You’ve probably heard of Great Horned Owl, also called a Hoot Owl, but have you heard of Nimbus? He is an ambassador animal at The Reid Park Zoo who was rescued from the desert as an abandoned, injured chick. The Tucson Wildlife Center revived him, and began his rehabilitation. Because of his difficult start, it was unlikely that he would ever be able to survive in the wild, but fortunately, he was adopted by the Reid Park Zoo in 2016. Since then he has delighted Zoo guests, often appearing on the grounds on the arm of a member of the Zoo’s education staff, and he has also traveled with staff out into the Tucson community to help everyone from schoolchildren to senior citizens learn about and appreciate his amazing species.

The Great Horned owl lives in countries all over the globe, and is native to most of North and South America. In our Sonoran Desert, they can be found in both natural and urban areas, and are happy to co-op the nests of other large birds of prey, like hawks. They have fascinated humans for as long as we have interacted with them, and play important roles in ancient Greek Mythology as well as Native American folklore. And because of their fierce and mysterious nocturnal hunting activity and haunting calls, through the years they have gained nicknames such as the “winged tiger.” They’re perceived as wise, fierce (could it be the horns?), beautiful, and of course famous for hooting. They’re easily recognizable by their size – usually between 17 and 25 inches in length, with a wingspan of 35-50 inches.

What about those distinctive “horns” on top of their heads? These are actually just tufts of feathers called plumicorns, and scientists aren’t completely sure what function they serve – speculation is that they help with camouflage. They are often mistaken for ears, but the owls’ ears are on the sides of their heads, at two different heights in order to help with their “radar” when locating prey. They can actually determine the exact position of their prey, as well as the direction and speed that it’s moving. They are silent when hunting, waiting from a high perch to locate a tasty rodent or even a small reptile. They swoop down and grab the unwitting creatures in their talons, then carry them to safe feeding sites.

Their plumage varies according to their habitat. Their famous eyes – huge, round, and bright yellow – provide amazing visual acuity, especially for hunting at night. These fierce predators have a softer side, though. They mate for life, and during breeding season (and usually in the wee hours of the morning) you may hear the males and females calling to one another from some distance. You can tell who’s who by the higher pitch of the female’s call.

Nimbus and the other Ambassador Animals at the Reid Park Zoo help spread the message of conservation and protection of biodiversity. When the Reid Park Zoo expansion is completed, even more amazing species will help us all learn to love and protect nature.

Giraffes tower over the plains of Africa, the tallest land animals on earth, gentle giants, the watchtowers of the savannah, beautiful to behold. They are awkward but strangely graceful. And their striking appearance is matched by striking adaptations in their anatomy and physiology. 

Giraffes are known for their long necks and long, spindly legs. Adult male giraffes are about 16-17 feet tall – way higher than a basketball hoop! – and weigh about 2600 pounds – as much as a small car! Females are about 2 feet shorter and about 800 pounds lighter than the males. Both males and females have irregularly spotted coats, short, brown manes on their necks, hooves on their feet, and long, black hairs at the ends of their tails. 

Horn-like protuberances on the tops of their heads, called ossicones, are relatively soft when the giraffe is born, but turn to bone and fuse to the skull as the animal ages. Ossicones are more prominent in males. And giraffes have very large eyes and very good eyesight for scanning the savannah for predators. 

Giraffes come from Africa, where they live in habitats ranging from open plains to dense forest. Because their natural habitat is threatened, wild giraffes now live in protected reserves, largely in the eastern and southern regions of the continent. 

Giraffes browse on a variety of plants, but their favorite is the acacia tree, which they happily gobble up, 3-inch thorns and all! How do they avoid injuring themselves with those thorns? Giraffes’ tongues are very long – up to 21 inches – and maneuverable, and they often use their tongues to pluck the acacia’s leaves away from the thorns. When they do eat the thorns, their tongues and mouths are protected by a very thick layer of saliva. If you participate in a giraffe feeding at a zoo – such as the Giraffe Encounter at the Reid Park Zoo – you might get to feel a bit of a giraffe’s saliva for yourself! 

Giraffes get most of the water they need from their food, but they do sometimes drink from waterholes. A giraffe’s neck can’t reach the ground while the animal is standing up, so to drink water, the giraffe spreads its front legs very far apart to lower the front of its body. That stance lets the giraffe’s tongue reach the water alright, but it leaves the giraffe vulnerable to predators, so it’s a good thing giraffes can go a long time between drinks! 

Giraffes have evolved amazing adaptations to accommodate their long necks and legs. A giraffe’s heart has to pump out blood at very high pressure to get the blood up that long neck to the giraffe’s brain – a pressure that would be dangerous in humans. Giraffes have special genes that protect them from the organ damage that their high blood pressure otherwise would cause. They also have very tight, tough sheaths, like compression stockings, that wrap around the legs and help them to avoid another effect of high blood pressure, swelling in the feet and legs. Giraffes also have special features in the arteries and veins in their necks that prevent too much blood from rushing to their heads when they bend down to drink and too much blood draining out of their brains and making them lightheaded when they raise their heads again. 

