When you enter the South America Aviary at the Reid Park Zoo, there is no shortage of unusual species to catch your eye. You may be surprised by a lumbering Yellow-knobbed Curassow walking in front of you, a bird about the size of a wild turkey with glistening black feathers and a stylish curly topknot. Or you may immediately notice the Scarlet Ibis, a bright red water bird most likely sitting on a tree branch watching you unconcernedly. But what’s this? Has a flamingo escaped from the new lagoon at the front of the Zoo? The color seems correct, but there’s something funny about the bill! It’s wide, flat, and seems a little oversized for the large bird it adorns, the Roseate Spoonbill.

Roseate Spoonbills have been described as a little strange looking, but like most of nature’s creatures, they are adapted perfectly, including with that odd, flat bill, for the marshy wetlands they inhabit. They are found along the southeastern coast of the U.S., particularly in mangrove swamps, and also father south in the Antilles, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Those long flat bills are well suited to their unique hunting style; they swing their heads from side to side in the water to locate minnows, tasty plants, insects, and small crustaceans. As with flamingos and other brightly colored birds, this diet has a lot to do with their gorgeous pink plumage.  

They are social, and often roost in groups or pairs, though they may nest alone. Like flamingos, they sleep standing up, often on one leg, with their heads tucked  under their back and shoulder feathers.  Their wingspan, by the way, can reach up to 4 feet, and their football-shaped bodies are from about 28-34 inches long. When flying, they extend their necks, and at rest, curve them into a sort of “S” shape.

The mating ritual of the Roseate Spoonbill includes gift-giving, in this case the male providing nesting material for a potential mate, dancing, and wing clapping. In fact, males are responsible for providing all the nesting materials, and females usually build the nests in trees. The female lays between 1 and 5 eggs, and both parents share the incubation duties, which take between 22-24 days. Hatchlings have pink skin with a little white down, and for the first month or so are fed with regurgitated food from the adults. They are born with “normal” bills, but after about 9 days, their bills start to flatten. At only 39 days old they sport the distinctive full-sized spoonbill of their proud parents.  

In the early 1900s, in the U.S., the Roseate Spoonbill was hunted nearly to extinction as women clamored for hats adorned with gorgeous plumage. Fortunately, fashion trends changed and laws were enacted in time to protect the species, but current threats include urbanization (the loss of habitat) and the effects of climate change, such as heat waves, heavy rainfall and flooding, and the rise in sea levels.  All of these conditions endanger adults and impede their ability to feed and raise their young.  

Soon enough, you’ll be able to walk to the Wings of Wonder in the Reid Park Zoo expansion and discover  amazing species you may never have heard of! But for now, come visit the South America Aviary at the  Zoo, and we’re pretty sure when you find yourself eye-to-eye with the unusual but charming Roseate Spoonbill,  you’ll be eager to find out what you can do to help them survive! The staff and volunteers at the Zoo will be happy to suggest easy, small changes you can make right now to join the global fight against climate change.   

Some of the smallest but best known residents of the rainforests in South and Central America are beautiful but sometimes toxic amphibians known as Poison Dart Frogs. But there are some good reasons to change their names! How about Pharmaceutical Frogs? Or the less dramatic, but more widely accepted “Poison Frogs?”   

First, let’s get rid of the “dart” designation (and also the completely inaccurate “poison arrow frog” name), despite what you may have seen in all those Indiana Jones movies. There are almost 100 varieties of these brightly colored jewels of the rainforest, and only three are known to have once been used by indigenous peoples to make blow darts more lethal. The toxicity of the Poison Frog’s skin is related to its diet of ants and termites, who are also living on the forest floor and who are safely and cheerfully eating toxic plants. A frog who dines on them produces a sticky secretion through its porous skin, and it’s true that a very few hunters used to carefully catch these tiny creatures and rub dart tips in this secretion. More significantly, though, this sickening and sometimes lethal secretion, in addition to the frogs’ beautiful aposematic coloration, helps the Poison Frogs warn and repel predators.

Our non-Hollywood, more scientific approach to the Poison Frogs these days is revealing some exciting medicinal possibilities for these tiny (about 1 ½ inches at the largest) creatures! Their natural secretions may help mitigate human pain: one species, known as the Epipedrobates tricolor, has enabled the development of a painkiller which is believed to be 200 times more effective than Morphine – and it has no bad side effects! Also, some of the alkaloids found in “frog poison” are showing promise for helping human heart and circulatory problems. If that isn’t a reason to protect these amazing little creatures and their rainforest environments, it’s hard to imagine what is!  

