Category: Conservation

Zoos and the Protection of Rare Animals

This semester as an elective I am taking another course in the zoology department (the first being Patricia McConnell’s Human and Animal Relationships last semester). In Zack Peery’s Extinction of Species we have been discussing the role that institutions like zoos play in helping to preserve and ensure the survival of rare species. Often we think of zoos in terms of their enjoyment factor for humans or conversely the lack of enjoyment (we think) that animals have being caged. I’ve visited the zoo here in Madison and had a nice time being there with my family, but I was definitely thinking about the care and condition of the animals. Now, I thought all of the animals in the zoo I visited looked healthy and happy, but it did get me thinking overall about how important zoos are for the care and conservation of animals, particularly those that are rare or in need of special healthcare.

Zoos play an important role in conservation efforts, because the good ones provide animals with a safe place to live that is protected from outside threats (predators, pollution, loss of habitat, etc.), in addition to access to veterinarians. I was reminded of this fact when I saw the story of Manukura, a rare white kiwi being covered by the BBC. Not that we really needed further proof that a good cute animal story is going to make it into the news, but I wanted to mention the kiwi story because I think it is a good example of the public rallying behind a very charismatic animal, and a zoos effort to save and protect it.

Manukura. Source: Zooborns

A kiwi is a flightless bird that lives only in New Zealand, and is similar in size to a chicken. There are five species of kiwi, which are all endangered. Kiwis are typically brown or tan in color, but as a result of a naturally occurring genetic mutation Manukura was born white (note that this isn’t the same as being an albino). Manukura was living in Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Center when rangers noticed that the six-month-old bird wasn’t eating. Veterinarians at New Zealand’s Wellington Zoo were called in to examine the bird and found that two large stones were obstructing its intestines.

Manukura was able to pass one of the stones naturally, but the other had to be taken out by a urology specialist from Wellington Hospital who broke the stone up with a laser and then removed the pieces with an endoscope. According to the Wildlife Center, the procedure was comparable to the removal of kidney or gall stones in a human. The bird is doing well following her procedure, much to the joy of her Facebook followers who were able to follow her progress throughout the ordeal.

I think that this story is a great case study for a lot of the topics that we’ve been discussing in my zoology class. It shows a viable option (the creation of wildlife refuges) for the conservation of a species, how a the public can rally behind a species that is particularly like able and important (the kiwi is a national symbol of New Zealand), how zoos can provide access to resources necessary to save an animal, and how communication with the public (particularly through social media) is an important part of conservation and animal protection efforts.

Polar Bears Have The Luck Of The Irish

I recently learned that I share a trait with my absolute favorite animal, the polar bear, in that we can both trace our ancestry back to Ireland. For people who follow this blog, or have at least looked back through the archives a bit, you’ll see that I find it impossible to pass up a good polar bear story. I’ve written about animal healthcaremysterious death, and the polar bear’s status (or lack thereof) as an endangered species. So it should come as no surprise that I can’t pass up the opportunity to talk about this new research that shows an ancient Irish connection to modern day polar bears.

via Wikimedia Commons

A team of researchers led by Beth Shapiro of Penn State University and Daniel Bradley of Trinity College (Dublin) has identified a common ancestor of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and brown bears  (Ursus arctos) that lived in Ireland before the peak of the last ice age some 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. The researchers concluded that all modern day polar bears can trace their lineage back to this ancient female brown bear. The specific lineage of the brown bear that shared their mitochondrial DNA with polar bears went extinct around 9,000 years ago, but the research still shows that the modern species are related.

Despite significant differences between polar bears and brown bears (size, coloring, fur type, tooth shape, swimming ability vs. climbing ability, etc.) scientists have suspected for some time that the species have closely connected histories. The polar bear is known to have mitochondrial DNA (the part of the genome contributed by the mother) that traces back to the brown bear. But how modern polar bears acquired this brown bear DNA was a bit of a mystery.

via Wikimedia Commons

The two species are known to interbreed, and have been studied in captivity in addition to being spotted in the wild. An example of a polar bear/brown bear hybrid, jokingly nicknamed grolar bear or pizzly, was found in the wild Canada in 2006. But, even with the knowledge that the two species can co-mingle scientists were still perplexed about the history of these different species. The long standing theory about how polar bears evolved from brown bears had their history traced to the ABC Islands (the Alaskan Islands of Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) around 14,000 years ago. But the bears’ genomes tell us a different story.

The research team led by Shapiro and Bradley found that the hybridization of polar bears occurred much earlier than would have been possible on the ABC Islands through a genetic analysis of the bears. The study analyzed 242 samples from polar bear and brown bear mitochondrial DNA spanning 120,000 years and several different geographical regions. The researchers found that the fixation of the mitochondrial genome in polar bears likely occurred closer to 50,000 years ago in the area of present-day Ireland.

