What has a 24-inch tongue, no teeth, and eats 30,000 of his favorite treats each day? And who is clever enough not to be stung while procuring those tasty treats? And who isn’t able to stay warm very well, (because the favorite treats don’t have too much nutritional value) but has a nifty and distinctive tail that works as both camouflage and a handy blanket?   

It’s the Giant Anteater, a lugubrious and seemingly affable resident of Central and South America, and those preferred treats are – you guessed it – ants, the kind with a nasty bite. The Giant Anteater may look like some strange creature imagined by Dr. Seuss, but don’t be fooled. These huge creatures can grow up to 8 feet (including tails) and weigh up to 140 pounds – and though they may seem slow and low energy, they are perfectly adapted to their environment. And that 2-foot tongue is anything but slow! It can flick up to 150 times per minute, and is equipped with special sticky saliva as well has interesting little spines which point backwards. In other words, Giant Anteaters are models of efficiency when it comes to eating ants, and termites too. 

And though 30,000 of anything might sound a little gluttonous, Giant Anteaters are very clever and discriminating hunters. Though they have limited eyesight, they more than compensate for this with a sense of smell 40 times more acute than our own. This means that they can identify a particular species of ant or termite before they go to the trouble of tearing open a mound. And once they access their tiny, frantic prey, they do not gorge, because doing so could destroy the particular mound for future feeding.  Besides, if they linger, they could get bitten. They snatch up the ants or termites with alacrity, then squish them on the roof of their mouths, then dispatching them to their unusually muscular stomachs for further pulverization. Research indicates that a given Giant Anteater will only extract about 140 ants from a given mound per day, so you can imagine how many stops he or she must make to ingest tens of thousands of them.    

But back to those termite or ant mounds – how exactly does the Giant Anteater get into them? One of the most interesting adaptations these creatures enjoy has to do with their claws and their shuffling gait.   Giant Anteaters have five claws on each foot, but the middle three of these on the forefeet can be up to 4 inches long and quite formidable. In order to keep them in prime “mound infiltration” condition, the Anteater walks on his knuckles with all four feet, nose pointed to the ground. But when he wants to get into a mound, the strong front legs are more than up to a quick ingress. His long nose (there really isn’t a mouth per se) allows him to quickly reach the center of the mound where the most ants or termites will be, and once the incredibly speedy tongue begins flicking, 140 of the mound’s residents are consumed in record time. He will then follow his nose to his next dining destination.

They are mostly solitary, and mostly slow and peaceable. However, when the situation calls for it, Giant Anteaters can rear up on their back legs to threaten or defend against predators, like pumas and jaguars.  If necessary, they can also “gallop” at about 30 miles per hour. They can climb and swim as well, using that amazing snout as a snorkel! But these creatures far prefer to eat and sleep, curled up securely under their bushy tails. Emerging evidence describes them as diurnal, but they are still adapting, even though they’ve been on earth for about 25 million years. In response to weather conditions, or in areas of close proximity to humans, they simply become nocturnal.

Unfortunately, that proximity to humans is becoming a greater problem for them. As human populations and their agriculture expand, the Giant Anteaters’ habitat is shrinking, at the same time their interactions with humans are increasing. The Anteaters and Highways Project in the Cerrado region of Brazil is researching the Anteaters’ travels  in order to determine why so many of them are killed in highway accidents. Sugar cane farming is also having a huge impact on the Giant Anteater; growers set fire to their fields in order to make the sugar cane easier to cut; Anteaters sometimes suffer significant burns through this process, but their habitats and insect diets are also affected.    

Because the Giant Anteater breeds only once annually, has only one offspring per successful breeding, and also requires a long gestation period, around 190 days, the species cannot weather much reduction from human sources like cane fields or autos. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the Giant Anteater as vulnerable, which estimates that the current population, about 5000 in the wild, will be reduced by approximately 20% in the next decade. Giant Anteaters and the insect populations they control are crucial to the ecosystems in countries where they reside, so it’s especially important that reputable zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, contribute to their breeding in human care. And because these amazing creatures can be very tricky to study in the wild, those living in zoo environments are increasingly important to research in the effort to save the species.

