of their unique skull structures (with teeth in sockets and room for lots of jaw musculature).  The best-known Archosaurs were the dinosaurs, of course, some of whom had beaks and could fly.    When the late Cretaceous period ended, about 65 million years ago, most of the dinosaurs and some of the crocodilians disappeared, and it’s around this time that alligators and crocodiles had an evolutionary parting of the ways.  But it’s fair to say that today’s birds and crocodilians are not “living fossils,” as they’re often called,  but living Archosaurs.


 What do you think of when conservation comes to mind?  Is it merely a pleasant but abstract concept, or is it something that you do externally such as attending your Zoo and participating in the giraffe feed? Is it something you do daily at a more personal level, such as using less single-use plastic or recycling your bottles and towel rolls, taking shorter showers, or carpooling to work?  If your conservation actions in the larger community and in aspects of your personal life overlap, then you’re taking a step in a common,  meaningful, and impactful direction.

Start At the Zoo

The issue of conservation is complex and it permeates everything we do.   Every day and every action at The Reid Park Zoo is designed to educate the public by exhibiting concrete conservation measures.  As  members of an AZA-certified zoo ,  the staff at Tucson’s Zoo realizes that all animals in their care (those visible to you in their  habitats, as well as the ones behind the scenes who sometimes appear with an educator on Zoo grounds or travel out into the community to delight Tucsonans and advocate for conservation)  are ambassadors for their species.  These animal ambassadors enable staff to not only study animal behavior; they also allow their caretakers and the public to study them in order to bolster animal diversity and preserve the ecosystems they are part of. 

In addition to supporting conservation funds, your zoo experience envelops you in the ‘4R’ concepts of Reduce Reuse, Refuse, and Recycle. ‘Reduce’ the amount of waste you generate; ‘Reuse’ as many recyclable products as possible; ‘Refuse’ the usage of single-use products such as plastic straws; and ‘Recycle’ items that are eligible for recycling

 Phone Apps

 There are apps that can be downloaded to your smart phone to support conservation measures endorsed by Reid Park Zoo such as Seafood Watch, which allows you to learn about sustainable fishing practices and support these in your own shopping.    Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has created an app to help you learn about and support sustainable palm oil practices by identifying the source of palm oil used in commonly- purchased grocery items.   About palm oil – it seems to be everywhere, but it has an outsized impact on wildlife conservation when it’s not produced sustainably.    Specifically, orangutans are a vulnerable species because of unsustainable palm oil practices, but they’re not the only ones.   Palm oil agricultural practices (and habitat loss) are central to the plight of tigers, who are critically endangered.

 Conservation Guests

 Reid Park Zoo has been lucky to host conservation enthusiasts such as Dr. Laurie Marker of ‘The Cheetah Conservation Fund ; Joel Sartori , an avid photographer whose ‘Photo Ark’ project is seeking to document the world’s animals in an attempt to foster awe and support for animal diversification; and The Anteaters and Highways project  run by Dr. Arnaud Desbiez , a project which  gets financial support from  the Reid Park Zoo.    By the way, on Dr. Desbiez’s more recent visit to Tucson’s zoo, where he offered presentations about his amazing project in Brazil, he noted how large and well-fed the Zoo’s Giant Anteaters are; this is great news, because this pair has a breeding recommendation and are being slowly re-introduced to one another this very summer!      

These are only a few of the in situ conservation projects and professionals that our Zoo supports.  You can see a more comprehensive list of the Reid Park Zoo’s conservation partners on their website (https://reidparkzoo.org/conservation/partners/).    And when the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete, they will be actively engaged in more such projects, particularly on behalf of two critically endangered species, the Malayan Tigers and Rodrigues Fruit Bats.  Through their own research and close care, they will also be supporting threatened species such as Siamang Gibbons, Red Pandas, and Komodo Dragons.  

Personal Conservation

For a list of 50 Personal conservation measures, please check out this site .  Evidence shows that conservation permeates everything we do. No effort is too small to make a difference!  