The neck bones, or vertebrae, in giraffes are amazing, too. You might think that giraffes’ necks, being so long, would have a lot more vertebrae than humans’. Not so! A giraffe has 7 neck vertebrae, the same number as us. An amazing difference, though, is in the height of those vertebrae – each giraffe vertebra is about 10 inches tall – about 10 times the height of a vertebra in you or me. You might get to see a model of a giraffe vertebra when you visit the Reid Park Zoo. 

Giraffes are social, but not territorial. They live in groups of a few animals to several dozen. The groups include both males and females, unlike some other social animals, such as lions. The membership of the group changes constantly as individual animals join and leave it. A group of giraffes can be called a herd, as for other animals, but do you know the special name that’s used just for a group of giraffes? A tower! What a good word for the tallest animals on earth!  

Because of their size and their ability to deliver lethal kicks, giraffes have few natural predators – mainly lions, hyenas, and wild dogs. In fact, a tower of giraffes, scanning the savannah with their amazing visual abilities, often provide a safe grazing area for smaller animals, since the giraffes will spy predators first and alert immediately.  Giraffes are vulnerable to predators when they sleep, so they spend little time sleeping, often just 20 minutes a day! When they do sleep, they usually tuck their feet under them and rest their head on their hindquarters, but they can also sleep standing up for short periods. 

Giraffes are “precocial” – a newborn calf is much more mature than a lion cub or a human baby. Giraffe calves are about 6 feet tall and 150 pounds at birth, and newborn giraffes can stand up and walk within an hour. Calves usually nurse for about a year. Giraffes live for 10-15 years in the wild, and over 30 years in human care in zoos. 

The Reid Park Zoo has been home to wonderful giraffes over the years, and the giraffes are a favorite stop for Zoo visitors. Four giraffes currently live at the Zoo. Denver is a female and the oldest of the tower at 32 years. In fact, Denver is the second-oldest giraffe in the country! Jasiri, a male, is next oldest and in his prime at 10 years. And the Zoo welcomed two youngsters to its giraffe tower in the fall of 2020. Penelope, a female, is 2 ½ years old and was 11 ½ feet tall on her second birthday! Sota, a male named for his home state of Minnesota, is about a year younger than Penelope, and he was already over 10 feet tall on his first birthday!   These towering creatures will probably be very interested to see everything – and they’re probably the only ones in the Zoo who can – happening with the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

Humans are the major threat to the survival of the giraffe species, because of hunting and because of loss of the giraffes’ natural habitat to human development and climate change. The number of wild giraffes has dropped about 40% in the past 30-40 years, to fewer than 100,000 animals. The IUCN classifies giraffes overall as Vulnerable, but two of the four identified species of giraffe, Reticulated (the giraffes at the Reid Park Zoo) and Masai Giraffes, are classified as Endangered. Members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, such as the Reid Park Zoo, help to fight the loss of giraffes through the Giraffe through the SAFE program.  

A last fun fact: World Giraffe Day comes every year on June 21st – it’s on the longest day of the year, to honor the earth’s tallest animal! How about visiting the Zoo to wish the tower a Happy World Giraffe Day?

The handsome and misunderstood Pacu

Discriminating visitors to the South America Loop of The Reid Park Zoo will discover a small underground, underwater viewing area with a few happy turtles and some very large fish. These 2-foot creatures  seem ordinary enough, UNTIL one opens her mouth –  wait, those look like YOUR teeth! But don’t worry,  it’s natural for the peaceable Pacu.

Where do they come from?

Pacu are native to South America, living in permanent freshwater areas, like rivers or lakes (for example the Orinoco River) and also in temporary fresh water, like in floodplains or a flooded forests. Their favorite food is fruit, and especially the seeds inside – which is why those teeth of theirs come in so handy. They’re primarily herbivores, but may also eat small aquatic crustaceans and insects if necessary.

They spend most of their waking hours feeding, and if they live in a river, migrate upstream in order to spawn at the beginning of the wet season. They are amazingly adaptable to unfavorable conditions in their environment. For example, if oxygen levels in the water are depleted, they spend more time near the surface, they move more, and they protrude their lower lips. All these things allow them to use surface water in respiration.  

They don’t deserve the bad rap

It’s true that Pacu are pretty closely related to Piranha, which also live in freshwater sources in South America. But the Pacu are very different. First of all, they prefer to be solitary, and they don’t attack in huge, pointy-toothed groups like their infamous cousins.   And they only eat crustaceans when no delectable fruit is readily available – they don’t prefer them. So you shouldn’t be seeing them in any horrifying action movies.

But….I heard fishermen in TUCSON are finding them!

That’s true! One was recently caught in Silverbell Lake – but how did it get there?   Unfortunately, tiny Pacu are pretty cute, and often popular with people who like to keep aquatic pets – after all, they can say, “It’s kind of like a Piranha!” But those who sell the small Pacu either don’t know what they are, or are unaware that you need a permit to own one. The seller may also neglect to mention that very soon, the Pacu will reach 2 feet in length.  

