America’s “Superzoo” Promotes Biodiversity, Conservation
By Jane Morse, 11 July 2013
Washington — If you think of a zoo as only a collection of sad animals locked in cages, then you haven’t been to the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park.
About 2,000 animals representing 400 species live and thrive at this 66-hectare urban park located in northwest Washington. The only federally funded zoo in the United States, the National Zoo was founded in 1889 to provide leadership in animal care, science, education and sustainability.
More than 2 million people from around the globe visit this facility each year. What most people never get to see is an array of endangered species and the small army of scientists and wildlife experts who study them at the zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI).
Located on 1,295 hectares of rolling hills in Front Royal, Virginia, SCBI is devoted to training wildlife professionals in conservation biology and to propagating rare species through natural means and assisted reproduction.
“We are the focal point for conservation for the entire Smithsonian Institution,” Dr. Steven L. Monfort, SCBI’s director, told a group of foreign journalists who recently visited the facility as part of a program offered by the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Press Center.
No other institution, Monfort said, has a pool of expertise to draw upon that includes some 500 scientists with doctoral degrees, plus graduate students, postdoctoral students and trainees. Since the 1960s, all this brainpower has enabled the zoo to publish 4,800 scientific papers, more than any other zoo.
SCBI’s mission, Monfort said, is not just to understand biodiversity, but to take an active role in saving it — both in the United States and around the world. SCBI scientists work in 25 countries, including Panama, Peru, Gabon, Namibia, Botswana, Thailand, Malaysia, Mongolia, China, India and Jamaica.
“We’re about fundamental science, but we are using science to help resolve conservation problems and work on helping to train the next generation of scientists,” Monfort said.
SCBI also has one of the top reproductive science programs in the world, according to Monfort. “That’s important,” he said, “because we know virtually nothing about the way that species reproduce.”
Of the 5,500 known mammal species, Monfort said, about 220, mostly lab and farm animals, are understood in terms of their reproductive biology and behavior. “So we are right at the point of the tip of the iceberg in understanding how some of these species reproduce,” he said. “We bring them into captivity and they don’t reproduce and we don’t know why.”
But slowly some of the 25 species of mammals and birds kept at SCBI are divulging their secrets. Case in point: cheetahs.
Cheetahs are listed as “vulnerable” by the World Conservation Union, which has more than 1,000 government and nongovernmental organizations as members. Only an estimated 7,500 to 10,000 cheetahs are thought to endure in the wild. The fastest animal on land could not, it seems, outrun the depredation of human conflict, hunting and habitat loss.
Only about 30 percent of cheetahs in captivity reproduce, Monfort said. But by patiently collecting and analyzing fecal samples, scientists have discovered that when female cheetahs are kept in groups, as is the case in some zoos, the dominant member will excrete a hormone that represses the reproductive cycles of the others.
In the wild, female cheetahs live alone, and a male will pass through the territories of various females to find a mate to accept him, Monfort explained. So at SCBI, four and a half hectares are devoted to female cheetahs, each of which has her own yard. The males are paraded past them. End result: Four litters have been born at SCBI. And while this may not seem like a lot, it is a success for a struggling species.
With some 25 percent of all vertebrate groups at risk of extinction around the world, we humans need to worry, Monfort said. “Humans are part of biodiversity,” he said. “Ecosystems help humans survive.”
If ecosystems collapse, Monfort said, humans lose out on climate regulation, flood and disease controls, and many other benefits, including those yet to be discovered.
Smithsonian Institution resources make it uniquely qualified to uncover some of the mysteries, Monfort said. In addition to its own work on conservation and saving endangered species, SCBI is an international hub for other training organizations.
As for America’s “superzoo” as well as many others, Monfort observed: “Zoos have evolved from being places with a circus-type menagerie for people’s entertainment. … Zoos are looking into becoming conservation centers.”
See the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute website for more information.
Learn more about the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, nine research centers and more than 140 affiliate museums around the world, at the Smithsonian Institution’s website.