Hangin’ Around with the Siamangs

In honor of Ape Awareness Month, April’s Tales of the Tails Animal Stories is about one of the Virginia Zoo’s most popular species of ape, the siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus).

Walk into the Zoo on a nice, warm day and one of the first animals you’ll see is our lively family of siamangs. These lesser apes are part of the same scientific family known as gibbons, and are the largest and darkest species of gibbon.

Siamangs have black fur and long, slender bodies that have no tail. They have extremely lightweight bones and arms that extend longer than their legs, so traveling by brachiation, or using one arm to hold onto a branch while the other swings to move the body forward, is easy. In other words, these primates have some serious swinging skills. Their hands and feet, which are very similar to those of humans, also aid in their energetic swinging. Both their hands and feet also allow them to carry things, as they have opposable thumbs and big toes. In the wild, siamangs can be found in the tree tops in the tropical forests of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. They prefer being up high, sometimes as high as 80 to 100 feet!

Siamang pairs are usually bonded for life, and a siamang family tends to stick together until the offspring are old enough to venture out to start their own families at around the age of six to eight years old. A family’s territory can extend up to more than 50 acres. So how does the family keep in contact with each other? A siamang’s call includes “barks” and booms”, and their inflatable throat sac can make the sound even louder. Their special “song” can be heard more than a mile away. Take a listen:

Even though they are energetic and fascinating creatures, siamangs are listed as critically endangered. Major threats to the species include destruction, degradation and fragmentation of their habitats, as well as hunting of the animals for their meat in some countries, and poaching of young siamangs to sell in the illegal pet trade.

The Virginia Zoo participates in a Species Survival Program® (SSP) for all gibbon species, including siamangs, and donates to several global conservation efforts to help save the lesser apes from going extinct. This program oversees and manages the species’ population in zoos by monitoring breeding to prevent overpopulation and inbreeding, and also ensures the species’ survival in the wild through conservation efforts such as educational training programs. Maximizing the genetic diversity of the species through breeding is also a priority of the SSP, which is why animals, especially mature offspring, are often transferred to different zoos.

Each member of the Virginia Zoo’s family of siamangs has his or her own unique personality, but they all appear to enjoy each other’s company despite being different from one another.

Bali is the largest and oldest in the Virginia Zoo’s siamang family, weighing just over 33 pounds at 13 years old. He was born in January 2004 at the Howletts Wild Animal Park in the United Kingdom. He came to the Virginia Zoo in June 2010.

Zoo Keepers say Bali is very relaxed and easy-going, and that he appears to enjoy spending time with his family and watching over them from the highest points on the siamangs’ island. His favorite foods seem to be bananas, grapes and corn on the cob, but he also enjoys finding snacks in enrichment items such as raisins, peanuts and peanut butter.

Hitam is Bali’s mate. She was born in May of 2004, making her 13 years old. Hitam appears to like some of the same things as Bali, but has her own taste in food. She prefers grapes, bananas and mango during her meals, and her favorite enrichment treats include raisins, peanuts, peanut butter, bread, and even JELL-O!

Before coming to the Virginia Zoo in February 2011, Hitam shared an exhibit with her parents, siblings, and a family of orangutans at the San Diego Zoo. Zoo Keepers say Hitam is a great mother, she is very attentive to her young, and that she makes sure they are behaving properly toward each other as a siamang should. Keepers also say Hitam is the smartest and friendliest of the family.

Bali and Hitam are the parents of two young siamangs, daughter Lola and son Guntur.

Lola is the oldest of the two offspring. She was born here at the Zoo in August 2012. Lola prefers to eat mango, bananas, avocado and tomatoes. For enrichment, she seems to have fun with everything from small boxes, fire hose rope swings and bamboo branches, which are her favorite! Keepers say Lola can be silly towards her keepers at times, nodding her head or leaping about, and that she also likes to spin and show off on the fire hose ropes.

Guntur is the newest member of the Virginia Zoo siamang family. He was born here in November of 2014, and is just over two years old. He is very rambunctious, and according to Keepers, has a short attention span, like most other juveniles. His favorite foods include bananas, grapes, peanuts and hard-boiled eggs.

Guntur likes to run and slide across the floor in the inside exhibit dens, and can typically be seen throwing his favorite enrichment items such as broken branches and bamboo, as well as his rubber Kong toys. Despite his active and playful nature, Keepers say he does very well at monthly weigh-ins and check-ups.

The Virginia Zoo siamangs can be found on their island in Asia – Trail of the Tiger on days where the temperature is above 55 degrees, and in their inside enclosure between the Asia Aviary and orangutan exhibit on chilly days. This close-knit family is always doing something entertaining, so be sure to stop by to admire them the next time you’re at the Zoo!