High-tech matchmaking

A 2-year-old cheetah walks around a fenced-in area at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s in Front Royal. 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 second of a three-part series. View part one, A Living Laboratory.

Paul Marinari, senior curator for the Center for Species Survival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, jokingly likened a trip around the 3,200-square foot institute near Front Royal to the classic Steven Spielberg film “Jurassic Park.”

Stretching out from the institute’s central campus — which includes research labs and administrative buildings — is a series of bolted gates leading to the various animal pastures and preserves throughout the complex.

Except here, there are no velociraptor or t-rex in sight threatening to tear the scientists apart limb-from-limb. Instead, the facility houses friendlier animals such as the rare tropical bird species known as the Micronesian kingfisher.

“Every animal here has a story, every species has a story connected to science,” said Dr. David Wildt, head of the institute’s Conservation Center for Species Survival.

Paul Marinari

A good number of the 21 species are kept in these outlying acres branching off into what used to be a remount station for the U.S. Army where horses and dogs were bred for use in combat.

These days, this is where researchers are working to preserve the genetic diversity of several of the planet’s most rare and endangered species.

As senior curator for the center, Marinari explained that his job is to “oversee the animal collection and determine what species” the facility houses.

With their efforts as a whole, Wildt said, “What we try to focus on are those high-priority species that are in trouble in the wild, that will not do very well in a traditional zoo.”

The kingfisher is perhaps a perfect embodiment of this approach.

Dr. David Wildt

According to Marinari, the Micronesian kingfisher is the most endangered species they have — it is extinct in the wild. “There are only 160 individuals in North American zoos, and that’s it.”

“Our job is to try and manage such a small population, to make sure they don’t get further in-bred,” Marinari added.

The kingfisher was once found in Guam and islands surrounding it. However, the accidental introduction of the brown tree snake hampered the kingfisher population.

“Through various wars, planes flew in to those islands, and the snakes were up in the wheel-wells of the planes,” Marinari said. “So it is kind of like [the 2008 film] ‘Snakes on a Plane.'”

Pop culture reference aside, Marinari said the end goal with the kingfisher is to make its native habitats free of the brown tree snake. Having evolved with no predators, the kingfisher “did not know what to do” when the brown snakes invaded.

Marinari added, “Until we have the … number of animals in captive population, we’re not yet able to return them to the wild.”

How do the institute’s scientists seek to build viable populations from critically endangered species? In a sense, it’s a complicated matchmaking process concerning natural and artificial breeding techniques.

Oh, and forget about science fiction-friendly cloning methods here.

Wildt said, “You read about it all the time, people get excited … and it draws a lot of media attention, but it has no relevance, as far as we’re concerned, to the conservation of wildlife.”

For now, the institute’s researchers and scientists slug it out against a myriad of biological, native and non-native barriers and factors that have led to population declines.

Whether it is through artificial insemination or natural breeding, Wildt said, “The idea is to create the sustainable populations … and we try to do that largely on the basis of ensuring that we get the most genetically viable to reproduce.”

To that end, the institute relies on what Marinari referred to as “electronic pedigrees” or studbooks that house the genetic family tree data on every family member that has produced offspring over the years or decades.

The studbooks are critical for the breeding of the black-footed ferrets, one of the most famous conservation examples of this at the center.

With breeding season having started April 1, Marinari said the facility houses 35 black-footed ferrets, which is “the largest breeding colony of any zoo in North America.”

Once thought to be extinct in the wild, scientists helped take the remaining 18  ferrets and have “produced almost 9,000,” while successfully reintroducing many ferrets to the Midwest since the 1990s.

From the original 18 the center started with, Marinari said he is tasked with keeping track of “who the parents are, who the offspring are and where they are located.”

It is from databases like this that institute researchers can match up potential genetically viable mates for the purposes of advancing and maintaining a strong level of genetic diversity.

Even with high-tech studbooks, no two breeding efforts are alike. The center has to specifically tailor each program for that particular species’ mating habits.

For instance, Smithsonian Communications Specialist Devin Murphy said researchers developed a physical area between gates at the cheetah preserve called “Lover’s Lane.”

True to its name, “Lover’s Lane” is literally a gated-off area where males can be “walked” in front of females to see if they are ready to breed.

Because the male cheetahs tend to live in coalitions and the females are notoriously picky breeders, the center has to make sure any potential mates get along.

Based on the data from the studbooks, researchers can bring in the “appropriate male” on a trip down the lane.

Marinari said that staff members “walk the cheetahs through there with proximity sticks, and then based on the behavior and interactions” they might “let them see the yard.”

Of course, from there, the hope is that it results in a successful breeding season for cheetahs. Marinari said the goal with cheetahs is to produce around 30 cubs per year.

These litters are not used for reintroduction efforts, however, but rather for a “self-sustaining population.” Some of the litters remain at centers like the Front Royal institute, while others get relocated to various zoos nationwide.

In fact, as Wildt noted, the cheetah sustainability program has undergone a significant overhaul in the past four years that includes this movement of animals as well as the creation of the current breeding facility.

“The numbers of cheetahs being produced on an annual basis was actually less than the animals that were dying every year,” Wildt said, adding that, along with their partners, they “came up with the idea for a cheetah sustainability program.”

Wildt noted that, in 2013, Smithsonian cheetah biologist Dr. Adrienne Crosier  “convinced zoos” to move genetically viable cheetahs to larger breeding centers, like the one in Front Royal.

In return, Wildt said, the zoos received “older cheetahs that had already reproduced or were too old to reproduce.”

Based on last year’s breeding numbers, Wildt said he thinks the system is working. In 2014, Wildt noted that there were 13 litters and 41 cheetah cubs born in breeding centers nationwide.

Other animals at the facility, like the scimitar-horned oryx, have been bred through less natural methods and are being researched for reintroduction.

Although originally native to the Sahara region of North Africa, the oryx was declared extinct in the wild as early as 2000, according to the International Union of Nature Conservation Red List.

Through techniques of artificial insemination, Marinari said the center and its partners have been successful in breeding a viable captive population.

Marinari added that the center is actually in the process of working on a “reintroduction program” with its partners within the Smithsonian as well as the United Arab Emirates and the country of Chad.

That program, Marinari said, “is hopefully kicking off this year in Chad” when “a number of individual [oryx] will be shipped from North America … from our partner facilities.”

Although these particular animals were not bred at the Front Royal institute,  Marinari said they are measuring the necks of oryx “to determine what is the best size radio collar.”

“You can breed animals and you can release them, but you also need to monitor them in the wild,” Marinari said. “If it’s not working, then you go back and you tinker [with] it a little bit and try and come up with something that’s going to work.”

Although the center has the capability and means to employ the aforementioned artificial methods, Wildt noted that the goal is to make those efforts as natural as possible.

The end goal is to provide autonomy for the animals to breed on their own terms, assuming they have the numbers for it.

“As long as the genetics are right, we can let the animals actually help select the other animal they want to reproduce with,” Wildt said.

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