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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crested Partridge

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

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

Bearded Barbet

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

Violet Turaco

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

White Headed Buffalo Weaver

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

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

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

Walking the Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A VERY green place, literally and figuratively

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

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

Buildings

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

Recycling and water usage

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

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

It’s not too late

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

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

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

Bayou, the splendid American Alligator

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

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

They’re really not that hungry 

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

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

Alligators and the Environment

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

Maternal?

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

Trouble is brewing

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

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

There’s hope

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

As you meander down the pathways at Reid Park Zoo and gaze down at a rhino resting in the shade of a tree, it’s hard to imagine it sprinting across the field at about 30 mph. These large animals may be smaller than elephants but can always beat them in a race! Reid park Zoo has two southern white rhinos-Yebonga and Fireball

Yebonga is a much-loved elderly female. She was born in San Diego on April 15, 1973.  Sometimes good things do happen on tax day. She moved to Tucson on June 8, 1976. With the median life expectancy of white rhinos at 31 years, her 48th birthday was a real celebration. Due to Yebonga’s advanced age, she often chooses to rest in her cool and comfortable barn.  If you don’t see her, Fireball will be usually be out and about. Being outside together does not work as Yebonga doesn’t appreciate the antics of a rowdy teenage boy, but they do visit each other in the barn and are quite happy with the arrangement.

Fireball was born in Glen Rose Texas on December 24, 2002.  He arrived in Tucson On October 2, 2013. He has sired 8 calves at The Wilds, a safari park in Ohio. Fireball’s participation in The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) has already helped his species, a lot.  If an animal population is in decline,  data is collected to determine which animals are a good breeding match. In the future, Fireball may be considered as a breeding match with another rhino, but for now he enjoys lying out in the sun and eating and eating and eating.  White Rhinos eat as much as 100 pounds of food every day! And when he’s not munching, he likes to rearrange the rocks in his habitat, roll in the mud and lounge under a tree. He also loves a good belly rub.  All those activities make him hungry, of course.

Yebonga and Fireball are Southern White Rhinos. ‘White’ is really a misnomer.  The word ‘white’ may have been mistaken for the Afrikaans word for ‘wide’, referring to their wide square mouth with straight lips, which are perfect for grazing on grasses in South Africa. They are herbivores but interestingly, can eat plants that are toxic to other animals. This helps to keep those plants under control and means their constant grazing protects any number of smaller species.

The rhinos’ small eyes on the side of the head give them vision on the sides but limited vision in the front. A great sense of smell and hearing make up for this. The largest part of the rhino brain is dedicated to the olfactory sense, which indicates how important the sense of smell is for survival. Being able rotate their ears independently compensates for the compromised visual abilities, allowing them to hear the sounds all around with equal intensity.

Like their friends the elephants, the rhinos’ thick skin is susceptible to sunburn, so rolling in mud gives them that extra layer of protection and helps with annoying insects. At The Reid Park Zoo, the keepers make sure that there is always plenty of mud for them to enjoy!

The next time you see Fireball or Yebonga, check out their feet. They are ‘odd- toed ungulates’, along with zebras, horses and tapirs. This means that they walk on an odd number of toes, each encased in a hard shell (hoof). Rhinos have three toes on their wide round feet, but the foot is small considering the amount of weight they must support. Reid Park Zoo is diligent about checking the feet to prevent problems due to the heavy load they must carry. Yebonga and Fireball each top the scales at over 4000 pounds, each about as heavy as a small car.  The rhino head can weigh 1000 pounds! And the large hump of muscle on the back of the neck is there to help support and allow it to move.

The word rhinoceros means “horned nose.” The horns on the rhino consist of compressed strands of keratin, like fingernail fibers. The Southern White Rhino has two horns; the largest can grow up to 79 inches, while the smaller horn may reach 22 inches. The Southern White Rhino is currently classified as near threatened, and poaching for their horns is still the biggest threat to these majestic animals. Human development and habitat loss are also leading to their decline in the wild. 

Reid Park Zoo provides exemplary care to all animals who live there. But they also contribute to every other zoo’s knowledge of the species in they care for. One example is that our small but world-class zoo is responsible for identifying a Vitamin E deficiency that can occur in rhinos in human care, so rhinos in accredited zoos across the country now benefit from this discovery! The zoo is also actively involved with the International Rhino Foundation. Protecting rhino populations in the wild and research aimed at improving the chances for long- term survival of all rhino species is an essential part of conservation strategies. 

