The Wonderful World Of... Blog

The Wonderful World of Native Animals and Zooarchaeology

The Wonderful World of… is a monthly blog focusing on some of the many themes, concepts, and sub-disciplines related to the fascinating world of Southern Californian archaeology.

Native vs. Non-Native Species

Pacific Pocket Mouse

A native species is a plant or animal that occurs naturally in its surrounding habitat. A non-native species is one that was introduced to an area where it does not occur naturally and is able to adapt and thrives living in that environment, without causing harm.

Photo by Nick Chill

This is a Pacific Pocket Mouse, a native species in San Diego. These are the smallest mice in the world. They live in coastal sage scrub habitats and are endemic to California.

None of the wild parrots that live in San Diego are native to California. They were brought in and then released by humans, or some are thought to have migrated from Mexico. These parrots are able to survive here by nesting and feeding off of non-native plants that are similar to ones in their native homes.

Invasive Species

South American Palm Weevil

An invasive species is a non-native plant or animal that causes harm to the native plants and animals in their surrounding habitats. The South American Palm Weevil is an invasive beetle that likely came to San Diego from Tijuana. These weevils damage the crown of a palm tree, typically killing the tree within months. Once an infestation occurs, there is no way to save the tree and it must be removed to stop the spread of Weevils to other trees in the area.

Mute Swan
Photo by Yerpa

The Mute Swan is native to Eurasia and was introduced in San Diego at the Del Mar racetrack sometime before 1997. These birds are territorial, can be aggressive, and displace native species as well as deplete their food sources.

What is Zooarchaeology?

Zooarchaeology is the branch of archaeology that studies faunal remains. Faunal remains are the physical remains (like bones and shell) that are left behind when an animal dies. Faunal remains are fragile, and their decomposition over time is likely. However, when they are found at an archaeology site, they can be incredibly useful in determining how past human cultures interacted with the animals that lived during a specific time period. Learning about how societies interacted with animals and their environment allows for a unique look into the past, which contributes to current and future scientific research.

Zooarchaeologists can help identify the change in climate and habitats over time by studying animal remains. Native and invasive species identification helps with this process. By removing invasive species and reintroducing native species, zooarchaeologists can help repopulate areas that have been damaged, endangered, or extinct.

Zooarchaeology in San Diego

Zooarchaeologists use animal remains to explore how past cultural environments used to look, what people ate, and even the movement of animals between different landscapes. The San Diego Zooarchaeology Laboratory at the San Diego Natural History Museum was established in 2010 and houses more than 51,000 bird and 25,250 mammal specimens. These collections represent over 90% of worldwide bird species. More than 290 mammal species are also represented, and these collections continue to grow.

Skeleton of barnyard chicken

One of these species is the barnyard chicken. Zooarchaeologists Aharon Sasson and Susan Arter study skeletal remains from archaeological sites to learn about historic societies and cultures. Recently, they published a study presenting data about the first use of chickens for food in California during the 18th century. Before this study, not much was known about poultry production in North America. To learn about their findings and this project, watch the SDAC Living Room Lecture The First Chicken Burrito in Western North America: Avian Remains from the San Diego Royal Presidio.

How Can Zooarchaeology Help Native Species?

Cactus Wren
Photo by Alan Schmierer

Scarce and endangered native animal populations benefit from these types of research, as past landscapes may be reintroduced and cultivated to help endangered or threatened native animals thrive.

Cactus Wrens rely on the native Prickly Pear Cactus for nesting. These native birds are important seed spreaders so ensuring their survival is a top priority in San Diego County. Nesting in the local Prickly Pear Cactus is key for their survival so one way to keep this ecosystem thriving is by restoring nest sites after disturbances like wildfires. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is doing incredible work to protect as many native species as they can. You can learn more about their fantastic programs here.


Coastal Sage Scrub
Photo by Chaparralian

This image shows Coastal Sage Scrub, an important habitat in San Diego County which is composed of black sage, white sage, California sagebrush, buckwheat, and other various wildflower species. San Diego is known as a biodiversity hotspot because it is home to many animals that are found nowhere else on Earth. The climate and ecosystems in Southern California allow for many different kinds of species to thrive. This is why it is important to protect our habitats and faunal species however we can.

by Jessica McPheters, Collections Manager

Volunteers work in the Center’s Research Library, cataloguing materials and organizing on a computer-based system.

Marketing and Administrative Volunteers assist the Development Office or Administration Office with data entry, updating marketing materials and clerical tasks. Computer experience is a plus.

Docents welcome visitors and answer general questions regarding the Center and exhibits. Docents staff the gift shop and help out with administrative and curatorial tasks.

Volunteers support event activities at the Center, such as the Annual BBQ, lectures, workshops, and fundraising events. Be a part of the party!

Volunteer provide support for K-12 programs offered at the Center. These are fun, hands-on programs that kids really enjoy. Teaching experience is a plus, but not required. Background checks are required.


With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will use photogrammetry to prepare one or more archaeological collections for digital preservation, as well as create a virtual museum exhibit for our Public Archaeology department. Per approval, special projects of the intern’s choosing are also available. During the research and planning, the intern will receive guidance as appropriate to their selected project. Prospective interns should already be familiar with photogrammetric procedures, and Agisoft Metashape.

Collections Management

With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will prepare one or more archaeological collections for curation. During the course of the internship, the intern will learn to identify artifacts and ecofacts common to the San Diego region, including lithics, ceramics, historical objects, and faunal, botanical, and mineral specimens. Center staff will instruct the intern on archaeological laboratory procedures such as basic artifact analysis, manual and computer cataloguing, storage requirements, and preventative conservation. In addition, the intern will become familiar with historical trends in archaeological practice in the San Diego area and will be introduced to current legal and ethical issues in archaeological curation as well as the concerns and rights of culturally affiliated groups with regard to archaeological materials.

Development and Marketing

Under the direction of Center staff, the intern will support the department in various activities, including, but not limited to, fundraising and grant research; e-newsletter development; social media marketing; and website maintenance. This internship will give the intern valuable, real-world experience in non-profit fundraising and marketing.

Geographical Information Systems in Archaeology

Prospective Interns must have completed three courses: Introduction to GIS, GIS Database Management, and Intermediate/Advanced Methods in GIS. The intern will be assigned a project where they will create shapefiles and maps for curated archaeological collections, museum exhibits, and/or public outreach using ArcGIS 10.6. Center staff will instruct the intern on archaeological GIS laboratory procedures such as computer cataloguing, storage requirements, and database management.

Library Science

With the assistance of Center staff, the intern will arrange and catalog materials in the Center’s library. During the course of the internship, the intern will take a leading role in the cataloging, sorting and storing of research files and creating user guides for these collections. Center staff will instruct the intern on archival procedures, computer cataloging, storage requirements, and preventative conservation.

Public Archaeology

Harness your passion for Public Archaeology and gain hands-on experience with K-12 museum field trips, lectures, and public outreach. Additional projects may include creating virtual museum exhibits and activities, assisting in the development and implementation of K-12 curricula programs, planning and presenting public facing content, or educational field trip content of your own design. Must be able to pass a Live Scan.