According to Shapiro, in addition to genetic evidence, the interconnected history of the polar bear and brown bear is also supported by climate events. One example of this is the British-Irish ice sheet, which reached its maximum range around 20,000 years ago. At this time parts of Ireland would have been difficult to inhabit, pushing bears from the warmer areas toward ice shelves and land exposed by lower sea levels. This would have brought the bears into close contact with their northern neighbors, showing how the animals that became two different bear species could have started out in the similar location, sharing their genes.

The polar bear is currently considered a threatened species, and future conservation efforts may be aided by this new understanding of its genetic history and its ability to hybridize with the brown bear. The research is described in the paper, “Ancient Hybridization and an Irish Origin for the Modern Polar Bear Matriline” in the journal Current Biology.

The Arabian Oryx’s Comeback Story

We see so many stories proclaiming the final nail in the coffin of so many species around the world (and indeed, species extinction is a serious issue) but today there is actually some good news about the Arabian oryx, which was previously considered extinct in the wild. Good news needs to be talked about more, so inspired by this post from New Scientist I wanted to share the Arabian oryx’s story.
Arabian Oryx, via Wikimedia Commons
Around 1972 the last wild Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) was killed, most likely in Oman. While the species was extinct in the wild there were still several in captivity, particularly at the Phoenix Zoo, which received four wild Arabian oryx in 1963 as a part of a conservation effort called Operation Oryx.
After the species went extinct in the wild, individuals from the zoo’s breeding program were brought together with individuals from royal collections in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to make a last “world herd.”  A breeding program began and in the early 1980’s the first individuals were reintroduced into the wild in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. 
The Arabian oryx has since flourished, reaching a wild population of more than 1000 individuals, and is continuing to increase. This had led to the Arabian oryx officially being moved from endangered to vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. A 2008 assessment showed that the Arabian oryx had recovered enough to no longer qualify as even an endangered species.

The IUCN Species Program produces, maintains and manages the IUCN Red List, and implements worldwide species conversation projects. The Species Program is headquartered in Switzerland and is designed to determine the relative risk of a species facing extinction. The Red List is used to keep track of and bring attention to the plants and animals that directly risk global extinction. 
IUCN Red List categoriesUnder IUCN Red List Guidelines a species can only move to a lower category if none of the criteria for the higher category have been met for five years or more. To be considered endangered there must be 250 or fewer mature individuals of a species, so the Arabian oryx, which is doing well at over 1000, will be listed as Vulnerable starting this year.
The Arabian oryx is native to the Arabian Peninsula, and doesn’t have many natural predators; humans drove the animals to extinction from hunting. In addition to the 1000 in the wild there are another 6,000-7,000 individuals alive in captivity around the world, many within the Arabian region.

Interestingly, the population that was re-introduced to Oman (where the last wild Arabian oryx were killed before it went extinct in the wild) has been struggling. The Oman population was hurt through illegal live capture for private sale, and has been rendered ineffective because only males remain.  Most new populations are in secure areas that are relatively safe from poaching, but animals that wander outside protected sites have no guarantee of safety. 
Future release locations for animals bred through captivity will be determined by the potential effects of drought and overgrazing, which have reduced available areas where populations could thrive. 
Now that I’m spending my days perusing the internet (so much more than ever before!) I’ve seen a lot of strange, strange, and I mean STRANGE things. In addition there is also so much negative news from hackers to politicians to criminal cases and everything in between that I feel like little glimmers of good news, particularly about successful conservation efforts should to be recognized. It doesn’t make the bad news easier to swallow, but it still makes things seem brighter. 

An Extinction Intervention

Over the course of the year doing grad school work at UW-Madison, I’ve written a few different articles for class assignments. I’ve decided to publish this article here, though it should be noted that this was written in December 2010 from interviews conducted throughout the Fall of 2010. I feel that the information and perspectives still hold a lot of value, so I wanted to share it anyway.

Managed relocation is a potential solution to the biodiversity loss posed by climate change, but the policy’s unpredictable risk ignited the scientific community in a debate that questions how society views conservation in the context of impending extinction.
Every summer, your backyard garden produces a cornucopia of vegetables because it gets enough sunlight and rain to make your plants bloom. But, then your neighbors plant trees in their yard that cast a shadow on your garden. Without sunlight your plants wilt and suddenly its goodbye tomatoes. So what do you do? Well, next year you move the garden to a sunnier spot. Problem solved.
Moving your garden to a sunny spot is an easy way to keep up with the changing environment of your backyard, but would it work on a larger scale?
The rapid changes to ecosystems around the world predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) include the widespread extinction of species that don’t adapt fast enough. That is, unless a policy like “managed relocation” — the shifting of species to new environments to counteract the affects of climate change — can be implemented successfully.
Some conservationists in the United States have jumped on the idea of managed relocation. The most notable project so far is the transportation of the Torreya (Torreya taxifolia,) a conifer tree, from Florida to North Carolina by the independent group the Torreya Guardians. Whether the Torreya experiment will work is unknown, but it has drawn attention to the risk associated with relocating species.
Torreya taxifolia
via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike moving your garden to that perfect sunny spot, moving species involves a fragile web of ecological connections that when broken, could create more problems than solutions.

