Gibbon Tales

What’s that noise?

On any bright morning in Tucson, the moment you step out of your car in the parking lot of the Reid Park Zoo, you might hear soft, repetitive one-note sounds, whoop, whoop, whoop, that build to a crescendo of long, sustained trills, whooOOoo, whooOOoo. You’ve just heard the morning territorial song of one of the oldest and most interesting residents at Reid Park Zoo: Billy, a 48-year-old male Lar Gibbon. 

You may recall the lineup of Primates from your school days: Lemurs, Lorises, Tarsiers, Monkeys, and Apes (which includes humans). With more than 500 species, the Primates comprise the third largest group of Mammals after Rodents (2500+) and Bats (1200+). 

The Apes are further divided into two groups, the great apes and the lesser apes, the lesser being the focus of this blog. Lesser apes include about 20 species of gibbons which live in the subtropical and tropical forests of Asia in the countries of China, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The lesser apes: Small but just as mighty 

Despite the name, the lesser apes aren’t less important than the great apes; they’re just smaller in size. Fun fact: Reid Park Zoo currently cares for one of the smallest species, a Lar Gibbon, and will soon care for the largest gibbon species, a Siamang, with the new Reid Park Zoo expansion, the Pathway to Asia. 

Gibbons have different tales to tell. Unlike many of their primate cousins, they don’t make nests but prefer to sleep sitting upright, resting their heads on their knees. Gibbons are most often monogamous and, with adequate food resources, form lifelong pair-bonds. However, these animals are most known for two things: their tremendous abilities for brachiation, the way they move, and their amazing vocalization, the way they sing to maintain their territory. 

The Olympic champion of brachiators

Brachiation is the method of locomotion gibbons use to swing hand over hand in the tree canopies where they live. Among all the primates, gibbons are the true brachiator champions, traveling this way about 50% to 80% of the time. They have perfectly adapted shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints (ball and socket) which allow them to move at amazing speeds, up to 35 mph, the fastest of all non-flying mammals. Like other primates, they are also bipedal and walk upright in the trees or on the ground using their long, lanky arms to balance their gait.

Why are gibbons such Olympics-level powerhouses? They have great muscle and skeletal adaptations! They have shoulder flexors, extensors, rotator muscles, and elbow flexors with a high power or work-generating capacity, and their wrist flexors have a high force-generating capacity as well. An anatomical study done by the National Institutes of Health suggests that the elbow and wrist flexors are particularly powerful and important to their brachiating lifestyle. Despite their prowess, all individuals throughout their lives will miss a branch or misjudge a limb’s strength, and they do sustain some bone fractures from time to time, some major but most minor.

Life in the tree canopy

Gibbons are mainly frugivores and live off the fruits in the trees where they swing out their lives. They maintain individual family territories, and they know their tree-trails well. When fruit is not plentiful or not ripe enough, they supplement their diets with leaves, flowers, seeds, tree bark, and plant shoots, as well as insects, spiders, bird eggs, and, occasionally, small birds. Fruits have the highest nutritional value, leaves, flowers, and seeds less so. Seasonality and availability of ripe food sources in dry versus wet seasons and other ecological conditions, such as fragmented habitats converted to agriculture, play a large part in what individual gibbon species can consume. 

Better than any tenor at La Scala

In addition to their remarkable style of locomotion, Gibbons display some amazing vocal abilities. Despite their small size, they can produce sounds much louder than any human being can make. In the new Pathway to Asia expansion, guests will be able to meet the largest gibbon species, the Siamang, which has a specialized throat sac that it fills with air. About the size of a small balloon, this throat sac amplifies their song, so you’ll most likely hear them before you see them.

A Gibbon sings for a variety of reasons. When it sees a potential predator—perhaps a leopard or a python—it doesn’t scurry off in the opposite direction. Quite daringly, it moves closer and sings out a call as if to say, “Don’t bother, you’ve been spotted, and I can move faster.” In most cases, that’s exactly what happens because the gibbon can move faster through its well-known tree canopy-trails. 

