Almost Gone

The pair of Malayan Tigers expected to come to Tucson once the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete will be some of the most stunningly beautiful, most beloved, and most endangered creatures on the planet. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has honored our Zoo by selecting them to receive a breeding pair of these amazing animals. The male and female will live in lush adjoining habitats, with plenty of room to climb, to swim, to hide, to stalk, and loll about. Tigers are solitary in the wild, so the pair will meet only during breeding season, and there are high hopes that they will be able to increase the population of their species. And imagine seeing a litter of 2-5 tiger cubs frolicking right here in Tucson, complete with fearsome itty-bitty growling and amazing mini-pouncing! 

This is crucial, since there are only an estimated 250-340 Malayan Tigers left in the wild, and of those, only 80-120 are breeding adults. If humans don’t act now to save them they will join the three tiger subspecies already lost to extinction:  the Bali Tiger, the Caspian Tiger, and the Javan Tiger. The Malayan Tiger is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, along with its cousins the Sumatran Tiger and the South China Tiger, already believed to be extinct in the wild. The status of tigers in the wild is heartbreaking – but more about that later.

They’re small, for tigers

Tigers are the largest species of cat in the world – bigger even than lions. The Malayan Tiger is one of the smallest subspecies of mainland tiger, practically puny as tigers go!  Males are a mere 8 feet long from nose to tail, and weigh only about 250 – 300 pounds. The females are positively dainty – only 7 feet long altogether, and weigh in at a supermodel-slim 170-240 pounds. Compare this to the Siberian Tiger, also called the Amur Tiger, which measures up to 10.5 feet long and can weigh 660 pounds.  

Nonetheless, being in the presence of a Malayan Tiger (they seem plenty big compared to us) is an unforgettable and humbling experience. As in all species of tiger, each individual has a unique stripe pattern, which assists researchers in determining their numbers in the wild.  Without this fur, it might be very difficult to distinguish a tiger from a lion, its closest relative. Tigers have strong jaws, sharp teeth, and a muscular build. They are excellent at climbing and swimming (they have partially webbed toes), a favorite pastime at the Reid Park Zoo, especially in the summer heat. In the wild, a Malayan Tiger will not hesitate to cross even a rapidly flowing river in order to pursue its prey.

As for hunting, their large eyes give them excellent vision for this typically nocturnal activity. Malayan Tigers are obligate carnivores and favorite prey includes Muntjac and other deer, wild boar and bearded pigs, and tapir.  The tigers are ambush predators, relying on camouflage, stealth, distance, and patience to locate and subdue their prey. If necessary, they may also pursue very young offspring of much larger animals such as elephants, rhinos, or bears. Though solitary, the tigers are known to hunt in groups when this is advantageous. A Malayan Tiger may make a kill once every three or four days, and tries to eat as much of its prey as possible in one meal.   

Bring on the cubs!

Since male and female Malayan Tigers only meet and “socialize” during breeding season, a female in estrus starts to mark trees with urine and initiates a series of loud calls to signal her receptiveness to a male. It’s definitely a short-term relationship, however; the male will impregnate the female, then go his separate way. After a 3-4 month gestation period, a litter(2 to 5) of extremely helpless cubs will be born and  cared for by their mother for the next 18 months to two years.       

During that time, the frisky cubs practice all their tiger skills, chasing, pouncing, wrestling, and most importantly, growling as ferociously as possible the whole time! They also like to ambush each other and their poor tired mother, who must leave them alone while she hunts. Unfortunately,  only about half of the tiger cubs born in the wild survive their first year, because like the young of all species, they are vulnerable to predators, especially when the mother isn’t present, and are also susceptible to disease and accidents in the forests and jungles where they grow up. All other things being equal, this high level of infant mortality for the Malayan Tiger cubs would not contribute to the reduction of numbers for the species, but all things are NOT equal, not at all.

Enter the humans

First of all, tigers are apex predators, and have no natural enemies in the animal kingdom. Humans are entirely responsible for their dramatic decline in the wild. It’s about habitat. Panthera, an organization working on the conservation of big cats, reports that tiger habitat worldwide has declined 96% – and 40% of that decline has been in just the past decade.  

