Uncategorized

plant conservation

26

Bear Ambassador Learns Importance of Plants

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow explores some bamboo growing at the San Diego Zoo. This bamboo represents the incredible horticultural collection of San Diego Zoo Global and a key component of giant panda habitat.

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow explores some bamboo growing at the San Diego Zoo. This bamboo represents the incredible horticultural collection of San Diego Zoo Global and a key component of giant panda habitat.

We’ve mentioned in previous Bear Blog posts that some of the major threats to different bear species are habitat loss, or habitat degradation, or habitat fragmentation. As you can tell, for bear conservation it’s important to consider the amount and quality of bear habitat. For food, bears (except for polar bears) rely on plants. Thus, people concerned about bear conservation often become concerned about the conservation of the plant communities on which the bears depend. Although San Diego Zoo Global is involved in conservation of animals, it also does a lot of work with plants.

Recently I talked to botanists and horticulturists at the San Diego Zoo, and our whimsical Bear Ambassador, Mi Ton Teiow, was able to visit plants from bear habitats around the world. You might know that our horticultural staff grow most of the bamboo eaten by the giant pandas or the eucalyptus eaten by the koalas, but that’s just the beginning of what they do! I knew that certain parts of the Zoo contained plants related to some I’d seen in Andean bear habitat in the cloud forest of southeast Peru, but our horticulturists pointed out close relatives of plants that are important to Andean bears in the dry forest of northwest Peru, as well as plants from Australia, Hawaii, and Africa.

This flowering powder puff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) may catch your eye, but there’s more to the plant collection than what meets the eye.

This flowering powder puff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) may catch your eye, but there’s more to the plant collection than what meets the eye.

One reason they are able to grow such a diversity of plants at the Zoo is its variation in topography, which helps create a wide range of microclimates. I was surprised to learn that during winter, certain parts of the Zoo may receive frost at night! Of course, another reason the horticulture staff is able to grow such diverse plants is their research to understand just what the different plants need to grow and reproduce. Sometimes this research requires them to conduct experiments such as those in the lab to determine the best conditions for propagating orchid seeds, or field trips like those to investigate wild fig trees.

San Diego Zoo Global grows plants for many different reasons, and sometimes because the plants themselves are of conservation concern, plant species can be endangered, and captive reproduction can be an effective tool for plants as well as animals. In addition to plant conservation efforts, horticulture staff grow plants for several reasons related to animal husbandry. As I mentioned earlier, some plants are fed to the animals, providing them with more natural sources of nutrition than they would get otherwise. Parts of other plants are given to animals as a form of enrichment, especially because of their scents. When an animal shreds a few branches it’s been given, the animal is performing a natural behavior in a renewable manner: the horticulture department will grow more!

This diversity of plant species and structure may resemble tropical bear habitat, but it’s actually part of the horticultural collection at the San Diego Zoo.

This diversity of plant species and structure may resemble tropical bear habitat, but it’s actually part of the horticultural collection at the San Diego Zoo.

Woody plants are also used as structures in the animal enclosures. Large limbs, logs, and sometimes stumps are placed so that animals have items to rub on, climb on, and sometimes sleep upon. You can probably see our bears interacting with their log “furniture” any time you visit the Zoo. And, any time you visit, you can pick up a free map and take yourself on a self-guided walking tour of the botanical collection surrounding you. If you’re able to visit the Zoo on the third Friday of a month, you can explore the plant collections further. On those Fridays, called Plant Day & Orchid Odyssey, you can take a free narrated botanical bus tour to learn more about the plant collections, and you can visit the orchid greenhouse, which is home to more than 3,000 orchid plants!

The next time you’re visiting the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park, or a zoo elsewhere, take a closer look at the plants; they’re a whole lot more than “just” landscaping; they’re food, furniture, and enrichment for the animals and plant ambassadors of the habitats on which their wild relatives depend.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Bad News Bears.

8

Tecate Cypress: Risky Reproduction

Lauren and Sandra Mardonovich sow Tecate cypress seeds in long pots that provide spacious room for roots.

The Tecate cypress Hesperocyparis forbsiiis a tree found only in Southern California and northern Baja California, Mexico. It has a limited range and is fire dependent, which means the cypress needs fire to reproduce. The cones of this species are serotinous, which means the seeds are released by an ecological trigger (in this case, fire) instead of being released once they reach maturity. When the cones are exposed to heat, the resin that keeps them sealed is melted, the cone opens, and the seed is released. Without fire, the Tecate cypress keeps its seed bank within persistent cones in the tree canopy. When a fire burns a mature stand of Tecate cypress, new seedlings pop up in its place. If this second generation is burned before it reaches maturity, it could wipe out the entire population. There are only four stable populations remaining in California, three of which are in San Diego County. It is because of its limited range and risky reproduction technique that this tree is such a sensitive species.

