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!
For our second week, the interns got to meet Emily Howe, who spoke with us about her background as well as her job as a Research Coordinator at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research’s Plant Conservation Department. Additionally, interns were given the opportunity to help Ms. Howe with transplanting some native coyote bush (baccharis pilularis) plants into bigger pots to allow them to grow and be strong enough to be planted in the ground. The final destination for these plants will be Lake Hodges, just south of Escondido, where the Institute’s Plant Conservation Department is conducting a habitat restoration project to plant and preserve native species.
Ms. Howe wasn’t always a plant person. She actually studied liberal arts as an undergraduate at Hamilton College, before doing bird surveys for the National Forest Service. After realizing it was really plants she was interested in, Ms. Howe earned a Master’s degree in ecology at San Diego State University. She says that her liberal arts background is helpful to her job at the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research because it allows her to approach things differently than perhaps a conventional scientist would.
After getting acquainted with Ms. Howe and what she does at the Beckman Institute, she led us to the shade house to get started on transplanting. The shade house is a big, netted tent to protect plants from harsh sunlight while they’re still maturing. It houses several different San Diego native species, including coyote bush, at various stages of development.
Ms. Howe started by showing us the process for transplanting the coyote bush. We first took the plant out of its cone by loosening up the soil and turning it upside-down. Then, we held the plant in a larger container, as shown, filling around the new pot with more soil, trying to keep the roots as intact as possible, but at the same time making sure to not bury the plant.
Here are some of my fellow interns beginning the transplanting process. The Plant Conservation Department relies largely on volunteers and organizations to assist them with their projects, including their current native plant restoration effort at Lake Hodges. These projects often require planting thousands of individual plants at a time, so the more hands available, the more efficient and effective they can be.
Ms. Howe pointed out to us that these plants have smaller, thinner roots toward the surface, and thicker, denser roots toward the bottom. This is in order for the plant to absorb as much water as possible, which is essential especially when the plants first germinate. However, the recent drought is not as detrimental to San Diego native ecology as you might think. Many native plants are built for these drought conditions, and thrive in them, especially when non-native plants die out from the lack of water, leaving more nutrients and resources for the native species.
Germination flats are where seeds are initially planted, allowing for their first growth. The plants stay in these flats for about three weeks before going into the plastic cones, where they mature for around one to two months. Then, they are transplanted into larger pots, where they grow for about four to five months before finally being planted in the ground.
My fellow intern Naomi gave special care to the younger plants of the bunch. The coyote bush plants are native to coastal sage scrub and chaparral ecosystems. The name “coastal sage scrub” is a bit of a misnomer because the ecosystem is actually associated more with elevation than proximity to the ocean. Because of this, coastal sage scrub ecosystems can also occur several miles inland. Such places include Lake Hodges, which is around 12 miles away from the coast.
Ms. Howe expressed that the most rewarding part of her job is being able to see native animals use the habitats she is restoring. Although it may not have a significant impact on the rest of the world, she knows that she’s making a big impact on small ecosystems around San Diego.
The Plant Conservation Department will plant around 25 species this year, although the number of species often varies by the location of the habitat. The Lake Hodges restoration project involves about 25 different species, and around 10,000 individual plants.
After we finished the transplanting process, my fellow intern Kylie helped put away the transplanted plants. In a few months, the plants will be planted into the ground at Lake Hodges, where Ms. Howe estimates the survival rate to be over 90%, which is well over the 70% her grant funding requires.
Dawn, Photo Team
Week Two, Fall 2015