Several SANDSWA members recently visited the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, in Escondido next to the Safari Park. I’d say the tour was amazing, but that would be underselling it.
We were led by Maggie Reinbold, director of Community Engagement. Maggie talks fast – we had to keep up – but there was a lot to cover: conservation genetics, reproductive sciences, population sustainability, disease investigations, plant conservation, recovery ecology, biodiversity banking.
Let’s start with the last one. We got to check out the Frozen Zoo – a comprehensive cell sample collection covering hundreds of species. We happened to pass by when the zoo team was pulling Northern White Rhinoceros cells for further study.
The Northern White Rhino story encapsulates the Institute’s conservation efforts. Critically endangered, the team is looking for ways to breed them, using Southern White Rhino females as surrogates. But before that happens, they have to determine whether they can use induced pluripotent stem cells to produce Northern White Rhino embryos.
There was a lot more on White Rhinos. The southern variety was having trouble reproducing across North America, leading to an endocrinology investigation. The problem was too much phytoestrogens in their diets, which was interfering with their hormones. The solution was limiting their intake of alfalfa-based pellets – they had to build a metal lattice to keep their big, hungry faces out of the feed – and providing them with a more grass-based diet that more closely replicated their native grazing.
What else is the Institute doing? What are they not doing? One team used genomics to analyze Jaguar poop to better understand their feeding habits and the pressures they may be under. And while we’re talking about excretions, Institute engineers developed a passive way to collect female panda urine to determine when they’re in estrus – a drain that funneled panda pee into a cup.
Researchers also used the institute’s genomic capabilities to determine why Nick, a Sumatran tiger at the Kansas City Zoo, wasn’t mating successfully. The analysis found a trisomy in his sex chromosomes, meaning Nick was sterile (sorry Nick).
On the plant side, researchers are trying to understand why some Torrey Pines are more drought- and bark beetle-resistant than others. Perhaps they have protective genes that could inform new treatments for sick pines.
A lot of these successes are powered by dogged determination. Just over a decade ago, there were only around 200 Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs in the wild, so when a scientist found 80 tadpoles near Idyllwild, CA, in 2006, it was a big deal.
The Institute tried to breed them, with little success. An extensive literature search (i.e., papers and records from the 1950s) revealed the problem – they weren’t giving the frogs the cold conditions they needed to hibernate. No hibernation, no mating. Wine refrigerators solved the problem.
On the community engagement side, the Institute offers free education for select teachers (including stipends), as well as workshops for kids in middle and high school years. In addition, they are trying to popularize citizen science initiatives, such as Wild Watch Kenya.
This is hardly an exhaustive account, but we all have deadlines to manage, and I’m going to cut it off here. Did you miss the tour? We understand, people have jobs and that can really limit play time. Still, Maggie and team were great. Get some friends together and set something up.