What has a 24-inch tongue, no teeth, and eats 30,000 of his favorite treats each day? And who is clever enough not to be stung while procuring those tasty treats? And who isn’t able to stay warm very well, (because the favorite treats don’t have too much nutritional value) but has a nifty and distinctive tail that works as both camouflage and a handy blanket?   

It’s the Giant Anteater, a lugubrious and seemingly affable resident of Central and South America, and those preferred treats are – you guessed it – ants, the kind with a nasty bite. The Giant Anteater may look like some strange creature imagined by Dr. Seuss, but don’t be fooled. These huge creatures can grow up to 8 feet (including tails) and weigh up to 140 pounds – and though they may seem slow and low energy, they are perfectly adapted to their environment. And that 2-foot tongue is anything but slow! It can flick up to 150 times per minute, and is equipped with special sticky saliva as well has interesting little spines which point backwards. In other words, Giant Anteaters are models of efficiency when it comes to eating ants, and termites too. 

And though 30,000 of anything might sound a little gluttonous, Giant Anteaters are very clever and discriminating hunters. Though they have limited eyesight, they more than compensate for this with a sense of smell 40 times more acute than our own. This means that they can identify a particular species of ant or termite before they go to the trouble of tearing open a mound. And once they access their tiny, frantic prey, they do not gorge, because doing so could destroy the particular mound for future feeding.  Besides, if they linger, they could get bitten. They snatch up the ants or termites with alacrity, then squish them on the roof of their mouths, then dispatching them to their unusually muscular stomachs for further pulverization. Research indicates that a given Giant Anteater will only extract about 140 ants from a given mound per day, so you can imagine how many stops he or she must make to ingest tens of thousands of them.    

But back to those termite or ant mounds – how exactly does the Giant Anteater get into them? One of the most interesting adaptations these creatures enjoy has to do with their claws and their shuffling gait.   Giant Anteaters have five claws on each foot, but the middle three of these on the forefeet can be up to 4 inches long and quite formidable. In order to keep them in prime “mound infiltration” condition, the Anteater walks on his knuckles with all four feet, nose pointed to the ground. But when he wants to get into a mound, the strong front legs are more than up to a quick ingress. His long nose (there really isn’t a mouth per se) allows him to quickly reach the center of the mound where the most ants or termites will be, and once the incredibly speedy tongue begins flicking, 140 of the mound’s residents are consumed in record time. He will then follow his nose to his next dining destination.

They are mostly solitary, and mostly slow and peaceable. However, when the situation calls for it, Giant Anteaters can rear up on their back legs to threaten or defend against predators, like pumas and jaguars.  If necessary, they can also “gallop” at about 30 miles per hour. They can climb and swim as well, using that amazing snout as a snorkel! But these creatures far prefer to eat and sleep, curled up securely under their bushy tails. Emerging evidence describes them as diurnal, but they are still adapting, even though they’ve been on earth for about 25 million years. In response to weather conditions, or in areas of close proximity to humans, they simply become nocturnal.

Unfortunately, that proximity to humans is becoming a greater problem for them. As human populations and their agriculture expand, the Giant Anteaters’ habitat is shrinking, at the same time their interactions with humans are increasing. The Anteaters and Highways Project in the Cerrado region of Brazil is researching the Anteaters’ travels  in order to determine why so many of them are killed in highway accidents. Sugar cane farming is also having a huge impact on the Giant Anteater; growers set fire to their fields in order to make the sugar cane easier to cut; Anteaters sometimes suffer significant burns through this process, but their habitats and insect diets are also affected.    

Because the Giant Anteater breeds only once annually, has only one offspring per successful breeding, and also requires a long gestation period, around 190 days, the species cannot weather much reduction from human sources like cane fields or autos. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the Giant Anteater as vulnerable, which estimates that the current population, about 5000 in the wild, will be reduced by approximately 20% in the next decade. Giant Anteaters and the insect populations they control are crucial to the ecosystems in countries where they reside, so it’s especially important that reputable zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, contribute to their breeding in human care. And because these amazing creatures can be very tricky to study in the wild, those living in zoo environments are increasingly important to research in the effort to save the species.

The Giant Anteaters, along with countless other animals in our Zoo, and especially the vulnerable and endangered species coming to the Reid Park Zoo expansion, need more of us to understand their plight in the wild. By learning about them and caring about them, maybe we can help turn around that 20% reduction in the next ten years!

Zoological Parks, like society itself, have evolved greatly over time. Keeping captured animals is no longer a symbol of wealth and status;  the “Age of Enlightenment” in the 17th and 18th centuries brought both curiosity and reverence for the biological world. Fortunately, the dark history of animals cruelly wasting in cages (menageries) is the antithesis of the mission of modern zoos. The very best of these, like Reid Park Zoo, meet the strictest of qualifications as accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. These modern zoos are committed to protect, conserve and enlighten. 

During most of human evolution, we co-existed with wild animals; we were all part of the natural ecosystem. However, one consequence of our advanced society is isolation from that natural world. If we are oblivious we cannot be concerned; we will never be alarmed about a threat we know nothing about. An undeniable threat currently is that our biological world is on the brink of a crisis. 

The alarming rate and number of species extinctions is a calamity that has broad implications for all of the world’s inhabitants. Oddly, the bad news is also the good news because humans, the cause of species decline, can also provide the remedy. Studies of human behavior inform us that humans are inherently compassionate; when we learn of an impending disaster we bond together to identify the resources necessary to find solutions. For example, California Condors, the largest North American birds, are back in their natural habitat today because of captive breeding in zoos. Finding remedies begins with education, as we can solve only the problems we understand. Our accredited zoos have demonstrated they are now leaders in zoological education. 

Visitors to zoos may arrive to see exotic and fascinating animals but in the process of seeing anteaters, lions and elephants, they learn about the critical role of habitat destruction putting these beloved animals in peril. Zoos in general, and our own Reid Park Zoo in particular, are uniquely responsible for reaching countless numbers of people with a message of caring for and potentially saving species for future generations to enjoy. Without the attraction of seeing these wonderful creatures, awareness and remedial actions would not occur. In a way the educational mission of Reid Park Zoo, enlightening residents and visitors to Tucson, is a gift to all of us that is longer lasting than the delight of watching otters and meerkats play. 

