May 13
Mini Water Gardens Add a Touch of Tranquility

Water gardens can bring beauty, peace and tranquility to any outdoor area. But if you don't have the space or aren't ready to commit to installing a pond in your yard, containers are a perfect solution.

Nearly any water-tight container or outdoor plant pot can become a beautiful water garden for your backyard or patio. If that perfect-looking pot has a drainage hole in it, you can make it watertight by taping over the hole on the bottom of the pot, filling the hole on the inside with waterproof silicone or epoxy, and letting that dry. If the pot is made of clay or some other porous material, you can apply a couple coats of liquid water seal 24 hours before you plant it. Then it will be ready to fill.

You can find many plants that are fine in water that is 6 inches deep or less at your local nursery or hardware store. Corkscrew rush, canna, taro, umbrella palm and sweet flag are often sold as regular garden plants but are very at home in the water. For more variety check out the water plant section at a garden center or online for water lilies, lotuses (both of these can be purchased in dwarf sizes for smaller pots), water hyacinth, parrot's feather and such.

With a larger container, you can put your plants into it in separate small plastic pots, just as you might do in a pool or pond. This is an especially good idea if the plants spread pretty wildly or aren't hardy enough to survive outside in the winter. Most of the time, though, you can use some of our always-available Indiana clay soil that won't float in your container and plant everything in that! Top off your soil with pea gravel and place in a spot that receives mostly sun to bright indirect light.

It's also a good idea to assemble you container water garden at the spot you want it to be for the summer because your completed garden will be quite heavy and challenging to relocate. But with a little love and attention, you'll have beautiful blooms all season long.

Nina Evans
Horticulturist, Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens

Apr 17
Recipe for a Backyard Butterfly Habitat

If you've been to the Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens to see Butterfly Kaleidoscope presented by Citizens Energy Group, you might be wondering how you can attract this wonderful winged insects to your backyard. If you have the right ingredients, you can make your yard into a home for lots of beautiful butterflies!

1. Sun — Butterflies need the sun to keep warm, so you'll want plenty of it for your butterfly garden. If you want to take an extra step, try adding a few flat stones placed where they will soak up the sun to provide a heated resting place.

2. Cover — Make sure there is some protection from the wind and weather in your backyard habitat. Trees, shrubs and grasses along with a wall or trellis can provide protection from wind and rain, as well as places to land, bask in the sun and rest.

3. Water — Just like you, butterflies need water to drink! It needs to be very shallow so they can stand in or next to it. A water-filled, flat container with some rocks they can land on will do, or a bare spot in your garden you keep constantly muddy. A bucket of wet sand will also work.

4. Food — This is where the plants in your butterfly habitat are vitally important. You will want to have plants that feed both the adult butterflies and their more finicky caterpillar children to have a true habitat.

Nectar from flowers = adult food. Plant a wide selection of brightly colored flowers with bloom times spread all through the spring, summer and early fall so there's always tempting treats for your butterflies. Having lots of flowers clustered together makes for easy flitting from one to another.

Host (or larval) plants = caterpillar food. The adult butterfly will only lay her eggs on plants she knows her babies can eat. Native plants are especially important for our native caterpillars! Here are some plants that will attract some of your favorite butterflies to your yard:

• Eastern black swallowtail: Dill, fennel, parsley
• Tiger swallowtail: Black cherry, willow, birch, basswood (linden)
• Spicebush swallowtail: Spicebush, sassafras
• Painted lady: Hollyhock, mallow, daisy
• Viceroy: Willow, poplar, cottonwood
• Sulphurs: Clover, peas, alfalfa, asters
• Buckeye: Snapdragon, sedums, plantain
• Red Admiral: Nettles, black oak, wild cherry
• Great spangled and other fritillaries: Violets
• Monarch: Milkweeds    

Mix all these together very well so the butterflies will have no problem finding everything they need.

And, equally important, say no to pesticides! Both the caterpillars and adults feeding on chemically treated plants will cause your carefully planned habitat garden to be unhealthy for butterflies and other pollinator insects.

Once you have your garden growing, you're sure to have a host of butterflies providing beauty in motion throughout your yard.