Like most of their fellow rainforest creatures, they are now threatened by habitat loss and climate change. Also, because of their amazing coloration, their numbers are being depleted by the illegal pet trade. The Poison Frogs are definitely not poison if they’re not eating those toxic creatures on the rainforest floor, so amphibian enthusiasts love to collect them.

But instead of seeking out your own “living jewel” as a pet, how about making a trip to the Conservation Learning Center at the Reid Park Zoo? The Poison Frogs there thrive on a steady diet of insects and fruit flies, so they aren’t a bit poisonous, but they’re fascinating and mesmerizing to watch.    

Just inside the CLC entrance, you’ll find a terrarium with lush rainforest foliage, lots of water and humidity, and amazing spots of color: Blessed Poison Frogs (blue and orange), Golden Poison Frogs (bright yellow:  these are the most poisonous variety in the wild), Zimmerman’s Poison Frogs (bright green with large black spots), and Bumblebee Poison Frogs (distinctive yellow and black coloration). These fellows feel like they’re hiding – but you can see them if you take a moment. However, be ready to share the view with many enthralled children who must “visit the frogs” every time they come to the Zoo. These tiny but important contributors to biodiversity and now medicine may someday move to the Reptile House in the Reid Park Zoo expansion, but their devoted fans will surely follow them there!

If they got to choose their own nicknames, do you think they’d prefer to be called “Water Pigs” or “The World’s Largest Rodents?” Well, the second one not only sounds better, it’s more accurate. Capybaras are rodents, and they can grow to 150 pounds, two feet tall, and up to four feet in length – so they really are the world’s largest! They resemble giant guinea pigs, one of their closest relatives, but their chunky bodies and aquatic habits probably account for that “water pig” reference.

Capybaras live primarily on water plants and grasses, eating 6 to 8 pounds per day per individual. They sometimes will also eat fruits or grains. They also have a (not uncommon) habit of eating their own poop, which has bacteria that helps their stomach break down those tough, fibrous meals. And that doesn’t quite do the trick – like giraffes, cows, and goats, Capybaras regurgitate their food for extra chewing. Speaking of chewing, like other rodents (think mice or squirrels), the Capybara’s front teeth grow continuously, but are worn down by constant grazing. Most of this grazing takes place around dawn or dusk, because during the day they enjoy basking in the sun and swimming to cool down.

These mellow and slow-moving rodents are native to most of South America, and can live wherever there’s a source of water. They need water to drink, to aid in digestion, and very importantly to hide from predators. Once an individual in a Capybara herd gives a distinctive warning bark, the entire group (which can range from 2 to 40 individuals, depending on season and food sources) dives under the surface of the nearest marsh, watering hole, or pond, where they can remain for up to 5 minutes without coming up for air. When they do need to take a breath, they will carefully raise just the top of their heads above the surface, revealing just their nostrils, eyes, and ears in order to assess any danger.

Of course, Capybaras are not necessarily safe in the water, though they are strong swimmers with webbed toes on both front and back feet. Caimans (smaller relatives of alligators and crocodiles) are always looking for tasty rodent lunch as they also lurk beneath and on the surface of the water. On land, Capybaras have to worry about jaguars, pumas, ocelots, eagles, anacondas, and of course, humans.

Newborn Capybaras (usually 2-8 per litter) are the most vulnerable, although they’re precocial when born, meaning their eyes are open, and they can stand, walk, and graze almost from the get go. They are also exceptionally noisy! However, not only are they smaller than the adults, they are slower and tire easily, so it makes sense that whatever the size of a Capybara herd, all the adults protect the young, who can nurse from any available female and also stay close to their parents for the first year of their lives.

Historically, Capybaras have been a vital food source for humans, but unfortunately have been hunted to extinction in some areas. Like all wildlife in the 21st century, Capybaras are also beginning to feel the effects of habitat loss, poaching, and deforestation. The pet trade has also affected their numbers, though they are not yet listed as threatened by the IUCN, like many of the species coming to the Reid Park Zoo expansion. But they’re important! Their “lawn mowing services” and foraging play a vital role in supporting their local ecosystems and the survival of many of their fellow creatures, so zoos like the Reid Park Zoo are keeping a close eye on their populations in the wild. So step right up, folks, to the South America Loop of The Reid Park Zoo, and gaze with wonder upon the World’s Largest Rodents!

