Rebuilding a Species

[dcwsb inline="true"]

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

For the second time this session, we had the opportunity to visit the Conservation Education Lab at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. We walked into the lab, walls covered with paintings of animals and DNA structures, and sat down in several rows of lab tables filled with beakers and high-tech ­pipettes. While there, we listened to a PowerPoint presentation by Colleen Wisinski, a research associate in the Institute’s Applied Animal Ecology Division.

She talked to us about the ecosystem surrounding the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, a critically endangered Mediterranean-climate ecosystem called coastal sage scrub. This ecosystem is extremely unique, as it’s home to many endemic species, or species that don’t live anywhere else in the world. Ms. Wisinski informed us that there are currently many threats to the coastal sage scrub habitat, including urbanization and its subsequent habitat encroachment, wildfires, and invasions by nonnative species.

After Ms. Wisinski told us all about the ecosystem, she talked about some of the conservation projects that Institute researchers are currently involved with. Ms. Wisinski is a bird biologist or avian ecologist, depending on what she’s working on at the time, and the project she is currently involved with is the cactus wren project, which focuses on rebuilding populations of the coastal cactus wren, a small subspecies of bird that nests in the prickly pear cacti that surround the Safari Park and populate pockets of undeveloped habitat throughout San Diego County and Baja California, Mexico. Ms. Wisinski told us that the cactus wren only nests in prickly pear cactus stands that are three feet or taller. However, the issue with this is that the number of cacti reaching three feet is scarce due to past wildfires and being eaten by animals like wood rats, deer, and rabbits. In order to increase the number of cacti for the cactus wrens, Ms. Wisinski and the rest of the team working on the project have developed several different ways they can effectively grow cacti. It is especially important for the team to find a way to help the cacti grow faster, since a cactus may normally take up to seven years to reach one meter, the typical height for a cactus wren nest.

After the PowerPoint presentation, we drove out to the Safari Park’s biodiversity preserve, an area of 900 acres behind the Park dedicated to habitat preservation. The preserve may not look like much, only sporting browns and greens, but it is home to the many important animals, insects, and plants that make up the coastal sage scrub ecosystem. We drove out to one of the areas dedicated to the cactus wren project and stepped just off the road to view some of the newly planted cacti. Ms. Wisinski pointed out the varying ways in which they were planted and explained which methods had worked thus far in terms of quickening the pace of cactus growth. Once we saw the cacti in the ground, it was time to take out the binoculars and look for some cactus wrens. Since the birds are very small and quite fast, we were only able to get short glimpses of them; however, we did get to check out some cool nests! The nests are incredible, because they are literally nestled within the cactus plants, woven with hundreds of twigs, and only have a little hole for the birds to get in and out of.

Glimpsing these cool birds, getting to see their nests, and learning about planting the cacti has really inspired me to check out ways in which I can help this project. That’s when I asked Ms. Wisinski what I could do, and what any average person could do for that matter, to get involved. She told me, as well as the other interns, that an important way that someone can help is by keeping his or her cats indoors. Random, right? Well, it turns out that feral cats are quite a significant problem for cactus wrens, especially the ones that live in pockets of cacti surrounded by urban areas. But what I really learned from this experience was a bigger picture of conservation and how we can influence it in our daily lives. Things like litter, over-watering, and not recycling, can affect these special birds. Ms. Wisinski left us with the idea of how everything in our ecosystems, here in Southern California, is affected by our everyday habits in life. Anyone can take a shorter shower or hold onto their gum until they find a trashcan, and it all helps what lives around us, including the cactus wrens.

Caroline, Real World Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2012