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L.A. Zoo's wet and wild rain forest

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Visitors to the zoo can watch giant river otters frolic in their enclosure, even while underwater.ISAAC ARJONILLA, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Rainforest of the Americas

Open: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. beginning Tuesday

Admission: $18 ages 13 and older; $13 ages 2-12

Where: Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, 5333 Zoo Drive in Griffith Park, Los Angeles

Website: lazoo.org

What could be better than a small monkey with a head of white, flowing hair living wild and free in the trees at the Los Angeles Zoo?

Answer: Two of ’em, and maybe more if they – technically, they’re called cotton-top tamarins – get in the mood hanging out in the upper reaches of their island occupied by friendly tapirs, enclosed by nothing but sky.

That’s a small part of what visitors will see when the Rainforest of the Americas, a 2.2-acre, $18.8 million permanent exhibit designed to showcase the oft-neglected South American continent, opens Tuesday. Three years in the making, the project is the last piece to be put in place of the zoo’s 15-year master plan.

Why the rain forest? Why now? Because the Amazon rain forest is disappearing at the rate of 200,000 square miles a year and could be totally gone in 40, according to NASA’s ongoing deforestation research. So, too, everything that lives in it.

Many of the 20 species on display at Rainforest of the Americas are considered endangered, including the tamarins and the blue-billed curassow, which number less than 250 on the planet.

So don’t miss them, or these five delights we gathered from a sneak peek of the new exhibit last week.

OTTERS’ PARADISE

1 Get there early to see the giant river otters – they get up to 6 feet – kiss good morning to each other and swim up to their keepers for a big hello. Their home is designed with water slides, waterfalls, a boat and a hollowed-out log. The male has a solid patch of white on his neck; the female has the speckles. (Hint to the romantic: She might already be pregnant.)

A TOOTHY QUESTION

2 The giant otters can be viewed swimming underwater in a few places. One of those is at the entrance where red-bellied piranhas look to be sharing their pool, along with other fish. (They are, in fact, segregated by glass. Very cool.) In real life, the piranhas don’t bother the other fish. But otters and piranha do share waters. So, who wins that tussle? Surprise: It’s the otter. Every time.

LOOK UP

3 The cotton-top tamarins will indeed be loose in the middle-area trees, but have no fear, said exhibit curator Jennie Becker: Zoo docents and volunteers will be posted around the island of sand and water to make sure the pair don’t go rogue. The two are most likely to stay in the trees, Becker said, though they could drop down to find bugs. And though there is some some flexible wiring strung in the trees, it’s only there to ward off birds of prey.

RED IN THE FACE

4 You’ll spy these three red-faced, bald-headed uakaris – two females and one male – tucked up away from extreme close viewing. Uakaris, which are vulnerable Peruvian monkeys, aren’t really red-skinned – they just have a lot of capillaries close to the surface of their faces. The L.A. Zoo has the only three of their kind in North America.

THE BIG SCARY

5 Boys especially love this. The goliath bird-eating spider – not its real name – is a relative of the tarantula but it looks worse. This one has a leg span of, like, 11 inches. Its venom is supposed to be harmless. Yeah, right.

Bonus: The jaguars are coming. They’re already at the zoo but should be installed at the rain forest by the end of the year.

Contact the writer: awilson@losangelesregister.com

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