September 25, 2018

How Zoos Support Conservation

End-Ordovician, Late Devonian, Permian-Triassic, Triassic-Jurassic, Cretaceous-Tertiary—the first five mass extinctions led us to where we are now: in the thick of the sixth mass extinction, also known as the Holocene. This current and ongoing extinction event differs from its predecessors because it is driven primarily by human impacts to the environment.

“We’re losing species that serve important ecological roles at alarming rates. The cascading effects directly impact humans,” said Drew Foster, an animal curator at the Phoenix Zoo and adjunct biology professor at the University of Advancing Technology.

Drew Foster, Animal Curator

According to Foster, insects are really important. We count on them to pollinate plants, create nutrient-rich top soil, decompose our garbage and provide food for many animals, including humans! About 2 billion people eat insects regularly. More people are starting to view bugs as a green, sustainable alternative to greenhouse-gas-producing cattle.

The destruction of a keystone species such as bees would profoundly impact the balance of the entire earth’s ecosystem. That’s why conservation is central to the mission of zoos accredited y the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). AZA-accredited zoos collectively spent $126 million on local and global conservation efforts in 2016 alone.

Black-Footed Ferret, Phoenix Zoo

Zoos often provide a safe haven and breeding ground for assurance populations or “backup populations” of animals near extinction. For example, the Phoenix Zoo plays an instrumental role in sustaining the black-footed ferret, which biologists believed to be extinct twice. Other species that benefit from the conservation efforts of zoos include prairie butterflies, clouded leopards, and California condors.

“AZA-accredited zoos form one large community that works together to fulfill our obligation to provide exceptional animal care that meets both their environmental and psychological needs,” Foster said. He collaborates with population managers at zoos across the country to ensure the optimal health of animals in their care and optimize conservation and education efforts.

Zoos also frequently partner with community and governmental organizations on important initiatives too. For example, the Phoenix Zoo assisted the Arizona Game and Fish Department with the safe transportation of common chuckwallas when a highway expansion program resulted in a loss of their habitat.

Biologists often turn to tech when they encounter unique challenges. New tech helps them work smarter and learn more about spices that they work to protect. For example, smaller tracking devices enable researchers to study smaller species such as snakes and birds. Foster has used radio telemetry to study the ecology of snakes. “These tools not only enable biologists to learn more about the environment, they also enable us to study human impact on ecology,” Foster said.

Zoos are also capitalizing on cool new tech to engage and educate visitors. The Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia incorporated augmented reality (AR) in their 2015 Dinosaurs in the Wild exhibit to enrich the experience with animations that depict the way each dinosaur moved, ate and lived. Scientists at Zoo Atlanta collaborated with industry partners to build the Orangutan Learning Tree, designed to encourage the apes to interact with a built-in computer. Through play, the orangutans learned how to categorize objects. And with the popularity of animal cloning growing, we may get to visit zoos full of extinct animals in the near future! Who is up for a woolly mammoth petting zoo?

Foster believes that the biggest challenge facing zoos today is the lack of understanding or knowledge of the need for conservation. This urgent need for more education inspired Foster to teach a class on zoos and conservations at a tech school, where he came to “teach the people who will make the technology of the future to think like conservationists.”

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