During an average year half a million visitors experience the magic of Reid Park Zoo and leave with a greater appreciation of the importance of zoological diversity of our world. Importantly, in an average year nearly 30,000 school children participate in educational field trips to the zoo — cost-free thanks to grant funding. Our zoo is an educational leader in Tucson and the state of Arizona; the impact of an educated populace is invaluable to all of us. 

When we think of all that the Reid Park zoo contributes to our society, enlightening Tucsonans about the threats and solutions to species in crisis may be its greatest gift. We are fortunate that Tucson has among its many wonders, this world-class educational zoo, and further that the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide additional sources of wonder, empathy, and connection to the natural world.

Looking for Family Ursidae*
*rhymes with sky

When you look up into the night sky for the stars that form The Big Dipper and The Little Dipper, do you realize you’re searching for some of the brightest stars within Ursa Major and Ursa Minor?  

It was the Greek astronomer Ptolemy who named 2 of his 44 constellations “Big Bear” and “Little Bear” (the Minor), two of the most famous constellations visible from the northern hemisphere. Bears have symbolized strength and wisdom in many world cultures for millennia, and we reference them in our language: We know people who bear a resemblance, we hope our better actions bear fruit, and, in Tucson, we Bear Down. It’s no surprise, then, that Ptolemy featured them so prominently in his famous list of stars. In modern times, Ursa Major still ranks as the third largest of all 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. 

Equipped with that bit of bear lore, I’d like to introduce you to a more Earth-bound member of Family Ursidae coming soon to the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia Expansion:  Meet the sloth bear

First thing to know

This shaggy black bear is not related to sloths. Like polar, grizzly (a subspecies of brown), and Andean bears, the sloth bear is not a slow mover and can easily outrun a human. Compared to these bears, however, it does have some quirky characteristics which confused early scientists when they were trying to classify and name it.

At first sight, the sloth bear has long, shaggy black fur, smallish ears, a broad, round face, and creamy white patches of fur on its chest, usually in the shape of a Y, O, or U. So far, so good—very bear-like. Then you notice the bear’s front arms are longer than its back legs which gives it a kind of arms-dangling, sloth-like appearance. Its curvy claws are very long and don’t retract, and its specialized front feet (arms) turn inward, making it appear a bit clumsy. The bear opens its mouth and—surprise!—its top two front teeth are missing! It turns out that those curvy claws, specialized feet, and that unusual tooth gap, combined with a powerful tongue and hard palate, are the most efficient tools this bear could possibly have for slurping up its favorite food—termites and ants! Yes, this bear slurps up its food. Noisily. Very noisily.

About that diet! 

All bears are classified as omnivores which simply means they can eat both animals and plants; however, each species has evolved differently within its own ecosystem and has developed its own preferential food sources.  Bears and their diets range from the obligate, mostly carnivorous polar bear, which thrives on seals, to the mostly herbivorous panda bear, which thrives on the foliage of bamboo trees. 

The sloth bear’s diet lies somewhere in between. It thrives on termites, ants, even bees and honey, and, quite handily, it has the ability to close its nostrils off to keep those critters from crawling inside! During the Asian monsoon season, a sloth bear will eat mangos, figs, and berries, too. Like Andean bears from South America, sloth bears don’t need to hibernate because they have year-round food sources. 

At Reid Park Zoo, the bears have the most varied and complex diets of all the animals. You can often watch the grizzly bears eat whole heads of celery or lettuce, peel an orange, or forage for berries, but they also enjoy a regular diet of whole carrots, mixed nuts, mackerel, salmon, herring, eggs, ground meat, and bones. The Andean bear is highly herbivorous (second only to panda bears) and prefers melons, pears, apples, grapes, raisins, bananas, berries, and some bear chow (pellets), but her weekly diet also includes mixed nuts, carrots, and leafy greens. On hot summer days in the desert southwest, all the bears enjoy homemade popsicles filled with these same nutritious foods.

Living in the wild forests and grasslands of Asia

Like many animals, sloth bears live a solitary existence, usually coming together only for breeding; however, if food is plentiful, they may gather in groups. Like all bears, a female sloth bear will give birth to her blind, hairless cubs in a den where they will live with mom until they’re able to exist safely in the outside world. Everyone knows how fiercely protective a mother bear can be, but the sloth bear goes above and beyond—she will carry her cubs on her back until they’re about 9 months old. Remember that long, shaggy black fur on mom’s back? In little cubs’ hands, it comes in very handy for grabbing, climbing up, and hanging on! Traveling this way provides the cubs with camouflage from predators and keeps them safe until they can move more quickly on the ground. 

But all is not well in the wild. These beautiful bears are currently listed as vulnerable and have lost between 30 and 49% of their living space, depending on location, over the past 30 years. In addition to loss of habitat, they are losing their lives in retaliation for human encounters. Wherever bears live, whether in North America, South America, Europe, or Asia, the primary things causing them harm are people and climate change. Because we’re part of the problem, we must be part of the solution. In a future blog, I’ll share more information about what we can all do, as individuals and collectively, to help the sloth bears—and all bears—living in the wild. 

Why are sloth bears coming to live at Reid Park Zoo? Because their numbers are decreasing at such an  alarming rate, the Association for Zoos and Aquariums has established a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for them to ensure their genetic survival. Zoos throughout the country are assisting scientists, both in the field and at zoological institutions, to determine what these bears need to survive in the modern world living in such close proximity to humans. The sloth bears at Reid Park Zoo will become ambassadors for their species, and their mission will be to educate us about the threats their wild counterparts face.  

Ready to learn more?  Here’s a delightful video to help us envision the Reid Park Zoo expansion – and  you can get a glimpse of the sloth bear habitat which will include a waterfall, stream, pool, climbing structure, scent detectors, and a cave area. In the near future, we may have the rare privilege of witnessing a sloth bear carrying her cub on her back!

