The River's Edge
Antillean manatee, Trichechus manatus manatus
Distant relatives of elephants and hyraxes, West Indian manatees occur in two subspecies. The Antillean manatee of Central and South America, and various Caribbean islands, is almost identical to the Florida manatee (T. manatus laterostris), being slightly smaller with a narrower skull.
Arapaima, Arapaima gigas
Called Arapaima in the Guianas, Paiche in Peru, and Pirarucu in Brazil, this relative of the arowana is one of the largest purely freshwater fishes in the world, reaching nine feet and exceeding 400 pounds. They have been overexploited as food fishes, so are vulnerable to extinction. These fast-growing predators surface frequently to take air at the surface. While aquarium visitors may mistake them for Alligator gars, they are not related. Their closest North American relatives are the herring-like Mooneyes and Goldeneyes.
Red-tailed catfish, Phractocephalus hemioliopterus
All of the many Red-tailed catfish at the DWA are donations from aquarists whose tanks they rapidly outgrew. Popular in the pet trade since the 1960s, this widespread South American fish is often sold at a length of two inches, but may eventually reach five feet and weigh over 100 pounds, potentially eating anything it can swallow.
Fork-snouted catfish, Pseudodoras niger
No relation to sturgeons, this huge relative of the little "talking catfishes" (popular with aquarists) possesses similar looking bony scutes along its side, giving it a prehistoric appearance. One of its other aquarium shop names is in fact "Prehistoric catfish" and another is "Ripsaw". Though exceeding three feet in length, they feed almost entirely on invertebrates and detritus, as one might deduce from their small mouths.
Spotted shovel-nose catfish, Pseudoplatystoma corruscans
The various shovel-nosed catfishes of South America are popular inhabitants of large aquariums and important food fishes in their native rivers. As their huge mouths would suggest, they are active predators, hunting for others fishes and crustaceans at night. They easily grow to over three feet.
Arrau turtle, Podocnemis expansa
This South American turtle is famous for the mass gatherings of females that come ashore to lay their eggs, often a hundred at a time. Otherwise, these plant-eaters hardly ever leave the water. Females are much larger than males, reaching a shell length of three feet. Because their eggs and flesh have long been prized as food, they have been subject to overhunting, and are now classified as Conservation Dependent.
Polka-dot stingray, Potomotrygon leopoldi
This species has a restricted range in South America, found only in the Xingu River Basin of Brazil, creating a concern that mining or other polluting activities could threaten it. Because of its striking pattern, it is highly valued for aquarium displays, and is now being captive bred around the world.
Black-banded leporinus, Leporinus fasciatus
Growing to a foot in length, this eye-catching relative of tetras and piranhas is a typical inhabitant on flooded forests in South America. For more than 50 years it has been very popular in the pet trade. While having a reputation for harassing other fishes in home aquariums, it is not aggressive in roomy accommodations.
Green and black poison dart frog, Dendrobates auratus
From Panama and Colombia, this is one of the most familiar of the poison dart frogs in collections, and is considered comparatively easy to keep and breed. It was introduced to the island of Oahu more than 50 years ago, and can be seen in front yards in suburbs of Honolulu. It continues to do well in its native habitat as well.
Budgett's frog, Lepdibatrachus laevis
Named after J. S. Budgett, who studied lungfish, bichers, and amhibians in South America and Africa over a hundred years ago, this unique frog could be said to resemble a cross between a hippopotamus and a potato. Even the tadpoles have enormous mouths and are cannibals, making their propagation difficult for amphibian keepers. They do not have teeth, but can inflict painful bites with sharp-edged structures in the jaws. Found in Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, these relatives of the horned frogs were very rare in captivity before the 1980s.
Blue poison dart frog, Dendrobates azureus
When these amazing frogs first appeared in zoos in the 1970s, they created a sensation and remained very rare in collections until the mid-1980s. They are now widespread in captivity, thanks to their popularity. As with other poison dart frogs, captive-bred animals raised on fruit flies and crickets lose their toxic qualities. Found only on a few "islands" of forest, arising out of the Sipaliwini savannah of Suriname and Brazil, they are considered vulnerable to extinction, so that their status as a self-sustaining captive population is especially satisfying.
Lobo del Rio
Giant river otter, Pteronura brasiliensis
While Sea otters can also weigh up to 100 pounds, Giant river otters are definitely the longest members of the weasel family, reaching five-and-a-half feet in length. Found in noisy groups of up to eight, related animals along rivers in tropical South America, they are active only during the day time. Although they have the shortest fur of any otter, their hides have been traditionally valued, and the fur trade has led to their being listed as an endangered species. Until recently, it was a very rare animal in zoos, but increasing numbers are being bred in captivity.
Orinoco crocodile, Crocodylus intermedius
When the Association of Zoos and Aquariums created Species Survival Plans in the 1980s, this critically endangered reptile was one of the first selected. That project was ended suddenly when it was discovered no US zoo actually had any. It was not until 1997, when "Juancho" and "Miranda" arrived at the DWA, through the courtesy of the Venezuelan Government, that a US breeding program for the largest New World crocodiles commenced. Since 2003, over 100 have hatched at the DWA, including 55 returned to Venezuela.
Vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus
It might seem surprising that Vampire bats have the fewest number of teeth of any bat -- only 20, most of them tiny. However the incisors and canines, that dominate their jaws, are superbly suited to slice through skin, giving their owner access to the blood that is its sole food. Found from Northern Mexico to Chile, they prey on a wide variety of sleeping mammals and birds, including occasional humans (who are often attacked through their toes). They do well in captivity, and most zoo specimens are captive-bred. Their DWA diet is cow's blood.
Striped basilisk, Basiliscus vittatus
Named for a mythical crowned serpent, basilisks are specialized iguana relatives from Central and South America. They are capable of running on their hind legs so quickly that they can cross water without sinking. The ornate crest on the head is actually an extension of the skull. This species is found from Belize to Colombia, and is also now one of the many reptiles that have become feral in Florida.
Goliath bird-eating spider, Theraphosa blondi
Until 2001, when the Giant huntsman spider was discovered in Laos, this enormous tarantula of the Northern South American rainforests was known as the largest spider in the world, and is still the heaviest. The legs may span one foot and they can weigh up to six ounces. While it is certainly capable of eating small birds, their more usual prey is insects, frogs, and lizards. Their venom is comparable to that of a wasp, but they are also capable of damaging human skin with their detachable irritating hairs. Females can live to be 25 years old and males only to six.
Species Survival Plan (SSP) indicates species that are listed as endangered by USFWS