Jul 27
Rocky’s Vocalizations Gain Worldwide Attention

​Data from Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center reveals distinctive case of great ape vocal learning

Groundbreaking data from the Indianapolis Zoo's Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center gives clues to the evolution of human speech. 11-year-old Rocky revealed a previously unknown level of vocal learning for orangutans.

Collaborating with International Researchers

The research, conducted at the Zoo in 2012 by scientist Dr. Adriano Lameira, was published today in Scientific Reports, and provides key insight to understanding how speech in humans evolved from the time of ancestral great apes.

The results showed that Rocky not only learned new sounds, but controlled the action of his voice in a "conversational" context as he took turns exchanging utterances with a social partner. In an imitation "do-as-I-do" game, Rocky copied the pitch and tone of sounds made by researchers to make vowel-like calls. Prior to this research, many researchers still presumed that great apes' sounds were driven only by reflex.

England's Durham University's Dr. Lameira, the lead author on the research, analyzed Rocky's ability to exert fine and precise vocal control, giving the orangutan a unique capacity to learn new vocalizations — a historic first. Dr. Rob Shumaker, the Indianapolis Zoo's Director, is a co-author on the publication.

What does this Study Mean?

"This important work fundamentally alters our understanding of the capabilities of orangutans. It also reveals the significant value of carefully conducted studies with apes living in highly enriched, behaviorally naturalistic zoos," said Shumaker. "Research that expands our awareness of orangutan intelligence inevitably leads to a greater commitment for their conservation in the wild."

Using the largest database of assembled orangutan calls, including a collection of more than 12,000 observation hours of 120 individuals from 15 wild and captive populations, the researchers concluded that Rocky's vocalizations were incomparable.

"This opens up the potential for us to learn more about the vocal capacities of early hominids that lived before the split between the orangutan and human lineages to see how their vocal systems evolved towards full-blown speech in humans," said Lameira.

At the Indianapolis Zoo

In addition to collaborating with international scientists, researchers at the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center offer the apes computer-based cognitive tasks on a daily basis. These opportunities for learning and problem solving are conducted in a demonstration format with visitors. By directly witnessing the intelligence of orangutans, the Zoo inspires and empowers people to advance the conservation of these critically endangered great apes.​

Jul 22
Our Critters are Keeping Cool this Summer

While temperatures are climbing in Central Indiana, here at the Indianapolis Zoo, we offer lots of opportunities for our animals and guests to chill out throughout the summer months.

Many of the Zoo's animals, particularly those in our Plains and Deserts exhibits, enjoy basking in the warm summer sunlight. These species are native to much hotter climates and have adapted in different ways to handle the heat.

African elephants flap their oversized ears to help circulate air and cool their big bodies. Elephants as well as rhinos also like to layer on the dirt and mud to act as a natural sunscreen. Catnapping is another great way to beat the heat, and our lions will snooze up to 20 hours a day. As the sun climbs high in the sky, animals will also seek the shade, like reptiles and meerkats that burrow into the ground or under rocks in our Deserts Dome.

In addition to our animals' natural tendencies, we make accommodations within exhibits to help our critters cool off.

The pools inside the Marine Mammal exhibits, for example, are temperature regulated so our flippered friends can swim in comfort. Several other animals, like Alaskan brown bears and Amur tigers, can also take a leisurely dip in cool pools.

Many of our animals enjoy some of the same summer activities as humans. Our Zookeepers set up sprinklers for our elephants and flamingos to take a mid-day splash, while countless critters, from our brown bears to our baboons, receive delicious frozen treats. Who doesn't like popsicles on a hot summer day?

Our guests can stay cool in many different ways, too! During the summer, we suggest getting an early start and visiting our outdoor exhibits – Plains, Forests, Encounters and White River Gardens — in the morning when it is cooler. Animals will be most active and you can explore the Zoo before the heat peaks.

Then head indoors to cool off with orangutans, sharks and dolphins; the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, Oceans exhibit and Dolphin Pavilion all provide air-conditioned comfort.

Additionally, you can cool off at misting stations in Forests and Plains as well as our kid-friendly Splash Park presented by Kroger — but guests will get very wet here so you may wish to bring a change of clothes.

So plan ahead and enjoy your incredibly cool summer adventure at the Zoo.​

Jul 13
A Queen, A Ghost and a Host

A closer look at back yard bugs​ 

The busy season is upon us at the Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens. Summer is a great time to take a stroll through a garden and take a closer look at all the garden bugs that also enjoy the flowers. In the Gardens, a new hive of honeybees has increased the immediate bee population by several thousand. As global bee populations are under threat, we're doing our part to help out pollinators here at home. Each year we work to build better bee- and butterfly-friendly gardens for our native bugs, and it seems to pay off – take a quick walk through the outdoor gardens and you are guaranteed to spot some of our native bees and butterflies.