Where has all that territory gone? Well, in Southeast Asia, where the Malayan Tigers live in dense tropical forests, more than 18,000 square miles of forest was lost to monoculture plantations for the production of palm oil, just between 2000 – 2012. The conversion of forest to plantation and agricultural land not only affects the tigers, it affects biodiversity in the region, creating shortage of prey animals all the way down to the smallest insect. 

But perhaps more disturbing is the illegal wildlife trade, which has been especially damaging to Malayan Tigers. The tigers are prized by trophy hunters (though this is illegal in Malaysia) and tigers are often poached to obtain ingredients for traditional medicines in Asia. They are also hunted for “décor” items.

But we’re waking up

Fortunately, advocacy organizations around the world are feeling the urgency and stepping up their efforts toward the conservation of tigers in the wild. Tigers once numbered around 100,000 in the wilds of Asia, but today researchers estimate only about 3,900 remain. Zoos around the world, just like the Reid Park Zoo, are working hard to preserve the species. Governments are cracking down on poaching, and NGOs are providing human resources to patrol and protect tiger habitats, as well as establishing preserves for the tigers and all the animals that naturally flourish in the same territories. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Federation (WWF)  are working with communities who live in proximity to tigers to not only farm and eat in ways that may mitigate climate change, but to better protect livestock so as to limit conflict between humans and tigers. Also, members of these communities are now finding employment through ecotourism rather than poaching.

It remains to be seen if we are in time to save the remaining six subspecies of tigers on earth. But we can help – for example, we can learn about palm oil, an ingredient used in many of the products we rely on and purchase daily. Sustainably produced palm oil is part of the deforestation solution – and organizations such as the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) offers an app you can use in the grocery store to guide your purchases!  You can also plan to visit and support zoos, like the Reid Park Zoo, who will be participating in a breeding program for Malayan Tigers. Part of having these critically endangered creatures is a commitment to financially support in-situ conservation efforts, and also to spread the word about the plight of tigers and how we can help. So be a part of the solution and come to the Pathway to Asia at the Reid Park Zoo, as soon as it’s complete. As a bonus, you’ll be in the presence of breathtaking Malayan Tigers, and if we’re lucky, you may get to see some incredibly cute little ones stalking and pouncing!   

Born for the Night Shift

As our group entered the cave-like area from bright summer sunlight, I stumbled slightly, allowing my eyes to adjust to the dimming light. Without any prompting, our laughter dissolved into cautious whispers. The glass panel we faced was slightly obscured by condensation—on our side, a cool summer breeze, on the other, a moist tropical atmosphere. There they were, hanging upside down, like furry brown birds in long trench coats, nibbling on pieces of nectarine and mango: my first glimpse of Rodrigues Fruit Bats, up close and personal. I was mesmerized. No, enraptured.  

It was like peering into another universe. Our group watched in silence as the bats walked upside down on the wire-mesh ceiling, foraged for fruit, chased one another, squabbled, and then rested together. More secluded spaces housed mother bats, nursing their single offspring upside down, pups clinging to their mothers’ armpits. It was a topsy-turvy universe, disorienting but exhilarating, and easily the most memorable part of my visit to the African rainforest habitat in Portland’s Oregon Zoo.  

Until that moment, I hadn’t thought much about bats. They are night dwellers, invisible, secretive, and maybe a little scary. I’d seen them before in caves, high up and hanging by the merest foothold along some rocky crevice. As a daytime dweller, birds, not bats, defined my encounters with nature. That all changed after meeting the Rodrigues bats on a warm summer day, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that a colony of fruit bats would be coming to Tucson as part of the Reid Park Zoo expansion, The Pathway to Asia

Wildlife professionals who work on behalf of these amazing animals will tell you that bats are under-appreciated and greatly misunderstood. Let’s get right down to basic bat facts.

Bats 101

There are so many bats! We may rarely see them, but there are more than 1,400 species of bats living in nearly every part of the world, except for the harshest desert and polar regions. These small mammals range in size from the Bumblebee bat, which weighs less than a penny, to the largest fruit bats, which have wingspans of up to 5 ½ feet. 

Humans rely heavily on birds, bats, and other animals to help keep our planet livable, some would say survivable. With birds working during the daylight hours and bats working the nightshift, nature provides us with round the clock pest control. Some scientists believe that bats’ preference for the night shift evolved as a way to avoid predation, mainly from birds, and has enabled them to share the same food source without confrontation or competition. Although all bats eats insects, and many do so exclusively, some have evolved to become fruit and nectar specialists providing another important ecological service—pollination!

