Front Royal, VA, United States
Front Royal, VA, United States

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is a unit of the Smithsonian Institution located on a 3,200-acre campus located just outside the historic town of Front Royal, Virginia. An extension of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the SCBI has played a leading role in the fields of veterinary medicine, reproductive physiology and conservation biology since its founding in 1974.Previously named the Conservation and Research Center, the CRC became known as the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in 2010 as a symbol of its growing independence from the captive animals associated with the traditional images of zoos. Wikipedia.

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Robertson B.A.,Bard College | Robertson B.A.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute | Rehage J.S.,Florida International University | Sih A.,University of California at Davis
Trends in Ecology and Evolution | Year: 2013

Human-induced rapid environmental change (HIREC; e.g., climate change or exotic species) has caused global species declines. Although behavioral plasticity has buffered some species against HIREC, maladaptive behavioral scenarios called 'evolutionary traps' are increasingly common, threatening the persistence of affected species. Here, we review examples of evolutionary traps to identify their anthropogenic causes, behavioral mechanisms, and evolutionary bases, and to better forecast forms of HIREC liable to trigger traps. We summarize a conceptual framework for explaining the susceptibility of animals to traps that integrates the cost-benefit approach of standard behavioral ecology with an evolutionary approach (reaction norms) to understanding cue-response systems (signal detection). Finally, we suggest that a significant revision of conceptual thinking in wildlife conservation and management is needed to effectively eliminate and mitigate evolutionary traps. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd.

News Article | March 14, 2016

Bill McShea broke into an infectious belly laugh when I ask him the question I’ve been posing to biologists, conservationists, and zookeepers for months: What is it about the panda? “Look at it,” he said, gesturing to snapshots of him jovially clutching baby pandas to his chest, which were tacked in his office at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. “It’s cute as hell. You have to say, ‘Is that real? Does something really look like that?’” McShea, a rosy-cheeked, bespectacled research biologist, has spent the last two decades devoting part of his studies to pandas, including annual pilgrimages to China to study the species’s habitat and collaborate with local conservationists. If pressed, he’ll admit a deeper fascination with the lesser-known creatures that share the pandas’ habitat—the Asiatic black bear, the takin, the tufted deer—but McShea has no trouble identifying what it is about pandas that’s so appealing to everyone else. And you really only have to look at one photo, or video, or GIF of a panda to solve the mystery. With its round ears, fluffy fur, stub snout, tubby tummy, and those distinctive, big black polka dot eyes, it’s not hard to see why people around the world are enamoured. But there’s a growing group of dissenting voices who openly and actively hate pandas. Bill McShea at the SCBI in Front Royal, Virginia. Image: Derek Mead/Motherboard They resent that this creature’s adorable features have allowed it to take over so much of our conservation consciousness, vacuumed up so much funding, and eclipsed the plight of other endangered species. The effort to save giant pandas from extinction is an expensive, time-consuming, and difficult endeavour. It’s one that some in the field have argued isn’t even possible to achieve. “They’re vegetarian!” “They suck at sex!” “They only have one baby a year!” The panda is an “evolutionary dead-end,” they argue, one that ought to be left to die while we focus our efforts on more likely candidates for preservation. At its core, this debate is really an issue of conservation theory. We’ll never be able to rescue every species from the brink, so we’re left with a difficult question: How do we decide where to devote our time, attention, and money? Which species make the cut, and which ones are left to disappear into history? A species that struggles to breed and dwindled in the wild seems like an unlikely candidate, especially if its only qualification is being cartoonishly adorable. But when you actually dive into the ecological reality, the arguments for not putting effort into panda conservation don’t hold up. The advantages of saving a species people actually care about are numerous, including that species acting as an umbrella for less dynamic but equally threatened species, like those takin—a hearty, furry ox-like creature that is listed as vulnerable—that share the panda’s space. Whether you love them or hate them, when you take a close look at the issue, one