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Oddities and rarities of Paignton Zoo: Past and present

Everyone that visits Paignton Zoo has a favourite animal. Is it the tigers? The giant tortoises? The toucans? Or how about our new binturong or baby orangutan? Whichever you choose, we know that some animals are more popular than others, and over the last 100 years Paignton Zoo staff have looked after thousands of different species.

Last week, we counted down our top 10 most iconic animals from our 100 years history. This week, we’re switching it up!

We’ve chosen 10 of the zoos more obscure residents from past and present, to highlight just a small handful of our less well known, but still amazing, animal stars.

1. Paradoxical frog

NHM London Paradoxical frog Pseudis paradoxa model edited
© Natural History Museum

Visitors to the Tropical House in the 1980s would have been forgiven for walking past the tank of adult paradoxical frogs. Small, green and shy, they were hardly the most conspicuous of animals on exhibit. The display of tadpoles was another matter entirely, however – at 25cm in length the tadpoles were up to 5 times larger than the adults and were, in fact, the world’s largest tadpoles!

2. Coconut crab

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Lucky visitors to the zoo today may catch a glimpse of our young coconut crab in Bugs at Home. Also known as robber crabs, adult specimens can reach a leg span of almost 1 metre and are recognised as being the largest terrestrial invertebrates in the world.

3. Paca

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When the zoo first opened, founder Herbert Whitley caused quite a stir by displaying an unusual South American rodent called a paca. Looking like an oversized spotty guinea pig, these animals were incredibly rare in zoos and went some way towards establishing Herbert’s reputation as an expert animal keeper. He also had an even rarer pacarana, an unrelated rodent despite of its similar sounding name.

4. Kagu

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Herbert Whitley regularly received new and exotic birds, and his Tropical Houses and aviaries provided a home for an abundance of them, from birds of paradise to Philippine eagles. One of the most notable inhabitants was the kagu, a unique bird from New Caledonia. Although they look a little bit like a small heron, they have no known close relatives. Herbert was one of the very few people to successfully keep these birds and he even managed to breed them.

5. Angwantibo

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Visitors to the zoo’s Nocturnal House in the early 1960s would have been able to see a very rare nocturnal primate, but whether they could pronounce the name on the label was another matter. The angwantibo, or golden potto, were another species that thrived here at Paignton Zoo but were rarely seen elsewhere. Related to lorises, they are an arboreal species characterised by slow movements.

6. Mauritius kestrel

Mauritius kestrel Falco punctatus from wiki commons edited

Visitors in the early 1990s could easily have missed our Mauritius kestrels at the top of the zoo. Despite their rather ordinary appearance, these birds represent a hugely successful reintroduction programme that highlights the vital role that zoos can play in species conservation. In the early 1970s, these kestrels were considered the world’s rarest bird, with only four known individuals in existence, but thanks to dedicated efforts these numbers had increased to around 400 by 2019. Paignton was one of a handful of zoos entrusted with these birds.

7. Przewalski’s horse

Przewalskis Horse 1 edited scaled

Petra the Przewalski’s horse was a beloved icon of the zoo in the 1970s and 80s. This species of wild horse was once believed to be extinct in its native habitat, with the last sighting of a wild individual in the 1960s. Thanks to successful breeding programmes in zoos, these horses have since been reintroduced to the wild, resulting in a population of almost 2000 today – a testament to the important role zoos play in the conservation of species.

8. Short-beaked echidna

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Almost as rare in UK zoos but more likely to be seen, is Bruce, our short-beaked echidna. For many years, Bruce was the only echidna in the UK, but recently, some have arrived at two other UK zoos. We have a long history of caring for these amazing egg-laying mammals, and visitors would have been able to see them here as far back as the 1960s.

9. Whitley’s conure

whitleys conure bird edited

In the very early years of the zoo, keen-eyed bird fans may have viewed a bird that has most likely not been seen before or since. Whitley’s conure was a small parrot that Herbert Whitley believed to be a brand new species. He was so sure that he named it after himself! We now believe the bird was a hybrid rather than a new species, but as we’re unsure what one of the bird’s parents was, we can’t say for certain whether another example has ever been seen!

10. Titan Arum

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We are finishing off with a wild card entry. Paignton Zoo is the only UK zoo that houses, and has successfully propagated, multiple titan arum – a tropical plant nicknamed the ‘corpse flower’. Its notable nickname comes from its potent smell of rotten flesh when in bloom – a rare phenomenon that only lucky (or unlucky) visitors to the zoo have been able to witness. Boasting the world’s largest unbranched flowering structure – which can reach 3m tall – this rare plant only grows in the wild in the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia. Paignton Zoo works with other botanical gardens to conserve this unique species.


We’re celebrating our centenary year. To discover more about Paignton Zoo’s 100 year history and our plans for the year, click here.

GloWild at Paignton Zoo

17th November 2023 – 2nd January 2024

We will be ending our centenary year in style with our biggest ever festive event!

Join us after dark for an immersive light experience featuring a variety of beautiful, interactive light installations, entertainers and a silent disco.