By Nina Evans
Horticulturist, Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens

Apr 13
Indianapolis Zoo Leaps into Action to Save Indiana’s Crawfish Frog

Indiana's waterways now connect guests to the ocean here at the Indianapolis Zoo. For the next few months inside the Oceans building, visitors have the chance to experience local conservation in action.

The crawfish frog is endangered in Indiana, so researchers from Indiana University carefully collected tadpoles from the Hillenbrand Fish and Wildlife Area. Zoo staff are caring for the tadpoles as they grow, with the purpose of reinforcing, or releasing these late-stage tadpoles back into their original habitat once they have grown a set of back legs.

Why Grow Frogs?

The crawfish frog lives most of its life in crayfish burrows, but comes out into southern Indiana's wetlands to breed. As this habitat get smaller and rarer, crawfish frog tadpoles are easily spotted and picked off by predators in the tiny patches of remaining marsh. By growing tadpoles here at the Zoo, we can protect them when they are the most vulnerable and release them when they are strong and mobile.

Together We Can Save the Crawfish Frog!

The Indianapolis Zoo, Indiana University and the Detroit Zoo are all working together to save the crawfish frog—but we can't do it without your help! You can:

  • Protect and help restore Indiana wetland habitat when it is threatened.

  • Listen for the call of the crawfish frog about an hour after sunset. If you hear it, report the presence of crawfish frogs to the Department of Natural Resources!

  • Keep wetlands clean by eliminating pesticide use in your yard, keeping soap or other chemicals out of storm drains or even cleaning up trash from local waterways.

Apr 08
Giving New Life to Old Plants

By Nina Evans, Horticulturist

Rather than starting with a seed or nut to grow a plant, did you know you can move things along a little more quickly by starting many perennials and shrubs with cuttings? All you need is the stem of the plant you want to reproduce and you're ready to begin. These tips and tricks from the Horticulture department will give you the basics to bring something new and beautiful from something old.

For woody-stemmed plants, there are three cutting processes to choose from, depending on your particular tree or shrub. You can do softwood cuttings, using fairly new stem pieces in early summer; semi-hardwood cuttings, done later in the summer to early fall with that year's somewhat mature growth; or hardwood cuttings, taken when the plant is dormant in the later fall and winter season.

Here at the Zoo, the Horticulture department is working to get some hardwood cutting started in the greenhouse using willow (Salix spp.) branches. Willows are one of the easiest shrubs to grow from cuttings – you can be successful doing any of the three cutting methods – because willows have a natural chemical in their stems that promotes root growth. Staff members are creating new plants from existing Flame willows, a large, fast-growing shrub with vibrant-colored stems.

Try it yourself!

Follow these steps and you're sure to enjoy an exciting new piece to your garden:

1. Cut sections of healthy stems that are about 6-8 inches long with sharp knife or pair of scissors. For even better root growth, cut the ends that will be planted at an angle (photo 1). Before planting, some people like to dip their stems in rooting hormones to promote good growth or honey to reduce bacterial problems. But with our willows, we didn't see the need to use either!

2. Using a free-draining, soilless potting mix (mixing some sharp sand with a mix will improve the drainage), push the stems about halfway into your pot. Lightly firm the potting mix around the stems (photo 2).

3. Water very well so the soil settles nicely around the stems. If the potting mix compacts noticeably, go ahead and add some more to the pot (photo 3).

4. Keep your potted cuttings in a place with bright, but not direct, sunlight. It is very important to keep your cuttings moist, but not soggy, as they are working to grow their new roots! You can see the pots of willow cuttings started several weeks ago are sending out leaves in our toasty greenhouse (photo 4).

5. You might want to re-pot your cuttings into a larger container as the winter goes on. Check for good root growth by very gently pulling on each stem. If you feel good resistance, you can carefully remove your cuttings and plant each into a larger pot (photo 5.) Continue your good watering protocol!

6. Once the warmer weather has arrived, let your new plants get used to the outdoors a little bit at a time for a few days. Then plant it either in a nursery bed to continue growing larger or plant it in its permanent home right away!