Want to help?   Visit the Reid Park Zoo, or another AZA-accredited institution – a portion of your admission will be supporting conservation, every time.  By the way, it’s important to determine whether a zoo or aquarium has earned AZA accreditation, because only about 10% of zoos and aquariums in the U.S. meet the high standards to earn this designation.   You want to be sure you’re supporting only the best in animal care and commitment to conservation.

 At home, learn about and begin to practice the 4Rs!  Load an app or two on your phone.  If you can, send a donation to a conservation organization – there are so many established and reputable ones – that work to safeguard a species or an environment that you care about.    

Ring-Tailed Lemurs are so cute they’re the stars of animated movies!   They’re popular pets (though this is illegal).   They are adaptable to many different climates, so they live in zoos everywhere, including at the Reid Park Zoo.  In fact, they seem to be everywhere except where they ought to be. 

Where are they, then?

These amazing and appealing primates are conspicuously missing from the forest canopy of southwestern Madagascar.  Why?  Because the combination of climate change, illegal poaching,  habitat fragmentation, and the illegal pet trade have reduced the Ring-tailed Lemurs’ numbers in the wild by an alarming 95% just since the year 2,000.   They’re now on the list of the 25 most endangered primates on the planet.

What is it about the Ring-Tailed Lemur that makes it so vulnerable?   First of all, they live in a relatively small, isolated area of an isolated island, and so have evolved in a unique way.   Unfortunately for them, this uniqueness is very appealing to humans who like to own small, exotic pets with quizzical faces, distinctive tails, and incredible agility.     Ring-Tailed Lemurs are small, and the males only weigh about six pounds (and females are smaller).     Though their bodies aren’t large, their distinctive striped tails can be as long as 2 feet.  

The good, the bad, and the stinky

The tails have thirteen alternating bands of black and white, and though they are not prehensile, they do serve purposes besides being incredibly cute and distinctive, especially for males.   Have you ever seen those tour-group leaders who carry little flags so that everybody in the group can always follow easily?  Well, troops of traveling Lemurs (who unlike other kinds of lemurs, spend about 40% of their time on the ground)  stick those marvelous tails straight up in the air in order to keep a troop moving together.  

There’s another tail behavior, and it’s a good reason to NOT have a Ring-Tailed Lemur for a pet.   Like many animals in the wild, scent marking is very important to mating and to general claiming of territory and hierarchy within a troop of these primates.    The lemurs have scent glands on their chests and legs, and they use these to mark their foraging routes.   They also use the scent glands for something called “stink battles,” where they coat their tails in the pungent secretions and then flick their tails, kind of like snapping somebody with a wet beach towel, at other individuals; this habit is politely called wafting.   The “fragrance” (not one we humans appreciate) is often enough to establish dominance among males and also to discourage encroaching troops of other lemurs from entering a certain territory.  

Females run the show

But speaking of dominance, Ring-Tailed Lemur troops, which can range from 3 to 30 individuals, are controlled by females.  Dominant females get their first choice of food (they like to eat fruit, flowers, leaves, herbs, small vertebrates – in other words, they’re omnivores) and mates.    In terms of breeding, timing is everything, because the females are only receptive to males once a year – and the invitation to mate lasts only from 6 to 24 hours altogether!   Females generally give birth to just one infant, who will cling to their mother’s belly or back for the first 5-6 months of life.  After a young one is weaned, he or she will be cared for by all the females in the troop.   By the time a male reaches puberty – which is about at the age of 3 years, he’s got to leave and make his way in some other territory.   Females, though, generally stay with a given troop throughout their lives.

The Bad News

So how did native populations of Ring-Tailed Lemurs disappear so dramatically and quickly?  The usual causes – climate change, hunting, habitat fragmentation, and the pet trade all contributed to this decline, but because the Ring-Tailed Lemurs seemed to be so numerous where they didn’t really belong, like in people’s houses, or in animated movies, it took conservationists some time to notice that it was very difficult to find any of them in the wild anymore.     