And of course, Yebonga and Fireball are great ambassadors for their species!

The greenest of all of the Park’s green spaces.

In the desert, there is almost nothing that has greater appeal than a green oasis. Our city parks are treasures that attract Tucsonans daily for picnics, bird watching and just lying on green grass. Perhaps the oldest and most admired of all the parks is Reid Park, in midtown Tucson. Established in 1925 Randolph Park included a golf course and park, with a baseball stadium added in 1937. There are some delightful aerial photos of the seemingly barren park from the late 30s. The 160 acres on the southwest were renamed Reid Park in 1978 after Gene C. Reid, Tucson’s first Parks Director. 

When water features were added to the park, Reid Park literally came to life. The two ponds immediately attracted many bird species, and the ponds were soon home to many released “Pond Slider” pet turtles as well as ducks, many of whom had been adopted by well-meaning elementary schoolchildren whose teachers had incubated eggs in classrooms.  Cute ducklings soon grew into large, noisy adults, and many were released into Reid Park’s ponds.   Water in the desert is almost magical in its attraction for wildlife and humans, and all Tucsonans have understandably come to treasure the Reid Park green space. 

Two events in the 1960s made the park even greener: The Cele Peterson Rose Garden and the Reid Park Zoo. The Zoo in particular has become especially enticing to native flora and fauna. While the zoo is known for being home to hundreds of exotic animals from around the world, most people don’t realize it is also home to hundreds of other “volunteer” animals (and plants) that, like humans, thrive in an oasis. 

The Reid Park Zoo has become a magnet for wildlife and, as it has expanded from its very modest start in 1965, the numbers of animal (and plant) guests has increased exponentially.  This will continue as the zoo expands into The Pathway to Asia.

The Reid Park Zoo is the greenest of all of the Park’s green spaces. The Zoo provides many diverse and rich habitats. While these were specifically constructed to mimic the natural habitats of the zoo inhabitants, they also provide an amazing array of plant cover, moisture content, humidity and food availability (yes, food provided for zoo animals is a fabulous treat for many wild animals). In addition, the zoo has intentionally created additional green spaces not found in the park outside the zoo, most notably the new Pollinator Garden, a hot spot for butterflies and hummingbirds.   

While there are many examples of zoo guest species, including countless ducks from the Park’s ponds, I will discuss two of my favorites. Black Crowned Night Herons are remarkable birds common to freshwater swamps. They seem to flourish in the zoo and watching them is a special treat. Vermillion Flycatchers are spectacular red birds that are normally found near streams. The diverse Zoo habitats apparently make these stunning birds feel at home. Neither of these wonderful creatures would be visiting central Tucson if it weren’t for the diversity and richness of the habitats the zoo has created. 

In summary, you may plan a visit to the zoo to see African Wild Dogs or Anteaters, but for me, I am equally thrilled to see our rare native animals that would otherwise never be Reid Park visitors. It is no exaggeration to say that the Reid Park Zoo is the greenest of Reid Park green spaces. Expansion of the zoo will only create more “dark green” space in the park and I can hardly wait to see what new visitors it will attract. 

Red Pandas are beautiful, elusive, almost secretive animals that live in mountain forests in Asia. They are adorably cute, they have several amazing adaptations for their environment, and their number in the wild is dropping fast – Red Pandas are endangered, and they will need human help to survive. 

Male and female Red Pandas are the same size, about the size of a housecat. They have dense fur with beautiful coloration. The Red Panda’s scientific name (Ailurus fulgens) translates to “fire-colored cat” or “fire fox,” and you can see how they got that name. An adult Red Panda’s back is a fiery orange-red, its belly and legs are black, and its tail is long and striped with rings of red and white. Its head is round, with a short snout and short, pointed ears. Its face resembles the face of a racoon or a weasel, with a “mask” of red, white jowls and snout, and dark “tear tracks” trailing down from its eyes. Male and female Red Pandas have this same pattern of coloration. A Red Panda’s colors stand out when you see one in the open, but they provide excellent camouflage when the animal is in trees in its natural habitat. 

