South America’s Pantanal at the Houston Zoo


Explore the legendary wetlands of Brazil At the Houston Zoo’s newest exhibit, Pantanal opening on October 10, 2020.

South America’s Pantanal exhibit allows guests to explore the tropical wetlands of Brazil right here at the Houston Zoo. The lush habitat highlights animals the Zoo is protecting in the wild, including giant anteaters, tapirs and more. Partnered with on-the-ground conservationists, the Zoo offers visitors the opportunity to view jaguars, capybaras, giant river otters, dart frogs, howler monkeys, anaconda and macaws closer than ever before in Houston.

In South America (Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia), the Pantanal region is a mix of forest, rivers, marshes, and grassland. The Pantanal’s diverse habitats are home to some of South America’s most amazing animals. Every year, rising rivers flood the landscape, and wildlife gather at every patch of dry ground. Every animal plays a role in this ecosystem—predator, gardener, and scavenger. People play a role, too, working to protect the animals living there. The Houston Zoo provides salaries and technical support for on-the-ground conservation partners who conduct research, educate and engage local people, and find solutions to protect wildlife.

“South America’s Pantanal strengthens the Houston Zoo’s conservation commitment to this region by offering guests an immersive, engaging experience on this unique and threatened ecosystem.”
Lee Ehmke, President and CEO, Houston Zoo


Houston Zoo visitors exploring this brand new, state-of-the-art exhibit also help protect the animals living in the Pantanal region. A portion of every admission ticket and membership purchased is donated to the Zoo’s conservation partners working to save animals around the world. A stroll through South America’s Pantanal is an immersive experience that will be enjoyed by guests of all ages.

As guests enter South America’s Pantanal, they encounter a set of rustic buildings, set on piers, similar to the eco-lodges that can be found near the rivers and streams in the Northern Pantanal region. The tourism these lodges support is one of the important ways this vital landscape and unparalleled wildlife assemblage is being protected. Walking under the “lodge” deck, the first animal guests will encounter are a family of howler monkeys that occasionally burst into a cacophony of the loud vocalizations which give them their distinctive name. The dimorphic monkeys–males are black, females are brown–rarely come down from the trees they live in and use their strong prehensile tail as a fifth limb, allowing them greater versatility when climbing.

Giant River Otters- Houston Zoo Pantanal Exhibit

Living with the howler monkeys in this habitat are a pair of small, bright orange golden lion tamarins. These boisterous monkeys weigh less than a pound each and use roughly 40 different screams and chirps to communicate what is happening around them. Golden lion tamarins were near extinction in Brazil, but zoos have worked together to breed the tiny monkeys for release into protected forests. Today there is a thriving population of golden lion tamarins in the wild. On the ground, guests will spy the red-rumped agouti. These unusual rodents have large front teeth that can crack through a Brazil nut and can use their powerful back legs to jump as high as six feet in the air. These rodents are the “cleanup crew” of South America’s forests. Monkeys are messy eaters, so plenty of fruits and nuts fall to the ground for agouti to forage.

On the opposite side of the path beneath the lodge, giant river otters splash in a multi-dimensional streamside habitat. At more than 50 pounds and five feet long each, giant river otters are the largest freshwater otters in the world. This is the first-time guests to the Houston Zoo will have a chance to see this type of otter. In fact, guests will get nose-to-nose with the otters above and below water!

At one point along the streambank, schools of large tropical fish, sting rays and turtles can be seen in a sheltered cove, seemingly sharing the stream with the otters (but safely separated by invisible acrylic panels). Next, the heaviest snake in the world, a green anaconda, lies in wait in the water below the howler monkeys in the gallery forest canopy. In nearby dry-season streambed channels, poison dart frogs hop amongst the greenery, an emerald tree boa lounges high on a branch, and fist-sized smoky jungle frogs peer out from a shallow pool.

Crested Screamers- Houston Zoo Pantanal Exhibit

As guests walk around the bend, they will be met with the bright and bold colors of two spectacular and rare South American birds, blue-throated macaws and blue-billed curassows. The blue-billed curassow is one of the most endangered of all birds. This large, mainly black species is the only curassow with a distinctive blue cere (the spot at the base of the upper bill), earning the bird its common name. Blue-throated macaws have a bright yellow breast, blue wings and a distinctive blue collar. The Houston Zoo is one of a few zoos in the US that breed these critically endangered birds, and they are working with their colleagues in South America to protect them in the wild.

