5 Underrated Exhibits At The San Diego Zoo That Are Worth Your Time

(Courtesy of San Diego Zoo.)

So you think you know the San Diego Zoo. Maybe you've been there a million times, perhaps you had that one memorable trip—or maybe you even grew up in San Diego and now tote your own family around to see your old favorites and new discoveries.

But there's another zoo, one that not everyone experiences. It involves the backstory behind animals and their environments. It's critical to have a deeper understanding of our flora and fauna now, perhaps more than ever before, because climate change and other threats put so many of our treasured resources in jeopardy. We are less likely to destroy what we know.

On your next visit, see if you can track down these five off-the-beaten-path places to revive your San Diego Zoo experience—and to learn a little more about our world.

1) Reptile Mesa: You've likely seen the crocodiles and alligators, but look a little deeper and you'll see other species in the pool. For example, softshell turtles make sand-pit beds underwater and catch a snooze. And Indian flapshell turtles are exactly how they sound—they can retreat their long necks and limbs completely into their shells, almost like boxing themselves up for protection. From the crocodilian group, the gharial (named for its long, skinny snout with an Indian "ghara" pot shape at the end) can stay underwater for up to two They have sharp teeth that frequently fall out and grow back. On the surface, it may seem crazy to want to protect these creatures, which are the genetic heirs of species from long ago that have survived for many thousands of years, but they are now threatened by the destruction of their environments. Zoo conservation breeding programs help to keep their current gene pool healthy.

After it was found on-site, the honey from this beehive was rewarded to the gorillas and other primates at the Zoo. (Courtesy of San Diego Zoo.)

2) The Pollinator Garden: Quite simply, we don't have food if we don't have plants. (And yes, that includes meat—animals eat plants such as grains or grass). The bad news is that plant pollinators such as bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, flies, and beetles are rapidly disappearing, due to overuse or misuse of pesticides, disappearance of their feeder native plants, and destruction of their habitats. Fortunately, the zoo's Pollinator Garden near Elephant Odyssey is set up as a sanctuary for the small and mighty fliers, with pesticide-free plants, a demonstration bee house, and a monarch waystation. Hopefully, it will inspire visitors to protect pollinators at home.

3) River Hippo Habitat: You'd think it would be difficult to miss a hippo, but so many people do! In the lesser-traveled part of the Lost Forest zone, a huge pool is home to Funani and Otis, who weigh in at nearly 1.5 and 2 tons, respectively. They are surprisingly graceful with their underwater ballet moves, and they keep company with tilapia fish, which eat the hippos' dead skin and food remnants, as they would in the wild. One of the hippos born at the San Diego Zoo, Adhama, now lives at the Los Angeles Zoo and became a YouTube star in his own right with his talented moves. Hippos once were plentiful throughout Africa, but now they are a threatened species, only abundant in East Africa. Dam building, water diversion, and the ivory trade—they are killed for their tusks—have devastated their populations.

The spicy-scented Angraecum sesquipedale has several common names, including Christmas orchid and Star of Bethlehem orchid. (Courtesy of San Diego Zoo.)

4) Botanical Tours: In the same way you won't see exotic animals in your everyday life, you also won't see these rare orchids (including the striking Dracula vampira variety, which blooms at night and withers at the sun's first light) at the florist. The Orchid House, which is open on the third Thursday of every month, serves as a Designated Rescue Center for these delicate plants, which are protected and propagated through international conservation agreements.

5) Parker Aviary: Come for the exotic birds, stay for the puppy-sized primates. The aviary boasts a pair of golden lion tamarins, monkeys native to the Brazilian coastal rain forest, which scamper throughout the lush foliage. Once on the brink of extinction (exacerbated by a 50% infant mortality rate), an intensive global conservation effort has brought the golden lion tamarin population up to well over 3,000. Oh! And there are birds, too: Look for bright-billed toucans, the hanging nests of the oropendola blackbirds, and brilliantly vermillion-plumed Andean "cock-of-the-rock" Rupicola peruvianus.

It's a lot to do in one visit, we know. You'll be tired and hungry. All the more reason to take a break in another lesser-known zoo location, Albert's Restaurant, named for one of the zoo's most beloved former inhabitants, a silverback western lowland gorilla. Albert's has its own French-inspired chef and what you might expect from a full-service, sit-down establishment, including a full bar, but also what you don't—a waterfall outside the patio.

Visit San Diego Zoo this summer during Nighttime Zoo. The zoo has later hours, special exhibits, enhanced performances meant to be enjoyed on summer nights, and more. For more information and to purchase tickets to the San Diego Zoo, visit here.