So those jumbo adults are often released into local streams and lakes across the country. And they’re adaptable – so can quickly become an invasive species. In addition to shocking humans who encounter their toothy grins, they can also upset an ecosystem by competing with native species for the same food sources. Tucson Game and Fish spokesman Mark Hart hopes that if you do have a Pacu and can no longer take care of it, you will return it to the pet store! How about just going to see them at The Reid Park Zoo? 

Did you know that Reid Park Zoo (RPZ) is so awesome that it even has its own bachelor pad? Sharing the Rhino habitat are male Speke’s Gazelles, no ladies of the species welcome. While not involved in breeding the Speke’s Gazelle, The Reid Park Zoo is actively involved in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for this species. They provide a space where males can live until needed at another zoo for a breeding match that ensures offspring are healthy and genetically diverse.

This small gazelle is named after the English explorer, John Hanning Speke. In 1858 he discovered that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile, but he also named a variety of animals, such as the Speke’s Weaver Bird, the Speke’s Gundi, which is a rodent, and the Speke’s Gazelle.  

So tiny

The Speke’s Gazelle is the smallest of the gazelle species. They weigh about 40 lbs., and are about 2 feet tall. Tan colored with a dark side stripe, their white belly helps deflect the rising heat. Their tan face with dark stripes near the eyes and down the muzzle help reduce the glare of the sun. Males and females both have S-shaped horns with upward-curving tips. They are herbivores, grazing on grass, herbs, shrubs and other plants, and are ruminants, like deer and cattle, with a 4-chambered stomach.  They are adapted to survive a long time without water, an advantage in their dry habitat in East Africa.

Not a dinky deer

Gazelles and deer are both agile and graceful animals. However, they are very different. They belong to two different families: Gazelles are bovids and deer are cervids. Gazelles have permanent horns with no branches.  Deer have branched antlers that are shed annually. Watch for the Muntjac Deer coming to Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion and compare it to the Speke’s Gazelles. The Speke’s Gazelle is more closely related to an American Buffalo than to a deer!

Are they Gazelles or Antelopes?

It’s complicated –  but the short answer is YES. Gazelles are a genus of the antelope group and belong to the bovidae family. Therefore, gazelles are antelopes, but not all antelopes are gazelles. While they have many similarities, there are significant differences between these cousins.  Check out their horns. Both male and female gazelles have horns, with the more massive horn on the male. In comparison, only a few female species of antelope have horns.   

The Nose and other talents

Time now for a few short videos, because the Speke’s Gazelle has an anatomical feature you have to see to believe, not to mention an unexpected vertical talent. The most notable feature of the Speke’s Gazelle is its nose. Its gentle face usually reminds us of Bambi, but…..when excited or threatened the skin on top of the nose can inflate to the size of a tennis ball. This amplifies their call and creates a loud honking sound which alerts others to danger. Also, Speke’s Gazelles are often seen jumping, running and bouncing in response to danger, a behavior called pronking, or stotting. Though these tiny gazelles are much smaller than their relatives, they can leap gracefully to amazing heights, not to mention run from danger at super speed, up to 60 miles per hour. 

They’re cute and social

Speke’s Gazelles live in small herds of about 12 animals, but may also gather together in groups of up to 20. There are two types of herds, one a group of bachelors with young and juvenile males, and the other consisting of an adult male and his harem. Calves are born in 6-7 months, only one per female. Because of their many predators, such as lions, wild dogs and hyenas, calves mostly lie motionless in the brush and come out only to nurse. They weigh 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds at birth, but after only 2-3 months they are weaned and ready to pronk. And honk.

Their numbers have dropped by half since 1988

Running, pronking, and honking notwithstanding, these small gazelles are endangered. They used to live in parts of Ethiopia and Somalia, but the Ethiopian population is close to extinction and the numbers in Somalia have greatly decreased due to hunting, drought and overgrazing. In the 1980’s the Speke’s Gazelle was one of the most widespread and abundant gazelles in Somalia, but the loss of grassland to grazing animals, such as cattle and goats, is a major reason for their decline. In addition, the lack of protected areas and the political instability in Somalia further increases the level of threat. Like most of the animals you can see at the Reid Park Zoo, humans are working not only to ensure their welfare now, but their survival for the future.   

Time to make the acquaintance of somebody whose hands are incredibly coordinated and who has excellent eyesight. He also boasts a brain larger than most others of his kind. Sounds like an e-sports champion! Except upon closer inspection, his legs are peculiar: thighs are smaller than his calves. Besides, he’s happily munching on his favorite snacks, fat juicy grasshoppers.

It’s a Squirrel Monkey

By now you’ve probably figured out you’ll need to go to the Reid Park Zoo, where you can meet three of these winsome little creatures. You’ll know them by the yellow fur on their legs, hands that look like teeny human hands, bright eyes, and seemingly boundless athleticism and energy. Meet the irrepressible Squirrel Monkeys!

Squirrel Monkeys live in forests and South America, and they’re really sociable, sometimes living in groups of up to 500. You can imagine how communication could be important in such huge groups, and they’re very vocally talented, with around 30 unique calls. They’re arboreal, and when full grown, they only weigh between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds (males are larger). Their tails (16 inches long) are longer than their bodies, which are just about 12.5 inches long.

Yum!

