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Category — CREW

A Case Study to Conserve Trillium: Can The Seeds Survive Drying?

Guest blogger: Courtney Dvorsky, CREW Plant Lab Intern

Growing up in Cincinnati, my love for conservation research grew each time I visited the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.  As a kid, I attended summer camps, and in 2008 and 2009, I was a VolunTeen.  Now, seven years later, I had the amazing opportunity to be an Intern with the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) plant division!  The project I worked on, funded by the Association of Zoo Horticulture (AZH), focused on determining if seed banking could be an option to help conserve some of the endangered trillium species.

Courtney Dvorsky working in the plant lab

Courtney Dvorsky working in the plant lab

There are many species within the Trillium genus of spring wildflowers, most of which are native to North American woodlands. With three petals, three sepals and three leaves, they are commonly called trinity flowers. Many trillium species, including the Ohio state wildflower, the white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), still thrive in the wild. There are others, however, that are threatened or endangered such as the persistent trillium (Trillium persistens).

White trillium (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

White trillium (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

My first task was to set up germination trials to compare germination in soil with germination in vitro (in tissue culture) for several different trillium species.  Many trillium seeds have a double dormancy, meaning they need two cold periods to germinate entirely.  Thus, it takes about two years for a seed to germinate into a trillium seedling.  Unfortunately, as a result, I won’t see germination while I am at CREW.

Trillium seeds were planted in soil boxes for germination

Trillium seeds were planted in soil boxes for germination

My second task was to determine if the seeds could withstand drying in order to be seed banked.  Seeds that are banked must be under 20% moisture content so we began by analyzing the initial moisture in the seeds directly out of a fruit pod.  We then dried the seeds to different moisture levels using air, silica gel, and three humidity levels created in containers with three different saturated salt solutions (NaCl, MgCl, and LiCl).

Desiccators, in which trillium seeds were dried to different moisture levels in this study

Desiccators, in which trillium seeds were dried to different moisture levels in this study

After the seeds were dried, we analyzed them for moisture content and viability using a stain known as TTC (triphenyl tetrazolium chloride). If the seed is still viable, it will stain red. If the seed is not viable, it will not stain at all. So far we succeeded in drying the seeds to under the 20% moisture content needed for seed banking; however, they are often not viable. CREW is running more tests to try to repeat these results in the months to come.

Trillium seeds tested for viability with TTC. Living seeds stain red; dead seeds remain white.

Trillium seeds tested for viability with TTC. Living seeds stain red; dead seeds remain white.

Unfortunately, my time as an intern has come to an end. Luckily, I will be just a short distance away working on my PhD at Miami University of Ohio, so I will be able to check in on my seeds. Here’s hoping for some germination!

August 18, 2016   4 Comments

CREW Plant Lab Intern Helps Save Endangered Oaks

Guest blogger: Christina Del Greco, CREW Plant Lab Intern

Hi!  My name is Christina Del Greco. I’m a college sophomore studying biology at the University of Notre Dame. Thanks to a grant from the Association of Zoological Horticulture (AZH), I had the wonderful opportunity to be a plant lab intern with the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) this summer.

Christina Del Greco

Christina Del Greco

As a CREW intern, I worked on the oak tree conservation project. Scientists store seeds in seed banks for many plants, especially endangered ones, as a precaution in case the wild population of a plant gets too low. However, you can’t do that for oak trees, as the acorns don’t stay viable if they are frozen. This means that there has to be another way to build up a bank of oak tissue. CREW has been pursuing oak stem tip culturing, in which the tips of oak seedlings are put into test tubes filled with media meant to help the plants grow. This way, we can store test tubes of seedlings instead of acorns.

The problem is there are so many different types of media with different concentrations of various nutrients the plants need, and each species grows differently than the others. My main project was to work on a Design of Experiments (DOE—a statistical method of setting up experiments) project in which 26 different types of media are used for four different oak species to compare growth on different media and gather data in order to compare them.

Oak shoots after one month of growth on different media

Oak shoots after one month of growth on different media

I took pictures of each of the plants after one month in culture, and then again after two months in culture. I also kept track of things such as whether the plants were infected by bacteria or fungus, how tall they grew, if the medium they were in turned brown, if any leaves were growing, and more.  All of these variables are able to potentially tell us something about what makes the oaks grow better or worse.

The data is sent to a collaborator at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who knows far more about statistics than I do, and he can use the results to determine if any of the particular nutrients had a noticeable effect on the growth of the oaks. In the future, once all of the statistical results come back, we can use that data to create what we hope to be the optimal medium on which an oak shoot can grow.

