Analyzing the World, One Animal at a Time

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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!

Have you ever wondered why your dog walks around in circles before lying down? Or why male peacocks have incredibly vibrant and beautiful feathers and the females are just brown? The people who study those questions and more are known as behavioral biologists. We had the pleasure of meeting two of them this week: Director of Behavioral Biology, Dr. Matt Anderson, and Research Coordinator for the Behavioral Biology Division, Jennifer Tobey.

Dr. Anderson presented his work that he is doing with African elephants. He explained what behavior biologists investigate when they are on a research project. For his current project with the elephants, Dr. Anderson studies things like herd relationships and communication among the elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. This information can help explain behavior in the wild and create solutions to problems that elephants are facing.

There are two parts to Dr. Anderson’s project: one part is taking information from the Safari Park, the second is studying animals in the wild. Dr. Anderson works with Dr. Mike Chase and the Elephants Without Borders program (EWB pictured above), based in Botswana. They work together to not only gain information on the elephants, but to help solve problems between elephants and locals and create a better environment for everyone.

Behavioral biologists used to have only binoculars and paper to carry out their research, but now they have moved on to more high tech equipment. Elephants at the Safari Park have been fitted with GPS collars that not only track the elephants’ locations, but also the noises they makes so biologists can figure out where the elephants go, who they are talking to, and what they saying. Elephants in Botswana are fitted with similar collars that only have the GPS feature. Behavioral biologists have discovered things like how elephant herds are made of mostly females and that adult males travel by themselves.

Elephants face many problems out in their natural habitat. Many of those problems stem from human causes, like barrier issues (pictured above) they currently face in Africa. Elephants cross borders as they move around, they don’t stay in just one country, and this can be problematic when certain countries are at war. Often, when countries are in the midst of a war, they aren’t thinking of the safety of the elephants or any other animal around them, and they can get hurt. Other issues are actually being caused by elephants in Africa. Some elephants have developed a habit that has been called “raiding”, where they trample crop fields. Sometimes they eat the crop, but more than not, the elephants are just crushing the crops.

We also met Research Coordinator of Behavioral Biology, Jennifer Tobey. She talked to us about her work with koalas at the Zoo and in Australia. We got a special look at some of the equipment used to study them and some close up information on them as well.

Ms. Tobey showed us the sound boxes that are installed in the Zoo enclosures (bottom right) as well as the enlarged versions that are deployed in the field (middle left). These boxes record what are known as koala “bellows,” which some have said sound like a motorcycle starting up. These recordings allow biologists to study the patterns of communication that are used during the breeding season and the non-breeding season.

Ms. Tobey also let us sample the individual recording equipment that she uses when she is out in the field. Intern Morgan (above) is holding a directional microphone that amplifies the sound of whatever it is pointed towards. Inside the bag on her shoulder is a recording device like an MP3 device, only bigger.

Ms. Tobey also brought in a vile of artificial koala scent. The odor that male koalas excrete during mating season is made of 37 different compounds, and some organic chemists took the 7 most profound of those compounds and mixed them together. Koalas need this scent to help communicate with other koalas because they are isolated from each other. The scent can either entice a mate or scare off a rival. For some of the interns, we discovered how shockingly terrible the smell was when it was passed around the room, while others of the group remained blissfully unaware.

Madison, Photo Team,
Fall 2012, week four