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The Population Management Center Turns 20

By Hana Johnstone, Rachel Bladow, and Haley Blackwell
min read

Two Decades of Cooperative Management, Scientific Advancement, and Conservation

What comes to mind when someone mentions the year 2000? The dawn of the millennium ushered in a wave of innovation: GPS devices became available to the American public, USB flash drives replaced floppy discs, and Japan released the first camera phone. As the globe experienced sweeping changes, the zoological community was on the cusp of its own major scientific and technological developments in the field of population biology. At the epicenter—a small team of scientists in Chicago, Ill., building the most advanced system of zoo and aquarium population management in the world.

In June of 2000, through a partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Chicago Zoological Society in Brookfield, Ill., and Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., established the Association of  Zoos and Aquariums Population Management Center (PMC). The creation of the center—the first of its kind among regional zoological associations—aimed to provide a structured organization to streamline the practice of population management and meet the growing demand for management expertise. In this spirit, Dr. Steve Thompson, the first scientist in Lincoln Park Zoo’s’ Conservation and Science Department, Dr. Joanne Earnhardt, former director of the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology at Lincoln Park Zoo, and Dr. Bob Lacy, senior conservation scientist emeritus at the Species Conservation Toolkit Initiative (SCTI) at the Chicago Zoological Society hired two full-time population biologists, Colleen Lynch and Sarah Long, as well as Studbook Analyst Emily Ford.

While the PMC’s initial team and collaborators undertook the task of setting up the first formal center focused on population management, their work was not completely without precedent.

By the 1970s, the North American zoo and aquarium community faced internal and external pressure to rethink the management of animals in managed care and shift focus toward conservation. Scientists at AZA-accredited facilities recognized the need to reduce reliance on wild imports and improve record keeping to ensure long-term sustainability of ex situ populations.

To address these concerns, AZA created a formal management program titled the Species Survival Plan®  in the 1980s. During the following decade, members of AZA’s newly formed Small Population Management Advisory Group (SPMAG), volunteered their time and expertise to develop the cooperative management of SSP species. SPMAG advisors collaborated with each SSP’s program leader(s) to improve data entry methods, resolve pedigrees, maximize gene diversity, and bolster demographic stability within the bounds of species husbandry and biology.

Although SPMAG’s pioneering efforts laid a foundation for the future of zoological population management, “two specific factors drove the need for the PMC: the intent to manage more species and to centralize the process,” said Earnhardt.

“Each SPMAG member used a unique approach and recorded their analyses and recommendations differently,” added Dr. Lisa Faust, vice president of conservation and science at Lincoln Park Zoo. “AZA recognized that to do [population management] the right way, we should have full-time staff members who use standardized approaches.”

While the formation of the PMC was an exciting time for growth within the AZA community, the organization was initially met with hesitation. 

“When the PMC began operations, program leaders were concerned that population biologists would ‘take over’ their programs,” said Colleen Lynch, curator of birds at Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens in Columbia, S.C., and consulting population biologist. It was important to establish that PMC biologists serve as advisors and still rely on program leaders to manage data and provide vital information about each population. The PMC “focused on making a comfortable and accepting environment. The ethos that was created has helped improve population management over time,” said Faust.

This ethos similarly allowed young scientists at the PMC to learn from population management experts and grow as professionals. “Steve Thompson, Bob Lacy, Jon Ballou, Joanne Earnhardt, Kevin Willis, Bob Wiese, and all of the SPMAG membership…taught us so much about science, politics, and the people skills we would need to build the PMC,” said Lynch.

Bali Mynah

This mentorship was reflected in the collaborative energy that characterized the Center’s early days.

“Having a small group of people all in one place working intensively on related projects...resulted in a real ‘think tank’ environment. Every day brought a new topic of conversation related to a unique animal population,” said Lynch. 

“Encountering a colleague as I walked down the hall could easily become a stimulating mini-workshop on demography or genetics,” said Earnhardt. 

Though there was no shortage of big ideas for population management, forward motion was not always fast. In the early 2000s, the day-to-day PMC office experience looked much different than it does today. Important documents were printed and mailed across the country and computers lacked the processing power required to deal with large datasets swiftly. These limitations were often a source of frustration.

“Even to complete very simple genetics calculations, you would start running the program, go home, and sometimes come back in the morning and realize you did it wrong,” said Faust. SSP planning meetings also functioned quite differently than the computer-facilitated ones held today, relying on whiteboards, magnets, and reams of paper to keep track of individuals in the population, pedigrees, breeding pairs, and transfers between facilities.

