Oh, Behave!

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Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest blogs. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

One bark means yes. Two barks means no. If only understanding animal behavior was that easy. As humans, we have struggled for centuries to understand the meaning of the vocalizations and actions of the creatures we share Earth with. Both Dr. Matt Anderson and Jennifer Tobey have dedicated their careers to understanding an animal’s sounds and actions to determine what they are communicating.

Tobey, who has a bachelor’s of science in both biology and psychology and a master’s degree in comparative animal psychology, started off her career focusing on primates. She studied their vocalizations (a new field of study known as bioacoustics) and their behaviors. A little over eight years ago, Tobey began working at the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research, where she began an on-going project with koalas. Tobey records koala vocalizations and studies their frequencies to distinguish what the koalas are trying to communicate. She has also visited St. Bees Island and Victoria in Australia to study koalas in their natural habitat and to gather field data on their vocalizations. Through her studies, she has been able to help in the breeding program at the Zoo, which boasts the largest koala colony outside of Australia.

Anderson came to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in 2001 as a reproductive biologist. With an undergraduate degree in zoology from the University of Liverpool and a Ph.D. in primatology from Oxford University in England, Anderson also began his work in behavior with primates. As a reproductive biologist, he focused on mating behaviors and did a lot of work with hormones to help determine what internal changes were causing external behavioral changes. When he came to the Institute in 2001, Anderson began working with African elephants.

Like Tobey did with koalas, he, too, went into the bioacoustics of elephants, a job much easier said than done. Elephants have evolved to create specialized vocalizations to travel vast distances. Unfortunately, these sounds are at a frequency too low for human ears to detect. Thus, Anderson must monitor their vocalizations through specialized collars and speed them up to a frequency detectable by human ears. In doing so, he is able to determine a multitude of things. For example, when a female elephant is about to give birth, she will make a sound only other elephants can hear, warning the herd that she will give birth within the next week or so. These collars have also allowed Anderson and the team working in Africa to monitor wild elephant populations. In doing so, they are able to ensure elephants stay within protected areas and that man-made obstacles, like fences, do not impair the elephants from roaming around freely.

Both Tobey and Anderson’s careers have helped in conserving species. As Tobey gladly exclaims, “My favorite part of the job is knowing I’m making a difference here at the Zoo and in the wild.” Her studies with koala bioacoustics have led to breakthroughs in understanding an animal that sleeps 20 hours a day. These breakthroughs will prove to be necessary as wild koala populations are dropping due to habitat degradation.

Anderson agrees with Tobey, saying, “It is great to know I am taking measures in conservation and I love being challenged by the new problems we are confronted with.” Both admit their jobs are indeed laborious: since koalas are small, they cannot support the weight of a specialized collar to monitor sound. Therefore, Tobey must stand inside the koala exhibit and record their vocalizations herself. Anderson struggles with getting the collars on an animal that weighs in at a staggering six tons. In no uncertain terms, both share adversities common to working with animals. However at the end of the day, both leave the Institute with the satisfaction of knowing their work today will save a life tomorrow.

Tony, Careers Team