Gibbons also sing to attract a mate or to mark an established pair-bond’s family territory. The male starts the morning song to mark the borders of its family range, and the female joins him in a duet with a different but complementary part of their song. If there are immature male or female offspring, they soon learn their mother’s song and join in for a full-throated family chorus. And they do all this while brachiating! It’s an exhilarating experience to watch this kind of morning display. 

Billy’s story

Of all the wonderful residents at Reid Park Zoo, Billy, the geriatric Lar Gibbon, is one of the most memorable. He is notable for his fluffy, some would say fuzzy, gray-black fur, white and slender hands and feet, and a white circle of fur outlining his face.

Billy was born at the Santa Ana Zoo on New Year’s Day 1973 and came to Reid Park Zoo in 1987 to become the pair-bonded mate of Moms, a female Lar Gibbon who arrived several years earlier.  The couple did their part for this endangered species.   They were companions for 30 years and had 4 offspring together, the last, a female named Lilith, born in 1999.  Moms was considered a geriatric gibbon when she died at age 47 in 2017 due to an age-related illness, so Billy became a widower at age 44. At the time of her death, they were two of the oldest Lar Gibbons in human care at any AZA institution in the U.S. 

Like all primates, Lar Gibbons are social creatures and live most of their lives as a small family unit. As gibbons have a Median Life Expectancy of about 30-40 years in human care, finding another geriatric female companion in her mid-40s, widowed, and of a compatible temperament was a monumental task. Even if one could be found, given his advanced age—Billy is old, even for his species—transporting him outside the familiar territory that he has defended daily with his morning call (34 years and counting) would be risky. With young and healthy individuals, introduction between potential mates is not without risk; with geriatric animals, it’s even more so. If she were to transfer here, she would face those same obstacles.

Due to all these factors, the AZA decided that Billy should remain at the Reid Park Zoo. He has good, trusting relationships with his Animal Care Staff who work hard to maintain his physical and mental health by making sure his days are filled with ample enrichment, such as new and differently configured ropes, hammocks, platforms, and scents, and interesting things to encounter in his habitat. 

As a fellow primate, he seems to enjoy observing humans just as much as we enjoy observing him. During the major construction project at the front of the zoo last year, Billy made a daily habit of singing his morning territorial song, then spending much of his time watching the builders excavate the dirt, install pipes, pour concrete, and plant trees. He was keen to watch it all! 

When Billy is outside sitting on one of his perches or rope swings, he watches the world go by. It’s not uncommon for Animal Care Staff to stop by for a visit accompanied by other animals on walkabout. Kenecky, a Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo, occasionally stops by for a visit, as have some of the Reid Park Zoo tamanduas. The Chilean flamingoes provided a pink-feathered parade for him when they were walked from their former habitat near the Conservation Learning Center to their new lagoon in the front plaza, and he still enjoys watching them eat from their feeding pool.

As a senior citizen, though, he is most interested in foraging enrichment where he is mentally and physically challenged (hand dexterity, nothing arduous) to look for his food inside items like puzzle feeders. Animal care staff do frequent wellness checks to make sure he is self-grooming and sleeping well, and he willingly participates in these interactions, especially if he anticipates receiving his favorite treat: a delicious ripe banana which he will carefully peel before eating.  

I encourage you to make an early morning visit to the Reid Park Zoo, and, if you’re lucky, you will hear Billy whooping while you’re still in the parking lot. Once inside the zoo, walk a few steps south of the flamingo lagoon to find him. You may be fortunate enough to see him swinging from rope to rope, platform to platform, singing his glorious morning wakeup call just to let everyone know—This is MY Lar Gibbon territory! 

They may not come to mind first

Rainforests are known for their colorful, unique, and surprising wildlife. When you think of those lush tree canopies, you probably picture beautiful macaws or interesting monkeys squawking and leaping around, or maybe even the startling sight of a jaguar. But in the Solomon Islands, northeast of Australia, the humble Prehensile-Tailed Skink is also hiding in the rainforest. Hiding mostly from just those showy creatures, who’d love to eat her.  

