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!

You can’t ignore a creature so flamboyant

The first thing you’ll notice when you enter the Reid Park Zoo is the new Flamingo Lagoon.  It’s the most recently completed habitat of the Reid Park Zoo expansion, and it’s right up front next to the carousel.  There you’ll find a lovely “flamboyance” of Chilean Flamingos, numbering around 27. Something always seems to be going on with this group.      You’ll see them dunking their heads in the water, flapping their wings, standing perfectly still on one leg and dozing,  preening, stiffly walking through the pools or on the grass, and even sometimes marching with great precision in mini-troops.  

They really are referred to as a flamboyance, a great description considering their beautiful pink, white, and black feathers, their distinctive black and white bills, their sinuous necks, their impressive (up to 5-foot) wingspans, and their long, thin legs that seem to bend the wrong way.  And you’ll also hear them honking, much more quietly “gabbing,” and sometimes even the flamingo version of growling.    Sometimes these sociable birds seem intensely aware of the others in the group, and sometimes an individual will sleep soundly in the midst of non-stop activity from the others. 

Where they live and what they eat

Chilean Flamingos are one of the largest of the six types of flamingos, and they come to us from South America (Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil).  There are two other South American species, Andean and Puna Flamingos.    You can find Greater and Lesser Flamingos in Africa, Greaters in the Middle East, and Caribbean Flamingos in Mexico, the Caribbean and just into northern South America.   Of course flamingos are popular and have even been introduced into Germany and The Netherlands.   And a cave painting depicting a flamingo, which is dated to about 5,000 years ago, was found in Spain!   

Chilean Flamingos live in shallow water – lakes or lagoons with brackish and alkaline waters, which have two advantages.  The flamingos’ preferred diet of algae, diatoms (a sort of super algae that does all kinds of good for biodiversity wherever it occurs), and small crustaceans thrive in these waters.   And other animals have no interest in drinking that kind of water, so flamingos don’t have to worry about predators or even competition for their favorite foods.  

Their interesting trough-shaped bills not only have dramatic black and white color on the outside, they have comb-like structures called lamellae inside.   And to obtain their food, they just need to submerge their bill in the water, turn it upside down, and sweep their heads from side to side.   Their muscular tongues take care of the suction needed to bring the goody-filled water into their bills, where the edible parts are trapped in the lamellae.  And then the tongue obligingly expels all the extra water.  These fairly light birds actually eat about 10% of their body weight in teeny-tiny bits each day!

Little ones

Flamingos live in all sorts of groups – sometimes up to 30,000.   But in order to breed, the size of the flamboyance must be between 15-18 birds.   A pair of Chilean Flamingos mate for life, and they are definitely committed to equal opportunity parenting.   First, the nest, which is really a mud mound, is constructed by both the male and female.  It looks like a sort of small volcano, surrounded by a handy moat, and is about 12 inches in diameter and 15 inches high.  This design is important to shield the egg from sudden flooding.  The nest also has a concave top to cradle a single egg.  Both parents incubate the egg for about 26 – 31 days until hatching, and often the entire flamboyance will protect it, especially from raptors in the area.  

When it first hatches, the chick is about the size of a fuzzy little gray tennis ball with a pink beak and pink puffy legs.    Both parents feed the young one  “crop milk,” which comes from the adults’ upper digestive tracts.  But at only a week old the chick can begin to practice the required feeding movement in the water, and they can also run quickly.   In huge groups, parents can always find their own chick, and he or she can find Mom and Dad, just by their individual calls!  And the devoted parents will continue feeding their hatchling for 65-70 days, until the little tyke’s bill has grown into the adult shape and is completely suited to the unique flamingo fishing technique.

So visit the Reid Park Zoo…..and look closely at the Flamingo Lagoon.   Some of the members of the flamboyance there were hatched at the Zoo and have reached “adulthood”  – so there’s a good chance we may see some mud nests under construction sometime soon!

Time for some FAQs

Question 1:  Why do flamingos stand on one leg?

Nobody is sure.   Scientists first speculated that the flamingos tucked in a leg to keep it warm, but the theory makes no sense since flamingos do very well in hot climates where they almost never need to warm themselves up.  Researchers can only speculate that this one-legged position must be comfortable for them.

Question 2:  What’s up with those backward-bending knees?

Trick question!    Those knobby pink protuberances you can see about halfway up their very thin legs are really their ankles!   They do have knees, but they’re not visible to us – they’re very near the body and hidden by feathers.  If you think about your own ankles, it’s clear that they can bend your foot either up or down – but knees can’t do the same for your lower legs.      Flamingos’ long, thin legs, by the way, allow them to wade into deeper waters than most birds in order to find food.

Question 3:   Why are they called “Flamingos?”

It’s about the vivid coloration.  Flamingo comes from the Latin, flamma, as in “flame.”   Also, it’s much easier to remember than the Chilean Flamingos’ official scientific name, which is Phoenicopterus chilensis.

Question 4:   Which animal has more cervical vertebrae (or neck bones, as we non-scientific types call them), a giraffe or a flamingo?  (O.K. –  not FREQUENTLY asked, but still a fun question)   

Both animals have extremely long, flexible necks that are perfectly suited for their unique styles of feeding.  It might be reasonable to think that the neck on an 18-foot creature ought to have more bones than the neck of a 4-foot bird.  But all mammals, including you and me, or the tiniest mouse, or a huge rhinoceros, or even a giraffe have the same number of cervical vertebrae, only seven.   The difference comes in the size of each vertebra.  On the other hand, Chilean Flamingos have 19 elongated vertebrae in their necks, allowing them to specialize the position of their necks for feeding, dancing, marching,  flying, and tucking their head and much of their neck away neatly under a wing.

Question 5:  Why do people put plastic flamingos in their front yards?   And sometimes even dress them up in seasonal decorations like Santa hats?

No one can say.

The Rhinos at the Reid Park Zoo are amiable enough to share their large habitat – first with a bachelor herd of tiny Speke’s Gazelle, and now with a pair of beautiful  East African Crowned Cranes. In the wild, these endangered creatures live beside larger animals in wetlands and grasslands in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa.  In neighboring Rwanda, Dr. Olivier Nsengimana,  who has loved this species since childhood,  founded the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation  Association, which is particularly active in protecting and repopulating Crowned Cranes.     These distinctive birds with their unmistakable golden crowns are the national bird of Uganda, and their image even graces the Ugandan flag.   

The peacocks have some serious competition in the gorgeous bird category! East African Crowned Cranes are a subspecies of grey cranes, and are a little over 3 feet tall, with a six-foot wingspan.  Males are a bit larger than females, weighing in between 6 ½ and 8 ½ pounds.  The Cranes boast distinctive coloration, including pearly grey bodies, wings that are mostly white with some brown and gold feathers, and black legs which have a handy prehensile back toe on each foot.  Their heads have five interesting features:   a relatively short beak, distinctive white cheeks, a black patch on top, of course the stiff and distinctive gold feather crown, and a bright red inflatable pouch (the gular sac) beneath the chin.

