Projects in the Field

Projects in the Field

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The Python Challenge

Burmese pythons are an invasive species in Florida's Everglades.

Burmese pythons are an invasive species in Florida’s Everglades.

When a male reptile in the San Diego Zoo collection passes away, it is my job to freeze his sperm. Unfortunately, there has been so little research done on freezing reptile sperm that there are no guidelines in the scientific literature. So, we have to develop the protocols for ourselves, which requires a great deal of research and a lot of sperm samples. This scenario plays out all too often in the Reproductive Physiology Lab of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. We always need more samples! How could we know how to freeze golden lancehead sperm without any practice on this or any related snake species?

Our lab group has struggled with this problem for years and has come up with some creative solutions to the sperm shortage problem. My colleagues Nicole Ravida, Dr. Barbara Durrant, and I began scouring the Internet to find a way to collect large numbers of reptile sperm samples in a short period of time to use as models for endangered reptile species. That’s when we learned about the Python Challenge in the Everglades.

Carly and Barbara got an early start in the Everglades.

Carly and Barbara got an early start in the Everglades.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) launched the Python Challenge to raise awareness about Burmese pythons and how this invasive species is a threat to the Everglades ecosystem and its native wildlife. The Burmese python is one of the deadliest and most competitive predators in South Florida. With no known natural predators, population estimates for the python range from the thousands to hundreds of thousands. A severe decline in a variety of mammal populations in the Everglades over the last eight years coincides with the proliferation of the invasive Burmese python. Necropsies on the captured snakes reveal what pythons are eating, their reproductive status, and location data from the hunters that will help scientists figure out where the snakes are living—valuable data for researchers working to stop their spread.

The Python Challenge was a month-long harvest open to anyone, and we knew this would be our opportunity to collect many snake sperm samples. We immediately contacted the Invasive Species Program staff at the University of Florida, one of the Python Challenge partners, and the project all started to fall into place. Barbara and I arrived in Florida and immediately collected all the supplies and equipment we had sent ahead to Zoo Miami and then purchased thick sheets of dry ice. Lining a large Styrofoam box with the cold sheets, we fabricated a minus 112-degrees-Fahrenheit (-80 degrees Celsius) freezer for one of our freezing protocols. With everything we would need piled into our rental car, we finally made it to the hotel room and organized our temporary lab.

The Python Challenge check-in station was simple but effective.

The Python Challenge check-in station was simple but effective.

The next day we drove to the Python Challenge check station, which consisted of a pickup truck and a tent. Hunters came to the check station to have their snake(s) measured and documented by the Invasive Species Program staff. Prizes were awarded to the hunter who harvested the longest snake and the one who brought in the most snakes. We anxiously waited with the people from the University of Florida for a male snake to be brought in. Unfortunately, the first snake to arrive had been frozen the previous day. We needed fresh, cooled samples, not frozen, so we continued to wait for another snake, which came in a few hours later. We dissected out the vas deferens, where the sperm is stored, on the back of a pickup truck as the sun set over the Everglades. We immediately put the tissue in saline in a cooler and raced back to the hotel to process the sample. But it was a bust—no motile sperm. We just had to hope for better luck the next day.

The vas defrens were taken back to the makeshift lab in the hotel room for processing.

The vas defrens were taken back to the makeshift lab in the hotel room for processing.

The next morning we got a call from our colleagues at the University of Florida saying that they had two live snakes. This was fantastic news, because we would be able to obtain fresh sperm samples. During the snakes’ necropsies, we collected the vas deferens and drove an hour back to our hotel room to process the samples. Fortunately, both males had motile sperm. More sperm, in fact, than we had ever seen and certainly more than we could ship back to San Diego. After several hours of freezing the sperm in our homemade dry-ice box or in liquid nitrogen vapor, we received a call that another male snake was available. We drove back to the Check Station, arriving after dark. We removed the vas deferens in the back of the truck using my phone as our light source. We made it back to the hotel room for another five hours of processing and freezing, falling into bed at 1a.m. It was a very long day but a successful one, with sperm from three snakes safely stored in our shippers.

Our luck continued the next day, with an interesting twist. This time the live snakes had been brought to another checkpoint, and we would need to transport them to the University of Florida lab. It was a bit surreal to be driving down the highway with three large pythons in snake bags in the trunk. We wondered if we had violated the rental agreement when we promised not to carry pets in the car. It was worth the risk; snakes and humans arrived safely at the university, and we froze three more sperm samples back in our hotel room lab.

Overall, it was a successful trip to the Python Challenge in the Everglades. We froze 130 vials of sperm, shipping them back to San Diego. Then began the long process of thawing and evaluating each sample, comparing three different freezing protocols to determine which one resulted in the best post-thaw viability. We have analyzed the data, and we have an early winner among the protocols we tested. However, we will need to repeat the experiment with improved protocols to maximize sperm motility and membrane integrity, both of which are essential for potential fertility.

Although we will never use the sperm of this invasive species for artificial insemination (we certainly don’t want more Burmese pythons in the United States!), we have taken a big step forward in the development of sperm-freezing methods for its endangered relatives such as the Indian python and the Cropan’s boa.

Carly Young is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Protected Habitat in Southern California

A Stephen's kangaroo rat is checked out in the field.

Researchers examine a Stephen’s kangaroo rat in the field.