Bats can be divided into two primary groups, Microbats and Megabats. As their names imply, Microbats have smaller bodies but larger ears which help them use their superpower, echolocation, a useful adaptation which helps them find food in the dark (insects) and avoid obstacles in the process. Micros are primarily insectivores, and their role is pest control. At the other end of the spectrum, Megabats have larger bodies, larger eyes with keen vision, and a great sense of smell. These sensory superpowers help them find their food (fruits and flowers). Megas have evolved as frugivores and nectarivores, and their role is pollination. Depending on where they live and their ecological role, bats can thrive in caves, rock shelters, and high-altitude mountainous ranges, but they also thrive in tropical forests, roost in trees, and one species even burrows in the ground (for all you bat fans, the North Island of New Zealand). In urban areas, they find man-made crevices to call home: attics, eaves, barns, industrial-sized buildings, tunnels, and bridges. Bats can live solitary or social lives. Some prefer to live alone or in pairs, some in small- to medium-sized harem groups (a dominant male with many females and a few immature males close by), and some in small to massive colonies. 

How massive? Bracken Cave, near San Antonio, Texas, is home to about 20 million Mexican Free-Tailed Bats who roost there, giving birth and raising pups, from March to September. This is the largest known bat colony in the world, although this number may not be entirely accurate because bats are difficult to count. 500 babies can huddle to keep warm by hanging onto one square foot of rock ceiling. How’s that for efficient use of space? The Bracken Cave colony is well-protected by Bat Conservation International, an international, non-governmental agency, and The Nature Conservancy. The city of San Antonio also enforces no-development and dark-sky regulations to protect their cave and the land surrounding it. 


Bats in the desert

Moving west, Arizona has the second largest number of bat species (28) in the U.S. , second only to Texas. The Mexican Free-tailed Bats of Bracken Cave fame are common in Tucson and have found handy urban homes under large bridges over the Pantano Wash and the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers. You can observe them—from a polite distance, please—flying out from underneath their bridge-caves at dusk . They mingle with other local bat species and share the ecological work; some are insectivores while others work as nectarivores.

While many Tucson residents may look forward to celebrating National Tequila Day , aka Thank A Bat Day, on July 24, I will be celebrating the birth of bat pups in Kartchner Cavern’s Big Room. This chamber is home to a small colony of myotis velifer, or the common cave bat. 

Every year on April 15, Kartchner staff close all the doors to the Big Room, turn off all the lights, and do not enter the cave again until late September, well after the bats have migrated away to hibernate for the winter. During the summer months, the bats are busy giving birth, raising pups, and teaching them how to fly, echolocate, and hunt for their food. You may visit the Rotunda and Throne rooms during the summer, but, in the Big Room, it’s all about baby bats. Like the rangers at Kartchner, we should feel good about honoring the privacy of this very special colony as it perpetuates a life cycle perfected by more than 50 million years of evolution. 

Two other bats common to the Arizona and Mexico region are the Lesser Long-nosed Bats and Mexican Long-tongued Bats . As their facial characteristics feature prominently in their names, can you guess what they eat? Both are nectar feeders and pollinators! They literally bathe themselves in pollen while searching for the fruits of agaves, saguaros, and organ pipe cacti. Like most animals, they are highly opportunistic and will also visit not-quite-depleted hummingbird feeders after those tiny birds have gone to roost. (Now you know why your nectar disappears overnight.)

It’s worth mentioning the monetary impact of bat populations; some people can relate more to dollars than wings, feathers, or fins. (Not judging! We all need their expertise and their support, too.) The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that, by eating insects, bats save U.S. agriculture billions of dollars per year in pest control. Some studies have estimated that service to be worth over $3.7 billion per year, and possibly as much as $53 billion, but this does not include the volume of insects eaten by bats in forest ecosystems, which benefits the lumber, paper, and other forest industries, or the bats’ service as pollinators. My calculator says the actual monetary worth of bats is far greater than $3.7 billion per year. Incalculable?  Maybe. But that’s another story.