Today, Red Pandas live in a narrow range of land in the mountains of India, Nepal, and China, but by studying fossils from around the world, biologists have learned that Red Pandas once roamed wide areas. In fact, these fossils show that about 40 million years ago, there were Red Pandas in many parts of what is now Asia, Europe, and North America. Modern-day Red Pandas resemble racoons and weasels, and fossils confirm that they are related to these species, but biologists who have studied the genes of these animals and scientists who have studied their behavior and habitat have concluded that the relationship between Red Pandas and racoons and weasels is not really very close. 

What about Giant Pandas?  Red Pandas and Giant Pandas share part of their names, of course, and they eat similar diets, but they really are not at all close to each other in evolution. So why are they both called pandas? Well, the name “panda” may have come from a word in one of the local languages around their natural habitat that roughly translates to “bamboo eater” – and eating bamboo is something Red Pandas and Giant Pandas certainly have in common!  In the end, though, most scientists conclude that Red Pandas are their own branch of the evolutionary tree, called the Ailuridae

They may not be close evolutionary cousins, but Red Pandas and Giant Pandas do have an unusual anatomical feature in common – they both have a “false thumb.” This is due to having a wrist bone (the sesamoid bone) that has evolved to protrude and function a bit like a thumb. This “false thumb” is really useful for holding and stripping leaves off bamboo. When species that are not closely related have similar evolutionary adaptations like this one, biologists call it “convergent evolution.” 

Red Pandas have other unusual characteristics, and one is their diet. Red Pandas eat mainly plants. Most of their diet is bamboo leaves and shoots – they eat about one-third of their body weight in bamboo every day! – but they also eat leaves of other trees, berries, mushrooms, bird eggs, and sometimes even small animals. 

Red Pandas are sometimes called “herbivorous carnivorans.”  What in the world does that mean?  Red Pandas’ closest animal relatives – racoons and weasels – are true carnivores. They eat a lot of meat. A Red Panda’s digestive tract is like that of a true carnivore, with a single-chambered stomach and a relatively short intestine. And as with true carnivores, their intestines don’t contain the microbes that most herbivores have for efficiently digesting plant material, so they don’t efficiently extract nutrients from the plants they eat.

Red Pandas’ teeth, though, have features of both carnivores and herbivores. They have incisors like (other) carnivores, but they also have large, relatively flat molars like herbivores. And their molars have ridges on top that help the Red Panda to grind up tough plant material like bamboo. Because their digestive tracts extract little of the nutrients from the plants they eat, though, pandas spend almost all their time either eating or sleeping. Taking all of this together, “herbivorous carnivorans” seems like a tailor-made description for Red Pandas! 

Red Pandas in the wild are solitary animals except during breeding season, and usually hide from predators and humans. Individuals use urine and secretions from scent glands to mark the boundaries of their territories. Their solitary lifestyle and good camouflage make it tricky for people to find them in the wild and difficult for wildlife biologists to observe their behavior or count them accurately. Most wildlife biologists who study Red Pandas, though, estimate that there are only about 10,000 left in the wild. 

This small a number of animals, combined with the fragmentation of their natural habitat, increases the risk of genetic inbreeding in the wild populations that can weaken the species as a whole and accelerate their disappearance. And the number of Red Pandas in the wild is dropping – biologists estimate that there only half as many Red Pandas in the world today as there were just 20 years ago. They are definitely an endangered species!

But why are Red Pandas disappearing? A major factor is that the wild forests they live in are more and more being used for logging or are being cut for farmland, so the Red Pandas’ natural habitat is shrinking and fragmenting. Other important factors in the decline of Red Pandas in the wild are the illegal wildlife trade and poaching for fur. 

Almost all the Red Pandas in the top zoos in North America and Europe have been born and raised in zoos. Many of these AZA-accredited zoos have developed a “Species Survival Plan” for Red Pandas, in which they work together to share information about caring for Red Pandas and managing their breeding.  In the protected environment of reputable zoos, Red Pandas are being bred to maintain the genetic diversity that will make them hardy if and when they need to be introduced into dwindling populations in the wild. 

Zoos that participate in the Species Survival Plan also support efforts to preserve the Red Panda’s natural habitat in Asia and to find ways for Red Pandas in the wild to live in minimal conflict with humans. The Reid Park Zoo in Tucson plans to help in these efforts by joining the Species Survival Plan when the Zoo adds Red Pandas to its collection of endangered species in its Pathway to Asia expansion.  And of course when the Red Pandas arrive, the Zoo will be adding a large helping of adorably cute!

