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!   

Meerkats:  Adorable, Unruly, and Scrappy

When somebody mentions Meerkats, you probably picture something like a fuzzy little humanoid standing at attention in order to guard the mob (which is an apt name for a group of these little guys). Or maybe you’re a Meerkat enthusiast, and you’ve seen some documentaries, so you picture them fearlessly subduing scorpions and gleefully crunching them up. Maybe you’ve experienced great anxiety as you watched a brave little Meerkat confront a cobra – and prevail!  Amazing! Don’t worry, this almost never actually happens in the wild. And really, scorpions make up only about 2% of their diets, so the subduing and crunching doesn’t happen often either.    

Foraging and eating

But anyhow, do they share those giant scorpions or cobra bites with their Meerkat families and friends? No! It’s every Meerkat for him or herself. Each individual spends a lot of time foraging daily for insects, like termites and grubs, but once they find them, become very possessive of their own food and  are ready and willing to fight other Meerkats to defend their little feasts.   

Their culinary manners aren’t totally heartless – whenever they are foraging, one member of the mob, usually a dominant male or female, will stand guard on the highest ground around to alert the others to danger. That means the sentinel isn’t getting any food for herself.

They can really communicate

Meerkats have at least  10 distinct vocalizations, and research suggests that members of the mob can understand specific messages and even recognize which individual is calling. After 20 years of research  in the Kalahari Desert, one of the Meerkats’ native habitats in southern Africa, researchers figured out that sentinels used two different calls to indicate a threat – one for something creeping up on land,  and a different one for something dangerous flying above.

What about the group dynamics?

Their mobs generally include from 10 – 40 individuals, often comprising three families that get along well. “Get along” is a relative term, though – these relatives of the Mongoose can be quick to attack other members of the group, particularly if the matter  involves food, and especially when a dominant female feels somehow offended.

But like that big, loud, family you know that always seems to be yelling and arguing (but still love each other), the Meerkats are capable of coming together very effectively when the group is threatened – for example,  banding together and hissing to scare off a jackal or caracal, or even another mob that has come a little too close.  

At the Reid Park Zoo

The Meerkat mob at The Reid Park Zoo, has grown considerably since 5 of them arrived in 2017 and 2018 from other U.S. Zoos.  They dig, bask, perform guard duty, run around, hunt for treats, squabble, and curiously watch the humans during the day.  Every evening, they scurry obligingly into the night house around dusk, a very sensible cooperative endeavor by the group.  They seem to realize that once they’re safe and warm inside, the hawks and other birds of prey that fly in from the Park every night can’t make a meal of them!

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.

Though they might not be quite as well known as their larger cousins, the Ostriches, Greater Rheas have their own charms. For example, Flora and Fauna are two female Greater Rheas who live with some Galapagos tortoises in the South America loop of the Reid Park Zoo. They can’t wait for visitors to notice them, usually hurrying right up to look you quizzically in the eye and staying there as long as you do.

Rheas come to us from Brazil, Bolivia, and other countries in southeastern South America. They live in grasslands and scrublands, near sources of water. They’re flightless, and range from 3-5 feet tall (the males are bigger ) and weigh from 33 to 66 pounds. That’s one big bird – with really long wings that are only used for balance (flapping sort of like a rudder) while they’re running or dodging predators. They have three toes on each foot, and could definitely hold their own in the big, flightless bird Olympics – they can run 40 miles per hour!

When you think about it, female Rheas have a pretty nice life, and not just in their roomy habitat at the Reid Park Zoo. First of all, they lay golden eggs! It’s true – the eggs are a golden color. Secondly, once they’ve laid those eggs, their child-rearing duties are complete. They’re free to spend their days poking around for plants, seeds, roots, and maybe even a lizard or two.

Male Greater Rheas usually mate with multiple females, then build huge nests, where each of these lucky females lays about 5 eggs over a week or so. Nests can accommodate up to 60 eggs. It’s the dad’s responsibility to incubate all those eggs for about six weeks. Well, unless he’s a really dominant male, in which case he might designate a male underling to care for this batch of eggs while he goes off on another mating spree and has to build another nest.  

Anyway, the males summon females for mating by calling VERY loudly. It’s no wonder, then, that the baby chicks, just before hatching, begin whistling – loudly! Once they hatch, the male continues to bear all the responsibility for raising them.
The Greater Rheas’ conservation status is near threatened, due mostly to illegal wildlife trading of their hides, feathers, and eggs. Also, their feathers are used to make feather dusters.  But if you visit Flora and Fauna, I’m sure you’ll agree those feathers really look much nicer on these curious and amiable creatures.