Tecate cypress cones collected from Otay Mountain await processing.

The Applied Plant Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has partnered with the Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, and the California Department of Fish and Game to preserve this unique species. The goal of the project is to provide a safe guard against high-frequency fires wiping out the population.

To do this, we collected enough seed from a mature population to have a portion for safe keeping in the Native Plant Seed Bank at the Safari Park and a portion that could be germinated and planted as a nursery stand. Cones were collected from Otay Mountain and processed at the State of California’s Lewis A. Morgan Reforestation Center. The processed cones resulted in thousands of seeds, and of those, a fraction was planted. From the planted seeds, we are hoping to get 400 to 500 seedlings.

Here's a close-up view of the seeds before being covered with soil.

Once the seedlings have grown to a suitable size, they will be planted at the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve. The planted cypress trees will be monitored over the next six months. These trees will be used as a sort of “plantation” where more seeds can be collected as needed in case the other stands burn before reaching sexual maturity.

Lauren Anderson is an intern at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research through the Bureau of Land Management’s Seeds of Success Program. Read her previous post, The Desert: Blooms and Hail.

0

What’s the Difference between a Species and a Variety?

Wild buckwheat Eriogonum fasciculatum

Miguel Kaminsky and Lauren Anderson are interns at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research through the Bureau of Land Management’s Seeds of Success Program. As part of the internship, they make collections of seeds from plant species vital to southern California habitats. The seeds will be preserved and studied and eventually help restore habitats damaged by fire or during development projects.

This internship has provided a lot of new experiences and opportunities for learning. Specifically, events during the collection of wild buckwheat Eriogonum fasciculatum seeds at El Capitan Open Space Preserve compelled me to review some basic biological concepts regarding speciation. The whole exercise began when Lauren and I went on a seemingly routine mission to collect Eriogonum seeds. By the time we each filled a quarter of a bucket with seeds and associated material, Lauren pointed out extensive variation in the leaf morphology of the plants we were collecting. Some plants had linear, light green leaves while others had much wider, blue-green leaves with an almost woolly layer of flattened hairs. To make matters more confusing, some plants had shoots exhibiting both leaf types. This made us think there was hybridization of some sort going on, so we decided to do some further research before packaging this collection to ensure we had seeds from just one species.

Upon consulting a plant atlas, we learned that there are three varieties of Eriogonum fasciculatum in the area we were sampling.  These are var. fasciculatum, var. foliolosum, and var. polifolium.  Var. polifolium has the wider, oblong, woolly leaves while var. foliolosum has the linear leaves that aren’t nearly as woolly on their upper surface. In turn, we inferred that the individuals we encountered were  vars. foliolosum, polifolium, and mixes of the two.

Although we determined the collection was not useful to us because we needed seeds with a varietal lineage free of comingling, this left me with some fundamental questions. Why aren’t these morphologically distinct populations classified as different species? What is the difference between a species and a variety?

Lauren Riesberg, in her extensive writings addressing speciation and hybridization, cited Mayr’s definition of a species as “groups of interbreeding natural populations reproductively isolated from other such groups.” However, species that are not geographically isolated have been known to interbreed and produce hybrid offspring. Wikipedia defines a variety as a genetically, and in turn, morphologically distinct subset of a species that is geographically isolated from other populations within that species. However, when the geographic barrier is removed, this subset interbreeds with the rest of the species, resulting in an influx of genes that erodes the variety’s distinct features, thus reintegrating it into the greater species group. With this in mind, I distinguish species and varieties based on the fact that a hybrid of two species produces offspring with reduced fertility, such as malformed pollen grains, while a hybrid of two subspecific varieties produces offspring that show no such deformities and reflects the traits of the original species.

El Capitan Open Space Preserve

In light of these considerations, I came to the conclusion that the El Capitan Open Space Preserve is a very special place in the origins and family history of Eriogonum fasciculatum. According to “Flora of North America,” Eriogonum fasciculatum var. folilosum came about from an ancient hybridization event between vars. fasciculatum and polifolium. This event likely happened at places much like the El Capitan Open Space Preserve, where these populations intermingle. Eventually, isolated populations of these varieties might inbreed to the point that they become reproductively isolated from the parent varieties, giving rise to new species through divergent evolution.

El Capitan offers a living snapshot into the evolutionary history that drives speciation. In conclusion, this experience reminds me that speciation is a dynamic process taking place in our backyards, in present times, while we go about our daily lives.