The Giant Anteaters, along with countless other animals in our Zoo, and especially the vulnerable and endangered species coming to the Reid Park Zoo expansion, need more of us to understand their plight in the wild. By learning about them and caring about them, maybe we can help turn around that 20% reduction in the next ten years!

Zoological Parks, like society itself, have evolved greatly over time. Keeping captured animals is no longer a symbol of wealth and status;  the “Age of Enlightenment” in the 17th and 18th centuries brought both curiosity and reverence for the biological world. Fortunately, the dark history of animals cruelly wasting in cages (menageries) is the antithesis of the mission of modern zoos. The very best of these, like Reid Park Zoo, meet the strictest of qualifications as accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. These modern zoos are committed to protect, conserve and enlighten. 

During most of human evolution, we co-existed with wild animals; we were all part of the natural ecosystem. However, one consequence of our advanced society is isolation from that natural world. If we are oblivious we cannot be concerned; we will never be alarmed about a threat we know nothing about. An undeniable threat currently is that our biological world is on the brink of a crisis. 

The alarming rate and number of species extinctions is a calamity that has broad implications for all of the world’s inhabitants. Oddly, the bad news is also the good news because humans, the cause of species decline, can also provide the remedy. Studies of human behavior inform us that humans are inherently compassionate; when we learn of an impending disaster we bond together to identify the resources necessary to find solutions. For example, California Condors, the largest North American birds, are back in their natural habitat today because of captive breeding in zoos. Finding remedies begins with education, as we can solve only the problems we understand. Our accredited zoos have demonstrated they are now leaders in zoological education. 

Visitors to zoos may arrive to see exotic and fascinating animals but in the process of seeing anteaters, lions and elephants, they learn about the critical role of habitat destruction putting these beloved animals in peril. Zoos in general, and our own Reid Park Zoo in particular, are uniquely responsible for reaching countless numbers of people with a message of caring for and potentially saving species for future generations to enjoy. Without the attraction of seeing these wonderful creatures, awareness and remedial actions would not occur. In a way the educational mission of Reid Park Zoo, enlightening residents and visitors to Tucson, is a gift to all of us that is longer lasting than the delight of watching otters and meerkats play. 

During an average year half a million visitors experience the magic of Reid Park Zoo and leave with a greater appreciation of the importance of zoological diversity of our world. Importantly, in an average year nearly 30,000 school children participate in educational field trips to the zoo — cost-free thanks to grant funding. Our zoo is an educational leader in Tucson and the state of Arizona; the impact of an educated populace is invaluable to all of us. 

When we think of all that the Reid Park zoo contributes to our society, enlightening Tucsonans about the threats and solutions to species in crisis may be its greatest gift. We are fortunate that Tucson has among its many wonders, this world-class educational zoo, and further that the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide additional sources of wonder, empathy, and connection to the natural world.

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!

A driving force:  Conservation

A slightly implausible family discussion:

Mom and Dad:   Where would you like to go on Saturday, you two?

Jimmy:   How about to the Animal Welfare Organization?

Susie:    Yay!   I can’t wait to see all the enrichment!  Please, Daddy?

Jimmy:  Me too!   And the inspiring animal management!  Can we?  Mom?

In other words, they’d love to go to the zoo. And although Jimmy and Susie might not notice the behavioral enrichment and quality animal management, not to mention the world-class veterinary care behind the scenes, these are all features of responsible and reputable zoos, such as those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). According to the AZA, more than 183 million people visit accredited zoos in the U.S. every year, and that’s more than the annual attendance at games of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB combined! Visits to zoos provide affordable and healthful outings with the additional bonus of education, development of empathy, and increased connection to the natural world, so crucial for today’s urban dwellers.  

None of these benefits are coincidental. Accredited zoos are carefully designed to provide habitats and enrichment that allow animals to engage as much as possible in the same activities they would in the wild. Grounds are beautiful, green, and ADA accessible. Zoo staff and volunteers are carefully trained to provide up-to-date information about each species and its conservation status, including actions visitors can take to support conservation efforts. A high-quality accredited zoo, like the Reid Park Zoo, has a robust commitment to species and habitat conservation, both on the grounds and “in situ” (in the wild).  