The Good News

But there’s hope on the horizon.   First of all, once again ecotourism presents a great opportunity to bolster local economies as travelers eagerly anticipate seeing  these appealing creatures in  their natural habitats . Also, in the meantime zoos like the Reid Park Zoo are working steadily on increasing numbers, by participating in a Species Survival Plan for them.    There are also conservation organizations such as the Lemur Conservation Foundation, the Lemur Conservation Network (concentrating on  protecting habitat), and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, all working hard to learn more about  Ring-Tailed Lemurs and keep them alive and well for future generations!

By the way, you can go to the Reid Park Zoo’s website (https://reidparkzoo.org) and take a peek at the ZOO CAM that’s monitoring the troop of three Ring-Tailed Lemurs who call Tucson home! 

(The Reid Park Zoo Expansion website is not produced by the Zoo – we’re a group of Tucsonans who want you to know about the current and future animals that our Zoo is working to save).

Readers of that beloved classic book, Ring of Bright Water, all agree that there is no animal cuter, more active, or more fun to watch than the otter!  So do many visitors to the Reid Park Zoo. Comfortable on land and in the water, otters are superb acrobats. Visit the Zoo and you will see them bat balls and other toys around their pool and dive for toys, food, and just for the joy of it.   Sometimes their play looks like water ballet! 

Six continents are in luck

Otters live on all of the earth’s continents except Antarctica. Fish are their favorite food, although many species of otter also eat crustaceans (such as crabs) and frogs and even insects. Their typically sharp eyesight helps them to see prey, even when it is well camouflaged. They need to eat about 10% of their body weight each day. For an adult human, that would be equal to eating about 15 pounds of food a day!  Maybe if we were as active as these creatures, that might be a reasonable diet for us.

Rivers, oceans, otters

The thirteen species of otters are of two main types: river otters and sea otters. River otters, as you might guess, live in and around rivers and lakes. Sea otters, which generally are larger, live on ocean beaches and hunt for food in the ocean and in tide pools. Within each of these two categories, there are many different species. All are sleek and acrobatic and immensely curious, both on land and in the water. African spotted-necked otters, the species you can see at Reid Park Zoo, are river otters. They are found in the wild in lakes and larger rivers in a large portion of central and west Africa. 

In the mood for a romp?

Otters are so playful that a family of otters is sometimes called a “romp.” That name alone sounds like fun, doesn’t it? And in the water, a group of otters may be called a “raft” because they look like they are stuck to each other. Being very social creatures, some otter species live in groups of up to 20 individuals. How do they communicate with each other?  Mainly by using lots of different kinds of vocalizations, including chirps and whistles and growls. Different calls can warn other otters of danger or send a reassurance of safety. In one fascinating study of giant river otters, each otter family was shown to have its own “language” of vocalizations with different, distinct meanings. 

Great swimmers, and problem solvers too

Otters all have long, sleek bodies that taper into thick, muscular tails. They range from 2 to almost 6 feet long. They typically have short legs and webbed feet – the better to swim with – and those feet are tipped by sharp claws that help them to tear open their food. They will even use stones to crack open shellfish – sometimes cracking them on their chests while swimming on their backs! 

Otters’ fur is well adapted for life in the water. An under-layer, called “underfur,” is thick and soft to provide insulation, and an outer layer, made of longer “guard” hairs, helps to trap a thin layer of warm, dry air around the animals as they swim. Otters have to eat a lot to stay warm, so they may hunt for many hours each day. Keeping their skin dry not only keeps them warm, but also helps their skin to stay healthy. Large river otters have other interesting adaptations: their slit-like nostrils and ears can be closed when they swim, to keep the water out.

Family Life

A mother otter typically gives birth after two to three months of pregnancy, and the newborn pups stay in the nest, called a “holt,” for just a month or two before starting to explore every nook and cranny of their immediate surroundings.   By about two months, they start to swim, and when they are about one year old, they may leave their family to explore more broadly. Otters typically live to about 8 to 16 years old, depending on the particular species, but the oldest living river otter on record was 27 years old!  

