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Safari Park Biodiversity Preserve

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Counting Mosquitoes

Summer interns Kathleen Connolly, left, and Christina Mangan pose with some of their finds.

Since October 2011, we have been monitoring disease vectors in the Safari Park Biodiversity Preserve (aka The Back 900). Here, the valuable coastal sage scrub habitat has been undergoing cactus restoration as well as monitoring of one of its important inhabitants, the cactus wren (see post Cactus Wrens Rise from the Ashes). Our goals are to monitor the presence and activity of mosquitoes and midges, two important disease vectors, and test them for West Nile virus and blood parasites, including plasmodium, the cause of avian malaria, in and around this reserve. From this data, we will be able to look at the occurrence of these disease agents in insects within the cactus wren habitat and which mosquito or midge species act as likely vectors.

Another interesting aspect of this study is analyzing what hosts these insects have been feeding on by evaluating their blood meals. Only females feed on blood; the male mosquitoes and midges feed on nectar. So for this study we are only concerned with the female insects. DNA is extracted from the blood meal, and a barcoding PCR is performed. The PCR product sequences are then compared to published sequences in the Barcode of Life database, which contains DNA sequence information for a large number of animals. Finding a match between the DNA sequence extracted from the blood meal and a known DNA sequence will enable us to determine which animals these insects have been feeding on. Mosquitoes and midges within the Safari Park have been found to feed upon various local creatures, including mallards, desert cottontail rabbits, mule deer, humans, and an occasional collection animal.

So, how do we convince the insects to be tested? Once every other week, our summer interns and I go out into the field, setting up UV traps and CO2 traps to attract and capture mosquitoes and midges. While out in the field, it can be quite an adventure, from the bumpy roads and rolling hills to the occasional visit from a resident mule deer or a speeding roadrunner. It is often enjoyable to get out of the laboratory and into the field and observe virtually undisturbed habitat right in our own Park’s backyard.

The UV traps attract the mosquitoes by emitting a UV light of about 350 to 400 nanometers; this acts as a visual stimuli for the mosquitoes and midges. The CO2 trap contains dry ice that emits CO2 to mimic the respiration of an animal and works as a chemical attractant for the insects. After anesthetizing the insects back at our Wildlife Diseases Laboratory, the students then have the arduous task of tediously counting and identifying the various species of mosquitoes and midges. Later, they extract the DNA and RNA from these insects and utilize it for the PCR testings.

This project has given our interns the opportunity to gain experience in the laboratory and in the field!

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

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Cactus Wrens Rise from the Ashes

Coastal cactus wrens build their nests in large prickly pear cactus. When cacti are killed by land clearing or wildfires, wrens have nowhere to nest.

After the 2007 Witch Creek Fire, which burned through the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and surrounding San Pasqual Valley, the outlook seemed grim for local populations of coastal cactus wrens. With populations already rapidly declining throughout Southern California, we all wondered if the fire, which heavily damaged critical nesting areas, was going to be one of the last chapters in an all-too-familiar story of species loss. A survey for coastal cactus wrens within the Safari Park Biodiversity Preserve shortly after the fire turned up only 10 pairs, further suggesting the population here was in a precarious position.

Even as the land smoldered, we began developing habitat restoration plans to help speed up recovery of native habitat. We focused on two critical coastal cactus wren needs: prickly pear cacti, which the birds need to nest, and native shrubs such as elderberry, buckwheat, and California sagebrush. Our goal was to enhance 45 acres (18 hectares) of habitat to support the recovery of wren populations and ensure the long-term survival of the species here in the San Pasqual Valley.

We have propagated thousands of native prickly pear cacti to support habitat restoration for cactus wrens.

Efforts began in 2008 and involved propagating and planting thousands of cacti and native shrubs across difficult, rugged terrain. Sometimes, the last four years seem like a blur of hard work, hot temperatures, sweat, blood (cactus spines hurt!), and more work. The effort, led by Sara Motheral and Colleen Wisinski, has been nothing short of amazing. We are nearing our goal! This year, we will complete the habitat enhancement of the 45 acres. Even more exciting is the fact that wren populations are rebounding—it is hard not to see or hear wrens calling while walking in the Safari Park Preserve.

Colleen Wisinski monitors a cactus wren nest, checking for eggs, at the Safari Park’s Biodiversity Preserve.

Even as we approach one milestone in the project, we are already expanding our efforts beyond the Preserve and have begun developing habitat restoration plans throughout San Pasqual Valley to connect isolated populations of wrens and create new habitat patches. It is only a matter of time before the next wildfire happens, and the long-term survival of the wrens depends on having high-quality habitat within the Preserve and throughout San Pasqual Valley.

To this end, we are already propagating cacti to enhance an additional 50 acres (20 hectares) of habitat throughout San Pasqual Valley and utilizing advanced technology such as Geographic Information Systems, spatial analysis, and computer modeling and simulations to help us determine high-priority locations for habitat restoration efforts to maximize the probability of success. No rest for the weary!

Bryan Endress is the director of Applied Plant Ecology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.