Commitment to Conservation

The Species Survival Plan Program

Let’s begin with what’s happening on the grounds of the Reid Park Zoo. You may notice that you’ll see both males and females of many species, for example the Grevy’s Zebras, the Baird’s Tapirs, the Lions, the Anteaters, the Meerkats, the African Elephants, the Reticulated Giraffes, the White Rhinos, and more. Sometimes these males and females are together, and other times they are in adjacent habitats – why? It is all about The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SSP, or Species Survival Plan.  

If certain individuals of a species are designated for breeding in a member zoo, they will be allowed to roam their habitat together, and to let nature take its course. But many of these creatures are solitary in the wild, so they prefer to have individual habitats except during breeding season. These couples need to be gradually and carefully “introduced” again every time there is a breeding recommendation for them  (examples of this at the Reid Park Zoo are the anteaters and tapirs in the South America Loop).

The SSP for each species is coordinated meticulously (by the AZA) to determine which animals can breed in order to produce offspring that will enhance the genetic diversity of the species in general. At some time in the future, when native habitats are safer for a species, perhaps offspring from these pairings can be reintroduced into the wild to begin restoring the numbers of their species. 

An inspiring SSP story comes to us from the Phoenix Zoo. The Arabian Oryx, (a beautiful antelope) was classified as extinct in the wild due to hunting. However, a breeding and reintroduction program for this animal in Phoenix enabled its reintroduction to the Arabian Peninsula, where it is now protected and boasts 1,000 individuals! An SSP in an accredited zoo can make a real difference, especially because according to the IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are still 33 mammals – as well as countless other creatures and plants –  in the “extinct in the wild” category. 

The SAFE Program

Another AZA initiative that the Reid Park Zoo participates in is the SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program, which focuses on certain species threatened in the wild. The four species that are supported by our Zoo through the SAFE program are the Giraffes, the Andean Highland Flamingos, The North American Monarch Butterfly, and The North American Songbird.

  • The Flamingos: The Reid Park Zoo is the program leader for this initiative, coordinating funding for research into the Chilean, James’ and Andean flamingo species. The amazing zoo staff is also responsible for coordinating all the educational and conservation materials about the flamingos for all AZA zoos.
  • The Giraffes: Tucson’s Zoo works with the SAFE program, providing conservation messaging about poaching and habitat destruction, as well as funding toward Giraffe health monitoring and population monitoring projects in situ.
  • The Pollinator Garden: One of the most popular new areas in the Zoo is the Pollinator Garden, where native plants provide food and safety for migrating Monarch Butterflies on their way to Mexico. Numbers are closely recorded and reported to the SAFE program. Of course, this area also provides food and shelter for many other important pollinators, such as bees! There are special “bee boxes” for those bees that live in hives, and once established, they are relocated by a bee expert to agricultural areas where they can assist in even more pollination.
  • The North American Songbird SAFE program:  In  collaboration with the Audubon Society, nest boxes have been installed throughout the zoo to house several native bird species. Many enjoy the Pollinator Garden. Also, on the grounds you’ll now have opportunities to learn more about our native birds and how we can protect them.

In-Situ Conservation Partnerships

The Reid Park Zoo supports and contributes financially to a number of in-country conservation programs, including  The Tanzania Conservation and Science Program, The Anteaters and Highways Project in the Cerrado region of Brazil, The Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance, Andean Bear Research by the University of Arizona in the Chingaza Massif region of Colombia, the International Rhino Foundation, and the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project.  

Conservation is truly the core mission of The Reid Park Zoo.

And the Reid Park Zoo expansion, when completed, will allow Tucson’s Zoo to further increase their commitment to conservation, as more endangered species, such as Tigers, Siamangs, Komodo Dragons, and Red Pandas will be given a greater chance to survive for future generations. It’s nice to know that  just by visiting The Reid Park Zoo, you too will be helping to save these animals!

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!