It’s the middle of November, the holidays are approaching, and 2014 is quickly coming to a close. Normally, I would be done with fieldwork by this time of year, since the Pacific and Los Angeles pocket mice that I study are probably already hibernating (see Where are Pocket Mice during Winter?). Since our Southern California winter hasn’t seemed to hit yet (it is still warm here, even by our standards!), I was able to squeeze in one more week to check out a new potential field site for the spring.

This new site is a California State Wildlife Area, a little piece of land next to a State Park but otherwise surrounded by a freeway, cropland, and cattle farms. Over five nights we caught five species of small mammals, including endangered Stephen’s kangaroo rats, from which we collected genetic samples. My field site this summer was a different State Wildlife Area, and in addition to the small mammals I saw badgers (see Badger and Coyote Caught on Camera), bobcats, foxes, and a spotted skunk.

A spotted skunk is "captured" by a camera trap in a State Wildlife Area.

A spotted skunk is “captured” by a camera trap in a State Wildlife Area.

Prior to starting my fieldwork in Southern California, I hadn’t known much about these 600,000 acres of designated wildlife areas in the state. In addition to our state and national parks, these protected areas make up the primary habitat for many of our local threatened and endangered species. San Diego Zoo Global provides a lot of the conservation research and a great opportunity to view some of these species at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, like the Peninsular bighorn sheep (see Bighorn Sheep Roundup Furthers Conservation Research). Only an hour or so from the Safari Park, they are roaming free in Anza-Borrego State Park!

Bighorn sheep lambs frolic.

Bighorn sheep lambs frolic.

Seeing animals in the wild, particularly endangered species that scientists have been working so hard to save, is such a treat. The opportunity to visit areas that are set aside and safe from development and to be able to see these animals in their native habitat is definitely something I am thankful for!

Rachel Chock is a graduate student and volunteer with San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Pacific pocket mouse project. Read her previous post, Pocket Mice Powerhouses.

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Meeting Endangered Birds on a Tropical Island Getaway

The view as we drove the winding road to the Maui Bird Conservation Center was stunning!

The view as we drove the winding road to the Maui Bird Conservation Center was stunning!

As a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo, I always tell our guests that San Diego Zoo Global has dozens of conservation projects worldwide. But until recently I had never gotten to experience any of our off-site programs. While planning a vacation to the islands of Lanai and Maui in Hawaii, I realized “Hey—we have that bird facility over there!” I had heard about the Maui Bird Conservation Center (MBCC) and the work they do with critically endangered Hawaiian bird species, and I was lucky to be able to visit the MBCC, even though the facility is typically closed to the public.

At left are the bird holding areas.

At left are the bird holding areas.

My companion and I drove straight from the Lanai ferry up an exceedingly narrow and twisty road with some amazing vistas to the Maui Bird Conservation Center, stopping first to pick up some thank-you donuts for the staff. If there’s one thing I know about zoo folk, they love surprise yummy treats, and the reception the donuts got was very gratifying! The MBCC has only a few permanent staff, supplemented by a handful of post-college interns each year. They do everything themselves, including mowing the lawn and caring for the two back-up generators. The interns live on site and are allowed to borrow the car to go into town just twice per week.

We were met by Michelle Smith, who gave us a fantastic tour of the facility and answered all of our questions. The first thing I learned was that the MBCC’s facility is a former minimum-security prison! Its clinic is located in the prison’s old dentist’s office and is fully equipped with an X-ray machine and a complete stock of medicines regulated and monitored by San Diego Zoo veterinarians. Michelle told us that they are able to contact a vet 24-hours per day, and one visits every six months to do a comprehensive check-up on all the birds. Most of the day-to-day medical issues are handled by the MBCC staff, and they’ve even had emergency procedures narrated to them over the phone by the Zoo’s veterinarians!

An intern prepares bird diets at the MBCC, a task I can relate to!

An intern prepares bird diets at the MBCC, a task I can relate to!

Although it was not breeding season for any of the birds, Michelle was able to show us their old but functional incubators. Eggs are transported from the nest to the incubator in a warm thermos full of millet seed! There is also an intensive care unit, like an incubator for premature human babies, where the young chicks grow. Alala and kiwikiu chicks are fed with a hand puppet so they don’t associate food with humans. Eggs that are hand-incubated are cared for intensively and every change recorded in detail. Rate of water loss is very important to monitor, and a machine called an Egg Buddy can even sense and record the heartbeat of the unborn chicks. Michelle explained the hatching process and some of the interventions that the staff has to do to help chicks hatch.

We peeked in on an intern making diets, a process that I am very familiar with! The birds eat mostly fruits and some insects. The alala get some mice because in the wild they would eat eggs and nestlings, though they eat much more fruit than other species of crows. The birds’ diets are put in bowls and served up on stainless-steel trays left over from the prison!

We saw a handsome adult male and three juvenile palila. In the wild, they eat only the pods and grubs found on the mamane tree and are very tenacious about their territory; that is, you can't move them from a dangerous area, because they'll just go back.

We saw a handsome adult male and three juvenile palila. In the wild, they eat only the pods and grubs found on the mamane tree and are very tenacious about their territory; that is, you can’t move them from a dangerous area, because they’ll just go back.

To actually see the birds, we walked down a dirt pathway past a (nonnative) pine grove. The air was surprisingly cool and fresh, due to our elevation on the northwestern slope of Mount Haleakala above the “cowboy town” of Makawao. The MBCC is on state-owned land, and the developed part is about eight acres. We got to enter “Forest Bird Barn I” to see three small forest bird species. I was interested to learn that the four species at the MBCC are from all around Hawaii, not just Maui itself.