They may be a little confusing

But what is a skink? Well, they’re often mistaken for “true lizards,” except their legs are a little short, and they don’t really have necks. And some of them don’t even HAVE legs, so they may be mistaken for some kind of chubby, short snake.  Does this make them some sort of unfinished accident of evolution? Not at all. They are lizards with their own unique anatomy and adaptations to help them live in many different areas – even in cities. There are several species of skink, and one of them, the Prehensile-Tailed Skink, is the newest animal resident at the Reid Park Zoo! You can find him in the Conservation Learning Center – and he’s learning too, learning to be handled (as the education staff members prepare to give the public a closer look at him.)

World’s trickiest tail

Earlier we described the skink as “humble,” but actually the Prehensile-Tailed Skink is the largest of all the world’s skinks, some even reaching lengths of 30 inches, including their tails. Also, it is the only skink with a prehensile, or grasping type of tail. Speaking of tails, like other lizards you’ve heard about, most skinks can “shed” their tails when trying to escape a predator with a paw or a beak on them. But skinks’ tails have the useful ability to wiggle about even when they’re no longer connected to their animal! This serves as a great distraction so that the tail-less skink can quickly escape. And of course, they can re-grow their tails later.

Perfect for the treetops

Prehensile-Tailed Skinks live in treetops, and are perfectly suited for their arboreal lives, since their tails, long toes, and hook-shaped claws are useful for expertly navigating tree branches. They’re crepuscular, which means they are most active in the hours around dawn and dusk. Scientists aren’t sure if they are active at night, since their homes in the trees in addition to their excellent camouflage make it difficult to observe them in the wild.  Prehensile-tailed skinks are completely herbivorous, feasting on plants, flowers, and fruits they can find in the tree canopies, and can easily digest plants that are toxic to other creatures.   

No big families

Prehensile-Tailed Skinks breed every other year, and have a really long gestation period for reptiles – 6 to 8 months! The females give birth to only one offspring, but it’s a live birth.  And a big one at that – the young can be born already 1/3 the length of their mothers! But the kindly Prehensile-Tailed Skink, unlike many reptiles, actually cares for and protects her young giant for about the first six months of his or her life.

They are protected (a little)

Prehensile-Tailed Skinks have not yet been evaluated by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature), which means they don’t have a designation such as “threatened” or “vulnerable” yet. They are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, and there are laws against exporting them from the Solomon Islands. But nonetheless, we do know that they are threatened by the illegal pet trade, and removing them from the wild is particularly problematic, since their reproduction is so limited.    

You can meet one!

Maybe when the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete and has a reptile house, the Prehensile-Tailed Skink may find a new home there!   But until then, please be sure to visit this amazing fellow in the Conservation Learning Center.

The Pathways to Asia is going to have at least one cuteness overload habitat! The Red Pandas and the Muntjac Deer will be congenially sharing a lushly planted and climate controlled environment. The Red Pandas spend most of their time in the trees, though, and the Muntjac Deer will be on the ground hiding, barking, and foraging for browse, soft wood and fallen fruit. However, they may sometimes dine together – both species love bamboo shoots! With the  pandas’ acrobatic tree maneuvers and the muntjac darting and jumping around until they find good munchies,  it is sure to be a crowd-pleasing habitat.

Muntjac Deer are the oldest known deer species in the world

Twelve distinct species of Muntjac Deer are native to India north to the Himalayas, Southeast Asia and southern China. However fossils of the genus Muntiacus have been found in Miocene deposits in Germany, Poland and France.  Fossils closely resembling the munjac of today, which are considered a “primitive species, date back to 15- 35 million years ago! Reeves’ Muntjac, the variety joining the Reid Park Zoo expansion, are now native to southern China and the island of Taiwan, and each location has its own distinct subspecies.  

Who is barking in my garden at night?

Muntjacs can be found in tropical to temperate forests with a great deal of cover and close to a water source. As a crepuscular mammal, you will mostly find them active at dawn and dusk. 

In the early 1900s, the Reeves (also called Common or Chinese) small Muntjac Deer were introduced in the UK’s Woburn Park   in Bedfordshire and thrived. Muntjac have now spread across southeast England and into Wales. They can be found in towns and gardens browsing on woodland understory, grassland and Farmland. So when UK gardeners hear barking in their gardens at night, it may not be the neighbor’s dog but a muntjac, nicknamed the “barking deer,” browsing on their flowers! Or vegetables.  Or they may be cleaning up any dead leaves, or savoring some fungi.      Here’s what they sound like.