Though her exact date of birth is unknown, Pfeiffer, the Reid Park Zoo’s female otter, is believed to be about 20 now!  If you don’t see her in the habitat with the young whippersnapper Hasani, who’s only 9, it’s probably because she’s receiving close “senior animal” monitoring in the Zoo’s state-of-the-art Health Center.  Also in the Health Center, Pfeiffer may see a few animals waiting patiently for their new homes in the Reid Park Zoo expansion, because all animals new to the Zoo undergo a period of intense medical evaluation before being released into their new homes.


Pollution and other loss of their natural habitats is forcing otters into smaller and smaller areas in the wild. Some otter species are now listed as endangered. The otters at Reid Park Zoo, African spotted-necked otters, are a species whose numbers in the wild are declining, in part because of degradation and loss of their habitats, and in part because this species has been hunted for its fur. IUCN now classifies African spotted-necked otters as “Near Threatened.”  Recent changes in IUCN designations for other species (think African Savanna Elephants) remind us that a “near threatened” designation can quickly change to a more worrisome category like “vulnerable,” so conservationists are keeping a close eye on the otters’ welfare, both in the wild and in human care.

Almost all of the animal spotlights on this site mention the IUCN and the conservation status of the animals in the Reid Park Zoo.   But what exactly does “conservation status” mean?  Read on to find out!

But First – A Pop Quiz

What do African Elephants, Asian Fishing Cats, Baird’s Tapir, Sloth Bears, Komodo Dragons, Red Pandas, Siamangs, African Elephants, Galapagos Tortoises, Lar Gibbons, Malayan Tigers, African Wild Dogs, Giant Anteaters, Poison Frogs, Lion-Tailed Macaques, Lions, Speke’s Gazelle, Ring-Tailed and Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, Rodrigues Fruit Bats, and Reticulated Giraffes all have in common?

  1.  Members of these species are already, or will soon be, in the care of the Reid Park Zoo
  2.  All are threatened in the wild and need our help
  3. Both  1 and 2

Very good!  

What do Asian Fishing Cats, Sloth Bears, Giant Anteaters, Komodo Dragons, African Lions, and Reticulated Giraffes have in common?

  1. They each have four legs
  2. They are classified as Vulnerable in the wild and need our help so they don’t become endangered
  3. Both 1 and 2

Next :   What do African Elephants, Baird’s Tapir, Poison Frogs, Red Pandas, Siamang Gibbons, Lar Gibbons, African Wild Dogs, Ring-Tailed Lemurs,  Lion-tailed Macaques, and Speke’s Gazelle have in common?

  1.  All of them either come from the Americas, Africa, or Asia
  2. All of them are Endangered in the wild and need our help
  3. Both 1 and 2

Finally, what could Malayan Tigers, Rodrigues Fruit Bats, Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, and Galapagos Tortoises possibly have in common?

  1.  All four species are fascinating and crucial to their own ecosystems
  2. All four  are Critically Endangered in the wild and will be extinct if we don’t do something soon
  3. Both 1 and 2

How did you do?  Don’t you love multiple choice tests where the answers are always “3”?   The quiz may be easy, but its purpose is completely serious.   The Reid Park Zoo is not large as zoos go, but as you can see, the amazing staff there cares for many, many species which are now threatened in the wild.

Who informs zoos and conservationists? 

But who makes the determination?   The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) is an organization based in Switzerland, and it is the largest and oldest global conservation network in the world.    The IUCN is respected and consulted by government agencies around the world, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) related to conservation, the media, educational institutions, of course zoos and aquariums, and even the business community.   Its signature accomplishment is the IUCN Red List, which has to date determined the conservation status of 134,425 species.  More than 35,000 of those assessed have fallen into the” threatened” category, which means they have been designated as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered.

Three levels of threat

What exactly do those labels mean to a species?  Well, in order for a species, say the Malayan Tiger, to be considered Critically Endangered, its numbers in the wild must have plummeted (over the last 10 years or over the last three generations) precipitously, from 80 to 90%.  A species designated as Critically Endangered by the IUCN is “considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.”