Guests might feel as if they are being watched from the side and above as they move along the forest trail. And they are! The largest cat species in the Americas, the jaguar, will keep a keen eye on visitors from several vantage points in their new habitat. These majestic cats can be seen inside the main habitat or above the path in a fully enclosed jaguar bridge. Created by craftsmen to look like a fallen tree, this jaguar highway will act as a path for the cats to move from their behind-the-scenes house to the spacious new habitat. On some days, a jaguar might have the opportunity to lounge up there for as long as they like, watching guests pass below.

As the path continues, guests will see across an expansive flooded grassland home to capybaras, tapirs, rheas, coscoroba swans, crested screamers, and giant anteaters. Guests will get a rare glimpse into how these different species coexist in their native lands. Nearby, adventurous children (and those young at heart!) can have a go at a wobbly cable bridge crossing the flooded pools.

Massive termite mounds dot the landscape, and one of them is cut away to allow guests to see how anteaters use their incredible tongues to gather a meal from inside the mound. Close up views of the habitat are offered from within a replica of a rustic shelter used by Brazilian Pantanieros, the “cowboys” whose cattle share the landscape with the wild animals native to this environment. Reminiscent of Southeast Texas, the Pantanal is hot, flat and wet, with lots of cattle and cowboys ranging on a largely privately-owned landscape.

Rounding out the experience are two aviaries representing wetland and savanna habitats. In the savanna aviary, guests will walk through the space and be amazed as colorful birds fly above, and perch nearby. People will share the space with unusual birds like boat-billed herons, wattled curassows, Guianian toucanet and a large flock of boisterous green oropendola. Guests will be delighted by the intricately engineered nests built by the oropendolas. The birds weave the teardrop-shaped nests that dangle precariously from tree branches, safe from potential predators.

While guests won’t see giant armadillos at the Houston Zoo, they are one of the most important inhabitants in South America’s wetlands. In the Pantanal, the world’s largest armadillos dig burrows where they rest during the day. After a day or two, they move on to dig another burrow. Then other animals use the burrows. Some animals move in while others forage for food in the disturbed soil. Guests to the Houston Zoo will get close to life-size, replica burrows that show how other animals use them as shelters or places to look for food.

Though they are the largest armadillo in the world, even people who live in the Pantanal almost never see giant armadillos because they spend their days in their underground burrows. Now, researchers supported by the Houston Zoo are placing cameras outside those burrows. By understanding what these shy animals do at night and what they need to live, the researchers can make plans for their protection.

The Pantanal, which means “wetland” in Portuguese, is nearly one-fourth the size of Texas. In this region, the Houston Zoo partners with four wildlife conservation organizations: Lowland Tapir Conservation, Projeto Tatu-Canastra (Giant Armadillo Project), Bandeira Rodovias (Anteaters and Highways), and Projeto Ariranha (Giant Otter Project).
These projects focus on research and monitoring, community development, threat reduction, and educating all local Brazilians in the surrounding regions. Through work with local landowners and communities, the programs are also unveiling the value of these iconic animals as critical elements of local ecosystems as well as through the support generated by tourism.

Families of giant otters are protected through trainings the Zoo funds in Brazil that ensure local tourist guides are staying safe and healthy distances from giant otters in the wild. This will allow for the otters to hunt and take care of their young without stress and tourists will continue to come and enjoy seeing them.

The Houston Zoo has provided funding and support for 44 giant anteaters to be fitted with tracking devices. The data collected from those devices will create future protection plans for giant anteaters in Brazil. The data will also inform the design of safe road crossing areas for wildlife in Brazil. The Zoo has also provided funding and support for health studies on wild tapirs to inform future Brazilian protection plans.

Lastly, Houston Zoo staff have provided veterinary and education training at the Zoo for Brazilian researchers and veterinarians that work to save the giant armadillos and giant anteaters in the Pantanal.

Be sure to make a point to visit the Houston Zoo’s South America’s Pantanal exhibit this fall. You will not be disappointed! The exhibit opens October 10, 2020.

Behind the Scenes with the HFM Kid Ambassadors

The Houston Family Magazine Kid Ambassadors were able to get a behind the scenes look at the Pantanal exhibit! While the animals were not there yet, the kids were excited to see all this amazing habitat. We can’t wait to go back and check out the final product in October!

HFM Kid Ambassadors Eva & Tatum
HFM Kid Ambassadors Eshaan & Trevion
HFM Kid Ambassadors Noelle & Emily
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