Elderly Animals at the Houston Zoo: of Sloths and Mole-rats

You’ve probably been hearing a lot of news lately about the babies being born at the Zoo – we’re expecting a baby elephant any day now, and we’ve just helped welcome into the world a number of amazing arrivals, including a De Brazza’s guenon, sifaka, and quite the bevy of flamingo chicks.

One of the newest additions to the Zoo, a baby De Brazza's guenon!
One of the newest additions to the Zoo, a baby De Brazza’s guenon!

What doesn’t make the news, but is equally as impressive, is the longevity of many of our animals at the Zoo. The animal keepers and veterinary staff work hard every single day to give each animal the best care, nutrition, and enrichment possible so that they live long, healthy, happy lives. As a result, we have quite a few “elderly” animals! In this series, we’ll profile several that are particularly near and dear to our hearts.

Succotash, a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth, lives in the Rainforest habitat in the Carruth Natural Encounters Building along with several species of monkeys and birds. She’s around 38 years old – very old for a sloth! In a zoo setting, their lifespan is about 30 years. Her exact age is unknown, since she was caught in the wild and rescued from a private owner in 1975. She came to us in 1986 from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and she’s been here ever since.

Succotash strikes a pose in the rainforest habitat of the Natural Encounters building
Succotash strikes a pose in the rainforest habitat of the Natural Encounters building

As an elderly animal, keepers carefully monitor her health and well-being daily. Her food consumption and bowel movements are tracked and recorded every day. Keepers can usually determine if something’s ailing her based on the records we keep or by the physical activity she exerts throughout the day. If keepers do notice abnormal behavior, we notify our vet staff so that she can be examined and we can obtain urine or fecal samples for diagnosis. Right now, Succotash is doing very well.

Guests can oftentimes see her most active in the morning when she gets her breakfast or when we turn on our waterfall in her habitat. She will oftentimes go toward the waterfall to mist herself. Otherwise she can be seen peacefully sleeping while her diverse array of roommates scamper and play around her.

Another animal in Natural Encounters that’s quite a bit smaller (but no less elderly than Succotash) is Livingston, the Damara mole-rat. You can see Livingston and his mole-rat friends in the upper level of our subterranean habitat.


Livingston, the Damara mole-rat
Livingston, the Damara mole-rat

Damara mole-rats are one of two mammal species who are eusocial – they live in colonies with many individual members, but the colony behaves as a single organism. The other eusocial species in Natural Encounters is the naked mole-rat. Like ants and bees, they have a queen who reproduces, workers who gather food, and soldiers who defend the colony against predators, like snakes.

Even though the Damara mole-rats all look similar, with mostly grey fur, we are able to identify them by the unique white markings on top of their heads. You can identify Livingston because he has a completely white face and a white spot halfway down his back.

Livingston was part of the small, founding group of Damara mole-rats that came to the Zoo around 10 years ago. His actual age is unknown, but he is believed to be at least 12 years old. Their lifespan is 10-15 years.

Due to his age, Livingston has developed arthritis in his back and hind legs, which affects his movement, but doesn’t cause pain. Each day, keepers give Livingston a supplement to support joint health, similar to glucosamine. He receives regular checkups, which show that the arthritis has not worsened in the two years since he has started this supplement. His weight is also monitored closely to be sure he is eating well.

Livingston is a soldier in the colony and does not let his age stop him from doing his job! He is still regularly seen by keepers patrolling the tunnels and holding an active role in the colony.

Stay tuned for the next blog in our series about elderly animals – next time, we’re featuring our jaguars, Patty the Andean bear, and our amazing grizzlies!

Thanks to Priscilla Farley and Kamryn Suttinger in the Natural Encounters Department for the fantastic information on Succotash and Livingston!

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