Walking the Walk

Supporting the Reid Park Zoo expansion is a win-win-win for Tucson, for conservation, and yes, even for the fight against climate change.

NASA defines climate change as a “long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates.” Every summer here in Tucson, you’ll hear somebody say, “It’s hotter than it used to be!” and if you’ve lived here for a while, I’m sure you agree, as do scientists. Rising or falling temperatures globally has huge implications for us as humans, and of course for the animals in the ocean, on land, and in the air. 

It’s hotter and there’s less water available? This is bad for animal reproduction and survival, and ultimately for our own. Floods and tornados? They cause habitat loss for animals and habitation loss for humans. Heatwaves (we can relate) and wildfires? In the last year, and especially in the west, we’ve experienced  major damage to and loss of native plants, species, and human dwellings.  

Catastrophic weather events seem to be increasing, and we’ve seen the frightening way they can instantly upset the delicate balance of ecosystems and the amazing biodiversity our planet supports. But can we as individuals do anything to mitigate climate change right here in Tucson? Absolutely.

Here are a few simple things you can do, right away, to fight climate change

  • First, try to decrease the number of things you throw away.  For example, store your leftovers in reusable storage containers, and especially get a real water bottle which can be refilled over and over again. 
  • Try reusable grocery bags (they cost about $1 at most local stores), or if you do get the plastic ones from the store, take them back there for recycling the next time you shop.    
  • Recycle whenever you can, because recycling something like a soda can uses less energy than manufacturing a new one!  It doesn’t sound like much, but tossing that can into your recycle bin can save enough energy to run your television for three hours!  
  • Use less water, by taking showers instead of baths, or the big one – turn off the water while you brush your teeth.  It’s amazing, but this one small action can save up to 200 gallons of water a month, especially important here in the desert.    
  • Eat more vegetables! Mom would approve, too. Try having just one meatless meal per week – you’ll improve your health, you’ll save money, and you’ll be helping to reduce greenhouse gasses.
  • Pass one of these tips on to one other person! That is how positive change begins and grows.

The most effective way for us all to mitigate climate change, though requires a somewhat greater change to our habits: limiting the use of fossil fuels in our daily lives. It might not be in reach for you to purchase an electric car or convert your home to solar energy, but you can make a decision to walk or bike to nearby places rather than driving there, or  to carpool, or even to use public transportation when you can.      

A VERY green place, literally and figuratively

Where can you find more information about what you can do to start making a safer and more sustainable world for all of us?   

How about visiting the Reid Park Zoo? As an accredited AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) member institution, our Zoo has already made a commitment to protecting the animals in their care, as well as their habitats and relatives in the wild. The Reid Park Zoo supports numerous conservation initiatives, inside the zoo and abroad, but their commitment to the mitigation of climate change may not be as well known. Let’s state for the record that the Reid Park Zoo definitely walks the walk when it comes to creating a more sustainable future for us all!

Buildings

Three of the newest buildings at the Zoo, the Conservation Learning Center, the Elephant Care Center, and the amazing Animal Health Center, were built using “green” construction. This includes solar power, highly efficient HVAC systems, and the use of recycled and sustainable materials. For example, the ceilings in the Conservation Learning Center (CLC) are made from recycled jeans – really! That’s not all – the buildings incorporate natural lighting whenever possible and were finished with non-toxic, low fume paints and adhesives. The Reid Park Zoo even received a LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for the amazing energy efficiency and sustainable construction of the CLC, and it was the first building in Southern Arizona to receive this prestigious designation.

Recycling and water usage

Everywhere on the grounds, the Zoo participates in the City of Tucson’s blue barrel recycling program, and recycle bins are everywhere to encourage guests to participate too. The Zoofari Café serves  tasty food on biodegradable dishes. In the gift shop, your purchases will never leave the store in plastic – you’ll receive a paper or reusable bag. The only straws allowed anywhere in the Zoo are part of reusable water bottles or souvenir cups. And right now, the Zoo is transitioning from the sale of plastic water bottles to reusable aluminum ones. Luckily, you can now find a “bottle fill” water station near the front entrance, so feel free to bring your own water bottle from home.     

