Listening To The Wild

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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 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!

This week we had the amazing opportunity to meet not one, but two researchers who work in the exciting field of behavioral biology. Dr. Matt Anderson, Director of the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, studies African elephants. He studies their behavior as well as the behavior of the people in the area they inhabit. Jennifer Tobey, Research Coordinator in the same division, studies koalas. Mainly she works with the koalas for conservation purposes, but for educational reasons as well. Both of these brilliant minds have dedicated a majority of their time and effort to their causes and they couldn’t be happier about it.

Dr. Anderson’s work takes him all the way across the ocean into Africa where he observes elephants first hand in their natural environment. He looks at not only their appearance but also their communication. Elephants make sounds with such low frequencies that the human ear can only hear a small portion of the actual sound. By digitally recording it and playing it back slower, we are able to hear it all. Elephants use low frequency sounds, or infrasound, to communicate over large distances since low frequency sounds travel farther than those at higher frequencies. Dr. Anderson also studies elephants using GPS collars that help him track the animals’ movements and allows him to examine aspects of herd dynamics. Sadly these animals are often hunted by the local people so another part of Dr. Anderson’s job is to work with these people. Elephants are notorious for ruining people’s crops and because of this they aren’t a favorite of farmers. By providing the locals with means to defend their crops, and by discouraging hunting, Dr. Anderson is also helping the elephants. This conservation work also branches out into habitat protection, and disease awareness.

Mrs. Jennifer Tobey has been with the Zoo for about fifteen years now and currently works with koalas. Similar to Dr. Anderson, Mrs. Tobey listens to the sounds koalas make but also she pays close attention to the smells they produce. Male koalas produce an odor from a scent gland on their chest; during mating season this is what attracts female koalas. Part of her studies requires Mrs. Tobey to take monthly measurements of how much is being produced from the gland. Chromatograms are then used to measure the different components of the scent, and provide a visual representation for researchers to study. Besides emitting smells to attract mates, koalas also bellow, or produce sound that can last from fifteen seconds to two and a half minutes. These bellows are long in the fall because no one is “talking over them,” and they are short in the spring in order to get their sound out and heard more easily. These animals can be found on St. Bee’s Island, located off the northern coast of Queensland, where they are part of a large conservation effort. GPS collars track them every two hours in the wild and remote audio recorders help to identify the koala’s bellows while observing them in the field. This past April, koalas were listed as threatened in Queensland, Australia. The research that Mrs. Tobey is a part of is helping to make sure that this listing doesn’t change to endangered or even extinct.

Both Dr. Anderson and Mrs. Tobey have found animals that they care deeply about and they have taken actions to help save them. By tracking their movements and listening to the calls they make, they are able to learn more everyday about these amazing creatures. However, you don’t have to be a researcher to help save elephants and koalas. By visiting the Zoo, donating money, talking to your friends about the issues at hand, and being more aware of your impact on the environment, you too can be a part of conservation.

Robin, Conservation Team
Fall 2012, week four