 The other two designations, Endangered and Vulnerable, are a sort of step-down from Critically Endangered status – but just a small one.  In simple terms, an Endangered species is on the brink of becoming Critically Endangered if its circumstances in the wild don’t change;  likewise, a Vulnerable species is just about to become Endangered, again if humans don’t intervene to protect habitat, limit poaching and the illegal pet trade, and do our best to mitigate climate change.  

Just this summer (the week of June 20, 2021) the unwelcome news arrived that the IUCN has downgraded the status of African Savanna Elephants, like the herd at our own zoo, from Vulnerable to Endangered.  That makes the continued health of Penzi and Nandi, the two young elephants born at the Reid Park Zoo, of even greater concern.  Luckily the animal care staff monitors these two, and all the other residents of the Zoo, with extraordinarily close attention to their physical health and well being in general.  But the IUCN sometimes has good news – for example, the Giant Panda was actually upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable on the Red List in 2016 – a testament to the power of awareness and effective conservation initiatives.

The IUCN’s latest conclusion is that approximately 28% of the species they have assessed (and this includes amphibians, mammals, birds, conifers, sharks and rays, reef corals, and crustaceans) are now threatened with extinction.   The role of SSPs (Species Survival Plans) and SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) programs is especially critical for such species in AZA-accredited zoos such as the Reid Park Zoo.  

Zoos are important

The Reid Park Zoo expansion will be protecting not only the Critically Endangered Malayan Tiger, but also the lesser-known but equally endangered Rodrigues Fruit Bat.  The Zoo would not be able to house and breed these species without the new, specialized habitats planned for them.  Likewise, The Pathway to Asia expansion  will also welcome and protect Red Pandas, Komodo Dragons, Asian Fishing Cats, and  Siamangs –  and the humans at the Zoo will do all they can to prevent these species from facing extinction.    

They can’t succeed without you

This includes you!     Members of the public can help by going to reputable zoos and aquariums; every AZA -accredited institution has made a practical and also financial commitment to support conservation initiatives on zoo grounds and also in the wild.   So if you visit a wonderful zoo, say The Reid Park Zoo, you’ll enjoy yourself, get some exercise and fresh air, and see countless amazing creatures.  Importantly, though, you’ll also be able to learn about conservation initiatives to protect and save them and their ecosystems, including what all of us can do to mitigate climate change, the biggest threat of all.  And because of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone on this incredibly biodiverse planet, helping save animals and their environments also means you’re working to benefit humans.

 So go to the zoo, love the animals, and join the good work of saving them (and us)!

Finding Serenity with the Black-Necked Swans

Tucked away in a quiet corner along the South American pathway of Reid Park Zoo are two of the most serene birds in Tucson: the lovely, black-necked swans, Delilah and Barbara. These two female companions share a tranquil grotto-type space just past the Andean Bear habitat near the entrance to the Pacu Fish and Diorama Cave where you can take a peek at some South American animal habitats in miniature, another delightful surprise in this area.

10-year-old Delilah and 3-year-old Barbara are graceful swimmers and spend most of their time in the water. Native to the wetlands of southern Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, Black-Necked Swans are the largest waterfowl in South America. Their bodies are completely white except for a striking black neck and head with a bright red knob where the beak meets the head. Like most swans, they mate for life. Throughout the day at Reid Park Zoo they can be seen either in or out of the water, nibbling on a diet of “spring mix” (baby mixed green lettuces) and nutritional waterfowl chow. For enrichment, they feast on crickets, wax worms, meal worms, whole-leaf lettuce heads, and grapes. Although our female swans are companions and not a breeding pair, they may often display nesting behaviors, such as gathering material for building nests and sitting on eggs, but any eggs produced are unfertilized and will not hatch.   