Omnivores, but sometimes picky eaters

East African Crowned Cranes spend their days foraging for food, and their unique physical attributes help a lot.   First, they like to forage for insects, seeds, small creatures like worms and lizards, and nuts in tall grasses, and their crowns help greatly with camouflage.   Also, they tend to pal around with larger species, because the heavier footfalls of their animal companions tend to stir up the ground and encourage tasty live tidbits to come to the surface.   In a pinch, Crowned Cranes have been observed stamping their dainty feet to accomplish the same thing.   

When they are near water, Crowned Cranes are known to enjoy small fish or aquatic eggs.  In ranching or agricultural areas, which are unfortunately claiming more and more of their habitats, they enjoy foraging in newly-plowed fields, and especially enjoy eating fresh maize directly from the cobs, rejecting stray kernels that may have fallen to the ground!    After a long day of discriminating foraging, munching, and seed dispersal, Cranes sleep in trees, and their special prehensile  back toes allow them to perch comfortably high above the dangers on the ground.  

Endearing family life

East African Crowned Cranes are believed to mate for life, and males and females share the duties of nest building, incubation, and chick rearing.   But how does a pair get together in the first place?   They perform an intricate mating dance which can be initiated by either the male or female.  The dance begins with that bright red gular sac, initiating a series of mating calls.  Head bobbing, wing spreading, and jumping follow – take a look!  The pair builds their nest in a wet marshy area where there is a lot of tall vegetation, so an adult can sit on the 2-4 eggs and still be well camouflaged. After around thirty days, the amazingly precocial chicks hatch.  They can swim and float after only 12 hours.  The next day they start eating, and on their third day of life they’re already helping their parents forage for food in the marshlands.   They’ll stay with their parents for about three years, and then leave to join a juvenile flock.

Endangered

The lovely East African Crowned Cranes are listed by the IUCN as endangered, mostly due to habitat fragmentation for agriculture and grazing, and unfortunately due to the illegal pet trade.  In some countries where they’re endemic, owning them is a status symbol. AZA-accredited zoos like the Reid Park Zoo are doing their part, through the Species Survival Plan, to ensure that these beautiful birds can once again flourish in Africa, and thankfully Ugandans are also beginning to protect their beloved species. After the Pathway to Asia is complete in the Reid Park Zoo expansion, next on the list will be a reconfiguration of the habitats of the African species in the center of the Zoo.   Who knows?  These mellow birds may get some new neighbors, and maybe even move in with them!  

Imagine checking out at the grocery store, and as you politely socially distance from the customer in front of you, your eyes land upon a new tabloid.  It’s a special edition, The Aldabra Enquirer!   The shocking headlines include, “Both Males AND Females promiscuous, expert says!   Truth revealed – Esmeralda is actually a MALE!   “I ran for my life when I saw them NOSING!”  “Heartless parenting, scientists declare”  “It must have weighed 600 pounds, and it was coming right for me!”  and finally, “Vacation in the Seychelles? Think again…what about the Aldabra CREEP?

Like most tabloids, The Aldabra Enquirer includes a grain of truth in each headline, so read on to learn about these amazing, ancient giants!

The Gigantism

Aldabra tortoises and their more famous cousins, the Galapagos Giant Tortoises, evolved from a common ancestor about 20 million years ago, and the Aldabras dispersed from Madagascar to the islands of the Seychelles, and also to Mauritius, Reunion, Rodrigues, and Zanzibar.    Originally they shared these islands in the Indian Ocean with many other species of giant tortoises, but today only the Aldabras remain.   Again like their cousins the Galapagos, they were prized by seafarers as the perfect source of food for long voyages, and were often stacked like firewood in the holds of ships.  The short version is that their numbers decreased significantly, and they disappeared from everywhere except the Aldabra Atoll (and a few individuals have been relocated to zoos and to some of the neighboring islands and cays).      The Aldabra Atoll is part of the Seychelles (it’s around 930 miles east of Africa, and it’s northeast of Madagascar), and is the world’s largest atoll, which is a ring-shaped coral reef.   Today, the giant tortoises on Aldabra number from 100,000 to about 150,000.  

There are various theories about why certain types of tortoises grow so large, but the one currently favored by the scientific community is the “founder effect,” when only a few individuals of a species arrive in an isolated place, like an atoll.   If abnormal genetic traits, for example mutations like gigantism, enable them to better survive in this new environment, the small populations of survivors will inbreed.  And because the genetic trait is advantageous, natural selection sees that these traits become fixed in this isolated population.     That explains why the giant tortoises are endemic only to islands and atolls, never to mainlands.    

But How Big is Giant?

The largest Aldabra tortoise documented weighed in at about 672 pounds!   We know this must have been a male, because they are considerably larger than females.   The male Aldabra’s carapace, which is the upper shell, can grow up to 4 feet long, and they generally weigh around 550 pounds.   The females are considerably smaller, but relatively a little tubbier – 3 feet long on the carapace and 350 pounds.  Aldabras grow pretty slowly, and when they’re 25 years old, they’re ready for breeding, though they’ve reached only about half of their full size.  

 Scientists speculate that these tortoises don’t grow continuously, and further that the growth rate slows as they get older, which means they’re not necessarily full-grown when they reach their 50th  birthday, or “hatch day.”  They are suspected of having very long life spans – perhaps up to 170 years – but because research scientists can’t compete with that impressive statistic, even those devoted to the species for their entire lifetimes can’t verify this.   No members of the species have been in human care that long, either, so even in an environment that can be controlled, experts always say, “This individual may live to about 170.” 

Not exactly role models for family life

Yes, promiscuous is an apt description!  This shocking headline from our fictional Enquirer is accurate – but scientists prefer to describe Aldabras’ mating habits as polygynandrous.  Both males and females have multiple partners.  Time to now picture the relative sizes of the males and females – we might predict that the weight difference alone could make coupling dangerous for the females.   However, they hold their own, and when they want to get rid of an aggressive male who is attempting to breed, they simply extend their front legs to make themselves as tall as possible;   this has the effect of dropping the back of the shells to the ground, swiftly causing an unwanted male to tumble off and trudge away.  Even without this neat trick, most mating attempts are unsuccessful, and though a female may lay from 9-25 eggs, only about half will be fertile.

Odds are not good for those 12 or so fertilized eggs, either, because like many tortoises and other reptiles, females lay the eggs and walk away.   These rubbery, tennis-ball sized eggs are not even buried, because the nests are shallow indentations on the ground’s surface.  Eggs therefore are especially vulnerable to predators (like giant crabs) as well as climatic events like flooding or rising temperatures.  And those who do hatch are totally on their own.    Fortunately, their herbivorous food sources, like grass, and small plants, are at ground level.  

