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.
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!
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.