Monsoon Diversions: A Primate Primer

As the heat and monsoon rains of the desert southwest force us indoors, I thought it might be a good time to dust off that old black and white Composition notebook (you know the one) and reminisce about your early school days. I’d like you to revisit Biology class, when you were first introduced to some of the longest lists in the world, those of the animal, vegetable, and mineral variety. To keep it manageable, let’s just focus on the animals and one Order in particular, the Primates. 

A master list maker classifies…everything on the planet 

Classifying animals has never been an easy task. Carl Linnaeus didn’t attempt his first comprehensive list of animals until the 10th edition of Systema Naturae (1758), his encyclopedic catalog of everything on the planet. To make the list more manageable, Linnaeus and the scientists who came after him divided the Primates into two suborders based on their morphology (size, shape, color, and structure): The Prosimians and the Anthropoids/aka Simians. Think of the Prosimians as pre-Simians (before Apes) on the evolutionary time scale.

Modern DNA technology has shaken things up since then, and distinguishing one species from another remains an ongoing process. In the 21st century, because we can study an organism’s DNA or genome, classification is based on evolutionary history, or phylogeny. In biology, the term phylogenesis means how a species develops and diversifies and how species are related by common ancestors.  

While we may quibble with the content of Linnaeus’ lists, we can be grateful for his idea about naming things. He formalized a standard binomial nomenclature, the two-name system of identifying organisms. The first name, the generic part, identifies the genus, and the second name, the specific part, identifies the species. Unless you’re a biologist, you don’t need to memorize these names; it’s just comforting to know that a standardized system for naming exists.

It’s all down to noses 

Even if you’re not an evolutionary biologist, there are some simple ways you can classify Primates. A good place to start is to identify the continents where these animals live in the wild. You’ll find that Apes live in Africa and Asia, Prosimians in Africa and Asia, and Monkeys in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Exception: A single species of Monkey, the Barbary Macaque, lives in Gibraltar, so technically, Europe. 


Linnaeus differentiated the two Primate suborders based on the structure of their noses.  It’s a good bet the noses aren’t the FIRST things you’ve noticed when seeing a primate, but they will be from now on.

 Create your own handy reference for the next time you visit the zoo.  On a sheet of paper (or mentally), draw a large circle,  and then draw a straight line down from the top to the bottom dividing the circle in half. Each Primate suborder gets half a circle. 

  Here’s a quick glossary.   To describe all these noses in scientific terms, Linnaeus turned to the Greeks. 

Strepsis, a turning around (like a squiggly comma)

Haplo, onefold, single, simple

Platu (Platy), flat or broad (like a plate)

Kata (Cata), down

These prefixes are all attached to the infix Rhin (Rhine), meaning nose

Now that you’re in the know, label one side of the circle Strepsirhines to represent the primitive Prosimians. These species have a wet or moist rhinarium (tip of nose) just like your dog or cat, are heavily reliant on their sense of smell, and are primarily nocturnal. They live in Africa and Asia and include:

  • Lemurs, who live only on the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa and nowhere else in the world
  • Lorises, who live in Asia
  • Loris-related animals, Galagos (Bushbabies) and Pottos, who live in Africa

Label the other side of the circle Haplorhines to represent the Anthropoids/aka Simians. These species have a dry or simple nose (lack of a rhinarium), rely heavily on vision, and are primarily diurnal. They live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and include:

  • Tarsiers, quirky creatures who live only in Asia and share some characteristics with both suborders. Because they are a dry-nosed species, we list them here. 
  • Monkeys and Apes, a huge group of dry-nosed species which are further differentiated by the shape of their nose and orientation of their nostrils. On your drawing, divide the Haplorhine space into two parts and add two more labels. 
  • Platyrrhines, Monkeys who live only in Latin America (Mexico, Central America, and South America). They have a dry or simple nose that is flat with outward-facing nostrils. For Platyrrhine Monkeys, visualize a Common Squirrel Monkey, a Capuchin, or a Marmoset.
  • Catarrhines, represented by two superfamilies of Monkeys and Apes, who live in Africa and Asia except for that single exception, the Barbary Macaque living in Gibraltar. They have a dry or simple nose that is narrow with downward- or forward-facing nostrils. For Catarrhine Monkeys, visualize a Baboon, a Macaque, or a Mandrill. For Catarrhine Apes, visualize a Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Gibbon, or Orangutan. 