Squirrel monkeys are omnivores . They eat plants, including fruit, leaves, and flowers, and “meat” such as insects, sometimes eggs, and small vertebrates. They live in such huge groups they have to be quick and agile about finding and capturing food, so the keepers at the Reid Park Zoo are constantly coming up with new places and “puzzle feeders” to keep them busy and well fed. Also, while their favorite food in the wild is grasshoppers, at the Reid Park Zoo, their most adored treats are grape marmalade and worms!

They don’t Make Good Pets

First of all, it’s illegal – but unfortunately, the Squirrel Monkeys are so cute that one of the biggest threats to them is the illegal pet trade. Maybe that wouldn’t be the case if more people knew about a habit Squirrel Monkeys have, poetically called “urine washing.” Sorry – it’s just what it sounds like. They urinate on their hands and then energetically distribute it over their shoulders, arms, legs, and feet. This sort of thing is more common than you think in the animal world, and for these monkeys it’s a form of communication, helping to leave trails and establish dominance.

An Amazing Habitat

These intelligent creatures seem to really enjoy their “Temple of Tiny Monkeys.” It was one of the first new construction projects in the Reid Park Zoo’s expansion plans, and it was carefully designed to mimic the Squirrel Monkeys’ natural habitat, including both indoor and outdoor spaces for them, connected by a tunnel. They can leap, climb, take tiny naps (maybe 15 seconds?) while balancing on branches, and if the time is right, find a tasty insect, capture it, and gobble it up immediately.

More fun in the future

Squirrel Monkeys in the wild are beginning to feel the alarming effects of deforestation in addition to the illegal pet trade. The troop of Squirrel Monkeys at the Reid Park Zoo are an important part of The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP), and they have a breeding recommendation. The male, Parker, is still a little too young for all that, but we can’t wait until Tucson welcomes some even tinier tiny monkeys!

Almost Gone

The pair of Malayan Tigers expected to come to Tucson once the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete will be some of the most stunningly beautiful, most beloved, and most endangered creatures on the planet. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has honored our Zoo by selecting them to receive a breeding pair of these amazing animals. The male and female will live in lush adjoining habitats, with plenty of room to climb, to swim, to hide, to stalk, and loll about. Tigers are solitary in the wild, so the pair will meet only during breeding season, and there are high hopes that they will be able to increase the population of their species. And imagine seeing a litter of 2-5 tiger cubs frolicking right here in Tucson, complete with fearsome itty-bitty growling and amazing mini-pouncing! 

This is crucial, since there are only an estimated 250-340 Malayan Tigers left in the wild, and of those, only 80-120 are breeding adults. If humans don’t act now to save them they will join the three tiger subspecies already lost to extinction:  the Bali Tiger, the Caspian Tiger, and the Javan Tiger. The Malayan Tiger is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, along with its cousins the Sumatran Tiger and the South China Tiger, already believed to be extinct in the wild. The status of tigers in the wild is heartbreaking – but more about that later.

They’re small, for tigers

Tigers are the largest species of cat in the world – bigger even than lions. The Malayan Tiger is one of the smallest subspecies of mainland tiger, practically puny as tigers go!  Males are a mere 8 feet long from nose to tail, and weigh only about 250 – 300 pounds. The females are positively dainty – only 7 feet long altogether, and weigh in at a supermodel-slim 170-240 pounds. Compare this to the Siberian Tiger, also called the Amur Tiger, which measures up to 10.5 feet long and can weigh 660 pounds.  

Nonetheless, being in the presence of a Malayan Tiger (they seem plenty big compared to us) is an unforgettable and humbling experience. As in all species of tiger, each individual has a unique stripe pattern, which assists researchers in determining their numbers in the wild.  Without this fur, it might be very difficult to distinguish a tiger from a lion, its closest relative. Tigers have strong jaws, sharp teeth, and a muscular build. They are excellent at climbing and swimming (they have partially webbed toes), a favorite pastime at the Reid Park Zoo, especially in the summer heat. In the wild, a Malayan Tiger will not hesitate to cross even a rapidly flowing river in order to pursue its prey.

As for hunting, their large eyes give them excellent vision for this typically nocturnal activity. Malayan Tigers are obligate carnivores and favorite prey includes Muntjac and other deer, wild boar and bearded pigs, and tapir.  The tigers are ambush predators, relying on camouflage, stealth, distance, and patience to locate and subdue their prey. If necessary, they may also pursue very young offspring of much larger animals such as elephants, rhinos, or bears. Though solitary, the tigers are known to hunt in groups when this is advantageous. A Malayan Tiger may make a kill once every three or four days, and tries to eat as much of its prey as possible in one meal.   

Bring on the cubs!

Since male and female Malayan Tigers only meet and “socialize” during breeding season, a female in estrus starts to mark trees with urine and initiates a series of loud calls to signal her receptiveness to a male. It’s definitely a short-term relationship, however; the male will impregnate the female, then go his separate way. After a 3-4 month gestation period, a litter(2 to 5) of extremely helpless cubs will be born and  cared for by their mother for the next 18 months to two years.       