The word menagerie comes to us from the French, and it originally meant something like the “management of a household” which probably included caring for livestock. However, by the time English speakers began to use the word, it had a very different meaning – it referred to places where trained animals performed for the public (not a pleasant idea to us with our modern sensibilities). So a circus? A dancing bear in a cage?

A collection for the select few

Actually, menageries as we now call them date as far back as 3500BC in Egypt. Exotic animals made up showy collections of the royal and the very rich all over the world. These animals were often given as ostentatious gifts from one member of the elite to another, and were clear symbols of status and power. Wealthy owners assigned numerous servants to care for these exotic creatures, and some even good-heartedly tried to create “paradises”for their new menageries to live in. Only a select few got to even see these animals. But as you might imagine, the unfortunate animals’ life spans were greatly truncated, since they had been removed from native habitats and then confined by humans without any knowledge of their diets, habits, or needs. On the other end of the spectrum, some Roman emperors, like the notorious Caligula, put on spectacles where gladiators would fight lions, bears, tigers, and other animals deemed sufficiently vicious, to the death.

Well, maybe the “peasants” would like to get a look at the animals

Eventually, in the 16th century, exotic animals in captivity became accessible for public viewing, in such locations as the Tower of London, and across the globe in the Aztec emperor Moctezuma’s “House of Animals.” By the late 18th century, in Paris, and as a result of the French Revolution, the Menagerie du Jardin de Plantes opened to the public, comprising fourteen acres of animal cages inside a botanical garden. People were now beginning to take an interest in the biology and habits of wild animals, if not yet in their well-being, so these early “zoos” attracted scientists and scholars. But of course they had no opportunity to see animals exhibit natural behaviors.

Things changing for the better

A pretty dreadful history so far! But in the U.S. in the 19th century, things were looking up at the Smithsonian Institution, where a taxidermist named William Temple Hornaday took a trip west, hoping to see the millions of Bison he had heard about – but there were only a few hundred left. In his distress, he immediately began to think about conservation, establishing the “Department of Living Animals” at the Smithsonian. From this humble beginning came today’s National Zoo, a leader in conservation, animal research, and breeding of endangered species.

In other parts of the world, zoo administrators were also beginning to adopt a more humane attitude toward the animals in their care. Today, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (and also the International Association of Zoos and Aquariums) regulates the requirements for habitat, exhibition and welfare of the animals in the Zoos they accredit. AZA-accredited zoos (such as the Reid Park Zoo) have a clear commitment to animal welfare, and an overarching mission to support species and habitat conservation. This support is even more crucial as we all confront the changing climate.

Did you know animals at the Reid Park Zoo are always able to choose whether they’d like to be in public view or not? Did you know they are closely monitored every day to check on their physical and mental/emotional health, both of which manifest in observable behaviors? That their habitats have been carefully designed to invoke natural behaviors? And that the keepers strive continuously to provide feeding conditions similar to those in the wild? Did you know that the Reid Park Zoo expansion will allow large and beautiful naturalistic habitats for many more endangered species?

A far cry from a menagerie, we think you’ll agree. How lucky we are that now we can go to a reputable Zoo and be inspired by species that might not be long with us in the wild. Or maybe, that zoo you’re visiting will be the one to play a central role in a repopulation effort! You can see animals well treated and behaving naturally, and you will be helping them just by visiting. Nigel Rothfels, the author of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo, writes, “It seems to me that we are almost hardwired to desire to have this kind of close engagement with animals.” There is a beautiful place for all of us to learn and get a connection to the amazing natural world, right in the heart of Tucson. Visit the Reid Park Zoo – it will do YOU good to be a part of all the good that’s being done for the animals there!

The Marvelous Ostrich

What makes Ostriches so fascinating? Is it because they’re the largest birds on earth?  Is it because they seem so fearless? Is it because humans, since the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians have used ostrich feathers to adorn themselves?   

Impressive Statistics (lots)

Ostriches really are huge, growing up to 8 feet tall and weighing up to 290 pounds!  In fact, it seems everything about Ostriches is oversized – their feet (with only two toes, but with one huge talon on each foot), their eyes – 2 inches in diameter, and their nests, which can accommodate up to 60 jumbo eggs. Those eggs are six inches long and weigh 3 pounds each, and ostrich chicks hatch at about the size of full-grown barnyard chickens.

Then there are those outsized abilities – first, they are FAST.   Ostriches can sprint at speeds of up to 43 miles per hour.   By way of comparison, Usain Bolt, the amazing Jamaican sprinter, set speed records and won Olympic gold medals by running at almost 28 miles per hour for 100 meters.     And the ostriches have another advantage – their long, muscular legs allow them to cover from 10 – 16 feet in a single stride.    Take a look at this – no wonder ostriches are called the fastest creatures on two legs!  