In the meantime, you can observe two other bear species at the Reid Park Zoo. The rescued grizzly bear brother-and-sister companions, Ronan and Finley, live in their habitat just south of the giraffes. Look for them on the “land” side with its boulders, climbing platforms, stream outlet, and rock climbing-cave structure or on the “water” side with its giant tree trunk, waterfall, pool, and underwater cave area. On a warm day, you might catch them swimming in the pool or wading in the shallow stream. 

The female Andean bear, Oja, lives in the South America loop directly opposite the entrance to the pacu fish cave and the black-necked swan pool. If you haven’t visited the zoo recently, bear with us for just a few weeks longer. Oja is having a staycation at the zoo’s health center while construction for the expanded Andean bear habitat is completed. She’ll be back in her pool and snoozing in her Mulberry tree very soon. 

In the meantime, if you feel the need to gaze at a bear and can’t visit the zoo, just look up at the night sky and find those bright stars representing Family Ursidae. We can never have too many bears in our lives!

WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT BEES?

Do you know where your food comes from? How farmers can have seeds to plant year after year? Why you would have no almonds or apples if there were no bees? There’s a cool, new exhibit at the Reid Park Zoo, The Pollinator Garden, which can help answer these questions.   

Ever stop to consider how plants reproduce? They can’t get together to fertilize like animals can. Instead, they produce flowers and use outside “helpers” to transfer pollen (sperm) to ovary (where the eggs are). As a bee moves from flower to flower, some of the pollen she has collected from the flower’s anthers (male parts) on her furry body and legs rubs off on a stigma, the flower’s female part, which is connected by a tube to the ovary. This is called pollination. The helpers are rewarded with sweet nectar. The fertilized eggs become seeds, which can then grow into new plants. 

The types of flowers that plants produce are no accident. They display certain colors, shapes, sizes, and aromas to attract particular “helpers.” Other than wind, which doesn’t care, pollinators range from bats to butterflies. There are even some stinky flowers that smell like something is rotting. The pollinator? Flies! But far and away the most widespread and prolific pollinators are BEES. In fact, one out of every three food items we eat relies on bees.

Now, here’s some more awesome news: here in southern Arizona we live in one of the three Bee Capitals of the world! The other two are in deserts of Israel and Africa. We are surrounded by stupendous bee biodiversity. Almost all of our native bees are “solitary.” Each female makes her hole in the ground or in woody stalks and branches to lay her eggs. The largest in our area is the carpenter bee, a gentle giant. The smallest is the tiny perdita. In between are hundreds of different species.

The bee that is most familiar to people is the honey bee. They’re called “social bees” because they live and work communally, creating hives which the “queen” supplies with eggs. And together these bees produce a lot of honey. However, you may be surprised to learn that they are NOT native to North or South America. They were brought here, along with many familiar plants and animals, by early settlers from Europe. For centuries, they have been a mainstay of beekeepers, orchards, and gardeners.

The organization of the hive consists of the queen who lays over a thousand eggs per day; the drones (males), having hatched from unfertilized eggs, who mate with virgin queens; the workers (females), who care for the hive and the nursery; and the foraging/scouting workers who are also females. Only the females have stingers. The stinger is actually a modified ovipositor (egg-laying organ) and is barbed. 

A swarm, basically, is made up of traveling, hiveless bees. One is formed when the queen of a hive ages and her egg production slows down. The hive chooses a new, young queen to replace her. The old queen leaves the hive with a group of support bees in search of a favorable location to build a new hive. It’s an amazing process. When the queen gets tired, she lands on, for example, a branch. All the other members of her retinue land on and around her and around and on top of one another, creating a writhing, humming mass. They stay in that location for perhaps three or four days. During that time, a few individual bees go forth to find potential hive sites. When each returns, she does a “bee dance” to convey what she has found. Ultimately, one bee does a sufficiently convincing dance. At that point they all disengage themselves from one another and fly off together to build their new hive. 

Generally, the bees of a swarm do not pose a threat to humans. They’re busy seeking a new hive site. It’s only the defenders of an actual hive that are dangerous.

In 1956, a strong species of African honey bee, well adapted to the tropical climate, was imported by Brazil to increase its honey production. Subsequently 26 swarms escaped and expanded throughout South America and northward. 

In 1990 the African honey bees entered the southwestern U.S. Over time they have hybridized with our European honey bees, creating what is known as Africanized honey bees. In our region virtually all honey bees are now the Africanized variety. 

This is significant because these bees do everything their earlier counterparts do, but to a greater degree. Think bees on steroids. That seems like a good thing, and it is for pollination and honey production, but there is a big drawback. Because of their fierce defense of the hive, they have been nicknamed “killer bees.” Actually, the sting of one Africanized honey bee is no worse than that of its European counterpart, but if the defenders of the hive perceive that you are a threat, they attack en masse and can chase you for up to a quarter of a mile. The toxicity of a hundred or more stings can be deadly!

That doesn’t make them “bad” bees. They’re just doing their job to keep the queen and hive safe. In fact, the bees you may encounter on the flowers in your garden are not hive defenders. They have their own job to do, pollinating. Feel free to get up close to check them out without worry. If a bee decides to check YOU out, don’t panic and flail your arms. That will only make the bee think you’re trying to kill her, and then you may very well get stung. It’s not in her best interests to sting you because she will probably lose her life as a consequence. Her stinger generally gets pulled out of her along with a chunk of her abdomen.

In recent years our nation has experienced a shocking decline in honey bees (as well as bumble bees and many solitary bees). Beekeepers have suddenly found all their bees dead or missing, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The most significant culprit appears to be a particular type of neuro-active insecticide called “neonicotinoids” which attack the nervous system. It doesn’t immediately kill bees, but it interferes with their flying and navigational abilities, and the tainted pollen they bring back to share with the hive has a cumulative effect like a slow poison, eventually incapacitating all the bees. Virtually all corn and a large percentage many other crops grown in the U.S. use this type of insecticide.

Human behavior, from chemical use to habitat destruction to climate change, has and continues to impose huge threats on these busy workers. Education is key to understanding what we are putting at risk. You might say our own lives depend on it!

