9 Wild Facts About the Bronx Zoo

iStock
iStock

Even if you’ve never set foot in New York, you almost certainly know of the Bronx Zoo. Opening its doors for the first time in 1899, this sprawling 250-acre wildlife reservation has over 4000 different animals and 650 species. Take a look at a few things you might not have known about one of the world’s most famous zoological retreats.

1. IT WAS CO-CREATED BY A TAXIDERMIST.

William Temple Hornaday was working as a taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution when he noticed that the nation’s population of bison was shrinking. Eager to promote conservation efforts, Hornaday used his voice with the Smithsonian to spread the word about the threatened species. After a spat with the Institution, he was approached by the New York Zoological Society in 1896 to serve as director of the Bronx Zoo. In doing so, Hornaday helped bring the bison back from the brink of extinction by sending several of the Zoo's bison back out west in 1906. He remained with the zoo for 30 years.

2. IT ONCE HOUSED TASMANIAN TIGERS.

Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, were nearing extinction in the early 1900s, but the Bronx Zoo was able to acquire several for exhibition beginning in 1902. The first lived for six years; the next two, arriving in 1912 and 1916, lived only a short time in captivity before perishing. The zoo's last thylacine was secured in 1917. The species was thought to have died out in 1936, but in early 2017, several eyewitness accounts of the distinctive animals were reported in Australia. Zoologists are working to determine if the thylacine might still be alive.

3. THEY EXHIBITED A MAN.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the most ignoble chapter in the zoo’s history, organizers opened an attraction in 1906 that featured a "Mbuti pygmy” or “bushman”—an African man named Ota Benga. Benga and other tribesmen had been brought to America by anthropologist Samuel Verner at the behest of organizers of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair so visitors could gawk at them in mock-up villages. When the fair was over, Verner brought Benga and others back to Africa: the two struck up a friendship, and Benga reportedly asked to come back to the States. Verner approached the Bronx Zoo with the prospect of Benga becoming a fixture: Hornaday agreed to let him live on and roam the grounds. Public outrage followed, and Benga was released after just two weeks to the care of an orphanage. He committed suicide in 1916.

4. THE ZOOKEEPERS HAD TO BE TOLD NOT TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE BEARS.

Too much children’s literature about cuddly bears may have proven disastrous for early zookeepers at the park. In 1919, Hornaday told the New York Tribune that he had to constantly warn his employees not to try and befriend the mammoth bears housed on the property. Two keepers ignored his advice; both had to be pried from the clutches of the bear and suffered “severe” injuries.

5. IT’S HOME TO A REMNANT OF THE ICE AGE.

Not all of the Zoo’s attractions are feathered or furred. The Rocking Stone sits near the World of Darkness exhibit and packs 30 dense tons into a formation standing 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The boulder was carried by glaciers in the last Ice Age. The “rocking” label came from the fact that the stone was so perfectly balanced that it could be moved with slight pressure. The Zoo, fearing someone might one day push it too far, eventually shored up the base to keep it on firmer footing.

6. THEY ONCE SAVED A SPECIES OF TOAD THAT WAS DECLARED EXTINCT.

The kihansi spray toad was in dire circumstances in 2009: A hydroelectric dam in Tanzania had dried up mists showering a five-acre area near Kihansi Gorge, the toad's only known micro-habitat, and the species was officially declared extinct in the wild. Fortunately, Tanzanian authorities had seen the situation coming and allowed the Bronx Zoo to come in and obtain 499 toads to bring back to America. A portion went to the Toledo Zoo; both facilities spent nearly a decade breeding them in a captive assurance population. The Zoos replicated their habitat while Tanzania created a gravity-operated misting system that would restore water. Roughly 100 toads were returned in 2010 as test cases; a full-scale reintroduction followed in 2012.

7. A COBRA ONCE ESCAPED (AND SIGNED ONTO TWITTER).

A photograph of an Egyptian cobra
iStock

Animal escapes have been few and far between at the Zoo. One of the most publicized was the the disappearance of a 20-inch venomous Egyptian cobra in 2011. Zoo officials weren’t certain how the reptile broke out of her habitat, but felt confident she would remain in the building. She did, and was found after a week’s search. In the interim, someone on Twitter engaged 203,000 followers with the freed snake’s fictional exploits. It’s still tweeting.

8. IT SET AN ORIGAMI ELEPHANT WORLD RECORD.

In 2016, the Zoo was recognized by Guinness World Records as having the largest displayed collection of origami elephants in the world: 78,564. The display, which was briefly open to the public, was intended to draw attention to the plight of the creatures and their poaching rivals through their 96 Elephants campaign meant to stop the trafficking of ivory. The Zoo is down to just three live elephants, and has vowed not to acquire any more once they pass. On August 3, 2017, Zoo organizers plan to crush two tons of ivory in Central Park as part of the awareness campaign.

9. IT HAS PLANS FOR YOUR POOP.

A shovel is stuck in a pile of fertilizer
iStock

With thousands of daily visitors, the Bronx Zoo could probably make use of its own sewage system. Instead, the park unveiled an eco-friendly restroom on park grounds in 2006 that captures human waste and diverts it into compost. The system, which uses only six ounces of water per flush, is estimated to save a million gallons of water a year.

Want to learn more about the Bronx Zoo? Catch The Zoo, a documentary series now airing on Animal Planet. New episodes premiere in February.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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