Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!
Last Wednesday, interns got the opportunity to step into the reptile world as we met reptile keeper and educator, Peter Gilson, at the San Diego Zoo. Interns visited and fed the Galapagos tortoises and then went to the Klauber-Shaw Reptile House, where Mr. Gilson brought out an annulated tree boa.
On the first day of our adventure, we started off celebrating Brianna’s birthday with cupcakes and brownies. We were all really excited to begin our internship and learn from the Zoo’s experts and meet unique animals that are home to the Zoo. From left to right: Celine, Lucas, Claudia, Brianna, Julianna, Devin, and Emily.
Our first stop was to meet the Galapagos tortoises, where the average San Diego weather is similar to their natural environment near the equator. However, on cold nights or when their habitat is getting cleaned, they are enclosed in their heated barn. In this room, the tortoises get special treatment, as the heated floors, which range from the 70’s-80’s, help keep the tortoises happy and comfortable.
Reptile keeper, Mr. Gilson starts his day at 7 a.m. at the Zoo. Mr. Gilson started working in the reptile department in college. When asked what his favorite part about his job was he said, “Two things I like most are doing keeper talks giving people the opportunity to interact with [the animals.]” Instead of being a full time keeper, Mr. Gilson is also an educator for the Zoo. He is able to interact with both people and animals, where he teaches people about the animals he works with.
There are 14 total Galapagos tortoises that live at the Zoo. Males and females are separated to prevent random breeding. The oldest tortoise at the Zoo is Speedy, who is believed to be currently 150 years old. Unfortunately, Speedy wasn’t able to join us, as he suffers from arthritis in colder weather and was separated from the group to ensure he was getting enough to eat during feeding times.
During our time with the Galapagos tortoises, we got the opportunity to feed them dinner, which consisted of romaine lettuce and kale. At the Zoo, the tortoises also enjoy eating yams, carrots, apples, and watermelon. Galapagos tortoises don’t have a good sense of smell, so they often rely on their eyes to find food. This is why tortoises are attracted to bright colors, and why they were attracted to fellow intern Devin’s bright blue shoe laces.
Not only did we feed these guys dinner, but we also had the opportunity to pet them, as they love to be scratched on their necks. We had to be watchful of their whereabouts because they would often sneak up behind us. Galapagos tortoises are well known for their size and can grow up to 6 feet long and are about 4 feet tall. As we can see compared to fellow intern Brianna, they are gigantic!
Next, interns entered the Klauber-Shaw Reptile House, but little did we know we were entering a hot and humid reptile environment, which is about 84 degrees Fahrenheit with a 70% humidity level. The humid, hot environment is the natural habitat that these reptiles need in order to survive and thrive in captivity.
This annulated tree boa is demonstrating how this species of snakes grips to trees, which is where they spend most of their time. As you can see, the brown coloring helps the snake to camouflage from predators and to conceal its whereabouts from its prey. Even though this snake isn’t venomous, keepers learn to hold snakes and it takes 6 months of training in order to interact with venomous animals.
This room is the inside of what we see behind the glass barriers in the reptile room. It houses amphibians and tadpoles, many not seen to the viewers outside. The sensitivity of amphibians’ skin is completely different than reptiles. Amphibian’s have very thin skin, which means they quickly absorb things in their environment, including harmful chemicals. That is why keepers must be very careful before they touch any amphibian to not transfer any harmful chemicals including lotions, soaps, and sanitizer.
As we looked around at the amphibians in their enclosures, I was especially interested in the golden poison dart frog, which is native to Northern parts of South America. Their poison is so strong that holding one can make you nauseous, while eating one has enough poison to kill three humans. However, this species of frog at the Zoo is not poisonous. They are only toxic because of their diet in the wild, which consists of ants. Once they eat the ants, their body synthesizes the toxins that cause them to be poisonous.
The exhibit for the tadpoles uses an aquatic system that filters the water. What’s special about this system is that it allows the same water to be circulated throughout all the tanks so the same temperature and chemicals will flow through each compartment. When the tadpole is in the last stages of development, it is moved to a gradient environment where there is half land, half water. The structure creates a slope, making it an easier transition for the frog.
Julianna, Photo Team
Winter Session 2015