Bats in the tropics

Traveling much farther west around the globe and sailing south into the Indian Ocean, we can find my favorite bat, the Rodrigues Fruit Bat, or flying fox, a common name for larger fruit bat species in the world. The Rods, as they are affectionately known, are considered endangered (by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the wild, they only exist on the tiny island of Rodrigues located about 900 miles east of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa. They live in dense tropical rainforests filled with large, mature trees (emphasis on mature, not young). 

In the 1970s, as the Rodrigues rainforests were cut and their habitat destroyed, the Rod colonies were pushed further and further to the edge of their 42 square mile island until they occupied just a small, wooded valley—barely enough room to survive. Unlike some of their desert counterparts, Rodrigues bats are frugivores and use their keen eyesight and sense of smell to find ripening mangoes, figs, and other fruits. The extraordinary thing is that they crush their food, swallow only the juices, and spit out the pulp and seeds in a pellet shape, creating a ready-made seed-packet. They live simply to regrow the rainforests. 

Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to regrow the forests fast enough. After a cyclone hit the island in 1979, the Rods were down to less than 70 individuals; they had become the rarest bats on Earth. Emergency conservation efforts led by English naturalist George Durrell brought them back from the brink of extinction. Individuals from Durrell’s first translocated colony are now being raised and cared for by about 15 accredited institutions worldwide, including the Oregon Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Chester Zoo in northwest England—home to the largest Rodrigues colony in the world and holder of the Rod bat stud book—and soon, the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson! 

More bats coming to Tucson 

In the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion, guests will have the opportunity to observe these amazing animals and learn how they, along with our own desert species, contribute to the health of our planet. As a bat fan, I want you to hear this bat’s story and understand the role they play in the web of life. Most importantly, I want you to care.   

When I contemplate the fate our natural world, pretty much an everyday occurrence in 2021, I find inspiration in the words of my wildlife heroes, Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau , about Why We Should Care. Both individuals dedicated their lives to conservation of the natural world by raising our awareness and demonstrating how each one of us is connected to the web of life. Goodall said, “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.” Cousteau may have said it more simply but with no less conviction, “People only protect what they love.”

I’m proud to say that in our little corner of the desert southwest, our small but mighty Reid Park Zoo will become one of a select few chosen to help maintain a genetically diverse population of Rodrigues Fruit Bats and, through human care, research, and financial support, prevent their extinction in the wild. When this new habitat opens, I hope that your first encounter with these small furry creatures, living their topsy-turvy lives on the perpetual night shift, fills you with a sense of wonder and excitement and inspires you to support their conservation. I hope you, too, will experience love at first sight.

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!

WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT BEES?

Do you know where your food comes from? How farmers can have seeds to plant year after year? Why you would have no almonds or apples if there were no bees? There’s a cool, new exhibit at the Reid Park Zoo, The Pollinator Garden, which can help answer these questions.   

Ever stop to consider how plants reproduce? They can’t get together to fertilize like animals can. Instead, they produce flowers and use outside “helpers” to transfer pollen (sperm) to ovary (where the eggs are). As a bee moves from flower to flower, some of the pollen she has collected from the flower’s anthers (male parts) on her furry body and legs rubs off on a stigma, the flower’s female part, which is connected by a tube to the ovary. This is called pollination. The helpers are rewarded with sweet nectar. The fertilized eggs become seeds, which can then grow into new plants. 

The types of flowers that plants produce are no accident. They display certain colors, shapes, sizes, and aromas to attract particular “helpers.” Other than wind, which doesn’t care, pollinators range from bats to butterflies. There are even some stinky flowers that smell like something is rotting. The pollinator? Flies! But far and away the most widespread and prolific pollinators are BEES. In fact, one out of every three food items we eat relies on bees.

Now, here’s some more awesome news: here in southern Arizona we live in one of the three Bee Capitals of the world! The other two are in deserts of Israel and Africa. We are surrounded by stupendous bee biodiversity. Almost all of our native bees are “solitary.” Each female makes her hole in the ground or in woody stalks and branches to lay her eggs. The largest in our area is the carpenter bee, a gentle giant. The smallest is the tiny perdita. In between are hundreds of different species.