If you examine a Primate’s nose and ask yourself these questions—1) does the species have a wet nose/rhinarium or a dry nose?  and 2) if dry, are the nostrils flat and outward-facing or narrow and downward- or forward-facing?  You are well on your way to classifying these animals. 

Would you like to test those classification skills??   Well, there’s a perfect opportunity right in the heart of Tucson.

Visiting Primates at Reid Park Zoo!

If you’d like to spend a great morning outside in nature, I encourage you to stop by the Reid Park Zoo and visit the Primates who live there. Just inside the front plaza area, you can begin your tour by navigating counterclockwise through the areas representing Asia, South America, and Africa. Each Primate’s official conservation status, as determined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ,is provided.

Lar Gibbon, Endangered, a Lesser Ape species from Southeast Asia

LOCATION: From the Chilean Flamingo lagoon, follow the main path between the carousel on the left and the Flamingo house on the right. 

Meet 48-year old Billy, Reid Park Zoo’s geriatric Lar gibbon. Famous for his morning territorial song. Eats fruit (loves bananas), nutritional primate biscuits, plant material, occasionally insects or even a small bird. Known for his brachiating skills, swinging hand over hand from ropes in his habitat. Sometimes seen sleeping in a sitting position with his hands resting on his knees.

Common Squirrel Monkey, Least Concern (but exploited), a Monkey species from South America

LOCATION: Continue south a few steps, then turn right towards the South America Loop. Turn left and pass the Jaguar habitat.

Presenting  7-year-old females Glitter and Sparkles and 4-year-old male Parker, the zoo’s young troop of squirrel monkeys. Fast-moving, extremely playful. Eat insects, small vertebrates, fruit, nectar, and flowers. Enjoy foraging and figuring out food puzzles. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan. 

Ring-Tailed Lemur, Endangered, a Lemur species from Madagascar off the coast of Africa

LOCATION: Find your way back to the main path. Continue south up the hill and around the corner, bearing right at the Otter habitat, and make your way just a few feet past the Lion pavilion, the roofed structure with bench seating. 

You’ll be delighted to see 9-year-old brothers Oak, Elm, and Linden who came to Tucson from Saint Catherine’s Island, a sanctuary for endangered and near-extinct animals and birds off the coast of Georgia. Most terrestrial of all Lemur species but enjoy climbing ropes and trees in their habitat. Often seen walking with tails erect or perched on platforms with tails hanging down. Eat fruit, nutritional primate biscuits, seeds, nectar, and leafy greens. When cold, cuddle together in one big Lemur ball. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan.   

Lion-Tailed Macaque, Endangered, a Monkey species from India in Asia

LOCATION: Go south towards the Pollinator Garden, then right to the Conservation Learning Center building.

You may need to look up to meet geriatric Macaques Hadji, a 29-year-old male, and Baniece “Beanie,” a 33-year-old female, both born at Reid Park Zoo. If not moving through the lower branches of their trees or on the ground foraging, may be perched up high above you. Eat fruit, seeds, leaves, nutritional primate biscuits, lizards, and insects. Enjoy popsicles or chewing on ice cubes during the hot Tucson summer. 

One more species you can visit now  – and soon we’ll also have the Siamang Gibbons in the Reid Park Zoo expansion….and you won’t want to miss them!   But it’s time to mention the

Black and White Ruffed Lemur, Critically Endangered, a Lemur species from Madagascar off the coast of Africa

LOCATION: Go to the east side of the zoo, near the Alligator and African Wild Dog habitats.

