Thursday, July 31, 2014

Overview of My Internship

The first post of my blog was asking why conserve? And why care about those species that are endangered? I know I have no PhD or have much experience in all of the areas I talked about, but I do hope that in what was said, it sparked a small fire of passion in you.
What I learned through my internship is that it's not just OUR world, it's also theirs (as in non-human animals). The rate at which our society and culture is going, we will continue to see a decline of such beautiful and majestic creatures and it will be our generation or maybe our kids who are to blame for their extinction. Now I don't know about you, but I don't want to just tell a story to my great grand children about how elephants once roamed the earth...I want them to be able to see them still, to form their own connection with this animal!
Although my internship has ended, I will not stop learning to conserve or how to help. It is my goal to someday work directly or indirectly with animals and help educate the public on their status in the wild.

“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
                                                                                                                                                                -Theodore Roosevelt

A Preview of Our Big Internship Project: Sargassum Saturdays

Throughout my eight week long internship with the Collegiate Conservation Program,

I've learned a variety of invaluable techniques and methods such as seining, bird banding, toad

tracking, prairie restoration, and coastal restoration. Additionally, I've learned of the

conservation efforts that are being conducted in the Houston area as well as along the Texas

coast. I learned about various conservation projects that the Houston Zoo is in partnership with

such as the Painted Dog Project, Niassa Lion Project, The Houston Toad Project and many more.

There was a common theme with all of these conservation projects that the interns agreed was

important in developing our own project. Each presenter suggested that in creating a

conservation project, it is key to not reinvent the wheel, but instead, build off of or improve upon

an already existing wheel.

The majority of our coastal work was located in Galveston participating in projects like

artificial oyster reef construction, Oyster Lake shoreline grass planting, trash pickup along the

shore, and removal of invasive species. Over the past two months, there has been talk about the

awful and foul odor of the seaweed, formally known as sargassum, that has washed onto

Galveston beaches. During our travels to Galveston, we experienced this negative connotation

associated with seaweed. However, when visiting NOAA's (National Oceanic and Atmospheric

Administration) sea turtle barn, we learned that the seaweed is crucial for the survival of sea

turtles. Although others may disagree, sargassum is beneficial in both the water for oceanic

ecosystems and for migratory birds when it is washes up on the shore.

Initially, our idea was to create a conservation project about sea turtles, but sticking to the

idea of not reinventing the wheel, we decided to work with something that both directly and

indirectly affects the ecosystem. Therefore, after interacting with beached sargassum and

learning about the benefits of sargassum in the water and on the beach we decided to develop a

conservation project that focused on educating beachgoers on sargassum. This past week we

focused on finishing our final paper and presentation on our Sargassum Saturday Mobile

Education Booth.

This project had a variety of challenges that ranged from delegating roles to narrowing

down the specific purpose and overall goal of our project. However, our biggest challenge was

researching information on sargassum and what Galveston was already doing to address the

problem The problem we wanted to address was the negative connotation associated with

seaweed. The overall goal of the project is to decrease the negative connotations linked to

sargassum and instill in the public a better understanding of its biology, importance, uses, and

impacts of its removal. The project's starting objective is to observe an increase in knowledge

about sargassum in 85% of those whom the project reaches. Our approach to completing this

objective is three-pronged. First, we will have a booth on a popular Galveston beach each

Saturday during the peak tourist season which we define as from Memorial Day weekend to

Labor Day weekend. Second, there will be three permanent signs installed on Stewart Beach, the

Seawall, and East Beach, the most visited beaches in Galveston. Our last component is the

Facebook page.

During our research, little public education efforts addressing the benefits of sargassum

or initiatives that Galveston is engaging in concerning sargassum are not readily available. We

concluded that educating the public and removing the prevailing negative connotations was the

most effective way to supplement what other stakeholders were already doing to improve the

current situation. The three-pronged education system is designed to maximize our project's total

outreach capacity. The mobile booth will serve as our direct, person-to-person interaction.

Facebook is an important avenue to utilize in educational initiatives. Sargassum Saturday's

Facebook page will supplement the booth both before and after someone visits it by providing

additional information, activities like #sargassumselfie, and useful links to stay connected with

visitors for continued education. Additionally, there will be an advertising component on the

Facebook page to inform visits of the location of the booth. Lastly, the signs will support the

effectiveness of both the booth and the Facebook page as the signs will include a QR code that

links to the Facebook page as well as including the Facebook page URL for those who don't

have the QR code application. Overall, each part of the project is linked to the others for a

thorough approach to environmental education. The success of the program will be measured by

tracking both booth attendance and hits on our Facebook page as well as through an interactive

sorting assessment game investigating the amount of information retained by booth visitors. We

hope that by increasing beachgoer’s knowledge concerning sargassum, there will be a decrease

in the negative perceptions and an increased acceptance of its presence on local beaches.