Speaking of water, the Zoo needs a lot in order to keep the animal habitats clean and the grounds lush and green. But they use gray water – highly treated wastewater, also called reclaimed water, for these purposes. Even this water is conserved, because the keepers use low-flow, highly pressurized hoses to clean the animals’ indoor environments.

It’s not too late

According to scientists from NASA, there’s a chance we can still avoid the worst effects of climate change. The Reid Park Zoo is certainly doing its part, and they’re ready to help us do the same. And it’s a sure bet that the new construction in the Reid Park Zoo expansion will be the greenest in town!

We’ve all heard about the importance of conserving energy – but there is one animal at the Reid Park Zoo that has been an expert in this field for about 200 million years. In fact, he’s so proficient at conserving his own energy that the two most common reactions from Zoo visitors are “Is that real?” and “Is it alive???” Yes and yes!

The American Alligator is one of the first creatures to greet guests when they enter the Reid Park Zoo (well, “greet” might be a little bit of an exaggeration), and that’s only fitting, since they’re one of the most ancient animals still living on earth. Often called a “living fossil,” the American Alligator is the largest reptile native to North America, and they really are a paragon of adaptation and survival. Amazingly, they have not changed much for the last 200 million years, though they’re a bit smaller than their mega-reptile ancestors. They have already overcome the “alligator shoes” craze of the 1960s, where they were hunted almost to extinction. Fortunately, the states where they lived got wise and began to protect them, and the species came roaring back. But now they’re in trouble again –  more about that later.

Bayou, the splendid American Alligator

Bayou came to the Reid Park Zoo in 2018 as a middle-aged gator – age 25. What is amazing is that he had lived with many other alligators prior to arriving here (where he enjoys the preferred solitary life of his kind in the wild) but he still has ALL of his toes! Since Alligators prefer living alone in the wild, when they’re placed in close quarters with others of their kind, they squabble, bicker, and nip at each other’s toes frequently .

Tucsonans are fascinated to see a real “swamp creature” in our midst, and it’s likely Reid Park Zoo guests will be able to get a good view of him sitting completely motionless underwater. You can clearly see his 9-feet of thick scales and his smiling upper teeth – so many of them! – which are visible even when his mouth is closed. Since alligators can continue growing all their lives, he might even be bigger the next time you see him. Anyway, it’s likely you’ll see him in the exact same position for quite a while, because Alligators can stay underwater for 30 minutes, easily. He will come up for a breath eventually, but likely just surfacing his raised nostrils, not his whole head. On warmer days, though, or when his keepers call him with the promise of treats, he’ll obligingly amble out of his pool (heated during the cooler months, of course!) and come onto the grass to bask in the sun.   

They’re really not that hungry 

American Alligators live naturally from Florida up to North Carolina, and also along the Gulf Coast into Texas. They thrive in swampy freshwater areas, streams, lakes and ponds. You’ve no doubt seen many news stories about them appearing on golf courses, wandering into people’s yards, or being washed into new territories by floods or other catastrophic weather events. Human development of their home territories has greatly increased the number of human-gator interactions, but it’s important to know that the American Alligator is way less aggressive than his cousin, the Crocodile. It’s true that Alligators  are able to run up to 30 miles per hour, but only for 11 seconds or so (remember – conserving energy is the name of the game). And they are not interested in eating you – you’re way too large and besides, they only need to eat once or twice a month in the wild. Studies have shown that a 100-pound dog will eat more in a year than an 800-pound alligator!

Still, as with all wildlife, it’s best to keep your distance. They may be fascinating and appear to be smiling at you, but you really don’t want to get anywhere near that mouth. The American Alligator spends all that time doing nothing to conserve his energy for lunging at prey such as fish, turtles, snakes, frogs, birds and small mammals. A gator has between 75-80 teeth in his mouth, and because of his hunting method – lunging, snapping the jaws down, and then thrashing his head to subdue the larger prey, he’s always breaking and losing teeth. But that’s no problem, because like sharks, the Alligator can constantly grow new teeth throughout his lifetime – up to 3,000. Then there’s the strength of those jaws clamping down – researchers have measured their bite force to exert somewhere between 2,000-2,900 pounds per square inch!