7. Enjoy your new woody plants as a special part of your garden! ​

Apr 08
Horticulturists Work Hard To Save Trees, Plant More

By Nina Evans, Horticulturist

A long-time favorite shade tree, the ash (Fraxinus spp.), is disappearing from the landscape throughout the country due to the Emerald ash borer. This insect has already invaded many of the trees in Indiana. Ash trees are among the largest and most prevalent shade trees at the Indianapolis Zoo and have been hit hard by the beetle. A few of the healthier trees are being treated in the hope of saving them. Sadly, most are being removed.

The loss of so many trees reduces the many positive impacts that urban trees have, which include providing shade, lowering ground temperatures, creating wildlife habitat, improving air and water quality, and reducing ultraviolet radiation and greenhouse gases. The most immediate difference you will see at the Zoo is the fair amount of sunny spots where there used to be shade.    

As quickly as ash trees are coming down, the Horticulture Department is planting replacements throughout the Zoo and White River Gardens. We want to regain the value we are losing as quickly as possible! Here are a few of the new trees you will see on grounds that you might consider for your own yard:

     • 'Autumn Blaze' maple (Acer 'Jeffersred')- a cross between red & silver maples; orange & red fall color; fast growth to 40-55' tall.      

     • 'Green Mountain' sugar maple (Acer saccharum)- dark green leathery leaves; pyramidal form; orange & scarlet fall color; fast growth rate to 40-50' tall.

     • Hardy rubber tree (Eucommis ulmoides)- dark, glossy leaves to 6" long; broad, rounded crown; moderate growth rate to 30' tall.

     • Fruitless sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua 'Rotundiloba')-  star-shaped leaves with rounded points; yellow to purple fall color; moderate growth rate to 50-70'.

     • 'Whiteshield' osage orange (Maclura pomifera)- fruitless & thornless; yellow fall color; very tough tree that takes more alkaline soils; fast growth to 30-50'.

     • 'Princeton' & 'Valley Forge' American elms (Ulmus Americana)- resistant to Dutch Elm Disease; yellow fall color; fast growth to 50-70'.

Indiana's "Most Unwanted"

There are a few trees that have been put on Indiana's Invasive Plant List by the Indiana Invasive Species Council which we would recommend against planting. The Norway maple (Acer platanoides), black alder (Alnus glutinosa) and callery pear (Prunus calleryana) are well-known for their ability to reseed efficiently, and take over wild areas, including spaces within our cities. Many people love the cultivated varieties (cultivars) of these three trees (like Crimson King maple and Bradford pear), but they also can reseed themselves rather quickly in many instances.

Mar 27
Changing the World, Saving the Cheetah

Dr. Laurie Marker loves speed. She might even say the world needs a little more of it.

Because when it comes to speed, she's talking about cheetahs.

Marker is the founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). She has dedicated her life to protecting the world's famed fast cat and is currently celebrating the organization's 25th anniversary with a tour focusing on changing the world to save this species.

Her most recent stop was the Indianapolis Zoo, where she chatted about cheetahs and their conservation with guests and staff members, and took time to meet some fellow cheetah lovers.

"I think the question I get most often is, 'What does it take to save them?'" Marker said. "And my answer is to make the world a place sustainable for cheetahs, all other wildlife and our human population."

A Conservation Connection

Recognized as a two-time Indianapolis Prize finalist for her dedication to wildlife conservation, Marker has worked with cheetahs since 1974, starting with simply a Land Rover and a dream.

Her determination in chasing that dream culminated with the creation of CCF in 1990, establishing an unparalleled model for predator conservation that may have made the critical difference between extinction and survival for the cheetah. CCF is now the longest-running cheetah conservation program worldwide and is recognized for research and successful management methods for cheetah populations in Namibia and across Africa.

"Protecting cheetahs in the wild is paramount … Our goals are to scale up and continue doing the things that are working," Marker said. "We want to save more cheetahs and save the world for them."

Girls in Science

Young girls ages 9-14 had the opportunity to learn about cheetahs and science from the conservation leader at a special Girls in Science program.

"My favorite part of the job is exciting people about actually making a difference," Marker said. "Bright young minds can bring awesome changes in our world."

The group participated in a cheetah chat, where they were able to see these African cats up-close, hear about their care from a keeper and ask Marker lots (and lots) of questions. Plus, the girls met a kangal shepherd, the same breed that CCF provides to farmers across Africa to guard livestock.

