When the doors open to the Deserts Dome, visitors leave Indianapolis and
arrive in a real desert environment.
Some of the animals on exhibit in Deserts
Meerkats, several species of birds,
tortoises and more than a dozen types of reptiles
snakes), as well as various plant life.
Some of the Indianapolis Zoo's most important projects involving animal
conservation occur in the Deserts Biome and the Zoo
international recognition for successfully breeding rare iguanas.
About 250 species of plants flourish in the
Deserts Dome, several of which are
endangered. Planters constructed inside the rocks give the appearance that
the plants grow from within the terrain. All of the plants in the biome are
living and cared for daily by the Horticulture staff. The temperature in the
deserts dome is regulated at 85 degrees in the summer and 82 degrees in the
winter. It is lowered to simulate a seasonal change and encourage some of
the animals to maintain their hibernation schedule just as they would in the
Some animals, like the endangered desert tortoise, need even lower
temperatures to hibernate. For the tortoises' winter nap, keepers settle
them into a special refrigerator off exhibit to sleep at a chilly 55 degrees
until spring. The tortoises use little oxygen because their metabolism slows
to almost a standstill. The Deserts Biome is home for another species of
tortoise, the radiated tortoise of Madagascar, which is managed by the
Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program of the Association of Zoos &
Aquariums, the Zoo’s accreditation organization. In late 1995, the
Zoo was successful in breeding this critically endangered tortoise, and many more young
tortoises have been born since. This species is named for its brilliant
shell, which has star-patterned stripes radiating from its center.
How Did We Do It? ... Creating a Desert
Zoo's overall goal to immerse visitors in the natural habitats of its
animals was firmly in mind when designing the Deserts Biome, which opened in
1990. Zoo staff spent
two weeks in Tucson, Ariz., making rubber molds of actual rocks that
decorate the Deserts Biome. Upon return to Indianapolis, the molds were used
to shape fiberglass then sprayed with concrete. The granite gravel lining
the floor of the exhibit was trucked in from Arizona, and the giant rocks
were painted to match the color of the gravel. The rocks are situated to
form a canyon and river and to sculpt a walkway through the dome for
visitors. Larger animals are behind glass in the exhibit areas, but the
birds and smaller lizards roam freely throughout the dome.
The attention to detail in the Deserts Biome sets it apart from other
desert exhibits across the nation. The 80-foot diameter transparent dome
allows the animals to bask in natural sunlight year-round while heating and
air conditioning vents hidden in the rocks keep the temperature in the 80s.
If a lizard finds itself in the middle of a turf battle or being pursued by
a rambunctious young visitor, it can take cover in one of 75 "hide tubes"
throughout the dome. The tubes are made of drainage piping built into the
rocks and lined with gravel to provide traction.