Alligators and the Environment

The American Alligator is a keystone species, which means that in the wild, they create changes to the landscape that benefit many smaller animals (elephants do this to their landscapes as well). In cooler weather, these giant reptiles dig “gator holes,” which fill up with shallow pools of water, and there they enter brumation, a sort of semi-hibernation. When warmer weather returns, the alligators abandon the holes, which then are used by snakes, turtles, fish, and other nearby creatures.

Maternal?

There is one thing, besides its size and amazing energy efficiency, which distinguishes the American Alligator from most other reptiles around the world. The truth is, most reptile females bury their eggs and walk away; what happens to their young after hatching is not their concern. But the female American Alligator is an unusually attentive mother. Females build huge nests of sticks, leaves, and other plant materials, and then lay 20-60 eggs in them. They then create a mounded cover for the nest out of grasses and mud. This will enhance the temperature inside the nest, which can end up about 10 feet in diameter and 3 feet high. As if that’s not enough, female gators guard these nests from predators, including other alligators. After about 65 days, the occupants of these eggs begin to loudly peep, signaling that hatching is beginning. Amazingly, the mothers can gently carry up to ten of the young in their mouths, so she immediately takes them to safer ground, where she will do her best to protect them for up to a year.

Trouble is brewing

But what’s happening inside these 3-inch long alligator eggs during incubation? It’s the reason this incredible species may now be facing a threat greater than the craze for purses, briefcases, and shoes made from their hides. The gender of American Alligator hatchlings isn’t determined until about 30 days into the incubation period, and gender depends on the temperature inside the nest. The nests are so large they naturally have some variation in temperature inside them, so some eggs should produce females and others males.  

But the trick is this – if it’s too cold (below 88 degrees) during incubation, the hatchlings will all be female, and they’ll have high mortality rates. If it’s too hot in the nest (above 96 degrees or so), the eggs will also produce all females, and they too will have high mortality rates. There is a sweet spot, between about 90-92 degrees, where the eggs are likely to produce males. Climate change, particularly the warming of the alligators’ natural habitats, is already greatly affecting the proportion of male alligator hatchlings, because it’s just getting too hot inside the nests now.   

There’s hope

But by learning ways to live more sustainably (for example, simple things like limiting single-use plastics), even individuals can begin positively affecting the prospects for the American Alligator and all the other amazing animals on earth – oh, and for humans, too. So come to the Reid Park Zoo, learn how you can fight climate change, and get to know and appreciate the amazing American Alligator. That will make it even more fun to anticipate meeting his Indonesian cousin, the Komodo Dragon, in the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

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!

Red Pandas are beautiful, elusive, almost secretive animals that live in mountain forests in Asia. They are adorably cute, they have several amazing adaptations for their environment, and their number in the wild is dropping fast – Red Pandas are endangered, and they will need human help to survive. 

Male and female Red Pandas are the same size, about the size of a housecat. They have dense fur with beautiful coloration. The Red Panda’s scientific name (Ailurus fulgens) translates to “fire-colored cat” or “fire fox,” and you can see how they got that name. An adult Red Panda’s back is a fiery orange-red, its belly and legs are black, and its tail is long and striped with rings of red and white. Its head is round, with a short snout and short, pointed ears. Its face resembles the face of a racoon or a weasel, with a “mask” of red, white jowls and snout, and dark “tear tracks” trailing down from its eyes. Male and female Red Pandas have this same pattern of coloration. A Red Panda’s colors stand out when you see one in the open, but they provide excellent camouflage when the animal is in trees in its natural habitat. 

Today, Red Pandas live in a narrow range of land in the mountains of India, Nepal, and China, but by studying fossils from around the world, biologists have learned that Red Pandas once roamed wide areas. In fact, these fossils show that about 40 million years ago, there were Red Pandas in many parts of what is now Asia, Europe, and North America. Modern-day Red Pandas resemble racoons and weasels, and fossils confirm that they are related to these species, but biologists who have studied the genes of these animals and scientists who have studied their behavior and habitat have concluded that the relationship between Red Pandas and racoons and weasels is not really very close. 