Instant Growth Spurt

Also, even ostrich chicks could beat Mr. Bolt just one month after they hatch – the little tots have been clocked sprinting at 35 mph.   They grow approximately 1 foot per month, and many are nearly full grown, though they don’t yet have their marvelous adult plumage, by the age of six months.  Even though the chicks may be large, they still need to be protected from predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, and dog packs.  Their parents, especially the males, use their wings to threaten and distract the predators while the females sprint away with the young.   An angry male ostrich will roar, hiss, and kick a predator, and if the formidable talon makes contact, even a large animal like a lion can be deterred from attacking, or even killed by an ostrich. 

A fairly simple desert life

Ostriches live 30- 40 years in the wild, pretty amazing since they drink very little water and live out in the open in savannas and deserts.  On the other hand, they are formidable in size and abilities, and they’re also omnivores.   They prefer seeds, roots, and leaves, but they’re entirely opportunistic diners, eating locusts, rodents, lizards, snakes – and, oh yes, sand and pebbles to aid in digestion.   Though they will drink when they find a water source, they can go a long time without a sip, since they’re well equipped to extract water from their food.   They have three stomachs to aid in digestion as well, which allows them to extract every bit of nutrition from every bite they consume (well, not the dirt and pebbles).  Though there’s no relation, Ostriches have been compared to camels, probably because of their long necks, jerky gait, and protuberant eyes shaded by long eyelashes; in fact, their scientific name is Struthio camelus.  

Popular feathers

Their plumage is quite important  to these flightless birds – they use their wings  for courtship displays, as a sort of rudder when  running, and, when there are young around, as umbrellas to keep the little ones dry when it rains and shaded when the sun is relentless.  Adult males sport natty black and white feathers, while females have brownish-gray plumage.      And their distinctive especially soft feathers at one time threatened their survival in the wild.   In fact, though ostrich now live in sub-Saharan Africa, and are not considered threatened by the IUCN, they once also lived in the Arabian peninsula and southwestern Asia, where they were hunted to extinction for those prestigious feathers, for their hides, and for meat.

In the late 18th Century, ostrich feathers became all the rage in Europe for women’s hats (as opposed to earlier times, where these feathers decorated the robes of royalty and the helmets of knights), and the species became seriously endangered in the wilds of Africa.   By the mid-19th Century, though,  business people figured out that the trade of ostrich products was quite lucrative, and it wouldn’t exist if the birds disappeared, so they began to domesticate and farm ostriches,  relieving some pressure on wild populations.    

There is still some demand for ostrich feathers, mostly for dusters, ostrich meat, and ostrich eggs – but at least today these demands are being met without killing ostrich in the wild.  But it’s undeniable that the ostriches’ natural habitats are being threatened by human settlements, roads, and agriculture, and populations are decreasing.

At the Reid Park Zoo

If you’d like to see Eiffel and Ethel, the male and female ostriches at the Reid Park Zoo, you’ll need to head for the zebra habitat.     In the wild, ostriches often graze with other species like zebras and antelope, and sort of like giraffes, the ostriches’ long necks and keen eyesight equip them to alert everyone, not just other ostriches, to the approach of predators.   

But now it’s time to dispel that silly “burying their heads in the sand” myth.   Ostriches certainly do NOT do this, though they will flatten themselves and stretch out their necks and heads flat on the ground in order to become less visible if a distant predator is on the prowl for them!  Luckily for the ostrich, the coloration on their necks and heads is very similar to the color of the soils in which they forage.

But back to Eiffel (the black and white one) and Ethel, our marvelous Reid Park Zoo ostriches.     They seem unconcerned about their zebra habitat mates, and also particularly interested in the humans who come to admire both species.  Eiffel weighs about 290 pounds, and Ethel is a dainty 220, and both are fairly youthful , 21 and 8 years old, respectively.     Eiffel has been doing a lot of “dancing” lately, while Ethel, who seems unimpressed, likes to stand under the misters to cool off, or if it’s a little cooler, mesmerize us humans with a dramatic dust bath.     One or both of them will probably come to look you straight in the eye, from a safe distance of course, when you come to visit.  

But don’t forget about the Reid Park Zoo expansion   Though you really don’t want to have a close encounter with either Eiffel or Ethel,  in the expansion’s Wings of Wonder aviary, you’ll actually have the chance to feed some of their amazing but much smaller relatives!

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!