Meet 8-year-old female Tallie and 16-year-old male Junior, a very athletic pair of primarily arboreal Lemurs. Enjoy climbing and hanging from the branches and ropes in their habitat. Tallie has orange eyes. Loud vocalizations when annoyed or startled, sometimes audible from the parking lot. Eat fruit, leaves, seeds, and nectar. Often seen doing what can only be described as Lemur yoga poses. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan. 

Hope for them and for us

The conservation status for most of these species is grim. About a third of all Lemurs are Critically Endangered—one step from Extinction—and the remaining two-thirds are Endangered and threatened with extinction. In mainland Africa, 53% of all Primate species are under threat. 

At the heart of this crisis is a dire need for alternative, sustainable livelihoods to replace the current reliance on deforestation and unsustainable use of wildlife. Humans need to drastically change their relationship to other primates. 

What’s in it for us? A 2020 article in the Smithsonian Magazine confirmed that people living in awe of nature—having that feeling of “being small in the face of nature”—felt more generous and kinder. Experiencing that same sense of awe is also thought to boost the immune system and sense of creativity.  

By visiting the zoo, you’re helping these incredible primates and other species come back from the brink of extinction. A portion of your admission supports the scientists and conservation organizations working with these species in the wild. 

Think about it

The Primates at Reid Park Zoo representing their cousins in the wild are the face of nature. With the planet’s human population now more than 7 1/2 billion, we vastly outnumber them. When you meet them, appreciate their wildness and experience that sense of awe. Think about your own use of our planet’s resources, how you shop, how you travel, and what you eat. Reflect on how your habits affect the lives of your fellow humans and your fellow Primates. 

You can take action

Humans are a resourceful species, and there is a lot we can do to support our fellow Primates. 

  • Take a stand against the illegal pet trade
  • Stop watching videos or films that feature wild animal “selfies” or “domesticated” exotic animals
  • Practice the 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Repurpose, Recycle, and Reuse
  • Shop sustainably: Use reliable Eco Apps and look for Eco/Green symbols or labels to guide you, such as Sustainable Palm Oil, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly, Seafood Watch, and Forest Stewardship Council
  • Reduce your carbon footprint by ridesharing, cycling, and walking when you can
  • Reduce your carbon footprint by supporting local makers, crafts people, ranchers, and farmers 

When we change our lives, we’ll change their lives. 

On behalf of their counterparts in the wild, all the Primates at Reid Park Zoo—the spry senior, Billy, the energetic youngsters, Glitter, Sparkles, and Parker, the playful brothers, Oak, Elm, and Linden, the nimble seniors, Hadji and Beanie, and the spunky couple, Tallie and Junior—thank you!  

Wings of Wonder Aviary 

The Wings of Wonder Aviary in the Reid Park Zoo expansion has big plans – plans to bring us an array of interesting and beautiful birds in all sizes, in shady, tree-filled habitats with opportunities to just sit, meander, de-stress,  and observe, or if you’re in the mood, to feed some of the species!

Sit Back or Interact!

There are far too many species slated to elaborate on here, but let’s start with a list of birds that are in the plans at present.   Of course, depending on construction time and species availability, this list may change a bit by the time we can visit the Pathway to Asia – but here goes!

The Walk-Through Aviary

 Here are images of just a few of the birds that you’ll see in the Wings of Wonder Aviary – and they will NOT be hard to locate (you’ll see why in a minute).    In anticipation of the WOW Aviary grand opening,  we present some amazing beauty. Click on the links below!

DOVES:  In your back yard, you’re probably used to seeing White Wing Doves and Mourning Doves, whose subdued coloration provides great camouflage in the desert.   But in the Wings of Wonder, you’ll find some of their extremely colorful relatives.

