AZA News Releases

Conservation Success Stories in AZA-Accredited Zoos and Aquariums

Supporting Innovation in Marine Mammal Monitoring

Monitoring off-shore marine mammals is notoriously difficult. Variable winds, salt water and spray, and the need to remain sufficiently distant from animals to minimize disturbance are factors that have spurred much new innovation. AZA’s Conservation Grants Fund has supported the development and testing of several tools for underwater and aerial monitoring of endangered marine mammals. CGF supported San Diego Zoo Global, in partnership with the University of California, San Diego, to develop an acoustically-triggered underwater camera trap that is triggered when a vaquita vocalizes nearby and records a video for a preset amount of time. This same partnership also led to the purchase of a waterproof copter able to conduct close-range aerial surveys while providing a live video feed back to the operator. With vaquita populations perilously low, conducting accurate population counts and monitoring the animals is critical for management and recovery. CGF has also supported the Duke University Marine Lab as they sought to design, build, and field test a portable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imaging system capable of acquiring quantitative morphometric measurements and collecting other key health assessment data from free-ranging cetaceans at sea, specifically right whales and bottlenose dolphins. Morphometric measurements that have direct fitness consequences, such as body width and length, are rare in the health assessment of dolphins and whales and manned surveys have been prohibitively expensive. Field testing of the UAV system was conducted during bottlenose dolphin capture-release health assessments in Sarasota Bay, Florida; a project run by the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP).

Manatee Research Program

The AZA-accredited Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida is heavily invested in the research and conservation of the West Indian manatee. The Manatee Research Program (MRP) at Mote conducts year-round studies of manatee behavioral ecology, population ecology, and genetics. The MRP staff also advises manatee conservation and research projects for manatees and dugongs globally. This program partners with the State of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey Sirenian Project in organizing and maintaining a statewide Manatee Photo Identification System catalog. Along with the MRP, the staff at Mote conducts sensory biology and physiology research training on their two resident manatees, Hugh and Buffett. These research and conservation projects are efforts to find a balance between human activities and maintaining the health of manatee populations and habitats.

AZA and Partners Track Lake Sturgeon

In 2000, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI) and its partners began the “Saving the Sturgeon” program to restore this species once abundant in the Tennessee River. Through an intense captive rearing and reintroduction program, the partnership has successfully released more than 150,000 Lake Sturgeon to the River. In subsequent years, an additional 30,000 have been reintroduced to the Cumberland River. TNACI expanded  tracking capabilities by implanting sonic tags that broadcast unique signals, which allow allowing researchers to understand movements of sturgeon. To demonstrate the utility of the program, TNACI developed a classroom program to share information about this research with high school students. Through this program, aquarium naturalists are able to directly share results of scientific research during daily cruises.

California Condors Saved and Continuously Treated By Zoos

In 1982, California condors were on the brink of extinction with only 22 birds remaining in the wild. In 1985, only nine birds remained. In 1987, the first propagation program for California condors was established as a collaborative program with the San Diego Zoo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, and the Los Angeles Zoo. Condors were bred and raised by hand puppets to avoid imprinting of young condors on humans. In 1992, the first captive-bred condors were released into the wild in California. Three condors were also released in Mexico, where they had not been observed since 1937. In 1996, the Peregrine Fund released six captive-bred condors into the wild in Arizona, with subsequent releases every year. Currently, the population of California condors has grown to over 400, including 240 condors living in the wild. Lead poisoning remains a threat to condors, and zoos provide continual medical treatments for sick condors, including chelation treatments. For example, during a two-month period, zoo veterinarians at the Los Angeles Zoo treated 24 condors. Zoos have a strong education and awareness program with respect to condors. Dolly, hatched from an egg at the Oregon Zoo but raised by wild parents, is an ambassador for her species. Due to injuries that left her with the inability to fly, Dolly makes public appearances with zoos staff to spread the conservation message.

AZA’s Species Survival Plans – Based on Science

AZA accredited zoos and aquariums have been working cooperatively for nearly four decades in formal breeding programs called Species Survival Plans® that use applied sciences, including animal husbandry, small population biology, endocrinology, and behavior to carefully manage the populations in our care. 

Focusing on the Individual to Manage Populations

To genetically manage zoo and aquarium populations, AZA population biologists use studbook data to trace the pedigrees of individual animal back generations to their wild ancestors - some of whom were first brought into zoos in the late 1800s!