 A Day in the Life

But let’s say a lucky hatchling does make it to adulthood, where her only predator would be a human being.   What does she do with her day?    Well, sleeping is quite popular – up to 18 hours a day.   Then there’s grazing – as the Aldabras become larger, they’re able to eat tasty treats above ground level, often by knocking over small trees and shrubs – and this is actually beneficial to their ecosystem. So like elephants, the Aldabra Giant Tortoises are a keystone species, enabling the survival of many other  creatures on the atoll who might depend on these food sources as well.   These hefty giants also create pathways for their fellow atoll residents.     Like all herbivores, Aldabras also provide the useful service of dispersing seeds through their feces, and there’s actually a species of land hermit crab, Coenobita rugosus, whose entire diet consists of Aldabra feces.  

So let’s see – sleeping, grazing, landscaping , defecating…..then there’s stretching,  a little walking (0.3 mph), resting, mating (or not), and nosing.  Nosing?   Nosing is actually kind of endearing, even though researchers have no idea of its purpose in the lives of these generally unsociable creatures. But anyway, one thing scientists are sure of about nosing is that it has absolutely nothing to do with mating.  What happens is this:  One Aldabra will lie down next to another, and then proceed to rub his or her nose on the companion’s head or neck, and continue doing so for several minutes.  Then it’s time for more sleeping, probably, or maybe walking away, slowly of course.     By the way, one of the names for a group of Aldabras is a “creep.”     

Are they endangered?

The good news is that the Aldabra Atoll has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that means the tortoises are protected there.   However, the IUCN has designated them as Vulnerable, just a step below endangered, and this is due to habitat loss as well as the introduction of introduced mammals which compete for land and resources, and also prey upon Aldabra eggs.   And the greatest threat now seems to be rising sea levels around the atoll – which is projected to cause up to a 65% decrease in tortoise population on Aldabra Atoll in the next century.  There are breeding programs in AZA zoos, but unfortunately, not many have yet been successful (similar to what happens in the wild). But maybe the continued opportunity to observe these unique creatures will result in new insights into breeding them – We hope so!

At the Reid Park Zoo

You can visit the creep at the Reid Park Zoo – it consists of two females,  Georgie (maybe about 32 years old and about 155 pounds)  and Dulcee (maybe about 73 years old and 192 pounds), and the gigantic Herbie, who’s clearly the male, maybe going on 90, and weighing in at about 533! It’s a sure bet you’ll see them indulging in one of their nine activities – maybe even nosing.   And if that whets your appetite, you’ll soon be able to see more marvelous reptiles in the Reid Park Zoo expansion – and each one will have its own unique adaptations and behaviors – but how can any of them compete with nosing?

NOT SO FAST –  WHAT ABOUT ESMERALDA?????

Oh yes – our final shocking headline proves that if you don’t see the relative sizes of male and female Aldabra Tortoises, it’s awfully difficult to determine the gender of one of these giants.    Esmeralda lives on Bird Island, a tiny coral cay in the Seychelles, and he weighs 670 pounds.  He’s maybe 170 years old.   And he got his name from a famous botanist and zoologist named Lyall Watson, who happened to be  visiting Bird Island.  A giant Aldabra Tortoise unconcernedly approached the zoologist, and he just seemed so mellow and happy that Mr. Watson, who only checks the gender of reptiles when he’s researching them, felt Esmeralda was the perfect name, and it stuck.    No worries.    To paraphrase William Shakespeare, “A male Aldabra Tortoise by any other name would still be as huge.”

Come to the Reid Park Zoo and take a gander at Herbie – you’ll see what we mean!

Black on white are they? 

Or maybe it’s white on black. 

But why have those stripes anyway? 

 The zebra:   A kind of “horse,” yes, but a horse of a very different stripe! 

Zebras are hooved mammals, members of the greater equine family that also includes horses and donkeys. They resemble horses, but they are stockier, closer to donkeys. And of course, unlike horses or donkeys, zebras are covered with those dazzling black and white stripes.

Three different species

The three species of zebras – Grevy’s zebras, plains zebras, and mountain zebras – differ in size and coloration. Grevy’s, the kind at the Reid Park Zoo, are the largest, at about 900 pounds, 5 feet tall at the shoulder, and 8 feet long. Plains and mountain zebras are 1-2 feet shorter and about 200 pounds lighter. Within each zebra species, males and females are about the same size. 

How about those stripes?

Like fingerprints in humans, no two zebras have the same pattern of stripes. But does a zebra have black stripes on white fur or white stripes on black fur? The fact that a zebra’s fur is white in regions that don’t have stripes (often, the belly and parts of the legs) makes many people say that the pattern is black stripes on white fur. But under those stripes in its fur, a zebra’s skin is all black, and that makes other people say that the pattern is white stripes on black. What do you think? 

Grevy’s, plains, and mountain zebras wear their stripes in different ways. They all have a dark dorsal stripe that extends from forehead to tail. Beyond that, Grevy’s zebras’ stripes are the narrowest of the three; they are all black and white, and they extend over the zebra’s head, neck, back and sides, and legs down to the hooves. A mountain zebra has vertical stripes on its neck and torso, but wider and fewer stripes on its haunches and rump. Many plains zebras have “shadow” stripes: dark and white stripes where their dark stripes alternate color between black and brown.

The enduring mystery

Don’t you wonder why zebras have stripes, though? Maybe you learned an answer from the children’s book, “How the Zebra Got Its Stripes.” The San people of the Kalahari Desert and the Bush People of Kenya tell an ancient story about a long-ago fight between a baboon and an all-white zebra, with the zebra ending up getting scorched by a fire in a striped pattern. (The same story explains why baboons have no hair on their rumps!) 

Scientists have wondered about zebra stripes for years, too. An early idea was that the stripes help to camouflage the animals, particularly in a herd, where the stripes might make it harder for a predator to pick out individual animals to attack. Maybe this is why a herd of zebras is called a “dazzle!” Apparently, if you paint vertical stripes on a wall, zebras will tend to stand next to it, so the zebras themselves might vote for this “camouflage” hypothesis. But scientists have found that predators like lions and hyenas can only see a zebra’s stripes when they are less than 10-20 feet away, so stripes probably wouldn’t make zebras less visible to predators that were farther away. 

Another idea – that the unique patterns of different individuals could help other members of their herd to tell them apart – might be right, but we know that other species of social animals can distinguish individuals in their herd without any of them having stripes. The stripes could function as a “name tag,” but it is not clear whether that function would drive the evolution of something as unusual as the zebra’s stripes. 

Some recent experiments with flies, zebras, and horses wearing black-and-white-striped covers support a stranger hypothesis: that the stripes on a zebra create an optical illusion that makes it difficult for flies to gauge distance and land properly on the zebra’s hide. If flies can’t land, they can’t bite the zebra, so maybe the stripes are a novel kind of insect repellant.   Whatever hypothesis you favor, it is clear that the debate about the zebra’s stripes is not over yet! 

Habitat

Zebras are African animals, but the original ancestors of zebras, horses, and donkeys first arose in North America about 4 million years ago, then spread to Europe and Asia. The zebra lineage separated from the others and spread into Africa about 2-2½ million years ago. 