Finding serenity with the locals

This spot is one of the most enchanting and tranquil areas of the zoo. If you sit on the bench opposite the swan’s grotto, you may see and hear some of Tucson’s native birds, Mexican or great-tailed grackles, sparrows, and black-crowned night herons, nesting in the bamboo trees overhead. Just in front of the swan’s pool is a small grouping of banana plants; if you’re lucky, you might spot a reddish-purple, pod-shaped flower dangling from a stem just below a whorl of tiny bananas. Higher up in the tree canopy, branches of the South American pink floss-silk trees shade the entire area. The thorny trunks are spectacular year round, but these trees are best appreciated during the fall (September and October) when the canopy explodes in a spectacular display of pink and white funnel-shaped flowers that look like a cross between a stargazer lily and a pink cymbidium orchid. Our local bat, bird, and insect pollinators love them. 

Adding to this green reverie are the sounds of small waterfalls splashing nearby that keep the area and its inhabitants cool, one to the left of the swan’s grotto, one in the nearby Andean bear habitat, and one in the corner of the giant anteater habitat. The pools in this area are also home to many wild mallards and pintails who share the zoo animals’ water, shade, and food. Quite recently, my family observed the swans Delilah and Barbara swimming quite contentedly with a pair of mallard hybrids who were carefully shepherding four fuzzy juveniles. Their little impromptu swimming ballet was mesmerizing.  

The gifts of nature

This is a great spot in the zoo to relax, breathe deeply, and just soak in the tranquility of nature. Listening to the medley of birdsong in the morning is ideal—more benches await you in the South American Aviary nearby—but a visit any time of the day would be a boost to your mental and physical well-being. I’ve even stopped by for a few minutes on the way to my workplace. 

We’re so fortunate that another area of tranquil space will be coming soon with theReaid Park Zoo expansion’s Pathway to Asia, where you’ll be able to immerse yourself in even more birdsong inside the Wings of Wonder Aviary. Inside WOW you’ll be able to sit, observe, and even offer food to the beautiful birds of Asia.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll find time to take a stroll along the South America pathway to visit the Black-Necked Swans in their grotto, walk among the trees, listen to the sounds of the water, and watch the wildlife swimming in the pools and streams. It’s a wonderful way to de-stress, and Delilah and Barbara are always willing to share the shade!

Come to the Reid Park Zoo and you will get to see something very special – a pair of Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, as well as their cousins the Ring Tailed Lemurs.  Our Zoo is especially important to these furry primates.   The Black and White Ruffed variety are nearly extinct in their home territory, so you are lucky to be able to see them right here, protected in a safe environment!   Their natural habitat is in a lot of trouble.

Where they’re from, and how they got there

All lemurs in the wild are found only on the island of Madagascar, just off the southeastern coast of Africa, where they live in the island’s eastern rainforests. After the land mass we now know as Madagascar detached from what are now South America, Africa, and India to become a separate island, about 80 million years ago, it became a “biodiversity hotspot” that allowed the evolution of many types of animals that arose nowhere else on earth; over 90% of the wildlife species found on Madagascar, including lemurs, are unique to the island! 

The evolutionary predecessors of lemurs arose in Africa. Some of them crossed the ocean channel to Madagascar, maybe on rafts of vegetation carried out to sea from a river. Once they arrived on Madagascar and were isolated from competition with other primates, these predecessors evolved into a wild variety of different types of lemurs. 

They are Prosimians!

Lemurs are a category of primates. Lots of people know that humans are primates, but they aren’t sure which other animals are. The taxonomic order Primates includes two major divisions, Prosimians and Simians. Lemurs, along with tarsiers, bush babies, and lorises, are Prosimians. Prosimians are characterized by long snouts and an excellent sense of smell. Great apes (humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans) and monkeys are Simians, and are less heavily dependent on their sense of smell. You can learn more about categories and characteristics of Primates by following this link. 

