More than Just an Animal Park

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These are the desiccation chambers where seeds are dried.

You may be surprised to find that the Zoo is home to not just animals and animal research, but plants and plant research as well. In this case, you would be even more surprised to learn that the Zoo’s plant collection is just as extensive as its animal collection.

In fact plants are not simply part of the Zoo, they are studied and researched just as much as the animals. This is because the plants are just as important as the animals to the world’s ecosystems, and to us as consumers.

As research technicians in the Applied Plant Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, Sara Motheral and Christa Horn work on the collection, documentation, and study of plants for the seed bank. The seed bank is an extensive menagerie of seeds native to San Diego County. These plant seeds are to be used for research, and in case of emergency, propagation. Because these samples are very important to the Zoo, scientists have devised a special way to process the seeds.

Seeds are first grown at the Zoo or Park. Plants are usually grown on site, not in labs, to replicate how they would grow in their natural environment. Then researchers are sent out to pick the seeds. This in itself is a tedious process because researchers have to be careful to leave enough seeds for the plant to use in reproduction. Then seeds are separated with sieves and a device that uses air and mass to its advantage, called an air separator. Seeds are dried with another array of instruments that include fans and desiccation chambers, which are filled with small beads that absorb moisture from the air. Once the moisture level in the seeds has fallen below 10% they are frozen. And voilá, they have become a long-term genetic contribution.

It is vitally important that this happens for us, not just as plant lovers or as conservationists, but as consumers. To understand this we must first look at our grocery stores. When we visit the produce isles anywhere in the country, we all pretty much see the same things. All of our apples are the same size and shape, all of our corn is yellow, and so on and so forth. However, plants do not grow like this in the wild. In order to offer this phenomenon to the consumer, companies and farmers grow one specific type of plant to satisfy the entire crop.

While this is great for the consumer, it is not necessarily great for the gene pool of the species. Especially if something were to happen to the entire crop. “Your food choices and consumption choices have a huge impact on the environment”, says Horn. She has a point: if a virus or natural disaster were to come and wipe out the entire crop, we would be left without a product and without a species.

This is where the native seed gene bank comes in. The bank not only protects genetic diversity by saving diverse samples of the species that are not being grown, it saves them for when the variety being used for mass production is no longer effective. If a natural disaster were to come wipe out all of our corn this year, the seed bank would be prepared and ready to help.

Savannah, Real World Team