A conversation with Megan Owen, associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology division of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.
By Katharine Gore
(Photo: Megan Owen)
Megan Owen has been working at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research for the past 18 years. She is currently an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology division, where she oversees conservation and research programs for bear species. Owen works with giant pandas, polar bears, and everything in between.
Owen started her education as an undergraduate pre-med major in biology. She was working on a field project on birds in the Arctic when she saw her first polar bear and was exposed to the area’s diverse environment. The experience changed her direction and inspired her to go into wildlife biology, with a specific interest in conservation and wildlife management. She received a master’s in ecology and evolutionary biology and continued studying bird species in the Arctic. She was hired by the San Diego Zoo a few years later, when they were beginning the Giant Panda Conservation Program.
Today, Owen is in the midst of a number of projects. Her primary research interest is how bears perceive and navigate environments that have been disrupted by climate change and habitat fragmentation. Owen and others at the institute are also working with bear rescue facilities in Asia, studying the bears’ behavior and physiology in an attempt to better understand how they can be led toward a brighter future.
Recently, Owen discussed climate change and how the future looks for the polar bear, other bear species, and the field of conservation.
Explain the difference in your work with zoo bears vs. wild bears.
The perspective of seeing animals in captivity and understanding the unique role they can play in non-invasive research has been really interesting. There is tremendous opportunity for synergy between research in the field and in captivity. We have an understanding of the types of conservation threats these species face in the wild, but we know very little about certain aspects of their biology from the scientific literature. So you can engage captive animals that are in zoos or other types of captive facilities in that kind of research in a completely non-invasive way.
Do you work with a team at the San Diego Zoo to educate the public about climate change?
We don’t have a team designated per se, but when it comes to polar bears it is irresponsible to talk about them without talking about climate change. All of our polar bear exhibitions here feature climate change messaging and try to share with the public the very fundamental relationship between climate change and polar bear conservation.
Working in the field is the best experience you’ll ever have as a biologist, but it’s important to pass the baton and make sure that you are providing opportunities for younger scientists to also engage in field work at a point in their lives.
With all the other outlets that we have for engaging with the public, through different media sources and different messaging venues, we try to incorporate climate change messaging whenever we can and whenever there is a clear avenue for communication. Climate change is not an Arctic problem, it’s an atmospheric issue that’s impacting ecosystems all over the planet. There’s hardly a species that we talk about in the context of conservation where climate change isn’t relevant.
Have those efforts been successful?
I think that depends on how you measure success. We have a long way to go, as do all conservation organizations. There’s a tremendous amount of information to be shared. The impacts of climate change are unfolding before our eyes and will be unfolding well into the future.
One of the greatest challenges about communicating climate change to the public is making folks aware that this is a consumer-driven problem and it’s an incredibly large-scale problem. It is something that individuals have contributed to and individuals can help to mitigate, but it’s going to take a while. You might not see the results of the actions you take today or tomorrow, but your grandchildren might.
What lessons have you taken away from your experience with bear species?
Bears are a really interesting group of animals to work with. There are only eight species of bear, but they have a wide array of evolutionary adaptations to eke out their survival in particular types of habitat. Within that range of species, you have the polar bear on one end, a sea ice specialist who is uniquely adapted to life in that very challenging environment, and on the other end of the spectrum you have the giant panda, another specialist who has evolved adaptations to take advantage of a very unique habitat.
We find that species that are specialists tend to be the most vulnerable to rapid changes in the environment. We see some really interesting examples unfolding over evolutionary time of adaptations that allow them to persist in those environments and how, in the face of rapid changes, those specialized adaptations leave them more vulnerable. In between the giant panda and the polar bear, you have a wide array of really interesting species that provide a number of different examples of how species can be threatened when human-driven changes to the environment happen at a fast pace.
How has learning that helped your conservation efforts?
It provides an opportunity to emphasize how an understanding of the basic biology of the species is essential to understanding how they will be impacted by rapid change in the environment.
The other way working with bears is incredibly informative is they provide a really great bridge with the public. It doesn’t take a lot of convincing to have someone understand that this is a species that’s worth saving. It’s a true opportunity to engage people in conservation and climate change impact.
What is your proudest accomplishment in the field of conservation?
My proudest moments are when I feel like I am engaging the people I’m speaking with. Whether it’s a group of four or five people or a full classroom of first graders or a school group, if I feel like I have been able to engage my audience with the issues that these animals are facing, and even more importantly the fact that, through their actions, they can reverse the trends that we are seeing, that’s when I feel like I am being successful.
You love being in the field. How have you adjusted to a job that requires you to spend more time with logistics and less time getting your hands dirty?
My experience in the field is what drove me to do what I do. Working in the field is the best experience you’ll ever have as a biologist, but it’s important to pass the baton and make sure that you are providing opportunities for younger scientists to also engage in field work at a point in their lives, and they probably have more time and are in better shape to do it.
Logistics, project management and project communication are the things that I spend most of my time doing and that makes sense. In terms of a biologist’s career, there is a point in time when you are more effective and a more valuable member of the conservation team by doing certain things. I think back to my field days all the time.
Do you think the role of people working in the field of conservation is going to increase with climate change?
I hope so. I hope the crises that are unfolding inspire young people to go into science and to work in the field. I think there’s nothing that will give you a greater appreciation for the incredible diversity of wildlife that we have on this planet than working in the field.
I would also stress, however, that there are so many ways that we can work toward conservation. I’m a biologist, I love working in the field, but there are any number of other ways that people who are interested in conservation can contribute as professionals or as laypeople, through communication, photography, or developing technologies that support scientists in the field. There are innumerable ways to make a difference.
What I’m hoping is that, as these conservation crises intensify, we are able to engage more people to work toward conservation in the many forms that that may take.
How has climate change influenced the way that you approach conservation?
Climate change is the ultimate baseline shift. It’s important to realize that the fundamental climactic baseline under which species have evolved has changed and will continue to change unless current trends can be reversed. We need to understand how a system operates under unperturbed conditions and then consider how climate change-driven impacts are changing the foundation by which those species operate—things like the phenology within an ecosystem, resource availability, habitat availability, and biogeochemical cycling in different ecosystems. Basically, making sure one considers that shifted baseline when considering the particular issue that you are studying.
The Conservation in the Age of Climate Change Project is an effort to explore how conservation organizations around the world are responding to rising seas, droughts, extreme weather events, and other threats posed by global warming.