During that time, the frisky cubs practice all their tiger skills, chasing, pouncing, wrestling, and most importantly, growling as ferociously as possible the whole time! They also like to ambush each other and their poor tired mother, who must leave them alone while she hunts. Unfortunately,  only about half of the tiger cubs born in the wild survive their first year, because like the young of all species, they are vulnerable to predators, especially when the mother isn’t present, and are also susceptible to disease and accidents in the forests and jungles where they grow up. All other things being equal, this high level of infant mortality for the Malayan Tiger cubs would not contribute to the reduction of numbers for the species, but all things are NOT equal, not at all.

Enter the humans

First of all, tigers are apex predators, and have no natural enemies in the animal kingdom. Humans are entirely responsible for their dramatic decline in the wild. It’s about habitat. Panthera, an organization working on the conservation of big cats, reports that tiger habitat worldwide has declined 96% – and 40% of that decline has been in just the past decade.  

Where has all that territory gone? Well, in Southeast Asia, where the Malayan Tigers live in dense tropical forests, more than 18,000 square miles of forest was lost to monoculture plantations for the production of palm oil, just between 2000 – 2012. The conversion of forest to plantation and agricultural land not only affects the tigers, it affects biodiversity in the region, creating shortage of prey animals all the way down to the smallest insect. 

But perhaps more disturbing is the illegal wildlife trade, which has been especially damaging to Malayan Tigers. The tigers are prized by trophy hunters (though this is illegal in Malaysia) and tigers are often poached to obtain ingredients for traditional medicines in Asia. They are also hunted for “décor” items.

But we’re waking up

Fortunately, advocacy organizations around the world are feeling the urgency and stepping up their efforts toward the conservation of tigers in the wild. Tigers once numbered around 100,000 in the wilds of Asia, but today researchers estimate only about 3,900 remain. Zoos around the world, just like the Reid Park Zoo, are working hard to preserve the species. Governments are cracking down on poaching, and NGOs are providing human resources to patrol and protect tiger habitats, as well as establishing preserves for the tigers and all the animals that naturally flourish in the same territories. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Federation (WWF)  are working with communities who live in proximity to tigers to not only farm and eat in ways that may mitigate climate change, but to better protect livestock so as to limit conflict between humans and tigers. Also, members of these communities are now finding employment through ecotourism rather than poaching.

It remains to be seen if we are in time to save the remaining six subspecies of tigers on earth. But we can help – for example, we can learn about palm oil, an ingredient used in many of the products we rely on and purchase daily. Sustainably produced palm oil is part of the deforestation solution – and organizations such as the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) offers an app you can use in the grocery store to guide your purchases!  You can also plan to visit and support zoos, like the Reid Park Zoo, who will be participating in a breeding program for Malayan Tigers. Part of having these critically endangered creatures is a commitment to financially support in-situ conservation efforts, and also to spread the word about the plight of tigers and how we can help. So be a part of the solution and come to the Pathway to Asia at the Reid Park Zoo, as soon as it’s complete. As a bonus, you’ll be in the presence of breathtaking Malayan Tigers, and if we’re lucky, you may get to see some incredibly cute little ones stalking and pouncing!   

Meerkats:  Adorable, Unruly, and Scrappy

When somebody mentions Meerkats, you probably picture something like a fuzzy little humanoid standing at attention in order to guard the mob (which is an apt name for a group of these little guys). Or maybe you’re a Meerkat enthusiast, and you’ve seen some documentaries, so you picture them fearlessly subduing scorpions and gleefully crunching them up. Maybe you’ve experienced great anxiety as you watched a brave little Meerkat confront a cobra – and prevail!  Amazing! Don’t worry, this almost never actually happens in the wild. And really, scorpions make up only about 2% of their diets, so the subduing and crunching doesn’t happen often either.    

Foraging and eating

But anyhow, do they share those giant scorpions or cobra bites with their Meerkat families and friends? No! It’s every Meerkat for him or herself. Each individual spends a lot of time foraging daily for insects, like termites and grubs, but once they find them, become very possessive of their own food and  are ready and willing to fight other Meerkats to defend their little feasts.   

Their culinary manners aren’t totally heartless – whenever they are foraging, one member of the mob, usually a dominant male or female, will stand guard on the highest ground around to alert the others to danger. That means the sentinel isn’t getting any food for herself.

They can really communicate

Meerkats have at least  10 distinct vocalizations, and research suggests that members of the mob can understand specific messages and even recognize which individual is calling. After 20 years of research  in the Kalahari Desert, one of the Meerkats’ native habitats in southern Africa, researchers figured out that sentinels used two different calls to indicate a threat – one for something creeping up on land,  and a different one for something dangerous flying above.

What about the group dynamics?

Their mobs generally include from 10 – 40 individuals, often comprising three families that get along well. “Get along” is a relative term, though – these relatives of the Mongoose can be quick to attack other members of the group, particularly if the matter  involves food, and especially when a dominant female feels somehow offended.

But like that big, loud, family you know that always seems to be yelling and arguing (but still love each other), the Meerkats are capable of coming together very effectively when the group is threatened – for example,  banding together and hissing to scare off a jackal or caracal, or even another mob that has come a little too close.  