What about Giant Pandas?  Red Pandas and Giant Pandas share part of their names, of course, and they eat similar diets, but they really are not at all close to each other in evolution. So why are they both called pandas? Well, the name “panda” may have come from a word in one of the local languages around their natural habitat that roughly translates to “bamboo eater” – and eating bamboo is something Red Pandas and Giant Pandas certainly have in common!  In the end, though, most scientists conclude that Red Pandas are their own branch of the evolutionary tree, called the Ailuridae

They may not be close evolutionary cousins, but Red Pandas and Giant Pandas do have an unusual anatomical feature in common – they both have a “false thumb.” This is due to having a wrist bone (the sesamoid bone) that has evolved to protrude and function a bit like a thumb. This “false thumb” is really useful for holding and stripping leaves off bamboo. When species that are not closely related have similar evolutionary adaptations like this one, biologists call it “convergent evolution.” 

Red Pandas have other unusual characteristics, and one is their diet. Red Pandas eat mainly plants. Most of their diet is bamboo leaves and shoots – they eat about one-third of their body weight in bamboo every day! – but they also eat leaves of other trees, berries, mushrooms, bird eggs, and sometimes even small animals. 

Red Pandas are sometimes called “herbivorous carnivorans.”  What in the world does that mean?  Red Pandas’ closest animal relatives – racoons and weasels – are true carnivores. They eat a lot of meat. A Red Panda’s digestive tract is like that of a true carnivore, with a single-chambered stomach and a relatively short intestine. And as with true carnivores, their intestines don’t contain the microbes that most herbivores have for efficiently digesting plant material, so they don’t efficiently extract nutrients from the plants they eat.

Red Pandas’ teeth, though, have features of both carnivores and herbivores. They have incisors like (other) carnivores, but they also have large, relatively flat molars like herbivores. And their molars have ridges on top that help the Red Panda to grind up tough plant material like bamboo. Because their digestive tracts extract little of the nutrients from the plants they eat, though, pandas spend almost all their time either eating or sleeping. Taking all of this together, “herbivorous carnivorans” seems like a tailor-made description for Red Pandas! 

Red Pandas in the wild are solitary animals except during breeding season, and usually hide from predators and humans. Individuals use urine and secretions from scent glands to mark the boundaries of their territories. Their solitary lifestyle and good camouflage make it tricky for people to find them in the wild and difficult for wildlife biologists to observe their behavior or count them accurately. Most wildlife biologists who study Red Pandas, though, estimate that there are only about 10,000 left in the wild. 

This small a number of animals, combined with the fragmentation of their natural habitat, increases the risk of genetic inbreeding in the wild populations that can weaken the species as a whole and accelerate their disappearance. And the number of Red Pandas in the wild is dropping – biologists estimate that there only half as many Red Pandas in the world today as there were just 20 years ago. They are definitely an endangered species!

But why are Red Pandas disappearing? A major factor is that the wild forests they live in are more and more being used for logging or are being cut for farmland, so the Red Pandas’ natural habitat is shrinking and fragmenting. Other important factors in the decline of Red Pandas in the wild are the illegal wildlife trade and poaching for fur. 

Almost all the Red Pandas in the top zoos in North America and Europe have been born and raised in zoos. Many of these AZA-accredited zoos have developed a “Species Survival Plan” for Red Pandas, in which they work together to share information about caring for Red Pandas and managing their breeding.  In the protected environment of reputable zoos, Red Pandas are being bred to maintain the genetic diversity that will make them hardy if and when they need to be introduced into dwindling populations in the wild. 

Zoos that participate in the Species Survival Plan also support efforts to preserve the Red Panda’s natural habitat in Asia and to find ways for Red Pandas in the wild to live in minimal conflict with humans. The Reid Park Zoo in Tucson plans to help in these efforts by joining the Species Survival Plan when the Zoo adds Red Pandas to its collection of endangered species in its Pathway to Asia expansion.  And of course when the Red Pandas arrive, the Zoo will be adding a large helping of adorably cute!

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.