Looking for Family Ursidae*
*rhymes with sky

When you look up into the night sky for the stars that form The Big Dipper and The Little Dipper, do you realize you’re searching for some of the brightest stars within Ursa Major and Ursa Minor?  

It was the Greek astronomer Ptolemy who named 2 of his 44 constellations “Big Bear” and “Little Bear” (the Minor), two of the most famous constellations visible from the northern hemisphere. Bears have symbolized strength and wisdom in many world cultures for millennia, and we reference them in our language: We know people who bear a resemblance, we hope our better actions bear fruit, and, in Tucson, we Bear Down. It’s no surprise, then, that Ptolemy featured them so prominently in his famous list of stars. In modern times, Ursa Major still ranks as the third largest of all 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. 

Equipped with that bit of bear lore, I’d like to introduce you to a more Earth-bound member of Family Ursidae coming soon to the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia Expansion:  Meet the sloth bear

First thing to know

This shaggy black bear is not related to sloths. Like polar, grizzly (a subspecies of brown), and Andean bears, the sloth bear is not a slow mover and can easily outrun a human. Compared to these bears, however, it does have some quirky characteristics which confused early scientists when they were trying to classify and name it.

At first sight, the sloth bear has long, shaggy black fur, smallish ears, a broad, round face, and creamy white patches of fur on its chest, usually in the shape of a Y, O, or U. So far, so good—very bear-like. Then you notice the bear’s front arms are longer than its back legs which gives it a kind of arms-dangling, sloth-like appearance. Its curvy claws are very long and don’t retract, and its specialized front feet (arms) turn inward, making it appear a bit clumsy. The bear opens its mouth and—surprise!—its top two front teeth are missing! It turns out that those curvy claws, specialized feet, and that unusual tooth gap, combined with a powerful tongue and hard palate, are the most efficient tools this bear could possibly have for slurping up its favorite food—termites and ants! Yes, this bear slurps up its food. Noisily. Very noisily.

About that diet! 

All bears are classified as omnivores which simply means they can eat both animals and plants; however, each species has evolved differently within its own ecosystem and has developed its own preferential food sources.  Bears and their diets range from the obligate, mostly carnivorous polar bear, which thrives on seals, to the mostly herbivorous panda bear, which thrives on the foliage of bamboo trees. 

The sloth bear’s diet lies somewhere in between. It thrives on termites, ants, even bees and honey, and, quite handily, it has the ability to close its nostrils off to keep those critters from crawling inside! During the Asian monsoon season, a sloth bear will eat mangos, figs, and berries, too. Like Andean bears from South America, sloth bears don’t need to hibernate because they have year-round food sources. 

At Reid Park Zoo, the bears have the most varied and complex diets of all the animals. You can often watch the grizzly bears eat whole heads of celery or lettuce, peel an orange, or forage for berries, but they also enjoy a regular diet of whole carrots, mixed nuts, mackerel, salmon, herring, eggs, ground meat, and bones. The Andean bear is highly herbivorous (second only to panda bears) and prefers melons, pears, apples, grapes, raisins, bananas, berries, and some bear chow (pellets), but her weekly diet also includes mixed nuts, carrots, and leafy greens. On hot summer days in the desert southwest, all the bears enjoy homemade popsicles filled with these same nutritious foods.

Living in the wild forests and grasslands of Asia

Like many animals, sloth bears live a solitary existence, usually coming together only for breeding; however, if food is plentiful, they may gather in groups. Like all bears, a female sloth bear will give birth to her blind, hairless cubs in a den where they will live with mom until they’re able to exist safely in the outside world. Everyone knows how fiercely protective a mother bear can be, but the sloth bear goes above and beyond—she will carry her cubs on her back until they’re about 9 months old. Remember that long, shaggy black fur on mom’s back? In little cubs’ hands, it comes in very handy for grabbing, climbing up, and hanging on! Traveling this way provides the cubs with camouflage from predators and keeps them safe until they can move more quickly on the ground. 

But all is not well in the wild. These beautiful bears are currently listed as vulnerable and have lost between 30 and 49% of their living space, depending on location, over the past 30 years. In addition to loss of habitat, they are losing their lives in retaliation for human encounters. Wherever bears live, whether in North America, South America, Europe, or Asia, the primary things causing them harm are people and climate change. Because we’re part of the problem, we must be part of the solution. In a future blog, I’ll share more information about what we can all do, as individuals and collectively, to help the sloth bears—and all bears—living in the wild. 

Why are sloth bears coming to live at Reid Park Zoo? Because their numbers are decreasing at such an  alarming rate, the Association for Zoos and Aquariums has established a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for them to ensure their genetic survival. Zoos throughout the country are assisting scientists, both in the field and at zoological institutions, to determine what these bears need to survive in the modern world living in such close proximity to humans. The sloth bears at Reid Park Zoo will become ambassadors for their species, and their mission will be to educate us about the threats their wild counterparts face.  

Ready to learn more?  Here’s a delightful video to help us envision the Reid Park Zoo expansion – and  you can get a glimpse of the sloth bear habitat which will include a waterfall, stream, pool, climbing structure, scent detectors, and a cave area. In the near future, we may have the rare privilege of witnessing a sloth bear carrying her cub on her back!