How to identify one if it’s not barking

The Reeves’ Muntjac  have an even number of toes, 4 on each hoof,  so it belongs to the order Artiodactyla and in the family Cervidae. They are one of the smallest species of deer, growing to about an average of 15 inches tall, 3-4 feet long and 25 to 75 pounds. Their soft short fur color ranges from tan to a reddish brown, and covers their slender oval bodies. Their head is almost a perfect upside-down triangle, with hairless ears at the top, a dark “V” marking from antlers or knobs to the nose and soft dark eyes on the sides. Remember eyes on the side means they are a  prey species, and in order to stay safe, they use their excellent eyesight and hearing to detect predators in time to flee.

Muntjacs’ most distinguishing features are the scent glands just below each eye (preorbital) for marking their territories. The males have antlers and large canine teeth that look like fangs. They use their deer weapons for defending their territory and fighting for females.

Female Muntjac have bony knobs in place of antlers and smaller canine teeth. Both male and female are solitary and have territories. Female territories do not overlap with each other;  however,  male territories do overlap with those of females.

If you think these small deer are endearing, wait till you see their calves

Living in temperate forests, Muntjac can mate year round.  However, the months of January to March seem to be the favored breeding period. After a 6-7 month gestation, just one precocial (in other words, eyes open, ready to start eating, and ready to run) fawn is born. And like those of other deer species,  the muntjac fawns are born a little darker and with creamy white spots. This helps the calf blend in with the environment. About at 2 months of age the young are encouraged to find their own territory. By 6 -12 months Muntjac are sexually mature. And a doe who’s given birth is ready to mate again within just a week!   This fairly quick reproductive rate is important, since in Asia Muntjac are the favored meal of many formidable predators like tigers, leopards, wolves, jackals, crocodiles, and pythons.

Conservation Status

For once, we’re happy to report that a species coming soon to the Reid Park Zoo is not yet listed as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature!  In fact, though their populations are decreasing in the wild, the Reeves’ Muntjac is listed as “of least concern” – so when you get to see them, please consider them as ambassadors for their imperiled relatives.  The Large-Antlered Muntjac  , for example, is listed by the IUCN as critically endangered.   While the Reeves’ Muntjac is still relatively safe in the wild, we have the perfect opportunity to support and protect this unique and ancient species. 

Could anybody possibly find this creature appealing? He has the words “hairy” and “screaming” in his name, and though he’s a mammal, he sports a carapace on his back, (a term we usually reserve for insects) and has scutes, a word usually reserved for tortoise anatomy. Is he a mistake of evolution? Quite the contrary!

The Screaming Hairy Armadillo is an incredibly cute and energetic little creature who lives quite successfully in the semi-desert regions of Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. He’s the smallest of the armadillos – only about 2 pounds and 16 inches long at the largest, and that includes his tail. On a visit to the Reid Park Zoo, you might just get to meet Jovi in the Conservation Learning Center, with a helpful staff member to answer your questions about him. He’s a Screaming Hairy Armadillo, skittering around and exploring every inch of his temporary habitat. He can climb, he can tunnel, he can solve puzzles, and he does it all at breakneck speed.

Like all desert creatures, including those here in the Sonoran desert, Jovi boasts some amazing adaptations that allow him to thrive in a low-water environment where food sources may be unreliable. First of all, Screaming Hairy Armadillos require very little water to actually drink – they derive most of their water from plants they eat, and besides, they have highly efficient kidneys. Also, they’re omnivores, and like most animals, opportunistic feeders. They eat plants, small vertebrates like frogs, lizards, and rodents, and of course yummy insects. Their diets tend to rely more on plants in the winter, but in summer the insect and carnivorous delights are much more bountiful, so they adjust accordingly. They have unique hunting techniques which involve burrowing.

