Reptiles: So Misunderstood

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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!

My fellow interns and I got the chance to meet Mr. Peter Gilson, a Reptile Keeper at the San Diego Zoo. He taught us about different types of reptile and amphibians, and we were able to go behind-the-scenes at the Zoo’s Reptile House. It was there that we learned what the Zoo does to assist in the conservation of reptiles and amphibians, and what others can do to aid these sometimes misunderstood creatures.

Reptiles, in fact, are an essential part of the environment, because the ecosystem thrives on a careful balance. If one part of the cycle is taken away, such as reptiles, the balance becomes unstable and many other species may suffer as a result. Reptiles are helpful in the fact that they eat pests and distribute seeds. Many lizards are carnivores that eat bothersome bugs such as mosquitos, which can carry Malaria, a potentially fatal disease to humans. Snakes eat rats and other rodents that also carry diseases that may be transferred to humans. Even the herbivores can help the environment by dispersing fruit seeds they have eaten.

The Zoo recognizes the potential and beauty of these reptiles, and has taken steps to ensure their continued survival. They have been breeding different species for years, as a way to help stabilize endangered populations. In fact, the San Diego Zoo was the first zoo in the world able to breed a rare species of snake called the Mangshan Pit Viper* (also called the Mang Mountain Pit Viper). The ability to breed these species is partially due to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and their Species Survival Plan (SSP). The Zoo is accredited through this organization and part of this plan, which helps network multiple zoos and aquariums, so they can collaboratively manage specific species populations. Mr. Gilson jokingly calls the SSP the “e-harmony” of the animal world, due to its extensive records of the organisms in the program that is used to “match” compatible pairs. Aside from breeding, the Zoo also has people like Mr. Gilson, who aids the reptilian population by teaching the public about lizards and amphibians, getting them excited about assisting in the conservation of different species.

So what exactly can we do to support our little scaly friends?  Helping reptiles can be as simple as being a responsible pet owner. When buying a new pet, one should always go to a legitimate store that knows where their animals were bred. The pet industry is a major problem for wild reptiles, because some places illegally take animals from their natural habitats so they can be sold as pets. People can also make simple changes in their daily lives such as turning off lights to conserve energy, throwing away trash to eliminate garbage harmful to habitats, and recycling paper to reduce the need of trees that are already being used as homes for creatures.

A world without reptiles and amphibians is a world without life. Some may find snakes and lizards gross or terrifying, but they are an essential part in keeping ecosystems alive and beautiful. If helping them can be so easy, then why not take the steps to ensure a healthy world?

*To learn more about Mangshan Pit Vipers, visit this link: http://library.sandiegozoo.org/factsheets/mangshan_pit_viper/pit_viper.html

Keira, Conservation Team

Fall 2012, Week One

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