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Lost World Zoos

June 6, 2020

Lost World Zoos

- as seen by -

Jason M. Aloisio Jason M. Aloisio

At first, it sounded like a scratching needle on a vinyl record. Then, like crackling water droplets on an electric wire. It had to be coming from the trees, I thought.

As I peered deeply through the foliage of tree-dotted Mesoamerican ruins of El Tajín, I just barely caught a glimpse of this Montezuma oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) creating one of the most unique bird calls that I have ever heard.

I thought to myself, could this bird be a descendent from Montezuma’s Zoo*?

While I could never know for sure, written accounts by the Conquistador’s attest that Montezuma and his 300 keepers, maintained a zoo rich with 16th century Mesoamerican biodiversity.

Montezuma’s Zoo was located in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, present day Mexico City, when the population was estimated to be 200,000 – 400,000 people. The conquistadors were so enamored with Montezuma’s Zoo that written account of its splendor dominated their journal account of the great Aztec capital.  Just a year after Cortez and the Conquistadors arrived in Tenochtitlan, though, an estimated 40 percent of the population died from smallpox, and the city and zoo would be no more.

Just then, the Montezuma oropendola flew away. I dropped my camera and tried to pursue, but my attention shifted back to the 1200-year-old ruins of El Tajín that towered around me.

Maybe there was a zoo here, too…

*Montezuma II

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jason cycled from the Bronx Zoo through Central and South America from October 2019 to March 2020. His trip ended early as COVID-19 became a pandemic. He is safe and back in New York.


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