  1.   Luzon Bleeding Heart Dove – see an image here
  2.   Another dove,  The Beautiful Fruit Dove – take a look
  3.   Dove #3, the Emerald Dove

PIGEONS:   The doves’ larger cousins are NOT to be outdone by the beautiful species above!   The Wings of Wonder will also feature some almost unbelievably gorgeous pigeons as well, such as the

  1. Nicobar Pigeon, with its stunning colors and distinctive “collar”
  2. Blue Crowned Pigeon,  which will be easy to spot with its vivid color and showy crown

Go BIG:  Are you in the mood for something larger?   How about seeing 

  1. A Peacock Pheasant, which can spread its tail feathers just like a peacock does!
  2. A Tragopan, another type of pheasant…these two just don’t much resemble those Thanksgiving centerpieces!

Want to get closer?

The Reid Park Zoo expansion is also poised to offer us a wonderful, interactive experience feeding some amazing feathered friends in the Interactive portion of the Aviary.  Researchers are now able to document the benefits we get from all levels of interacting with wildlife, and these can include improved mood, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress levels, and so on.  So come on in to the Wings of Wonder!

In a zoo setting, provided that the conditions around this interaction are safe and positive for both humans and the animals involved, as they will be in the Pathway to Asia,  the chance to actually offer food to birds in the Wings of Wonder Aviary will not only contribute to the well-being of the birds.  According to researcher Mark James Learmonth of the Animal Welfare Science Centre in Australia, such human/wildlife interactions can “potentially be a very powerful tool to increase public awareness, engagement, and support for conservation practices…”   What a win-win!  

Which birds might approach us for a treat?

Plenty of them!   Here’s information about just a few of the species who will waiting to meet you in the Interactive Wings of Wonder Aviary.

The Crested Wood Partridge:  This well-rounded beauty is related to the pheasants you saw above….and though they can fly in a pinch (sort of like our local Gambel’s Quail), they most often dash around on their stumpy little legs.   They forage for seeds, small fruits, and sometimes snails – and they’re clever about it – they wait under trees that are full of monkeys, flying foxes, or other birds, who are not the tidiest of nature’s diners.   In other words, great edible bounty rains down from those trees, and the Crested Wood Partridges are glad to devour whatever falls their way!

The Vietnamese Pheasant:   This type of pheasant was only discovered in 1964 in Vietnam, and is one of the rarest kinds of pheasant you’ll encounter.   Their populations are small and they are endangered by hunting, deforestation, and even the pet trade.   They like to eat berries, seeds, and leaves, and even the occasional insect.

The Red-Whiskered Bulbul:   Time to look up in the trees!   The Red-Whiskered Bulbul is about 7 inches long and can be easily identified by their pointy black crests and their red face patches.  Their tails are long and brown, and in the wilds of China and Southeast Asia, they like to eat fruit, nectar, and insects.  We’re not sure exactly what you’ll be able to feed them in the Wings of Wonder, but we’re guessing it won’t be the bugs!   As for fruit, it needs to be fairly over-ripe in order for their small beaks to puncture the skin.

The Red Avadavat:  You may never have heard of them, even if somebody uses their other common names, the Red Munia, or the Strawberry Finch.  Just as they have many names – groups of them can also be called by a variety of nouns – a “charm,” a “company,” or a “trembling!”  These birds are not very big, about 3-4 inches long, and a lot of the time they have pretty nondescript brownish feathers.  But during breeding season, the males change to a beautiful scarlet color with lots of distinctive white dots, and the females sport a lovely yellow breast.  They just adore devouring insects, but also will eat sprouted seeds.

The Pekin Robin:  This little beauty is actually another finch, and is sometimes called a Red-billed Leiothrix, or a Japanese Nightingale.   They are about 6 inches long and are usually olive green, but as you can see from the image above, also display many other colors – yellow, orange, red, black, and blue-gray.   They sing beautifully, but in the wild are quite secretive.  They are omnivores, and native to India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Burma.   However,  they’re obviously really popular, because they were introduced in the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1900s and many still live on Oahu.  They have also been successfully introduced in France, Japan, and Spain.  And soon, here in Tucson!  

These are just a sampling of the amazing creatures that you’ll be able to see and interact with in the Wings of Wonder!   So come to visit the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia if you’d like to be inspired and support conservation.    Visit the Aviary especially if you just want to chill out, or if you’d like to take amazing photographs, if you’d like to learn, or even if you’d like to feed some of the most beautiful birds anywhere.   See you there! 

