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.  

Feb 26
A Giraffe By Any Other Name

You voted, we listened. Thousands of people took part in the Facebook poll to name our new reticulated giraffe calf, and nearly 4,000 votes were tallied during the two-week timeframe. It was a close decision, but we're excited to announce that you've chosen to name our new baby boy Mshangao (ma-SHAN-goe)!

Mshangao, whose name means "amazement" or "surprise" in Swahili, was born in the early morning hours of Jan. 9. He's the sixth calf for mother Takasa, and he's is growing healthy and strong. As weather permits, guests will have an opportunity to visit Mshangao in the giraffe exhibit presented by Meijer.

With the arrivals of our Zoo Babies, which are presented by Hendricks Regional Health, our Zookeepers try to choose names based on the language of the species' country/region of origin that also relates to the individual animal's personality or story. So with our giraffe calf, our Plains keepers preselected three options and then we let the public decide.

Mshangao received about 39 percent of the votes. Jengo, a Swahili word meaning "building" or "construction", came in close second with 35 percent of the vote and Amazu, meaning "no one knows everything" in Nigerian, received 26 percent of the vote.

We also received hundreds of additional name suggestions from the public, and now that the choice has been made, we wanted to share a few of our favorites that didn't make the cut.

Pop culture references were popular as name suggestions:
• Jumanji
• Zoolander
• Puppy Monkey Baby — thanks to the Super Bowl commercial
• Yoda and Chewy — we're guessing for Chewbacca
• Batman
• Bilbo, Frodo and Gimli — from Lord of the Rings
• Emmett or Emmett Cullen — from the Twilight series

Many people suggested American names, some more formal than others:
• Gordon
• Franklin
• Humphrey
• Cornelius
• Galileo

Some people wanted to name our giraffe after his appearance:
• Longnecko or Jolly Longneck
• Patches
• Checkers
• Shorty

Others came up with names from different languages:
• Hasani ("handsome" — and boy is he!)
• Mrefu ("long" or "tall" — which he will be one day)
• Ayo ("full of joy") and also Ayomide ("My joy has arrived")
• Aiianto ("reaching for the sky")
• Jallo ("eyeballs" in Somali)

These suggestions seemed to just be random — but fun:
• Tonka
• Gizmo
• Pongo

A few were downright silly:
• Ziggy
• Pickles
• Asakat — the backwards spelling of his mom Takasa's name

And lastly, this person couldn't decide on just one name and submitted many!
• "Gifford, Blazer, Dewy, Gilbert, Lee, Duce, Trevor, Alf, Frederick, Pluto, Albert, Cedric, Niles" 

Jan 22
Amaryllis Aren’t Just For Year-End Holidays

By Nina Evans

Along with the very traditional poinsettia, the amaryllis (genus Hippeastrum) has become associated with the holiday season in a big way. It's easy to see why, with its large, beautiful flowers in bright and velvety reds, and the ease of growing it to bloom in a fairly short period of time.

Native to tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas, most amaryllis plants grow in a warm, rainy habitat much of the year with just a short, cooler dry season. Their long, strappy leaves surround one or more flower stalks, called scapes, which can grow up to 2 feet tall. Each scape produces four blooms, each featuring six petals and reaching 4 to 6 inches across. There are also some dwarf amaryllis varieties, which make up for their smaller size with more flowers. You will find them in red, white, pink and combinations of those colors; some rare types come in yellow or might even feature double petals. And, with some extra work and attention, you can actually have your holiday bulbs re-bloom outside in the summer!

Unless you spend time in a much warmer part of the world than Indiana, it's likely that you only see these gorgeous plants flowering in December. But that is not how it has to be! Two months ago, just before many suppliers of amaryllis bulbs stopped selling them, we purchased a generous number of 'Red Lion' amaryllis bulbs. Potted up in our greenhouse a few weeks ago, their vibrant, deep red flowers are moving into the Hilbert Conservatory to brighten the month of February and help you celebrate Valentine's Day.

Come see these "multi-holiday" blooms and other tropical plants and flowers in the toasty warmth of the Hilbert Conservatory in the White River Gardens. They will lighten your spirits and might give you a taste of the summer ahead. And, if you are with someone special, maybe inspire a little Valentine's kiss!