At the Reid Park Zoo

The Meerkat mob at The Reid Park Zoo, has grown considerably since 5 of them arrived in 2017 and 2018 from other U.S. Zoos.  They dig, bask, perform guard duty, run around, hunt for treats, squabble, and curiously watch the humans during the day.  Every evening, they scurry obligingly into the night house around dusk, a very sensible cooperative endeavor by the group.  They seem to realize that once they’re safe and warm inside, the hawks and other birds of prey that fly in from the Park every night can’t make a meal of them!

Born for the Night Shift

As our group entered the cave-like area from bright summer sunlight, I stumbled slightly, allowing my eyes to adjust to the dimming light. Without any prompting, our laughter dissolved into cautious whispers. The glass panel we faced was slightly obscured by condensation—on our side, a cool summer breeze, on the other, a moist tropical atmosphere. There they were, hanging upside down, like furry brown birds in long trench coats, nibbling on pieces of nectarine and mango: my first glimpse of Rodrigues Fruit Bats, up close and personal. I was mesmerized. No, enraptured.  

It was like peering into another universe. Our group watched in silence as the bats walked upside down on the wire-mesh ceiling, foraged for fruit, chased one another, squabbled, and then rested together. More secluded spaces housed mother bats, nursing their single offspring upside down, pups clinging to their mothers’ armpits. It was a topsy-turvy universe, disorienting but exhilarating, and easily the most memorable part of my visit to the African rainforest habitat in Portland’s Oregon Zoo.  

Until that moment, I hadn’t thought much about bats. They are night dwellers, invisible, secretive, and maybe a little scary. I’d seen them before in caves, high up and hanging by the merest foothold along some rocky crevice. As a daytime dweller, birds, not bats, defined my encounters with nature. That all changed after meeting the Rodrigues bats on a warm summer day, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that a colony of fruit bats would be coming to Tucson as part of the Reid Park Zoo expansion, The Pathway to Asia

Wildlife professionals who work on behalf of these amazing animals will tell you that bats are under-appreciated and greatly misunderstood. Let’s get right down to basic bat facts.

Bats 101

There are so many bats! We may rarely see them, but there are more than 1,400 species of bats living in nearly every part of the world, except for the harshest desert and polar regions. These small mammals range in size from the Bumblebee bat, which weighs less than a penny, to the largest fruit bats, which have wingspans of up to 5 ½ feet. 

Humans rely heavily on birds, bats, and other animals to help keep our planet livable, some would say survivable. With birds working during the daylight hours and bats working the nightshift, nature provides us with round the clock pest control. Some scientists believe that bats’ preference for the night shift evolved as a way to avoid predation, mainly from birds, and has enabled them to share the same food source without confrontation or competition. Although all bats eats insects, and many do so exclusively, some have evolved to become fruit and nectar specialists providing another important ecological service—pollination!

Bats can be divided into two primary groups, Microbats and Megabats. As their names imply, Microbats have smaller bodies but larger ears which help them use their superpower, echolocation, a useful adaptation which helps them find food in the dark (insects) and avoid obstacles in the process. Micros are primarily insectivores, and their role is pest control. At the other end of the spectrum, Megabats have larger bodies, larger eyes with keen vision, and a great sense of smell. These sensory superpowers help them find their food (fruits and flowers). Megas have evolved as frugivores and nectarivores, and their role is pollination. Depending on where they live and their ecological role, bats can thrive in caves, rock shelters, and high-altitude mountainous ranges, but they also thrive in tropical forests, roost in trees, and one species even burrows in the ground (for all you bat fans, the North Island of New Zealand). In urban areas, they find man-made crevices to call home: attics, eaves, barns, industrial-sized buildings, tunnels, and bridges. Bats can live solitary or social lives. Some prefer to live alone or in pairs, some in small- to medium-sized harem groups (a dominant male with many females and a few immature males close by), and some in small to massive colonies. 

How massive? Bracken Cave, near San Antonio, Texas, is home to about 20 million Mexican Free-Tailed Bats who roost there, giving birth and raising pups, from March to September. This is the largest known bat colony in the world, although this number may not be entirely accurate because bats are difficult to count. 500 babies can huddle to keep warm by hanging onto one square foot of rock ceiling. How’s that for efficient use of space? The Bracken Cave colony is well-protected by Bat Conservation International, an international, non-governmental agency, and The Nature Conservancy. The city of San Antonio also enforces no-development and dark-sky regulations to protect their cave and the land surrounding it. 


Bats in the desert

Moving west, Arizona has the second largest number of bat species (28) in the U.S. , second only to Texas. The Mexican Free-tailed Bats of Bracken Cave fame are common in Tucson and have found handy urban homes under large bridges over the Pantano Wash and the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers. You can observe them—from a polite distance, please—flying out from underneath their bridge-caves at dusk . They mingle with other local bat species and share the ecological work; some are insectivores while others work as nectarivores.

While many Tucson residents may look forward to celebrating National Tequila Day , aka Thank A Bat Day, on July 24, I will be celebrating the birth of bat pups in Kartchner Cavern’s Big Room. This chamber is home to a small colony of myotis velifer, or the common cave bat. 