The palila is a pretty little gray bird with a yellow head, found only on the high-elevation slopes of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii. The puaiohi or small Kauai thrush is an un-prepossessing brown bird. Puaiohi are easy to raise, and are the species that new staff gets to work with first. The kiwikiu was called the Maui parrotbill until recently, when it was given a Hawaiian name. It’s a really cute little bird with a big bill reminiscent of a parrot’s.

Leaving the Forest Bird building, we went to look at the stars of the MBCC: the alala or Hawaiian crows, which are Extinct In The Wild. I capitalized that because I felt awestruck to get to see these birds. There are only 114 alala on the planet, 42 of which are at the MBCC, and the rest of which are on the Island of Hawaii at MBCC’s sister facility, the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, with one exception. They are strikingly different from regular crows in size, and they made a variety of startlingly loud and odd vocalizations the whole time we were there.

It is considered the only Kauai forest bird with a stable population – even though that population is only 500 individuals. This bird is not being bred at the MBCC very much, because they are stable in the wild - however, observations of the wild birds are very important to ensure that the population is truly sustainable.

The puaiohi is considered the only Kauai forest bird with a stable population, even though that population is only 500 individuals.

The only alala not in Hawaii is Kinohi, who lives in California at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research! He is extremely valuable genetically because his mother, a founder, has no other offspring and neither does he. If we can get babies from Kinohi, it will increase the genetic pool by a whole other crow. The problem is that Kinohe is imprinted and not willing to breed with female crows. Scientists at the Institute have been working to get semen samples from him, but Kinohi has been producing only low concentrations of sperm. (see post Alala: We’re Getting Closer.) Michelle was hopeful that they will one day be able to try artificial insemination with a sample from Kinohi. The odds are stacked against it, but I think that if anyone can do it, our scientists can!

I was very impressed by the facility, which was clean and neat. The staff was so kind and excited about having us, I felt like a VIP! It was really special to get to see the birds and hear all about them, especially since the MBCC is typically closed to the public. At the same time, it was sad to hear about the challenges that these species face across all the islands but heartening to hear the determination and enthusiasm shared by the staff. I would encourage anyone to visit during the MBCC’s annual open house if you find yourself on Maui early next November!

Susan Patch is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.

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Condors Saticoy and Cuyamaca Flying Free

Saticoy wears his new GSM unit on his wing tag. Photo credit: Geoff Grisdale, USFWS

Saticoy wears his new GSM unit on his wing tag. Photo credit: Geoff Grisdale, USFWS

While observing this year’s Condor Cam chick, Su’nan, many of our regular viewers have been inquiring about the status of the two previous years’ Condor Cam chicks, Saticoy (from 2012) and Cuyamaca (from 2013). Recently, we have received updates from the field biologists that are monitoring and caring for the young birds, and we are excited to share the updates with you!

Saticoy was the first California condor to hatch on Condor Cam. He was released to the wild in November 2013 at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Southern California. Now 2½ years old, we are happy to report that he is thriving and still flying free. Most recently, the field crew was able to trap him in the flight pen at Bitter Creek for a routine health check and to change his transmitters. The field biologists periodically catch the free-flying condors to monitor levels of lead in their blood, since lead poisoning is still their #1 threat.

The condors—and any other carnivore, for that matter—can get lead poisoning from eating an animal that has been shot with lead ammunition. When an animal is shot, the lead bullet fragments and embeds itself throughout the meat. Those fragments are then swallowed as the meat is consumed. Lead is a toxic, heavy metal that is easily absorbed by the digestive system into the bloodstream, resulting in painful and damaging lead poisoning. Any animal that ingests lead can suffer lead poisoning, including eagles, vultures, wolves, coyotes, bears, skunks, snakes, and humans. The California Condor Recovery Program and its partners encourage people to use non-lead ammunition during activities like hunting, pest control, and ranching to help reduce the amount of lead available for consumption by humans and wildlife.

Devon Lang Pryor, Santa Barbara Zoo, hold Saticoy during a blood draw. The blood is taken from the leg. You can see his leg between Devon's knees. Photo credit: Katie Chaplin, USFWS

Devon Lang Pryor, Santa Barbara Zoo, hold Saticoy during a blood draw. The blood is taken from the leg. You can see his leg between Devon’s knees. Photo credit: Katie Chaplin, USFWS

Happily, when Saticoy’s blood was tested during his exam, his field blood lead level was below the threshold for treatment! His original tracking devices stopped working during the summer, so he needed some new transmitters. He received a small telemetry transmitter that was attached to one of his tail feathers , as well as a new GSM GPS transmitter on each wing tag. The GSM transmitters collect a location every 15 minutes during daylight hours, giving us a more complete range map than other GPS units that collect a location every hour. As you can see on his range map, he has been spending the majority of his time this autumn around the Tejon Ranch area, 40 to 60 miles (60 to 100 kilometers) away from his release site in Bitter Creek.