Excellence and innovation are hallmarks of the care that the animals at the Reid Park Zoo receive every day from the Zoo’s Animal Care Staff. Whether it’s training a rhinoceros to allow a staff member to draw blood for the animal’s health and veterinary care, inventing a life-saving technique to treat a congenital kidney problem in an African lion, or hundreds of things staff members do to enhance the animals’ lives, the Zoo and its staff are guided by deep care, excellence, and innovation. 

A good example of excellence and innovation in the animals’ care is what is called “enrichment.” Enrichment refers to objects or activities that bring out an animal’s natural behaviors and cognitive engagement – often, the animal’s puzzle-solving skills. Just like in people, cognitive engagement and physical activity are important for keeping the Zoo’s animals mentally and physically robust. Zoo animals can’t join book clubs, play video games, or do crossword puzzles, but they can be stimulated to explore. For instance, novel scents dotted about in a habitat are very stimulating for an animal whose species naturally depends on an acute sense of smell. Objects that an animal can safely bat around or pounce on or pry open to get a treat are favorite examples of enrichment. Enrichment can even be as straightforward as rearranging permanent structures in an animal’s habitat. These kinds of things stimulate the animals’ senses and brains, and they engage the animals’ natural behaviors. Enrichment is so important to the health of the animals that the Reid Park Zoo has a staff member whose whole job is to oversee animal enrichment for the Zoo’s animals – a sort of Animal Enrichment Czar! (The real title is Animal Welfare Specialist.) 

Reid Park Zoo recently unveiled an exciting new invention for animal enrichment! You can look for it the next time you visit the Zoo. This new device is the fruit of a new collaboration between the Zoo’s “Animal Enrichment Czar” and a team of engineering students at the University of Arizona. Reid Park Zoo and the UA already have long-standing, productive collaborations in Animal Science and more recently in veterinary medicine, and this collaboration with Engineering adds a whole new dimension to those. 

The new enrichment device is getting its first use with Bella, Reid Park Zoo’s jaguar. If you haven’t seen Bella yet, her name suits her perfectly – she is absolutely beautiful! Bella already receives many types of enrichment. She has tree trunks to climb on, a pool of water to plunge into, and she is periodically given an oxtail dangling from a tree trunk high above the ground. For the oxtail, Bella needs to use her sharp vision to spot the treat and then has to figure out whether to use her impressive jumping skill or her climbing skill as the best way to get at the treat. 

What does the new enrichment device add to this? The new device has two modules, both placed just outside Bella’s habitat. The first module uses an electronic sensor to detect Bella’s presence nearby. When she approaches the sensor, the first module triggers the activation of a second module. The second module is where the fun comes in! One secondary module has a blower with a nylon sock-puppet attached to it. When the blower turns on, the sock-puppet pops up a few feet high and begins flopping and waving around. Visually tracking moving objects is an essential behavior for jaguars in the wild, and this dancing sock-puppet fully engages that behavior in Bella – she visually locks on to the puppet and follows every move. Another secondary module that the UA students designed and fabricated blows bubbles into Bella’s habitat. Bella loves the bubbles! 

You might have seen this exciting device for animal enrichment when it was featured on the local TV news. The UA Engineering students who designed and built the new device – who are referred to as “Team 21034” – won $5,000 and the Raytheon Award for Overall Design in this year’s Craig M. Berge Design Day Competition at the UA. The UA students, the Zoo, and Bella all won here! 

A great feature of this new enrichment device is that Bella can control the delivery of the enrichment herself, by figuring out how to move in ways that activate the device. It makes her overall environment more challenging and more fun. Another nice aspect is that the device is small enough to be easily moved to other animals’ habitats. The system also allows the creation of new secondary modules that could be tailored to the particular skills and behaviors of other Zoo animals, perhaps to make a sound or show a visual display, for example. Imagine the fun the Zoo’s animal care staff will have in coming up with different secondary modules for the different animals! And through its membership in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Reid Park Zoo may be able to share the design of the new device with other AZA-accredited zoos around the country. 

Excellence and innovation – hallmarks of the Reid Park Zoo and the guiding principles for the design of the new Reid Park Zoo expansion!

