About Author: James Sheppard

Posts by James Sheppard


Space, The Final Frontier for Conservation Research

Miniaturized and “ruggedized” field computers enable data to be collected accurately and consistently directly from the wild.

Spatial ecology, the fastest-growing field of study in ecology, is a powerful approach to understanding how ecosystems function and the ways populations and communities of species interact with their environment. We can utilize spatial ecology to study the resource-patchy natural world. Landscapes are not uniform like a chessboard or still like an oil painting—nature changes everywhere and every time you look at it. For instance, grass in a park may have patches where water encourages the plants to grow in denser and lusher clumps than in other drier parts. It also changes with the seasons and the ways it is used by other animals. In other words, natural landscapes and the organisms that inhabit them form patches that are distributed through space and time in different and interesting ways. Ecologists study the underlying causes of this patchiness to better understand the patterns, processes, and dynamics that lead to specific spatial arrangements of wildlife and habitats. Spatial ecology is all about the “where” and the “why” plants and animals use their landscape.

Rapid advances in technological developments are enabling ecologists to open previously unimaginable windows into the behaviors of free-ranging animals that would be impossible or extremely difficult to study directly in the wild. For example, miniaturized digital tracking devices enable us to safely track wild animals, from Hummer-sized elephants to the diminutive Pacific pocket mouse, remotely and at high-resolution for extended periods without interfering with their behavior or well-being. Where once biologists had to sit patiently on a mountain cliff in the hope of catching a rare glimpse of a California condor through a pair of binoculars, GPS transmitters attached to the wings of reintroduced condors now enable us to continuously track these magnificent birds as they fly vast distances throughout their range.

GPS tracking collars, satellite imagery, and GIS software have enabled us to identify the seasonal home ranges of wild giant pandas tracked within their mountainous bamboo habitat in China. Here, the home range of young male panda Xiyue is delineated into its winter range in the low valleys (left) and summer range in the high peaks (right). The ranges are overlaid across a 3-D elevation map, with brighter colors within the ranges indicating areas that have been used most often.

Orbiting satellites that were previously only used for military intelligence and resource extraction purposes now have enormous application for conservation research. Satellites can acquire extremely high-resolution images of entire landscapes. These “remote sensing” data can then be spatially analyzed to identify the characteristics, processes, and patterns of wildlife habitats. Scientists previously had to directly measure wildlife habitats in the field using samples, photographs, and tape measures, which usually took a long time and could be conducted across only small areas. The power of remote sensing enables satellite images to be analyzed rapidly and accurately across great stretches of time and space. For example, we can monitor how the Arctic ice sheets that comprise habitat for threatened populations of polar bears are changing over time. We can also analyze satellite images of the Amazon rain forest to characterize tree canopy structure and identify regions experiencing habitat destruction. In fact, these new spatial technologies are providing so much high quality data that a new term called “data toxicity” has been coined to describe how researchers can be overwhelmed and literally fail to see the forest for the trees!

We now have a dedicated facility to conduct cutting-edge spatial research to enhance the conservation management of endangered species and habitats in the U.S. and around the world. Thanks to a generous donation from the Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation, a Spatial Ecology Lab is now in place at our Beckman Center for Conservation Research. This will enhance the work being done in all of our divisions and benefit plants, animals, and even the gene flow of populations.

Our new lab is equipped with high-powered computer workstations, state-of-the-art geographic information system (GIS) software, and digital field devices. The software available in the lab is top-level industry standard and was generously provided to the Zoo at substantial discount by the vendors. The lab will enable us to collect, process, and analyze enormous and highly accurate spatial ecology data sets to build detailed pictures of animal habitat use and requirements. We will also be able to map local and international threatened landscapes and habitats in great detail and identify how they change over time as a consequence of human disturbance.

The much-needed Spatial Ecology Lab will ensure that the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy maintains its technological edge and leadership role in the global conservation of endangered species and habitats.

James Sheppard is a research fellow at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, “Carrion” Research to the Next Level.


“Carrion” Research to the Next Level

James holds a California condor egg produced in the wild.

I have been on the trail of the California condor for some years now. And what a trail it is, from shimmering cactus-studded deserts baking under the relentless hammer of the Mexican sun to the desolate jagged beauty of the Sierra Mountains to the ancient alpine forests of northern Baja California, Mexico, crystallized beneath a silencing white shroud of fog and snow. These are the worlds that this mighty vulture surveys from on high with its enormous black wings, extraordinary eyesight, and an inquisitive and engaging intelligence.

As remarkable and inspiring as the condor and its wild domain are, so too are the heroic efforts of San Diego Zoo Global and its many dedicated partners that have struggled for decades to haul this unique species back from the abyss of extinction. And from a population of just 22 birds at their lowest ebb in the 1980s, this year we have reached a landmark 400 wild and captive condors.

I joined the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research to provide vital information on the social behaviors, movement patterns, and habitat requirements of the condors that we are reintroducing to their former range in Baja California. Collecting data on free-ranging condors is notoriously difficult. Fortunately, I am equipped with the latest cutting-edge technologies that have opened an unprecedented window onto condor behaviors within their natural environment.

A GPS device attached to the condor's wing provides researchers with valuable information about the bird's flight patterns.

Miniature GPS devices attached to the bird’s wings continuously acquire and transmit data on their flight patterns. An array of weather stations positioned throughout the condor’s range provides detailed information on the meteorological conditions that influence their movement. Analysis of satellite imagery and digital topographic models of the condor’s environment enables me to construct a detailed picture of their habitat use and requirements.

Remote video cameras installed at condor feeding stations allow me to observe and analyze their social interactions without having to wait in the field or disturb the birds with my presence. The science of ecology is being driven by these examples of technological advances, and San Diego Zoo Global prides itself on being a leader in the application of state-of-the-art techniques for conservation research.

My studies have confirmed that condors range hundreds of miles in a single day while exploring and searching for food carcasses and that these flights are typically conducted by subadults before they settle into core home ranges. Condors are able to fly for long periods without expending much energy by harnessing the strong thermal winds generated by mountains and ridgelines to soar with the efficiency of an albatross. Condors also possess a remarkable spatial memory map, returning from long-distance flights directly back to their communal roosts.

There is still hope for this magnificent bird.

I have found myself amazed by condor curiosity and playfulness, as well as the complexity of their tight-knit society. Birds that do not develop appropriate social behaviors at an early age do not successfully integrate into condor society, and such ostracism results in their early demise from predation or starvation. By characterizing the dynamics of condor “pecking orders,” I have determined which attributes confer high or low dominance status. I have learned that each bird has a personality, and condors act much like human teenagers and politicians—continuously jostling and squabbling for rank, resources, and respect.

Some have argued that disproportionate levels of resources are directed toward condor recovery. Indeed, after a field season of freezing temperatures, putrid carcasses, and obstreperous equipment, I have on occasion questioned my own involvement. However, when you stand on a mountaintop or a canyon and this magnificent buzzard with its 9-foot wingspan suddenly swoops over you and completely owns the sky, all sense of doubt immediately evaporates and is replaced with awe, admiration, and hope—hope for the survival of the species and hope that future generations will also have the opportunity to experience condors in the wild. In an age of extinction and loss, the condor is a vital link to our increasingly diminished ecological heritage, an iconic expression of evolution’s genius, and a much-needed example of a conservation success story.

James Sheppard is an ecologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Wild Condor Chick Gets Own TV Show.

View our own California condors on our new Condor Cam!


Wild Condor Chick Gets Own TV Show

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