The Handsome Black and White Ruffed Ones

Black and white ruffed lemurs are one of the largest species of lemur, about 2 feet in body length plus a 2-foot-long tail and weighing about 8 pounds. Like other members of the lemur clan, they have a pointed snout and fairly large eyes, and their tail is not prehensile. Their fur has a characteristic pattern: black on the abdomen, tail, hands and feet, inner limbs, forehead, face, and crown; and white on the sides, back, hind limbs, and hindquarters. Because their coats have this patchwork of coloring, they are sometimes called “variegated” lemurs to distinguish them from more solidly colored species. Their eyes are usually bright yellow, and they are directed almost straight forward, giving them a wide field of binocular vision. Females and males are generally the same size and color. Like other primates, black and white ruffed lemurs have good eyesight, color vision, highly mobile shoulder joints, dexterous hands with five separate digits (fingers/toes), and nails on their digits rather than claws. 

The “Music” in the trees

Black and white ruffled lemurs usually live in small groups of 2-6, but groups can be as large as about 15 animals. Individuals join or leave a group depending on the availability of food (more abundant food = larger groups). The females dominate socially, and they get first crack at new food. The animals warn each other of potential danger using loud roars that are sometimes called “shriek choruses.” Though the Lemurs at the Reid Park Zoo are not in danger, they occasionally enjoy this musical shrieking just to keep their skills sharp!  Hear them communicating with each other this way just once, and you’ll understand why this sound is called a shriek – a very loud sound from some relatively small creatures!   

When not “singing”

Most types of lemurs are nocturnal, but Black and White Ruffed Lemurs are diurnal.  So how do they spend their days?   They spend time foraging, on the ground and in the trees, and eating of course.  Then there’s hanging upside down from tree branches – using their back feet and sometimes one or two hands – but never for more than 45 seconds at a time! They also scent mark their territories, and if necessary travel with the entire group (called a “conspiracy,” though it’s not clear what they may be plotting)  in search of food and shelter in their shrinking natural habitats,  That leaves lots of extra time for….resting. 

Black and white ruffled lemurs are almost entirely frugivorous, that is, over 90% of their diet is fruit. One of their favorite foods is the fruit of the dragon’s blood tree. Yum! 

Pairs of Black and White Ruffed Lemurs only mate once a year – and there’s no “mating for life” going on!   Successful breeding leads to gestation, which lasts about 100 days, and most litters have 2-3 offspring. Females give birth up in trees, in nests that they line with their own fur, and the female guards her offspring constantly for the first 2 weeks after birth. After that, the male and female parents take turns guarding the young. The young lemurs mature and themselves begin to reproduce after 2-3 years. They typically live about 19 years in the wild and several years longer in human care in zoos. 

At the Reid Park Zoo

The Reid Park Zoo has two Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, a male and a female. Look closely when you visit to see if you can tell them apart. The male’s tail is all black, while the female has some white extending onto her tail from her back. The animal care staff provides them with lots of enrichment for climbing and exploring to find food.   They can even climb up to their special pass-through tube above the walkway and sit high above the American Alligator whenever they like, especially when the keepers put special treats there.  So if you don’t see them immediately in their main habitat, look up and across.  

The Reid Park Zoo expansion, the Pathway to Asia, will bring Siamang Gibbons to the zoo and give visitors even more opportunity to compare black and white ruffed lemurs with other members of their taxonomic order, the Primates.  

Conservation – Zoos to the Rescue

The highly respected International Union for Conservation of Nature currently classifies Black and White Ruffed Lemurs as Critically Endangered, just one short step from “Extinct in the Wild.” Their natural habitat is disappearing, and their numbers in the wild have dropped by 80% in just 21 years! There is hope for these lemurs to continue in the wild in the future, though. Five black and white ruffed lemurs were recently reintroduced back to the wild from human care, and they are doing well!  Cooperation among AZA-accredited zoos on Species Survival Plans (SSPs), like the one for black and white ruffed lemurs that Reid Park Zoo participates in, help to maintain genetic diversity among the animals that live in human care, in case those animals are needed for reintroduction into the wild. In this way, SSPs help to ensure the future of critically endangered species like the black and white ruffed lemur. And you help to support these SSPs whenever you visit or join the Reid Park Zoo!