The Pollinator Garden at the Reid Park Zoo is an excellent way to learn about the critically important roles played by all of our pollinators and how you can help keep them healthy and protected.  Like everything on the grounds of the Zoo, it is designed to promote both human and animal welfare.  And it’s good to know that the grounds and habitats in the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide even more habitat, food, and shelter for our busy but underappreciated native pollinators.

A driving force:  Conservation

A slightly implausible family discussion:

Mom and Dad:   Where would you like to go on Saturday, you two?

Jimmy:   How about to the Animal Welfare Organization?

Susie:    Yay!   I can’t wait to see all the enrichment!  Please, Daddy?

Jimmy:  Me too!   And the inspiring animal management!  Can we?  Mom?

In other words, they’d love to go to the zoo. And although Jimmy and Susie might not notice the behavioral enrichment and quality animal management, not to mention the world-class veterinary care behind the scenes, these are all features of responsible and reputable zoos, such as those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). According to the AZA, more than 183 million people visit accredited zoos in the U.S. every year, and that’s more than the annual attendance at games of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB combined! Visits to zoos provide affordable and healthful outings with the additional bonus of education, development of empathy, and increased connection to the natural world, so crucial for today’s urban dwellers.  

None of these benefits are coincidental. Accredited zoos are carefully designed to provide habitats and enrichment that allow animals to engage as much as possible in the same activities they would in the wild. Grounds are beautiful, green, and ADA accessible. Zoo staff and volunteers are carefully trained to provide up-to-date information about each species and its conservation status, including actions visitors can take to support conservation efforts. A high-quality accredited zoo, like the Reid Park Zoo, has a robust commitment to species and habitat conservation, both on the grounds and “in situ” (in the wild).  

Commitment to Conservation

The Species Survival Plan Program

Let’s begin with what’s happening on the grounds of the Reid Park Zoo. You may notice that you’ll see both males and females of many species, for example the Grevy’s Zebras, the Baird’s Tapirs, the Lions, the Anteaters, the Meerkats, the African Elephants, the Reticulated Giraffes, the White Rhinos, and more. Sometimes these males and females are together, and other times they are in adjacent habitats – why? It is all about The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SSP, or Species Survival Plan.  

If certain individuals of a species are designated for breeding in a member zoo, they will be allowed to roam their habitat together, and to let nature take its course. But many of these creatures are solitary in the wild, so they prefer to have individual habitats except during breeding season. These couples need to be gradually and carefully “introduced” again every time there is a breeding recommendation for them  (examples of this at the Reid Park Zoo are the anteaters and tapirs in the South America Loop).

The SSP for each species is coordinated meticulously (by the AZA) to determine which animals can breed in order to produce offspring that will enhance the genetic diversity of the species in general. At some time in the future, when native habitats are safer for a species, perhaps offspring from these pairings can be reintroduced into the wild to begin restoring the numbers of their species. 

An inspiring SSP story comes to us from the Phoenix Zoo. The Arabian Oryx, (a beautiful antelope) was classified as extinct in the wild due to hunting. However, a breeding and reintroduction program for this animal in Phoenix enabled its reintroduction to the Arabian Peninsula, where it is now protected and boasts 1,000 individuals! An SSP in an accredited zoo can make a real difference, especially because according to the IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are still 33 mammals – as well as countless other creatures and plants –  in the “extinct in the wild” category. 

The SAFE Program

Another AZA initiative that the Reid Park Zoo participates in is the SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program, which focuses on certain species threatened in the wild. The four species that are supported by our Zoo through the SAFE program are the Giraffes, the Andean Highland Flamingos, The North American Monarch Butterfly, and The North American Songbird.

  • The Flamingos: The Reid Park Zoo is the program leader for this initiative, coordinating funding for research into the Chilean, James’ and Andean flamingo species. The amazing zoo staff is also responsible for coordinating all the educational and conservation materials about the flamingos for all AZA zoos.
  • The Giraffes: Tucson’s Zoo works with the SAFE program, providing conservation messaging about poaching and habitat destruction, as well as funding toward Giraffe health monitoring and population monitoring projects in situ.
  • The Pollinator Garden: One of the most popular new areas in the Zoo is the Pollinator Garden, where native plants provide food and safety for migrating Monarch Butterflies on their way to Mexico. Numbers are closely recorded and reported to the SAFE program. Of course, this area also provides food and shelter for many other important pollinators, such as bees! There are special “bee boxes” for those bees that live in hives, and once established, they are relocated by a bee expert to agricultural areas where they can assist in even more pollination.
  • The North American Songbird SAFE program:  In  collaboration with the Audubon Society, nest boxes have been installed throughout the zoo to house several native bird species. Many enjoy the Pollinator Garden. Also, on the grounds you’ll now have opportunities to learn more about our native birds and how we can protect them.

In-Situ Conservation Partnerships

The Reid Park Zoo supports and contributes financially to a number of in-country conservation programs, including  The Tanzania Conservation and Science Program, The Anteaters and Highways Project in the Cerrado region of Brazil, The Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance, Andean Bear Research by the University of Arizona in the Chingaza Massif region of Colombia, the International Rhino Foundation, and the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project.  

Conservation is truly the core mission of The Reid Park Zoo.

And the Reid Park Zoo expansion, when completed, will allow Tucson’s Zoo to further increase their commitment to conservation, as more endangered species, such as Tigers, Siamangs, Komodo Dragons, and Red Pandas will be given a greater chance to survive for future generations. It’s nice to know that  just by visiting The Reid Park Zoo, you too will be helping to save these animals!

You really want to know, What type of animal you are seeing?

At first glance you might see an animal with a conglomeration of characteristics from more familiar species. You will see a prehensile snout like an elephant, a thick hide like a hippo, or hoofed toes like a zebra. Because it has 3 toes on its hind legs, it belongs to the Perissodactyla Order of odd- toed Ungulates. That means the tapir is not a relative of the elephant or hippo, but it IS more closely related to zebras and rhinoceros – not something you’d guess just by seeing one! But they’re definitely worth seeing.

Baird’s Tapirs have played a central role in maintaining the biodiversity of forests, grasslands, wetlands and rainforests from southern Mexico all the way down to Colombia, for millions of years. Today’s tapir are called a primitive species because according to fossil remains, they have not changed since the Eocene era (about 33 – 56 million years ago).