Oak seedlings in the CREW greenhouse

Oak seedlings in the CREW greenhouse

I worked on a few smaller side projects as well. One was to try and determine at what point you should trim off the tip of an oak seedling to put it in the medium. Generally, we clip off the stem tips relatively early in the plant’s development, but there has never been any consistency, so I chose three relative stages in three different species and put them in culture to see which one grew best.

I also started a few petri dishes to try to initiate somatic embryogenesis, which is a process in which we try to force plants to make embryos by placing non-embryonic parts of the plant (somatic tissue), such as small leaves, on a special medium in the dark to try and force an embryo to form on its own.

Small oak leaves used to initiate somatic embryogenesis

Small oak leaves used to initiate somatic embryogenesis

And, when an incredibly old red oak tree fell in the middle of the Zoo, I had the opportunity to collect samples to see if there was any way we could regrow the tree in the future, allowing me the opportunity to use all of the methods I had learned about at once.

I learned so much over this internship. Besides learning all sorts of new lab techniques, I had no idea there were so many different ways to try and conserve different species of plants. I also didn’t know that there are so many different endangered oak trees. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to work at CREW for the summer and learn all about conservation efforts both here and at zoos and botanical gardens all over the world.

August 16, 2016   2 Comments

The Power of Connections: Endangered Species Day

Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters

There are currently 16,306 plants and animals listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That’s more people than visit our Zoo on a typical spring day.

It’s Endangered Species Day, so you might hear a lot of shocking numbers like this, which could understandably put a damper on your day. If you wanted to make a difference, which of the 16,000+ would you even choose to start with? Well, you don’t have to choose. All plant and animal life is interconnected, which means that by taking small actions that support a healthy ecosystem, you can benefit all species, including our own!

If you’re visiting our blog, you’re probably passionate about animals and the environment. That passion gives you power. Let’s look at how you can harness your power to make Endangered Species Day the start of significant change.

What does “endangered” actually mean?

It’s a good idea to first understand what we mean by the term. In the 1990s, the IUCN developed the Red List of Threatened Species™, widely recognized as the standard for evaluating a plant or animal’s risk of extinction. They rank species along a continuum from “least concern,” to “vulnerable,” followed by “endangered,” the more serious “critically endangered,” and finally, “extinct.” Watch this video to learn more.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also maintains a list of endangered species, as do state and local agencies. Around our Zoo and others, you might see signs that display an animal’s IUCN classification. For example, you’ll see that the red pandas are considered “vulnerable,” while the black rhinos are “critically endangered.”

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Taking action

As we’ve said, one positive environmental action holds the potential to affect a lot of different areas. We’re all living on the same planet, so shopping with reusable bags here in Cincinnati really does have ripple effects for polar bears in the Arctic!

Here at the Zoo, you can bring us your old cell phone for recycling, which reduces the need for mining metals in endangered gorilla habitat to make new ones. Go a step further by collecting phones at your school or around your neighborhood.

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

You can also support our many conservation field efforts. Cheetahs, western lowland gorillas, and keas are just a few of the species we’re actively involved with conserving in the wild. When we work to protect these animals’ habitats, we also benefit countless other species with whom they share space.

You don’t need to limit your choices to those you can carry out at the Zoo. Change can begin in your own backyard…literally. Plant native plant species in your yard. They’ll attract native insects which, in turn, will attract other native species that eat them, and native species that eat them. More pollinating insects means more native plants and, you see, the cycle really gets going!

Good news

As a team, organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), like ours, have made strides in restoring more than 30 species to healthy wild populations, including the American bison, the California condor and a variety of aquatic species. (Read more about AZA efforts here.)

There has been good news just over the past year. In 2015, the IUCN moved the Iberian lynx from “critically endangered” to the less severe “endangered.” The Guadalupe fur seal went from “threatened” down to “least concern.” The global community has taken new interest in restricting trophy hunting thanks, in part, to the publicity surrounding Cecil the lion’s tragic death. Change can happen.

And just last week, we received good news for a critically endangered species that is near and dear to our hearts, the Sumatran rhino. A female rhino calf was born on May 12 at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Indonesia. The calf’s father, Andalas, was born here at the Zoo in 2001 and moved to the SRS in 2007. With fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos left on the planet, this birth is significant for the species, and we are proud to have played a part in it.

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

There are infinite choices you can make to promote positive change, but you’ll be most successful if you start with one or two that really speak to you. You’ll help ensure that currently endangered animals are still around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy and, more importantly, you’ll improve life on Earth for all of us.

And be sure to tell your friends and family. The power of your passion is contagious!

“The quality of our life on this earth is dependent on how we treat the rest of life on Earth. We have a moral responsibility to look after the rest of the world, the future of which now lies in our hands.”  –David Attenborough

May 20, 2016   2 Comments