Sowing the Seeds of a Brighter Future

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, then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Naomi_W2_picDid you know that San Diego County is the most biodiverse county in the continental United States? This means that we have the largest number of different native species living right in our backyards! Unfortunately, this incredible variety is slowly disappearing as development takes over much of the land, destroying natural habitat and displacing native wildlife populations. However, San Diego Zoo Global is determined to change this, and that’s where they bring in the expert assistance of Emily Howe.

Ms. Howe is a Research Coordinator for Plant Conservation at the Institute for Conservation Research, located next door to the Safari Park. Right now, she is working on a huge restoration project to bring back the native species at Lake Hodges in Escondido, CA.

Ms. Howe explained that in addition to human destruction, our natural coastal sage scrub ecosystem is disappearing because of frequent fires and overdevelopment. Though native San Diego habitats are well adapted to fire, with many plants needing the flames to stimulate seed dispersal and germination, wildfires should only come every 75 to 100 years. At this interval, plants have enough time to regenerate and store up reserves to withstand the next fire. When fires come back to back, like they have recently, native species don’t have enough time to prepare, and are killed in the blaze. This gives invasive species the perfect opportunity to fill in the open spots. These invaders, usually grass species from the Mediterranean basin, were brought hundreds of years ago by the first European settlers. These highly invasive species completely destroy San Diego’s amazing biodiversity, creating a monoculture where native species cannot survive.

Ms. Howe’s restoration project is working to bring back natural habitats. To do this, invasive species must first be weeded out. This is hard work, since they are usually removed by hand. Next, the native plants are brought back in. Typically, young plants are used instead of seeds, since they have a better chance of survival. As part of the restoration project, 25 different species of native plants are being reintroduced, with a total of 10,000 individuals being planted in just two years! The work will restore 25 acres of land for native wildlife and vegetation.

Even with large areas being converted back to the natural landscape, many animals, like pollinators and birds, struggle to find them, since they are so fragmented. That’s where you come in. By planting native species in your yard or community garden, you can create a link between the restored grounds. Animals may not be able to go directly between restored areas, but with smaller spots around them, they’ll have the opportunity to travel from one to the other. Along the way, they’ll pollinate and spread the seeds of native plants. Ms. Howe stressed the importance of this effort by San Diego residents: it is a critical part of keeping the newly reestablished ecosystem healthy.

With your help and the work of the team at San Diego Zoo Global’s division of Plant Conservation, we can restore the beautiful and unique ecosystem that once swept across this county. Let’s keep San Diego a biodiversity hotspot; it’s just one more thing that makes our city the finest in America.

Naomi, Conservation Team
Week Two, Fall 2015