In praise of ostentation!

There is one species strutting around the Reid Park Zoo, unconcerned about human visitors, and VERY impressed with their own beauty and perfection. They change their look and behavior with the seasons (breeding season, that is) and choose exactly when and where they’d like to visit you.

They can often be seen pilfering food from their animal companions in the Zoo, and seem very interested in also attracting their attention. That’s right – these ladies and gentlemen, all 17 of them, are “free range,” and no, we’re not talking about the ducks that waddle around at will or the very plump squirrels.

They are the Reid Park Zoo’s ostentation of Indian Peafowl, and yes, that’s what a group of peacocks and peahens is officially called! These 12 males and 5 females are officially part of the RPZ’s collection, which means that their health is checked annually. But they are allowed to roam around, so you never know where you might see one – on the path in front of you, squawking loudly from a tree in the Giraffe habitat, showing off for the Grevy’s Zebras, relaxing with the South African Leopard Tortoises, posing next to a White Rhino, or anywhere else they decide to go.
That’s right – anywhere. These birds are fully flighted, so they could choose to fly off from the Zoo whenever they wanted – but they know a good environment when they have one. For them, The Reid Park Zoo grounds constitute a desirable home where they can find safety, ample food and water, shelter, and yes, the admiration of many humans. Not to mention health care if they need it. Though they are unconcerned about the presence of humans in their midst, they will obligingly (if slowly) stroll out of the way if they’re blocking your path. They also seem to enjoy allowing you to photograph them.

Indian Peafowl are members of the Pheasant family. Of course, peacocks are famous for their gorgeous plumage, and no two individuals have exactly the same color patterns. They spend breeding season displaying their beautiful tail feathers in a huge fan (six or seven feet wide) in hopes of attracting a mate. After the season ends, though, they drop all these feathers and grow new ones the next year. They have unmistakable, really loud voices, usually calling in the mornings and evenings, but if it’s breeding season, all day. At night they sleep in a group in a safe, tall tree or two. In their native  habitats, India and Sri Lanka, they spend their days foraging on the ground each day for grain, insects, and even small reptiles – but at the Zoo, the smorgasbord is endless – they can forage if they choose to, but  they can much more easily find a wide variety of food just for the taking.  

Luckily for us, they live about 15-20 years, so those of us who get a special kick out of seeing these haughty creatures walking or displaying in front of us can count on this ostentatious bonus experience every time we visit The Reid Park Zoo!

Imagine you’re Charles Darwin, feeling you have a pretty good handle on the earth’s amazing biodiversity after exploring for four years and filling your ship, The Beagle, with  a multitude of live animal specimens for further study.  Then, off the coast of Ecuador, you and your crew come upon an archipelago called the Galapagos.   You realize then you most certainly haven’t seen it all!   And it’s no coincidence that Galapago is an archaic word in Spanish meaning tortoise.

Amazing Creatures

Greeting Darwin and his crew in 1835 were creatures such as the marine iguana, literally half of the Blue-Footed Boobies on earth engaging in mating rituals, the only flightless Cormorant species on earth, and a 3-inch painted locust that was capable of jumping ten feet in the air.   

But perhaps most famous and now beloved of his discoveries were the Galapagos Giant Tortoises. They were huge, they were docile, and they were everywhere.   It’s estimated that there were once 250,000 of them on the islands, and until humans discovered them, they really had no natural enemies. 

Perfectly adapted

The Galapagos Giant Tortoise subspecies vary slightly from island to island in the Archipelago, adapting perfectly to the different environments.   The major adaptation, though, has to do with shell shape – they sport either domed or “saddle-backed” shells (with an upward angle on the front of the carapace, which restricts how far UP they can extend their long necks).   It turns out that the tortoises living on more arid islands need the flexibility to reach higher up for their favorite food, the prickly pear cactus.   Those living on lush, humid islands only have to extend their necks forward to nab a delicious herbivorous dinner.

The Giant Tortoises lead a placid existence in the wild, and also in human care, sleeping up to 16 hours per day, basking in the sun, and occasionally wallowing in mud.   In the wild, Galapagos finches can often be found on their shells, symbiotically pecking pesky ticks from the folds of the tortoises’ skin.  

During mating season, things get interesting

Things perk up a bit during mating season, between January and August (depending on weather), when males may compete for females in a curious faceoff : it’s a neck-stretching and mouth opening contest, where the one with the longest neck gets the girl!  Mating can take hours, and is celebrated by the champion-necked males with an extremely loud roaring throughout.    