Every year on April 15, Kartchner staff close all the doors to the Big Room, turn off all the lights, and do not enter the cave again until late September, well after the bats have migrated away to hibernate for the winter. During the summer months, the bats are busy giving birth, raising pups, and teaching them how to fly, echolocate, and hunt for their food. You may visit the Rotunda and Throne rooms during the summer, but, in the Big Room, it’s all about baby bats. Like the rangers at Kartchner, we should feel good about honoring the privacy of this very special colony as it perpetuates a life cycle perfected by more than 50 million years of evolution. 

Two other bats common to the Arizona and Mexico region are the Lesser Long-nosed Bats and Mexican Long-tongued Bats . As their facial characteristics feature prominently in their names, can you guess what they eat? Both are nectar feeders and pollinators! They literally bathe themselves in pollen while searching for the fruits of agaves, saguaros, and organ pipe cacti. Like most animals, they are highly opportunistic and will also visit not-quite-depleted hummingbird feeders after those tiny birds have gone to roost. (Now you know why your nectar disappears overnight.)

It’s worth mentioning the monetary impact of bat populations; some people can relate more to dollars than wings, feathers, or fins. (Not judging! We all need their expertise and their support, too.) The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that, by eating insects, bats save U.S. agriculture billions of dollars per year in pest control. Some studies have estimated that service to be worth over $3.7 billion per year, and possibly as much as $53 billion, but this does not include the volume of insects eaten by bats in forest ecosystems, which benefits the lumber, paper, and other forest industries, or the bats’ service as pollinators. My calculator says the actual monetary worth of bats is far greater than $3.7 billion per year. Incalculable?  Maybe. But that’s another story.

Bats in the tropics

Traveling much farther west around the globe and sailing south into the Indian Ocean, we can find my favorite bat, the Rodrigues Fruit Bat, or flying fox, a common name for larger fruit bat species in the world. The Rods, as they are affectionately known, are considered endangered (by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the wild, they only exist on the tiny island of Rodrigues located about 900 miles east of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa. They live in dense tropical rainforests filled with large, mature trees (emphasis on mature, not young). 

In the 1970s, as the Rodrigues rainforests were cut and their habitat destroyed, the Rod colonies were pushed further and further to the edge of their 42 square mile island until they occupied just a small, wooded valley—barely enough room to survive. Unlike some of their desert counterparts, Rodrigues bats are frugivores and use their keen eyesight and sense of smell to find ripening mangoes, figs, and other fruits. The extraordinary thing is that they crush their food, swallow only the juices, and spit out the pulp and seeds in a pellet shape, creating a ready-made seed-packet. They live simply to regrow the rainforests. 

Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to regrow the forests fast enough. After a cyclone hit the island in 1979, the Rods were down to less than 70 individuals; they had become the rarest bats on Earth. Emergency conservation efforts led by English naturalist George Durrell brought them back from the brink of extinction. Individuals from Durrell’s first translocated colony are now being raised and cared for by about 15 accredited institutions worldwide, including the Oregon Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Chester Zoo in northwest England—home to the largest Rodrigues colony in the world and holder of the Rod bat stud book—and soon, the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson! 

More bats coming to Tucson 

In the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion, guests will have the opportunity to observe these amazing animals and learn how they, along with our own desert species, contribute to the health of our planet. As a bat fan, I want you to hear this bat’s story and understand the role they play in the web of life. Most importantly, I want you to care.   

When I contemplate the fate our natural world, pretty much an everyday occurrence in 2021, I find inspiration in the words of my wildlife heroes, Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau , about Why We Should Care. Both individuals dedicated their lives to conservation of the natural world by raising our awareness and demonstrating how each one of us is connected to the web of life. Goodall said, “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.” Cousteau may have said it more simply but with no less conviction, “People only protect what they love.”

I’m proud to say that in our little corner of the desert southwest, our small but mighty Reid Park Zoo will become one of a select few chosen to help maintain a genetically diverse population of Rodrigues Fruit Bats and, through human care, research, and financial support, prevent their extinction in the wild. When this new habitat opens, I hope that your first encounter with these small furry creatures, living their topsy-turvy lives on the perpetual night shift, fills you with a sense of wonder and excitement and inspires you to support their conservation. I hope you, too, will experience love at first sight.

Though they might not be quite as well known as their larger cousins, the Ostriches, Greater Rheas have their own charms. For example, Flora and Fauna are two female Greater Rheas who live with some Galapagos tortoises in the South America loop of the Reid Park Zoo. They can’t wait for visitors to notice them, usually hurrying right up to look you quizzically in the eye and staying there as long as you do.

Rheas come to us from Brazil, Bolivia, and other countries in southeastern South America. They live in grasslands and scrublands, near sources of water. They’re flightless, and range from 3-5 feet tall (the males are bigger ) and weigh from 33 to 66 pounds. That’s one big bird – with really long wings that are only used for balance (flapping sort of like a rudder) while they’re running or dodging predators. They have three toes on each foot, and could definitely hold their own in the big, flightless bird Olympics – they can run 40 miles per hour!

When you think about it, female Rheas have a pretty nice life, and not just in their roomy habitat at the Reid Park Zoo. First of all, they lay golden eggs! It’s true – the eggs are a golden color. Secondly, once they’ve laid those eggs, their child-rearing duties are complete. They’re free to spend their days poking around for plants, seeds, roots, and maybe even a lizard or two.

