Helping Habitats get Healthy

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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

Working hands on with animals is an opportunity that many people would jump at, especially if they could help with research that directly leads to a better understanding of why certain species are endangered and how to help them. This kind of research is especially important in Southern California, and it is exactly the sort of research in which Jean-Pierre Montagne is involved.

Mr. Montagne works in the Applied Animals Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research doing an important survey of the animals found in our local coastal sage scrub habitat. Unfortunately, nearly 95% of this habitat has been lost to human encroachment, so determining the abundance and diversity in the species living there is vital. The research takes place in what has been nicknamed the “back 900” – the 900 acres of undeveloped coastal sage scrub habitat that is stewarded by San Diego Zoo Global and maintained as a nature reserve. Mr. Montagne and his team set up pitfall traps – buckets placed in the ground – wait 24 hours, and then check the traps to see what different animals have fallen into them. The traps are small enough to only catch insects, lizard, snakes, and small mammals, so nothing is harmed by falling in. The team then marks the individuals so they will know if they catch the same specimen again, and write down details like what the species, gender, and age of the individual is. This way, they have a detailed account of fluctuation in the population of these animals and biodiversity (diversity of life within a certain area) as a whole.

Researchers at the Institute have been involved in this project for many years, and Jean-Pierre Montagne has been involved for the last two. Before doing biodiversity research he attained a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with an emphasis in ecology, and worked several other jobs at the Zoo and Park, including in the horticulture department. He also spent time as a volunteer performing behavioral observations of white rhinos.

A typical day doing his sort of research starts around 6:00 am when he and his team go out to check the pitfall traps. Checking the traps and cataloging the specimens found in them usually takes 4-5 hours. After the traps have been checked, he heads back to the Beckman Center to input his recorded data into the computer and to bring any interesting specimens to the Genetics Division. Specimens collected by Mr. Montagne and his team have been successfully grown through tissue culture and stored in the Frozen Zoo.

Mr. Montagne loves animals and nature very deeply, and finds it hard to pick a favorite animal. He does say, however, that he gets really excited when he finds a rare animal that he usually doesn’t encounter. For example, since the wildfires in 2007 he has not been able to find a slender salamander, a species that used to be plentiful in the area. He’d love to find one, and believes that there are still several out in the refuge, just not where the traps are.

Working in a job like his also lends itself to some rare and intense experiences with animals. A few years ago Mr. Montagne and some of his colleagues were hiking along a ridge when they looked down and saw a pack of 3 coyotes – a rare sight in broad daylight. Thanks to the wind direction, they were able to stay and watch the pack for a few minutes before they coyotes realized they were there and ran away.

Jean-Pierre Montagne will soon be going back to school to get his Masters Degree in ecology from San Diego State University. He will be working on a project involving ground squirrels, which are very important to the environment because they build underground burrows that other animals later move into. He suggests to anyone who wants to work with animals that they should spend some time doing any kind of volunteer work with animals that they can, so that they can get their foot in the door and get in touch with nature.

Sophie, Careers Team