First of all, every good Screaming Hairy Armadillo knows that the juiciest insects are probably burrowing below ground during the heat of the day, so they have developed a unique digging style. Their good sense of smell allows them to locate prey underground, but to get to it they don’t use their legs (which are helpfully equipped with long claws, which you’d think would be useful in digging). Instead, they drill their adorable pointy noses into the sandy soil, and then turn themselves in circles to create neat cone-shaped holes. A less savory, but equally effective technique the Screaming Hairy Armadillo uses is burrowing under carcasses left by bigger desert predators, where they find a tempting buffet of maggots and other insects.

We admit the name is a bit unfortunate – but it’s oh-so descriptive. Screaming Hairy Armadillos DO have a lot of white and light brown hair, which projects from the scutes of their armored backs and from their undersides, too. This obviously helps with camouflage in the desert. As for the screaming? Well, you won’t hear it at the Reid Park Zoo, because it is widely believed to be a kind of distress signal. The Screaming Hairy Armadillo is a solitary creature, so it’s unlikely the screams are meant to warn others of its kind. But these unique creatures may be even more clever than we think – some scientists speculate that the screams they emit when caught by a predator are meant to scare them off – or to attract other predators to go after the first ones!

African Wild Dogs are one of the newest additions to the Reid Park Zoo. If you haven’t seen them yet, they’re easy to find – just to the left of the main plaza as you enter the zoo, and they’re always fun to watch! 

Rover’s relatives

These animals are also known as “painted dogs,” and their striking coloration tells you why. Their short fur has a beautiful patchwork of brown, white, red, black, and yellow splotches. Each dog has its own unique pattern, like the stripes on a zebra – a sort of “fingerprint.” They’re slender and about the size of larger domestic dogs – weight, 40-75 pounds; height, 2 to 3 ½ feet; length, 2 ½ to 4 feet. Males and females are similar in size. Their large, rounded ears give them sharp hearing and also help them radiate heat to stay cool in hot climates (the way elephants’ ears do). 

African wild dogs are related to your pet dog, if you have one, and to jackals, coyotes, and wolves. They’re often confused with hyenas, but wild dogs and hyenas are not very close on the phylogenetic tree. Wild dogs are closer to wolves and domestic dogs, while hyenas are actually closer to cats and mongooses than to dogs. 

African wild dogs are found in fragmented areas of grassland, savannah, and open woodland of the sub-Sahara, mostly in southern Africa and southern portions of east Africa. The  social structure and social interactions of these beautiful canines are unusual among carnivores. A pack of wild dogs usually numbers 5-20 animals. A pack typically has both females and males, and the females and males have separate dominance hierarchies. The alpha (dominant) female and the alpha male stay together as a breeding pair, usually monogamous, and this alpha pair normally are the only animals in the pack to breed. Packs wander a lot in the wild, rarely staying in one place for more than a couple of days. 

It’s not allergies!

Members of a pack communicate with each other by touch, “sneezing,” and quiet, chirpy vocalizations. African wild dogs show greater cooperation with others in their pack than almost any other social mammal, showing each other what has been described as “a deliberative kindness bordering on altruism.” As in lion prides, for example, wild dog cubs are cared for by the entire pack. They also share food: after a hunt, the hunters regurgitate meat from the hunt to feed pups, sick or old animals, and any others who did not participate in that hunt. And when young animals first join in hunting, the mature animals allow them to feed first. 

Masters of pack hunting

Wild dogs are very efficient, cooperative hunters, which is why they’re also known as “hunting dogs.” About 80% of their hunts end with them getting their prey, compared with only about 30% success for lion hunts. Wild dogs can run for miles at 35 miles an hour! They base their hunting strategy on this unusual combination of speed and stamina, simply chasing their intended prey until the prey can run no longer. They usually hunt antelopes, but sometimes go after larger animals like wildebeest or zebras. Near human settlements, wild dogs sometimes prey on livestock, which causes conflict with farmers. Unlike hyenas, wild dogs rarely scavenge. 

Members of a pack usually hunt at dawn and at dusk. Wildlife biologists have discovered, though, that the decision about whether and exactly when to undertake a hunt is made by group vote – where a “sneeze” is a vote! – not solely by the alpha male or female in the pack. This is another aspect of this species’ social behavior that is different from other carnivores. 