Zebras live in savannahs, grasslands, shrublands, and some woodlands. Wild Grevy’s zebras are now found only in protected game reserves in east Africa, mainly in Kenya. Plains zebras are much more abundant than Grevy’s, and they are found in wide areas of eastern and southern Africa. Mountain zebras are between the others in numbers and they are found mainly in southwestern Africa and in several scattered locations in South Africa. 

Going where the grass is greener

Zebras in east Africa participate in what is called the Great Migration – a seasonal movement of millions of wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras and antelopes between their winter range in Kenya and their summer calving grounds in Tanzania, over 100 miles away. Mountain zebras in southwestern Africa seasonally migrate even greater distances. These migrations are a natural result of seasonal changes in rainfall and vegetation – the animals go to where the grass is green! 

It’s all about grazing

Zebras mostly graze on grass, but also will eat leaves, stems, and the bark of bushes. During the Great Migration with wildebeest and antelopes, the zebras often get to new pastures first. Rather than eating the grass down to its roots, though, the zebras bite off just the tops of the grasses, leaving plenty of food for the wildebeest and antelopes that “get to the table” after them. When not migrating, zebras spend more than half of their day grazing. 

Rambling Females

The different species of zebras have different social structures. Grevy’s zebras form herds whose membership is loose and changeable. Males usually establish territorial domains, and females roam through them, from one male’s domain to another’s. In contrast, plains and mountain zebras form into more stable herds, with one dominant male (the stallion) and several females (mares) and foals. All zebra species also form some all-male “bachelor” herds. 

Offspring

After a gestation of about 13 months, a pregnant zebra gives birth to a single foal. Foals stand and walk within minutes after birth. Foals’ stripes are brown and white at birth and darken to black and white with age. Grevy’s foals stay with their mother until they mature, and then leave the group. Zebras are preyed upon by lions, leopards, wild dogs, and hyenas. When they cannot outrun a predator (their top speed is about 40 mph!), they defend themselves with powerful kicks of their extremely hard hooves. Grevy’s zebras live for 20-25 years in the wild and for 25-30 years in human care in. 

Endangered

Grevy’s zebras are listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with fewer than 2,000 of them left in the wild.    Plains zebras are much more abundant (150,000-250,000 in the wild), so the IUCN classifies them as Near Threatened, but their numbers are declining. Mountain zebras are classified as Vulnerable, but the good news is that their numbers are estimated to be increasing! 

Stripes in Tucson

Advisory:  a real groaner of a pun is coming up!

The Reid Park Zoo currently has two Grevy’s zebras, a male and a female that are named Ben and Anna. Together, they are “Ben-Anna” – like the yellow fruit you peel to eat, get it? 

As part of the Species Survival Plan established for Grevy’s zebras by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the RPZ is allowing Ben and Anna to breed, in the hope that they will produce offspring and maintain diversity in the gene pool of Grevy’s zebras in human care. In fact, on July 4, 2020, Anna gave birth to a male foal, which was very exciting. Sadly, though, the new foal died suddenly a few days after birth, as regularly happens in the wild, in this case probably from a spinal injury. Zoo visitors and the Zoo’s staff hope that Anna will birth a new foal in the future. Zebras’ 13-month gestation will allow plenty of warning for everyone to think about possible names for a new zebra foal! 

And once the Reid Park Zoo expansion opens, you might be interested to compare the striping pattern on zebras with the stripes on another beautiful and threatened species, the Malayan tigers!  Whichever patterns you prefer, you’ll be helping the species just by visiting the Zoo. 

Monsoon Diversions: A Primate Primer

As the heat and monsoon rains of the desert southwest force us indoors, I thought it might be a good time to dust off that old black and white Composition notebook (you know the one) and reminisce about your early school days. I’d like you to revisit Biology class, when you were first introduced to some of the longest lists in the world, those of the animal, vegetable, and mineral variety. To keep it manageable, let’s just focus on the animals and one Order in particular, the Primates. 

A master list maker classifies…everything on the planet 

Classifying animals has never been an easy task. Carl Linnaeus didn’t attempt his first comprehensive list of animals until the 10th edition of Systema Naturae (1758), his encyclopedic catalog of everything on the planet. To make the list more manageable, Linnaeus and the scientists who came after him divided the Primates into two suborders based on their morphology (size, shape, color, and structure): The Prosimians and the Anthropoids/aka Simians. Think of the Prosimians as pre-Simians (before Apes) on the evolutionary time scale.

Modern DNA technology has shaken things up since then, and distinguishing one species from another remains an ongoing process. In the 21st century, because we can study an organism’s DNA or genome, classification is based on evolutionary history, or phylogeny. In biology, the term phylogenesis means how a species develops and diversifies and how species are related by common ancestors.  

While we may quibble with the content of Linnaeus’ lists, we can be grateful for his idea about naming things. He formalized a standard binomial nomenclature, the two-name system of identifying organisms. The first name, the generic part, identifies the genus, and the second name, the specific part, identifies the species. Unless you’re a biologist, you don’t need to memorize these names; it’s just comforting to know that a standardized system for naming exists.

It’s all down to noses 

Even if you’re not an evolutionary biologist, there are some simple ways you can classify Primates. A good place to start is to identify the continents where these animals live in the wild. You’ll find that Apes live in Africa and Asia, Prosimians in Africa and Asia, and Monkeys in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Exception: A single species of Monkey, the Barbary Macaque, lives in Gibraltar, so technically, Europe. 


Linnaeus differentiated the two Primate suborders based on the structure of their noses.  It’s a good bet the noses aren’t the FIRST things you’ve noticed when seeing a primate, but they will be from now on.

 Create your own handy reference for the next time you visit the zoo.  On a sheet of paper (or mentally), draw a large circle,  and then draw a straight line down from the top to the bottom dividing the circle in half. Each Primate suborder gets half a circle. 

  Here’s a quick glossary.   To describe all these noses in scientific terms, Linnaeus turned to the Greeks. 

Strepsis, a turning around (like a squiggly comma)

Haplo, onefold, single, simple

Platu (Platy), flat or broad (like a plate)

Kata (Cata), down

These prefixes are all attached to the infix Rhin (Rhine), meaning nose

Now that you’re in the know, label one side of the circle Strepsirhines to represent the primitive Prosimians. These species have a wet or moist rhinarium (tip of nose) just like your dog or cat, are heavily reliant on their sense of smell, and are primarily nocturnal. They live in Africa and Asia and include:

  • Lemurs, who live only on the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa and nowhere else in the world
  • Lorises, who live in Asia
  • Loris-related animals, Galagos (Bushbabies) and Pottos, who live in Africa

Label the other side of the circle Haplorhines to represent the Anthropoids/aka Simians. These species have a dry or simple nose (lack of a rhinarium), rely heavily on vision, and are primarily diurnal. They live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and include:

  • Tarsiers, quirky creatures who live only in Asia and share some characteristics with both suborders. Because they are a dry-nosed species, we list them here. 
  • Monkeys and Apes, a huge group of dry-nosed species which are further differentiated by the shape of their nose and orientation of their nostrils. On your drawing, divide the Haplorhine space into two parts and add two more labels. 
  • Platyrrhines, Monkeys who live only in Latin America (Mexico, Central America, and South America). They have a dry or simple nose that is flat with outward-facing nostrils. For Platyrrhine Monkeys, visualize a Common Squirrel Monkey, a Capuchin, or a Marmoset.
  • Catarrhines, represented by two superfamilies of Monkeys and Apes, who live in Africa and Asia except for that single exception, the Barbary Macaque living in Gibraltar. They have a dry or simple nose that is narrow with downward- or forward-facing nostrils. For Catarrhine Monkeys, visualize a Baboon, a Macaque, or a Mandrill. For Catarrhine Apes, visualize a Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Gibbon, or Orangutan. 