Cuyamaca, the 2013 Condor Cam star, was released in northern Arizona at the Vermilion Cliffs, just north of Grand Canyon National Park, in June 2014. After release, she demanded minimal maintenance from the field biologists. She was flying and feeding well, as well as finding safe and proper roost sites. She blended into the wild population easily! She has yet to range too far from the release site, making the 50-mile (80 kilometers) radius around the site her favored territory. She regularly takes multi-day trips to the Colorado River corridor of Marble Canyon as well as some regular foraging trips to the Kaibab National Forest adjacent to the Vermilion Cliffs. The field crew did observe her being chased by a competing golden eagle. The eagle hit her in the air, and they both tumbled to the ground, but she rebounded immediately and showed no signs of injury. Other than that, Cuyamaca has had a fairly stress-free transition to the wild.

Saticoy's fall 2014 range map was provided by Laura Mendenhall and Joseph Brandt of the USFWS.

Saticoy’s fall 2014 range map was provided by Laura Mendenhall and Joseph Brandt of the USFWS.

Many thanks to our partners in the California Condor Recovery Program for providing these updates, photos, and maps! Devon Lang Pryor of the Santa Barbara Zoo provided Saticoy’s photos and update information. Laura Mendenhall and Joseph Brandt of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided Saticoy’s range map. Eddie Feltes of The Peregrine Fund provided Cuyamaca’s update information.

As you can see, it takes a lot of time, effort, and people to prepare young condors for a release program. Without help and enthusiasm from people like you, none of this would be possible. All of us at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (including all of the condors!) thank you so much.

You can follow the Arizona condor population, which is monitored by The Peregrine Fund, on Facebook via the “Condor Cliffs” page, as well as The Peregrine Fund’s website. You can follow the Southern California condor population, which is monitored by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, on Facebook via the “Condor Cave” page.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Moving Day for Condor Su’nan.

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A Student’s Day at Cocha Cashu’s Field Ecology Training Course

A local Matsigenka child peers into the classroom to see what we are discussing.

A local Matsigenka child peers into the classroom to see what we are discussing.

Read Ron’s previous post, Would a Three-month Course in Remote Amazonian Field Site Change Your Life?

To convey something of what it’s like for a student participating in our field ecology training course at our Amazonian biological station, Cocha Cashu, in Peru, I’m sharing some of the details of what a typical day might be like for one of the lucky 10 students participating in this three-month crash course in tropical ecology and research methods.

4:40 a.m.
The student awakens to the distant roaring calls of the red howler monkey. If he didn’t know better, he would think he was hearing the roar of some ancient ferocious beast. He stretches and collects his thoughts for the day. What wonders will await him today…and what deprivations might he endure? He’s still tired from the late-night discussions about animal census techniques from last night.

6 a.m.
After conferring with some of his classmates about their to-do list for their group project on measuring mammal abundance and diversity, he pours a cup of coffee and enjoys a breakfast omelet. The topic of conversation is the sighting of the deadly bushmaster on a trail near their tent last night.

Camera trap photos reveal a nocturnal world rich with large mammals such as this giant anteater and her young.

Camera trap photos reveal a nocturnal world rich with large mammals such as this giant anteater and her young.

6:45 a.m.
The class gathers around their charismatic instructor, Cesar, for a briefing of today’s activities. He explains that today they will learn how to establish a vegetation plot to measure forest dynamics. He probes them with questions, asking them to explain how such data could be useful for understanding forest ecology and conservation. Then they begin the 2.5-mile (4 kilometers) trek to the site of today’s exercise. Along the way, he spots five species of monkeys, including the long-armed spider monkey that swings down low for a better look, the contentious capuchin monkey that dares to issue a threat against him, and the passive howler monkey that gazes complacently while it digests its last meal of leaves.

7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The student and his classmates lay out the dimension of the plot, using a measuring tape and a compass. Precision is key, as the size of the plot must be standardized so it can be used to accurately assess the characteristics of the forest for comparison across time and space. Then begins the laborious process of measuring every tree, obtaining measures of “diameter at breast height,” tree height, tree density, and species diversity. The last measure, requiring the assistance of an instructor renowned for his knowledge of tree taxonomy, will fascinate him, as they will find that a single acre (hectare) of this forest will contain about 150 tree species. That’s more species than found in all of California!

1 p.m.
Tired, but full of data and new ideas about how this forest works, the class begins the journey back to camp for a late lunch. Ambling along, feet dragging from weariness, he spies some movement in the leaf litter by the trail. Upon closer inspection, he sees it is a lump of wriggling feathers, golden in hue. Startled, the ball of feathers breaks apart and becomes two birds that fly to a nearby branch. One seems to be courting the other, so he infers that he was witnessing mating. He flips through his field guide and learns that the birds were gilded barbets. I will have to write this in my journal tonight, he thinks, and later he’ll share his observations with the rest of the class.

Students share a meal with famed conservationist John Terborgh.

Students chat with famed conservationist John Terborgh. Photo credit: Dano Grayson

2:30 p.m.
Following lunch, he wishes he had time for a nap, but there is no rest for the weary. The class gathers into small groups to discuss their mammal data collect during their “line-transect” exercise last week. A report on the conclusions is due tomorrow. They have heated discussions about what the data mean and select the proper method for analyzing their data, occasionally getting assistance from one of the instructors.

5:30 p.m.
Satisfied with their conclusions, the group members break up, and he heads for the cocha (oxbow lake) for a quick dip to cool off, first scanning the water for caiman and hoping the piranhas are not hungry.