For visitors to the Reid Park Zoo, it’s often confusing when Ferdinand and Isabella, the two Galapagos tortoises, are enjoying this ritual.  Since the roaring is audible throughout the Zoo, guests flock to the lion habitat, but find them fast asleep – how can this be?

The females lay between 2 and 16 eggs about the size of tennis balls, burying them about 12 inches in the ground.   Then they walk away – so the hatchlings are on their own, right from the start.   The temperature in the nest will determine whether the babies will hatch as males or females. A few centuries ago, enough of these hatchlings survived to create a growing population of these long-lived giants.   Nobody can verify the life span of a Galapagos Tortoise, but it has been estimated to be up to 170 years.      

The Trouble Begins

 Spanish explorers first discovered the tortoises in the sixteenth century, and they quickly became an important shipboard food source for seafarers, including pirates, merchantmen, whalers, and yes, the crew of The Beagle.   

One of these giant tortoises’ amazing adaptations is the ability to go up to a year without food or water, making them the perfect, low-maintenance livestock onboard a ship.  They also have shells which look solid, but are very light due to a honeycomb structure.  And of course, they were very easy to capture, though maybe not to carry – some individuals can weigh more than 500 pounds. 

Also, settlers on the islands introduced invasive species, like pigs, goats, and rats, which began to consume the same plant life that had been central to the tortoises’ survival.   And of course, the tortoises were also used for food by the islands’ inhabitants.

Now they’re endangered

Originally, 14 different subspecies of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise were identified in the wild, but sadly, two of those subspecies are now believed to be extinct.   Best estimates are that only 10,000 – 15,000 altogether now survive in the wild.

But there is reason for hope

In 1959, the Ecuadorian government established Galapagos National Park in order to protect remaining habitat, and eggs began to be collected and incubated at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.    Here at home, under the guidance of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Galapagos tortoise breeding programs began in accredited zoos .  The aim was to reintroduce members of the species to the wild once their habitats were deemed safe.  The San Diego Zoo alone has hatched more than 94 Galapagos tortoise babies through the years, enabling breeding programs to get started at other AZA zoos.  It takes patience though – breeding only begins when individuals reach the age of 20-25.

Way to go, Diego

There have also been some amazing in situ success stories.   A recent example is the tale of Diego, who had been living in the San Diego Zoo and  was returned to the Charles Darwin Research Station to help repopulate his kind on the island of Espanola.  In 1965, only 26 members of Diego’s species survived there.   Since his arrival back in The Galapagos in 1976, numbers have grown to nearly 2,000.   Diego gets credit for fathering roughly 40% of them, or around 800 new tortoises.   Diego will now live out his years – he’s over 100, but of course that’s probably just late middle age for a Galapagos tortoise!   He’ll enjoy many more serene years – back on his native island.   

Darwin would approve.

ONCE UPON A TIME OUR RIVERS FLOWED . . . .

Once upon a time cottonwood trees and riparian plants lined the river banks. Fish swam in the waters, and wildlife thrived.

Over 12,000 years ago early nomadic people found our desert to be rich and welcoming as they paused here in their hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Around 4,000 years ago people began to settle permanently and plant their crops at the base of Sentinel Peak (A Mountain), along the Santa Cruz River. The agrarian community grew. And the rivers flowed.

The mid-1500s marked the beginning of the Spanish influence, from explorers and gold seekers to missionaries and their accompanying military presidios. By the 1700s several missions had been established to convert the Indians to Catholicism. Still a Mexican village of a few hundred, the population of Tucson continued to grow. And the rivers still flowed.

The mid 1850s saw the influx of Anglos from the east. The U.S. government bought southern Arizona from Mexico and encouraged Americans to move westward. Tucson continued to grow. Residents dug shallow wells to access water. And still the rivers flowed.

By 1900 Tucson’s population was about 7,500. A municipal water system pumped and delivered clean water. Indoor plumbing did away with outhouses. Homes had the luxury of running water. Ten years later, the population was 13,000. Due to pumping and diversion for irrigation, the water table dropped enough that the flow of the Santa Cruz River could no longer be sustained. Water flowed above ground only after a heavy rain.