If you examine a Primate’s nose and ask yourself these questions—1) does the species have a wet nose/rhinarium or a dry nose?  and 2) if dry, are the nostrils flat and outward-facing or narrow and downward- or forward-facing?  You are well on your way to classifying these animals. 

Would you like to test those classification skills??   Well, there’s a perfect opportunity right in the heart of Tucson.

Visiting Primates at Reid Park Zoo!

If you’d like to spend a great morning outside in nature, I encourage you to stop by the Reid Park Zoo and visit the Primates who live there. Just inside the front plaza area, you can begin your tour by navigating counterclockwise through the areas representing Asia, South America, and Africa. Each Primate’s official conservation status, as determined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ,is provided.

Lar Gibbon, Endangered, a Lesser Ape species from Southeast Asia

LOCATION: From the Chilean Flamingo lagoon, follow the main path between the carousel on the left and the Flamingo house on the right. 

Meet 48-year old Billy, Reid Park Zoo’s geriatric Lar gibbon. Famous for his morning territorial song. Eats fruit (loves bananas), nutritional primate biscuits, plant material, occasionally insects or even a small bird. Known for his brachiating skills, swinging hand over hand from ropes in his habitat. Sometimes seen sleeping in a sitting position with his hands resting on his knees.

Common Squirrel Monkey, Least Concern (but exploited), a Monkey species from South America

LOCATION: Continue south a few steps, then turn right towards the South America Loop. Turn left and pass the Jaguar habitat.

Presenting  7-year-old females Glitter and Sparkles and 4-year-old male Parker, the zoo’s young troop of squirrel monkeys. Fast-moving, extremely playful. Eat insects, small vertebrates, fruit, nectar, and flowers. Enjoy foraging and figuring out food puzzles. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan. 

Ring-Tailed Lemur, Endangered, a Lemur species from Madagascar off the coast of Africa

LOCATION: Find your way back to the main path. Continue south up the hill and around the corner, bearing right at the Otter habitat, and make your way just a few feet past the Lion pavilion, the roofed structure with bench seating. 

You’ll be delighted to see 9-year-old brothers Oak, Elm, and Linden who came to Tucson from Saint Catherine’s Island, a sanctuary for endangered and near-extinct animals and birds off the coast of Georgia. Most terrestrial of all Lemur species but enjoy climbing ropes and trees in their habitat. Often seen walking with tails erect or perched on platforms with tails hanging down. Eat fruit, nutritional primate biscuits, seeds, nectar, and leafy greens. When cold, cuddle together in one big Lemur ball. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan.   

Lion-Tailed Macaque, Endangered, a Monkey species from India in Asia

LOCATION: Go south towards the Pollinator Garden, then right to the Conservation Learning Center building.

You may need to look up to meet geriatric Macaques Hadji, a 29-year-old male, and Baniece “Beanie,” a 33-year-old female, both born at Reid Park Zoo. If not moving through the lower branches of their trees or on the ground foraging, may be perched up high above you. Eat fruit, seeds, leaves, nutritional primate biscuits, lizards, and insects. Enjoy popsicles or chewing on ice cubes during the hot Tucson summer. 

One more species you can visit now  – and soon we’ll also have the Siamang Gibbons in the Reid Park Zoo expansion….and you won’t want to miss them!   But it’s time to mention the

Black and White Ruffed Lemur, Critically Endangered, a Lemur species from Madagascar off the coast of Africa

LOCATION: Go to the east side of the zoo, near the Alligator and African Wild Dog habitats.

Meet 8-year-old female Tallie and 16-year-old male Junior, a very athletic pair of primarily arboreal Lemurs. Enjoy climbing and hanging from the branches and ropes in their habitat. Tallie has orange eyes. Loud vocalizations when annoyed or startled, sometimes audible from the parking lot. Eat fruit, leaves, seeds, and nectar. Often seen doing what can only be described as Lemur yoga poses. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan. 

Hope for them and for us

The conservation status for most of these species is grim. About a third of all Lemurs are Critically Endangered—one step from Extinction—and the remaining two-thirds are Endangered and threatened with extinction. In mainland Africa, 53% of all Primate species are under threat. 

At the heart of this crisis is a dire need for alternative, sustainable livelihoods to replace the current reliance on deforestation and unsustainable use of wildlife. Humans need to drastically change their relationship to other primates. 

What’s in it for us? A 2020 article in the Smithsonian Magazine confirmed that people living in awe of nature—having that feeling of “being small in the face of nature”—felt more generous and kinder. Experiencing that same sense of awe is also thought to boost the immune system and sense of creativity.  

By visiting the zoo, you’re helping these incredible primates and other species come back from the brink of extinction. A portion of your admission supports the scientists and conservation organizations working with these species in the wild. 

Think about it

The Primates at Reid Park Zoo representing their cousins in the wild are the face of nature. With the planet’s human population now more than 7 1/2 billion, we vastly outnumber them. When you meet them, appreciate their wildness and experience that sense of awe. Think about your own use of our planet’s resources, how you shop, how you travel, and what you eat. Reflect on how your habits affect the lives of your fellow humans and your fellow Primates. 

You can take action

Humans are a resourceful species, and there is a lot we can do to support our fellow Primates. 

  • Take a stand against the illegal pet trade
  • Stop watching videos or films that feature wild animal “selfies” or “domesticated” exotic animals
  • Practice the 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Repurpose, Recycle, and Reuse
  • Shop sustainably: Use reliable Eco Apps and look for Eco/Green symbols or labels to guide you, such as Sustainable Palm Oil, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly, Seafood Watch, and Forest Stewardship Council
  • Reduce your carbon footprint by ridesharing, cycling, and walking when you can
  • Reduce your carbon footprint by supporting local makers, crafts people, ranchers, and farmers 

When we change our lives, we’ll change their lives. 

On behalf of their counterparts in the wild, all the Primates at Reid Park Zoo—the spry senior, Billy, the energetic youngsters, Glitter, Sparkles, and Parker, the playful brothers, Oak, Elm, and Linden, the nimble seniors, Hadji and Beanie, and the spunky couple, Tallie and Junior—thank you!  

