Amphibians: The Alarm System of an Ecosystem

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 adventure here on the Zoo’s website! 

Lauren_W1_picOn Thursday, October 8, 2015, interns met with Peter Gilson, a Reptile Keeper and an Educator Guide at the San Diego Zoo. When Mr. Gilson started college at Point Loma Nazarene University, he received an internship at the San Diego Zoo to work with reptiles. After interning at the San Diego Zoo, Mr. Gilson realized he was passionate about teaching people about reptiles and amphibians. Later, Mr. Gilson worked at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research where he studied mountain yellow-legged frogs.  Did you know that the Galapagos tortoise have a special relationship with the keepers? The giant Galapagos tortoise likes to be scratched on its neck. In the wild, the Galapagos tortoise stretches out it’s neck for the finch to know it is safe to land. The finch then proceeds to eat off parasites from the tortoise. However at the San Diego Zoo, this process does not occur with the finches. The Galapagos tortoise still exhibits the behavior of extending its neck for the keeper to receive scratches. Similarly, cats exhibit the same behavior with their owners. Cats stretch out their necks to allow owners to scratch their chin.

As we toured the zoo, we went back behind the amphibian enclosures where they kept salamanders, frogs and other small reptiles, the enclosures stuck out of the wall looking like black space modules. On the back of each enclosure there is a sticky note that serves as a warning sign to notify the keeper about the amphibians who have a tendency to jump out or run and hide when the back enclosure door is opened. Additionally, these amphibians need moisture to survive. The keepers put moss in the bottom of each enclosure to help keep it cool and moist. Interestingly, amphibians and reptiles become stationary when the temperature rises and being too hot is more harmful than being too cool. If their enclosure became to hot, it can lead to brain damage just like leaving a small child in a hot car can lead to death or injury.

Amphibians are having a harder time adapting to changes in environmental conditions that occur in the air, water and land that are caused by burning of fossil fuels and runoff of fertilizer. It is believed that 33 percent of the known amphibians are threatened with extinction. In Southern California, we have many species newts and frogs that are affected by human actions. Humans contribute to the poor quality of air and water by using fertilizers and weed killer, which are harmful and can negatively affect amphibians. Frogs are extremely sensitive to the changes in the environment from their early stages as an egg and into their adulthood. Frog’s eggs have no protective outer shell to protect them from UV radiation or pollution such as the runoff of fertilizers and weed killer. As adults, frogs take in water and air through their skin. When they take in water and air, they can also take in pollution from the air, water and the land, which can kill the frogs over time. In addition to harsh chemicals used by people, chytrid fungus also affects amphibians. Chytrid fungus attacks the frog’s skin, which then makes it difficult for the amphibian to breathe. The San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research is on the forefront of studying and treating chytrid fungus in the wild. Zoos are able to determine and treat collections of frogs with chytrid fungus. However, the Panamanian golden frogs can no longer live in their natural habitats.

Why should you care? Amphibians are known as an indicator species. Indicator species serve as the alarm systems to the health of an ecosystem. If we continue to lose the amphibians in our ecosystem, it could lead to the extinction of other animals that use them as food source. To save amphibians, we should try and limit the use of fertilizer and pesticides. You can replace fertilizer with coffee grounds, orange peels or crushed up eggshells to provide extra nutrients for your plants. Instead of using harmful pesticides use epsom salts to kill and repel insects. Another alternative to harmful chemicals is a mixture of vinegar and lime juice. Simple tasks like these will help us save and protect amphibians.

Lauren, Real World Team
Week One, Fall Session 2015