Dec 31
Leafy Rebels

By Nina Evans

The beautiful display of fall color is just a memory, and the more barren look of winter is here. All those trees and shrubs with broad leaves are showing off their bare branches, while those with needle shaped-leaves create sporadic green patches in our yards and gardens. But wait! Looking around you can see broad leaves on some trees, and conifers with hardly any needles! What's up with that?

You can divide trees and shrubs into two groups based on whether they lose their leaves seasonally. Those that do, termed deciduous plants, are primarily broadleaf plants. They go dormant during the cold months. The second group, the ones that hang on to most of their leaves all year, are generally those with narrow, needle-like leaves, and are called conifers. But since nothing in nature is so simple, there are many exceptions to these generalities.

Where ever you are, chances are you can look around and spot some of these "rule-breakers." At the Indianapolis Zoo we have a number broadleaf shrubs and herbaceous perennials that keep their foliage through a good part of the winter. Many of you probably have leatherleaf viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum) or bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) shrubs in your yards. Their thick, green leaves hang on much of the winter. The truest evergreen shrubs we have are the boxwood (Buxus sp.) and most hollies (Ilex sp.), though there is a deciduous holly called winterberry (Ilex decidua).

This time of year you also are likely to come across broadleaf trees whose leaves stay on the tree but are brown and dead. This phenomenon is called marcescence — a word new to me, I admit. It means the retention of withered parts and most often refers to plant leaves. My favorite winter tree in White River Gardens is the shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) because of its retained winter foliage. I love the rustling sound the leaves make when stirred by the wind! The pin oak (Q. palutris), black oak (Q. velutina), and white oak (Q. alba) also have this property. Another favorite marcescent tree is American beech (Fagus grandifolia), with its smooth, silvery bark. Amazingly enough, all of these trees are native to the eastern U.S.

On the flip side, I sometimes hear from guests concerned about the conifers we have in the White River Gardens that look as if they are dying, since their needles turn brown and begin falling in autumn. This tree is baldcypress (Taxodium disticum), a conifer that loses its needles. You can see a beautiful ring of them in the Ruth Lilly Shade Garden. As for deciduous conifers in the Zoo, look for the nice European larch (Larix kaempferi) next to the upper viewing area at the walrus exhibit. And this year we've planted two new dawn redwood trees (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) inside Forests and one in the bed between the Forests and the Dolphin Pavilion. The leafed-out branches of all these trees are very feathery and delicate-looking due to their fine-textured needles. And their bare winter form and bark is worth a second look!

So now you have the scoop on some out-of-the-ordinary trees and shrubs that don't follow the broadleaf = deciduous and conifers = evergreen norm. You might want rebel a bit and try out some of them in your own garden. You'll be adding "rule-breaking" beauty and interest to your landscape year round.


Dec 08
Protecting our Animals’ Pearly Whites

For humans, regular dental exams are important for maintaining a healthy mouth. The same is true the animals here at the Indianapolis Zoo. Our Zookeepers perform regular checks and, in some cases, daily teeth brushings as part of our animals' overall care​.

But just like humans, sometimes our animals' teeth can become damaged and require additional work. Guests can see the results of that at our walrus and elephant exhibits.

Elephants and walrus are among several species with tusks. These overgrown teeth serve various purposes, like digging and defense. Formed of super-strong ivory, animal tusks grow continuously throughout an animal's lifetime and contain nerves that go all the way back toward the animal's brain. With such handy and durable tools at their disposal, walrus and elephants get a lot of use out of their tusks. But all that wear can occasionally cause damage.

And it's not just adults that incur tusk injuries, juveniles do too. Just like a teething infant, growing tusks can be painful for young animals and sometimes they will rub their tusks on objects or the ground to try to relieve the soreness. And as animals adjust to having these new facial features, they occasionally bump their tusks into things.

Although animal tusks are very hard and durable, they can still fracture or break, which can be very dangerous if left untreated. But here at the Zoo, our veterinarians can treat our animals' pearly whites to prevent additional issues.

Guests can see these treatments on several of our playful young elephants. Elephant tusks are modified incisors and, like all animal tusks, they contain a pulp cavity at the base that recedes as the animal grows; however, the pulp tissue is very close to the end of the tusk in young elephants.

Our active youngsters use their tusks to dig and push objects around, and 4-year-old Kalina especially likes to use hers to strip the bark off tree branches. When all that play starts to wear down the ends of their little tusks, our veterinarians apply metal caps over them to protect the pulp tissue until the tusks grow out a little more.

