Turtles, Lizards, and Frogs, Oh My!

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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 on the Zoo’s website!

marcel_W4_picWhile visiting the Reptile House at the San Diego Zoo, our guide Peter Gilson enthusiastically informed us about reptiles and why they’re important. Reptiles are amazing animals, but they also need our help. Many different species of reptiles are at risk of extinction without human intervention. There are many threats to these animals from poaching for food to introduced fungi. Although there are many challenges facing these animals, there are also many ways to help preserve and protect them in order to keep their populations at a stable, if not rising, number.

We were given the unique opportunity to see the Zoo’s endangered Galapagos tortoises in their bedrooms on Reptile Mesa. Mr. Gilson informed us that part of his job is to make the reptiles as happy as possible. In the bedrooms, Mr. Gilson and other reptile keepers have set up movable walls to help make more corners for the tortoises. The tortoises enjoy sleeping in corners because it makes them feel safe and secure. In addition to the daily care of the tortoises, Mr. Gilson also enjoys his role educating the public about the history and conservation of Galapagos tortoises.

So, why are Galapagos tortoises endangered? Historically, their home on the Galapagos Islands was free from any natural predators. Over the centuries, humans have proven to be the greatest natural predator to these tortoises. From the islands discovery up until the early 1900s, passenger ships sailing by the Galapagos Islands would stop and collect 200-300 of these tortoises and store them on board the ship as a food supply. Fortunately, in the early 1900s, ships abandoned this method of obtaining food and stopped collecting the tortoises. In addition to large numbers of their populations being taken from the islands, other factors have also contributed to the Galapagos tortoises’ decline. Introduced species such as dogs, cats, rats, and goats pose a threat because they may prey upon young tortoises or use up the islands’ natural resources. This competition for resources is putting a strain on the tortoise populations. All of these challenges have led to a loss in genetic diversity.

Breeding programs are a critically important part to saving endangered species. Fortunately for the Galapagos tortoises, there have been many breeding programs started in multiple managed care facilities that will help with the animals’ genetic diversity. Mr. Gilson pointed out that another species that would benefit from breeding programs would be the Komodo dragon. Sunny, the Komodo dragon at the San Diego Zoo, Mr. Gilson explained, “ is like a big puppy dog.” He is very calm and personable and gets excited when keepers enter the exhibit with food. There are blueprints drawn for a Komodo dragon breeding facility that could be built at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park (the Zoo is just waiting for a reptile enthusiast and donor in order for the facilities to be built). This has the potential to greatly improve the future of Komodo dragons. Sadly, they have lost a good portion of their native habitat (which was already small to begin with) and are now extremely vulnerable to events such as a major storm or epidemic.

Loss of habitat and hunting are not the only challenges animals face. Threats such as pathogens are also present. Mr. Gilson explained that one such pathogen, which affects amphibians, is the Chytrid fungus. The Chytrid fungus causes the skin on the amphibians to become hard and stiff. This is a problem because amphibians use their skin to breathe. Once infected with this fungus, they lose their mobility. There are many different theories as to how the Chytrid fungus came about. Some theories suggest that humans introduced it unknowingly and others speculate that with global climate change, the fungus was able to spread more freely on its own.

Although there are many challenges facing wildlife, both natural and human-induced, there are many ways to help both locally and globally. Action steps you can take in your own home range from small details to big fixes. One of the most important and easiest ways to help is to save energy. There are many ways to save energy in your home, from recycling aluminum, turning off lights when you’re not using them, to taking shorter showers. Along with being energy efficient, you can also be chemical-conscious. Help keep harmful chemicals out of animal habitats by not washing cars in the driveway and avoiding the use of chemicals and pesticides. If you have your heart and mind set on helping animals around the world, you can also donate to conservation. Whether $10 or $1,000, it makes a difference. Mr. Gilson says that if he can change even one person’s mentality about reptiles then he’s accomplished his goal. I feel Mr. Gilson has done his job because after learning about reptiles at the San Diego Zoo, my view of reptiles has changed for the better.

Marcel, Conservation Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2013