Let’s start with a quiz: What animals live between the alligator, the meerkats, the giraffes, the rhinos, the Leopard Tortoises, and the zebras and ostriches at the Reid Park Zoo? Answer: Goats, naturally! 

You readers and zoo visitors probably have a lot of questions about goats, but some of them may be answered in our list of FAQs, so let’s go straight to those. 

Q: Are goats the same thing as sheep? If not, how can I tell them apart? 

A: Goats and sheep both belong to the family of animals called bovids, but they are distinct types of animals that differ in appearance and behavior. Goats have thinner, hairy coats, while sheep have thick, wooly coats. Goats have a continuous upper lip, while sheep have a groove in the middle that separates the lip into two parts. Goat tails point up, while sheep tails point down. Most goats have horns, and the horns are relatively narrow and straight. Only some sheep have horns, and those horns are usually thicker and curled at the side of their heads. Sheep have no beards, but most goats do. Sheep graze on grass and other plants low to the ground, while goats browse on grass, shrubs, and branches of trees. And although goats have been domesticated for about 10,000 years, they are generally independent and inquisitive, while sheep are generally more docile and, well, sheepish. 

Q: The goats at the Reid Park Zoo are different sizes and colors. Pretty pretty, really. Are they related to each other? 

A: The Zoo’s goats represent three different breeds: Boer goats (a breed that originated in South Africa), Oberhasli goats (Swiss, originally), and Nigerian dwarf goats (originally from West Africa). They are not a single family, as 4 of 5 of the RPZ’s elephants are. 

Q: Are any other animals evolutionarily/genetically related to goats? 

A: The animal family for goats, the bovids, also includes gazelles, African antelope, bison, sheep, and cattle. Animals in this family are called even-toed ungulates, or Arteriodactyla. 

Q: Can you say more about goats’ beards? 

A: Beards are common on male goats, but some female goats have beards, too. As for the shape of that beard, have you ever heard of a style of beard on men that’s called a “goatee”? Any guesses where that name comes from? 

Q: How about the horns? What are they made of? 

A: Goats’ horns are true horns. That is, they have a core of living bone that is covered by keratin (the same protein as in fingernails and hair). Goats do not shed and regrow their horns the way deer shed and regrow antlers. Both male and female goats have horns, but horns on males are larger and more visible. 

Q: We have also seen goats in petting zoos and on farms, but are there any wild goats anywhere? Are they endangered? 

A: Most of the earth’s wild goats live in mountains in Asia, mainly from Turkey to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are related to domesticated goats, but they are not the same species. Some species of wild goats are considered endangered, although in some cases the remote ruggedness of their natural habitats makes it hard to get an accurate count of their numbers. 

Q: Do goats really eat tin cans? 

A: Not exactly. First of all, those cans are made of steel or aluminum, not tin. But never mind, you want to know whether goats eat them. Sort of, but not really. Goats have a strong bite and can crunch through some tough things, but they can’t chew up or digest metal. They sometimes do eat the labels off cans, though, and in a picture that might look like the goat is eating the can. They also eat paint off license plates. 

Q: What do goats eat, then? 

A: Pretty much any plant, with a few exceptions for plants that are toxic to them. They also eat plant-based material like paper or cardboard. 

Q: During a recent visit to the zoo, I saw a staff member in the goat area holding out a stick with a colored, foam ball at its tip and giving a goat a reward when it touched its nose to the ball. What was that? 

A: You got to see a goat training session! Most of the animals in the zoo participate in training – using only positive reinforcement, never negative reinforcement, or punishment. Training helps animal care staff members to maintain the animals’ health, for instance by allowing staff to draw a blood sample when needed, and to enrich their quality of life. In the case of the goats, a staff member might use a training session to encourage the goats onto a new climbing structure in their habitat, for example. The zoo’s animals are never trained to do tricks or entertain. We plan to write more about training animals at Reid Park Zoo in future blog articles. 

Q: Can you drink goat’s milk? How does it taste? 

A: Goat’s milk must be safe to drink, because they sell it in supermarkets and grocery stores, right? Taste is a matter of taste, I suppose. Some people probably love it. I don’t think you can get a goat’s-milk latte at Starbucks, though. 

Q: How about goat’s milk cheese? 

A: One word: yummy! 

Q: Do people use goat hair for anything? 

A: Yes, definitely! For example, hair shorn from the Angora breed of goats is used to make a “luxury fiber” call mohair, which is lustrous and warm, sometimes used to make scarves. And cashmere, another luxury fiber known to be very soft and warm, comes from the shorn hair of cashmere goats. Cashmere goats originally lived wild in the Himalayan mountains, but now live domesticated in large numbers. Shawls made from the fine hair of these goats originally were produced mainly in the Kashmir region of present-day India and Pakistan, which is how the goats and the fiber got the name, cashmere. 

Q: What are some other uses for domesticated goats? 

A: Weed whacking! Goats will eat just about any kind of plant up to the height they can stretch to when they stand on their hind legs – up to about 9 feet high. Because of this, goats have been used for some years to clear brush from terrain that is too steep or littered to be mowed by machine. A new development in this field is bringing in goats to clear brush around buildings in areas that are prone to wildfires. And now, if you want to try goats for clearing weeds at your house, you won’t even have to buy the goats – you can rent them

Q: People used to call me and my little sister kids, but I know “kid” is the word for a baby goat. Did those people really think we were baby goats? 

A: That’s funny, but I know you’re just kidding. Speaking of which, “kidding” is the word for when a female goat gives birth…to kids! 

Q: Where can I get a wooden climbing structure like the one the goats at RPZ have? 

A: You might contact the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. The goats’ climbing structures at the Reid Park Zoo were built by local Boy Scouts, but I’m sure Girl Scouts could build things like that, too. 

Q: Will the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion include goats? 

A: I don’t think goats are part of the current plan for Pathway to Asia, although as I mentioned above, there are wild goats in Asia, so goats in the new expansion wouldn’t necessarily be out of place. 

Q: Why has the Pathway to Asia expansion been delayed so long, and is there any news? 

A: This blog and website always aim to focus on the positive, so I will just say stay tuned, because there may be some good news about the Reid Park Zoo expansion coming VERY soon! 

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!


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.

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.


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)!

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.


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?


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

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

Black on white are they? 

Or maybe it’s white on black. 

But why have those stripes anyway? 

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

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

Three different species

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

How about those stripes?

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

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

The enduring mystery

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

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

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

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


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

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

Going where the grass is greener

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

It’s all about grazing

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

Rambling Females

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


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


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

Stripes in Tucson

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

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

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

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

Monsoon Diversions: A Primate Primer

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

A master list maker classifies…everything on the planet 

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

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

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

It’s all down to noses 

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

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

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

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

Strepsis, a turning around (like a squiggly comma)

Haplo, onefold, single, simple

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

Kata (Cata), down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting Primates at Reid Park Zoo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope for them and for us

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

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

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

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

Think about it

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

You can take action

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

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

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

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