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Category — Education

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

Pondering the Coexistence of People and Wildlife on World Lion Day

Today is World Lion Day, a day to celebrate one of the most majestic and revered creatures on Earth. It is also a day to recognize that we need to take action to ensure the African lion population, with fewer than 20,000 lions remaining, has a future in the wild.

(Photo: Jeff McCurry)

(Photo: Jeff McCurry)

In the South Rift Valley of Kenya, lion populations are growing, while elsewhere across the continent, they are in severe decline. The difference is testament to a human-wildlife coexistence approach taken by the Maasai South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO) out of the Lale’enok Resource Centre.

At the heart of the program is a cadre of local Maasai who are employed as Resource Assessors (RA) to collect and apply ecological information directly relevant to community livelihoods, conservation and development. For example, the Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs monitor lion activity daily through various tracking methods. They share the information with local livestock herders, which enables the herders to make informed decisions on where to graze with minimal chance of conflict with lions.

The Resource Assessors team at Lale'enok Resource Centre

The Resource Assessors team at Lale’enok Resource Centre

Over the past nine years, the Cincinnati Zoo has supported the growth and innovation of the Centre and its programs. This past year, thanks to a grant through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Grants Fund and Disney Conservation Fund, the Zoo supported the training of Resource Assessors to develop new, effective ways to collect and communicate information about human-wildlife coexistence to communities in the South Rift.

In June, the Zoo’s COO, David Jenike, and I traveled to the South Rift to lead a Community Educators Workshop for the RAs. The purpose of the workshop was to train the RAs on how to more effectively share and disseminate the information they collect to the local community, schoolchildren and visiting international audiences. We spent several days with the group of 14 RAs, discussing and practicing education outreach and community engagement techniques and skills.

RAs work on developing an educational presentation during the workshop

RAs work on developing an educational presentation during the workshop

Following the workshop, Dave and I then taught the annual Kenya Earth Expeditions (EE) course. For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. The Kenya EE course focuses on co-existence between people and wildlife, and we spend the better part of our time in country working with the SORALO team at the Lale’enok Resource Centre. Having just completed the education workshop, the RAs were eager to try out their new communication skills with our EE students. They did a fabulous job, and I can’t wait to see how much more they develop over time.

The Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs teach Earth Expedition students how to track radio-collared lions

The Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs teach Earth Expedition students how to track radio-collared lions

Across the greater part of their range in Africa, lions are not faring as well as they are in the Kenya’s South Rift Valley. We hope that SORALO’s efforts to promote coexistence between people and lions can serve as a model for communities in other regions.

A radio-collared lioness named Nasha and her daughter being monitored by the RAs

A radio-collared lioness named Nasha and her daughter being monitored by the RAs

Here at the Zoo, we share the story of coexistence between people and wildlife on the African savannah with guests through our Africa exhibit and related education programs. The next time you visit, as you’re watching Henry and Bibi the hippos swim underwater, crushing on Cora the brand new baby giraffe, and admiring John and Imani the lions up close through the glass, I encourage you to reflect on the bigger picture. All of these animals you connect with at the Zoo have counterparts in the wild that rely on the capacity of our own human species to maintain a healthy planet and share our space with them.

Guests visit John and Imani in the Africa exhibit (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Guests visit John and Imani in the Africa exhibit (Photo: Mark Dumont)

August 10, 2016   1 Comment