The bee that is most familiar to people is the honey bee. They’re called “social bees” because they live and work communally, creating hives which the “queen” supplies with eggs. And together these bees produce a lot of honey. However, you may be surprised to learn that they are NOT native to North or South America. They were brought here, along with many familiar plants and animals, by early settlers from Europe. For centuries, they have been a mainstay of beekeepers, orchards, and gardeners.

The organization of the hive consists of the queen who lays over a thousand eggs per day; the drones (males), having hatched from unfertilized eggs, who mate with virgin queens; the workers (females), who care for the hive and the nursery; and the foraging/scouting workers who are also females. Only the females have stingers. The stinger is actually a modified ovipositor (egg-laying organ) and is barbed. 

A swarm, basically, is made up of traveling, hiveless bees. One is formed when the queen of a hive ages and her egg production slows down. The hive chooses a new, young queen to replace her. The old queen leaves the hive with a group of support bees in search of a favorable location to build a new hive. It’s an amazing process. When the queen gets tired, she lands on, for example, a branch. All the other members of her retinue land on and around her and around and on top of one another, creating a writhing, humming mass. They stay in that location for perhaps three or four days. During that time, a few individual bees go forth to find potential hive sites. When each returns, she does a “bee dance” to convey what she has found. Ultimately, one bee does a sufficiently convincing dance. At that point they all disengage themselves from one another and fly off together to build their new hive. 

Generally, the bees of a swarm do not pose a threat to humans. They’re busy seeking a new hive site. It’s only the defenders of an actual hive that are dangerous.

In 1956, a strong species of African honey bee, well adapted to the tropical climate, was imported by Brazil to increase its honey production. Subsequently 26 swarms escaped and expanded throughout South America and northward. 

In 1990 the African honey bees entered the southwestern U.S. Over time they have hybridized with our European honey bees, creating what is known as Africanized honey bees. In our region virtually all honey bees are now the Africanized variety. 

This is significant because these bees do everything their earlier counterparts do, but to a greater degree. Think bees on steroids. That seems like a good thing, and it is for pollination and honey production, but there is a big drawback. Because of their fierce defense of the hive, they have been nicknamed “killer bees.” Actually, the sting of one Africanized honey bee is no worse than that of its European counterpart, but if the defenders of the hive perceive that you are a threat, they attack en masse and can chase you for up to a quarter of a mile. The toxicity of a hundred or more stings can be deadly!

That doesn’t make them “bad” bees. They’re just doing their job to keep the queen and hive safe. In fact, the bees you may encounter on the flowers in your garden are not hive defenders. They have their own job to do, pollinating. Feel free to get up close to check them out without worry. If a bee decides to check YOU out, don’t panic and flail your arms. That will only make the bee think you’re trying to kill her, and then you may very well get stung. It’s not in her best interests to sting you because she will probably lose her life as a consequence. Her stinger generally gets pulled out of her along with a chunk of her abdomen.

In recent years our nation has experienced a shocking decline in honey bees (as well as bumble bees and many solitary bees). Beekeepers have suddenly found all their bees dead or missing, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The most significant culprit appears to be a particular type of neuro-active insecticide called “neonicotinoids” which attack the nervous system. It doesn’t immediately kill bees, but it interferes with their flying and navigational abilities, and the tainted pollen they bring back to share with the hive has a cumulative effect like a slow poison, eventually incapacitating all the bees. Virtually all corn and a large percentage many other crops grown in the U.S. use this type of insecticide.

Human behavior, from chemical use to habitat destruction to climate change, has and continues to impose huge threats on these busy workers. Education is key to understanding what we are putting at risk. You might say our own lives depend on it!

The Pollinator Garden at the Reid Park Zoo is an excellent way to learn about the critically important roles played by all of our pollinators and how you can help keep them healthy and protected.  Like everything on the grounds of the Zoo, it is designed to promote both human and animal welfare.  And it’s good to know that the grounds and habitats in the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide even more habitat, food, and shelter for our busy but underappreciated native pollinators.

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you looking for a place where you can feel peace and serenity? How about a cool, shady oasis where you can see amazing animals by your feet, in the air, and on tree branches? You can find all this in the Reid Park Zoo’s Flight Connection Aviary.   Sitting on a bench, watching the colorful birds flit about is interesting, relaxing and fun. Learning about them makes the experience even more enjoyable. So, here are just a few of the beautiful creatures in this aviary. Since words alone can’t do them justice, be sure to click on the links to see their images.