What is bright green, lives high up in the trees, and has over 100 teeth?

A Green Tree Python! These arboreal snakes are born yellow or brick-red and turn bright green as they mature. Their vivid color, with a pattern of spots and stripes, provides a perfect camouflage. They can be virtually invisible in the tropical rainforests of New Guinea, eastern Indonesia and the northeast Cape York Peninsula of Australia. They have a prehensile tail (capable of grasping) that helps them climb trees and also plays a devilishly clever role in hunting.

They rest coiled horizontally on tree limbs forming a ‘saddle’ pose with their head resting in the middle, which is also a good position to collect rain water.  In the hunting position, the head is looking down ready to strike, and they often dangle and wiggle their worm-like tails to lure curious prey. This coiled position allows them to spring into action for a quick capture and instant immobilization of a tasty meal.   These ambush predators are patient hunters, moving infrequently; in fact, to avoid being revealed, they typically only change positions during dusk or dawn.  

Green Tree Pythons are non-venomous constrictors.  Those hundred teeth are backward-facing, and primarily keep the captured prey in place until it can be eased down into the digestive tract, because  they swallow everything  whole.   They eat small mammals, rodents, frogs and other amphibians, birds, and other reptiles, like lizards, and though they’re capable of moving down from the trees to the ground, most of what they need comes to them and their wiggling “worm” high in the tree canopies.  Juveniles are diurnal (active during the day) and hunt smaller animals.  Adults are nocturnal and hunt larger mammals and reptiles, since they can open their mouths wider.   Although they spend most of their time in the trees, Green Tree Pythons occasionally will come down to the base of a tree and use their sight and heat-sensing labial pits  to locate an unlucky victim. 

Colorful Babies

Green Tree Pythons have a seasonal breeding cycle; however, it is believed that they do not breed every year.  The females prefer to nest in hollow trees and will have a clutch of about 5-35 eggs. Females protect and warm the eggs by wrapping around them with a ‘muscular shiver’ to produce heat. Eggs hatch after about 50 days, normally in October or November.  This coincides with the beginning of the wet season, ensuring that there will be ample food supply.  About 12 inches in length when hatched, the baby pythons’ brick-red or yellow color is great camouflage and blends into the  low-lying tree branches on the forest edge, where smaller animals reside.  Here they can find lizards and small insects.  The color change to the vivid green occurs between six and twelve months when the young python is about 22 inches long and is moving higher up the tree in search of larger prey. This “greening” is complete at about 2-3 years of age and these beautiful and resourceful pythons can grow to be about five feet in length. 

If it looks like a Green Tree Python….

The Green Tree Python and the Emerald Tree Boa are examples of convergent evolution.   Although they live on different continents and are not closely related, they look and act like each other and are found in similar habitats. Both live in tropical rainforests and consume diets that are alike.  Both share the same resting and hunting positions. Both have red colored juveniles and both become bright green as adults. There are also significant differences, though.   The Green Tree Python has finer scales and a more rounded nose.  The Emerald Tree Boa has another row of heat pits above the mouth. The yellow color of the young Green Tree Python is never found in the Emerald Tree Boa, and The Green Tree Python is oviparous (lays eggs) while the Emerald Tree Boa is ovoviviparous (live births).  

Conservation

The green tree pythons are beneficial to their ecosystem by helping maintain a balance of rodents, birds and lizards.  They also are food for several animals such as raptors, owls, dingoes and mangrove monitors. This species is at risk due to reptile enthusiasts collecting them for the pet trade, as well as loss of habitat due to logging. Fortunately, their IUCN conservation status, last assessed in 2017, is ‘least concern’ at this time.   Let’s hope this doesn’t change.

