Geared up for Science

Have you ever wondered why something is the way it is or have a theory that explains it? Why are there sudden traffic congestions with no apparent reason? Questions and hypotheses are what drive science. But getting the answers can be difficult and take time. It requires a robust study design with appropriate controls and a representative number of data points to infer significance.

The desert tortoise project I am working on is in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Desert Tortoise Recovery Office. The goal is to determine if the benefit of removing stretches of fencing in the Mojave Desert will outweigh the risks. Some benefits would be improved connectivity of species in this range and providing a countermeasure to continued fragmentation and repurposing of the habitat. The risk factor we are investigating is disease.

Many of the tortoises inside the fenced area were translocated there as part of a recovery strategy. They include numerous tortoises from the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) that was managed by San Diego Zoo from 2009 until its closure end of 2014. The disease exposure history and current health status of both populations may be different. Therefore, allowing populations from either side of the fence to mix may result in disease agents being transferred or even result in a disease outbreak situation.

To assess this disease risk we are investigating the health status of both populations and testing individuals for exposure and presence of specific disease agents of concern such as mycoplasma. The field crews have been great in collecting data. They have performed many, many health assessments and obtained numerous samples. Field biologists performing health assessments are required to have specialized training and experience. This ensures that health assessments are performed in a standardized fashion and with minimal impact on the wild creatures.

All the hundreds of health records of are being compiled and “cleaned” to get them ready for analysis. It is wonderful and reassuring to see that the data being collected from so many team members is handled meticulously. Now the exciting journey of evaluating the data for answers begins.