Crested Partridge

Watch your feet! This charming bird may scurry in front of you as you walk the aviary paths. The Crested Partridge is a game bird in the pheasant family, about 10 inches long with a roundish shape and a short tail. The males have a glossy black body with a red crest on the forehead. Females are a lovely moss green with brown wings but no crest. Both birds have red patches around the eyes and distinctive red legs and feet. These ground dwellers from the tropical forests in southeast Asia prefer to walk or run. They spend their days foraging for food and may perch on low-hanging branches at night.  

The Crested Partridge mates for life. Their dome-shaped ground nest is covered with twigs and leaves, with the female completely hidden inside for about 18 days while incubating her 6-8 eggs. The Crested Partridge is usually seen in a covey of several birds, which can get a little noisy. They have two calls-a quiet one to communicate with each other and a loud warning sound. Watching these delightful creatures interact with each other is really entertaining. Remember – their red legs make them easy to spot and identify.

Bearded Barbet

Another eye-catching bird in the Flight Connection is the red, black and white Bearded Barbet. It is the largest of the barbet species (10 inch), a round bird with a short neck, large head, and short-ish tail. The strong, short legs have two toes facing frontward and two toes facing backwards, helping the barbet cling to the sides of trees. Males and females look alike. Barbets are closely related to toucans. The tooth-edged bills of toucans are similar to the Bearded Barbet’s large, thick yellow bill. A clump of bristles (exposed feather shafts) at the base of the bill gives this species its name. The saw-like edges make cutting off fruit stems an easy task. The bill is also useful in digging nesting holes in rotten trees. The Bearded Barbet is common in West Africa, where they live in wooded areas and are primarily fruit eaters – with figs a favorite. They are important seed dispersers, as their undigested seeds are spread about the land. Like a distant cousin, the woodpecker, these birds lay eggs in a nest built in the cavity of a tree. The two eggs are incubated for about 14 days with both parents caring for them. The Bearded Barbet’s call is an unmistakable SCRAWK!, often slowly repeated. The next time you’re at Reid Park Zoo, be sure to visit the Flight Connection Aviary with your ears open! You’re sure to spy a Bearded Barbet.

Violet Turaco

This bird just might take your breath away! The brightly-colored Violet Turaco is an African species and a fruit eater. It is large, about 18 inches long. Named for its brilliant glossy violet color, its forehead is yellow with a bright red bill and eye ring.  Social birds, they live in large flocks in the forests of western Africa. Because they live in dense forests, the Violet Turaco doesn’t need to be a great flyer. Using their long tails for balance, they bounce from branch to branch in the treetops, foraging for food. During courtship, the male shows off his brilliant colors by fluttering his wings to attract a mate. A flat platform nest built with twigs and sticks will be assembled high up in a tree. Male and female take turns sitting on the two or three eggs and will also share in feeding the young. The Violet Turaco has a loud COOROO call. Keep an eye out for these magnificent birds and enjoy!

White Headed Buffalo Weaver

Hey! Check out my nest! This could be a male weaver calling out to a prospective mate. He builds a fabulous nest and the females then choose a partner based on his construction skills. What a way to impress your mate!   

The White Headed Buffalo Weaver is common throughout the savannas and dry brush in eastern Africa, eating seeds, small insects and small fruit. The word buffalo comes from its habit of following the African buffalo for insects that hitch a ride on their skin. This is a smallish bird of about 7 inches in length. They are mostly white with black wings and tail and an orange rump.  It is difficult to tell the males from the females as their appearance and size is similar.  

The White Headed Buffalo Weavers are related to finches and are usually seen in small flocks. They lay 3-5 eggs in their elaborate nests and incubate them for 14 days. Come and see if you can find these birds in the aviary. They are bold little birds and just may start looking for insects around your feet! This is only a small sampling of the birds you’ll see at Reid Park Zoo. The South America Loop also has its own aviary, with many stunning species. But there will be more, soon. The Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion will include the “Wings of Wonder” aviary, where you’ll be able to find even more colorful, sociable, and beautiful birds. The aviaries are cool in the summer and a great place to get out of our summer heat. Come in, turn off your phone, and h enjoy the quiet.

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!