Meet Diego and Frida

Reid Park Zoo has a pair of Green Tree Pythons.  Diego and Frida  moved to Tucson in 2008.  They are contentedly housed in the Conservation Learning Center and are always on display, so you can safely get a really good look at them.      It’s fun to visit and observe them closely – see if you can identify the “saddle position” or one of their tails looking deceptively wormlike – but remember, they want to be as still as possible in order not to tip you off!    If you’re bringing children who might be afraid of snakes, you might enjoy reading ‘Verdi’ ahead of time.  It’s a wonderful children’s book by Janelle Cannon, which explains the color change of a young Green Tree Python, as well as the challenges of life in the rainforest treetops.

It’s exciting to think of all the reptile relatives that will soon live nearby in the Reid Park Zoo expansion, but no matter what showy reptiles come to live in the Pathway to Asia, (like a Komodo Dragon!)  Diego and Frida will still rank among the most beautiful creatures of their kind.

If you’re somebody who likes to visit the Reid Park Zoo, or other reputable zoos and aquariums, chances are you are a little bit more concerned about environmental matters than the average person.   That’s great – but why is it happening?   Psychologists point out that those positive memories you’re getting by watching the animals in a beautiful environment may be a result of a few things:  the experience of seeing a baby elephant imitating her big sister, a pack of wild dogs joyfully running around and jostling one another, or even a rhino enjoying a mud bath can be quite enjoyable and vivid . These sights may even seem familiar and evoke emotions if you imitated your own big sister, jockeyed for position with siblings or friends, or just remember the pleasure of lolling in a cool spot on a hot day.   You’re forming pleasant psychological connections with creatures you would probably never encounter in your lifetime, if not for the Zoo.     

 Familiarity, connection with your own experiences, and even emotion all combine to make a simple moment, like those at the Zoo, significant and memorable.  Possibly you’re also sharing this experience with someone else, which only heightens memories.    And this sort of wonderful experience is a large part of what the Reid Park Zoo, or any quality zoo or aquarium, hopes you’ll gain from visiting.   But there’s something more!   Because you have a chance to learn about and experience these animals in person, not just on a video, you’re much more likely to care about them – and you’re open to learning ways to protect them.  That’s the mission of the Reid Park Zoo, “to create inspiring memories for all by connecting people and animals to ensure the protection of wild animals and wild places.”

Why Care About Conservation?

We expect organizations like the World Wildlife Federation to remind us that wildlife conservation is important, that all of us depend on biodiversity more than we realize, and that the fates of animals in the wild are inextricably linked to the fates of humans.   But you might be surprised that government agencies like FEMA tell us the same things, and international organizations like the United Nations link human sustainability to the preservation of wild places and wildlife as well.   All living things on earth are connected, and though we humans may consider ourselves the alpha species on the planet, in many ways we are dependent on something as simple as a blade of grass or a worm or insect underground that’s aerating the soil in which is grows.

Acceptance of the reality of climate change is growing, probably because even skeptics have to agree that temperatures are changing dramatically, as are severe weather events.   The good news is that the conversations are happening among individuals, in the media, and in governments.    The urgent challenge now is to educate and convince people that our actions may be key to mitigating this crisis. And preserving the wild and its inhabitants is certainly one component of such an effort.   But in order for us to want to mitigate climate change or save endangered species, many people might need to first understand all the benefits that a more stable planet confers upon us, and has always done.  That’s where government agencies, which are primarily concerned with human welfare, come in.  

Not quite ready for a bumper sticker

Have you ever seen a bumper sticker declaring SAVE THE SEA GRASS?  Well, probably not, and it’s not very catchy anyway, but let’s step back and consider sea turtles.   We’ve all seen those wonderful video clips of the young racing toward the ocean directly after hatching, often with helpful humans nearby to ward off opportunistic predators.     But the cuteness factor and attention seem to diminish once they make it to the water, and it’s hoped, to adulthood.   Sea turtles spend their lives underwater munching on sea grass.   And that sea grass depends on the constant trimming that the turtles and other sea creatures provide.  In turn, the sea grass nourishes and provides breeding grounds for many aquatic creatures.   So why should we be concerned about the decline in naturally occurring sea grass beds?   Well, not only the sea turtles but many species of fish depend on that grass, and three billion people around the world depend on the protein that seafood provides.   Also, if you’re concerned about economics, it’s worth knowing that 34 million people worldwide rely on fishing for a living today.  