Marker was excited to see girls being encouraged to explore science. She said women are extremely precise, excellent investigators and have intuition — all qualities that expand research and building blocks for the future of conservation.

CCF and the Indianapolis Zoo

"Conservation needs to be thought of as an investment," Marker said. "The world is recognizing that cheetahs are in need."

Here at the Indianapolis Zoo, it only takes two coins to make a difference for cheetahs thousands of miles away. Funds raised from Race-a-Cheetah — totaling more than $64,300 — have gone directly to CCF's many endeavors.

The future of CCF looks bright, with an expansion of the Livestock Guarding Dog program into Tanzania; establishing a creamery for farmers to learn to make cheese for profit; and habitat restoration programs converting encroaching thorn bush into high-heat, low-emission, compacted logs for use as a cooking fuel or for home heating. Marker is excited to work alongside the Future Farmers of Africa to educate and train rural farmers to care for endangered land while re-establishing the heartland of rhino, wild dogs, cheetahs and many other animals.

"Our strides have been great," she said. "We've been able to show that through good wildlife management you can live in harmony with predators."

Feb 27
Dolphins are Key to Learning Community Pilot Program

A new pilot program at the Indianapolis Zoo is bringing together students from Indianapolis Public School's Key Learning Community and a pod of Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins for an adventure you can't quite match in the classroom.

More than 400 students, from kindergarten to high school, are getting to take part in these up-close, hands-on experiences, part of a program aimed at engaging these young students and creating connections with amazing animals.

"Making a connection is the first step in understanding and ultimately caring," said Tolly Foster, program development and evaluation specialist at the Zoo. "It is our hope to build on this experience for future programs."

Whether it's a poolside encounter or actually getting in the water with the dolphins, these students are working side-by-side with trainers, learning cues for behaviors, training techniques and even giving a few good belly rubs, all to understand exactly what it takes to care for and work with these intelligent and charismatic marine mammals.

 "It is awesome to overhear the stories and reflections from scholars as they return," Key Learning Community's principal Sheila Dollaske said. "Even the ones who put on a 'tough guy' persona come back talking about getting a kiss from Jett or waving at Orin."

Planning the Program

A challenge from an executive staff member set this project in motion, creating an opportunity for Zoo staff to create lasting, once-in-a-lifetime memories for these students.

With initial conversations in October, 2014, the experiences took several months of planning and preparation, but came together for an impactful program that the trainers, students and dolphins enjoy being a part of.

The students first learned about ocean conservation and a few fun facts about the pod during a classroom session in the Polly H. Hix Institute for Research and Conservation. Then students were broken into groups, each participating in a dolphin encounter specifically designed for their grade levels.

"It's awesome because a lot of kids come in nervous … and by the end of the session they're naming dolphins, they're all excited, they're like 'me next, me next,'" Senior Marine Mammal Trainer Mandy Goin said of the program.

Changing the Future

Many animals that live in the world's oceans are highly endangered, and although the International Union for Conservation of Nature does not list dolphins as an endangered species, their ocean habitat is under tremendous pressure. The dolphins at the Zoo help to address many of those issues, including warming, acidification and pollution.

Members of the Indianapolis Zoo's pod are ambassadors for their species, helping people of all ages learn the importance of protecting the world's waterways and caring about safeguarding the wonderful wildlife that call the ocean home.

"We have seen many students come in with some apprehensions about the dolphins but there is nothing more rewarding than to see them leave with big smiles and a new appreciation for the animals," Foster said.

And for some Key Learning students, that newfound appreciation may shape their future careers.

"I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most people, and I just want to say thank you. I always wanted to be a veterinarian but I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian. This trip made my option clear," Key Learning student Armonie wrote in a letter to Zoo staff after her visit.

According to Principal Dollaske it has been a truly transformational opportunity for the students.

"The positive impact we have seen on our scholars since the dolphin encounters started is incredible," Dollaske said.

Key Learning students call themselves "Key Warriors." And it looks like the future may have a few new warriors for wildlife.​​



Feb 26
Baby, It’s Cold Outside – But That’s How Polar Bears Like It

With the temperatures falling outside, February is the perfect time to celebrate one of the most iconic cold-weather critters on the planet — polar bears!