Have you ever gotten close enough to see the hair on a baby elephant’s body?  Reid Park Zoo guests have, three times now!

Sundzu and his mother, the herd’s Matriarch Litsemba, came to Tucson in 2012 when he was just one year old and still nursing.  He wowed guests with his curious nature and large eyes. 

Only two years later, in 2014, Sundzu’s little sister was born in the Reid Park Zoo on Tucson’s birthday, and she immediately stole the show! Newborn Nandi always wanted to be around all the other members of the herd, which included her Aunt Lungile, her mother, her big brothers and her almost 13,000- pound Dad, Mabu. Nandi has been adventurous from the start and didn’t hesitate to jump right into the mud wallows with her much larger family members. Luckily she was never smushed. Her family has always taken great care of her. And now she’s a big sister!

On April 6, 2020 the Reid Park Zoo welcomed their second “real native Tucsonan” African elephant calf, Mapenzi. Her birth brought joy and hope to Tucson during a very difficult period of the Pandemic, and she’s been continuing her good work ever since. 

Just about 30 minutes after her birth, Penzi somehow coordinated her legs to stand tall enough to nurse from Tucson’s largest Mom. Penzi, like all babies, learns by observing her family, and she has been on a steep learning curve since April of last year. A very important lesson she mastered early is that the elephant care team gives great scratches and tasty treats! You’ll usually see Penzi at her mother’s side, or just a couple trunks’ lengths away from Nandi, watching her closely. It’s safe to say Nandi is her little sister’s favorite elephant. And Nandi has shown Mapenzi everything from walking backwards, to foraging for treats in the puzzle feeder walls, and just last week, the most advanced move yet: How much fun it is to slip and slide down the hillside into the moat!

The Reid Park Zoo’s visitors and online followers have endless opportunities to observe and learn about elephants and how a breeding herd grows and lives together. The elephant expansion was carefully built with green technology, and with one thing in mind: what elephants need to take care of themselves and engage in natural behaviors. There are acres of varied terrain with shade for foraging, mud wallows, a gigantic 98,000 gallon pool and just the perfect mix of dirt mounded for dust bathing in several areas. Also, the keepers provide enrichment – ways to keep the herd physically and mentally active every day by adding variety and surprise to this beautiful habitat. For example, they might bring a  in new log or tree trunk (fun for stepping over or dragging around, or stripping the bark from it for a snack) that wasn’t there yesterday, or maybe a new type of treat hidden in surprise locations. Sometimes Mother Nature helps out too!

The Reid Park Zoo elephant ambassadors are safe and well cared for by their rockstar animal care staff and adored by the public. However, their cousins in the wilds of Africa need our help preserving their habitat and also our protection from poaching.   

The Reid Park Zoo works in partnerships around the world and at home to protect wildlife and wild places. A portion of your admission and memberships dollars are set aside to help with in-situ conservation. An important part of the Zoo’s conservation funding goes to the Tanzania Conservation and Science Program to support Dr. Charles Foley’s work with the African Elephant. Also, the Zoo is happy to provide guests with information about an organization called 96-elephants. This group supports efforts against elephant poaching, and their name is based on a sad statistic: on average, 96 elephants are killed every day to support the ivory trade.

Mabu, the Zoo’s huge and majestic bull elephant, has recently been heard trumpeting  the news that on March 25th The International Union for Conservation of Nature updated their listing of African elephants. There is new consensus by scientists of the IUCN to list two groups of African elephant species. The African savanna elephant is endangered and the African forest elephant is listed Critically Endangered. Many in the field believe this new distinction will help focus and strengthen conservation efforts locally and internationally.

There is still much work to be done.

And this is how the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion is for the greater good. The expansion will connect guests with even more wild animal ambassadors in gorgeous naturalistic habitats that bring out each animal’s natural instincts and behaviors. The Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and in 2019 AZA Zoos and Aquariums sent $230 million to in-situ conservation around the world. With your help, RPZ will continue growing their conservation funding.   

Why not join in? Come enjoy the coolness of shade trees as you relax and  observe Litsemba’s amazing breeding herd this summer.

Hot Tip: Reid Park Zoo elephants love to swim when it rains. This summer Mapenzi is sure to work up the nerve to join the rest of the herd in their pool. It will be a joy to see her little trunk, kind of like a periscope, come up out of the water to breathe! 