thing becomes utterly clear: If we can’t save the panda, we can’t save anything. Before humans came along, pandas were doing just fine. Though the species was always elusive, the panda’s prehistoric habitat was vast. Panda fossils have been discovered across southeast Asia: in China, of course, but also in Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Even as China developed and its population grew, the giant panda’s habitat remained hearty into the 19th century, occupying a vast range that covered six provinces. But by the 1950s, the panda’s habitat and population numbers had diminished significantly due to population growth and expanded logging and agriculture. In the early 1960s, China started to pay attention to panda conservation. The government established its first panda reserves, outlawed hunting the animal, and successfully bred its first cub in captivity. At the same time, the Chinese government reignited its practice of gifting the rare bear to other countries as a sign of diplomacy. The country truly began to embrace the animal as a national symbol and prioritize its preservation. “The giant panda only exists in China,” McShea told me. “The Chinese are not different from a lot of other cultures in that they like things that are theirs and theirs alone. And giant pandas are theirs. It’s a great national symbol for them.” Unfortunately, the panda’s habitat of cool, mountainous bamboo forests shrunk further—by 50 percent from 1973 to 1984—due to continued deforestation and farming over the next two decades, even as the Chinese government opened more reserves. In 1984, the practice of giving away pandas was replaced with loaning bears to other nations to display at zoos, for a maximum of ten years at a time and with a hefty annual cost. That same year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature moved the panda to an appendix I listing, prohibiting the international trade of the species for commercial reasons. By 2003, there were still only an estimated 1,596 pandas left in the wild, but efforts were beginning to pay off. Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has doubled down and invested significantly in panda conservation. The vast majority of captive pandas still live in China—only 50 live outside of the country—and now about 65 percent of the wild pandas’ remaining habitat is protected by the Chinese government (although it’s merely a sliver of the species’ historic range). Last year, we learned the wild population had grown 17 percent in the last decade. There are debates over the best way to estimate panda populations, such as measuring feces samples or tracking DNA, but scientists agree no matter how you tally it up, the wild population appears to be growing. Yet not everyone is as impressed by the cautious success of the global panda conservation effort. One reason: Although the Chinese government has invested significantly in the cause, it’s also benefitted greatly from it. Pandas are big business for China, which still owns every bear around the world. Zoos outside of China are only able to lease pandas, and it’s not cheap. Each zoo negotiates its own contract, so the fees vary. The Edinburgh Zoo reportedly pays about $850,000 to the Chinese government each year for its panda pair, while the National Zoo in DC forks over $500,000total per year for its four bears, according to a spokesperson. Elsewhere, panda pairs can go for as much as $1 million per year, with an additional one-time fee of about $200,000 for each cub born. Oh, and those cubs have to be sent back to China once they turn four. Bao Bao, born in captivity at the National Zoo, gets a fruit and ice "cake" to celebrate her second birthday. She will eventually go home to China to breed. Image: Jim and Pam Jenkins/Smithsonian's National Zoo “China now has a very profitable rental service for pandas all over the world,” said Ernest Small, a research scientist with the Canadian government who has written extensively on prioritization in conservation. “They’re exploiting this to the hilt and you have to admire them for it, but it’s not realistic to think of preserving them in the wild outside of very small preserves.” The fees paid by foreign zoos are ostensibly to support continued wild panda conservation efforts, but that hasn’t always been carefully monitored. In 1998, a lawsuit against US Fish and Wildlife Services over breeding-age captive pandas led to the development of a federal policy that dictates strict policies for any zoo wishing to bring in pandas. Zoos must prove that a significant portion of the fees they pay to China will directly benefit wild panda conservation, as well as show an active participation in research to advance captive breeding, habitat preservation, and reintroduction. But even with the stricter panda policy, not all of the money sent from US zoos to China for its panda loans is put toward conservation. A lot of funds raised for pandas also get eaten up by the cost of keeping pandas in zoos, which can tally upwards of $1 million per year—the