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.   

———————————————————————————

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.    

Ring-Tailed Lemurs are so cute they’re the stars of animated movies!   They’re popular pets (though this is illegal).   They are adaptable to many different climates, so they live in zoos everywhere, including at the Reid Park Zoo.  In fact, they seem to be everywhere except where they ought to be. 

Where are they, then?

These amazing and appealing primates are conspicuously missing from the forest canopy of southwestern Madagascar.  Why?  Because the combination of climate change, illegal poaching,  habitat fragmentation, and the illegal pet trade have reduced the Ring-tailed Lemurs’ numbers in the wild by an alarming 95% just since the year 2,000.   They’re now on the list of the 25 most endangered primates on the planet.

What is it about the Ring-Tailed Lemur that makes it so vulnerable?   First of all, they live in a relatively small, isolated area of an isolated island, and so have evolved in a unique way.   Unfortunately for them, this uniqueness is very appealing to humans who like to own small, exotic pets with quizzical faces, distinctive tails, and incredible agility.     Ring-Tailed Lemurs are small, and the males only weigh about six pounds (and females are smaller).     Though their bodies aren’t large, their distinctive striped tails can be as long as 2 feet.  

The good, the bad, and the stinky

The tails have thirteen alternating bands of black and white, and though they are not prehensile, they do serve purposes besides being incredibly cute and distinctive, especially for males.   Have you ever seen those tour-group leaders who carry little flags so that everybody in the group can always follow easily?  Well, troops of traveling Lemurs (who unlike other kinds of lemurs, spend about 40% of their time on the ground)  stick those marvelous tails straight up in the air in order to keep a troop moving together.  

There’s another tail behavior, and it’s a good reason to NOT have a Ring-Tailed Lemur for a pet.   Like many animals in the wild, scent marking is very important to mating and to general claiming of territory and hierarchy within a troop of these primates.    The lemurs have scent glands on their chests and legs, and they use these to mark their foraging routes.   They also use the scent glands for something called “stink battles,” where they coat their tails in the pungent secretions and then flick their tails, kind of like snapping somebody with a wet beach towel, at other individuals; this habit is politely called wafting.   The “fragrance” (not one we humans appreciate) is often enough to establish dominance among males and also to discourage encroaching troops of other lemurs from entering a certain territory.  

Females run the show

But speaking of dominance, Ring-Tailed Lemur troops, which can range from 3 to 30 individuals, are controlled by females.  Dominant females get their first choice of food (they like to eat fruit, flowers, leaves, herbs, small vertebrates – in other words, they’re omnivores) and mates.    In terms of breeding, timing is everything, because the females are only receptive to males once a year – and the invitation to mate lasts only from 6 to 24 hours altogether!   Females generally give birth to just one infant, who will cling to their mother’s belly or back for the first 5-6 months of life.  After a young one is weaned, he or she will be cared for by all the females in the troop.   By the time a male reaches puberty – which is about at the age of 3 years, he’s got to leave and make his way in some other territory.   Females, though, generally stay with a given troop throughout their lives.

The Bad News

So how did native populations of Ring-Tailed Lemurs disappear so dramatically and quickly?  The usual causes – climate change, hunting, habitat fragmentation, and the pet trade all contributed to this decline, but because the Ring-Tailed Lemurs seemed to be so numerous where they didn’t really belong, like in people’s houses, or in animated movies, it took conservationists some time to notice that it was very difficult to find any of them in the wild anymore.     

The Good News

But there’s hope on the horizon.   First of all, once again ecotourism presents a great opportunity to bolster local economies as travelers eagerly anticipate seeing  these appealing creatures in  their natural habitats . Also, in the meantime zoos like the Reid Park Zoo are working steadily on increasing numbers, by participating in a Species Survival Plan for them.    There are also conservation organizations such as the Lemur Conservation Foundation, the Lemur Conservation Network (concentrating on  protecting habitat), and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, all working hard to learn more about  Ring-Tailed Lemurs and keep them alive and well for future generations!

By the way, you can go to the Reid Park Zoo’s website (https://reidparkzoo.org) and take a peek at the ZOO CAM that’s monitoring the troop of three Ring-Tailed Lemurs who call Tucson home! 

