Faces of Conservation: Larry Serpa

California Critters

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“Protecting biodiversity isn’t a job; it’s a calling, like the priesthood. This is something I simply have to do.”

Larry Serpa, aquatic ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in California

Larry Serpa has spent more than 60,000 hours exploring rivers, creeks and streams, reaching under rocks to find animals that indicate the health of California’s waters. He emerged from these watery habitats to talk about what motivates his efforts.

I’ve worked for The Nature Conservancy for 33 years and have never thought of working any place else because we’re so effective at preserving California’s resources.

I’m an aquatic ecologist, which means I’m always walking through water somewhere looking for conservation targetsamphibians, reptiles, stream insects or fish — whose habitat we’re protecting. I’m often looking for endangered species that are thought to be going extinct. Many of these animals can hide in plain sight.

In the past months I’ve been spending a lot of time looking for California freshwater shrimp. This endangered crustacean is only found in streams in three northern California counties, and only one of the streams runs through protected lands. Nothing else in these creeks comes close to filling its ecological niche. It methodically gathers and consumes food particles that have been filtered out of the moving water by the submerged roots of streamside vegetation.

While its transparency protects it from predators, the shrimp cannot hide from human impacts to its environment. The only other species in the genus went extinct after southern California streams were diverted and channelized.

It can be difficult work; I’m out looking for something that isn’t supposed to be there. To give myself a psychological boost, I identify other animals to look for in the same habitats. While I’m looking for California giant salamanders, for instance, I’ll be searching for unusual aquatic insects that could be in the area as well. I’ve learned that you have to think like the beast; then it’s easier to find them.

Each day is highly variable. Out in nature, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next second. Once I was doing research at our Mount Hamilton project east of San Jose. I hiked up into the hills for several hours, and I noticed a beautiful fog below. Suddenly I was surrounded by it, and I couldn’t see more than four feet in front of me. I got horribly lost in a place I knew very well. Now I carry a GPS, a compass, an emergency locator beacon and lots of cookies.

Yes, I get wet and cold and misplaced sometimes, but I’m fascinated by the lives of all living things. Over the decades, the scope of the Conservancy’s work has grown much broader than the original protection of a few hundred-acre preserves. With this growth our ability to safeguard flora and fauna has increased immensely.


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