Let's a take a closer look at a few important players in the pollinator world: a queen, a ghost and my favorite host plant.


This is a picture of a honeybee frame from our own hive during a hive inspection. Look close and you'll spot the queen – she is so much bigger than the workers that surround her. Thanks to a generous donation from the Robert and Lou Rice Family, we were able to add this queen's hive of honeybees to White River Gardens. This hive is growing rapidly and is becoming a popular attraction in the gardens this year! Bee-keeping is an incredible way to become closer connected the natural world around you.


This is the rusty patched bumblebee. This wonderful wild bumblebee was once common in central Indiana, but it was last seen here in 2009 and may now be extinct in our area. Bumblebee populations don't survive the winter like honeybees do, making them really scarce at certain times of year. I still wonder if this bee is truly a "ghost" or if it's still buzzing around central Indiana! If you are interested in a treasure hunt, keep this bee in mind. Visit Bumblebeewatch.org and learn more about hunting, photographing and reporting sightings. You might be the one to find it again!


Let me introduce you to my favorite pollinator host plant. The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the primary host plant for the monarch butterfly, but so many interesting Indiana bugs love it: honeybees, bumblebees, red milkweed beetle and milkweed beetle.  Most people know about the monarch butterfly connection, but the next time you encounter this plant, keep an eye out for the milkweed beetle! If you look closely, you will discover that its antenna emerges directly from the center of its eye! This unusual adaptation heightens the milkweed beetle's senses. These two colorful bugs also inhabit milkweed, so don't be alarmed if you see them out chewing on the Asclepias – they rarely do any major harm to the plant.​

There's a whole other world out there in the garden if you take the time to look really close.

Jun 15
Natives for Wildlife

​​​By Nina Evans

If you're looking for creative ways to add natural beauty to your backyard in a way that also benefits wildlife and the Earth, native species are the way to go!

Native plants provide the food, nesting materials and shelter for our Indiana's wildlife, from insects to song birds to deer. Plus, these plants require less maintenance and water, and with their strong root systems, help storm water to percolate into the soil where it is needed, rather than into the storm water system, where it is not.

Natives also add beauty and a tie to the natural heritage of Indiana that isn't found in plants imported from other countries.

Here are a few native plants we like at the Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens, and you might want to try them in your yard as well.

• Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) — Unique red and yellow flowers on plants that grow 18-30 inches in mostly sun to mostly shade. Long-tongued insects will find them the perfect source of nectar, as will migrating hummingbirds. The plant is seldom bothered by the leaf miners that create little tunnels in the foliage of many non-native columbines.

• Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) — A very attractive, fine-leaved prairie grass 1-2 feet tall with pretty seed panicles that rise up about a foot above the foliage. The seeds are eaten by sparrows, and the plant provides nesting material and cover for many small animals. It is beautiful planted as individual specimens or in small groups in your garden, and makes a lovely ground cover planted in mass in dry sunny spots.

• Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinqefolia) — Sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, this vine's leaves have five leaflets that turn a stunning red in the fall. It is a vigorous vine that can be pulled fairly easily to keep it in check. The little fruits are a good winter food source for birds such as finches, swallows and woodpeckers, and is host for the larvae of several kinds of sphinx moths.

• American highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. Americanum) — There are many species of viburnums that are good for wildlife. American cranberry is one that is fairly available for purchase as a straight species plant. It has showy flower clusters and fruit that becomes a winter food source for many birds and mammals, as well as beautiful fall leaf color.

• Dogwoods (Cornus spp.) — There are several native dogwoods, including pagoda (C. alternifolia), grey (C. racemosa), and flowering (C. florida) dogwoods, that are wonderful for native birds and mammals because of their fleshy fruit. They tend to prefer partial shade and have showy flowers and good fall color. ​

• Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) — Not often sold as a landscape tree, the common hackberry is a fabulous tree for wildlife! It provides both food and shelter for many birds (like cardinals, woodpeckers, and cedar waxwing), mammals and butterflies. There is even a butterfly called the Hackberry emperor. Its appearance isn't remarkable except for its bark, which gets warty looking with age. It is a tough tree that can grow under a wide range of soil, moisture and light conditions.

Jun 13
Closing Our Polar Bear Exhibit

​The Indianapolis Zoo has made a very difficult decision to permanently close its polar bear exhibit​. While state-of-the-art when it opened in 1988, the exhibit is in need of updating. The exhibit passed a full AZA accreditation last year. As we constantly look at our asset replacement and repair, the exhibit is due for an upgrade in 3-5 years. For Tundra​, our 29-year-old polar bear, that means a relocation. While healthy now, Tundra is older and now is the right time to move her for her best interest.