National Zoo spends $3.6 million on its panda program annually. These dollars and even the money that is put toward conservation, some argue, could be put to much better use. Ever since we marveled at Mei-Mei and Mei-Ian, America’s first breeding pair of pandas, fumble around and fail to get it on back in the 1940s, we’ve been amused by the giant panda’s apparent ineptitude in the bedroom. We’ve wondered at the female panda’s uniquely narrow reproductive window—they’re only able to conceive once a year, for a period of about 30 to 48 hours. We’ve learned that female pandas can have fake pregnancies. We watched multiple panda couples flail about and fight instead of copulating. Much captive breeding is done through artificial insemination, and even then we’ve seen the death of more than one newborn cub. Newborn cubs are very fragile, like this cub, one of a pair born this summer at the National Zoo. One cub died within a week, the other survived. Image: Pamela Baker-Masson/Smithsonian's National Zoo In this context, it really makes it seem like pandas are terrible at reproducing. And that makes dissenters argue that we ought not bother trying. “Their breeding habits don't suggest a species brimming with vitality,” journalist Timothy Lavin wrote in a column for Bloomberg entitled “Why I Hate Pandas and You Should Too.” “Females only ovulate for a few days each year, and if a mother does manage to have more than one cub, she abandons the weakling. That's fine; nature's mean. But don't whine when a species with such habits falls into inexorable decline.” The trouble with this argument is that it’s based on a misunderstanding, according to David Wildt, head of the SCBI’s Center for Species Survival. If pandas were such poor breeders, it’s unlikely the species would have survived as long as it did before humans started chopping down its habitat. And in the wild, pandas don’t particularly struggle to reproduce at all. The difficulty with natural breeding in captivity is that we’re limited to just two animals, and that’s not the way nature works. In the wild, a female panda will attract lots of males, who will fight it out for the chance to mate with her. She might even mate with multiple partners in one ovulation period, Wildt explained. “This concept that they’re evolutionary dead-ends is just a fallacy,” Wildt said. “They’ve survived even though they’re only sexually receptive for 72 hours a year. I’m a reproductive biologist. I’ve been doing this since 1972. I don’t know another animal that actually reproduces like that. So I think they’re exquisitely successful because they devote very little of their energy to sex but when they mate, they not only have a baby, frequently they’ll have twins.” Lackluster libido isn’t the only criticism lobbed at pandas. Many conservationists have questioned whether the entire endeavor is in vain when you consider how much the panda’s habitat has shrunk. Even with China’s dedication to protecting land, the species’s habitat is a shadow of its historic range. Currently, wild pandas are limited to just 20 pockets of bamboo forest that dot six mountain ranges in China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. Those small groups of pandas average at about 50 bears, making them extremely vulnerable to environmental stressors like the mass bamboo die-offs that occur periodically. And because the habitats aren’t connected, those populations can’t merge. Even if the panda had a much larger habitat restored, part of the goal of captive breeding is to eventually reintroduce bears into the wild, an effort that so far has been unsuccessful. In 2006, China released a captive-born giant panda back into the wild, only to see it die a year later after falling from a tree following a fight with other pandas. But conservationists learned a lot from the first attempt to reintroduce a captive-bred panda, and future attempts will need to take place in areas that aren’t already the territory of wild bears. To make that happen, more habitat needs to be carved out, and those islands of bamboo forest need to be connected. So that’s what they’re planning to do. Conservationists are surveying possible corridors that could be protected to join the scattered panda reserves, expanding the effective area and providing new options for releasing captive-bred bears. Still, all the optimistic outlooks in the world aren’t enough for some skeptics who question whether decades of research and hundreds of millions of dollars are worth it to try to save a species with a population that still sits at fewer than 2,000. It raises the question: Were the last four decades and mountains of cash worth it for a few thousand bears? “Maybe if we took all the cash we spend on pandas and just bought rainforest with it, we might be doing a better job,” wrote naturalist Chris Peckham in a column in The Guardian. “I'm not trying to play God; I'm playing God's accountant. I'm saying we won't be able to save it all, so let's do the best we can.” In his argument, Peckham is cutting to the heart