(The Reid Park Zoo Expansion website is not produced by the Zoo – we’re a group of Tucsonans who want you to know about the current and future animals that our Zoo is working to save).

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)!

Finding Serenity with the Black-Necked Swans

Tucked away in a quiet corner along the South American pathway of Reid Park Zoo are two of the most serene birds in Tucson: the lovely, black-necked swans, Delilah and Barbara. These two female companions share a tranquil grotto-type space just past the Andean Bear habitat near the entrance to the Pacu Fish and Diorama Cave where you can take a peek at some South American animal habitats in miniature, another delightful surprise in this area.

10-year-old Delilah and 3-year-old Barbara are graceful swimmers and spend most of their time in the water. Native to the wetlands of southern Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, Black-Necked Swans are the largest waterfowl in South America. Their bodies are completely white except for a striking black neck and head with a bright red knob where the beak meets the head. Like most swans, they mate for life. Throughout the day at Reid Park Zoo they can be seen either in or out of the water, nibbling on a diet of “spring mix” (baby mixed green lettuces) and nutritional waterfowl chow. For enrichment, they feast on crickets, wax worms, meal worms, whole-leaf lettuce heads, and grapes. Although our female swans are companions and not a breeding pair, they may often display nesting behaviors, such as gathering material for building nests and sitting on eggs, but any eggs produced are unfertilized and will not hatch.   

Finding serenity with the locals

This spot is one of the most enchanting and tranquil areas of the zoo. If you sit on the bench opposite the swan’s grotto, you may see and hear some of Tucson’s native birds, Mexican or great-tailed grackles, sparrows, and black-crowned night herons, nesting in the bamboo trees overhead. Just in front of the swan’s pool is a small grouping of banana plants; if you’re lucky, you might spot a reddish-purple, pod-shaped flower dangling from a stem just below a whorl of tiny bananas. Higher up in the tree canopy, branches of the South American pink floss-silk trees shade the entire area. The thorny trunks are spectacular year round, but these trees are best appreciated during the fall (September and October) when the canopy explodes in a spectacular display of pink and white funnel-shaped flowers that look like a cross between a stargazer lily and a pink cymbidium orchid. Our local bat, bird, and insect pollinators love them. 

Adding to this green reverie are the sounds of small waterfalls splashing nearby that keep the area and its inhabitants cool, one to the left of the swan’s grotto, one in the nearby Andean bear habitat, and one in the corner of the giant anteater habitat. The pools in this area are also home to many wild mallards and pintails who share the zoo animals’ water, shade, and food. Quite recently, my family observed the swans Delilah and Barbara swimming quite contentedly with a pair of mallard hybrids who were carefully shepherding four fuzzy juveniles. Their little impromptu swimming ballet was mesmerizing.  

The gifts of nature

This is a great spot in the zoo to relax, breathe deeply, and just soak in the tranquility of nature. Listening to the medley of birdsong in the morning is ideal—more benches await you in the South American Aviary nearby—but a visit any time of the day would be a boost to your mental and physical well-being. I’ve even stopped by for a few minutes on the way to my workplace. 

We’re so fortunate that another area of tranquil space will be coming soon with theReaid Park Zoo expansion’s Pathway to Asia, where you’ll be able to immerse yourself in even more birdsong inside the Wings of Wonder Aviary. Inside WOW you’ll be able to sit, observe, and even offer food to the beautiful birds of Asia.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll find time to take a stroll along the South America pathway to visit the Black-Necked Swans in their grotto, walk among the trees, listen to the sounds of the water, and watch the wildlife swimming in the pools and streams. It’s a wonderful way to de-stress, and Delilah and Barbara are always willing to share the shade!

You can’t ignore a creature so flamboyant

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

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

Where they live and what they eat

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

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

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

Little ones

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

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

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

Time for some FAQs

Question 1:  Why do flamingos stand on one leg?

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

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

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

Question 3:   Why are they called “Flamingos?”

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

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

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

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

No one can say.

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

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

Omnivores, but sometimes picky eaters

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

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

Endearing family life

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

Endangered

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

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

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

The Gigantism

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

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

But How Big is Giant?

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

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

Not exactly role models for family life

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

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

 A Day in the Life

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

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

Are they endangered?

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

At the Reid Park Zoo

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

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

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

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