At 400-600 plus pounds, the adult Baird’s Tapir is the largest land mammal found in its regional habitats. Their giant football shape, tiny tail and high-stepping back legs help them move nimbly through the dense forest. With the exception of cream colored ear tips and cream color under their chins and on their chest area, they have brownish-black short fur, which covers their very muscular thick-hided and thick-necked bodies.

Their toes spread out for good traction in mud or river banks. The tapir’s ears, eyes and snouts are located on or near the top of their heads. This positioning is integral to helping the tapir stay submerged in the water while grazing or hiding from natural predators, especially humans and jaguars. It also makes them hard for researchers to locate and study. Fortunately we have learned a lot from tapirs in human care.

A standout tapir adaptation is their prehensile elongated snout. When tapirs dive into the water, this snout acts as a snorkel. Tapirs can hold their breath for several minutes under water. In this short video check out Contessa, the Reid Park Zoo’s female Baird’s Tapir, holding her breath. A tapir’s day may start at dusk emerging from a well-hidden resting niche. He may forage through the forest looking for tasty plants or ripe fruit. The tapirs’ night activity continues with a cool off in a lake or stream and a graze on aquatic plants, but by daybreak they expertly hide away for a rest. 

Tapirs are browsers who can grab and pull branches and leaves from a wide variety of plants. Tapirs are far ranging and can eat up to 200 species of plant! This leads to their important role as “seed dispersers,” helping to support a diverse healthy ecosystem. Some seeds from forest trees like the wild almond tree are only spread by a tapir! Tapirs are a critical partner in saving forests and rainforest trees. Saving tapirs is also important because they are an umbrella species; if you can save the tapirs and their lands you will also save other animals and plants. 

Tapirs are secretive and elusive to scientists attempting to study them. However with the use of camera traps  and consulting indigenous peoples, scientists can shed more light on the movements and habits of the tapir and maybe discover new species or subspecies. There are 4 known species of Tapir:  Baird’s, Brazilian, Mountain and Malayan. A newly- discovered type of tapir, Kobomani, was studied and found (by most scientists) not genetically distinct enough to be considered a separate species.

Baird’s Tapirs in The Reid Park Zoo 

An on-and- off again romance might best describe Tupi and Contessa’s relationship. Reid Park Zoo participates in the AZA Species Survival Plan program with these endangered Baird’s Tapirs. Our Zoo also contributes to the work of Chris Jordan, an in-situ scientist who is giving his life to tapir conservation

In the wild tapirs mostly are solitary, elusive animals. But when it is time to mate they find each other through scent marking and vocalizations. Here at the zoo the animal care keepers read the signs that Contessa may be receptive to breeding and give her and Tupi access to the habitat together. They have successfully produced two of the world’s cutest calves, in 2015 and 2018. Contessa’s gestation lasts about 13 months and her male calves have nursed for about two years. At the time Toliver, the first son, had grown to  some 400 pounds, he was given a new home in Puebla, Mexico. Ibu, their second calf, was given a new home in The Milwaukee Zoo, also at around two years old. 

I may have given you enough clues to answer this riddle: What looks like a watermelon with legs?     

tapir calf! All four tapir species with their diverse habitat elevations and diet produce similar looking calves with striped and dotted brownish coats for camouflage from predators.

When you come visit Reid Park Zoo’s South American Loop to look for Contessa and Tupi through the banana trees, vines and bamboo, I hope you’ll add a new species to your favorites list! And soon, once you’ve checked in with these amazing and appealing “conglomerate” creatures, you’ll be able to head over to the Reid Park Zoo expansion to see even more amazing animals!

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a Siamang! 

Siamangs don’t fly, but sometimes they seem to. That’s because of the way they move through the treetops where they live. Siamangs (pronounced SEE-uh-mongs or SEE-uh-mahngs) brachiate to get around, and they are very good at it! They hang by their arms and swing from one branch to the next to get where they want to go. It’s like swinging on “monkey bars” on a playground. When a Siamang is moving rapidly through the treetops, it will let go of one branch and “fly” through the air like an acrobat before grasping the next branch. Siamangs can also push off with their legs and jump as far as 30 feet through the air to get from one tree to another. So, Siamangs cannot fly, strictly speaking, but if you’re lucky, you could see one seeming to fly through the air, especially in their planned habitat at the Reid Park Zoo expansion. 

Siamangs have long arms and shorter legs. Their bodies are covered by  black fur that is relatively long and shaggy. Siamangs have prominent brow ridges, and their faces have forward-facing eyes, flat noses, and relatively little fur. Adults are about two and a half to three feet long from the top of their heads to the end of their bodies, and they weigh about 25-30 pounds. Females and males are usually about the same size. They are primates, the evolutionary branch of mammals that includes humans, apes, monkeys, lemurs, and a few other species. They look a lot like monkeys, but are they monkeys? Nope – no tail.  Almost all monkeys have tails, and apes do not; Siamangs don’t have tails. More specifically, these acrobatic apes are a type of gibbon, in fact, the largest type of gibbon. 

Siamangs have some physical features that are very useful for brachiating, or swinging around with their l arms above their heads. Like other gibbons, Siamangs’ arms are very strong and extremely long – a Siamang’s arm span is usually about two and a half times the length of its body! (If your arms were that long compared with your body, they would stretch 10 to 15 feet from fingertip to fingertip!) Anyway,  Siamangs’ thumbs are unusual, too. They are much shorter than the Siamang’s fingers and they are located higher on the wrist than other primates’ thumbs. Because of this, a Siamang’s hand looks more like a hook than other primates’ hands. And Siamangs have very flexible shoulder joints. The combination of long, strong arms, hook-shaped hands, and very flexible shoulder joints allows a siamang to swing rapidly from handhold to handhold and tree to tree. An adult Siamang can move through the treetops at 35 miles per hour – about as fast as a tiger can sprint!

The amazing Siamangs heading our way are one big reason we are looking forward to the Reid Park Zoo expansion. But be prepared to look UP – they will have elaborate climbing and swinging equipment in their roomy habitat. But they have to come down to ground sometimes, don’t they?