Sargassum Saturday's Mobile Education (SSME) Booth proposal was presented on the

last day of our internship, Thursday July 3rd, to various Houston Zoo staff members and an

Exxon Mobile representative. The overall reaction towards our proposal was positive. We had a

few suggestions and questions like what our future projections were and if we thought that

naming our booth Sargassum Saturdays furthered peoples negative perception and prevented

them from attending our booth. If we meet our 85% goal to educate those who we would interact

with on the beach, then we would hope to expand our mobile education booth a few miles North

and South of Galveston beaches. We hoped in naming our project Sargassum Saturdays that

would bring people to our educational booth in question of what is "sargassum"? Therefore, we

suggest that our name would bring beachgoers to our booth to learn more about this thing called

sargassum. A staff member from the herpetology department suggested that we also have

competitions on our Facebook page for those who can create the best seaweed beard or find the

most interesting creature in the seaweed.

Sea Center - The Last Leg of Our Journey

The last location we visited was a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regulated

facility, the Sea Center in Lake Jackson. Here we toured the facility and learned about their

conservation project in hatchery of speckled trout, red drum, and American flounder. These three

species are often over hunted and has led to a decrease in their population over the years. The

purpose of the center is to hatch several thousand fingerlings in 36 ponds and release them into

water systems where their parents were taken from. The importance of this is to maintain the

genetic diversity within the fresh water ecosystem. Although this project produces hundreds of

thousands of eggs of each species of fish, only about 40% of those fingerlings survive until the

next breeding season. The facility is constantly breeding the parent fishes. One might be

skeptical on how this can happen if there is a "breeding season", but the facility has researched

and has been successful with maintaining naturalistic breeding conditions all year around such as

temperature, light, and ratio of male to female. This success is only seen in red drum and

speckled trout. The facility is being challenge with the American flounder and has yet to find a

method to effectively breed them, although they do receive hatchlings ever so often. The thing I

enjoyed most about the trip was hearing that the facility pulls water from ten miles away in order

to provide the 36 ponds with real fresh water. This allows the zooplankton to infest the ponds

which is a popular food source for the hatchlings and fingerlings.

The Endangered Golden Frog, Atelopus zeteki.

The Golden Frog is a terrestrial species that resides in tropical montane forests while their breeding and larval development takes place in forest streams. The Golden Frog is native to Panama and was put on the critical endangered species list in 2004. Several factors are responsible for the declining population such as deforestation, water pollution, and over collection for the pet trade. But the major threat that has the greatest impact on their population is chytridiomycosis, which is commonly known as chytrid fungus. Chris, the head of the zoos herpetology department, doesn't conduct research on them particularly, he primarily takes descriptive survey's on their population such as the location where they were found, how many in the population, if they are adults or juveniles, etc. He focused his surveying on only four sites although there are potentially more sites in Panama where they can be found. The cause of chytrid is in amphibians is still undeclared and that poses a challenge in conserving this species.

This species is just one of many other endangered animals that remains in the wild that the zoo partners with and plays a role in helping to conserve and protect.

Brief Synopsis of Veterinarians as Conservationists

We had a presentation from two PEER program students at Texas A&M Veterinary

Medicine and Biomedical Sciences about their roles as veterinarians in the conservation world.

As veterinarians, the oath "do no harm" is one that they take into account at all costs and in all

circumstances (i.e. in events like rescues and slaughter houses). In addition, veterinarians have

roles in events such as natural disasters, oil spill clean ups, beach turtle conservation, and

wildlife rescue centers. At the A&M vet school, the students, as part of their curriculum,

participate in attending to rescued wildlife at the Winnie Carter Wildlife Center. The purpose of

the facility is to introduce students to the management, handling, behavior, and vet care of exotic

and wildlife species, where exotic animals are those who are non-natives to an ecosystem and

wildlife animals are those that are native. Although the idea about veterinarians participating in

conservation efforts is not common, it is something that has to be active when thinking about

saving an endangered species. They are responsible for understanding the anatomy and

physiology of a species which is important for things such as reintroduction and husbandry.