Lots of mouths to feed

The alpha pair in a pack usually mate about once a year, most often between March and June. An average litter has 10-12 pups, but they can have up to 21! In contrast to elephants, lions, and other social species, as wild dogs mature, the males usually stay with their birth pack, and it is the females that usually strike out on their own when they grow up. Wild dogs live for about 10 years in the wild and 2-3 years longer under human care in zoos. 

Grommie and her sisters

The Reid Park Zoo’s all-female pack of four sibling African wild dogs arrived from the Oregon Zoo in November, 2020, when they were two years old. The four sisters are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SSP, or Species Survival Plan.   That means that if a genetically appropriate female is needed for breeding, one of the sisters may travel to another accredited zoo and it’s hoped, have one of those huge litters of painted pups!

The Reid Park Zoo packs at first seem identical, but they definitely have separate personalities and even looks.   And names:   Grommie (short for Grommet), Cricket, Terra (short for Terracotta), and Sandy. It’s a fun challenge to try to tell them apart based on their coloring. Here are some hints to help you. Grommie is dark overall, with a white “U”-shaped mark on her right rear leg and a large white tip on her tail. Cricket has a small, round white patch on the top of her rump and a large white tip on her tail. Sandy has little white overall and only a small bit of white on the tip of her tail, but you might get to see a white “smiley face” marking on her chest. Terra is paler overall and has a large white tip on her tail and a “C”-shaped white mark on the left side of her chest. Got that? Grommie seemed to be the alpha dog when they first arrived at RPZ, but the four regularly test and re-order the dominance hierarchy among themselves. When you visit them in the zoo, see if you can tell which one is dominant. 

Survival is not a given

Predators are essential for maintaining a healthy balance among different animal species in a habitat. African wild dogs, a key predator in their habitat, are the second-most endangered carnivore in Africa, after the Ethiopian Wolf. Estimates of the total number in the wild range from about 7,000 down to only 1,400, but everyone agrees that their numbers are very low. In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified them as Endangered, just two short steps from Extinct in the Wild. 

Habitat loss and diseases such as distemper, rabies, and parvovirus carried by domestic dogs jeopardize the remaining wild dog populations. Fragmentation of their habitat causes isolation of small subpopulations of animals, and the resulting inbreeding weakens the species and their chances for survival; the largest subpopulation of wild dogs now consists of fewer than 250 animals. The Reid Park Zoo, the World Wildlife Fund, and other organizations are working to save African wild dogs by mitigating conflict with people and livestock and by creating wildlife corridors to connected parts of their fragmented habitat in Africa.  

By the way, if you visited the Reid Park Zoo before 2020, you might recognize the African wild dogs’ habitat as the former home for the Zoo’s tigers. The Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion will have a new, much larger tiger habitat that will allow the Reid Park Zoo to welcome a young breeding pair of tigers, which are only ONE step away from being classified as “Extinct in the Wild.”  The difficult but rewarding work of helping to save these species belongs to all of us!

Macaws, which come in many varieties, are some of the most brightly colored and beautiful birds on earth. They are also intelligent, sociable, curious, playful and resourceful. Unfortunately, this makes them very popular as pets, and the pet trade now endangers their populations in the wild.

But how easily do you think they can camouflage themselves to hide from their main predators, snakes and raptors? Very well, it turns out! Macaws live in rainforests, and they tend to spend their days looking for food and eating it, very efficiently. Their preferred diet is fruit, and in the rainforest tree canopy, many of those fruits are just as brightly colored as the macaws who love to consume them.    

Many of the fruits are toxic to humans, by the way, and also, very difficult to bite into, but the macaw is perfectly adapted to this task. They have extremely strong beaks, which not only can penetrate the toughest skin on a piece of fruit, but can also behave like a sort of extra foot at the birds move around high in the tree branches. In addition, the macaw’s tongue, which is dry and scaly, actually has a bone inside which also helps them crush even the toughest pits and seeds inside the fruit they love.