In 1922, recognizing the need for water in the arid west, the seven western states that bordered on or fed water into the Colorado River drew up The Colorado River Compact, allocating a specific amount of the river’s water to each state. Oddly, they based their figures on several unusually wet years which meant that, in effect, they over-allocated the contents of the river during normal flows. Further, when Mexico later pointed out that the river had its mouth in that country, more acre-feet were allocated out of thin air. Ah, well. For the most part that didn’t pose any real problem since there was more water than was needed at that time. When drier times followed the issue was ignored. 

Tucson’s population grew during and after World War II. Modern technology made it possible to pump ever deeper for water. However, by 1960 it was clear that continued pumping was unsustainable and would lead to serious subsidence of the land. Eventually the building of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile canal to bring Colorado River water inland for the cities and farmers, seemed imperative.

By 1980 the population surpassed 500,000, and deep pumping continued. Finally, after 20 years of construction, the CAP finally reached completion in 1992. But joy over this “endless” source of water was short-lived when the new water’s chemistry/ph effectively scoured out years and years of deposits and rust from the city’s old pipes and delivered brown, smelly water to people’s homes. With massive water main breaks and leaks, that expensive disaster set back the use of the canal for another decade.

At the turn of the 21st century, the plan we use today had been implemented. Water from the canal is diverted into a series of shallow “recharge” basins from which it filters through the desert floor into the aquifer (basically an underground “valley” filled with gravel and sand) below where it can be stored and pumped out by Tucson Water for delivery to the city. You can easily see some of these basins from the Desert Museum. At this time, depending on where you are in Tucson, around 80% of the water that comes out of your faucets has the Colorado River as its origin.

And that brings us to the dilemma we face today. With ongoing drought and the impacts of climate change, the level of the Colorado River is dropping with no end in sight. Lakes Mead and Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, are well below half and likely to continue to fall. If that continues, the mighty Hoover Dam will no longer be able to generate electricity or even release water downstream.

Yikes! What can we do to forestall disaster? For starters we can recognize that we live in a desert where water is precious. We must be mindful of the amount of water we use. Let us look back and learn from Tucson’s earlier residents. Since they had to haul it from the river (or the well), you can bet they didn’t waste it! The Reid Park Zoo offers some great examples and suggestions. As you walk around, read the signs to learn all that the Zoo is doing to conserve and what you can do at home. And rest assured that water conservation is already a priority in the plans for the Reid Park Zoo expansion.

Grow shade on your property to help it stay cooler and hold moisture in the land. Sculpt your yard into basins and swales to capture and slow the flow of any rain that falls. Plant native trees and bushes next to or in your basins.  Give water a second use. Direct water from your washing machine, shower, and bathroom sink outside to feed a thirsty plant.

In front of the Zoo’s Conservation Learning Center (CLC) there is a huge rain cistern to collect rainwater from the roof to use as needed during dry times. You may be amazed by how much water can be collected from one monsoon storm. For example, from a 1,000 square foot rooftop (25’ x 40’), if a single inch of rain falls, 600 gallons of water will flow into the tank. Since many people live in houses that are 2,000 square feet, that would mean 1,200 gallons of water! When you consider the rooftop space of the CLC, you’ll realize why that cistern is so gigantic.

If you’re a Tucson Water customer, check out the amazing rebates available to help you pay for installing rainwater and gray water harvesting systems.

In a normal year, Tucson receives 10-12 inches of rain. When you convert those inches into gallons, the surprising but calculated fact is that the amount of water used by the city of Tucson is LESS than the amount of rainfall! If we can harvest enough rain, we wouldn’t even need the CAP water.  We don’t need expensive, complex equipment and technology. We simply need the will to take up the challenge. When we do, we may find that in fact it doesn’t feel like pain and sacrifice; it feels like satisfaction and success. 

And our rivers can flow again.

The King of Beasts! The Queen of Beasts! Symbol of Africa and of the wild. Symbol of power and strength. Top of the food chain. Fierce. Playful. Gentle. Ferocious. Majestic. Sleepy. Lions have fascinated people from the beginning of recorded history. They have starred in books, movies, songs, and art. Fans of the Lion King know that Simba, the Swahili word for lion, also means “king,” “strong,” and “determined.” In English, to call someone “lionhearted” means that he or she is courageous and strong.  