Feb. 27 is International Polar Bear Day and there are countless reasons to recognize these hardy mammals. The Indianapolis Zoo has a polar bear named Tundra who came to the Zoo on May 9, 1988. She will be celebrating her 29 birthday this year! Tundra loves her arctic home in Indy and thrives in her habitat. She also serves as an ambassador to her species, helping to highlight the need for conservation and the threats polar bears face in the wild.

 Polar bears live in the arctic, which is one of the coldest environments on Earth with the average winter temperature of -30° F. Brrr! As the largest carnivore on land, polar bears are perfectly suited to thrive in their environment. Their white fur is easily camouflaged in the icy, snowy habitat while the skin under their fur is black, which keeps heat locked in. With all of these natural survival characteristics, polar bears are the master of their environment and have no natural predators, except one: global warming.

What's Causing Polar Bears' Decline?

As more people inhabit the earth, more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are being released into the atmosphere because of the burning of fossil fuels, land clearing and other human activities. These and other factors are contributing to global warming.

The rising temperatures are causing the ice caps to melt, leaving polar bears with less of the habitat they use to rest, breed and hunt. As the ice continues to melt, recede and move, the polar bears have to move with it to survive. A U.S. Geological Survey projects that two-thirds of polar bears will disappear by 2050 if the same trends continue.

Conservation in the Wild

Fortunately, some are taking the plunge to help conserve this beautiful species. Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, the chief scientist of Polar Bear International, has researched polar bear ecology for more than 30 years. His research revealed that polar bears' survival relies heavily on sea ice and helped to have them classified as a threatened species because of the decline in their ice homes. Because of his many years helping with conservation efforts, Amstrup won the Indianapolis Prize in 2012, which is the world's leading award for animal conservation.  Plus, Polar Bear International offers lots of great information and tips on how everyone can get involved and help save these lords of the Arctic.

Lend a Helping Paw

There are plenty of ways to help the polar bears right from your own home! Are you ready for a challenge — the thermostat challenge that is. In the winter, put your thermostat two degrees down; in the summer, put your thermostat two degrees up. Don't forget to grab a buddy to carpool and also turn off your car instead of idling it to help decrease emissions. These small changes can make a big difference in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. You can also pledge to make every day polar bear day by incorporating some of these energy-efficient tips into your own homes.

Feb 24
Caring for Critters in Cold Weather

Winter’s big chill has brought falling temperatures and snow to Central Indiana. At the Indianapolis Zoo, winter also brings some unique challenges for Zookeepers who take special care to ensure all of our animals are safe and happy throughout the coldest months of the year.

Many of the Zoo’s animals, especially those in our Forests and outdoor Oceans exhibits, welcome the frosty mornings and snowy days in January and February. Species like our Amur tigers, Alaskan brown bears, California sea lions, polar bear, Pacific walrus and red panda and others come from colder climates and are perfectly at home in Indiana’s cold winter weather.

These animals all have certain adaptations, like thick fur or layers of blubber, to help them handle the harsh conditions. Yet, we also make accommodations within exhibits help keep the animals comfortable in the cold.

For instance, one of the rocks inside the Tiger Forest is heated to give these big cats a warm, dry spot to lie down. And the pools inside the marine mammal exhibits are temperature regulated so that our walrus, seals and sea lions can swim in comfort. Keepers will also offer enrichment to help keep our animals active when they're outdoors.

Ice and snow are nothing new for these cold-weather critters, yet slick conditions are still a concern. Just like humans, animals can be injured if they slip on ice or mud. So the water features in many of the exhibits are drained in the winter to prevent them from freezing, and keepers inspect exhibits daily to ensure animals’ pathways are free from ice or other hazards. If the exhibit conditions are too slick, the keepers will hold animals indoors where they’ll be safe and warm.

Some Zoo animals that prefer more moderate temperatures, like many of the animals in our Plains and Flights of Fancy exhibits, we provide warmth and protection inside climate-controlled off-exhibit facilities that they can enjoy throughout the winter. During these months, keepers ensure these animals remain both physically and mentally active by providing engaging enrichment activities. And on those welcome days when warmer temperatures take over, even these animals will enjoy the outdoors.

