Photos: These animals debuted at the National Zoo since the pandemic

These are some of the animals that have been added to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute since March 2020. New species have been acquired and many others have been born in captivity during the past 2½ years, as the zoo closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, reopened, closed and then reopened again. My approach was to photograph the animals against a dark background with studio lighting to give people an up-close look at what they have been missing. Without any glass or fencing between you and the animal, you’re able to fully grasp the beauty and wonder of Mother Nature.

This isn’t the first time I’ve photographed animals at the zoo. In 2011, while working on a story on how the reptile collection had been reimagined, I proposed doing lit portraits against a black background, which I hoped would be an eye-catching way to showcase some of the animals. I had so much fun seeing them up close, in a way that normal visitors don’t get to, that I was hooked.

Four years later, shortly after the birth of the giant panda Bei Bei, I got the idea for a series on the newest babies at the zoo. In addition to the panda, I photographed a baby cheetah and a red panda, among others. Of course, these animal encounters don’t always go as planned: That baby cheetah became a little overwhelmed, and after I shot a couple of frames, he lunged at my lens, quickly retreated and then proceeded to urinate on my backdrop.

Despite the occasional mishap, I continue to have that same excitement that I did 11 years ago while photographing the first series. I’m already brainstorming what my next one will be.

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Pallas’s cat

Native habitat: Central Asia

When sassy sisters Akar and Ceba aren’t cuddled together, they move in slow motion; in a classic Pallas’s cat defense, these girls walk the stalk. Their unhurried, deliberate prowl, along with their marked gray fur, helps camouflage them against rocky terrain and desert sands. Native to regions as geographically diverse as Afghanistan, Nepal and Mongolia, they’re just as comfortable in steamy D.C. heat waves as they are in Himalayan nights that drop to 30 degrees below zero. And when it does get cold, they like to sit on their fluffy tails to keep their paws warm, almost like a heated blanket. (At the zoo: Claws & Paws Pathway)

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Komodo dragon

Native habitat: Indonesia

Onyx, a 3-year-old dragon who arrived at the zoo in late 2020, is more of a morning lizard than a night crawler — he’s more agreeable and easier to handle early in the day before the sun warms his enclosure and his blood gets hotter. But his temperament is usually calm, much like fellow dragon Murphy’s. The two look and act so similarly, Onyx’s keepers call him “Junior,” which would be apt if Murphy weren’t five feet longer than his “mini-me.” Native to Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands, Komodo dragons are the largest living lizards. They’re known for their venomous bite and for making zoo guests feel as though they’ve entered Jurassic Park. (At the zoo: Reptile Discovery Center)

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Amur tiger

Native habitat: Southeast Russia and Northeast China

Six-year-old Metis is the largest of the zoo’s tigers — at 360 pounds, he weighs almost 100 pounds more than Nikita, his bride to be — but he’s also one of the calmest. He has a curious demeanor and enjoys cool swims on sizzling summer days. He arrived in D.C. in April 2021 from the Indianapolis Zoo, where he received a breeding recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan. Keepers plan to pair him with 10-year-old Nikita to reproduce, and they are “optimistically hopeful” about the possibility of tiger cubs, which the zoo hasn’t kept since 1948. (At the zoo: Great Cats)

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European glass lizard

Native habitat: Southern Europe to Central Asia

This hatchling might look like a snake, but the reddish reptile is actually a type of legless lizard. Unlike snakes, European glass lizards have eyelids and ear holes, and they move in more of a herky-jerky dance than a smooth slither. Their name comes from their ability to “shatter” in the face of danger, detaching their tail from the rest of their body to distract predators. The hatchling pictured here is just over a year old — grown enough to lose the recognizable black-and-white scaled bands of newborns, but not yet at full maturity, at which its largest elders measure 5 feet long. (At the zoo: Reptile Discovery Center)

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Southern tamandua

Native habitat: South America

Described affectionately by her keeper as “very cute and very dumb,” 3-year-old Chiquita arrived at the zoo in early 2021. While humans may find her curiosity sweet, insects certainly don’t — she can eat up to 9,000 of them per day. Since her mouth opens only to about the width of a pencil eraser, she has a 16-inch tongue coated in sticky saliva to help her search ant and termite nests near trees for a quick snack. Tamanduas are arboreal creatures, so their tails act as an extra limb, helping them to hang from branches and maintain balance high above the ground. (At the zoo: Small Mammal House)

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Australian snake-necked turtle

Native habitat: Eastern Australia

Most popular aquatic or semiaquatic turtles — such as sea turtles and snapping turtles — wow reptile enthusiasts with their hefty weight and surprising diameters. But these hatchlings are tiny — the one pictured here is surrounded by water droplets (a good reference for its size) because they need to be misted when they’re away from their homes in natural or artificial bodies of water. When they hatched in October, their keepers could easily fit all four of the new siblings in one hand, though they’ll grow to be just under a foot long in adulthood. Their hatching came as something of a surprise; keepers believed the 11 turtles housed at the zoo were all female until they found eggs in their enclosure. (At the zoo: Reptile Discovery Center)

