Sea ice is melting. Forests are burning. Species are clinging to survival. If you’re reading or watching the news and you care about the environment, holy crap, is it an awkward time to be a human. Sorry, planet Earth, our bad.
… But, it’s also an exciting time to be human. Because as much as we have a tendency to mess things up, we’re also really good at solving problems. We love figuring out how things work and why. We have heart. We care. We want to make things right.
If you haven’t visited a zoo since your fourth grade field trip, it may surprise you to know that some of our best problem solvers, with the most heart, are zoo biologists. There are multiple species that could have gone the way of the dodo and the thylacine — but didn’t, thanks to the tireless effort of zoos, staff biologists, and their dedication to a Species Survival Plan.
Let’s meet five species successfully protected by zoos:
One of the world’s most endangered canids — and the world’s most endangered wolf — the red wolf is a uniquely American species that once roamed throughout the southeastern U.S. Hunting, superstition (European settlers have a lot of tales about big, bad wolves), and habitat loss changed that, dramatically.
By 1969, the once prolific animal was listed as an endangered species. With fewer and fewer partners to choose from, red wolves were increasingly hybridizing with coyotes, diluting the remaining population. If the wolf was going to be saved, it was going to take one heck of a Hail Mary. Enter the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who worked in conjunction to establish a breeding program based on the 14 animals left of a species declared biologically extinct in the wild by 1980. A mere seven years later, the first red wolves were reintroduced into North Carolina, and today, more than 100 exist in the wild.
California is famous for a lot of things. Hollywood. Disneyland. A flag with an extinct subspecies of grizzly on it. With that in mind, there’s no way they were losing the California condor, as well. With only 23 of the birds gracing the skies in the early 1980s, San Diego Zoo and partners coordinated a plan to bolster their numbers, carefully helping wild condors to raise baby birds, while ensuring none of the young imprinted on humans. The hard work of the zoologists paid off in spades; today, more than 200 condors live in the wild, and are on their way to attaining a self-sustaining population.
The only native North American ferret, this species highlights just how connected our ecosystem is, having lost its footing in the prairie due to the extermination of prairie dogs. What people saw as a nuisance, ferrets saw as five-star meal, and without their favorite prey, they were in deep trouble. Habitat loss and disease did the rest, and so handily, that we thought we’d lost the species forever. In 1981, biologists were surprised to discover a small surviving pocket, and an aggressive campaign was mounted to save the species.
Check out the world’s only remaining wild horse, a hardy little animal with a hard-to-pronounce name. (Shuh-val-ski). Habitat loss, human-predation, and competition for water sources pushed these equines to the edge; they were extinct in the wild by the 1960s. Today, they’re fighting back with the help of National Zoo and Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. From classified as extinct in the wild to critically endangered, wild populations now exist in Mongolia and China, and the zoo continues to stand as a world leader in wild equid reproduction.
For more information about the fight to save the Przewalski, check out this article, which tells an interesting tale of zoo ambassador animals attracting the attention of the visitors who would go on to work tirelessly to save the species.
Karner Blue Butterfly
Pandas are adorable. Tigers are majestic. Both make charismatic ambassadors and symbols for conservation, but that doesn’t mean that zoos are forgetting the invertebrates. The Karner blue butterfly, once abundant from Minnesota to Maine, faced a dwindling population due to habitat loss. Without the flowering blue lupine required to complete their life-cycle (it’s literally the only plant the larva can eat), the insect began to disappear from entire states, including Ohio. Zoos like Toledo Zoo and Detroit Zoo captive-bred the animals and reintroduced them to the wild, monitored their populations, and worked on maintaining and improving their habitats.
The Karner blue is just one butterfly that could use a human hand; to help butterflies in the wild, consider planting native species in your garden to attract local butterflies.
Meet another invertebrate facing an uncertain future, the freshwater mussel. These mollusks are actually the most critically endangered animals in the United States. Fortunately, they’ve got people with the muscle (zing!) and backbone to see them through to successful reintroduction to wild streams and rivers. Columbus Zoo and Aquarium established the Freshwater Mussel Conservation & Research Center in 2002. Their continued work with the animals — including tagging and tracking individuals, and no, we’re not making that up — builds a future for the species’, and a better understanding of the health and ecology of their habitats.
If you’re interested in helping your invertebrate neighbors, check out this handy map.