Wings of Wonder Aviary 

The Wings of Wonder Aviary in the Reid Park Zoo expansion has big plans – plans to bring us an array of interesting and beautiful birds in all sizes, in shady, tree-filled habitats with opportunities to just sit, meander, de-stress,  and observe, or if you’re in the mood, to feed some of the species!

Sit Back or Interact!

There are far too many species slated to elaborate on here, but let’s start with a list of birds that are in the plans at present.   Of course, depending on construction time and species availability, this list may change a bit by the time we can visit the Pathway to Asia – but here goes!

The Walk-Through Aviary

 Here are images of just a few of the birds that you’ll see in the Wings of Wonder Aviary – and they will NOT be hard to locate (you’ll see why in a minute).    In anticipation of the WOW Aviary grand opening,  we present some amazing beauty. Click on the links below!

DOVES:  In your back yard, you’re probably used to seeing White Wing Doves and Mourning Doves, whose subdued coloration provides great camouflage in the desert.   But in the Wings of Wonder, you’ll find some of their extremely colorful relatives.

  1.   Luzon Bleeding Heart Dove – see an image here
  2.   Another dove,  The Beautiful Fruit Dove – take a look
  3.   Dove #3, the Emerald Dove

PIGEONS:   The doves’ larger cousins are NOT to be outdone by the beautiful species above!   The Wings of Wonder will also feature some almost unbelievably gorgeous pigeons as well, such as the

  1. Nicobar Pigeon, with its stunning colors and distinctive “collar”
  2. Blue Crowned Pigeon,  which will be easy to spot with its vivid color and showy crown

Go BIG:  Are you in the mood for something larger?   How about seeing 

  1. A Peacock Pheasant, which can spread its tail feathers just like a peacock does!
  2. A Tragopan, another type of pheasant…these two just don’t much resemble those Thanksgiving centerpieces!

Want to get closer?

The Reid Park Zoo expansion is also poised to offer us a wonderful, interactive experience feeding some amazing feathered friends in the Interactive portion of the Aviary.  Researchers are now able to document the benefits we get from all levels of interacting with wildlife, and these can include improved mood, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress levels, and so on.  So come on in to the Wings of Wonder!

In a zoo setting, provided that the conditions around this interaction are safe and positive for both humans and the animals involved, as they will be in the Pathway to Asia,  the chance to actually offer food to birds in the Wings of Wonder Aviary will not only contribute to the well-being of the birds.  According to researcher Mark James Learmonth of the Animal Welfare Science Centre in Australia, such human/wildlife interactions can “potentially be a very powerful tool to increase public awareness, engagement, and support for conservation practices…”   What a win-win!  

Which birds might approach us for a treat?

Plenty of them!   Here’s information about just a few of the species who will waiting to meet you in the Interactive Wings of Wonder Aviary.

The Crested Wood Partridge:  This well-rounded beauty is related to the pheasants you saw above….and though they can fly in a pinch (sort of like our local Gambel’s Quail), they most often dash around on their stumpy little legs.   They forage for seeds, small fruits, and sometimes snails – and they’re clever about it – they wait under trees that are full of monkeys, flying foxes, or other birds, who are not the tidiest of nature’s diners.   In other words, great edible bounty rains down from those trees, and the Crested Wood Partridges are glad to devour whatever falls their way!

The Vietnamese Pheasant:   This type of pheasant was only discovered in 1964 in Vietnam, and is one of the rarest kinds of pheasant you’ll encounter.   Their populations are small and they are endangered by hunting, deforestation, and even the pet trade.   They like to eat berries, seeds, and leaves, and even the occasional insect.

The Red-Whiskered Bulbul:   Time to look up in the trees!   The Red-Whiskered Bulbul is about 7 inches long and can be easily identified by their pointy black crests and their red face patches.  Their tails are long and brown, and in the wilds of China and Southeast Asia, they like to eat fruit, nectar, and insects.  We’re not sure exactly what you’ll be able to feed them in the Wings of Wonder, but we’re guessing it won’t be the bugs!   As for fruit, it needs to be fairly over-ripe in order for their small beaks to puncture the skin.

The Red Avadavat:  You may never have heard of them, even if somebody uses their other common names, the Red Munia, or the Strawberry Finch.  Just as they have many names – groups of them can also be called by a variety of nouns – a “charm,” a “company,” or a “trembling!”  These birds are not very big, about 3-4 inches long, and a lot of the time they have pretty nondescript brownish feathers.  But during breeding season, the males change to a beautiful scarlet color with lots of distinctive white dots, and the females sport a lovely yellow breast.  They just adore devouring insects, but also will eat sprouted seeds.

The Pekin Robin:  This little beauty is actually another finch, and is sometimes called a Red-billed Leiothrix, or a Japanese Nightingale.   They are about 6 inches long and are usually olive green, but as you can see from the image above, also display many other colors – yellow, orange, red, black, and blue-gray.   They sing beautifully, but in the wild are quite secretive.  They are omnivores, and native to India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Burma.   However,  they’re obviously really popular, because they were introduced in the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1900s and many still live on Oahu.  They have also been successfully introduced in France, Japan, and Spain.  And soon, here in Tucson!  

These are just a sampling of the amazing creatures that you’ll be able to see and interact with in the Wings of Wonder!   So come to visit the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia if you’d like to be inspired and support conservation.    Visit the Aviary especially if you just want to chill out, or if you’d like to take amazing photographs, if you’d like to learn, or even if you’d like to feed some of the most beautiful birds anywhere.   See you there! 

What is bright green, lives high up in the trees, and has over 100 teeth?

A Green Tree Python! These arboreal snakes are born yellow or brick-red and turn bright green as they mature. Their vivid color, with a pattern of spots and stripes, provides a perfect camouflage. They can be virtually invisible in the tropical rainforests of New Guinea, eastern Indonesia and the northeast Cape York Peninsula of Australia. They have a prehensile tail (capable of grasping) that helps them climb trees and also plays a devilishly clever role in hunting.

They rest coiled horizontally on tree limbs forming a ‘saddle’ pose with their head resting in the middle, which is also a good position to collect rain water.  In the hunting position, the head is looking down ready to strike, and they often dangle and wiggle their worm-like tails to lure curious prey. This coiled position allows them to spring into action for a quick capture and instant immobilization of a tasty meal.   These ambush predators are patient hunters, moving infrequently; in fact, to avoid being revealed, they typically only change positions during dusk or dawn.  

Green Tree Pythons are non-venomous constrictors.  Those hundred teeth are backward-facing, and primarily keep the captured prey in place until it can be eased down into the digestive tract, because  they swallow everything  whole.   They eat small mammals, rodents, frogs and other amphibians, birds, and other reptiles, like lizards, and though they’re capable of moving down from the trees to the ground, most of what they need comes to them and their wiggling “worm” high in the tree canopies.  Juveniles are diurnal (active during the day) and hunt smaller animals.  Adults are nocturnal and hunt larger mammals and reptiles, since they can open their mouths wider.   Although they spend most of their time in the trees, Green Tree Pythons occasionally will come down to the base of a tree and use their sight and heat-sensing labial pits  to locate an unlucky victim. 