6:30 p.m.
Dinner time. The food is simple but wholesome and after the day’s efforts tastes better than it would at home. During dinner, he listens with fascination as one of his instructors tells stories of her time studying monkeys in faraway Indonesia and another student recounts her time spent studying birds in another part of the Amazon. Something resonates with him, and he makes a mental note: I want to do something like that for my independent research project. He’ll need to choose carefully, because he will invest more than two months of his life collecting data to answer his question of choosing.

Cocha Cashu staffer Fortunato shares a meal with local children in the Maizal Matsigenka community.

Cocha Cashu staffer Fortunato shares a meal with local children in the Maizal Matsigenka community.

8 p.m.
After cleaning his dishes, he settles in for the night’s lecture. In the past two weeks he’s heard from six different scientists. Most of them have told about their research experience here at Cocha Cashu, but some visiting scientists bring research tales from as far away as the North American arctic and China (the latter being from my own research experience with giant pandas). Tonight, he will learn about the scientific method: how to develop research questions, articulate hypotheses, and design studies to test them. To him, it’s a bit of a yawner, but he knows it’s important to learn if he is going to develop and test his own hypotheses.

10 p.m.
Finally, it’s bed time. Exhausted but excited about the day’s events, he heads down the little trail toward his tent, scanning with his headlamp for snakes, eyes glowing in the forest, or something else of interest. It doesn’t take him long to drift off to sleep, serenaded by a host of cicadas, crickets, frogs, and occasional unknown and eerie sounds of the night. Tomorrow, he knows, will be another big day.

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D., is the Brown Chair/Director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru.

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Helping Vaquita Porpoises

We are working with teachers and students in San Felipe, Mexico, to address the human dimension of conservation.

We are working with teachers and students in San Felipe, Mexico, to address the human dimension of conservation in an effort to help save the vaquita.

What do Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, and California condors have in common? They are threatened, priority species for San Diego Zoo Global conservation initiatives in Baja California, Mexico, and are united under a new community-based conservation initiative of the Conservation Education Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

The extraordinary Baja California peninsula contains a unique array of biodiversity that is a nature lover’s paradise. However, much of the biodiversity is threatened due to increasing human activities, and we must place ever-more importance on working with the local people to become protectors and stewards of the land. You may have caught wind of the program “From the Ridge to the Reef” (Del mar a las montanas in Spanish) in the September 2014 issue of ZOONOOZ, as we are excited to team up with researchers working all over Baja to help address the human dimension of conservation of these important species.

Teachers work together to review a curriculum designed specifically for the region with their help and with priority species in mind.

Teachers work together to review a curriculum designed specifically for the region with their help and with priority species in mind.

There is one species, in particular, so close to extinction that we felt compelled to begin work with communities immediately. On the eastern side of the Baja peninsula in the northern Gulf of California (or Sea of Cortez) exists the most endangered porpoise in the world. The vaquita marina Phocoena sinus is inadvertently caught in nets intended for fish and shrimp, including a lot of illegal fishing, and recent population estimates are at fewer than 100 individuals.

We have begun working with teachers and students in San Felipe, BC, and our last trip to San Felipe was a huge success. Our new postdoctoral fellow, Jenny Glikman, and I conducted a teacher-training workshop with 15 teachers from 4 different schools. This involved brainstorms and discussions on current and future implementation of environmental education activities, the adaptation of curriculum developed specifically for the Ridge to Reef program, and teacher-led creation of conservation project proposals that their students will implement and share with the community. We have also begun collaborating with local organizations already on the ground and part of the community, including the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans.

Teacher attendees of the Ridge to Reef workshop pose with facilitators while sporting a parting gift:  "Del Mar a las Montanas" hats.

Teacher attendees of the Ridge to Reef workshop pose with facilitators while sporting a parting gift: “Del Mar a las Montanas” hats.

We are working with UCSD’s Engineers for Exploration (E4E), who are developing technologies to take photo and video of vaquitas, as we have nearly none. In September, David O’Connor of Conservation Education collected water visibility measurements to get an idea of clarity where the cameras will be deployed. Read more about this in a special blog by the E4E crew themselves!

This is still the beginning of what is shaping up to be an exciting collaboration between a variety of scientists and local teachers, students, and those who make a living from fishing, and there is hope for the future of the vaquita and Baja’s treasures. You can help by sharing information about the plight of the vaquita (find out more here), supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy, and purchasing products coming from sustainable fisheries (the United States is one of the largest markets for Mexican fish and shrimp). With less than 100 of these beautiful, mysterious, and ecologically important porpoises left, urgent action is required, and culturally conscious, grass roots, community-based conservation—whether local to San Diego or international—is how we’re going to make a stand against disappearing species.

Samantha Young is a research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Across the Pacific in 60 Days.

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Drought: Reptiles Don’t Like It, Either!

A cell phone photo taken of the habitat at the Safari Park Reserve in August 2014 shows just how devastating the drought has been on our local habitats.

A cell phone photo taken of the habitat at the Safari Park Reserve in August 2014 shows just how devastating the drought has been on our local habitats.

The drought has been awful for Southern California residents: dry, hot days, water restrictions, and a brown landscape. These are things we can all live with, but for our resident native reptiles and amphibians, drought can be a life-or-death situation. I have been working in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Biodiversity Reserve (a 900-acre area adjacent to the Safari Park) for 15 years studying the reptile and amphibian species that call it home. This year I began a project studying a relatively rare coastal sage scrub species, the coastal patch-nosed snake Salvadora hexalepis virgultea. My plan was to capture at least 10 animals and implant them with radio transmitters so I could follow their movements and study their ecology. On normal rainfall years I see an average of eight of these wonderful snakes, so I figured that if I actively searched for them, I would be able to get a good sample size to study. However, I did not count on the drought being so intense.

