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Amazon comes to Metrozoo

Wototo and Kara, giant river otters, along with Palenque and Reina, magnificent jaguars, and a pair of harpy eagles have arrived in Miami, bringing the sleek and taloned majesty of the Neotropics to a corner of Miami's Metrozoo called Amazon and Beyond.

The last resident, a 17-foot anaconda weighing 300 pounds, arrives Dec. 2, in time for Saturday's grand opening of the $50 million addition.

Amazon and Beyond will have 120 animals, birds, reptiles and fish in



IF YOU GO

Miami Metrozoo's Amazon and Beyond exhibit covers 27 acres and contains 120 animals, birds, reptiles and fish and more than 20,000 plants. The zoo is at 12400 SW 152nd St. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; ticket booths close at 4 p.m. Admission: Adults $13.95, children (3-12) $9.95. Call 305-251-0400 or visit its website

69 exhibits. It is the first new addition to the zoo since the $13.5 million Wings of Asia -- destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 -- reopened in 2003.

Intended to replicate the biological diversity of an Amazonian rain forest, the landscaping sometimes necessarily reaches to continents beyond the hemisphere while wisely including plenty of South Florida natives. With time, its designers hope visitors will be immersed in a rich melange of 21,573 plants, including 60 kinds of trees, and 2,000 to 3,000 different flowers, shrubs, vines and a wealth of exotic palms.

The animals are native to the hemisphere. The rarest of them were donated or loaned by captive breeding programs around the Americas. In the case of the jaguars, for example, Metrozoo paid only the cost of having them shipped from Houston and Boston.

Funding for the $50 million addition came mostly from Miami-Dade County, the Zoological Society of Florida, and private donations.

THE NEOTROPICS

Five years in the making, the Amazon complex takes a look at New World tropical and subtropical ecosystems -- the Neotropics -- not represented previously at Miami-Dade's zoo, pulling in hummingbirds and howler monkeys, Orinoco crocodiles, a giant anteater and diminutive poison dart frogs to populate the indoor and outdoor displays surrounded by orchids, gingers, heliconias, kapok trees.

It completes the circle of exhibits around the zoo's main road, picking up where Africa left off, adding another half-mile of walkways to the three miles already in place. Of Metrozoo's 740 acres, 320 acres are now developed.

Of the area's 27 acres, a core dozen or so acres open to the public include numerous waterfalls, pools and rising steam swirling through the cloud forest, suggesting the forests and rivers of Central and South America rather than simply displaying an assembly of assorted animals, says Metrozoo ambassador Ron Magill. Pathways are much narrower than in other areas of the zoo, and spaces are more intimate so that plants, animals and habitat become more personally meaningful.

Amazon and Beyond is one of the few open-air rain forest exhibits in the continental United States, so its flora can't be 100 percent tropical, but Florida's subtropical climate is warm enough to simulate a rain forest.

FAMOUS DESIGNERS

Designed by Jones & Jones Architects of Seattle, famous for their work on such zoos as the San Diego Zoo and portions of Walt Disney's Animal Kingdom, Amazon and Beyond began with the idea of promoting conservation, said Greg Murphy, landscape architect and project manager.

"It started with discussions with the zoo staff, the Zoological Society and World Wildlife Fund about what Miami Metrozoo could do to help promote conservation worldwide," Murphy said.

About the time the ideas were incubating, World Wildlife Fund came out with a Global 200 report, identifying threatened biodiversity hot spots. Half of the world's plants and animals are found in rain forests, and, said Murphy, "Miami was one of the best areas in the United States to replicate these threatened rain forests."

A village plaza with a fountain, a staple of Latin American towns, precedes the entryway to three ecological regions: a cloud forest; the Amazon and its flooded forest; and the highly threatened Atlantic coastal forest of Brazil.

CLOUD FOREST

Turn left into the Cloud Forest and you'll find black howler monkeys, hummingbirds and butterflies, tanagers and trogons, yellow-legged squirrel monkeys, misty waterfalls and a dry riverbed winding in and out of discreet enclosures. Verawood, yellow elder, hibiscus, firecracker, golden dewdrop and yellow milkweed offer color and nectar.

In the Cloud Forest reptile house, you'll discover not only the creatures themselves but you'll learn that pit vipers sense you by heat -- you can stand in front of a sensor and see yourself as a viper would. You'll see fangs of a fer-de-lance, one of the world's most poisonous snakes, and learn that snake venom, a mix of poisonous digestive juices, is used to produce Catopril, a medicine to treat heart failure.

The Cloud Forest house is adorned with glyphs of the Mayan culture. Inside is the iconic figure of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of the Mayans and Aztecs. You'll also find small glass-fronted displays of reptiles, including alligator lizards, the splendid leaf frog and glass frog, and a graphic that explains "The Mystery of Vanishing Frogs," one of the pressing conservation concerns of biologists around the world.

Palms and bamboo, prayer plants and cassia trees lead you to the jaguars.

Two of nature's most exquisite animals occupy what Magill calls "a two-room suite'' connected by an overpass. The 3,420 square feet of rock, water and plants are divided because the cats are solitary by nature.

ON THE AMAZON

Then, on to the Amazon. You enter the Orinoco River display, passing a sculpture of crocodiles hatching from a nest of eggs (look down and to your right as you enter the area). Here a green anaconda reigns behind its wall of glass. This giant snake can reach 30 feet and weigh 500 pounds. An Orinoco crocodile, which may reach 20 feet, stares back from his pool.

The Amazon River annually rises some 30 to 40 feet, flooding the nearby forests and allowing fish to dine on seeds and fruits of submerged trees. To simulate the flooding, the zoo has built its first aquarium holding 50,000 gallons of water, showing off fish such as three-foot pacu and a dazzling red-tailed catfish as well as three huge river turtles that swim among the submerged trees.

On the opposite side of the Flooded Forest is a living version of the forest in the dry season.

Outside, you can reach into a shallow tank to feed and pat freshwater stingrays.

Meditate on the majestic slate-and-white harpy eagles.

RIVER OTTERS

Past the keel-billed and chestnut-billed toucans you'll discover the rare giant river otters, whose energetic escapades belie powerful jaws quick to defend their territory.

An animal with one of the oddest designs in the place is the self-possessed giant anteater. Metrozoo acquired this female from the Cleveland Metropark Zoo; at 17, she is unruffled by crowds, said Conrad Schmitt, curator of mammals.

With Amazon and Beyond "we're raising the bar, and that's a wonderful thing," said Eric Stephens, Metrozoo director. "We've stretched ourselves and the exhibits to tie together animals and people and places in the tropical world.

"It just makes so much sense for Miami. The next area will be Florida, and from there the Caribbean. We're getting to work on areas of the world that mean the most to our residents and visitors. It's tremendously satisfying and exciting."

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