Of course, fruit isn’t all they eat – because, as we all know, eating too much fruit can be hard on the stomach, and besides, we all crave variety in our diets sometimes. So they will also consume snails, insects, and nuts. The Blue and Yellow Macaw (like Rainbow, who lives in the Reid Park Zoo) has been observed eating up to 20 different species of plants! But back to all that fruit. Macaws have a unique dietary habit which is not fully understood by scientists – they frequently eat damp clay or mud. It’s thought this mud is a sort of Pepto Bismol for their digestive systems, and may also guard against some of the known toxins they consume.

Macaws mate for life, and though they may live in larger groups (generally 10 – 30), a mating pair always stays close to one another, even while flying within the flock to find food. They share food with their mates, and also groom one another. These are some long relationships, because macaws in the wild and in human care can live up to 60 years! Females generally lay 2-3 eggs once a year, and the hatchlings are quite helpless, totally dependent on both parents to protect them and provide food. In the world of macaw chicks, the squeaking wheel (or screeching baby macaw) is the one who gets the majority of the food, and may end up being the only one in the nest to live to maturity. They learn to fly at about three months.

Some species of macaw (there are 17 known) are now endangered and some, like the Blue and Yellow Macaw we can see in the Reid Park Zoo, are considered “extirpated” from certain native habitats like Trinidad. But reintroduction efforts have been modestly successful, and small breeding populations exist in Puerto Rico and in Florida. What has caused the reduction of numbers of these iconic birds in the wild? Well, as with almost every species on earth, habitat loss and climate change are putting the macaws at greater risk. But the pet trade is a bigger culprit.

The Macaw’s beauty and intelligence is greatly admired by humans, who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for one chick. These amazing birds are able to problem solve, learn to talk (and have even been observed practicing human speech), and of course their dramatic plumage and gregarious personalities make them extremely desirable as pets.   But there are several downsides. They need a great deal of room, and their long median lifespan makes owning one a lifetime commitment. They joyfully screech and squawk at an amazing volume, which might be fine in the rainforest, but might be overwhelming inside a house.  

Many organizations such as the Macaw Recovery Network are now working to protect the macaw. Some try to pay locals to stop poaching the animals, and surprisingly, ecotourism may prove to be an effective strategy to protect the macaws. Conservationists are starting to build lodges to attract visitors to see large flocks in the wild. The most wonderful aspect of this is that these lodges can employ locals who formerly made a living trapping the macaws; they are now earning a living as expert tour guides. It’s truly a win-win!  

Rainbow, the Blue and Yellow Macaw at the Reid Park Zoo, hopes that you will support Macaw conservation by stopping by to admire his striking feathers and have a little squawk. He’d also like you to know that one of his favorite distant cousins, the Ring-necked parakeet, will be coming soon to the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

The mystery,  beauty and ferocity of the Jaguar has always had a central role in the culture of many South and Central American societies; the name Jaguar probably comes from the languages of the Guarani and Tupi people, whose term yaguarete  is translated as, “true, fierce beast.” In fact, jaguars were considered gods in many ancient cultures in Mexico, Central America and South America, including the Mayans and Olmecs. The big cats’ images appear prominently in the art of architecture of these and other pre-Columbian cultures. Even today, among indigenous peoples, the Jaguar maintains a symbolic and spiritual importance as a protector of other species as well as a creature able to travel not only on the earthly plain, but into spiritual realms.

Here and Now

The fascination with these beautiful animals also extends to us here in Southern Arizona, where a Jaguar sighting in the Santa Rita Mountains brings great hope and excitement about the species.  Jaguar populations are decreasing, and they are currently classified as “near threatened” by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).  However, in the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service has designated them as endangered.  

 At one time, jaguars roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon, but unfortunately, since 1996, carefully-placed trail cameras have only been able to capture images of seven male Jaguars on this side of the U.S.- Mexico border.    Researchers know of a breeding population in the state of Sonora, Mexico and in fact, at least one of the males that has been documented in Arizona has been also seen in Mexico.   How do the scientists know this?   Because like many big cats, individual Jaguars have distinctive patterns on their gorgeous coats!

