A living laboratory

A group of Przewalski's horses graze at the Institute. The species was listed as extinct in 2008. Rich Cooley/Daily

Editor’s note: Northern Virginia Daily reporter Kevin Green toured the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s campus in Front Royal last month. This is the first of a three-part series. View part two, High tech match-making.

Traveling along scenic Route 522, south of Front Royal, one can catch glimpses of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s campus through the hillside trees.

Not to be confused with its better-known relative, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., this institute — often referred to as simply “SCBI” — is a biological research facility that is home to 21 of the most endangered species on the planet.

To Dr. David Wildt and the researchers, the 3,200-acre institute is a “living laboratory.”

“What we often call this place is a living laboratory that combines a lot of different scientific disciplines to preserve the really important ecosystem in this area,” Wildt said.

Red pandas eat bamboo for a morning snack at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal. The pair, resting inside a hammock made of old fire hoses, will soon be going to a zoo in Chicago. Rich Cooley/Daily

A senior researcher for the Smithsonian, Wildt is the head of the Conservation Center for Species Survival, or C2S2, which is one of five unique centers in the country concentrated on wildlife species conservation.

The network of C2S2 breeding centers the Front Royal-based institute works with includes The Wilds Columbus Zoo in Cumberland, Ohio; San Diego Global Zoo in Escondido, California; Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas; and White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, Florida.

The institute coordinates with this web of conservation centers with an end game of breeding sustainable North American populations for species fighting extinction.

Paul Marinari, the center’s senior curator, said what makes the institute unique and different from the National Zoo “is that we are not designed to be open to the public. For us, it’s all about the science.”

That science is composed of a dizzying array of projects, from global species conservation to plant ecology to analyzing “how carbon is moving through the environment and how that is affected by climate change.”

Dr. David Wildt

Institute researchers are even working on growing sustainable coral populations from wild samples that have been frozen in liquid nitrogen for the purposes of bringing back coral reefs.

Marinari also indicated that facility researchers are looking into ways of storing genetic samples without liquid nitrogen freezing, samples that could be “right on the shelf.”

“That’s what’s so great about working here; there’s so many people working on so many different things that it’s kind of tough to keep track of everything,” Marinari said.

For Wildt, Marinari and the researchers who make up the institute’s Conservation Center for Species Survival, the goal is to solve immensely complex problems stemming from effects of habitat loss, over-hunting, climate change and industrial development.

“There are some species that we will not be able to save. There are just way too many species in trouble and there are not enough resources,” Marinari explained.

Eld's deer, from Southeast Asia, are an endangered species. There are only 1,500 left in the wild. Rich Cooley/Daily

Why then, does the institute and researchers like Marinari do this work?

“My answer is because what choice do we have? We are trying to preserve species diversity and increase species diversity for the overall good of the globe, honestly,” Marinari said.

Unlike the National Zoo, which has limited space, Wildt said, “We have the space and we have scientific expertise to address these high-priority issues in conservation.”

The experts plugging away at these issues include a large team of researchers and veterinarians working on projects in Front Royal, at the National Zoo, various local partnerships and partner sites around the world.

Marinari referred to the Front Royal institute as a “hub” for their widespread global efforts, such as the Panama Amphibian Rescue Conservation Project, which is led by Smithsonian researcher Brian Gratwicke.

A white-naped crane is a resident of the Front Royal institute. The bird is a critically endangered species. Rich Cooley/Daily

However, with the Panama research efforts, the institute works with a whole host of partners, including the Houston Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado and a local Smithsonian unit called the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Wildt explained that, at the Front Royal institute, scientists and animal curators work together toward the same conservation goals.

For each of the 21 species housed in Front Royal, Marinari said reproductive scientists, veterinarians, nutrition specialists, ecologists and radio trackers are all working off the same page to answer certain questions.

“It’s kind of like a spider web,” Marinari explained. “You have the animal in center, and then you have a bunch of surrounding pieces.”

With certain species, like the loggerhead shrike — or the “butcher bird,” known for impaling its prey on sharp objects like barbed wire — Marinari said they are in breeding programs with reintroduction components.

The shrike is but one example of a local species the institute is researching at the moment. “We’re actually working with state biologists in Virginia and West Virginia on helping with their monitoring efforts,” Marinari said.

He added that the institute’s ecology researchers, geneticists and animal care staff are “working on collecting samples” from wild loggerhead shrikes in order to see “what diseases they might have” as well as reproductive success.

Animals housed at the institute include such endangered species as cheetahs and red pandas. One of the rarest species there is the Przewalski’s [pronounced sha-val-ski] horse, which is from China and Mongolia. Frog, one of the facility’s male horses, was kicking the fence with his hind legs during the tour of the grounds.

Marinari explained that Frog “is very aggressive and in a breeding situation, so he’s got some females in there.”

The Przewalski’s facility is part of the institute’s Rivinus Barn Complex, which also includes Persian onagers — a small, tan-colored breed of horse — and Eld’s deer, another endangered species from Southeast Asia.

Within this complex, species like the Przewalski’s horse have a good amount of pastureland so that they can live in a more natural setting.

“We have 3,200 acres, 1,000 [of that] is dedicated to animal buildings and pastures,” Marinari explained, with the rest belonging to local ecology research, land for hay production and the institute’s central campus.

While passing the red panda facility, a couple of male pandas were munching on bamboo as a part of their “a.m. feed,” all of which is grown on-site.

“There’s still several thousand red pandas left in the wild,” Marinari said, but “they’re not at the point where we would be releasing any.”

In the case of red pandas, which are one of the National Zoo’s more popular animals, one of the questions Marinari said institute researchers are exploring is the physiology of female red pandas in order to better understand their breeding cycle.

“[We’re] trying to figure out a pregnancy test where we can actually tell when a red panda is pregnant,” Marinari said.

Marinari added that when red pandas breed, it “doesn’t necessarily mean that they are pregnant” and that they can actually exhibit a “delayed implantation of embryos.”

“We have these large ranges of when we think the animal is going to give birth, but it would be nice to kind of narrow that window down,” Marinari said.

Although all of the research groups are working on different questions, Marinari said they share a “conservation commonality” with the ultimate goal of making sure species like the red pandas are around for the future.

“When you combine all of those different disciplines together, you can really effect change,” Wildt said. “You can really get to this issue of, ‘how do we create sustainable populations by producing lots of offspring?”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com


As of May 2, the following animal species reside at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal:

Bali mynah
White-naped crane
Red-crowned crane
Hooded crane
Loggerhead shrike
Marianas crow
Micronesian kingfisher
Guam rail
Black-footed ferret
Przewalski’s wild horse
Eld’s deer
Tufted deer
American bison
Scimitar-horned oryx
Addra gazelle
Persian onager
Clouded leopards
Red pandas
Maned wolves