Gulf Coast Bird Observatory

Breakdown of the day:
-Learned about bird banding
-Guided tour of the facility
-Work in the Native Plant Nursery

Learning how to release a banded bird

 Profession banders showing off a juvenile cardinal

 Yellow crowned night heron 

We took a trip down to the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, a non-profit organization in Lake Jackson, Texas. The organization serves as a critical stopover habitat for multiple migratory species that range from humming birds, to cardinals, to Carolina wrens and many more.  The estimated number of land bird species at the facility is about 296 birds. Ornithologists have known that the coastal Gulf of Mexico is crucial for migratory birds, specifically neartic-neotropical birds. However, due to a lack of understanding of migratory birds, past conservationists across the U.S. focused on the loss of breeding habitat, or threats on wintering grounds, never on migration. Therefore the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory is dedicated to studying the conservation of birds and their habitats in and around the Gulf. The program has acquires property that they wish to restore to a condition that renders it suitable for migratory birds.
When we arrived, the facility had two permitted workers, Robert and Kay Lookingbill, banding birds that were caught in bird trapping nets set up in various locations around the property. This process, just like the toad tracking, was particularly interesting to me because the information that was gathered (weight, wing length, male/female, body fat) is used for numerous projects and research. All of the data is inputted into a general data system by an individual with a permit and can be accessed by permit holders and non-permit holders. This system is of value because it makes recovery of past data very accessible especially for migratory birds. The highlight of this day was being able to witness the tagging of a yellow crowned night heron because this was the facilities first band on this species. , Kay stated the process for getting permitted to band birds is difficult and that an individual would have to take countless classes and learn the techniques and tools as well as be able to identity all of the bird species within a particular ecosystem. After that, they would have to take a test to receive their permit that is valid for 2 years at a time. To re-apply, a bird bander has to write a report that shows accurate and organized record keeping of jobs done in the past.
Once the permit was received, they would have to work alongside an experienced bander until they proved that they could band the bird properly, without hurting them as well as keep detailed and accurate record keeping of each bird that was caught.  Robert and Kay received their first permit in 2002 and have just started practicing private bird banding about 4 or 5 years ago. Thus, if an individual wished to tag birds, Robert and Kay suggested that they have the time to learn and the commitment to stick with it, because it takes years of experience to be able to receive a permit to band without an instructor.

Toad Tracking Technique

Toad tracking was an alternative activity that we participated in around the zoo this week and was without a doubt, the highlight of my week A few zookeepers from the herpetology department that specifically work with the Houston Toads taught us how they track and record toads in the wild for research, surveys, and record keeping. This particularly interested me because I have never tracked any type of animal before. The things that we recorded were its body length, head width, weight, where it was found, and if there were any abnormalities. Due to us tracking these toads so early in the night, before dusk, the zookeepers and some of their interns placed twenty-two fake rubber toads around the zoo for the Collegiate Conservation Program interns to track. Although they weren't real, we were still required to follow the same protocol as if they were real toads. The herpetology interns hid them in locations where one would expect them to found in the wild i.e. near the reflection pond, behind rocks, partially buried in soil, etc. This mock experience was worth it. It gave us insight on what we would expect to do in the field. They were all difficult to find, they differed in size and color, and not all of them were found. Dusk fell and we were out for about an hour and a half and didn't encounter a real toad until we were headed back to the conference room where we saw a Gulf Coast Toad. Although the Gulf Coast Toad is not an endangered species, the Houston Toad is and it is important perfect toad tracking, specifically with this species. The chips that the Houston Zoo toad staff and the researchers at Texas State University use often fall out when the toad disposes of their waste or molt which pose great difficulties when trying to track the toads. A method that was used in the past was to clip their toes to signify a specific number. However, removing some of their digits has been frowned upon and some research articles have suggested that it negatively impacts their well being and leads to shorter life spans than if they had all their digits.

I didn't go into detail about the conservation of the Houston Toad, but it should go without saying that this species is endangered due to the loss of their habitat and a disease that causes them to essentially suffocate causing their death.

To learn more, here are a few links to interesting and informative sites:
Houston Zoo
Texas Parks & Wildlife
Biodiversity Works

Weighing and measuring plastic frogs

Difficult to see, but the only real toad of the night, caught by yours truly.
It's a Gulf Coast Toad. Sorry for the poor quality!
We had to wear plastic gloves while handling real toads. If we had found more real toads, we would have to change them each time we encountered a new one to reduce the chances of spreading disease.