OKC Zoo and Nature Conservancy create research partnership

The OKC Zoo and The Nature Conservancy are working together to preserve Oklahoma habitats and wildlife, including Great Blue Herons. (Mike Fuhr / The Nature Conservancy / provided)

The OKC Zoo and The Nature Conservancy are working together to preserve Oklahoma habitats and wildlife, including Great Blue Herons. (Mike Fuhr / The Nature Conservancy / provided)

The Oklahoma City Zoological Park and Botanical Garden and The Nature Conservancy have formed a five-year partnership designed to monitor and preserve natural habitats in several of the conservancy’s Oklahoma preserves.

The zoo provides funds that the conservancy uses to gather data useful to both groups.

Three projects have already been started this year. A small mammal survey, like an inventory, is being conducted in the conservancy’s preserve near Ada, the Oka’Yanahli, which means “flowing water” in Chickasaw. Zoo funding enabled the conservancy to hire a University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) biology professor to complete the work.

A second project enables the conservancy to engage another UCO faculty member to gauge the frequency and history of fires in the Hottonia Bottoms preserve in southern Oklahoma.

“Scientists can look at tree rings from stumps on the preserve and identify fire scars within the rings,” said Jay Pruett, The Nature Conservancy director of conservation. “Scientists can then tell us when historic fires have occurred, which helps us prescribe controlled burns for maintenance of the land.”

The third project underway monitors the Ranavirus and Chytrid fungus in amphibians in the Oka’Yanahli and Pontotoc Ridge preservations.

“These diseases have caused extinctions in the tropics, so it’s important that they are closely monitored,” said Dr. Rebecca J. Snyder, curator of conservation and science at the zoo.

At present, there is no need to deploy disease-combating tactics, so researchers mainly take samples from animals and then release them back into their habitat.

“The zoo now has six legacy conservation partners. This partnership with The Nature Conservancy is important because it’s a local project,” Snyder said. “We were looking for a way to enhance the conservation of native species. We are able to fund these partnerships with resources from the [Oklahoma] Zoological Society, generated primarily through zoo memberships.”

The partnership gives the conservancy annual, unrestricted $20,000 grants for five years. Anyone at The Nature Conservancy can submit a project for consideration.

The ones that are the most useful and of interest to both agencies tend to rise to the top of the list.

Pruett is thrilled with the new partnership.

“We had been working informally with the zoo,” he said. “When we found, for example, research opportunities, we would work together. When new people began managing the zoo, they came to us and wanted to discuss this partnership. We really liked the idea, and we know that the partnership is strengthened by both of our organizations’ commitment to conservation.”

Oklahoma preserves protect habitats and wildlife, including cottontail rabbits. (Steven Hunter / The Nature Conservancy / provided)

Oklahoma preserves protect habitats and wildlife, including cottontail rabbits. (Steven Hunter / The Nature Conservancy / provided)

The Nature Conservancy manages 13 nature preserves in Oklahoma totaling about 70,000 acres.

Snyder encourages regular people to take small steps in their daily lives to help protect and conserve the environment. She suggests recycling, composting, using cloth grocery bags and trying to throw away as little as possible. We can all help pollinators easily, too.

“Everyone can plant pollinator-friendly plants in their gardens, like butterfly bushes or milkweed,” Snyder said. “Every milkweed planted makes a difference.”

Together, the zoo and the conservancy hope to make a significant difference for the state.

Print headline: Natural allies, OKC Zoo and Nature Conservancy team up for research.

Christine Eddington

This article was written by an Oklahoma Gazette contributor. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story's headline in your subject line.

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