Managed relocation is exemplary of an overall trend in ecology toward an interventionist approach focused on species. This trend is a challenge to previously established conservation policy that focused on protecting habitat to help species, and has opened debate about whether human meddling will save or sacrifice Earth’s biodiversity.
David Richardson, Professor of Ecology and Deputy Director of Science Strategy at the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa,) says whether more attempts at managed relocation will be made and whether they occur with the sanction of government will depend on the success of projects like the one conducted by the Torreya Guardians.

“A few spectacular failures would probably nail the coffin on the concept,” said Richardson in an email message. “Managed relocation is undoubtedly very risky and the practice could cause more problems than it solves. But then, losing species is also very risky, so the price of taking no action could be very high, perhaps higher than undertaking managed relocation.”

The Risky Business of Managed Relocation

Moving species through managed relocation poses both a risk of total failure, and a risk of extreme success. The fragile connections between species in an ecosystem cannot be easily replaced, and even the most heavily researched relocations can fail completely. Unexpected new connections can also form, causing a species to explode in their new habitat and become invasive.
“The way managed relocation gets framed is that it is a trade off,” said Jason McLachlan Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. “On the one hand you don’t want species that you care about to go extinct, but on the other hand we have a bad track record with moving species around. We come with good intentions but cause more problems.”

According to Ralph Grundel, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Porter, IN the complex science of moving species is enough reason to be skeptical that managed relocation will succeed. Grundel’s own work relocating the Karner Blue Butterfly only a few miles away from its natural range has failed, even after extensive research into the habitat specifications needed by the species.
Karner Blue Butterfly Source: Wikimedia Commons

“When you introduce a new species into another species range, you are rolling the dice because you don’t know how the species will interact,” said Grundel. “It can be really challenging, so aside from the ethics of whether we should meddle, our ability to succeed if we wanted to do these things I’m pessimistic about.”

With debate mounting about whether humans could or should micromanage the survival of species, researchers like McLachlan and Grundel say that a redefinition of the way the US thinks about conservation is needed to consider the ethical problems posed by intervening.
From conservation to intervention

According to Ben Minteer, Associate Professor at the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University, for over a century the United States’ stance on conservation (outlined by the Endangered Species Act) has been to protect species from human involvement in the species native environment.  But, if the habitat can’t be maintained – due to climate change – then a new policy will be needed.
“Now things are changing,” said Minteer. “In the most extreme cases we have to go in and round the species up and move them to a place that is different from their native range. If we don’t do that we’re committing them to extinction.”
According to Minteer, the majority of researchers who have investigated the implications of climate change on biodiversity are in agreement that a plan is needed for future action. But, whether managed relocation is that plan is uncertain.
 “What we are going to be forced into is this strong interventionist approach to conservation,” said Minteer. “I say this with a heavy heart, but we are moving toward a planetary management situation where we become much stronger manipulators of the landscape to make it more amenable to saving species, and to make sure that it provides the services that humans depend upon.”
More harm than help

“We really don’t know what we’re doing,” said Jessica Hellmann an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. “But everything that we do has side affects.”
Hellmann says managed relocation can be thought of like a medical treatment. Cancer patients are given chemotherapy even though it has detrimental side affects, because the treatment is more beneficial than the side affects are harmful. Managed relocation may be a treatment for species suffering from climate change, but researchers don’t know if the benefits will outweigh the side affects.
Researchers are experimenting to figure out which species can be moved, and where they can go based on climate change models. “We want to create the sweet spot,” said Hellmann. “You want the population to be successful, you just don’t want it to be so successful that it starts overwhelming other species and damages the ecosystem.”
While some researchers are busy figuring out the feasibility of managed relocation, others have taken a different approach to finding solutions to the extinction problem posed by climate change.
“We aren’t going to be good at managed relocation, and the consequences of not being good at it go back to this larger issue of how we as a society deal with changing climate,” said McLachlan.
According to McLachlan, instead of trying to make solutions like managed relocation feasible researchers should attack the underlying problem, climate change itself.

“The idea that any of these other plans is going to be easier and less expensive than just reducing green house gas emissions isn’t true,” said McLachlan. “At least with green house gases we know how to reduce them and we know it would work.”