In the meantime, you can observe two other bear species at the Reid Park Zoo. The rescued grizzly bear brother-and-sister companions, Ronan and Finley, live in their habitat just south of the giraffes. Look for them on the “land” side with its boulders, climbing platforms, stream outlet, and rock climbing-cave structure or on the “water” side with its giant tree trunk, waterfall, pool, and underwater cave area. On a warm day, you might catch them swimming in the pool or wading in the shallow stream. 

The female Andean bear, Oja, lives in the South America loop directly opposite the entrance to the pacu fish cave and the black-necked swan pool. If you haven’t visited the zoo recently, bear with us for just a few weeks longer. Oja is having a staycation at the zoo’s health center while construction for the expanded Andean bear habitat is completed. She’ll be back in her pool and snoozing in her Mulberry tree very soon. 

In the meantime, if you feel the need to gaze at a bear and can’t visit the zoo, just look up at the night sky and find those bright stars representing Family Ursidae. We can never have too many bears in our lives!

You really want to know, What type of animal you are seeing?

At first glance you might see an animal with a conglomeration of characteristics from more familiar species. You will see a prehensile snout like an elephant, a thick hide like a hippo, or hoofed toes like a zebra. Because it has 3 toes on its hind legs, it belongs to the Perissodactyla Order of odd- toed Ungulates. That means the tapir is not a relative of the elephant or hippo, but it IS more closely related to zebras and rhinoceros – not something you’d guess just by seeing one! But they’re definitely worth seeing.

Baird’s Tapirs have played a central role in maintaining the biodiversity of forests, grasslands, wetlands and rainforests from southern Mexico all the way down to Colombia, for millions of years. Today’s tapir are called a primitive species because according to fossil remains, they have not changed since the Eocene era (about 33 – 56 million years ago).

At 400-600 plus pounds, the adult Baird’s Tapir is the largest land mammal found in its regional habitats. Their giant football shape, tiny tail and high-stepping back legs help them move nimbly through the dense forest. With the exception of cream colored ear tips and cream color under their chins and on their chest area, they have brownish-black short fur, which covers their very muscular thick-hided and thick-necked bodies.

Their toes spread out for good traction in mud or river banks. The tapir’s ears, eyes and snouts are located on or near the top of their heads. This positioning is integral to helping the tapir stay submerged in the water while grazing or hiding from natural predators, especially humans and jaguars. It also makes them hard for researchers to locate and study. Fortunately we have learned a lot from tapirs in human care.

A standout tapir adaptation is their prehensile elongated snout. When tapirs dive into the water, this snout acts as a snorkel. Tapirs can hold their breath for several minutes under water. In this short video check out Contessa, the Reid Park Zoo’s female Baird’s Tapir, holding her breath. A tapir’s day may start at dusk emerging from a well-hidden resting niche. He may forage through the forest looking for tasty plants or ripe fruit. The tapirs’ night activity continues with a cool off in a lake or stream and a graze on aquatic plants, but by daybreak they expertly hide away for a rest. 

Tapirs are browsers who can grab and pull branches and leaves from a wide variety of plants. Tapirs are far ranging and can eat up to 200 species of plant! This leads to their important role as “seed dispersers,” helping to support a diverse healthy ecosystem. Some seeds from forest trees like the wild almond tree are only spread by a tapir! Tapirs are a critical partner in saving forests and rainforest trees. Saving tapirs is also important because they are an umbrella species; if you can save the tapirs and their lands you will also save other animals and plants. 

Tapirs are secretive and elusive to scientists attempting to study them. However with the use of camera traps  and consulting indigenous peoples, scientists can shed more light on the movements and habits of the tapir and maybe discover new species or subspecies. There are 4 known species of Tapir:  Baird’s, Brazilian, Mountain and Malayan. A newly- discovered type of tapir, Kobomani, was studied and found (by most scientists) not genetically distinct enough to be considered a separate species.

Baird’s Tapirs in The Reid Park Zoo 

An on-and- off again romance might best describe Tupi and Contessa’s relationship. Reid Park Zoo participates in the AZA Species Survival Plan program with these endangered Baird’s Tapirs. Our Zoo also contributes to the work of Chris Jordan, an in-situ scientist who is giving his life to tapir conservation

In the wild tapirs mostly are solitary, elusive animals. But when it is time to mate they find each other through scent marking and vocalizations. Here at the zoo the animal care keepers read the signs that Contessa may be receptive to breeding and give her and Tupi access to the habitat together. They have successfully produced two of the world’s cutest calves, in 2015 and 2018. Contessa’s gestation lasts about 13 months and her male calves have nursed for about two years. At the time Toliver, the first son, had grown to  some 400 pounds, he was given a new home in Puebla, Mexico. Ibu, their second calf, was given a new home in The Milwaukee Zoo, also at around two years old. 

I may have given you enough clues to answer this riddle: What looks like a watermelon with legs?     

tapir calf! All four tapir species with their diverse habitat elevations and diet produce similar looking calves with striped and dotted brownish coats for camouflage from predators.

When you come visit Reid Park Zoo’s South American Loop to look for Contessa and Tupi through the banana trees, vines and bamboo, I hope you’ll add a new species to your favorites list! And soon, once you’ve checked in with these amazing and appealing “conglomerate” creatures, you’ll be able to head over to the Reid Park Zoo expansion to see even more amazing animals!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is still much work to be done.

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

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

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

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

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

They’re Huge.  And Hungry.

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

What about that fearsome bite?

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

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

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

Those poor little things.

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

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

The Daily life of an adult Komodo Dragon

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

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

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

Why is this species now considered vulnerable?

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

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