Imagine a labyrinthine building full of various enclosures of venomous, rattling, unblinking reptiles. Does it sound like a horror film? Perhaps it does, but it was anything but scary for us interns: being behind the scenes at the San Diego Zoo’s Reptile House was more like a dream come true. And, for senior keeper Brett Baldwin, it is just another day’s work.
As we toured the reptile house with wide-open eyes, Mr. Baldwin explained the dangers associated with his job, casually pointing to the large fridge full of antivenin and the stretcher waiting in case of an emergency. While I was impressed by Mr. Baldwin’s calm demeanor, despite the unpredictable nature of his job, I was even more impressed by the species conservation taking place in the very reptile house that I had walked by so many times before.
For example, there were many vibrant green Fiji Iguanas hiding among the leafy trees in their enclosures. These endangered reptiles are kept at the Zoo as a satellite population in case of a disaster in Fiji. This protects against potential bottleneck effects, or reduced genetic diversity due to significant decreases in population size. It is important to take preventive steps against loss of endangered species. There is no such thing as being too careful because if the population dwindles to numbers too small for successful reproduction, the species will face extinction.
We met and learned about the New Caledonian Giant Gecko. At first glance, he appeared more like a creature forgotten by time than an organism with much to offer modern medical and scientific communities. I soon learned, however, that this intriguing reptile displays two attributes deserving of scientific attention: cell regeneration and molecular bonding. This particular gecko had lost and re-grown its tail. Cell regeneration has a lot of potential for development in the scientific world. Imagine, in the future, if doctors could replicate this ability to aid amputee patients.
When I felt his toe pads, I noticed the unique sticky feeling that is not suction (as was once thought), but is rather a bonding on the molecular level that allows geckos to speedily scurry up vertical surfaces. Maybe one day we will be able to replace glue or Velcro with this new molecular bonding technique.
At present, this animal is being considered for protected status by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The New Caledonian Giant Gecko lives in a specialized environment, and if we are not careful, we could risk losing this scientific gem forever.
The New Caledonian Giant Gecko is just one example of biomimicry, the idea of looking to nature to find better ways of solving our problems, waiting to be harnessed. The possibilities are limitless for researching and developing these attributes in the technological, medical, scientific, and consumer markets.
Mr. Baldwin explained that amphibians are like canaries in coalmines in that they alert us when something is going wrong in an ecosystem, also referred as “bio-indicators.” As of late, they have been dying in increasing numbers, due to habitat loss, climate change, and the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) to which they are susceptible. Although this is a bleak fact, it is not too late to reverse the process. If we are aware of the clues that nature gives us, we can respond accordingly to improve our world and the lives of endangered species.
Mackenzie, Conservation Team