The Zoo’s veterinary staff carefully reviewed all of the options and agree that the Detroit Zoo is the perfect facility for Tundra’s needs as a senior bear. Considered one of the leading polar bear facilities in the world, the Detroit Zoo offers large spaces and pools​ with easy slopes for Tundra to enter and exit the water, especially as she gets older.

Polar bears were listed as an endangered species in 2008. Tundra has helped educate millions of guests over the years as an ambassador for her counterparts in the wild. Due to their protected status, few polar bears are relocated or moved from other facilities in North America. We will spend the next several months exploring options for a different species for this exhibit space and will be sure to keep you posted as the plans develop.

​Tundra arrived at the Indianapolis Zoo in 1988 and has been a significant part of our community. She will be moved to the Detroit Zoo sometime after June 22. Please join us on Facebook and Twitter and share your memories of Tundra and wish her well on the journey to her new home in Michigan. She will be greatly missed.

May 13
Discover the Subtle Beauty Surrounding Nature Connects®

​By Nina Evans

Right now you can find animals such as a hatching sea turtle, a gigantic chameleon and a crouching snow leopard in the White River Gardens! They are part of Nature Connects®: Art with LEGO® bricks. These fantastically detailed sculptures by artist Sean Kenney are set in garden beds and water features throughout the Hilbert Conservatory and DeHaan Tiergarten. But pay close attention to the subtle, natural details surrounding each sculpture. These towering creations look so much like the animals that inspired them, we wanted to create an environment that reflects the species' natural habitat.

Starting in the Conservatory, look for Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundafolia) planted near the monarch butterfly sculpture. This plant grows 4-6 feet tall and is covered with orange daisy flowers from late summer into the fall — just at the right time for the masses of monarchs who love them as a nectar source.

Outside, head to the Oasis Garden, which has been converted into an Arctic-like habitat for a mama polar bear and her three cubs. The little family is surrounded with containers full of glacial colors. You'll see icy blue ageratum and evolvulus, and shimmering silvery-leaved dichondra, lotus and begonias, all against a background of near-black colocasias and coleuses.

From there, go into the Ruth Lilly Shade Garden where you'll find the largest hummingbird you'll ever see! It is dipping its beak into a huge trumpet flower. Planted around it is a true hummingbird and butterfly attractor, Belize sage (Salvia miniata). This unique salvia has vibrant red-orange flowers and shiny dark green leaves. And while it thrives in full sun, it also blooms in partial shade, which is where we've been using it on and off for several years.

Another spot to hit is a 180 degree turn from the cool shade of the previous two. In the southeast corner of the Gardens are two African plains animals, a zebra and a wildebeest. This sunny location is the perfect spot for our native prairie grasses. You'll see everything from tall switchgrass (Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah') to little mosquito grass (Bouteloua gracilis 'Hachita'), with some little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) in between.

Now you are in the know — Nature Connects® is about the amazing art and the beautiful plants! They come together in the White River Gardens to create an unforgettable experience for you now through Labor Day. 

Apr 19
Be Inspired by Garden Themes

Do you really love essential oils, enjoy a bit of whimsy or take pride in your cultural heritage? Is hand-crafting, cooking or reducing water use your thing? And, above all, do you want a garden that reflects your life and personality? If so, you might consider creating a themed garden!

A themed garden brings together plants and other elements that relate for a specific reason – it has a focus or unifying factor. Your theme can be as simple as a specific color scheme, such as all white or only reds and yellows, or a lot of plants of a certain type, like roses, hostas, or geums. Or it may be a little more involved, concentrating on the particular use for the plants, such as cooking with herbs, crafting with gourds and dried flowers or feeding wildlife. Or you might want to display your love for literature, artwork or classical music with your plantings. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination!

The White River Gardens is filled with themed plantings of all sorts. During the last couple of years, we have had a very small "underseas" planting in the White River Gardens' Gathering Garden. We have used a few succulents, some cool coleuses and a big, octopus-like Myer's sprengeri fern (Asparagus densiflorus 'Myersii') to create the look of a coral reef. We celebrate the gardens of years gone by in the Indianapolis Garden Club Heritage Garden. It is nicknamed "Grandma's Garden" because of the many old-fashioned plants and features that are likely to spark memories of your own grandmother's yard.   And kids of all ages will enjoy our Motion Garden, where a model train chugs through airy plants that catch the wind. The cars carry zoo animals, plus you get to be the engineer, pushing a button to make the train go!

So what does the White River Gardens have in store for you this summer to provide inspiration for your own garden? Perhaps it will be our butterfly food and habitat beds along the walkway back into the Hilbert Conservatory and the annual plantings of butterfly nectar plants around the Allen W. Clowes Water Garden pools. Or the tropical colors of the flowers planted inside the intertwining shrubs of the Knot Garden. Or maybe you will notice how some of our plantings complement the wildlife sculptures made with LEGO bricks that will be inside in the Hilbert Conservatory and outside in the DeHaan Tiergarten this summer. Take home those little bits of inspiration you find here and use them to create your very own themed garden!

