Plants are Better than Animals, and You Know It

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!

wesley_3When considering a career, even in the scientific field, Applied Plant Ecology is not the first one that comes to mind. In fact, the majority of the general public is not even aware of this career’s existence at all. However, despite this relative obscurity, an Applied Plant Ecologist has an immeasurable impact on the ecosystem.

On Wednesday, interns met Sara Motheral, a Senior Research Technician with the Applied Plant Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. On a daily basis, her job consists of data crunching, back breaking work, and report writing. In the long run though, Ms. Motheral’s career plays an integral part in maintaining the local ecosystem in San Diego.

Minus the emphasized issue of deforestation, most people tend to only consider conservation when concerning animals or concerning themselves. It seems as if, often, little to no thought is put into plants from the general public at all. Plants, being primary producers in the environment, are arguably the most crucial organisms in the entire sphere of life on Earth. However, despite the importance and necessity of plants in the environment, habitat and biodiversity loss concerning animals has a far greater emphasis in the media. In comparison to animals, most people don’t adequately appreciate plant life and are unaware of the loss that occurs on a daily basis. Plant loss is a tragic loss and it negatively impacts the ecosystem including us. So where does this apathy for plant life come from? Ms. Motheral answered, “That’s a problem that we deal with on a daily basis here at the Institute for Conservation Research.” It’s clear that animals are more similar to humans and more animated than plants. Inherently, this makes observing them and learning about them easier and more interesting. However, to those that only focus on the conservation of animal species: the plants that are being degraded could be the staple food supply of an entire ecosystem. All animals, even humans, rely on plants. So, therefore, plants should be esteemed as the most important focus of all.

In terms of local impact, Ms. Motheral’s conservation projects have been consistently successful. She has worked on a project to help restore native Coastal Sage Brush habitat which serves as shelter for the cactus wren, a subspecies found here in San Diego. The rising trend of wildfires in Southern California has degraded this plant at an unsustainable rate, causing the coastal cactus wren population to diminish as well. Progress is being monitored daily to see any upward trends. Ms. Motheral has also worked in Riverside, California to restore grassland habitat destroyed by invasive grass species. These invasive species were in turn affecting local animal species. Specifically, the kangaroo rat population had been falling due to the invasive species and action had to be taken. Serving as a primary consumer in this ecosystem, the rats played a vital part in keeping the San Jacinto River Basin healthy. The exotic grasses were removed, some by mowing, some by controlled burning, and some grazing sheep. The kangaroo rats preferred the area that had utilized controlled burning to remove the grasses because their population increased far greater than from the other methods. The success can be seen clearly by observing the habitat and the data. Without Ms. Motheral’s work, these local species may have never been saved in time.

The most pressing ecological impact on plant life is urbanization and increased population. This is the root cause for many other issues to arise. Urbanization leads to an increase in invasive species which leads to increased wildfires that don’t occur naturally. Although wildfires are necessary to the chaparral biome, if they occur too frequently, the ecosystem cannot replenish in time for the next. Although urbanization is a difficult obstacle to overcome, action can be taken through volunteer work removing invasive species and planting native plants. Also, joining garden clubs and attending local seminars raises awareness on a personal level which can then be shared with family and friends.

The true value of plants is unclear to the majority of people. Aesthetically, a world without plants would be bleak and boring. However, on a more significant level, they are overwhelmingly vital to the environment. Plants filter out pollutants from entering the ocean and groundwater supply, prevent wildfires, and serve as a food source for almost everything on earth. These organisms are invaluable to the world from every standpoint and their degradation must be averted before it’s too late.Also, plants are totally exciting!

Wesley, Conservation Team
Fall Session 2014