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!
On Thursday, interns had the opportunity to discover the reptile department at the San Diego Zoo. Peter Gilson, a Reptile Keeper and Educator Guide, revealed what it truly means to be a part of the reptile department. Interns visited the Galápagos tortoises, met an Anegada ground iguana, toured the behind the scenes area of the amphibian exhibits, and explored the Klauber-Shaw Reptile House.
Mr. Gilson started working for the Zoo as a program aid working with summer camps. He graduated form Point Loma Nazarene University with a bachelor’s in environmental science. Mr. Gilson has also worked at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, studying mountain yellow-legged frogs and Caribbean rock iguanas. He now works as an educator guide and loves sharing stories about some of the amazing animals found around the world. He has always been interested in herpetology, the study of reptiles, and encourages those wanting a similar career to have a broad and solid education on a variety of reptiles and amphibians as well as a lot of experience working around these types of animals.
This is one of the Zoo’s Galápagos tortoises resting in the shade. The two found in this enclosure are believed to be around 120 years old, and are named Abigail and Grandma. A Galápagos tortoise can measure up to 6 feet long, 4 feet wide, and weigh up to 600 pounds. These two have a top speed of about 4 miles a day and eat a variety of grasses, as well as carrots, watermelon, and yams. These tortoises are native to the Galápagos Islands in habitats anywhere from grassy open areas to rocky volcanic outcroppings. Even though these tortoises have no natural predators on the islands, they are listed as endangered due to hunting by humans and invasive species.
Pictured above, two interns scratching a Galápagos tortoise’s neck in what is called the “finch response”. This response is common to Galápagos tortoises because in their natural habitat, these tortoises form a mutually beneficial relationship with a species of finch. The finch will tap on a tortoise’s shell, signaling the tortoise to expose its neck. Various bugs and parasites can be found on a tortoise, which could cause them harm. When the tortoise exposes its neck, the finch swoops in and begins to eat the bugs.
Pictured above is an Anegada ground iguana named Gus. The Anegada ground iguana is native to the limestone reefs of the Anegada Island in the Caribbean. This species of iguana is critically endangered, with an estimated population size of 200 individuals. The main problems include habitat degradation from livestock, and the introduction of feral dogs and cats that prey on them. Gus is about 26 years old, and is currently working on target training, where he is rewarded for placing his nose on a red target. This training is important because it can be used to move animals without stressing them out. These iguanas are fairly intelligent as they are good at recognizing colors and some can even recognize their own name.
A Kaiser newt is an endangered species of amphibian found in only four streams in Iran’s Zagros Mountains. One large problem with this species, and many other species of amphibians, is the pet trade. People will capture these animals in their natural habitats, and then, sell them to pet stores around the world. These newts have been over collected, and in the last ten years, more than 80% of their population has disappeared. Of the more than 6,000 known amphibian species, at least one third of them are thought to be endangered.
Pictured above, interns explore the back room that has a wide variety of amphibians and reptiles. The Zoo has about 1,300 reptiles and amphibians that are under the care of the keepers in the reptile department. While they spend less time on maintenance, the keepers spend at least an hour in the morning just checking on the couple hundred of animals they are in charge of. There are many more animals off exhibit than on exhibit, so there was a lot to look at in this back room.
In each of these green aquariums are many different species of tadpoles. Some are so small that one could fit five of them on their fingernail. A filtration system is attached to each of the aquariums, allowing the tadpoles to experience the same temperature to ensure consistency. As they grow, they are moved to different aquariums that have a land portion as well, until they are fully grown and only have land.
Pictured above is a young Panamanian golden frog in its exhibit. The Panamanian golden frog is the national animal of Panama, and it represents good luck. Brightly colored, this frog is toxic and predators should be wary if they want to make a quick meal out of one.
This is an adult Panamanian golden frog. As the frog grows older, the color becomes darker until it reaches a golden orange color. These frogs are extinct in the wild because of the chytrid fungus, which is fungus that attacks the skin of amphibians. Being that amphibians breathe through their skin, this fungus is often times a death sentence unless the frog receives immediate care. Once infected, the amphibian will die in a week. The San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation is the best place in the nation for testing amphibians to see if they are infected. Huge precautions are taken when moving amphibians around the nation or between countries as this fungus has been found in North, Central and South America as well as Africa, Europe, and Eastern Asia.
Mr. Gilson is showing interns a variety of tools used to care for the reptiles at the Zoo. Some venomous snakes, like the spitting cobra, require the keepers to wear a face shield. The spitting cobra is able to spit venom into the eyes of a predator, causing the predator to become blind. The keepers wear these face shields when they are in direct contact with the snakes to ensure their safety.
Inside the incubation room in the Reptile House, there are a lot of boxes with reptile eggs. Artificial incubation is the most efficient way of incubating reptile eggs as it ensures a constant temperature. The box pictured above holds the egg for a flat-tail tortoise. This egg is special because the egg needs to go through diapause in order to hatch. Diapause is like hibernation for an egg, so this egg needs to be heated and then cooled for a specific amount of time. After the time is up, it needs to be brought back to a warmer temperature in order to hatch. If the egg is not brought back up to temperature at the right time, it will not hatch. The egg can then be cooled again for a year and the keepers can try to bring it back up to temperature at the right time again. It takes between 8 and 10 months for this egg to hatch.
These two tortoises are young flat-tailed tortoises. Their specie’s egg was pictured earlier. Some of the eggs in the incubation room have temperature dependent sex determination. This means that the temperature at which the eggs are incubated determines the sex of the reptile. This is very helpful when it comes to breeding because if there is already a surplus of males, the temperature can be adjusted to increase the chances of more females being hatched in the next generation.
Mr. Gilson is holding a Caiman lizard named Pitufo. She is an animal ambassador used to teach the public. Her name is Pitufo, the Spanish word for smurf, because she is smaller than the average Caiman lizard. The Caiman lizard is a distant cousin of the tegu, another heavy bodied lizard. They are native to South America and share their name with the caiman because of their similar characteristics.
Kylie, Photo Team
Week One, Fall 2015