Animal Artistry

Reid Park Zoo hosts creative installment of Summer Safari Nights

Malayan Tigers, like Baheem at the Reid Park Zoo, use their stripes as camouflage when hunting prey.

Move over, Michelangelo, there's a whole new kind of art on display. Be careful though, the exhibits have been known to roar. The Reid Park Zoo is highlighting some of nature's greatest creatives on Saturday, June 22, as part of its weekly Summer Safari Night series.

The program, which runs each Saturday through Aug. 17, allows visitors to get up close and personal to learn more about the facility's collection of wildlife. This weekend's installment, called Art in the Animal Kingdom, puts the focus on the use of various stripes, patterns and coloring in the wild.

Take, for instance, Reid Park's three giraffes, Denver, Elinor and Jasiri, a popular trio situated in the heart of the zoo, all three have unique patterns of spots, and no two giraffes share a design, according to animal care supervisor Adam Ramsey.

Ramsey said the species' spots serve as a way to blend in with their surroundings in eastern and southern Africa. They also allow the tall creatures to withstand the scorching heat of their native habitat, serving as a unique survival tool.

"The main reason they have those spots we think is for heat regulation," Ramsey said. "Underneath each of those spots is a cluster of vessels that are really close to the surface."

This weekend's event also includes the pair of zebras that have recently taken up residence at the zoo. The pair of zebras are Grevy's zebras, including a male, Ben, that moved to town from the San Diego Zoo, and a female named Anna that comes from a zoo outside Wichita, Kansas.

The species' unique striped pattern serves a multitude of purposes. The stripes distinguish individuals from the herd, with each zebra owning a distinct set of stripes. The stripes are also a survival mechanism, as zebras use them to hide from predators.

The animals also sport such a unique pattern for thermoregulation, similar to giraffes.

Grevy's zebras, which are one of three variants in Africa, are the most endangered of the trio due to their smaller habitat range and the issues of hunting and poaching.

Another devastating issue for zebras, according to Ramsey, is the loss of habitat due to industrialization in the region.

Perhaps the most stylish of the zoo's animals on display will be the flock of flamingoes. The birds, which can be found in North and South America, as well as parts of Africa, sport a distinctive pink coloration that stems from their diet, according to animal care supervisor Alex Zelazo-Kessler.

The species' distinct color comes from their diet of crustaceans and krill. The beta carotene from that food source allows the birds to sport such a vivid coat, allowing them to better match with a mate when the time is right.

Most of the zoo's flock are Chilean flamingoes, which are capable of living in a variety of habitats, both close to and far away from water. Zelazo-Kessler said the particular subset of flamingoes can withstand the grueling heat of South America, while also flocking to the icy heights of the Andies.

The greatest threat to flamingoes is the boom of plastics and micro-plastics in bodies of water. Such products are inevitably eaten by the smaller critters that flamingoes feast on, which cause issues for species higher up the food chain.

The key to protecting species like flamingoes is finding the right balance with plastics and water constriction, so humans and animals can thrive.

There are definite benefits to camouflaging yourself in the wild for those at the top of the food chain, and visitors this Saturday will get to see how tigers and jaguars use their distinctive coats to hide in the wilderness. Such skill allows the hunters to attack their food without being noticed—a definite boon when you're a carnivorous beast.

The zoo's Rebecca Edwards said the facility's two Malayan tigers use their coats for a number of reasons.

"They want to camouflage themselves," she said. "But their main purpose is to be able to sneak up on their prey."

Malayan tigers are critically endangered due to the continued development of the Malaysian peninsula. A major culprit for their decline has been the deforestation of the jungle to grow palm trees for palm oil, according to Edwards.

The jaguar is one of three big cat species in the Americas, along with mountain lions and panthers. The zoo's lone jaguar, Simone, is the oldest of such species in the United States, at the ripe age of 23.

Jaguars like Simone were once commonplace in the western half of the United States, down through Mexico and Central/South America.

The large species sports a variety of colors, ranging from brown and tan spots to being completely black, or melanistic, depending on the amount of pigment in their skin.

Jaguars have winnowed down to single digits in the United States due to habitat loss, according to Edwards, who said the continued loss of space to development inhibits the species' reproduction and their ability to find and procure food.

Edwards said the jaguars around the hemisphere like Simone feature unique coatings, which allow them to blend in with the surroundings.

"One of the things that we notice when we look at jaguars, even our melanistic jaguars, is that they have spots," Edwards said. "Similarly to the tigers, the spots help them to camouflage into their environment, which helps them be more effective predators."

The various artists of the animal kingdom living at the Reid Park Zoo (3400 E. Zoo Court) are on display this weekend as part of Summer Safari Nights. The event, which includes an opportunity to make a watercolor pencil flamingo drawing with Tucson's The Drawing Studio, costs $10.50 for adults, $8.50 for seniors, $6.50 for children ages 2-14 and is free to zoo members. ■

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