At the Core of the Ecosystem

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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!

rose_3When it comes to conservation, plants aren’t usually brought up within the general public since they aren’t as cute as animals. They can’t interact with people and they can’t evoke emotions the way a giant panda would be able to. Regardless, vegetation is vital to habitats for both wild animals and humans. They provide services to the ecosystem–services that humans benefit from and would have to figure out how to do artificially were it not for plants. For instance, plants photosynthesize and provide oxygen for organisms. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to survive.

With that being said, it was a pleasure to be able to spend some time with Ms. Sara Motheral, Senior Research Technician for the Applied Plant Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. As a Senior Research Technician, Ms. Motheral coordinates various research projects, restoration projects, and monitoring projects for plant species within the San Diego and Riverside counties. To show us some of the work that she does, Ms. Motheral took us to a very special place called the Biodiversity Reserve where habitat restoration was done to help the San Diego cactus wren. The Biodiversity Reserve is an 800-acre plot of land located behind San Diego Zoo Safari Park reserved for native plant species and wildlife. There are over 100 different plants that grow uninhibited by urbanization and other disturbances since it is not open to the public.

Among the many plants that grow in the Biodiversity Reserve, there is a specific plant Ms. Motheral has been focusing on, the prickly pear cactus. Ms. Motheral has been working on a restoration project for the coastal cactus wren, which relies on the prickly pear cactus for a place to build their nests. The prickly pear cactus also provides food for deer, coyotes, birds, and other local animal species. Over 1000 tons of fruit are produced each year just in the 800 acres at the Reserve, which goes to show how large of a food source the prickly pear cactus is. The other interns and I were able to observe various cactus clusters in the Biodiversity Reserve and compare their growth in relation to previous years. By measuring the height, the number of pads on the cactus, and whether or not they had been browsed (eaten) by animals, we recorded data of the growth and the reliance of animals on the cacti. Essentially, growth is an indication of progress for the cacti. Despite how well the cacti are doing now, an ongoing concern in native habitat areas is the presence of other invasive plants. Today, many of the fires that burn out of control are largely in part by the multitude of invasive species that act as kindling for fires.

Invasive species cause great changes within ecosystems. Just like an invasive animal species would reduce the population of other native animal species, invasive plant species can drastically reduce the populations of native plant species. In some cases, invasive species can turn certain areas into monocultures, meaning there is only one type of plant species or animal species in that specific environment. Animals wouldn’t be able to thrive in a monoculture of plants. In addition, many invasive species don’t have deep root systems, meaning they cannot prevent soil erosion. They also are not perennial plants like native species are, meaning they die and dry out quickly, creating the perfect fuel for fires. This makes it extremely difficult to maintain habitats for the sake of animals and the sake of the people who live in areas sensitive to landslides and fires. In order to prevent issues from reoccurring or getting worse, you can grow native plant in your backyard. Even though native plants do burn, they do not burn as intensely as invasive species do. Fires can be more easily contained, there could potentially be less property damage, and ultimately, quicker regeneration of the habitat.

Ms. Motheral’s work in habitat restoration plays a very valuable role in wild life conservation. If the status of the prickly pear cactus is improving, then the status of the coastal cactus wren should naturally improve as well. Realistically, it is impossible to save animals if they don’t have the proper environment to live in. You cannot disregard plants within the environment since they have such a widespread impact on other living organisms, including humans. So be conscious of what you plant and where you plant it –it’s bound to affect something.

Rose, Real World Team
Fall Session 2014

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