Underrated Animals at the National Zoo

Visiting the Smithsonian National Zoo is a must when spending time in DC. Lucky for me, I live here and can go any time I desire.

Raise your hand if you participated in some shape, form, or fashion in the panda craze when either Bao Bao or Bei Bei were born. Mine is high up in the air with you friend. Those little pandas were just too cute not to wait in line to see. For the longest time, the pandas were why I went and returned to the zoo. But not anymore.

I believe it was visit number four when I started to notice some of the interesting animals that reside in the other habitats that the zoo has to offer. I want to highlight a few of those animals that might make a visit out to the Woodley Park area worth it to you. These adaptations are fun ways to get your students or your own children thinking differently about some of those funny looking critters they encounter. Also, this blog provides an optional challenge that goes along with each animal that can make any learning experience more interactive.

Animal: Fennec Fox

Location: Small Mammal House

Habitat: Deserts

Diet: Insects, lizards, mice, birds and bird eggs, plants and fruit

The fennec fox may be one of my favorite animals of all times. It’s easy to fall in love with an animal with huge ears. Though this petite fox is the smallest of the dog, wolf, and fox family, they have the largest ears in comparison to their body size. Could you think of any reasons why these big ears could be helpful to such a little animal?

Those ears aren’t just for making them adorable for the public to view. They are a special adaptation that allow fennec foxes to successfully provide for themselves in the wild. Their ears help the species to locate food. The fennec fox’s ears are so sensitive that they can detect the smallest sounds, even animals buried under the sand. Hearing that powerful is great when trying to find dinner in the desert.

I challenge you to stop by the Small Mammal House during your next trip to the National Zoo and look for the adorable fennec fox. You might have to look closely though. These foxes are nocturnal and spend most of the day curled up sleeping. The easiest way to spot them is to look for those ears.

Animal: Naked Mole Rat

Location: Small Mammal House

Habitat: Savannas

Diet: Tubers, bulbs and roots

I know the naked mole rat isn’t everyone’s favorite animal. I think they might be an acquired taste. Personally, I can spend hours watching these little guys run around in their tubes and trample each other. Other than just being fun to watch, the naked mole rat is a fascinating animal. They can live nearly 30 years in captivity, show no signs of aging, and are immune to cancer. Traits such as those make these guys a little more likeable, am I right?

The adaptation I want to focus on for the naked mole rat is used for more than just eating tubers and roots. This handy tool is imperative for digging tunnels. Do you have an idea as to what adaptation I am talking about? I’m talking about those teeth. Can you believe that a quarter of all the muscles in these little critters body are devoted to powering its jaw.

Here is my next challenge for you. When you visit the Small Mammal House on a hunt for the fennec fox, stop by the naked mole rats and spend some time watching these tiny rodents. Feel free to share a video of them running around in their tunnels with us on social media.

Animal: Southern Tamandua

Location: Small Mammal House

Habitat: Forests

Diet: Ants, termites and bees

When I first encountered the southern tamanduas, the first thing that came to my mind was that they moved like gymnasts and had the shoulder muscles to match. I stood in awe and wonder for a good twenty minutes just watching these amazing animals climb around their enclosure. It wasn’t until I went home and researched more about this animal, that I learned what truly makes them interesting.

The southern tamandua is a species of anteater. They have the same long tongue that is good for eating insects. One big difference is that the southern tamandua spends up to 64% of its time in the trees. This species is actually clumsy on the ground, which is opposite of its other anteater cousins.

Southern tamandua have very powerful forearms, curved claws, and a hairless underside of their tails. Do you know what these adaptations come in handy for? These adaptations are to aide them while spending time moving from branch to branch in the forest canopy.  

While you are in the small mammal house, make sure to spend some time watching this animal’s athletic ability. What type of athlete do you think of when you see these critters?



Animal: Golden Mantella

Location: Reptile Discovery Center

Habitat: Mountain Rain Forest

Diet: Termites, ants and fruit flies

When I first looked behind the glass where the golden mantella was said to be, I couldn’t find the little amphibians to save my life. This species is very brightly colored, so you might think they are easy to spot, but that isn’t the case. Golden mantellas are very tiny and blend in very well with their environment. It may take you a few minutes to find them, but keep looking, they are there.

Their brightly colored skin isn’t only for looks. Do you know why the golden mantellas’ skin is an important adaptation that directly effects their survival in the wild? The skin of the golden mantella warns predators of its toxicity. This adaptation protects the tiny frog from birds, some snakes and even small mammals.

When you visit the Reptile Discovery Center, I challenge you to look for other brightly colored frogs that call the center home. See if those frogs’ skin share the same responsibility as the skin of the Golden Mantella. Share your favorite frog and its adaptation. We are always looking to learn more.


Animal: Gharials

Location: Reptile Discovery Center

Habitat: Rivers

Diet: Fish

The gharial is a critically endangered species of crocodile. People damming rivers, monsoons, and killing male gharials for their knobby snouts have all led to the decreased population of these reptiles. In the 1970s, there were less than 100 gharials left. The good news is that now there are about 1,000 in the wild today, thanks to the establishment of breeding centers.

The gharials have a couple of cool adaptations, but the one I want to focus on is their mouths. They have sharp, interlocking teeth that line their entire elongated jaw. This adaptation may make them look scary, but it is very useful. Do you have any guess as to why?

Fish are gharials primary source of food, and the way their mouth is shaped makes catching dinner pretty easy for them. Their short legs aren’t good for movement outside of the water, so the long snout keeps them from having to work too hard to catch their next meal.

When you visit the gharials at the Reptile Discovery Center, let us know what other adaptations you learn about. Here is a hint; the males have one that make them look kind of funny.

Animal: Australian Snake-necked Turtle

Location: Reptile Discovery Center

Habitat: Lagoons, slow-moving streams and rivers

Diet: Frogs, tadpoles, small fish and crustaceans

My first thought when I came across the Australian snake-necked turtle was a little bit of fear. Turtles are in my top five favorite animals, but adding the word snake in front of anything terrifies me a bit. However, these pint-sized critters aren’t scary. It is fun to watch them swim. They spend most of their time in water, so they are very skilled and graceful swimmers, which made getting a photo a little complicated.

Their adaptation is one that has provided them with a nickname. When snake-necked turtles are handled or disturbed, the eject a liquid from glands under their “armpits” and groins. Can you think of any nicknames that might go along with this adaptation? The nickname they have been given is stinkers.

When you visit the Reptile Discovery Center, see if you can get a good picture of these little guys zipping through the water. Share it on social media and tag us. We would love to see your photos.


I know I have given you a lot to think about when taking a trip to the zoo, but I promise all of these animals are worth the extra look. Below you will see a check-list of challenges to keep in mind when visiting the Small Mammal House and the Reptile Discovery Center. Feel free to share your findings with us on social media or here. There are also a lot of additional questions underlined in the text. Please, share your responses in the comment area below, we would love to engage with you.

Both locations I focused on are also easily accessible and a great place to cool off or warm up, based on what time of year you visit. Below is a map with the two locations starred to help you find them easier. I hope you enjoy taking a little extra time to learn about some of the underrated animals with some really neat adaptations that call the National Zoo home.

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