Over the last 20 years, technological developments have greatly improved daily workflow and population planning capabilities. A key advancement was the “widespread use of faster, more powerful computers, coupled with the adoption of standardized database systems for sharing population management” said Lacy.

Historically, the DOS-based Single Population Animal Records Keeping System (SPARKS), helped keep track of births, deaths, and transfers in each population. The Alexander Center released the software PopLink in 2006, to manage animal data. PM2000 (Lacy and Ballou, 2000), later updated to PMx (SCTI, 2011), enhanced studbook data analysis and allowed program leaders and population biologists to visualize demography, genetics, and breeding recommendations. Today, another major technological change is underway that enables real-time data sharing between facilities and studbook keepers. AZA studbooks are migrating to a global, web-based platform for data management called Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) for Studbooks (Species360, 2017).

Despite computer software’s essential role in PMC operations, “successful programs are built on communication and relationships—it is critically important that we don’t forget the role of people in animal population management,” said Lynch.

“Good communication has been key to making sure our specialized group of professionals is able to advise all of the SSPs,” said Kristine Schad Eebes, director of the Population Management Center. With a team based at Lincoln Park Zoo and across the country, effective correspondence between program leaders, population biologists, and stakeholders is necessary during all phases of the development of each breeding and transfer plan, the official report generated from the analyses and discussions at a planning meeting.

There are now over 500 SSPs that require advising, up from the 10 original SSPs created in the 1980s. Matching this growth, the PMC has expanded from four employees at its inception to include a director, five population biologists split between Lincoln Park Zoo and San Diego Zoo Global in San Diego, Calif., three administrative staff, two consulting population biologists, and ten adjunct population biologists hosted by various AZA facilities.

Over the past two decades, in support of the increasing number of SSPs, the PMC and adjunct team worked to create over 2,400 breeding and transfer plans, a process that involved collaboration with thousands of individuals at hundreds of facilities worldwide. Further, the AZA PMC served as a model for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) to build their own Population Management Centre.

Snow leopard

The PMC is now looking ahead at the next 20 years.

"Our goals, in the end, are to have viable populations and, unfortunately, wild populations are getting worse,” said Schad Eebes. Currently, there are approximately 20 SSPs directly involved in reintroduction programs, with plans for expanding this kind of involvement in the future. However, it is likely that tough decisions will have to be made by the zoo and aquarium community about which species need the most management and resources.

Advising SSPs can be complex, but some aspects of population management will get easier as technological innovations, research, and evaluation tools provide insight about the populations in AZA care.

“In the past, when we lacked pedigree information for animals, we sometimes had to omit them from the breeding population. With more precise molecular genetic analyses we can now often identify the relatedness of such animals and determine breeding pairs, allowing us to make optimal use of our valuable resources,” said Lacy.

Likewise, PMCTrack, the online database of breeding and transfer plan information, allows biologists to study population demographics and genetics over time and evaluate the success of past recommendations to improve the future management of each program. The PMC also aims to expand strategies for advising programs that require alternative planning methods, such as group-managed populations. Equipped with the latest technology and scientific findings, the AZA community will continue to be key players in species conservation.

One particular discussion from an early-2000s SPMAG meeting still sticks out to Faust. As senior-level members considered the future of population management in zoos and aquariums, some expressed concern that there would not be a “next generation of population biologists, scientists, and managers” to carry on their work.

The 20th anniversary of the PMC underscores that those early trailblazers had little to worry about in that regard. Many of the younger attendees of that meeting remained involved in population management. Some have become leaders in the field, spearheading technological and scientific advancements while mentoring the newest generation of population biologists.

Today, the AZA Population Management Center, along with a team of adjunct scientists and remaining SPMAG advisors, continues to provide the scientific backbone for advising population sustainability efforts, collaborating with zoo professionals, researchers, developers, and wildlife organizations worldwide to conserve species.

“It’s a pretty magical system when you think about everyone volunteering to move their animals...and to feel that all of this is not just for [one’s own] zoo or aquarium, but for the good of the species,” said Schad Eebes

Whatever changes the next 20 years may bring, the PMC, in collaboration with the AZA community, is ready to continue advancing the science of zoo and aquarium population management.

Hana Johnstone: Research Assistant at the AZA Population Management Center.
Rachel Bladow: Associate Population Biologist at the AZA Population Management Center.
Haley Blackwell: Studbook Migration Assistant at the AZA Population Management Center.

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