This week I visited the renowned Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) center at the Wild Animal Park. The place is truly amazing with different labs scattered about and the Frozen Zoo. However, we weren’t at CRES simply to admire the surroundings, but rather to meet with Dr. Bryan Endress, who is the head of a fairly new division at CRES, Applied Plant Ecology. Dr. Endress was accompanied by Christa Horn, a Stanford graduate, and Katie Merill, an intern from UCSD who is writing her senior thesis on a special project in the Applied Plant Ecology Division. We learned about their project, a restoration effort focused on growing a native cactus species, the prickly pear cactus of the genus opuntia. This prickly pear is vital to Southern California for a variety of reasons such as helping to prevent erosion, using less water as an extremely drought tolerant species, and acting as a critical breeding habitat for a native bird species called the cactus wren. However, the cactus, and subsequently the cactus wren, has been severely threatened by the recent waves of wildfires, particularly the devastating Witch Creek Fire of 2007. The good news is that prickly pear, in its natural environment, is fairly capable of staving off fire, unlike many introduced plant species (such as mustard plant) that happily fuel the hungry flames. Thus, the message is clear.
Not only are the cactus essential in acting as a natural fire-retardant, they are a key part of the Californian landscape and a vital habitat for native Californian species. The cactus wren shall have a habitat along with the native cactus, and the native cactus will flourish and alleviate the dangers of fire so that human populations are safer too. The story of the cactus and the cactus wren is a lesson in the staggering importance of seemingly commonplace organisms, like a cactus, for example. Every organism has its place and is tied to the human world with far-reaching effects if damaged.
Liz, Real World Team