Snakes get most of their water from the food they eat, and when there is no water, the food disappears as well. Many of our small, native animals tend to stay underground during such “tough times” and await better weather. Not only did many of the prey species disappear over the spring and summer, but the snakes also stayed deep underground to conserve moisture. Some snakes and other reptiles came to the surface for a brief period during the breeding season (April through June), and I was able to find a couple of patch-nosed snakes for my study. Unfortunately, reptile activity ceased altogether soon after. On a good spring day in a year with normal rainfall, I can find up to 20 snakes belonging to 8 to 10 different species in a single day. This year, in stark contrast to normal expectations, my best snake day yielded just two snakes. In addition, I spent nearly every day in the field for seven weeks in May and June and only saw two rattlesnakes. As the summer progressed and the habitat became more and more dry, very little lizard and snake activity was observed.

A red diamond rattlesnake found during a cover board array survey in 2010 at the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve shows how lush and green the hills were that year.

A red diamond rattlesnake found during a cover board array survey in 2010 at the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve shows how lush and green the hills were that year.

August is often our driest month, so we rarely see many animals in the field at that time. We often wait until late September before we start seeing hatchlings and juveniles along with occasional adult animals. This year, the young snakes have been virtually nonexistent, and that makes sense. If the adult female snakes and lizards cannot gain enough body mass, they generally will not reproduce. Since most of our wild animals stayed underground for much of the year, they probably did not feed and therefore were unsuccessful in breeding.

Last week I saw firsthand how difficult the drought has been on our native snakes. While walking through the coastal sage, I found a large, female red diamond rattlesnake Crotalus ruber. She was very thin and could barely move. I presume she had recently given birth (rattlesnakes in San Diego County give birth to live young in August and September) and just did not have enough body mass to make it through her pregnancy. No baby snakes were found in the vicinity, and I can only hope this female pulls through. If she had babies, they will, hopefully, be able to hold out until the rains eventually arrive.

A cell phone photo shows an emaciated red-diamond rattlesnake at the Reserve in September, 2014. Many of our local reptiles and amphibians are suffering from the recent drought.

A cell phone photo shows an emaciated red-diamond rattlesnake at the Reserve in September, 2014. Many of our local reptiles and amphibians are suffering from the recent drought.

In over 30 years of field “herping” (searching for reptiles and amphibians), I have not experienced drought conditions worse than those seen in 2013 and 2014. In fact, the North American Field Herping Association has shown just how bad the drought has been on Southern California snakes. When comparing non-drought year data from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2012, with drought year data from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2014, for snakes found in Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, 4,971 snakes (1,055 hatchlings) were found between 2010 and 2012 whereas only 2,888 snakes (680 hatchlings) were found from 2012 to 2014. It is also interesting to note that there were more contributors to the database in the latter years, so roughly half the snakes were found by considerably more field herpers in the drought years than in the normal rainfall years, and roughly half the hatchling snakes were found in the drought years than in the normal years.

Here's a portrait of a healthy long-nosed snake in the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve in 2009.

Here’s a portrait of a healthy long-nosed snake in the Safari Park Biodiversity Reserve in 2009.

So what does this all mean? Nobody can be certain right now. We do know that our climate has boom and bust years and drought and rainfall totals are very cyclical for most areas of the world. However, our findings to date do suggest that climate change is occurring at a rapid pace, and we all need to do our part to protect the environment and our natural resources, especially the snakes!

Jeff Lemm is a senior research coordinator in the Behavioral Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Catching Rock Iguanas: Easier Said than Done!

Corinne PisacaneThis year I traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands to study wild rock iguanas. The Turks and Caicos rock iguana Cyclura carinata is endemic to this Caribbean country and is critically endangered. Our team flew to the island of Providenciales, the main hub for tourist travel. From there we continued in a much smaller plane across the beautiful and shallow waters of the Caicos Bank to our final destination, Big Ambergris Cay. This island, located about 40 miles east of Providenciales, is diminutive in size, measuring about 4 miles (6 kilometers) long and only 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) wide. Its highest point is less than 100 feet (30 meters) above sea level. In addition to the iguanas, this secluded island hosts a number of private residences, and there are plans for a large housing development, which poses a potential threat to iguana habitat on the island.

During my time on Big Ambergris Cay, I was involved with a graduate student’s dissertation project involving iguana capture, relocation, and the subsequent examination of homing abilities (among a number of other iguana-related activities!). Every day we set out after it warmed up enough for iguanas to come out of their nooks and holes. Once we located individuals of interest, we set about stalking them. A number of our team members then attempted to catch iguanas of interest with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the lizards were just too fast and would elude our attempts with ease!

Once caught, our next challenge was to try to take a blood sample from each iguana to measure baseline stress hormones. From the moment we caught each iguana, we had exactly three minutes to successfully collect the blood. Any time over three minutes meant that stress hormones (or glucocorticoids) had already reached the iguana’s circulation, meaning we were measuring its stress response to the capture, which was not our goal. As you can imagine, this made for a very exciting three minutes!

