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Creating a successful mixed-species habitat

If you’ve been following along with Zoo news recently, then you’ve heard all about our Grand New View project and the progress on the construction of our new African savanna. This is an exciting time for Zoo Atlanta, and we can all hardly wait to see the result. The end product will not only be a great experience for you, our guests, but most importantly for our elephants and other African savanna animals. While their new digs are being designed and constructed, some of your favorite savanna animals have joined the behind-the-scenes lifestyle in the hoofstock area with Marvin the muntjac. This is because their habitats are being completely redone and not suitable for them to be in, but it is also for their own safety. Hoofstock animals tend to “spook” a lot easier than most other animals, and as prey species are usually very alert to loud sounds, sudden movements, or even the slightest of changes in their environment. As you can imagine, we want the animals to remain as comfortable as possible while the construction is being carried out.

If you visited Zoo Atlanta before construction started, then you likely saw our four giraffe males Etana, Isooba, Zuberi and Abu sharing the savanna habitat with Purple and Orange the ostrich and our zebra girls Hannah and Shinda. As a matter of fact, the savanna has housed a variety of other African mammals in the past, and even some birds! So why is it that some animals at the Zoo can share a habitat with other species, while some live alone or only with other members of the same species? That answer has a lot to do with that species’ natural history and, in some cases, the individual personality of a certain animal.

The African savanna habitat at Zoo Atlanta is what is known as a mixed-species habitat. It is a habitat that has the features and space for animals to live alongside each other if they are species that might live within close proximity of each other in the wild. Mixed-species habitats are becoming more common in zoos across the country because they create more realistic and interactive environments for the animals living within them. If you were to go on a safari through the African savanna (the real one; please don’t try to drive a car through ours), there is a good chance you would see giraffe, zebra, ostrich, kudu and a variety of other plants and animals. One of the best outcomes of mixed-species habitats is that it creates a more natural environment for the animals and an engaging story of an entire community for our guests. It’s also a great form of enrichment for the animals living within them! Rather than only seeing a member of their own species, they can interact with a variety of others.

Two big things you must consider with mixed-species habitats are the natural range of the animals you are considering housing together, and the individual temperaments of the animals involved. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to house an animal native to South America alongside our current African savanna animals because they would never interact in their natural environments. At the same time, it also wouldn’t end well for anyone if you were to have the lions in the same habitat with the hoofstock animals, despite their sharing a habitat in Africa.

You must also take into consideration the individual animals involved with each mixed-species habitat. Just because their wild counterparts share a space, or animals of two species have shared that habitat well in the past, doesn’t mean the current animals will. For this reason, animal care teams do careful introductions when new animals begin sharing the habitat to make sure that everyone gets along well. Sometimes the temperaments and personalities of some animals don’t mesh well, and that’s okay. We adjust plans and accommodate to make sure that everyone is happy and safe.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is also completely normal for you to visit the Zoo and see a single animal of a species living in a habitat without sharing the space with another individual. This is a natural part of many species’ behavioral history, and is what is referred to as being a solitary animal. These animals spend all their lives by themselves, and rarely interact with members of their species unless it is for raising young or breeding. Some examples of solitary animals here at the Zoo are the giant pandas, Sumatran tiger, and in the past, black rhinos. Just because the Zoo might have both a male and female of a solitary species, that doesn’t mean that they would enjoy sharing a habitat with each other full-time. Again, this is a completely natural and important part of their behavior, and as always, we strive to make their environments as close to the wild as possible.

So, when construction is all finished up, and our animals have brand-new and improved habitats, I hope you can all come check it out and see our animals enjoying them together. They might even have some new friends out there alongside them in the next few years! Until then, they’ll stay behind the scenes where they can comfortably be away from all the hustle and bustle of construction. I can assure you, however, that they are receiving top-notch care and being well attended to during this transition. I have always admired the hoofstock animal care team and their ability to problem-solve, be creative, and dedicate 100% of each day to the animals in their care. While I only work in the area about once a week, I always love to see what new stuff they have come up with to help the animals stay mentally engaged, happy and comfortable. See ya soon!
Danica W.
Swing Keeper I, Mammals

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl