conservation biologist


Makeshift Lab in Ecuador Helps Frogs

DNA extraction in HotelA few months ago I got the incredible opportunity to help bring the Amphibian Disease Laboratory’s molecular diagnostic capabilities abroad. Our amphibian disease laboratory head, veterinary pathologist Allan Pessier and I, along with several other veterinarians and conservation biologists, were invited to speak at an International Veterinary Medicine of Amphibians seminar in Quito, Ecuador. It was amazing to be able to share our lab’s diagnostic techniques with eager veterinary students and biologists.

While packing for our trip abroad, I thought of everything we would need to have our “mobile lab” functional. Even though I had all the equipment and re-agents we needed, I could not prepare for the location where I would perform these experiments.

When we arrived at the seminar location, I was relieved to see that the area where we would be performing our amphibian disease testings at was a veterinary clinical lab. Here we had counter space, power outlets, and refrigerator space. However, the molecular testings take time to run (about 2.5 hours), and the real-time PCR machine I was utilizing could only manage 48 samples at once. I ran into time limitations of how long we had to be in the facility. We needed to make sure we ran all the samples given to us by the animal facilities before we went back to the US. I had to improvise and wound up turning my hotel room into a makeshift laboratory. I had an extraction area (bedside table), my re-agent master mix preparation area (the dressing table), and my DNA loading area and instrument area (another bedside table). But do I use to keep my re-agents cool? Why, a foam cooler and ice cubes purchased from a nearby market! I extracted my samples, set up the assay instrument, and went to sleep with the humming of the real-time instrument next to my bed.

What did I learn from this amazing experience? That you can only prepare so much when traveling abroad and that you need to be ready to think on your toes and be prepared to do your experiments in not-so-ideal environments.

The outcome of the trip was most rewarding. Our hours of traveling allowed these students and biologists to utilize techniques that aren’t easily available to their institutions. The testing results were very helpful not only to the animal facilities themselves but also to our laboratory to understand the amphibian disease present in Ecuador. These are the types of relationships we would like to have with amphibian facilities across the world to help monitor the health of current and future amphibian populations.

Jennifer Burchell is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Counting Mosquitoes.


Marching to My Own (Foot) Drummers

Debra holds a Stephens' kangaroo rat

The sun is setting, and I am back in Crown Valley, the northeastern portion of the Southwestern Riverside County Multispecies Reserve. Crown Valley was named for the valley inside a majestic crown of hills in Hemet, California. Coastal sage scrub covers the hills that form the “crown,” and it is considered by many to be one of the most endangered plant communities in the United States. It has extremely high levels of species diversity and endemism (species found nowhere else), and it contains a number of endangered species, including the Stephens’ kangaroo rat, which is the reason I’m here. I’ve been studying kangaroo rats off and on for 17 years, but every time I get back out into the field, I take a deep breath and am reminded of how lucky I am to be a field conservation biologist.

The best times of day on the reserve are sunset and sunrise. At sunset, there is a natural slowing, temperatures cool, and you can begin to smell the sweet fragrance of the native coastal sage scrub. Sunrises are often laden with moisture, which intensifies the scent of white sage, invoking peace and tranquillity.

Debra checks an acclimation cage.

Lucky for me, kangaroo rats are nocturnal, so I get to experience the reserve during the quiet, most aromatic hours, when the animals that most people never get to see come out and make a living. On this particular trip, my field crew and I were trapping kangaroo rats that we had translocated into the area in the fall of 2010 (see post SKRs Get TLC). It was part of a post-release monitoring effort to assess the success of our translocation. We arrived an hour before sunset to set our traps, and I set up my tent to rest until our 11 p.m. trap check.

I took off my boots and snake guards, snuggled up in my down bag, and tried to rest. That night, I even brought a pillow so that odds were in my favor. As I was drifting off, I heard trapdoors closing with an almost regular “pop, pop, pop, pop,” which began to slow over the next hour and lull me to sleep. But what I wasn’t expecting—and what I’ve never heard in all of my years in the field—was a drumming, coming from directly under my pillow!

Kangaroo rats live alone and “footdrum” to talk to each other about territorial boundaries, predators, and mating, mostly from within their burrows. Footdrumming sounds a little like a rattlesnake rattle, and each individual kangaroo rat drums differently, giving them their own signature and a way for other kangaroo rats to distinguish who is “talking.”

It brought me out of my near sleep. My first thought was a sleepy one, “Cool, he’s talking to me.” I listened for a few more minutes, and there it was again, repeated more intensely than the first time, as if the little burrow owner was shouting at me. It was then that the scientist in me woke up enough to realize that what he was really saying was something more like “Get off my burrow entrance, I want to get some food!” I immediately jumped up, unzipped my tent and pulled it to the side, exposing a newly opened burrow, and a little kangaroo rat hopped out into the grass to forage.

Debra Shier is the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research Brown Endowed Scientist. Read her previous post, Pacific Pocket Mouse: Help Is on the Way.


Interns Help Endangered Birds

Ashley works with a Maui parrotbill.

We come from different backgrounds and all have different goals and aspirations. We take a three- to six-month break from our lives to travel to Maui and make the trek up the steep, windy road to the former minimum-security prison, now bird propagation facility for Hawaii’s endangered avifauna.

There is a lot to be gained as an intern at the San Diego Zoo Maui Bird Conservation Center. Our duties are essentially those of a staff member, and we get the opportunity to experience firsthand what it’s like to be an avian conservation biologist. With this role comes lots of responsibility and learning to ensure that these rare and exquisite birds get the best care possible. Our primary focus is avian husbandry and providing a stimulating environment to encourage reproductive success.

Each day begins at the early hour of 6:30, when we meet with the staff to discuss what’s going on with the birds and the facility. We then go our separate ways, based on our assignment for the day: `alala, nene, forest birds, or projects. Our first priority is to observe the birds’ behaviors and make sure they’re healthy. Then we clean their aviaries, feed out the diets that were prepared the day before, and possibly socialize breeding pairs, depending on the season and how the birds have been getting along. Each routine requires care and attention to detail.

While a typical day for interns involves a lot of cleaning, diet preparation, and detailed observation of the birds, there is still plenty of time for various projects and lots of scope for innovation. Many of the buildings here are old and in need of constant TLC. Therefore we get many opportunities to play mechanic/plumber/construction worker/landscaper. It’s pretty amazing what a bunch of bird nerds are able to accomplish! New ideas and projects are always welcome. The creation of new nest boxes by fellow intern Dustin Foote has proven to be an excellent enhancement for nene propagation, and the geese have happily begun laying eggs in these more private shelters.

Although only staff members are permitted to handle eggs and chicks, we take advantage of every opportunity to observe vital procedures such as egg candling, during which we can observe embryonic growth at each stage of development. It’s an exciting experience to watch an `alala egg’s development from the first day of candling to when it finally hatches

Interns play an important role in making the program the success that it is today. And while we contribute lots to the program, what we gain is every bit as important. We arrive as wide-eyed interns, eager to soak up every bit of the experience we can. We gain knowledge in captive bird care and artificial propagation, as well as an appreciation for Hawaii’s precious and endangered avifauna and the elaborate process to restore these birds’ populations in the wild.

No matter what our goals are in life—be it veterinary medicine, zoology, conservation, or even something entirely non-animal related—this internship provides us with a varied and enriching experience. Most importantly, when the birds bred by the program are thriving in the wild, contributing to the survival of their species, we will know that we helped make that happen…. And that’s pretty cool.

Ashley Higby is an intern at the San Diego Zoo’s Maui Bird Conservation Center.


The Shirt Off My Back

Master Wildlife Artist Carel Brest van Kempen's Browsing Radiated Tortoise.

Each year, a dedicated group of about 200 people from around the globe meets at the annual Turtle Survival Alliance* (TSA) conference. The three-day conference has become THE annual meeting for all those interested in conserving freshwater turtles and tortoises. In reality, this is a small conference; it is nothing at all like the giant spectacle that is COMICON (San Diego’s annual conference on all things fantasy and science fiction). Nevertheless, the TSA conference is the largest meeting of scientists, students, zoo-based biologists, and hobbyists who have a deep passion for turtles.

I eagerly await this conference each year. It is a time for me to see old friends, meet new, like-minded people, and become re-energized for another year in the “trenches,” our continual struggle to save the rarest of the rare turtles with very limited resources. Although there are approximately 300 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises in the world, the vast majority of conservation dollars go to save the seven marine species; hence, every penny we can raise at the conference for conservation action is incredibly important.

This brings me to my newest role as a conservation biologist—one that I never envisioned having: I have become the auctioneer at TSA’s annual charity auction. I’m not sure how this happened, perhaps when the conference organizers heard me say that I would sell the shirt off my back to make sure that there are zero turtle extinctions in my lifetime. I guess you need to be careful what you say around turtle biologists that are short on cash!

It is not an easy thing to “entertain” a crowded room of people all while trying to get them to pay exorbitant prices on turtle-themed items. Last year, by using a fair amount of self-deprecating humor, I was, for example, able to sell a turtle-print sarong for $125, a turtle-shaped woman’s purse for almost $200, and a fossil tortoise shell for $500. The whole auction was a lot of fun and a chance for me to be a bit of a stand-up comedian, all while raising over $10,000 for TSA’s field conservation programs.

This year I will reprise my role as auctioneer in the hopes of bringing in even more conservation dollars. TSA has been donated an original piece of incredible artwork depicting a radiated tortoise valued at well over $10,000 by Carel Brest van Kempen, a master painter of the Society of Animal Artists. This is a unique opportunity to own a true masterpiece. Funds raised from its auction will directly benefit future freshwater turtle and tortoise research and conservation efforts. For those of us who aren’t big spenders, there will be limited edition prints available through the Turtle Survival Alliance.

If you are interested in freshwater turtle and tortoise conservation, I strongly encourage you to attend TSA’s conference, being held in Orlando, Florida, from August 16 to 19, 2010. Details…

I’m already practicing my newest jokes and a new, catchy way of saying “SOLD!”

Brian Horne is a conservation research postdoctoral fellow with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Studying Tortoises in Madagascar.

*The San Diego Zoo has been contributing partner of the TSA since its inception, and the TSA has been an active partner in the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s conservation project on the red-crowned roof turtle in India.