If we were not successful, the iguana would be released and not considered as part of the study. If we did succeed, the iguana was then numbered using a system of color-coded beads strung through Spectra line and placed on both sides of the iguana’s dorsal crest between the shoulder blades. This dorsal skin is similar to that of our earlobes, and the stringing of the beads is thought to feel much like piercing one’s ears. Once we were finished marking individuals with beads, each iguana was also fitted with a small radio transmitter to enable future tracking of their movements on the island.

After the identification beads and radio transmitter were secured, iguanas were released at their point of capture and tracked for two weeks to determine their home range. Then they were recaptured and relocated to a different study site just under a mile away to determine if relocation might be used to successfully mitigate future development. As soon as they were released, the race was on! Equipped with radio-receiver equipment, researchers tracked the movements of the iguanas daily to investigate where they went. It appears that adult iguanas can usually find their way home, although how they do so is still not fully understood. By contrast, the homing skills of juvenile iguanas don’t appear to be as developed, and they usually stay put in their new home. For this reason, juvenile iguanas make better candidates for relocation than adults.

Alongside all the capturing and relocating of iguanas, our team also processed all the blood samples collected. This was no small task, as the logistics of processing blood on a small Caribbean island are very involved and time sensitive. Samples had to be frozen immediately, which required transferring them from a portable mobile cooler, carried by each researcher, to a larger cooler on a golf cart (the only mode of transportation around the island!) and then, finally, back to one of our rooms where we’d set up a mobile laboratory. Overall, this was quite an operation! Picture at least half of a dorm room set up as a temporary lab with collection tubes, a centrifuge, slide-staining equipment, and blood-draw needles.

Having traveled to a number of tropical places, I had expected the Turks and Caicos landscape to be all soft sand and friendly flora, with iguanas living in a beach environment. How wrong I was! All this capturing, relocating, and tracking takes place on volcanic-like ground that can quickly tear up ordinary shoes. The ground is also uneven and makes capture and tracking a slow and strenuous process. In addition, the small shrubs and trees are full of thorns and are quite abrasive. As a result, we always wore long pants and covered up at all times, making the work more challenging as it got extremely hot outside. Thick-soled shoes were also critical if we were to move around quickly enough to capture iguanas and avoid large thorns entering the soles of our feet. While we find it difficult to deal with this kind of environment, the iguanas have evolved to be perfectly suited to it.

This type of research is critical to gain a thorough understanding of the biology and behavior of the Turks and Caicos rock iguana. As with most endangered species, we need to be diligent about setting aside the necessary habitat for these amazing reptiles. Rock iguanas throughout the Caribbean are in danger of losing their habitat as a result of human-related pressures. I learned a great deal while on Big Ambergris Cay and am very grateful that I could be involved with iguana conservation in such an amazing habitat!

Corinne Pisacane is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, ISWE: Cheetah Pseudopregnancy?

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Understanding Wildlife Trade In Asia

A sign outside a store in Luang Prabang, Laos, advertises ivory for sale.

Typing this from a café in Laos, I am thinking about and facing one of the greatest threats to biodiversity: the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts. I’m looking at a sign in a shop across the road, advertising elephant ivory for sale. Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horns, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, and wild pig tusks, among others, for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door. Thankfully, the cub was rescued and is now being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

Recently, I walked through the local night markets, with wildlife parts such as muntjac horn, turtle shells, pangolin scales, bear teeth, leopard cat teeth, wild pig tusks among others for sale. Earlier I passed a restaurant that had two macaques in tiny cages. Last week, I passed a house in an upscale neighborhood of Phnom Penh, where a brave wild bear cub (its mother killed by a snare in the forest) escaped its tiny cage, scaled the wall, and landed in the pool of the boutique hotel next door (see photo). Thankfully the cub was rescued and is now safe and being rehabilitated in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

A three-week-old Asiatic black bear cub is one of a pair of cubs rescued from the wildlife trade and now being cared for at the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia. It is destined for a wonderful life in the forest.

Of all the species we work with at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, by far the most complex and dynamic are humans! Numbering over 7 billion, with countless cultures, motivations, and world views, humans are an extremely complex, yet central element in conservation initiatives. Successful conservation requires a multipronged approach, tackling the biochemical, ecological, and behavioral aspects of wildlife and the cultural and economic countenance of humans.Our Conservation Education Division focuses on the socio-ecological aspects of conservation across three main themes: conservation education, conservation social science, and community-based conservation. As a community-based conservation ecologist, I focus on the intersection of wildlife and humans, using both ecological and sociological research methods to inform our projects, which is why I am in Southeast Asia.

Three of the 20 Souphanouvong University students who, after participating in our training workshop, partnered with us to conduct wildlife surveys in Laos. They are conducting surveys at the Tat Kuang Si Reserve in Laos.

With its dense, tropical forests, rich biodiversity, and large human populations, Asia is a center of wildlife trade. Despite many countries having made capturing, poaching, killing, and exporting of wildlife illegal, poaching and consumption of wildlife still abounds. The history of wildlife use in Asia is a long and ingrained one, where for over 3,000 years wildlife has been used for food, traditional medicine, entertainment, and decoration. It’s embedded in many cultures here.

Couple that history to the rapidly developing economies and expanding middle class here, and it has meant a continued (and growing) demand for wildlife products, many of which are regarded as status symbols. Tackling such normative aspects of culture to try to curb this tide of wildlife use, and to eliminate demand, is a big challenge!

The Free the Bears team designs and refines the survey instrument for Cambodia.