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Rock hyrax

Native habitat: Africa and the Arabian Peninsula

There’s no other way to put it: Helion and Havok look taxidermied. Named rock hyrax for their tendency to find a comfy rock and sit all day, barely blinking or moving, these two brothers spend about 95 percent of their time perched on a high branch in their enclosure. This half-haunting, half-hilarious display is even more fascinating in the wild, where colonies of up to 60 individuals gather on kopjes, or rock outcroppings. This four- to 12-pound rodentlike species is one of the closest relatives to — nothing could prepare you for this — elephants. Like their much larger cousins, hyraxes have strong molars to grind vegetation and two incisor teeth that grow out to tiny tusks. (At the zoo: Small Mammal House)

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Black tree monitor

Native habitat: Indonesia

A relative of the Komodo dragon, this lizard boasts a tail that accounts for two-thirds of its body length and acts as a fifth limb. If you don’t see any black tree monitors on exhibit (or in their natural habit of the Arafura Sea isles), look up — unlike their bulky cousins, they feel more comfortable scurrying up trees, using their tails, toes and claws for support, than stomping along the shores. Black tree monitors are found only on Indonesia’s Aru Islands, and for good reason. Over eons, this family of lizards evolved separately across different islands in the archipelago, which is why zoologists can now study green, yellow and blue tree monitors, too. (At the zoo: Reptile Discovery Center)

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Prehensile-tailed porcupine

Native habitat: South America

When this porcupette was born, a zoo donor was quick to determine a name. Fofo, whose name means “cute” in Portuguese, is a member of the fourth generation of prehensile-tailed porcupines born at the National Zoo. Born to mother Beatrix and father Quillbur in early 2022, Fofo is almost ready to leave his home to live on his own or mate at another zoo. With marshmallow-soft noses and black and white coloring to blend into shady tree canopies, prehensile-tailed porcupines have sharp barbs at the end of their quills to hook into predators who wander too close. But when Fofo was born, like all members of his species, he had striking, rust-colored hair covering his body instead. (At the zoo: Small Mammal House)

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Henkel’s leaf-tailed gecko

Native habitat: Madagascar

If this gecko weighed 200 pounds, it would still be able to scale a vertical wall. This “superpower” is due to van der Waals forces, and scientists at NASA and the Defense Department are studying them to re-create these Spider-Man-like abilities for astronauts and soldiers. Not only can Henkel’s leaf-tailed geckos subtly change color to match the flora they’re resting on, but they have a flap of fringelike skin that runs around the edges of their heads and bodies, blurring their silhouettes and making them less identifiable to predators. Though they’re hypersensitive to light, they have incredible vision in the dark; there is evidence that nocturnal geckos may be able to see color at night. (At the zoo: Reptile Discovery Center)

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Sand cat

Native habitat: Northern Africa, Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula

Six-year-old Najma may look like a domesticated house cat, but this wild feline would be a fierce predator in her corner of the world. A fearless hunter, she would hunt prey including venomous vipers and other snakes, as well as rodents, and she would be able to go without water for weeks at a time, retaining any moisture she needs from her meals. She would be comfortable in temperatures ranging from 125 degrees on summer days to below zero at nights, and when the weather is too extreme, she would know to burrow herself deep into a hole in the sand. But luckily for Najma, her home at the National Zoo is a little cozier. (At the zoo: Small Mammal House)

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Panamanian golden frog

Native habitat: West-central Panama

Despite its name, this critically endangered amphibian is actually a froglike toad. That doesn’t mean it’s not poisonous — one Panamanian golden frog has enough toxins in its skin to kill more than 1,000 mice. These toxins come from the insects they eat in the wild, but their diet in captivity decreases their toxicity levels enough that keepers and researchers can handle them safely. Born with completely white skin, froglets darken to green a few days after hatching before that pigment bleeds to yellow, a warning sign to predators to stay far away. (At the zoo: Amazonia and Reptile Discovery Center)

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Golden-headed lion tamarin

Native habitat: Southern Brazil

Parents Coco and Lola welcomed not one, not two, but four offspring since the zoo initially shut its doors during the pandemic. Twins Tom and Carmen are the oldest at 11 months, followed by an unnamed 6-month-old “toddler” and a 3-month-old infant. It’s healthy for this species of primate to have a big family; in the rainforests of Brazil’s Bahia, they’re known to assemble in groups of up to 14 individuals that sometimes include lone adoptees. They sleep together in tree holes, and the dad is tasked with carrying infants for the first weeks of their lives. When he gets tired, the eldest offspring get their turn “playing house.” Tom and Carmen have both been spotted carrying their small siblings on their backs. (At the zoo: Small Mammal House)

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Vietnamese mossy frog

Native habitat: Northern Vietnam

These amphibians are not known for their grace. They’re clumsy predators (they leap on top of their meals, usually crickets and cockroaches, and shove them into their mouths) and clumsy prey (when frightened, they curl into a ball and plop into water from the walls of limestone caves to evade perceived danger). They are known, however, for their unique coloration and texture. In their youth, Vietnamese mossy frogs are a Christmassy red and green, and in adulthood, their earthy tones almost perfectly resemble moss. They’re also masters of ventriloquism, capable of throwing their voices up to 13 feet. (At the zoo: Reptile Discovery Center)

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Collared brown lemur

Native habitat: Southeast Madagascar

Brothers Bentley and Beemer warmed to keepers quickly when they arrived at the zoo in May 2021. Bentley, more of a leader, tends to head expeditions on Lemur Island, the enclosure that houses the zoo’s eight lemurs, with Beemer trailing a bit behind — he’s a little more fond of food than exploration. In their natural habitat, collared brown lemurs live in groups of up to 22 individuals called “troops.” Like any good soldier, they have to keep up their physical appearances; perhaps this is why they have a built-in comb in their lower teeth that they use to groom their hair. (At the zoo: Primates)

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Cave salamander

Native habitat: Central and southern United States

There are more species of salamanders in the Appalachian ecosystem than anywhere else on Earth. They are, in fact, so abundant that their collective biomass easily outweighs that of all the deer in the region, but individually, they weigh less than an ounce. These lungless amphibians can absorb oxygen through their skin, but they can take in harmful toxins and other pollutants, too. Cave salamanders are, perhaps, one of the species we can have the most impact in preserving through sustainable choices, such as limiting harmful pesticide use and disinfecting footwear before hikes to avoid tracking in potentially harmful foreign bacteria. After all, cave salamanders do live in the DMV’s backyard. (At the zoo: Reptile Discovery Center)

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Native habitat: South and Southeast Asia

You might hear Hank (pictured above) and Lola before you see them. Their keeper says they “fight like an old married couple,” and in a binturong relationship, that means lots of loud howls and hisses that you can hear from several exhibits away. And if you don’t hear them, you’re sure to smell them, since a chemical in their urine gives off the unmistakable impression of buttered popcorn. Watching them flip and fly through their exhibit is almost like watching a movie. Though sometimes called “bear cats” for their stocky bearlike bodies and sly catlike faces, binturongs are related to neither, and actually have the playful temperament of a pet dog. (At the zoo: Claws & Paws Pathway)

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Lemur leaf frog

Native habitat: Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia

This frog may look like it’s wearing eyeliner, but this beauty doesn’t need it. At night, while the frog is most active, its yellow-green skin turns brown and its eyes turn dark gray for better camouflage — call it built-in makeup. During the day in an active rainforest, lemur leaf frogs sleep on the underside of leaves, where their bright green skin helps them blend into the foliage. Unlike other frogs in the rainforest, these tree dwellers tend not to hop or jump, but to walk hand over hand, strolling through tree canopies — unless presented with a threat. (At the zoo: Amazonia and Reptile Discovery Center)

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Native habitat: Malay Peninsula and Sumatra

Seven-year-old Guntur is quite the vocalist. His pinkish throat sac, which can grow as large as a grapefruit, inflates when he sings, allowing him and the other three siamangs with whom he shares a home to communicate in a variety of grunts, booms and barks that can echo for miles. Guntur likes to sing duets with “girlfriend” Adi, who arrived around the same time from another zoo and with whom he shares a breeding recommendation. He also likes to steal sunglasses and other items from his keepers through the gaps in his netted enclosure, though he usually gives them back when he realizes they’re not food. (At the zoo: Primates)

If you go: Smithsonian’s National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; free entry passes must be reserved online in advance.

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About this story

Photos and introduction by Matt McClain. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg. Art direction and design by Jose L. Soto. Animal descriptions written by Sophia Solano. Editing by Camille Kilgore and Jill Martin.

The following National Zoo employees assisted with this project: Jen Zoon (communications specialist); Kenton Kerns (assistant curator), Chelia Chong (animal keeper) and Maria Montgomery (animal keeper) of the Small Mammal House; Becky Malinsky (curator) and Emily Bricker (animal keeper) of Primates; Matt Evans (assistant curator) and Kyle Miller (animal keeper) of the Reptile Discovery Center; Craig Saffoe (curator), Sara Colandrea (animal keeper), Katy Juliano (animal keeper) and Dell Guglielmo (animal keeper) of Great Cats and the Claws & Paws Pathway.