Although some exhibits will be closed and animals remain inside on colder days, winter is still a great time for a visit. Our cold-weather critters tend to be more active at this time of year than they are during the warmer months. Of course, all of the Zoo’s indoor exhibits remain open, including the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, Oceans, Desert Dome, Dolphin Pavilion and Hilbert Conservatory in White River Gardens. Plus, with lighter crowds from January through mid-March, guests can enjoy more personal interactions with our animals.

So bundle up and come enjoy an epic winter adventure at the Zoo.

Feb 13
Getting to the Heart of Relationships in the Animal Kingdom

Boxes of chocolates, bouquets of flowers, heart-shaped cards — Valentine’s Day is an opportunity for people to express to their loved ones just how they feel.

But the ideas of love, dating and relationships aren’t exclusive to the human world. Let’s discover some fascinating fun facts about hearts, courtship and mating in the animal kingdom:

Straight From the Heart

For humans, hearts are synonymous with love and Valentine’s Day. But many animals have hearts that are specially suited to their size, shape and behavior.

Not surprisingly, African elephants have the largest heart of any land mammal, weighing on average between 26.5 to 46.3 pounds. The largest heart in all the animal kingdom belongs to the blue whale, whose heart can grow to the size of a small car and weigh up to 1,300 pounds.

Giraffes need an incredibly strong heart to pump blood throughout their long, lanky bodies. In fact, a giraffe’s heart generates twice the blood pressure of a human heart.

For a cheetah to achieve its incredible bursts of speed, its heart rate will more than double — accelerating from 120 bpm to 250 bpm — in mere seconds.

And it seems that some snakes really love … eating, that is. The size of a python’s heart will actually increase, swelling up to 40 percent in size before a meal and then shrinking back down again afterward.

Animal Magnetism

Like humans, animals have developed some interesting rituals for courtship.

Before seahorses breed, they’ll court for several days. The male and female swim side by side, encircle one another and hold tails before engaging in their “courtship dance.” After it’s all over, it’s the male that carries the eggs in his pouch and eventually gives birth.

Approaching a potential mate for the first time might be intimidating for humans, but male spotted hyenas are literally putting their lives at risk. Female hyenas call the shots in the courtship because they are significantly stronger and more aggressive than males. So when a male hyena approaches a new female, he does so very cautiously and retreats as soon as she notices him. He will then only try to mate when he’s reasonably confident he won’t be attacked.

While humans may sprits on cologne before a big date, ring-tailed lemurs prefer something a little more pungent. Male lemurs engage in stink fights by rubbing scent from their glands onto their tails then waving their tales at each other to waft the smell. The winner is the lemur that can stink out his opponent and catch a female’s attention.

When it comes to attracting a mate, for animals and humans alike, it often comes down to looks.

Peacocks are known for their showy plumage. Males fan out their brilliant tail feathers and strut about to attract females, who seem to prefer the male with the biggest and brightest train.

As an orangutan male reaches maturity, he begins to grow long hair and develop fleshy cheek pads called flanges. These traits appear more prominently in some males more than others, and in certain cases not at all. But females definitely show preference to the males with big flanges and long hair.

Status: In a Relationship

Though long-term relationships are pretty rare in the animal kingdom, many species are able to manage monogamy, mating either for life or at least extended periods.

As they swing through the forests in search of a potential partner, gibbons sing using loud calls that can be heard for long distances. But once they've found a mate, the songs change. Gibbons are mainly monogamous, and mated pairs will sing elaborate daily duets — each individual with its own part — to let other gibbons in the area know they’re off the market.

When it’s time to take a relationship to the next level, humans aren’t the only ones who declare their intensions by presenting their mate with a big rock. But while people prefer diamonds and other precious gems, male gentoo penguins scour for pretty pebbles to win over the females. If she accepts, she’ll place the pebble inside her nest, or she may choose to wait for a better offer. Either way, once a female chooses her male, gentoos generally mate for life.

And nothing says commitment quite like building a big home together. Bald eagles will build large nests that average about 5 feet in diameter. Nesting pairs will often return to the same nest year after year, building on a little bit each time, so nests can eventually become enormous. In fact, the largest bald eagle nest ever found was more than 9 feet wide, 20 feet high and weighed more than 2 tons!

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