To repair a damaged tusk, our staff consults with a dentist, who makes impressions of the tusk and places it using dental cement to make sure it fits perfectly. The whole process is painless for the animals, though it requires a lot of patience and cooperation.

In addition to our elephants, guests can also spot tusk caps on our 4-year-old Pacific walrus Pakak, who was found to have a small fracture in his pearly whites. Eventually, as Pakak's tusks grow and strengthen, he won't need his caps anymore and they'll be removed.

In the wild, walrus use their tusks to break through the Arctic ice to hunt. They also utilize these overgrown canine teeth to pull their big, blubbery bodies out of the water and onto the ice, which is why walrus are known as "tooth walkers."

While both male and female walrus grow tusks, guests may notice that our adult female walrus, Aurora, is missing hers. When she was younger, Aurora had problems with tusk injuries and infections, so veterinarians decided to remove her tusks to prevent additional issues.

Our keepers work with our walrus and elephants each day, examining their mouths and cleaning their tusks to make sure they're healthy.

So the next time you visit our walrus or elephant exhibits, see if you can spot our animals' tusk caps.

Nov 30
Facing the Heat: Orangutan Conservationists Take Action during Forest Fires

The recent annual Orangutan Caring Week brought the endangered red-haired apes to the forefront of conversation, providing the opportunity to engage, inspire and empower people to take part in conservation efforts while bringing about an appreciation and understanding of the plight these great apes face in the wild.

Burning in Borneo

Found only in Southeast Asia, on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the two species – endangered Bornean orangutans and critically endangered Sumatran orangutans – face significant habitat loss, primarily as a result of conversion for agriculture, often for growing palm oil.

Over the course of the past few months, the worst fire season since 1997 has damaged much of the island region and destroyed wide expanses of habitat.

Thousands of these peat and forest fires proved costly for humans, orangutans and the environment. National Geographic reported the fires emitted more carbon dioxide each day than the entire U.S. economy on 26 days.

According to The Guardian, tens of thousands of hectares of forest have burned as a result of slash and burn – a technique used to clear land for new plantations. This year's prolonged dry season and the impact of El Niño weather patterns have made the situation much worse than years prior.

These fires spread beyond plantations, deep into primary forests and national parks. With the burning came a lingering haze spreading to neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore, closing schools, grounding flights, and often causing respiratory issues, both for humans and orangutans.

Organizations like the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme have worked diligently to conserve viable wild populations of critically endangered orangutans, including providing habitat protection, reintroduction, education and scientific research. While their location proved not significantly affected by the fires as most in Sumatra occurred further south, Dr. Ian Singleton, Director of SOCP, witnessed the lingering haze in Medan for many weeks.

Singleton said his colleagues also reported "no direct fire impacts of the orangutans released in the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in Jambi, but they've been supplementing food and vitamins due to the cloaking haze everywhere."

"In Borneo it's a different story," Singleton said. "Several centers have been affected by fires extremely close by and some of the wild orangutan field research centers have also been affected."

According to Singleton, the burning has died down currently, but predictions suggest fires will begin again soon with the potential to burn until March.

Ambassadors for the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) – including Indianapolis Prize past nominee Jane Goodall and two-time finalist Russell Mittermeier – issued a statement warning vital biodiversity is at stake.

Although these conservationists commend the Indonesian government for the efforts, they urge new measures be taken for the future, including regulations against unsustainable development and a moratorium on burning for land clearance.

The statement says, "Globally important forests like the Sabangau Forest and the Leuser Ecosystem, which is also part of the World Heritage Site, the Gunung Leuser National Park, need to be protected not only for the orangutans, but for the rich variety of species living under their canopies. The devastation these fires have wrought is proof that protection of these areas needs to extend past the simple preservation of their boundaries."

Conservation Crisis

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are less than 54,000 Bornean orangutans, and only about 6,500 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild. Unless there is a fundamental change in orangutan protection, they will be the first species of great ape to go extinct in recorded history.

But there is hope.

Through collaborative efforts and continued dedication from organizations and individuals a bright future remains for these apes.

A connection leads to care, and care to conservation. By following and sharing stories of this species, being a conscious consumer and assisting with initiatives personally, whether those efforts are on a local or global scale, you have the power to make a difference.

To learn more about orangutan conservation and sustainability visit and

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