Colorful Babies

Green Tree Pythons have a seasonal breeding cycle; however, it is believed that they do not breed every year.  The females prefer to nest in hollow trees and will have a clutch of about 5-35 eggs. Females protect and warm the eggs by wrapping around them with a ‘muscular shiver’ to produce heat. Eggs hatch after about 50 days, normally in October or November.  This coincides with the beginning of the wet season, ensuring that there will be ample food supply.  About 12 inches in length when hatched, the baby pythons’ brick-red or yellow color is great camouflage and blends into the  low-lying tree branches on the forest edge, where smaller animals reside.  Here they can find lizards and small insects.  The color change to the vivid green occurs between six and twelve months when the young python is about 22 inches long and is moving higher up the tree in search of larger prey. This “greening” is complete at about 2-3 years of age and these beautiful and resourceful pythons can grow to be about five feet in length. 

If it looks like a Green Tree Python….

The Green Tree Python and the Emerald Tree Boa are examples of convergent evolution.   Although they live on different continents and are not closely related, they look and act like each other and are found in similar habitats. Both live in tropical rainforests and consume diets that are alike.  Both share the same resting and hunting positions. Both have red colored juveniles and both become bright green as adults. There are also significant differences, though.   The Green Tree Python has finer scales and a more rounded nose.  The Emerald Tree Boa has another row of heat pits above the mouth. The yellow color of the young Green Tree Python is never found in the Emerald Tree Boa, and The Green Tree Python is oviparous (lays eggs) while the Emerald Tree Boa is ovoviviparous (live births).  

Conservation

The green tree pythons are beneficial to their ecosystem by helping maintain a balance of rodents, birds and lizards.  They also are food for several animals such as raptors, owls, dingoes and mangrove monitors. This species is at risk due to reptile enthusiasts collecting them for the pet trade, as well as loss of habitat due to logging. Fortunately, their IUCN conservation status, last assessed in 2017, is ‘least concern’ at this time.   Let’s hope this doesn’t change.

Meet Diego and Frida

Reid Park Zoo has a pair of Green Tree Pythons.  Diego and Frida  moved to Tucson in 2008.  They are contentedly housed in the Conservation Learning Center and are always on display, so you can safely get a really good look at them.      It’s fun to visit and observe them closely – see if you can identify the “saddle position” or one of their tails looking deceptively wormlike – but remember, they want to be as still as possible in order not to tip you off!    If you’re bringing children who might be afraid of snakes, you might enjoy reading ‘Verdi’ ahead of time.  It’s a wonderful children’s book by Janelle Cannon, which explains the color change of a young Green Tree Python, as well as the challenges of life in the rainforest treetops.

It’s exciting to think of all the reptile relatives that will soon live nearby in the Reid Park Zoo expansion, but no matter what showy reptiles come to live in the Pathway to Asia, (like a Komodo Dragon!)  Diego and Frida will still rank among the most beautiful creatures of their kind.

If you’re somebody who likes to visit the Reid Park Zoo, or other reputable zoos and aquariums, chances are you are a little bit more concerned about environmental matters than the average person.   That’s great – but why is it happening?   Psychologists point out that those positive memories you’re getting by watching the animals in a beautiful environment may be a result of a few things:  the experience of seeing a baby elephant imitating her big sister, a pack of wild dogs joyfully running around and jostling one another, or even a rhino enjoying a mud bath can be quite enjoyable and vivid . These sights may even seem familiar and evoke emotions if you imitated your own big sister, jockeyed for position with siblings or friends, or just remember the pleasure of lolling in a cool spot on a hot day.   You’re forming pleasant psychological connections with creatures you would probably never encounter in your lifetime, if not for the Zoo.     

 Familiarity, connection with your own experiences, and even emotion all combine to make a simple moment, like those at the Zoo, significant and memorable.  Possibly you’re also sharing this experience with someone else, which only heightens memories.    And this sort of wonderful experience is a large part of what the Reid Park Zoo, or any quality zoo or aquarium, hopes you’ll gain from visiting.   But there’s something more!   Because you have a chance to learn about and experience these animals in person, not just on a video, you’re much more likely to care about them – and you’re open to learning ways to protect them.  That’s the mission of the Reid Park Zoo, “to create inspiring memories for all by connecting people and animals to ensure the protection of wild animals and wild places.”

Why Care About Conservation?

We expect organizations like the World Wildlife Federation to remind us that wildlife conservation is important, that all of us depend on biodiversity more than we realize, and that the fates of animals in the wild are inextricably linked to the fates of humans.   But you might be surprised that government agencies like FEMA tell us the same things, and international organizations like the United Nations link human sustainability to the preservation of wild places and wildlife as well.   All living things on earth are connected, and though we humans may consider ourselves the alpha species on the planet, in many ways we are dependent on something as simple as a blade of grass or a worm or insect underground that’s aerating the soil in which is grows.

Acceptance of the reality of climate change is growing, probably because even skeptics have to agree that temperatures are changing dramatically, as are severe weather events.   The good news is that the conversations are happening among individuals, in the media, and in governments.    The urgent challenge now is to educate and convince people that our actions may be key to mitigating this crisis. And preserving the wild and its inhabitants is certainly one component of such an effort.   But in order for us to want to mitigate climate change or save endangered species, many people might need to first understand all the benefits that a more stable planet confers upon us, and has always done.  That’s where government agencies, which are primarily concerned with human welfare, come in.  

Not quite ready for a bumper sticker

Have you ever seen a bumper sticker declaring SAVE THE SEA GRASS?  Well, probably not, and it’s not very catchy anyway, but let’s step back and consider sea turtles.   We’ve all seen those wonderful video clips of the young racing toward the ocean directly after hatching, often with helpful humans nearby to ward off opportunistic predators.     But the cuteness factor and attention seem to diminish once they make it to the water, and it’s hoped, to adulthood.   Sea turtles spend their lives underwater munching on sea grass.   And that sea grass depends on the constant trimming that the turtles and other sea creatures provide.  In turn, the sea grass nourishes and provides breeding grounds for many aquatic creatures.   So why should we be concerned about the decline in naturally occurring sea grass beds?   Well, not only the sea turtles but many species of fish depend on that grass, and three billion people around the world depend on the protein that seafood provides.   Also, if you’re concerned about economics, it’s worth knowing that 34 million people worldwide rely on fishing for a living today.  

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

That’s one reason that the U.N. has established the CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora) guidelines as part of their Sustainable Development Goals, which all benefit humans.   These include Goal 14, Life Below Water (for example, sea grass!)  Goal 15, Life on Land (e.g. rainforests), and Goal 1, No Poverty.  Wait, what?  No poverty?     How does that relate to conservation?