Since the beginning of September, I’ve been in the field collaborating with our partners at Free the Bears. They are dedicated to conserving Southeast Asian bears, specifically the Asiatic black bear Ursus thibetanus and the sun bear Helarctos malayanus. These species are poached from the forest and killed for their gall bladders. The cubs are captured and placed in bile-harvesting farms where, confined in small cages, bile is periodically withdrawn from their gall bladder using a large needle over the next 10 years or so. Both species are also killed for their paws, which are used in bear paw soup and bear paw rice wine, and for their claws and teeth, which are used for decoration. Lastly, cubs of the killed parents are taken for the pet trade.

A recently rescued sun bear is in quarantine before being released to the forest enclosures in the Phnom Tamao Bear Rescue Centre in Cambodia

Free the Bears staff patrol for and remove snares from the forest and actively rescue bears from confinement. We are supporting this work by developing and conducting human dimension surveys about wildlife in Cambodia and Laos. Our collaborative project employs a novel approach to understand people’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs toward wildlife and to learn about their usage of bears for parts and pets. Understanding how people think about and view wildlife is vital for developing conservation interventions, especially when tackling wildlife consumption. It will also form the foundation of future communication and education efforts about wildlife. People’s attitudes often drive their behaviors; by better understanding attitudes, we can more effectively affect behaviors.

A sun bear does what it does best: living a free life in its native habitat.

In Cambodia, we are conducting face-to-face interviews with people about their knowledge and attitudes toward wildlife. We are using a randomized response technique (RRT) to ask about wildlife usage. Why? When you ask people about illegal activities (such as drug-use, DUI, etc.), they may not answer truthfully, so data may be biased or unreliable. RRT uses a randomizing device (such as dice or coin flip) that allows the respondent to answer truthfully while maintaining anonymity. Even the interviewer does not know their response! For Cambodia, we are basing our RRT around a local dice game called khla-kluk.

Students at Souphanouvong University in Laos are excited to help out conservation after our workshop.

In Laos, we’re using a different approach. We’re asking people to complete a self-administered questionnaire, which we have translated into several languages (see images). We partnered with the Women’s Union and Souphanouvong University students, whom we trained to conduct surveys. With this wonderful team of 30 citizen scientists, we have collected over 700 surveys. By the end, we will have over 1,000. This is a fantastic response and the first of this scale in Laos.

We are grateful to the governments of Cambodia and Laos for their bold action around making wildlife trade illegal and for allowing us to conduct these surveys. We are also grateful to our many local partners, who are doing the hard work of administering the surveys in the coming months. It is hoped that we can adapt this survey for use across Southeast Asia and India in a comprehensive assessment of wildlife usage.

David gives a lecture (via a translator) about conservation in Laos.

It is through efforts like this, and the incredible work of the Institute, San Diego Zoo Global, Free the Bears, and others that I can stay hopeful, even as I look at wildlife products for sale. Why? Because we’ve not given up, and we are working in smart, complementary, and sustainable ways to tackle these threats so that humans and wildlife can co-exist.

Thanks to you for your continued support, which makes this work possible.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, World Giraffe Day.

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Would a 3-month Course in Remote Amazonian Field Site Change Your Life?

Guest lecturer Dr. Harald Beck explains his research on wallows created by peccaries and used by a variety of wildlife.

Guest lecturer Dr. Harald Beck explains his research on wallows created by peccaries and used by a variety of wildlife.

Would three months living and studying in one of the most remote field stations in the tropical rain forest change your life? At the Cocha Cashu Biological Station’s annual field ecology course in Peru, offered by San Diego Zoo Global, that’s our mission—to change lives. With the support of some generous donors, we were able to recruit and fund this exceptional educational opportunity for 10 bright and motivated Peruvian college students. They arrived at the field station full of potential and ready to soak up knowledge and experience like sponges.

A red howler monkey stretches to reach some ripening figs.

A red howler monkey stretches to reach some ripening figs.

Why should this be such a life-changing experience? First, imagine the remoteness. Deep in the heart of Manu National Park, the Station is set in the midst of primeval forest and has the complete portfolio of Amazonian wildlife. Giant otters and black caimans swim in the lake in front of the Station, catching fish and occasionally harassing each other. Peccaries and tapirs visit the mineral licks at night to eat clay (as a digestive aid and to get valuable nutrients). Macaws of all colors fly overhead, and the river is lined with skimmers, Orinoco geese, and horned screamers. Columns of army ants march across the forest floor and, yes, a few mosquitos and biting insects can also be found…but it’s not that bad. And the trees! The magnificent trees soar majestically skyward. So diverse is this forest that a couple of acres contains more than 150 species of trees. Not least, the instructors are well-seasoned biologists with years of experience in the Amazon with an Amazon-sized devotion to the cause of tropical conservation.

One of the students finds a prize, a tapir skull.

One of the students finds a prize, a tapir skull.

I’m here for a two-week visit to check in on the Station and help with the students. I’m not sure what is more rewarding: exploring the forest and its wildlife or seeing these students’ whole world open up as they see new possibilities. Already the experiences they’ve had are remarkable. I would have made great sacrifice at their age to experience something like this. Over the next three months these students will receive expert tutelage on the natural history and ecology of the Amazon, designing and implementing ecological research, and connecting with the wonderful diversity of life found at Cocha Cashu. It’s bound to change lives.

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D. is the Brown Chair and director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station. Read his previous post, Bagging Tasmanian Devils: Can We Save a Misunderstood Creature?