When compared, the uncertainty of managed relocation makes the certainty of reducing green house gas emissions a sensible undertaking.

“Right now our path is to totally perturb the earth and then go around and fix it afterwards,” said McLachlan. “If you don’t like that option, you might think about not breaking the entire Earth system in the first place.”

According to Grundel, the United States is in the middle of what he calls “devilishly difficult decisions,” about ecological policy. While researchers may be at odds about human interference, one thing is certain – rash future action could trigger unexpected detrimental effects.

“We’re doing an unprecedented manipulation of earth’s atmosphere, but we can’t predict the dynamics,” said McLachlan. “The answer is we better be careful, everyone lives on this planet, so it’s really not a good idea to do an unprecedented experiment on it.” 

Sequencing Genomes to Save Species

For this post I’m trying something a little different. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’m using Science Decoded for class, and as a part of that we were assigned to write a post in the form of a list.

All living organisms are made of DNA, a series of nucleotide bases (Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Thymine) contained in chromosomes. Genome sequencing is an analysis of DNA, conducted by “reading” the different patterns of nucleotides A-G-C-T for differences between species, and abnormalities within a species. Researchers around the world are working to sequence the genomes of a variety of organisms, including those on the endangered species list.

1. Orangutan (Pongo abelii) – In January 2011 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the publication of the orangutan genome sequence. Funded by the NIH, researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX sequenced the genome of a female Sumatran orangutan, five additional Sumatran orangutans, and five Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus.) The research shows that orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans, but compared to humans and chimpanzees, orangutans have evolved much slower leading to fewer mutations (variations in the code between individuals of a species). (Read more

2. Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) – Fifteen years ago a facial cancer was identified in tasmanian devil populations. The cancer has ravaged the species, resulting in an 80% decline that has forced the species to the brink of extinction. This cancer is transmissible, which means that biting the face of an infected animal passes it between individuals. In September 2010 researcher from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the genome sequencing company Illumina announced that they sequenced the tasmanian devil genome in an attempt to learn more about the cancer and how to stop it from wiping out the species. (Read more)
3. Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) – Arguably one of the cutest endangered species, the giant panda is a prominent symbol of China, where it lives in a restricted mountain area. According to the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) the number of giant pandas left in the wild is estimated between 1600-3000. In December 2009, BGI published the complete sequence of the giant panda genome. With the information obtained by the genetic analysis researchers hope to learn more about the genetic and biological factors that shape this species behavior to assist in disease control and conservation efforts. (Read more)

4. Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsoni) – Listed by the United Nations as an endangered species since 1979, the Tibetan antelope could hold the key to understanding the pathogenesis of chronic plateau sickness. The species calls China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau home, making them ideal for studying the evolution of species that thrive in environments characterized by extreme cold and low oxygen levels. The genome sequence of the Tibetan antelope was announced in December 2009 by researchers from BGI and Qinghai University. (Read more)
5. Coral Reefs (Acropora millepora) – Coral reefs are among the world’s most diverse ecosystems, yet according to the Genome Center at Washington University it has been predicted that in the next 50 years between 40%-60% of the world’s coral reefs will die. In 2005 the NIH funded the sequencing of the coral A. millepora (which is not an endangered species, though coral reefs as a whole are endangered ecosystems) to serve as a “lab rat” for studies of the environmental factors (light, sediment load, or acidity) that can cause coral death. (Read more)
Not quite endangered & not fully sequenced:
6. Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) – Recently removed from the list of endangered species recognized by the United States, researchers at BGI are still working to sequence the polar bear genome. The polar bear sequence is a part of a three-pronged project to sequence the Tibetan antelope (completed in 2009) and emperor penguin genomes.

7. Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes fosteri) – One of the most recognizable penguin species, the Emperor Penguin is found in Antarctica. The emperor penguin is currently under consideration for inclusion under the Endangered Species Act, due to the effects of climate change. The genome sequencing project is being conducted by researchers from BGI in conjunction with sequencing the polar bear, and Tibetan antelope genomes. (Read more)
8. Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia) – In October 2009 researchers from Oregon State University, the Western University of Health Sciences, and the Miller Park Zoo (IL) announced plans to sequence the genome of the snow leopard (which is on the Endangered Species list). According to Oregon State, the snow leopard is prone to diseases that do not plague other big cats including pneumonia, enteritis, hip dysplasia, and papillomaviruses. Sequencing the genome could help researchers identify what makes the snow leopard susceptible to these disorders. (Read more)
Genome sequencing technology continues to develop, making it easier and cheaper to sequence the genomes of various organisms. While an endangered species has yet to be saved due to the information obtained by sequencing its genome, what researchers learn will help them gain a better understanding of endangered species, which is a step in the right direction towards improving conservation efforts.