Seasons of a Research Assistant

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Paul releases a desert tortoise into the Mojave Desert.

I am a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am employed on a temporary basis during the time when the tortoises are active, and I have now finished my second season. There are different groups of research assistant positions. My group, known as the “Seasonals,” provides the basic day-to-day needs for the nearly 3,000 tortoises living here at the DTCC. The four of us provide food and water for the tortoises, make sure the tortoises’ pens are secure and that the burrows we dig for them are functional, and make observations of the tortoises’ health. We spend a lot of time outside in the desert heat, but we are also involved in data entry, record keeping, and work in the labs and medical center. We also do a lot of cleaning. If you have ever been involved in any area of animal care, you know that cleaning is a basic function that has to be done!

During my first season, our daily schedule was fairly standard. As the sun was rising, the Seasonals would begin feeding the tortoises according to the daily schedule (different pens on different days). Afterward, we immediately started doing inventory (see post Counting Tortoises). We assessed and put ID tags on tortoises from over 200 acres of pens. We walked many in-line transects searching for tortoises, and we even used camera scopes in the deepest, most convoluted burrows to search for tortoises.

After the first season was complete, I continued to volunteer at the DTCC and soon was offered another contract for 2011. I accepted! While my first season was from June through October 2010, my second season would be a seven-month marathon—starting April and ending into November. I began to wonder: “The inventory project is done, what could possibly take place this year that would keep us busy?” Well, I didn’t have to worry about that!

This year all of the Seasonals got to participate in translocations. During April, May, September, and October, we helped move over 500 of our desert tortoises into the wild. Also, we were allowed to spend an entire day with the telemetry folks to search for our translocated tortoises in the wild desert. Each of us learned how to use the tracking equipment, tune in the right VHF frequency, hold the antennae high above our heads, and search for tortoises.

Monster enjoys a meal just outside his new burrow.

I’ll tell you about one of my proudest moments. Fellow Seasonal Jeremy Conte and I were entrusted with the job of building a better, bigger burrow for our esteemed resident, Monster (see post Monster Desert Tortoise). Monster’s burrow was falling into disrepair. Jeremy and I spent about two hours per day for a full workweek building a new home. After a weekend to allow the mud-dirt wall to settle, it was ready. Monster moved in on a Monday, and he spent the entire summer using the “Monster Burrow.” I am happy to say the burrow still stands strong. Monster had no problems during the summer and seemed more active and social to human visitors.

Side-blotched lizard

A real delightful treat is seeing other animal life here at the DTCC: snakes (including the Mojave green!), bats, red-tailed hawks, ravens, horned toads, side-blotched lizards, geckos, the coyotes that roam outside our perimeter fence, roadrunners, ground squirrels, quail, and rabbits. One time I saw a barn owl flying overhead in broad daylight! We even have some hummingbirds visit. Granted, some in these are tortoise predators, but nevertheless I am still fascinated to see these animals.

And so, my second season has ended. Once again I handed in my Zoo photo ID. Seasonals, volunteers, and interns have come and gone. Many of my talented fellow Seasonals came here from out of state, some just barely out of college, or graduate school, looking for an entry into a biology or zoology career. Being an employee of the San Diego Zoo is a crowning achievement in my life, and working at the DTCC is a tremendous opportunity for getting involved in animal care and conservation. It is hard, sometimes grueling work, but there are wonderful rewards!

Paul Griese is a seasonal research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

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