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9 Animals Important to Latin Countries and Cultures

Aquatic animals hold a strong cultural significance and environmental importance across our blue planet. In particular, the freshwater and marine animals that live in Latin countries — located throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean — inhabit some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, which have been woven into the cultural fabric of Latinx communities.

Latinx Heritage Month, which takes place September 15 – October 15, honors those diverse cultures, rich histories and storied contributions of Latinx people across the globe and is linked to the national independence days of several Latin American nations.

This month, join us to also celebrate aquatic animals at the aquarium that are culturally important or native to Latin countries and bring to light why people should conserve and protect them.

A Magellanic penguin stands on the rocks of its Polar Play Zone habitat, other penguins visible in the background swimming on their stomachs in the water.

Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus)

Range: Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, along the Pacific and Atlantic costs of southern South America

A rockhopper penguin's head with its spiky-looking black and yellow feathers.

Southern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome)

Range: Southern coasts of South America from Cape Horn to the Falkland Islands

Penguin Facts:

  • Contrary to popular belief, not all penguin species live in snowy climates. Both Magellanic and rockhopper penguins live along rocky coasts with short shrubs and grasses in one of the largest deserts in the world.
  • Magellanic penguins are named after the explorer Ferdinand Magellan who saw the birds on an expedition in the 1500s.
  • On land, Magellanic penguin pairs will build burrows for protection and to lay their eggs. In water, their bullet-shaped bodies and rudder-like flippers allow them to zoom through the ocean at about 15 mph.
  • Rockhopper penguins are known for being loud, throwing their heads back and calling to communicate with other penguins.
  • After swimming, rockhoppers can fling themselves out of the water, landing on their bellies.
Two stunning bright red macaws lift their large, blue-tipped wings in Shedd's Oceanarium.

Green-winged macaw (Ara chloropterus)

Range: Lowland forests throughout north and central South America

A blue hyacinth macaw sitting on a branch and biting its claw.

Hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)

Range: Central and eastern South America

Macaw Facts:

  • The green-winged macaws at Shedd, Serrano and Poblano, as well as the hyacinth macaw, Filius, are engagement animals, which means they are not on permanent exhibit but rather serve as ambassadors for their species during surprise and delight experiences with guests.
  • In the wild, green-winged macaws eat a variety of fruits and nuts. They can also ingest clay to neutralize toxins found in seeds and nuts and to aid in their digestion. Their powerful beaks help them crack open all kinds of nuts, fruits and other food items they find along the forest floor.
  • Hyacinth macaws are the largest species of parrot in the world. They can use their large black beak like a third foot to grasp trees and climb. Similar to green-winged macaws, they can easily crack nuts and seeds and use their dry, prehensile tongues to scoop out what’s inside.
Toucan on branch

Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco)

Range: Central and eastern South America – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Uruguay

Toucan Facts:

  • Though a toco toucan’s colorful bill accounts for one-third of its body length, the bill is lightweight and mostly hollow! It's made of keratin, the same material as a human’s fingernails. Scientists have debated the function of such a large bill, but it’s been discovered that toucans can use it to radiate body heat, much like elephants do with their large ears.
  • Toco toucans spend their time in the trees but are relatively bad at flying. They move by hopping from branch to branch.
  • Like the macaws, the toco toucan at Shedd named Artie — a new arrival to the aquarium — is an engagement animal, serving as an ambassador for his species during special experiences across the aquarium and beyond.
A sandbar shark cruises through dark waters.

Sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus)

Range: Tropical and subtropical waters in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans

Shark Facts:

  • A tail for traveling and a sleek body propels large sandbar sharks great distances during migrations.
  • Sandbar sharks give birth to live young, with a gestation period that can range from about 8 to 12 months. Their gestation period and number of pups in each litter, about six to 13, varies depending on water temperature and location between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
  • Sandbar sharks are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list and are a part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Saving Species from Extinction (AZA SAFE) program, which combines the efforts of our zoo and aquarium partners across the country to raise awareness and engage action to conserve at-risk species.
Cuban Iguana resting

Cuban rock iguana (Cyclura nubila)

Range: Rocky coasts of Cuba, with a subspecies found on the Cayman Islands

Iguana Facts:

  • The Cuban rock iguana is one of the largest lizards native to the Caribbean, with males growing larger than females. Their bodies can vary greatly in color, ranging from dark gray to brick red to olive green, also depending on gender, with dark banding.
  • These iguanas eat mostly fruits, flowers and leaves in adulthood but can also eat some insects, especially as juveniles.
  • The Cuban rock iguana at Shedd named Lucy is also a part of the engagement animal program.
Hand holding six mussels

Nephronaias lempensis (no common name)

Range: Rivers and lakes of El Salvador

Hand holding two mussels

Mycetopoda subsinuata (no common name)

Range: South America, with El Salvador marking its northernmost extent

Freshwater Mussel Facts:

  • Nephronaiaslempensis is endemic to El Salvador, meaning that the species can only be found in the rivers and lakes of the country. This species was first discovered in the Río Lempa and later described by William B. Marshall in 1926, which led to its species name “lempensis.”
  • The “foot” of the genus Mycetopoda is remarkably distinct, featuring a mushroom-like structure at its tip (hence the name Mycetopoda, derived from “myceto” meaning mushroom and “poda” meaning foot). This specialized foot serves as an anchor to secure them in soft sediment.
  • Little research has been done on freshwater mussels in Central America in nearly 100 years, so not much is known about both species in El Salvador. As part of our efforts as an IUCN Center for Species Survival: Freshwater, work is underway to identify, study and better understand freshwater mussel species in Central America.