Those are some big cats

The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world, right behind lions and tigers.  That makes them the largest cats in the Americas, even bigger than mountain lions.  An adult male jaguar can grow up to six feet long with another three feet of tail, and weigh up to 250 pounds.   Females are about 20% smaller. And in the wild, Jaguars can live in different areas – some in tropical forests, and others in savannas and grasslands, as long as there are water sources nearby.  The individuals in the forests tend to be a little smaller than their relatives who prowl open spaces.    Jaguars are powerful swimmers and have even been seen easily traversing the Panama Canal .     They are also talented at climbing and leaping, both important to their style of hunting.  

They’re not the same 

It’s easy to confuse Jaguars with Leopards, but never in the wild, because jaguars only live in the Americas, and leopards come to us from Africa and Asia.  Jaguars are larger than leopards, and though their coats appear similar, with dramatic black rosette patterns on a yellowish-brown background, the rosettes on a jaguar have unique dot patterns inside their rosettes (leopards don’t).  Jaguars are also heavier set than Leopards, with wider jaws and shorter legs than their African and Asian cousins.    Both species sometimes produce dramatic melanistic individuals, in which both the background color and the rosettes are black – that’s where the term “black panther” comes from.

Fierce Hunters

Jaguars are most active at dawn and dusk.   They are solitary in the wild (except for a brief time during breeding, or when the females are caring for the young), and the imperative of a typical day is hunting.     The big cats are carnivores, all the way, and prefer to eat large species, like tapir, deer, peccaries and even large turtles and caiman.     However, when it’s necessary, they’ll also prey on smaller animals and fish – about 85 different species altogether.  Whatever’s on the menu, the jaguar is an ambush predator.  An alpha, too, in its native habitat.  

 Their large eyes are not only strikingly beautiful, their amazing visual acuity allows the jaguar to spot prey at a great distance and in low light.  Jaguars have large, wide paws which are capable of moving swiftly but silently in service of a stealth attack.  And what an attack – at least it’s mercifully quick!     The jaguar’s powerful jaws and imposing canine teeth enable very efficient hunting techniques – one pounce, and the jaguar can easily crack the skull of its prey with just one bite.  The leathery skins of the larger river creatures are also no match for the jaguar’s ferocity, so most prey animals never know what hit them.

Cubs!  Not that many, and not that often

Jaguars briefly give up their solitary lifestyles in service of breeding season, which can really be any time of year.   Females breed every two years, and the gestation period for a female (who is perfectly cheerful about having been completely abandoned by her mate) is roughly 100 days.  A typical litter numbers 2-4, and the newborn cubs are completely dependent on the mother’s care: their eyes open at about 2 weeks old, and they generally nurse for five to six months.   The mother will continue to feed, protect, and teach them how to hunt until they’re about two years old.   A female cub will already be able to reproduce by the time she’s one, but males generally need to be at least 2-3 years old.   

Wait!  They each need their own territory??

So, imagine those cubs leaving home at age two to begin adult life – and imagine that each jaguar wants to be solitary – that’s a lot of space!   The decrease in numbers of jaguars is largely due to the increase in human usage of their ancestral habitats for agriculture and grazing – and jaguars have now been eradicated from 40% of their original ranges, from here all the way down to Argentina.     Unfortunately, though the jaguar is now a protected species, there is a demand in some Asian countries for the jaguar’s teeth and claws, and this is further driving illegal poaching in their remaining habitats.  Many experts expect that the IUCN will soon be downgrading the jaguar’s status to “vulnerable” – the step just below endangered in the wild.   And remember, the jaguar is already endangered in the U.S.   

Locally, those who hope that the jaguars coming across the border might someday establish a breeding population here are also concerned about human encroachment, water shortages, and the border fence blocking corridors for both the jaguar and its prey animals.  The survival of this species, like so many others, is dependent upon a complicated balance of human need, conservation initiatives, and politics.  The Reid Park Zoo is happy for you to come and see Tucson’s own “true, fierce beast” Bella, a 12-year-old female jaguar who can climb, swim, hide, pounce, and dash around her habitat in the South America Loop.    You can also learn about what you can do to protect jaguars in the wild, and you’ll want to once you’ve looked into those amazing eyes.

 And please make a future plan to visit all the other amazing endangered species they will have, and help, in the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The handsome and misunderstood Pacu

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

Where do they come from?

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

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

They don’t deserve the bad rap

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

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

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

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