Playing Favourites in South America

Jun 11, 2013

Please note that the aging South America building was damaged beyond repair in the June 21, 2013 flood and as a result had to be demolished.  Many of the animals from South America were relocated to new homes at other accredited Canadian zoos.


Ask zoo visitors about their favourite animals and elephants, giraffes and gorillas are almost guaranteed to come out ahead of flamingos, piranhas and anteaters. But Dr. Malu Celli, curator at the zoo, thinks that these and several other incredible South American species get the short end of the stick when it comes to visitor attention.

Born and raised in Brazil, Celli admits she is a bit biased. “Every species in the zoo’s South America area is very close to my heart. I am a city girl, but I had many opportunities to work with animals in zoos and in the wild while I was growing up.” With her Masters and PhD in primatology, you might expect a South American monkey to top Malu’s own list of favourite animals. While she readily admits a weakness for primates, she says her favourite animal is always the one that needs her help the most. “A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to make sure all of the animals at the zoo are happy, healthy and in excellent condition. My job is to work with the zookeepers and animals in my area to get them what they need.”

Lately, Malu and zoo staff have been working hard for the flamingos, giving them the right substrate for healthy feet, administering vaccines, checking feet and wings, ensuring the filtration in their pool is top notch and getting the yard ready for the spring and summer months, when the birds can enjoy time outside.

Flamingos – Tough Cookies

Never mind hawks and eagles, flamingos are a lot tougher than their pink feathers and delicate stature might lead you to believe.

“A lot of people associate flamingos with lush tropical environments, not realizing that they are actually quite hardy birds. In places like Bolivia and Chile, wild flamingos live in harsh, snowy, icy conditions with crazy levels of salinity. They have the reputation of being delicate, but these pink, elegant birds are actually a lot tougher than we give them credit for. At the zoo, we try to find the right balance to make sure they have a great quality of life.”

In places like Bolivia and Chile, wild flamingos live in harsh, snowy, icy conditions with crazy levels of salinity.

Need another reason to love flamingos? Malu says their ability to stand on one foot is pretty incredible. “Science has yet to find out the exact reason why they spend hours on one leg, but they do it for much longer than any human ever could.” Their long legs also allow flamingos to wade into deep water in search of food that their shorter-limbed relatives can’t reach. Using their hook-shaped bills, they suck water in the front and push it out the sides where briny plates, called lamellae, act like a comb, filtering algae, shrimp and other small water creatures for the flamingos to eat. Those same tiny creatures are rich sources of carotenoid pigments (like the pigments in carrots) and give these birds their pink or reddish colour.

Piranhas – Fish Misunderstood

While their interlocking teeth, set in extremely powerful jaws, can certainly tear and rip flesh, piranhas’ reputation as vicious, humaneating fish couldn’t be further from the truth. “People have this terrible image, thinking that if they put their hand in the water with piranhas it would be devoured, but piranhas are actually very shy,” Malu explains.

The zoo’s group of 18 piranhas underwent a complete diet overhaul over the past year and Malu says that getting them to try new things was quite a challenge. Even though the new food – tilapia, shrimp, scallops and squid – are items that most people would be happy to find on their dinner tables, the piranhas approached every new item with extreme caution. “It took us up to 10 attempts at feeding a new item for the fish to get comfortable,” she explains, adding that group dynamics have an important role to play. “First, the dominant fish in the school needs to approach the new item and take a little bite. Once that fish approves, the others start building their confidence one by one and join in.”

Today, the fish are enjoying a variety of different foods, with a range of heavy and light feedings throughout the week. “This change in diet is important enrichment for these animals,” explains Malu. “It’s such a pleasure to be able to create a diversity of nutrients, texture and taste for this fascinating group of fish.”

Giant Anteaters – Big and Beautiful

Measuring seven feet long from the tips of their slender snouts to the ends of their bushy tails, giant anteaters could be named as much for their long tongues – reaching lengths of more than half a metre – or their large bodies. “Anteaters are truly fascinating animals,” says Malu. “It’s a shame that more people don’t travel to South American grasslands to see them.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to trek all the way to Brazil to appreciate these amazing creatures. Eliza and Nezzie, two female giant anteaters, make their home right here at the zoo. “In the wild, anteaters spend hours foraging for grubs and bugs, so zookeepers work really hard to make sure the zoo’s anteaters are enriched all the time – they rub different scents throughout their habitat, present cones with treats and offer food – crickets and mealworms – in novel ways so the anteaters have to investigate.”

Each day, zookeepers also strategically place dabs of honey in the anteaters’ holding area. While they happily lap up the sweet, sticky treat, zookeepers apply an aloe gel to their tails and noses to keep their skin moist. “It a bit like a spa time for the girls,” says Malu.

As outdoor temperatures rise, Eliza and Nezzie head outside where they get the chance to use their four-inch claws to dig up their own treats. “They may find all kinds of interesting things outside to explore and to add to their regular sources of protein,” says Malu.

Whether or not giant anteaters, piranhas and flamingos make the cut on your personal list of animal favourites, Malu hopes you’ll take the time to visit them. When you do stop by, make sure to say hello to their many South American neighbours – macaws, cotton-top tamarins, pygmy marmosets and spider monkeys. You might just find a new favourite.