Like many preschoolers, my son is obsessed with his ABC's. Since every alphabet-related title in our library has a handy little ABC sticker on the binding, he can quickly find books on his favorite subject. One such book we recently checked out is called Animals in the Zoo by Feodor Rojankovsky. This 1962 edition is by no means a recent publication, and while the illustrations are decent drawings, they're not even close to the colorful splashy pages in most current children's picture books.

However, I was pleased to see as we read that the author had gone out of his way to select unusual animals whose names began with each letter rather than compromising with a tough letter like "x" by choosing an animal with an x in the middle of its name. I also found myself wanting to know more, since some of these animals I myself had never heard of and didn't know how to pronounce their names. Another ABC book we checked out a while back did a great job of having unusual animals explained in an appendix of sorts at the back of the book, but this one did not. So, I thought I'd share with you my findings from researching the unusual animals in this zoo on Wikipedia, in case you ever run across them and find yourself fumbling to explain them to your kids:

- Dromedary - yes, I knew this one, but I thought it presented a big word for a little guy who is used to simply calling this animal a camel. A dromedary camel has just one solitary hump, while a bactrian camel has two. Who knew?

- Fennec - a nocturnal fox who lives in the Sahara of Northern Africa and has unusually large ears, which help it get rid of excess body heat.

- Impala - an African antelope (not to be confused with kudus, gazelles, etc.

- Jackrabbit - I thought it odd that the author didn't just say R for Rabbit like so many other authors of this genre - so since he got specific, here's what distinguishes a jackrabbit: a jackrabbit is actually a hare, such as the snowshoe hare and black-tailed or white-tailed hare in North America. While rabbit babies are born in a burrow blind and hairless, hares are born in grass nests called forms and can see and have fur already so that they're adapted for less physical protection from birth. Hares are more solitary than rabbits (who live in groups), have longer ears, and have not been domesticated for use as pets.

- Mink - these animals are mostly nocturnal, semi-aquatic, carnivorous relations to weasels and ferrets.
 Yes, they are the creatures whose fur has been prized for ladies' coats and muffs, and sometimes their oil has been used in cosmetics and perfumes as well as leather waterproofing products.

- Nandu - When I looked this up, (I thought from the picture that it was an ostrich), I found that its more common name is Darwin's Rhea, a large flightless bird of South America. Like ostriches, it runs from predators - this particular bird runs a max of 37 mph. The name "ñandú" refers to the bird's name in Guaraní ñandú guazu, which is translated as big spider, perhaps from the bird's propensity to open and lower its wings while running.

- Quetzal - These birds are strikingly colored, being mostly iridescent green with red breasts. They live in neotropical places as well as western Mexico. The name "quetzal" is from the Nahuatl quetzalli, or "large brilliant tail feather." While today several types enjoy this name, originally it referred only to the Resplendent Quetzal of Central America, which is still the national bird and name of the currency in Guatemala. 

- Urial - this wild sheep of western central Asia (think northeastern Iran and western Kazakhstan to Pakistan and India). This curly-horned mammal is also known as the arkars or shapo. Unlike mountain sheep, this group prefers grassy lands below the timberline.

- Vari - This was the most puzzling - finally figured it out via animalinfo.org - this animal in the illustration seems to  refer to the black-and-white ruffed lemur (also known by the names vari, varikandana, and varikandra). Both this and the red ruffed lemur (a.k.a. varimena and varignena) are subspecies of the ruffed lemur and live in Madagascar. Sadly, there are only approx. 1,000-10,000 b/w lemurs still living (Primate Info Net from Univ. of WI) so they are endangered. They are vegetarians who dwell in the rainforest. Unlike other primates, who carry their young on their backs, lemurs leave them in nests high in the canopy. While enjoying nectar from flowers, the lemurs get pollen on their long noses, which they transport to other plants, thus acting as important pollinators.

- Xerus - This is apparently the genus name for four species of African ground squirrels. The illustration the book uses seems to show one of the striped variety. These animals are similiar to North American prairie dogs - they live in burrows, are pesky to farmers, and live in colonies.

- Yak - this one appears in many children's books, but, I ask you, have you ever seen one or thought about what it really is? The yak is a bovine (cow-related) Himalayan animal, most of which have been domesticated. It has smooth horns, a hump over the shoulders, and long, shaggy hair. Apparently these guys are more Febreeze-fresh than your average dairy cow - their manure is almost odorless and their wool is odor-resistant.

So there you have it, and now perhaps you'll be feeling a bit more prepared to educate your child about the wonders of the animal kingdom the next time you encounter one of these unusual creatures. Further food for thought - isn't God amazing to have dreamed up and created this variety? Are there yet undiscovered animals, or even ones we've assumed are extinct, lurking in distant jungles somewhere on the globe?

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