Written by ZooMontana Volunteer, Mary Alice.
Oh, it’s a beautiful sunny day. Let’s go to Zoo Montana. Oh oh, it’s winter. What can we do at the zoo?
You all know that our larger animals on display in the outdoor enclosures come from northern latitudes, so they take winter in stride. Perhaps you have seen the recent pictures of Ozzie Norris playing in the snow on the zoo’s Facebook page. Looks like he is having fun.
Well, what can you do? You can see how the animals play in their habitats and are adapted to the cold winter season. The otters have a heated pool in the upper part of their area to swim in, and use the slope of their summer pool to slide on. Have you ever been in to Yellowstone National Park in winter and seen the otters frolicking on the shores of the Madison River near West Yellowstone? Our otters use that lower pool area just like their wild cousins.
Fierca and Opi are well suited for the winter weather. Their paws are very furry which allows them to walk on the crust of the snow. In the wild Canada lynxes can chase and catch snowshoe hares, their primary food source, across the snow.
Sofi and Jasmine, our Amur tigers, are experiencing their first cold winter. In the wild, Amur, or Siberian, tigers live in the far northern regions of Asia. When our tigers came to us from Florida, they had slick short coats. As winter progresses, if you come several times, you may notice how their coats have grown heavier to keep them warm in Montana.
The only outdoor animals not on display in winter are the beavers. It would be very difficult to keep the water from freezing in their outdoor pool. The keepers have set up quarters for them to pass the winter inside.
Did you know that Zoo Montana is also a botanical park? We have a large number of trees that are northern latitude species. It is winter and the leaves are gone. How can we tell what the trees are without the leaves? Trees have distinctive shapes and bark that can be recognized no matter which season we are in.
For example, lindens have a shape that may remind you of a gumdrop, flat across the bottom with the crown tapering to a point. The row of trees in the median strip of the parking lot are lindens. Check out their shape when you are arriving or departing the zoo. There are some lindens in other places around the zoo. Perhaps you can see them, too.
One of our prized trees is the burr oak. They have a distinctive looking bark, not smooth like many trees, but ridgy. You can see burr oaks on the slope along the trail that leads from the Nature Center to Wolf Woods before you reach the covered bridge entrance to the Homestead.
Alder trees are located in at least two places in the zoo. There are several near the Bighorn enclosure across from the Canada Lynx display. They have distinctive small woody catkins less than 1 inch long that resemble cones. The bark of the alders is a medium grey color, fairly smooth . Alder are also located just around the corner from the lower otter observation area as you walk the trail to the upper viewing area. Look for some of the catkins there to identify the tree.
The larch tree that was pictured in the last zoo story was in full fall foliage, bright yellow. If you walk past it now, you will think it is a dead conifer, but it is the only conifer that is deciduous. It turns yellow and drops its needles, then grows soft green needles in the spring. It is located just past the lynxes as you head toward the Asia trail.
You may also be able to spot birds’ nests in some of the trees. The maple tree at the entrance to the Canada Lynx viewing area has a tiny nest that is concealed by leaves in the growing season. Now in winter the nest is visible. Can you spot other nests?
An unusual tree at the zoo is the bristlecone pine. The oldest trees in the world are two bristlecones in the White Mountains of California, over 5,000 and over 4,800 years old. Our bristlecones are not nearly as old. Bristlecones may retain their needles for several decades so that the ends of the branches resemble bottle brushes. Look for our specimens, one in the sensory garden and a small grove in and adjacent to the Canada lynx enclosure.
With all these things to look for, and many other things as well, come out to the zoo and enjoy yourselves, and don’t forget to visit the red panda exhibit to see our newest critter, Duli, the new red panda male.
Can you name the trees below from the descriptions found above?