On the occasions when Siamangs come down to the ground, they normally walk on just their hind legs, holding their extremely long arms in the air for balance and to keep them from dragging on the ground. But Siamangs are much slower and more vulnerable to predators on the ground, so they spend most of their time high in the treetops, where they can avoid and elude predators very well. 

Question: What does a Siamang have in common with a green tree frog? Siamangs have another unusual physical feature that is unique among species of gibbons: inflatable throat sacs. Both female and male Siamangs have a sac of skin on the front of their throat that sits flat and barely visible at rest, but that the animal can inflate with air until the sac is the size of the animal’s head! The inflated throat sac gives extra resonance and volume to the Siamang’s  unmistakable call, a combination of hooting similar to other gibbons and a rapid “barking” that sounds a bit like a dog. Siamangs use their calls to gather together members of their clan and to warn members of other clans not to intrude on their territory. 

Siamangs live in family groups and generally mate for life– a given male and female Siamang normally stay together for years. Their offspring stay with them for 5-7 years, until they reach maturity. A Siamang infant clings to its mother and is mainly cared for by its mother for the first 8 months, but is cared for mainly by its father in its second year of life. Wildlife biologists estimate that Siamangs live for somewhere between 25 and 40 years in the wild, and longer than that in zoos, up to 44 years. Reid Park Zoo’s male Lar Gibbon – a species closely related to Siamangs – currently is 49 years old! 

Siamangs are diurnal animals – awake during the day and asleep at night. They usually wake after sunrise, spend up to an hour emitting their characteristic call to announce their territory, and then spend several hours foraging for food. Siamangs eat mainly fruit and tender leaves of bamboo and other plants, along with some insects, eggs, and occasional small vertebrates. Foraging for food requires several hours of a Siamang’s day. By eating fruit and later defecating out the seeds, they’re helping to shape their environment by spreading seeds around their habitat.  In the afternoons, they usually rest, groom themselves and each other, and travel to that night’s sleeping area. Instead of lying down on a bed of leaves or branches, they sleep sitting upright in trees. 

The amazing Siamangs are one more reason we are looking forward to the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion!

Siamangs live in tropical forests in Asia. In the past, their range was wider, but now they are found only in the mountains of Malaysia and the nearby Indonesian island of Sumatra. Adult Siamangs really have no natural predators, but even so they are classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature because their number in the wild has been estimated to drop by half in less than 50 years. Threats to Siamangs in the wild come from humans, mainly from an illegal pet trade and destruction of their habitat. Clear-cutting and burning forest land, the Siamang’s natural habitat, in order to grow palm trees for palm oil is an especially common problem. You can help to protect these amazing animals by speaking out against illegal wildlife trading and by choosing products that use sustainable sources of palm oil. Oh, and you’ll be helping their conservation every time you visit them at the Reid Park Zoo. Spread the word!

Are you looking for a place where you can feel peace and serenity? How about a cool, shady oasis where you can see amazing animals by your feet, in the air, and on tree branches? You can find all this in the Reid Park Zoo’s Flight Connection Aviary.   Sitting on a bench, watching the colorful birds flit about is interesting, relaxing and fun. Learning about them makes the experience even more enjoyable. So, here are just a few of the beautiful creatures in this aviary. Since words alone can’t do them justice, be sure to click on the links to see their images.

Crested Partridge

Watch your feet! This charming bird may scurry in front of you as you walk the aviary paths. The Crested Partridge is a game bird in the pheasant family, about 10 inches long with a roundish shape and a short tail. The males have a glossy black body with a red crest on the forehead. Females are a lovely moss green with brown wings but no crest. Both birds have red patches around the eyes and distinctive red legs and feet. These ground dwellers from the tropical forests in southeast Asia prefer to walk or run. They spend their days foraging for food and may perch on low-hanging branches at night.  

The Crested Partridge mates for life. Their dome-shaped ground nest is covered with twigs and leaves, with the female completely hidden inside for about 18 days while incubating her 6-8 eggs. The Crested Partridge is usually seen in a covey of several birds, which can get a little noisy. They have two calls-a quiet one to communicate with each other and a loud warning sound. Watching these delightful creatures interact with each other is really entertaining. Remember – their red legs make them easy to spot and identify.

Bearded Barbet

Another eye-catching bird in the Flight Connection is the red, black and white Bearded Barbet. It is the largest of the barbet species (10 inch), a round bird with a short neck, large head, and short-ish tail. The strong, short legs have two toes facing frontward and two toes facing backwards, helping the barbet cling to the sides of trees. Males and females look alike. Barbets are closely related to toucans. The tooth-edged bills of toucans are similar to the Bearded Barbet’s large, thick yellow bill. A clump of bristles (exposed feather shafts) at the base of the bill gives this species its name. The saw-like edges make cutting off fruit stems an easy task. The bill is also useful in digging nesting holes in rotten trees. The Bearded Barbet is common in West Africa, where they live in wooded areas and are primarily fruit eaters – with figs a favorite. They are important seed dispersers, as their undigested seeds are spread about the land. Like a distant cousin, the woodpecker, these birds lay eggs in a nest built in the cavity of a tree. The two eggs are incubated for about 14 days with both parents caring for them. The Bearded Barbet’s call is an unmistakable SCRAWK!, often slowly repeated. The next time you’re at Reid Park Zoo, be sure to visit the Flight Connection Aviary with your ears open! You’re sure to spy a Bearded Barbet.

Violet Turaco

This bird just might take your breath away! The brightly-colored Violet Turaco is an African species and a fruit eater. It is large, about 18 inches long. Named for its brilliant glossy violet color, its forehead is yellow with a bright red bill and eye ring.  Social birds, they live in large flocks in the forests of western Africa. Because they live in dense forests, the Violet Turaco doesn’t need to be a great flyer. Using their long tails for balance, they bounce from branch to branch in the treetops, foraging for food. During courtship, the male shows off his brilliant colors by fluttering his wings to attract a mate. A flat platform nest built with twigs and sticks will be assembled high up in a tree. Male and female take turns sitting on the two or three eggs and will also share in feeding the young. The Violet Turaco has a loud COOROO call. Keep an eye out for these magnificent birds and enjoy!

White Headed Buffalo Weaver

Hey! Check out my nest! This could be a male weaver calling out to a prospective mate. He builds a fabulous nest and the females then choose a partner based on his construction skills. What a way to impress your mate!   

The White Headed Buffalo Weaver is common throughout the savannas and dry brush in eastern Africa, eating seeds, small insects and small fruit. The word buffalo comes from its habit of following the African buffalo for insects that hitch a ride on their skin. This is a smallish bird of about 7 inches in length. They are mostly white with black wings and tail and an orange rump.  It is difficult to tell the males from the females as their appearance and size is similar.  

The White Headed Buffalo Weavers are related to finches and are usually seen in small flocks. They lay 3-5 eggs in their elaborate nests and incubate them for 14 days. Come and see if you can find these birds in the aviary. They are bold little birds and just may start looking for insects around your feet! This is only a small sampling of the birds you’ll see at Reid Park Zoo. The South America Loop also has its own aviary, with many stunning species. But there will be more, soon. The Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion will include the “Wings of Wonder” aviary, where you’ll be able to find even more colorful, sociable, and beautiful birds. The aviaries are cool in the summer and a great place to get out of our summer heat. Come in, turn off your phone, and h enjoy the quiet.

Walking the Walk

Supporting the Reid Park Zoo expansion is a win-win-win for Tucson, for conservation, and yes, even for the fight against climate change.

NASA defines climate change as a “long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates.” Every summer here in Tucson, you’ll hear somebody say, “It’s hotter than it used to be!” and if you’ve lived here for a while, I’m sure you agree, as do scientists. Rising or falling temperatures globally has huge implications for us as humans, and of course for the animals in the ocean, on land, and in the air. 

It’s hotter and there’s less water available? This is bad for animal reproduction and survival, and ultimately for our own. Floods and tornados? They cause habitat loss for animals and habitation loss for humans. Heatwaves (we can relate) and wildfires? In the last year, and especially in the west, we’ve experienced  major damage to and loss of native plants, species, and human dwellings.  

Catastrophic weather events seem to be increasing, and we’ve seen the frightening way they can instantly upset the delicate balance of ecosystems and the amazing biodiversity our planet supports. But can we as individuals do anything to mitigate climate change right here in Tucson? Absolutely.

Here are a few simple things you can do, right away, to fight climate change

  • First, try to decrease the number of things you throw away.  For example, store your leftovers in reusable storage containers, and especially get a real water bottle which can be refilled over and over again. 
  • Try reusable grocery bags (they cost about $1 at most local stores), or if you do get the plastic ones from the store, take them back there for recycling the next time you shop.    
  • Recycle whenever you can, because recycling something like a soda can uses less energy than manufacturing a new one!  It doesn’t sound like much, but tossing that can into your recycle bin can save enough energy to run your television for three hours!  
  • Use less water, by taking showers instead of baths, or the big one – turn off the water while you brush your teeth.  It’s amazing, but this one small action can save up to 200 gallons of water a month, especially important here in the desert.    
  • Eat more vegetables! Mom would approve, too. Try having just one meatless meal per week – you’ll improve your health, you’ll save money, and you’ll be helping to reduce greenhouse gasses.
  • Pass one of these tips on to one other person! That is how positive change begins and grows.

The most effective way for us all to mitigate climate change, though requires a somewhat greater change to our habits: limiting the use of fossil fuels in our daily lives. It might not be in reach for you to purchase an electric car or convert your home to solar energy, but you can make a decision to walk or bike to nearby places rather than driving there, or  to carpool, or even to use public transportation when you can.      

A VERY green place, literally and figuratively

Where can you find more information about what you can do to start making a safer and more sustainable world for all of us?   

How about visiting the Reid Park Zoo? As an accredited AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) member institution, our Zoo has already made a commitment to protecting the animals in their care, as well as their habitats and relatives in the wild. The Reid Park Zoo supports numerous conservation initiatives, inside the zoo and abroad, but their commitment to the mitigation of climate change may not be as well known. Let’s state for the record that the Reid Park Zoo definitely walks the walk when it comes to creating a more sustainable future for us all!

Buildings

Three of the newest buildings at the Zoo, the Conservation Learning Center, the Elephant Care Center, and the amazing Animal Health Center, were built using “green” construction. This includes solar power, highly efficient HVAC systems, and the use of recycled and sustainable materials. For example, the ceilings in the Conservation Learning Center (CLC) are made from recycled jeans – really! That’s not all – the buildings incorporate natural lighting whenever possible and were finished with non-toxic, low fume paints and adhesives. The Reid Park Zoo even received a LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for the amazing energy efficiency and sustainable construction of the CLC, and it was the first building in Southern Arizona to receive this prestigious designation.

Recycling and water usage

Everywhere on the grounds, the Zoo participates in the City of Tucson’s blue barrel recycling program, and recycle bins are everywhere to encourage guests to participate too. The Zoofari Café serves  tasty food on biodegradable dishes. In the gift shop, your purchases will never leave the store in plastic – you’ll receive a paper or reusable bag. The only straws allowed anywhere in the Zoo are part of reusable water bottles or souvenir cups. And right now, the Zoo is transitioning from the sale of plastic water bottles to reusable aluminum ones. Luckily, you can now find a “bottle fill” water station near the front entrance, so feel free to bring your own water bottle from home.     

Speaking of water, the Zoo needs a lot in order to keep the animal habitats clean and the grounds lush and green. But they use gray water – highly treated wastewater, also called reclaimed water, for these purposes. Even this water is conserved, because the keepers use low-flow, highly pressurized hoses to clean the animals’ indoor environments.

It’s not too late

According to scientists from NASA, there’s a chance we can still avoid the worst effects of climate change. The Reid Park Zoo is certainly doing its part, and they’re ready to help us do the same. And it’s a sure bet that the new construction in the Reid Park Zoo expansion will be the greenest in town!

