Matchmaking at the ZooRoxAnna Breitigan, Director of Animal Care August 23, 2021
Zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are committed to ensuring species do not go extinct from the planet. They collectively utilize some of their resources to ensure there are self-sustainable populations of animals. This cooperation among zoos strengthens the genetic assurance of wild populations, supports scientific research, and provides opportunities for zoo animals to be ambassadors for their species. Many species are on the verge of extinction, thus zoos have created responsible breeding programs to ensure these species are around for future generations. Zoos maintaining these populations also provide insurance if something catastrophic happens to a species or part of the natural world, so a species does not disappear completely.
Breeding in AZA zoos is organized by Species Survival Plans (SSP). This strategic, scientific and intentional process is led by species experts. A Species Coordinator, Studbook keeper, steering committee, biologists, and advisors oversee each species to manage individuals under one population. This coordinated effort is done on a national level, and sometimes even internationally. Animals are brought together for breeding with the goal of having a large, healthy, and genetically diverse population. The decision of who to breed, when to breed, and sometimes even how to breed are questions that this group of experts is dedicated to answering for almost 500 species.
Each SSP serves as the champion for a species and oversees the database that holds all the details of each individual’s life. A unique, distinctive number, much like our social security number, is given to each individual, called a studbook number. The database is then filled with facts and figures about the species population in human care. These include items like date of birth, parents, family lineage, location, mean kinship, and gender. Each individual’s information is put into an electronic database, formulas are put to work, and the outcomes are breeding recommendations.
This allows animal managers to find ideal genetic matches or mates for individuals in human care. Genetics are not the only challenge for animal managers when deciding to breed or not, there needs to be enough space in zoos to give these animals long and thriving lives. So breeding is not only calculated to ensure the species continues, but also that there is enough space for them to live their lives with a high quality of life too. These algorithms also prevent inbreeding or limits breeding from well represented lineages in the populations.
The animal care team has the unique responsibility to ensure animals have their needs met so they are able to thrive and live a natural life. The team strives to enhance the natural life cycle allowing the animals to live in an environment as similar to what is found in nature. A part of the natural life cycle is breeding, and while this is important for the individual’s wellbeing it is also important for the survival of the species. Preserving healthy animal populations ensures the long-term survival of the species. Also, breeding is sometimes needed for reintroduction back into the wild places. The animal and vet care teams work hard to understand each species needs and provide them the natural opportunities to allow the individuals to be the best ambassadors for their species.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is dedicated to preserving the desert species of the world for future generations. We want to preserve these amazing animals so future human generations can continue to appreciate them, both in human care and in the natural world. This means we need to ensure there are future generations of these species. There are many reasons that responsible breeding programs for endangered animals in human care are essential to prevent the species we care so much about from disappearing. Cooperative, responsible breeding is just one more way The Living Desert continues to be part of the solution to save animals from extinction.
Did You Know...
- Mean kinship is a widely accepted conservation method used within zoos. It is a measure of importance of an animal, as it relates to genetics. This is achieved by limiting the selection and reducing the loss of alleles due to inbreeding. This is done by selecting individuals with less represented alleles to breed.
- Animals with a low mean kinship are genetically important and are advised to breed.
- Animals with a higher mean kinship are well represented within the population.
- There are only 58 black rhinos in AZA human care. Jaali and Nia, the black rhinos who will be calling the zoo home soon, have been chosen to pair up, and as they mature, breed together. This breeding recommendation is thoughtfully calculated years ahead of sexual maturity.
- Peninsular pronghorn are part of an ongoing reintroduction program in Baja California, Mexico, which The Living Desert has been a part of for many years. The herd here at the zoo has been prolific and has contributed to the overall development of a viable breeding population in zoos. We have also been involved with neo-natal care, relocation, and developing a Species Action Plan onsite in Baja.
- Here at The Living Desert, the African Painted (Wild) Dog alpha pair, Kiraka and Beatrix, have contributed to the SSP by having 17 puppies. They are now very well-represented in the human care population. Soon, five of the boys from the first litter will be heading to a new home at another AZA organization to be ambassadors for their species.