From that tiny common side-blotched lizard scurrying under your garage door to the bold Eastern Collared Lizard calmly basking right in front of you, our desert lizards have amazing ways to survive and thrive. If you’ve lived here a while, you’ve probably encountered hundreds of them. But now, Tucson, it’s time to meet The King of the Lizards.

The Reid Park Zoo’s expansion will be bringing us the biggest lizard on earth – the Komodo Dragon. These real-life fairytale creatures are huge, they’re fascinating, they’re apex predators, and they’ve been around for 100 million years or so. And though they have no natural enemies, they’re now vulnerable in the wild.  

They’re Huge.  And Hungry.

These giants average about 10 feet long and 154 pounds for males, and the largest Komodo Dragon on record was 10.3 feet long and weighed 366 pounds. And they’re incredibly strong, especially in the muscular jaw and neck area. They are such efficient eaters that they can eat up 80% of their own body weight in just one day. Luckily, their stomachs can expand. And they have another useful trick for that sluggish feeling you get after overeating. If they sense a threat and need to flee quickly, they simply throw up their stomach contents and lose the extra weight.

What about that fearsome bite?

The Komodo Dragon is an ambush predator, lurking patiently by the side of known wildlife paths to conserve energy, then leaping and striking when a tantalizing animal passes by. Its favorite meal in the wild is the Timor Deer, but it will eat anything from large water buffalo to its own newly-hatched offspring.

The Dragons’ teeth are large, they’re sharp, and they’re serrated. They’re also breeding grounds for bacteria, since their particular brand of oral hygiene, leaving scraps of their previous meals on and between their choppers, encourages the development of around 50 different bacterial strains. Seven of these are highly septic and thrive in the dragons’ saliva. As if that weren’t enough, researchers have also located a venom gland in the lower jaw, and that venom happens to be an anticoagulant. The effects of a dragon bite are generally profuse bleeding and the onset of sepsis. The victim will often flee, but after a few days, will surely succumb to the attack. And the Komodo Dragon has an acute sense of smell (via its flickering tongue) which can locate its injured prey even when it’s miles away.

Luckily, because the Dragons tend to scuffle with each other when they’re feeling peckish, this lethal bite has no effect – except perhaps for some disfiguration – on their fellow lizard kings.

Those poor little things.

Let’s begin with the hatchlings, whose sometimes unfortunate fate was alluded to above. Komodo dragons are generally solitary, but breed annually, though the female individuals lay eggs only every two years. Clutches are between 15-30 eggs.  But as the females are naturally solitary creatures, if it’s their year to lay eggs, they can always skip the actual breeding and through parthenogenesis, lay perfectly fertile eggs without the assistance of a male. Well, not perfectly fertile – all the “fatherless” hatchlings will be male.

The eggs are roughly the size of grapefruit, and are laid in nests on hillsides, on the ground, or in  mounds which have been vacated by another indigenous species, the orange-footed scrub fowl. Female  Komodo Dragons have also been known to dig decoy nests to protect the eggs from predators, including fellow Dragons. Some females behave in a maternal fashion for the three months of incubation, guarding the eggs, but others, like so many reptiles, simply lay the eggs and abandon them. Hatchlings lucky enough to make it to hatching immediately scramble up the nearest tree, where the heavy, hungry adults of their kind can’t reach them. They’re  about 16 inches long and are precocial – ready to find their own food right away. There’s plenty of food available up in the trees, and the young Dragons will enjoy this arboreal period of their lives for about 4 years, finally coming down when they’re around four feet in length.

The Daily life of an adult Komodo Dragon

The Dragons are indigenous to five islands in Indonesia, four in Komodo National Park (Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang, and Gili Dasami) and another island outside the park, called Flores.

The mostly solitary life of adult Komodo Dragons consists of four things: hunting, eating, basking in the sun (they’re ectothermic), and lots and lots of sleeping. Most of these require very little energy, and researchers have discovered that even though these reptiles are capable of travelling long distances, they almost never stray from the areas where they and their progenitors have always lived.   

They do have great homing abilities, though, as demonstrated by an experiment in which adults were relocated on their native island, as far as 13.7 miles away from their home. Within four months, all of the dragons relocated on land had returned to their home territories. However, those relocated across a waterway, though they are perfectly capable of swimming, seemed to decide it was too much trouble – or perhaps too great an expenditure of energy, to return to their ancestral homes and adapted to the new locations without much fuss.

