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!
This week, we met Peter Gilson, an Educator and Reptile Keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Working with two different departments allows him to do keeper work/talks, private tours, and a variety of education programs. He gave us a chance to interact with the Galapagos tortoises, visit the new remodeled reptile buildings as well as discuss the importance of reptiles to the planet and ways to conserve these types of animals.
Mr. Gilson got his start with the San Diego Zoo as an intern. He eventually became an Educator, while also helping with the over 1,400 specimen collection of reptiles and amphibians. Our first stop, he introduced us to the Zoo’s Galapagos tortoises and showed us the correct way to feed the tortoises in order to avoid their sharp beaks.
With these male tortoises looking so similar, the numbers on each of the Galapagos tortoise help the keepers quickly identify them. Although all these males are Galapagos tortoises, each develop different shell shapes depending on the environment they come from. Domed shelled tortoises live in lush, grassy highlands, while saddleback shelled tortoises living on other islands are more able to reach vegetation higher off the ground.
With lettuce in our hands, we became an instant attraction to the Galapagos tortoises as food is always on their mind. Here, intern Sabrina feeds a male tortoise who can weigh more than 500 pounds. The romaine lettuce provides a lot of nutrients compared to the lack of food in their natural desert climate.
Tortoise necks are important for these desert animals as it allows them to reach vegetation higher off the ground and gives them more opportunities to find food in their bare environment. Here, intern Libby scratches a male tortoise’s neck, which they really enjoy, some almost more than food!
Being herbivores, lettuce is fed to provide them the essential nutrients that they need. This abundance of food has allowed them to become healthier and larger than wild tortoises. Since tortoises don’t have teeth, they use the edges of their sharp beak to bite the food and their throats to quickly swallow it.
We went inside one of the holding areas for the which you can see on the left the back of the individual exhibits that hold the different frogs and geckos. We also got to see the tanks of reptiles and amphibians that are off-exhibit as well as a large system used to grow tadpoles into frogs and toads.
Hatching last year, this baby mata mata is a freshwater turtle that lives in the Amazon in South America. The little tip on the nose of this turtle provides a unique adaptation, which allows the mata mata to reach its nose up out of the water to breathe, while still being in the water. Another unique quality of this freshwater turtle is that instead of biting its food, the mata mata will “vacuum” fish into its mouth to eat it.
Since frog populations have declined due to habitat loss and a disease called Chytrid fungus, which blocks the frogs’ pores from getting oxygen, the necessity for breeding programs has increased. The San Diego Zoo has develop these systems to help nurture the tadpoles through the frog life cycle and each of the rows provides a tank to give them ample clean water and living space they need to grow.
Geckos are a type of lizard that are found in many warm climates around the world and are also being bred at the San Diego Zoo. A satanic leaf-tailed gecko is known for having a body and tail shaped like a leaf and is found on the island of Madagascar. This provides a better way of camouflaging with its natural environment as well as a way to hang off trees or branches.
Whether on or off exhibit, reptile and amphibians are placed into exhibits that provide them with a realistic environment from which they come from. The combination of the animals and the natural environment in the exhibits allow Zoo guests to relate to the need for protecting their natural habitat as well as provide a comfortable environment for these animals.
Eric, Photography Team
Week One, Winter Session 2014