SDG Goal 1 seeks “the economic advancement of all humankind”, and this inescapably requires the responsible stewardship of wildlife such as fish and reptiles, plants (because so many medicines and other products, like food, are plant based), and timber, which provides shelter and fuel.  It also requires the help of wildlife to maintain forests through seed dispersal, pest control, and the alteration of landscapes and maintenance of wildlife corridors.    

World Wildlife Day – Getting the Word Out

The United Nations General Assembly has been an advocate for conservation for many years, and established World Wildlife Day in 2013 as a way to bring attention to the importance of biodiversity. On the occasion of the Day in 2020, the World Wildlife Federation compiled six good reasons to care about wildlife conservation, which include

  • Protecting against Climate Change.    Grazing wildlife can minimize the severity of forest fires, by limiting fuel for their spread.  Also, wildlife provides health maintenance for forests by dispersing seeds, limiting potentially damaging insects, and clearing space for germinating trees.  
  • Wildlife is a critical food source in many parts of the world.  In tropical countries, especially, people rely on medium to large mammals, birds and reptiles for protein – millions of tons of meat per year.  Losing these critical sources of nutrition would cause an alarming increase in at the least childhood anemia, and at worst starvation.
  • Chemicals from plants and especially amphibians are crucial to modern pharmaceuticals.  More and more, medications are being developed to treat things like high blood pressure, depression, stroke, and even memory loss – and all using compounds from plants and especially frogs!  Even sheep’s wool offers us vitamin D3 and of course lanolin.  
  • Significance to cultures around the world.   Not as easily quantifiable as some of the other reasons,  our connection to wildlife and wild places has supported our mental, physical, and in some cases spiritual well being as long as humans have inhabited the planet.  Studies now verify the health benefits of being in nature and interacting with animals, even just being in the presence of wildlife.  The most studied effects include the reduction of cortisol levels (it’s the stress hormone) and also the lowering of heart rate and blood pressure – in other words, the attainment of tranquility in our increasingly urbanized world.
  • Improving soil health and fertility.  While it’s not as pleasant to imagine as nature’s tranquility, the digestion and redistribution of plant materials provided by wildlife in natural environments provided nutrients to the soils and even the waters of their habitats, allowing biodiversity to flourish. 
  • Maintaining ecological health and keeping wildlife corridors open.  Large species classified as “Keystone species,” like elephants, alligators, rhinos, and one you may not have heard of, the Bison bonasus, a species of bison living in the Carpathian Mountains, and who are the largest land mammals in Europe, specialize in altering the landscapes where they live in ways beneficial to other species.   Their size and strength and natural inclinations also allow them to take the lead in creating wildlife corridors, ways for many species to migrate in search of food or water.

Government agencies, conservation organizations, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, The United Nations, and countless individuals are on a mission to preserve the amazing biodiversity of our planet, which inspires a great deal of hope and optimism.     If you love animals, the mission becomes more personal to you – but even if you only value humans, it’s clear that our lives are immeasurably enhanced by efforts to preserve the natural world.   

So join in with a greater good – and as a start, stop into the Reid Park Zoo, check out the conservation and climate change initiatives that are everywhere on the grounds, and most of all, connect with the animals!   You’ll be glad you did; and quite possibly,  you’ll realize you can’t wait for the Reid Park Zoo expansion!  In the Pathway to Asia, you’ll be able to connect with even more species who need our advocacy.  And gain some great memories at the same time.

A Wanderoo? Tucson has two!

Tucked in between the Pollinator Garden and the Conservation Learning Center at the Reid Park Zoo are two very popular and fascinating Wanderoos – but you’d better look up if you want to see them. Though they may be splashing around in their pond or dashing behind trees and bushes, it’s more likely they’ll be curiously looking down at you from a great height when they’re not leaping and swinging around up there. Their humanlike hands have opposable thumbs and black fingernails (so stylish at present!) and you may see them sitting on a branch to expertly inspect and daintily munch on their tasty treats, which are often hidden throughout their habitat. The Wanderoos are better known in this part of the world as Lion-Tailed Macaques.

These clever primates have lovely manes, like lions, but they get their name from the tufts on the ends of their tails. Their fur is silky, long, and black, so the white manes provide a dramatic contrast. There are several types of macaques, and the Lion-Tailed variety is among the smallest. Males can weigh up to 33 pounds and their bodies are up to 24 inches long, plus another 9-15 inches of tufted tail, and the females are considerably smaller, about half that size. Though they have formidable canine teeth in front, these are used mostly to scare off competing males rather than for hunting. Fruits just need to be located, not subdued. Their favorite fruits are relatives of the fig.

Lion-Tailed Macaques prefer to live in the upper tree canopies of tropical and monsoon forests, and love to eat Durian and Jackfruit, which at one time was widely available up in the trees. In a pinch, they will eat insects, snails, bird eggs, tree frogs, lizards, and so on. They are native to the Western Ghats, a mountain range in India, a place of wonderful biodiversity, at least for now. And Lion-Tailed Macaques are crucially important to that diversity, because they tend to disperse the seeds of all that fruit they eat, either pre- or post-digestion (we’ll leave the details of that to your imagination).

Lion-Tailed Macaques spend their days foraging and traveling to find food – often leaping impressively between the treetops. In between their meals and daily naps, females and juveniles socialize with the other members of their troop, playing together and grooming each other. Males rarely join in though; a troop includes 10-20 individuals with one clearly dominant male, and he is responsible for protecting the entire group. Females can start bearing young at age 5, but even if everything goes well, they only produce one offspring about every 2 ½ years. Young females may stay with the troop indefinitely, but when young males hit puberty, it’s time for them to run off and join a bachelor troop.

Unfortunately, the treetops the Lion-Tailed Macaques inhabit are disappearing at an alarming rate, due to deforestation, agriculture, and ever-expanding human habitation. Wanderoos are beginning to come down from those trees, which increases the potential for conflict with humans. These primates are particularly clever, resourceful, and have extremely dexterous hands. In their native habitat, they have figured out how to remove poisonous stingers by using thick leaves, how to use forest litter as a sort of sponge to soak up moisture from the holes in trees, and even to scoop water from a pool by using coconut shells!

But now their forest homes are fragmented. They can move to other types of forest, for instance dryer deciduous forests, but these will not provide adequate sustenance, so they climb down the trees, cross the highways at their peril, and figure out how to raid human settlements for food, even if it is meant for livestock. They’ve been known to enter homes on tea plantations, looking for and finding fresh food and even garbage to eat. Clearly, this is not a good situation for either the Macaques or the humans living in their midst, but the good news is that the Indian government is taking notice and beginning to protect the forest habitats of the Lion-Tailed Macaques – and more than 500 zoos internationally are now housing them as well, learning more about their reproductive needs in order to stabilize their populations.

Like their relatives the Siamang Gibbons, who are coming to the Reid Park Zoo expansion, Tucson’s own Wanderoos are not just here to delight the public – they’re here to live safely and enjoyably at the same time they’re helping with conservation of their kind in the wild. Come see them – but be sure to look up!