Archive for the ‘Feature Animals’ Category

It’s feature time! The next animal I’d like to feature is the largest rodent in the world – the capybara! Native to Central and South America, the capybara is actually fairly stable in their numbers and relatively easy to keep in captivity. Males reach up to 150 pounds which is quite large considering fellow species in the rodent category (mice, squirrels, porcupines, beavers, etc). Similar to some other rodents they are often found in family groups, usually around 10-20 individuals large. Females produce 4-5 young per litter and they are communally nursed and raised by the females of the group.

Capybara young at the Toronto Zoo

Their common name, capybara, comes from the native Brazilian ‘one who eats slender leaves’, while their scientific name means ‘water pig’. Both these translated names tell a lot about capybara characteristics. Capybaras are herbivores eating grasses and water plants, as well as fruit and bark. They also practice coprophagy, eating their own feces. This helps to digest tough cellulose and gain more nutrients out of their diet. The capybaras most famous trait is their affinity for water. They are considered semi-aquatic, spending a significant time in the water. This is for many reasons: protection from the sun and heat, to escape predators, and for mating. They have adapted webbed feet to better swim and move along muddy banks, as well as thin coarse hair which dries quickly. Facial features towards the top of their head are easier for water living, and they are able to fold back their ears which prevents water from entering. Being able to remain submerged for up to 5 minutes also helps! Although they only live near water, they are not picky about the type. They are found along rivers, lakes, swamps, ponds, marshes, and even flooded areas. This water requirement enhances their viewing in zoos as well. Seeing them sitting or swimming in the water is interesting and fun for children. Capybaras provide an excellent educational moment for people of all ages: learning about the geography of their native habitat, the species which make up rodents, and adaptations essential for their survival.

Adult at the Toronto Zoo

Group of adults at Arashiyama Zoo

While they may not be one of the major draws to zoos, I have found that they are a fairly common resident of them! Check your local zoo to see if they have them!


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Let’s face it. People love cats. Even those on ‘Team Dog’ will stand in awe at the lion or tiger exhibit. But how many go to the zoo to see the Clouded leopard? I do!

To be honest I never even knew the Clouded leopard existed until I saw one at a zoo. It is quite stunning. Clouded leopards get their name from their spots which are more blurred blotches than actual spots. They are the smallest of the big cats but they can definitely hold their own. Found in the Himalayan regions of Southeast Asia they have a surprisingly wide range despite being classified as vulnerable. Two distinct species exist with three subspecies. The Sunda clouded leopard is from Sumatra and Borneo which many people associate with other animals under threat including the orangutan, rhino, and tiger. Considering this separate species of clouded leopard was not classified until 2006 and not caught on video until 2009, so much more research needs to be done to get a full picture of their habits.


Now at this point you may be asking “but how is this more impressive than their bigger relatives?”. Sure they’re nice to look at but what makes them that feature animal material? Like I said earlier they can hold their own. With the longest tail in proportion to body size the clouded leopard utilizes it well when climbing, which it excels at. Not only can they climb head first down a tree (like a squirrel would) but they also go horizontal too! Not only climbing along branches but also underneath branches upside down. Strong claws and legs allow them to grip underneath and cling to branches. They have also been known to hang from their back feet alone, presumably to snatch at unsuspecting prey passing by underneath.


Perhaps the most impressive fact about clouded leopards is hinted to when it’s referred to as the modern day sabre-tooth. If you’re lucky enough to see one open its mouth when you’re at the exhibit you’ll see what they mean. Clouded leopards have the largest canine teeth compared to skull size of all the cats, up to 2 inches. That is the same size as a tigers in an animal ten times smaller! Not only that they can also open up their mouths wider. Clouded leopards jaws can open up to 100 degrees. In comparison the African lion can only open to about 65 degrees.

Clouded leopards are actually quite elusive and biologists do not know much about them. In fact most of what we know actually comes from specimens in zoos. The more we know, the more we will be able to help their wild counterparts. So next time you’re at the zoo stop in at the Clouded leopard exhibit to discover this amazing species and maybe even a behavioural habit not yet documented!

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Who doesn’t love lemurs?! Lemurs are an amazing group of species that I’ve found are becoming more and more common in zoos. There are almost 100 different species of lemur but I’ve found the most common ones in captivity are ring-tailed lemurs and black and white ruffed lemurs. These are incredibly endearing animals – they are fluffy with long tails and they LOVE to climb. They spend a lot of time grooming within their family groups. If you look closely you will see a nail on their second digit specialized for grooming, as well their lower front teeth resemble a comb and will be used often for that purpose. Madagascar is where all the species of lemurs call home; truly a great example of evolving and adapting to their environment.


Mother ring-tailed lemur with young at the Toronto Zoo

Ring-tailed lemurs are the species I see most often. They are a highly social, living in troops with multiple males and females. Their mating season is relatively short and this results in the young growing up together. You will often see a baby clinging to its mothers back, although the group works together in raising the young. Their most obvious trait is their tail. It’s very long and is striped black and white, like rings. They rely on scent a lot to communicate and have many scent glands on their bodies. They will rub this scent on their long tails to help disperse it from their glands. When moving around they will carry their tails high in an ‘S’ form, this is to help communicate with others in their group. They can also be very vocal and have a wide range of sounds, from shrieks to purrs to chirps.



The characteristic ring-tailed lemur tail (Bowmanville Zoo).

Black and white ruffed lemurs are fluffier than the ring-tails and as their name suggests are starker in colour. The piercing yellow eyes against their black and white fur are sure to catch your eye while passing by. Also forming family groups, they tend to be one breeding pair with their offspring. Females will make nests for their young which they will line with their own fur.


