The moment you step into the Aquarium’s Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit, you’re immersed in the tropics. Sloths lounge upside-down high up in the tree canopy, golden lion tamarins perch on overhanging branches and an array of tropical birds take flight.
Staff start their day much like a restaurant’s kitchen staff: slicing vegetables, chopping fruit and carefully measuring portions. With 86 species to feed, it takes an incredible amount of planning and a coordinated effort to ensure every animal thrives.
“Everybody gets fed something different and is fed differently,” says Ken Howell, curator of the Upland Tropical Rain Forest.
A Veritable Variety
Tamarins enjoy prepared food accompanied by vegetables and nuts; boat-billed heron eat fish; and turquoise tanagers get a combination of fruits, insects and more.
“While pellets may provide appropriate nutrition, many animals find them boring to eat,” Howell says, discussing the exhibit’s soft-bill birds. “To ensure our birds thrive, we mimic their wild diets by mixing fruits, vegetables and insects with their pelleted foods.”
You might be surprised to find out where those ingredients are sourced. “We like to feed the freshest, ripest and most nutritious food we can,” Howell says. It’s the same food you’d find at the neighborhood grocery. The only exception is cosmetic—the team won’t shy away from a bruised apple.
But it’s not just what the animals eat that’s important. “Food not only has to be nutritious. It also has to be appealing to the animal, and it has to be provided in the appropriate size and, sometimes, shape,” Howell explains.
From proportions to placement and even down to the way a single piece of food is sliced, every step matters.
More Than a Meal
Food plays a role beyond nutrition. Mealtimes help staff monitor animal health and habits.
Each morning during a “bug drop,” the birds are fed live insects. With binoculars and an inventory sheet in hand, staff can observe each bird that flies down from the trees to eat.
When animals are free-roaming, this type of observation is crucial. Behavioral changes alert staff to critical events, such as when a bird is about to lay eggs. They can then locate the nest, adjust diets and monitor any newborns.
Meals can also be tools for enrichment. Birds are naturally territorial. To ensure each individual has access to food, their bowls are placed strategically around the exhibit. Not only does this limit competition, but it also encourages natural foraging behaviors.
Tricks of the Trade
In the exhibit, different species frequently interact. This is where it gets tricky—most animals have access to each other’s meals.
So, how do staff keep a blue-crowned motmot from snacking on a sloth’s supper or a golden lion tamarin from stealing bird food?
Sometimes, it’s as simple as waiting for one species to go off exhibit before feeding another. But often, they have to get creative.
Given the opportunity, tamarins will raid the birds’ bowls for sweet treats. The solution? A bit of hot pepper. “The birds don’t taste it,” Howell explains, but this secret ingredient’s kick is enough to deter a curious monkey.
Getting dinner on the table suddenly doesn’t seem so difficult anymore, does it? Just some food for thought.