Do You Have The Koalafications?

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

Koala babies “joeys” are very different from other babies. When they are born, they are about the size of a jellybean and use a spit trail left by the mother to crawl into the pouch itself. This joey is very lively, even being seen jumping about its habitat.

Do you love koalas? So does Jennifer Tobey, a Researcher at San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG). Ms. Tobey has worked for SDZG for 23 years, but she wasn’t always a researcher. Ms. Tobey spent her first five years at the Zoo working as a keeper with primates, large carnivores, and other animals such as sun bears. She isn’t limited by the official title – she is an animal behaviorist by trade and works with many behavioral ecologists, which comes in handy when she works in the field. Ms Tobey says one of the most important things about her job is knowing how to design a research experiment, a skill she learned in college and graduate school. She got her undergraduate degree in biology and psychology with an emphasis on animal behavior from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. Ms.Tobey also has a minor in anthropology and master’s in psychology from California State University San Marcos. She first got involved in the animal world by cleaning enclosures at a natural history museum. A lot has changed since then – she did her thesis on insect foraging of Geoffroy’s marmosets, she has worked with well known field researchers and koala conservationists, and she now plays a big part in the largest koala breeding program outside of Australia. 

Interns feel the difference between koala and kangaroo pelts. The koala is rough and coarse, while a kangaroo has a soft, fluffy pelt. This is in large part due to the difference in diet and habitat. 

Throughout her years of dedicated service working as a researcher, Ms. Tobey has developed many skills allowing her to excel at her job. Having an open mind, being able to analyze data, knowing how to design research experiments, along with having first hand experience interacting with animals from a young age, are attributes that have helped Ms. Tobey succeed. She also believes that the skills one learns in school, such as critical thinking, leadership, problem solving and communication, are equally as important as on the job experience. These skills are the foundation that can be applied to multiple aspects in any field you choose. For those interested in pursuing a career working with animals, Ms. Tobey recommends majoring in biology, animal science, or psychology. Being able to understand animal behavior and anatomy is crucial for being a researcher, but having experience with animals is also extremely beneficial. Ms. Tobey recommends volunteering at animal shelters such as the humane society, volunteering at zoos or getting involved in internships such as the San Diego Zoo InternQuest.

A distinct difference between a male and female koala is the scent gland present on the male’s chest. This gland makes the fur turn a dirty brown color and when ready to mate, the male will strut around marking the trees where a suitable mate is residing. Each male has a unique scent, special to the individual.

Ms. Tobey has worked with many different species over the course of her career. One of her primary focuses right now is helping koala populations through the recent Australian wildfires. She and her coworkers spend time in Australia monitoring koala health and their populations. She believes that caring for the animals that are left will greatly benefit future populations. For example, people living near koala habitat are setting up food and water drops around their property to help with recovery efforts for the animals left. For those of us who can’t make direct contributions to the koalas in Australia, Ms. Tobey recommends general things like minimizing our plastic usage or recycling, to help reduce our carbon footprint. She also recommends volunteering at the Zoo or other local grassroots organizations where you can help monitor other endangered species populations.

Koalas are most commonly found along the eastern coastal and mountain ranges of Australia. In comparison, the range of natural habitat would be from the Canadian-American border all the way down to Baja California.

Koalas have a home range that is approximately 1,800 miles along the eastern coast of Australia. There is one species of koala, but subspecies vary in appearance based on their geographic range. The koalas at the Zoo are from north eastern Australia, which are smaller so that they are able to handle the hot weather. One population of koalas that Ms. Tobey has been researching, live in five locations within the Blue Mountains (southeastern Australia). She has been working with Dr. Kelly Lee, a researcher in-country, to locate, study, and analyze this population. They take blood samples, weights, measurements, then place an accelerometer (like a Fitbit) on the koalas so that they are able to track their movement. This data helps researchers to understand the complexity of koala behavior, range, and the threats they face. They have a few predators such as foxes, but generally stay safe when they’re in the tall branches of eucalyptus trees. Due to the major fires in Australia this past year, the koala population has decreased significantly. After the fires, three of the five locations being studied were completely destroyed, meaning these are no longer suitable habitats for the koalas. Not only that, but researchers have not been allowed to explore certain areas in the Blue Mountains because it is too dangerous. Thus, it’s not exactly known how many koalas are left, but we do know they need our help.

The interns were given the opportunity to radio-track a “koala”. Researchers are placing radio identifiers on the wild koalas in order to track their movements. This is used to secure their safety and track their behavior.

When looking at the news about the Australian wildfires and its devastation, things may seem bleak but it’s not all dark. There are people like Ms. Tobey and her associates who are working to help this species, and even you can make a difference by reducing your carbon footprint. Her research continues to positively impact koala conservation by allowing us to further understand the complexity of the species, to better save them and their habitat. Her passion, love for animals, and dedication to conservation is obvious as she continues to help further the koalas’ cause. 

The interns pose with Ms. Tobey while holding the radio tracker. Conservation is very important, as it is the only option wild koalas have left. Fires have devastated Australia, and to help with the efforts, Ms. Tobey recommends reducing your use of plastic and conserving water.

Week Four
Winter Session 2020

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