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

That’s one reason that the U.N. has established the CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora) guidelines as part of their Sustainable Development Goals, which all benefit humans.   These include Goal 14, Life Below Water (for example, sea grass!)  Goal 15, Life on Land (e.g. rainforests), and Goal 1, No Poverty.  Wait, what?  No poverty?     How does that relate to conservation?

SDG Goal 1 seeks “the economic advancement of all humankind”, and this inescapably requires the responsible stewardship of wildlife such as fish and reptiles, plants (because so many medicines and other products, like food, are plant based), and timber, which provides shelter and fuel.  It also requires the help of wildlife to maintain forests through seed dispersal, pest control, and the alteration of landscapes and maintenance of wildlife corridors.    

World Wildlife Day – Getting the Word Out

The United Nations General Assembly has been an advocate for conservation for many years, and established World Wildlife Day in 2013 as a way to bring attention to the importance of biodiversity. On the occasion of the Day in 2020, the World Wildlife Federation compiled six good reasons to care about wildlife conservation, which include

  • Protecting against Climate Change.    Grazing wildlife can minimize the severity of forest fires, by limiting fuel for their spread.  Also, wildlife provides health maintenance for forests by dispersing seeds, limiting potentially damaging insects, and clearing space for germinating trees.  
  • Wildlife is a critical food source in many parts of the world.  In tropical countries, especially, people rely on medium to large mammals, birds and reptiles for protein – millions of tons of meat per year.  Losing these critical sources of nutrition would cause an alarming increase in at the least childhood anemia, and at worst starvation.
  • Chemicals from plants and especially amphibians are crucial to modern pharmaceuticals.  More and more, medications are being developed to treat things like high blood pressure, depression, stroke, and even memory loss – and all using compounds from plants and especially frogs!  Even sheep’s wool offers us vitamin D3 and of course lanolin.  
  • Significance to cultures around the world.   Not as easily quantifiable as some of the other reasons,  our connection to wildlife and wild places has supported our mental, physical, and in some cases spiritual well being as long as humans have inhabited the planet.  Studies now verify the health benefits of being in nature and interacting with animals, even just being in the presence of wildlife.  The most studied effects include the reduction of cortisol levels (it’s the stress hormone) and also the lowering of heart rate and blood pressure – in other words, the attainment of tranquility in our increasingly urbanized world.
  • Improving soil health and fertility.  While it’s not as pleasant to imagine as nature’s tranquility, the digestion and redistribution of plant materials provided by wildlife in natural environments provided nutrients to the soils and even the waters of their habitats, allowing biodiversity to flourish. 
  • Maintaining ecological health and keeping wildlife corridors open.  Large species classified as “Keystone species,” like elephants, alligators, rhinos, and one you may not have heard of, the Bison bonasus, a species of bison living in the Carpathian Mountains, and who are the largest land mammals in Europe, specialize in altering the landscapes where they live in ways beneficial to other species.   Their size and strength and natural inclinations also allow them to take the lead in creating wildlife corridors, ways for many species to migrate in search of food or water.

Government agencies, conservation organizations, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, The United Nations, and countless individuals are on a mission to preserve the amazing biodiversity of our planet, which inspires a great deal of hope and optimism.     If you love animals, the mission becomes more personal to you – but even if you only value humans, it’s clear that our lives are immeasurably enhanced by efforts to preserve the natural world.   

So join in with a greater good – and as a start, stop into the Reid Park Zoo, check out the conservation and climate change initiatives that are everywhere on the grounds, and most of all, connect with the animals!   You’ll be glad you did; and quite possibly,  you’ll realize you can’t wait for the Reid Park Zoo expansion!  In the Pathway to Asia, you’ll be able to connect with even more species who need our advocacy.  And gain some great memories at the same time.