Physical description

You have seen pictures of lions in books or movies, and maybe you have seen living lions in a zoo. How would you describe what a lion looks like? A large animal with short, tan fur, roughly the size of a tapir and smaller than a zebra? Looks a bit like a big, tall housecat? Has a muscular body and limbs, and a deep chest? A short neck, and a round head with short ears and eyes that face forward? Sharp, retractable claws and large canine teeth? Some with extra-long hair around their necks and shoulders? All correct descriptions of these iconic and beloved creatures!

Size

African lions are the second-largest of the large cat genus, Panthera, which also includes tigers, jaguars, and leopards. Lions are taller than tigers, but not as long or as heavy. Adult female lions (often called lionesses) usually weigh 265 to 395 pounds – a lot heavier than a housecat! – and stand almost 3½ feet tall at the shoulder – about the height of a 4- or 5-year-old girl or boy. Female lions are usually 4½ to 5½ feet long in the body. Male lions are usually bigger than females – 330 to 550 pounds, 5½ to 8 feet long in the body, and 4 feet tall at the shoulder. 

Both females and males have tails that are 2 to 3 feet long and have a dark tuft of fur at the tip. The difference in size between females and males is an example of something called “sexual dimorphism.” Another aspect of sexual dimorphism in African Lions is that male lions have impressive manes – a collar of longer, thicker, often darker fur that covers their necks and shoulders. Female and male lions differ much more than females and males of other large cat species. 

Native range and habitat

There are two subspecies of lion, African lions and Asiatic lions. Almost all wild Asiatic lions live in a single reserve (protected area) in India, and there are only a few hundred of them. Wild African lions number in the thousands and also live in reserves or national parks. There a few small reserves with lions in central and western Africa, but most African lions live in protected reserves in eastern and southern Africa. Within these areas, lions can adapt to savannah, grassland, open woodlands, or even semi-desert – essentially any habitat where they can find cover for hunting. 

Social structure

African lions are the most social of all the cats. They usually live in groups called prides that can have as many as a few dozen members. A pride usually has several adult females that are related to each other, one or more unrelated adult males, and several cubs and sub-adults. Female lions often stay in their mother’s pride for life. Males leave the pride at sexual maturity and take over another pride or form a new pride of their own. 

African lions are territorial. They declare their territory by scent-marking with urine and by roaring – other animals can hear a lion’s deep, resonant roar from miles away! African lions ferociously defend their territory from other lions, usually with the males of the pride fighting any other male that transgresses into the pride’s territory. 

Diet and hunting

Lions are carnivores – they eat meat. Wildlife biologists call them obligate carnivores. That means that their bodies cannot make some of the nutrients they need to survive, and they must get those nutrients by eating other animals. In the wild, lions hunt a wide variety of prey animals, but mainly large mammals. Among their favorites are antelope, wildebeest, zebra, and sometimes juvenile elephants, giraffes, rhinos, or hippos. When they cannot catch or scavenge large prey, though, lions will also eat birds, reptiles, or marine animals – really, whatever is available. In agricultural areas near villages, lions will feed on domestic livestock. Lions in zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, are fed a balanced diet that includes ground meat with added vitamins, beef bones, and sometimes thawed carcasses of smaller mammals. 

Lions hunt in groups with other members of their pride. Most of the hunting is done by the pride’s females. Lions are not the fastest runners and they don’t have stamina to run long distances, so instead they use stealth, teamwork, and strength. Binocular vision from their forward-facing eyes makes them very good at judging distances. They use cover from grass and brush to sneak up close to their prey, often at dusk when it is harder to be seen, and then they launch their attach with a short burst of speed, and use their strength to pull down and kill their prey. 

When lions are not hunting, they spend a lot of time resting and sleeping. A lion will usually spend 18-20 hours of each day napping. Lions have no natural predators, so they can safely sleep on the ground, in the open. 

Reproduction & development.

 Following a gestation of about 3½ months, a pregnant female lion gives birth to a litter of 2-3 cubs. A newborn lion cub is tiny – about 2 pounds, has spotted fur, and often still has its eyes closed. Newborn cubs are almost helpless, so the mother keeps her cubs hidden from predators and separate from the rest of the pride for the first 6-8 weeks of life, rejoining the pride after that. The females in a pride usually give birth around the same time, and they then raise their growing cubs communally, with all the mothers sharing responsibility for care and protection of all the vulnerable young ones.

Lion cubs playfully stalking and pouncing on each other and on adults is one of the cutest behaviors in the animal kingdom! They’re clearly having fun, but they are also practicing crucial hunting skills.Young lions begin to participate in hunts when they are about 2 years old. Female lions begin to bear young at around 3-4 years old, and males begin to father cubs at around 5 years old. 