Apr 14
Partnering to Help Wild Dolphins

The sun rises over a calm Gulf of Mexico along the coast of Grand Isle, La. In the distance, the water breaks revealing a pod of dolphins playing. The pod moves quickly, stays close, and often follows fishing boats to possibly come upon some fish for a morning feast.

The connection between people and dolphins is complex on many levels, yet also simple. Like humans, dolphins vocalize and make sounds to communicate, they live in family groups, or pods, and they are highly intelligent. Also like us, they depend on their environment for clean water and healthy food.

These wild dolphins are also connected to Indiana. How do dolphins 920 miles away from landlocked Indiana rely on Hoosiers to help them stay healthy? That question is the focus of an extraordinary partnership between the Indianapolis Zoo and The Nature Conservancy. The two have joined forces to help Indiana take a long-term leadership role in creating a cleaner Gulf of Mexico for people and dolphins.     

The Gulf has lost nearly 50 percent of its wetlands, 60 percent of its sea grass beds and 85 percent of its oyster reefs. This is due in large part to pollutant nutrient runoff causing large areas to become uninhabitable for dolphins, oysters, shrimp and other marine life. While Indiana's Wabash River represents only 3 percent of the total Mississippi River Basin area, the state is responsible for 11 percent of the nitrogen pollutants in the Gulf creating oxygen-free dead zones — one of the states identified as creating the most excess nitrogen flowing down to the Mississippi River and ultimately into the Gulf.

The Indianapolis Zoo and The Nature Conservancy, both known for leadership in protecting nature across the globe, are working together to increase public awareness. Zoo visitors at the Dolphin Pavilion will watch a video filmed on location along Grand Isle in the Gulf. The video will take guests along with the dolphins in the wild, explain how Indiana affects the dolphins and the Gulf, and highlight the people of Indiana who are innovating along the Wabash River to ensure that we will have a healthy Gulf full of dolphins for generations to come.  

The new dolphin presentation will be ready for Zoo guests beginning this summer. Together we can take on the challenges and the solutions to create a healthy Gulf of Mexico not only for humans, but dolphins as well.

Mar 14
What's the Deal with Botanical Names?

When you ​are looking for a geranium to plant in your garden this spring, do you want the annual bedding flower called "geranium" or the perennial plant named Geranium? Do you have a service ​berry tree in your yard, which your cousin down South calls juneberry and your Facebook friend in Europe calls snowy mespil?

How do you make sure we are all referring to the same plant?

Plants, like animals, have both common and scientific names. Common names are the familiar ones that are easier to remember and pronounce. They can also be really varied, with a single plant having multiple common names. So although calling something by a common name can be easier, it doesn't precisely identify the plant and can cause plenty of confusion.​

The scientific name, or botanical name in the case of plants, more precisely identifies a plant because every plant has only the one botanical name. That name is comprised of the plant's genus, which is a name given to a group of plants with some common structural characteristic, and its species, a word that describes something about that particular plant or tells who discovered it. They make up a plant's first and last names, so to speak. And many plants have an additional word or more as part of their names. That is the variety, cultivar or hybrid name of the plant. This tells you that the plant is different in some noticeable away from others of its species.

 The next time you are in th​e Zoo or White River Gardens, you will see that many of our plants have black labels near them listing both a common and the scientific name. If it's something you want for your own garden, be sure to take a photo of the label or write down the whole name so you will be sure to get the exact plant you want.

Feb 26
Celebrating an Arctic Icon: the Polar Bear

It's International Polar Bear Day!

Here at the Indianapolis Zoo, guests love to visit polar bear Tundra, who has been part of the Zoo since its opening. An ambassador for her species, she helps provide awareness for the need of conservation and threats polar bears face in the wild.

Polar Bear Facts

The world's largest bear and Arctic icon, the polar bear is both striking and unique.

Did you know while polar bears' fur appears white, it is actually clear, allowing the bear to blend in with the ice and snow which makes them excellent hunters in the wild.  

But as the temperature rises, polar bears face difficulties including less habitat where they can breed and hunt. Fortunately, conservationists like 2012 Indianapolis Prize winner Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, are ready to take action.  

Amstrup has dedicated his life to researching their ecology for more than 30 years. The world-renowned polar bear biologist even led the international team of researchers that prepared the nine reports that became the basis for listing these famous bears as a threatened species.

How Can You Help?

There are plenty of ways to help polar bears right from your own home! In the winter, you can put your thermostat two degrees down, in the summer, two degrees up. Offer to carpool and also turn off your car instead of idling it to help decrease emissions – so next time you grab a bite to eat, park instead of hitting the drive-thru. Even the smallest of changes can make a big difference to help save polar bears.  

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