Keeping Animals Wild

AZA population biologists strive to stop evolution and fight genetic drift – so that the genetic diversity of the original founding animals from decades ago is retained to the same levels in the populations today, to keep the animals as wild as possible.

Pioneering Population Biology

Zoos have long been pioneers in the science of applied population biology – developing the concepts and software that are used for small, intensively managed animal populations even beyond zoos.

Learning How Zoos and Aquariums Get Involved in Conservation, Research, Education, and Environmental Sustainability

AZA’s Annual Report on Conservation and Science (ARCS) celebrates the field conservation activities, mission-focused research, education programming, and green (sustainable) business practices of AZA-accredited zoos, aquariums, and certified related facilities. Each year, the Association surveys its members for this data to understand the full suite of activities taking place both out in the field and at each facility. This information is gathered into a publicly searchable database and used for ARCS and a variety of other publications. We've learned about the considerable and meaningful impact zoos and aquariums have had on conservation of species in the wild, as well as the significant strides they have made in animal research, and the innovative ways they communicate with their visitors. Through these reports we have specifically learned that in 2015 alone the accredited zoo and aquarium community collectively spent $186,000,000 towards field conservation efforts and nearly $30 million on scientific research; that many facilities implement commingled recycling and composting on-grounds; that education programs focused on conservation issues reached 91 million visitors; and that 159 peer-reviewed papers, technical reports, book chapters, and graduate theses focused on wild animals, zoo animals, or visitors were published just that year. Explore the publications available online and see for yourself what accredited zoos and aquariums are doing to improve the lives wildlife and animals in their care.

Innovative Solutions to Save Birds from the Silent Epidemic of Window Collisions

A peer-reviewed study published in January 2014 indicated that collisions with buildings, specifically with transparent surfaces like windows, are one of the greatest man-made threats to birds worldwide. This study estimated that between 365 and 988 million birds are likely killed as a result of collisions with buildings every year, which can amount to staggering losses for many endangered and threatened species that range more frequently into urban environments or have urban areas in their migration pathways. The AZA-accredited zoo and aquarium community has taken meaningful steps towards preventing these collisions by implementing changes to their exhibits and by spreading awareness of the issue. According to reports submitted for AZA’s Annual Report on Conservation and Science (ARCS), Virginia Zoo partnered in 2013 with Old Dominion University to test a variety of different methods to mark the glass in their exhibits to reduce the frequency of bird strikes. Just last year, the zoo began to cover the windows at their tiger and orangutan exhibits with ultraviolet tape. After applying the tape in September 2016, they tracked frequency of collisions and found a 66% reduction in bird strikes on windows with the tape. In another example, staff at the San Diego Zoo began to test ultraviolet film which could be applied to glass panes on exhibits, in partnership with the University of Minnesota. The tests are performed in a highly controlled flight tunnel, which is a common method of non-lethal testing for bird collision projects. Other examples of zoos taking action were featured in AZA’s member magazine, Connect. They include; the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., which placed decals on its glass exhibits, the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, PA, applied ceramic dots to the surface of insulated glass called frits, the Philadelphia Zoo designed patterned film to place on windows, and the Bronx Zoo implemented special sun shades on windows directly above green roofs to reduce the visibility of glass to birds attracted to vegetation. AZA has numerous resources online that you can use to learn more about this ubiquitous issue, with steps you can take to make your living spaces more bird-friendly! 