Black and white ruffed lemur behind the scenes at Jungle Cat World

With their exceptional climbing abilities and cheeky nature they are sure to be your next favourite stop at the zoo…just to see what they are up to!

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Since we’re finishing up the Year of the Snake I thought I should do a feature on one of my favourite snakes, the eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii). Named for raised scales above their eyes, the eyelash viper has striking features. It comes in a variety of colours including a stunning yellow, mottled green, brown, or grey. Its scales are keeled and rough to the touch which is thought to help in camouflage by helping to deflect light. Found throughout Central America and some of the Northern countries of South America, the eyelash viper sticks to tropical climates.  Being an arboreal snake, they prefer areas with denser foliage and are most commonly found in trees. To help with their lives above the ground they have a strong prehensile tail which can grip the branches. Averaging around 65cm in length they are actually a fairly small snake.


Eyelash viper at the Toronto Zoo. In this photo you can clearly see it’s ‘lashes’ and its pit between the eye and nostril.

The eyelash viper is a nocturnal hunter, generally feeding on small mammals. They are not usually a threat to humans but will bite if provoked or accidentally disturbed. Being a species of viper they have the characteristic hinged fangs that fold back when not in use. A member of the subfamily commonly known as pit vipers, the eyelash viper senses its prey via thermal pits located between its eyes and nostrils. After injecting haemotoxic venom, the eyelash vipers will wait for their prey to die and then consume them.

Eyelash vipers provide many great opportunities for photographers. Since they are generally ambush predators they remain motionless for long periods of time. For young or amateur photographers this provides an easier subject to get clear sharp pictures at the zoo. Also, their colourations can be quite striking and are excellent subject matter.


Eyelash viper at the Toronto Zoo. A relatively small snake which spends much of its life in trees.

Not everyone is a fan of snakes which I understand, but I hope after reading this post you’ll stop by even for a moment at the next eyelash viper exhibit you pass. Their vibrant colouration could make them your stepping stone species into the wonderful world of snakes.

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For the most part zoos make their big bucks off of mammals. They are cute and cuddly and are huge draws for the regular visitor coming to the zoo. I hope through my animal ‘Features’ I can encourage you to also stop and look at some other species you might not have considered before. Butterflies are one of those exhibits that people often overlook because they are animals that are seen fairly often in the wild or visitors are in a rush to see the ‘main attractions’. These people are missing out!

Plain Tiger (Danaus chryssipus) butterflies at the Toronto Zoo

Plain Tiger (Danaus chryssipus) butterflies at the Toronto Zoo

There are over 15 000 species of butterflies in the world, with more being discovered frequently. With this amount of diversity, a butterfly exhibit or conservatory can have so much variety in size and colour. Every time you visit you could potentially see a variation you haven’t seen before. An abundance of flowers are always present within their exhibits as this is most butterflies main source of food – nectar and/or pollen. Due to their oasis style enclosures which tend to be a walk through style, they are perfect for amateur and professional photographers. Also, butterflies are great in multiple species habitats which means zoos often have birds and/or fish on display within the same enclosure.

Chrysalis at the Toronto Zoo

Pupa at the Toronto Zoo

Butterflies are fascinating in many ways, but perhaps the most intriguing is their life cycle. Every butterfly exhibit I have been to also has an area displaying different stages of butterfly growth and development. This is a wonderful learning opportunity for young ones, and a perfect introduction to the fascinating world of insects and biology.

Rice Paper (Idea leuconoe) butterfly at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory

Rice Paper (Idea leuconoe) butterfly at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory

Butterflies are universally captivating. I have witnessed delight on children’s faces when finally their patience pays off and a butterfly lands on their arm; and I have seen calm enjoyment shared by an elderly couple relaxing on a bench watching them flutter around them. I hope next time you visit a zoo or conservatory you are able to have a moment like that, and can appreciate some of the beautiful butterflies from around the world.

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Introducing a new category in this post today…a feature animal! When going to a zoo everyone has their favourite animal or those animals that they’re really excited to see. These may be snakes for some people, the elephant or lion for others. While each animal has draws for different people I feel there are some animals that appeal to everyone or are generally exceptional zoo species. Today’s feature is the North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis).

North American River Otters at the Detroit Zoo

North American River Otters at the Detroit Zoo

When describing the River Otter most people use the words ‘playful’, ‘charismatic’, or ‘energetic’…and with good reason! These little guys are full of energy and are always willing to entertain. In the wild they are found throughout North America more so in inland waterways (such as rivers, lakes, and the like) than on the coasts. There are 10 subspecies throughout North America so if you have some living near you, you can usually tell which one it is by location alone. They are very agile in the water with adaptations such as very streamlined bodies, webbed feet, and water-repellent fur. Their diet consists mainly of meat from fish, amphibians, and crustaceans.


North American River Otters at the Detroit Zoo

As for River Otter exhibits in zoos I find the general design is consistent between the zoos I have seen them in as well as pictures of exhibits from other zoos. Usually the exhibit itself is open air with grass/logs/pebbles/rocks laid out to look like a river bank. In all the exhibits I have been to there was also a small waterfall feature that the animals could play in as well. Then there is the main water tank where the main viewing area is. Being as playful and energetic as they are they are a dependable exhibit to go to. They are also very curious and tend to interact through the glass with guests…either following you, doing tricks, or being general hams for the camera. You have to be quick though! They rarely stay still for a picture for long!

Otters are very susceptible to pollution in their environment. They are a great indicator of water pollution and unhealthy ecosystems…so if you have otters in your area (or used to!) you can help to support them by organizing garbage clean ups and water pollution awareness campaigns.

Overall I highly suggest going to see otters in a zoo near you, I guarantee no matter what your age you will be entertained!

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