Male Greater Rheas usually mate with multiple females, then build huge nests, where each of these lucky females lays about 5 eggs over a week or so. Nests can accommodate up to 60 eggs. It’s the dad’s responsibility to incubate all those eggs for about six weeks. Well, unless he’s a really dominant male, in which case he might designate a male underling to care for this batch of eggs while he goes off on another mating spree and has to build another nest.  

Anyway, the males summon females for mating by calling VERY loudly. It’s no wonder, then, that the baby chicks, just before hatching, begin whistling – loudly! Once they hatch, the male continues to bear all the responsibility for raising them.
The Greater Rheas’ conservation status is near threatened, due mostly to illegal wildlife trading of their hides, feathers, and eggs. Also, their feathers are used to make feather dusters.  But if you visit Flora and Fauna, I’m sure you’ll agree those feathers really look much nicer on these curious and amiable creatures.

Excellence and innovation are hallmarks of the care that the animals at the Reid Park Zoo receive every day from the Zoo’s Animal Care Staff. Whether it’s training a rhinoceros to allow a staff member to draw blood for the animal’s health and veterinary care, inventing a life-saving technique to treat a congenital kidney problem in an African lion, or hundreds of things staff members do to enhance the animals’ lives, the Zoo and its staff are guided by deep care, excellence, and innovation. 

A good example of excellence and innovation in the animals’ care is what is called “enrichment.” Enrichment refers to objects or activities that bring out an animal’s natural behaviors and cognitive engagement – often, the animal’s puzzle-solving skills. Just like in people, cognitive engagement and physical activity are important for keeping the Zoo’s animals mentally and physically robust. Zoo animals can’t join book clubs, play video games, or do crossword puzzles, but they can be stimulated to explore. For instance, novel scents dotted about in a habitat are very stimulating for an animal whose species naturally depends on an acute sense of smell. Objects that an animal can safely bat around or pounce on or pry open to get a treat are favorite examples of enrichment. Enrichment can even be as straightforward as rearranging permanent structures in an animal’s habitat. These kinds of things stimulate the animals’ senses and brains, and they engage the animals’ natural behaviors. Enrichment is so important to the health of the animals that the Reid Park Zoo has a staff member whose whole job is to oversee animal enrichment for the Zoo’s animals – a sort of Animal Enrichment Czar! (The real title is Animal Welfare Specialist.) 

Reid Park Zoo recently unveiled an exciting new invention for animal enrichment! You can look for it the next time you visit the Zoo. This new device is the fruit of a new collaboration between the Zoo’s “Animal Enrichment Czar” and a team of engineering students at the University of Arizona. Reid Park Zoo and the UA already have long-standing, productive collaborations in Animal Science and more recently in veterinary medicine, and this collaboration with Engineering adds a whole new dimension to those. 

The new enrichment device is getting its first use with Bella, Reid Park Zoo’s jaguar. If you haven’t seen Bella yet, her name suits her perfectly – she is absolutely beautiful! Bella already receives many types of enrichment. She has tree trunks to climb on, a pool of water to plunge into, and she is periodically given an oxtail dangling from a tree trunk high above the ground. For the oxtail, Bella needs to use her sharp vision to spot the treat and then has to figure out whether to use her impressive jumping skill or her climbing skill as the best way to get at the treat. 

What does the new enrichment device add to this? The new device has two modules, both placed just outside Bella’s habitat. The first module uses an electronic sensor to detect Bella’s presence nearby. When she approaches the sensor, the first module triggers the activation of a second module. The second module is where the fun comes in! One secondary module has a blower with a nylon sock-puppet attached to it. When the blower turns on, the sock-puppet pops up a few feet high and begins flopping and waving around. Visually tracking moving objects is an essential behavior for jaguars in the wild, and this dancing sock-puppet fully engages that behavior in Bella – she visually locks on to the puppet and follows every move. Another secondary module that the UA students designed and fabricated blows bubbles into Bella’s habitat. Bella loves the bubbles! 

You might have seen this exciting device for animal enrichment when it was featured on the local TV news. The UA Engineering students who designed and built the new device – who are referred to as “Team 21034” – won $5,000 and the Raytheon Award for Overall Design in this year’s Craig M. Berge Design Day Competition at the UA. The UA students, the Zoo, and Bella all won here! 

A great feature of this new enrichment device is that Bella can control the delivery of the enrichment herself, by figuring out how to move in ways that activate the device. It makes her overall environment more challenging and more fun. Another nice aspect is that the device is small enough to be easily moved to other animals’ habitats. The system also allows the creation of new secondary modules that could be tailored to the particular skills and behaviors of other Zoo animals, perhaps to make a sound or show a visual display, for example. Imagine the fun the Zoo’s animal care staff will have in coming up with different secondary modules for the different animals! And through its membership in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Reid Park Zoo may be able to share the design of the new device with other AZA-accredited zoos around the country. 

Excellence and innovation – hallmarks of the Reid Park Zoo and the guiding principles for the design of the new Reid Park Zoo expansion!