Why is this species now considered vulnerable?

Their numbers in the wild are decreasing, largely through human encroachment, habitat fragmentation, the illegal wildlife trade, and the burning of grasslands in order for humans to hunt the Dragons’ favorite prey, the Timor Deer. Also, as evolutionary stars, they generate a substantial amount of income for Indonesia through tourism – where guides feed them unnatural foods to make them drowsy and suitable for photographs with tourists, while those tourists, even if they don’t mean to, are altering the Dragons’ natural environments just by being there.   

The research and breeding of Komodo Dragons that can be safely done in human care is now more important than ever. The Reid Park Zoo hopes you’ll come see this most amazing lizard once the Pathway to Asia expansion is complete! Just by visiting, you’ll be helping the Zoo in their efforts to conserve these ancient and fascinating creatures.

A New Wild Cat is Coming to Tucson

That’s not a typo, that space between Wild and Cat.  Although he may resemble Wilbur, our University of Arizona bobcat—they both have that lovely curlicue on their foreheads—this new wild cat is a Fishing Cat. And he’s got the paws to prove it! 

Fishing Cats are one of about 33 small wild cat species living throughout the continents of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Unlike his southwest desert cousin who chases land-based prey like rabbits and mice, the Fishing Cat stalks the riverbanks of mangrove swamps in Asia, looking for its favorite food—fish! About twice the size of a domestic cat and equipped with webbed front paws and dense, compact fur to keep it warm in cold water, this wild cat is perfectly designed for diving head-first into the water and catching fish, both for food and fun. 

Because Fishing Cats are small, and some would say less charismatic than their larger cousins—visualize this little kitty beside a lion, tiger, cheetah, or leopard—they have long been out-competed for conservation dollars. Long-term studies are scarce and sightings of these cats have been so rare that some researchers believe they have become extinct in parts of their geographical range. Only in the past twenty years have scientists caught glimpses of these elusive creatures through accidental sightings or serendipitous camera trap shots. 

In the wetlands and mangrove forests of South and Southeast Asia, the array of plants and animals that share this ecosystem is staggering! Fishing Cats are just one part of a complex food chain that includes shorebirds, sea birds, otters, turtles, shellfish, and even crab-eating macaques. The amazing mangrove forests in which they live and keep tidy serve as a buffer, or bridge, between life that thrives in freshwater and life that thrives in the sea. And depend on it: In such a complex system, the survival of each species is intricately dependent on the others.

One thing is for certain: We are only beginning to discover the critical part this cat plays in maintaining the health of the mangrove forests. How important are these forests? In the words of University of Arizona Research Scientist and former Rachel Carson Scholar, Dr. Ashwin Naidu, within these gnarly, amazing root systems, the mangroves can store up to five to ten times more carbon dioxide than tropical rainforests.

So situated in one of the most important ecosystems on our planet, each stocky little Fishing Cat lives a solitary life, only coming together briefly once a year for breeding. Because they live such secretive lives, we don’t fully understand them or their capacity for adaptation. Their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate, in large part due to habitat loss. The lucrative financial forces of commercial fishing—our voracious appetite for farmed shrimp and farmed crabs—have diminished their range and ability to breed. 

But their plight has not gone unnoticed. More scientists are now taking a good, hard look at the key role these cats play in maintaining the health of their ecosystem. Some field researchers have had success with conservation projects that prioritize the needs of both the animals and the communities that surround them, but, as populations in the wild decrease faster than this species can procreate, zoos will also play a vital role in preventing their outright extinction.

The Association for Zoos and Aquariums has created a Species Survival Plan, or SSP, which will help keep the Fishing Cats’ gene pool safe and healthy. As zoos learn more about the cat’s biology and its needs, that knowledge will be shared with research scientists working in the field. Their gene pool will be protected for as long as it takes to ensure they can thrive, once again, in a safe and protected wild environment, free from the threat of extinction. 

As a lifelong cat lover, I am thrilled that the Fishing Cat will be coming to Tucson as part of the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion, and I hope you’re excited to meet this new ambassador for small cat species everywhere. As sentinels to a part of the planet we don’t fully understand, their story will give us a window into a world that now demands our attention and our protection. 

So rally round, all you Wildcat fans, and give a warm welcome to the newest wild cat in town, the Asian Fishing Cat!