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

It’s an anteater, but….

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

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

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

A secret Weapon!

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

Human/Tamandua Interaction

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

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

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

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

Crocodilians

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

Back to the question!   Alligator or Crocodile?

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Very Beginning – The Archosaurs

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

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

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

Conservation

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

Start At the Zoo

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

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

 Phone Apps

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

 Conservation Guests

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

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

Personal Conservation

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

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

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

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

Six continents are in luck

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

Rivers, oceans, otters

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

In the mood for a romp?

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

Great swimmers, and problem solvers too

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

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

Family Life

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

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

Conservation

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

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

But First – A Pop Quiz

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

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

Very good!  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who informs zoos and conservationists? 

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

Three levels of threat

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

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

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

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

Zoos are important

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

They can’t succeed without you

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

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