Rescuing the World’s Most Endangered Corvid from the Brink of Extinction

Once comprising the largest native bird population in Hawaii, the Hawaiian crow, or ʻalalā, is now considered extinct in the wild with its only remaining individuals being kept in human care. This beloved species and cultural icon may have a chance at surviving in the wild again with the help of zoo conservation scientists and their partners. The Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) – a collaboration between San Diego Zoo Global, federal agencies, state agencies, and private landowners – was established to grow self-sustaining populations of ʻalalā for reintroduction, in addition to other species such as the nene (Hawaiian goose), palila (Hawaiian honeycreeper), and puaiohi (small Kauaʻi thrush). The birds are kept at two breeding facilities on the islands of Hawaiʻi and Maui, managed by the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Over 100 ʻalalā currently reside in both facilities combined. The goal of the HEBCP, also outlined in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s own recovery plan, is to bring the population to a point where it is self-sustaining and genetically diverse, and to reintroduce the animals into protected habitats across their historic range. The most promising sites for reintroduction are the Kūlani/Keauhou region, the Ka‘ū Forest Reserve, and the Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area, which are all managed and protected regions on the island of Hawaiʻi. Five of the crows were introduced to the Pu’u Maka’ala reserve in November 2016, but due to predation by the ʻio (Hawaiian hawk) and lack of food, three passed away, and the remaining two were brought back into human care. Despite this setback, conservationists remain hopeful about future reintroduction efforts. The next release is slated for late summer or early fall of 2017. This larger cohort of birds will be released into an area of Pu’u Maka’ala at a higher elevation, out of the ‘io’s reach, and with supplemented food. The birds will also receive training to be able to evade predators more effectively. With the combined expertise of the keepers that raised them and the scientists at the San Diego Zoo Global Institute for Conservation Research who monitor the program’s success, the tell-tale caws of the ʻalalā may one day resound again throughout the forests of Hawai’i.

American Burying Beetle Repopulation Project

The American burying beetle (ABB) is a scavenger species that feeds on carrion. This beetle helps return nutrients of decaying animals to the earth, which in turn stimulates the growth of foliage. By removing carcasses from the ecosystem, the ABB also helps keep fly and ant numbers down. The ABB is known as an “indicator species,” meaning its decline signals changes in the health of the habitat. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) initiated a captive breeding project to reestablish the ABB population. In 1994, the AZA-accredited Roger Williams Park Zoo partnered with USFWS and in 1995 became the sole breeding facility for the beetle recovery program. Over 5,000 beetles have been reared at the Roger Williams Park Zoo and Over 2,800 have been released in Nantucket, MA. The beetle population has stabilized due to the reintroduction efforts. The Roger Williams Park Zoo continues to provide expertise, husbandry, breeding data, and field support to the recovery program. In 2006, a Species Survival Plan® (SSP) Program was created for the ABB, the first for a terrestrial invertebrate.

Zoo Veterinarians Help Identify Deadly Amphibian Pathogen and AZA Members Commit to Protecting Impacted Species

Zoo staff were among the key players in discovering a novel pathogen and the effect it was having on amphibians. In 1991, Dr. Donald K. Nichols took on a position as a pathologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, following his experience as a resident there and as a pathologist at the National Institutes of Health. He had consulted with zoos and universities throughout the country and in 1991 received the bodies of three preserved California Arroyo toads (Anaxyrus californicus). The toads came from an ex situ colony whose population had declined 60% in just a few months; an unknown skin disease was responsible for their demise. Dr. Nichols reviewed amphibian pathology files from the Zoo’s collection and saw evidence of the same disease. Over the next several years, clues surfaced indicating that a chytrid fungus might be involved; however, no chytrids had ever been recognized as pathogens in vertebrates at that time. In 1996, a new outbreak of the disease affected the Zoo’s collection. The zoo’s resident pathologist at the time, Dr. Allan Pessier, and Dr. Nichols were able to locate and send fresh skin samples to one of the few chytrid experts in the world, Dr. Joyce Longcore. Dr. Longcore identified the fungus as not just a new chytrid species, but also as a previously unknown genus. The organism was eventually named Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, meaning “frog chytrid of dendrobatids”. While the organism was being identified, researchers in Central America and Australia began reporting identical situations of amphibian population declines in the field. While unable to culture the organisms, they had also identified the organisms as chytrids and Dr. Longcore later confirmed them as the same species. Since then, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have continued to conduct science and conservation work to learn more about and monitor this disease, prevent its spread, and participate in breeding programs to support species impacted by the fungus. AZA’s Conservation Grants Fund has supported projects in Colombia, Panama, and in North America to help members understand and respond to this disease threat.

About AZA

Founded in 1924, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, animal welfare, education, science, and recreation. AZA is the accrediting body for the top zoos and aquariums in the United States and nine other countries. Look for the AZA accreditation logo whenever you visit a zoo or aquarium as your assurance that you are supporting a facility dedicated to providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for you, and a better future for all living things. The AZA is a leader in saving species and your link to helping animals all over the world. To learn more, visit www.aza.org.


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