Lifespan

In the wild, male lions typically live to about 12 years, and females to about 16 years. Lions in zoos, with human care, typically live much longer, up to about 30 years. 

Conservation status

Paleontologists have determined that about ten thousand years ago, lions lived in most of Africa, southern Asia, southeastern Europe, and much of North and South America. Lions today are found in a much narrower range, though, and the number of African lions has dropped dramatically: 10-fold in the past 100 years, and about 3-fold in the last 20 years alone! There are now only about 20,000 African lions left in the wild, and they need help from us in order for the species to survive. 

What can you do to help protect and conserve African lions in the wild? The major threats to lions in the wild are loss of habitat due to either climate change or human development, and hunting for the wildlife trade. Visiting a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is one fun way to help – AZA zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, use part of their proceeds from ticket sales and membership fees to support researchers and conservation programs in Africa that work to preserve this amazing animal species.  

(And don’t forget to visit their cousins, a pair of beautiful and critically endangered tigers, when the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete. You’ll be helping to save them as well.)   

What’s that Screamer?

What has a chicken-looking beak, long legs with big toes, and screams like a two year old?  A Screamer of course! You’d never guess it by looking at them but these large birds are related to ducks and geese and live near tropical and sub-tropical wetlands in South America. 

Hunters beware!  The loud cries of the Screamer can be heard for miles around and help guard their habitat from approaching danger.  Many other species, such as the Blue Throated Macaw benefit from these bird watchdogs.  However, the Screamers themselves do not often need to worry about hunters.  Their skin contains tiny air sacs making their spongy meat not something someone would want to serve for a meal!  Their skeleton’s pneumatic (air filled) bones extend even to the outermost toe bones. 

Prepare to be screamed at!

There are three species of Screamers, all found in South America. 

  • The Horned Screamer has a calcified spike on its forehead and looks like a bird unicorn.  This bird, called Arauco in Spanish, is the official bird of the Department of Arauca and the Municipality of Arauca in Columbia. Listen to the Horned Screamer call.  
  • The Black Necked Screamer, or Northern Screamer, has a declining population and is classified as near threatened due to habitat loss.  Listen to the Northern Screamer call. 
  • The Southern Crested Screamer of east central South America is the species at Reid Park Zoo.  Listen to the Crested Screamer call.

More interesting than the average bird, literally!

  • Habitat loss is not the only threat to this species.  Some farmers will take them and use them to guard chickens with their danger scream.
  • They make a crackling sound when they fly due to the air sacs under their skin and around their bones.  
  • They have sharp bone spurs on their wings-and they know how to use them!!!  Although they are even tempered birds they will use these spurs to defend themselves and their territory.
  • The horn on the horned screamer is made of cartilage, easily breaks and grows back to about six inches in length.
  • Their long toes are used to grab vegetation while wading in the water. Sometimes they’ll even be seen swimming.  And this time of year, you have a good chance of seeing them swim at the Reid Park Zoo!

Screams sometimes translate as “Get away! That’s MY mate!”

Screamers are monogamous and mate for life.  Together they build a well hidden nest on land close to the water.  They share the duties of incubating the eggs and raising the chicks.  A clutch is typically 3-5 large eggs, hatching in about 45 days.  Although screamers are herbivores, while feeding the young they may feed on invertebrates and other small animals. The chicks are able to swim immediately and fledge in about 8-10 weeks.

Check them out

We have two Southern Crested Screamers at Reid Park Zoo.  Brothers Lionel and Echo were both hatched in Birmingham, Alabama from different clutches.  Lionel was hatched October 15, 2012, and now weighs almost 7 1/2 pounds.  Echo was hatched on June 11, 2017 and now weighs almost 8 pounds. Echo came to Reid Park Zoo on October 7, 2019. Lionel came to Reid Park Zoo from Atlanta on November 11, 2020.   

The next time you’re at the Reid Park Zoo, follow the path into South America.  There you’ll find two large Crested Screamers sharing their space with the capybaras.  Although they can be loud as their name suggests, these birds spend many hours enjoying their habitat.  Check out and enjoy the crested screamer at The Reid Park Zoo, and not too soon in the future, you’ll be able to  compare these fascinating creatures to many exciting new bird species in the Reid Park Zoo expansion!