We’ve all heard about the importance of conserving energy – but there is one animal at the Reid Park Zoo that has been an expert in this field for about 200 million years. In fact, he’s so proficient at conserving his own energy that the two most common reactions from Zoo visitors are “Is that real?” and “Is it alive???” Yes and yes!

The American Alligator is one of the first creatures to greet guests when they enter the Reid Park Zoo (well, “greet” might be a little bit of an exaggeration), and that’s only fitting, since they’re one of the most ancient animals still living on earth. Often called a “living fossil,” the American Alligator is the largest reptile native to North America, and they really are a paragon of adaptation and survival. Amazingly, they have not changed much for the last 200 million years, though they’re a bit smaller than their mega-reptile ancestors. They have already overcome the “alligator shoes” craze of the 1960s, where they were hunted almost to extinction. Fortunately, the states where they lived got wise and began to protect them, and the species came roaring back. But now they’re in trouble again –  more about that later.

Bayou, the splendid American Alligator

Bayou came to the Reid Park Zoo in 2018 as a middle-aged gator – age 25. What is amazing is that he had lived with many other alligators prior to arriving here (where he enjoys the preferred solitary life of his kind in the wild) but he still has ALL of his toes! Since Alligators prefer living alone in the wild, when they’re placed in close quarters with others of their kind, they squabble, bicker, and nip at each other’s toes frequently .

Tucsonans are fascinated to see a real “swamp creature” in our midst, and it’s likely Reid Park Zoo guests will be able to get a good view of him sitting completely motionless underwater. You can clearly see his 9-feet of thick scales and his smiling upper teeth – so many of them! – which are visible even when his mouth is closed. Since alligators can continue growing all their lives, he might even be bigger the next time you see him. Anyway, it’s likely you’ll see him in the exact same position for quite a while, because Alligators can stay underwater for 30 minutes, easily. He will come up for a breath eventually, but likely just surfacing his raised nostrils, not his whole head. On warmer days, though, or when his keepers call him with the promise of treats, he’ll obligingly amble out of his pool (heated during the cooler months, of course!) and come onto the grass to bask in the sun.   

They’re really not that hungry 

American Alligators live naturally from Florida up to North Carolina, and also along the Gulf Coast into Texas. They thrive in swampy freshwater areas, streams, lakes and ponds. You’ve no doubt seen many news stories about them appearing on golf courses, wandering into people’s yards, or being washed into new territories by floods or other catastrophic weather events. Human development of their home territories has greatly increased the number of human-gator interactions, but it’s important to know that the American Alligator is way less aggressive than his cousin, the Crocodile. It’s true that Alligators  are able to run up to 30 miles per hour, but only for 11 seconds or so (remember – conserving energy is the name of the game). And they are not interested in eating you – you’re way too large and besides, they only need to eat once or twice a month in the wild. Studies have shown that a 100-pound dog will eat more in a year than an 800-pound alligator!

Still, as with all wildlife, it’s best to keep your distance. They may be fascinating and appear to be smiling at you, but you really don’t want to get anywhere near that mouth. The American Alligator spends all that time doing nothing to conserve his energy for lunging at prey such as fish, turtles, snakes, frogs, birds and small mammals. A gator has between 75-80 teeth in his mouth, and because of his hunting method – lunging, snapping the jaws down, and then thrashing his head to subdue the larger prey, he’s always breaking and losing teeth. But that’s no problem, because like sharks, the Alligator can constantly grow new teeth throughout his lifetime – up to 3,000. Then there’s the strength of those jaws clamping down – researchers have measured their bite force to exert somewhere between 2,000-2,900 pounds per square inch!

Alligators and the Environment

The American Alligator is a keystone species, which means that in the wild, they create changes to the landscape that benefit many smaller animals (elephants do this to their landscapes as well). In cooler weather, these giant reptiles dig “gator holes,” which fill up with shallow pools of water, and there they enter brumation, a sort of semi-hibernation. When warmer weather returns, the alligators abandon the holes, which then are used by snakes, turtles, fish, and other nearby creatures.

Maternal?

There is one thing, besides its size and amazing energy efficiency, which distinguishes the American Alligator from most other reptiles around the world. The truth is, most reptile females bury their eggs and walk away; what happens to their young after hatching is not their concern. But the female American Alligator is an unusually attentive mother. Females build huge nests of sticks, leaves, and other plant materials, and then lay 20-60 eggs in them. They then create a mounded cover for the nest out of grasses and mud. This will enhance the temperature inside the nest, which can end up about 10 feet in diameter and 3 feet high. As if that’s not enough, female gators guard these nests from predators, including other alligators. After about 65 days, the occupants of these eggs begin to loudly peep, signaling that hatching is beginning. Amazingly, the mothers can gently carry up to ten of the young in their mouths, so she immediately takes them to safer ground, where she will do her best to protect them for up to a year.

Trouble is brewing

But what’s happening inside these 3-inch long alligator eggs during incubation? It’s the reason this incredible species may now be facing a threat greater than the craze for purses, briefcases, and shoes made from their hides. The gender of American Alligator hatchlings isn’t determined until about 30 days into the incubation period, and gender depends on the temperature inside the nest. The nests are so large they naturally have some variation in temperature inside them, so some eggs should produce females and others males.  

But the trick is this – if it’s too cold (below 88 degrees) during incubation, the hatchlings will all be female, and they’ll have high mortality rates. If it’s too hot in the nest (above 96 degrees or so), the eggs will also produce all females, and they too will have high mortality rates. There is a sweet spot, between about 90-92 degrees, where the eggs are likely to produce males. Climate change, particularly the warming of the alligators’ natural habitats, is already greatly affecting the proportion of male alligator hatchlings, because it’s just getting too hot inside the nests now.   

There’s hope

But by learning ways to live more sustainably (for example, simple things like limiting single-use plastics), even individuals can begin positively affecting the prospects for the American Alligator and all the other amazing animals on earth – oh, and for humans, too. So come to the Reid Park Zoo, learn how you can fight climate change, and get to know and appreciate the amazing American Alligator. That will make it even more fun to anticipate meeting his Indonesian cousin, the Komodo Dragon, in the Reid Park Zoo expansion!