A Wanderoo? Tucson has two!

Tucked in between the Pollinator Garden and the Conservation Learning Center at the Reid Park Zoo are two very popular and fascinating Wanderoos – but you’d better look up if you want to see them. Though they may be splashing around in their pond or dashing behind trees and bushes, it’s more likely they’ll be curiously looking down at you from a great height when they’re not leaping and swinging around up there. Their humanlike hands have opposable thumbs and black fingernails (so stylish at present!) and you may see them sitting on a branch to expertly inspect and daintily munch on their tasty treats, which are often hidden throughout their habitat. The Wanderoos are better known in this part of the world as Lion-Tailed Macaques.

These clever primates have lovely manes, like lions, but they get their name from the tufts on the ends of their tails. Their fur is silky, long, and black, so the white manes provide a dramatic contrast. There are several types of macaques, and the Lion-Tailed variety is among the smallest. Males can weigh up to 33 pounds and their bodies are up to 24 inches long, plus another 9-15 inches of tufted tail, and the females are considerably smaller, about half that size. Though they have formidable canine teeth in front, these are used mostly to scare off competing males rather than for hunting. Fruits just need to be located, not subdued. Their favorite fruits are relatives of the fig.

Lion-Tailed Macaques prefer to live in the upper tree canopies of tropical and monsoon forests, and love to eat Durian and Jackfruit, which at one time was widely available up in the trees. In a pinch, they will eat insects, snails, bird eggs, tree frogs, lizards, and so on. They are native to the Western Ghats, a mountain range in India, a place of wonderful biodiversity, at least for now. And Lion-Tailed Macaques are crucially important to that diversity, because they tend to disperse the seeds of all that fruit they eat, either pre- or post-digestion (we’ll leave the details of that to your imagination).

Lion-Tailed Macaques spend their days foraging and traveling to find food – often leaping impressively between the treetops. In between their meals and daily naps, females and juveniles socialize with the other members of their troop, playing together and grooming each other. Males rarely join in though; a troop includes 10-20 individuals with one clearly dominant male, and he is responsible for protecting the entire group. Females can start bearing young at age 5, but even if everything goes well, they only produce one offspring about every 2 ½ years. Young females may stay with the troop indefinitely, but when young males hit puberty, it’s time for them to run off and join a bachelor troop.

Unfortunately, the treetops the Lion-Tailed Macaques inhabit are disappearing at an alarming rate, due to deforestation, agriculture, and ever-expanding human habitation. Wanderoos are beginning to come down from those trees, which increases the potential for conflict with humans. These primates are particularly clever, resourceful, and have extremely dexterous hands. In their native habitat, they have figured out how to remove poisonous stingers by using thick leaves, how to use forest litter as a sort of sponge to soak up moisture from the holes in trees, and even to scoop water from a pool by using coconut shells!

But now their forest homes are fragmented. They can move to other types of forest, for instance dryer deciduous forests, but these will not provide adequate sustenance, so they climb down the trees, cross the highways at their peril, and figure out how to raid human settlements for food, even if it is meant for livestock. They’ve been known to enter homes on tea plantations, looking for and finding fresh food and even garbage to eat. Clearly, this is not a good situation for either the Macaques or the humans living in their midst, but the good news is that the Indian government is taking notice and beginning to protect the forest habitats of the Lion-Tailed Macaques – and more than 500 zoos internationally are now housing them as well, learning more about their reproductive needs in order to stabilize their populations.

Like their relatives the Siamang Gibbons, who are coming to the Reid Park Zoo expansion, Tucson’s own Wanderoos are not just here to delight the public – they’re here to live safely and enjoyably at the same time they’re helping with conservation of their kind in the wild. Come see them – but be sure to look up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A collection for the select few

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

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

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

Things changing for the better

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

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

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

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

The Marvelous Ostrich

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

Impressive Statistics (lots)

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

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

Instant Growth Spurt

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

A fairly simple desert life

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

Popular feathers

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

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

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

At the Reid Park Zoo

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

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

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

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