of the matter. For all the chatter about breeding habits and failed reintroduction attempts, the true debate circles around a question of conservation strategy. In an ideal scenario, we could protect all endangered species from slipping away. In a slightly-less-ideal scenario, we could approach the problem like one of economics: Where will we get the most bang for our buck? “It’s just benefit divided by cost, which is what you would do if you were buying rice,” said Hugh Possingham, a professor of mathematics and ecology at the University of Queensland. “It’s about as profound as grade three maths.” Possingham helped create a mathematical approach to conservation funding allocation that calculates the benefits, costs, and likelihood of success for conserving different species, while allowing the calculator to weigh the benefits however they see fit. A species could be deemed particularly beneficial because it is a key ingredient in the local ecosystem, or because it’s a pollinator for food, or because it’s the last of its genus. This approach was adopted by the New Zealand Department of Conservation to tackle its list of about 700 at-risk endemic species, and it proved extremely effective. New Zealand estimated it can now save 2.5 times as many species as it once could, Possingham said. This logical strategy still isn’t widely used, but it’s gaining more and more attention, especially from politicians looking to balance budgets, Possingham said, adding that the US Fish and Wildlife Services recently started inquiring about the idea. But as rational as this approach is, when it comes to donating money for conservation efforts, humans are famously irrational. “When you think of the panda, it’s just so absolutely representative of all of the features that people fall in love with as soon as they see it,” said Small. “All experienced conservationists and organizations do understand that, in the final analysis, you must get public support to get funds from politicians. In the practical world, I don’t really see another way that’s nearly as effective at getting the public’s sympathy than the panda and all the other iconic animals. They’re absolutely essential.” Even the New Zealand conservation effort plucked out 11 iconic species such as the kiwi that, regardless of their ranking, were added to the list of priorities. Even when you’re practising prudence, you need some wiggle room for the animals that capture our hearts. People love pandas, and they’re willing to pay for it. It’s difficult to rank specifically, but the panda undeniably attracts more direct conservation dollars than almost any other endangered species. At the National Zoo, at least 80 percent of all attendees to the zoo visit the panda exhibit, a spokesperson told me. A single donor gave the zoo $4.5 million last year solely for the pandas. The WWF, which uses the panda almost exclusively in its marketing—its logo is even a panda—drew in more than $98 million in individual donations last year. And for those who don’t have extra cash, they happily donate their time. “We do basic behavior watch studies on pandas and our volunteers record data for us by monitoring our webcams,” Laurie Thompson, the National Zoo’s panda biologist, said. “People love pandas, so it’s not hard to find people to sit there and watch them on the camera for hours to see if they move.” The somewhat sad reality is that people might not be so willing to part with their money or time for a species like the takin. It also happens to live in the panda’s habitat. In fact, the panda’s protected habitat overlaps with dozens of other species that are also in need of protection, according to a study published in Conservation Biology last year. The study authors found that 96 percent of the panda’s reserves overlap with key conservation areas for other endemic species—70 percent of China’s forest-dwelling mammals, 70 percent of its forest birds, and 31 percent of its forest amphibians live in the same area as the panda. Protecting the panda helps protect them all, and there’s little evidence these species would be paid any heed if the panda had been left to go extinct. A takin, one of the species that partially lives in the panda's protected habitat. Image: Lucy Takakura/Flickr “There was nothing to take away [by focusing on pandas],” McShea told me. “So, yes, everyone is obsessed with giant pandas, but look at all the other stuff that’s coming along for the ride. You set up a giant panda reserve, and there are 10 other great species living in the same reserve that are now getting protection that they wouldn’t have gotten without the giant panda. I see the giant panda as the first step in developing a conservation ethic and a sense of biodiversity and sense of preserving nature.” Last December, a five-month-old panda cub named Bei Bei made his media debut. Reporters gathered around, snapping photos and rolling film, as a keeper cradled the pudgy bundle of fur in her arms and placed him on a table. He then promptly fell asleep. Of course, it didn’t matter. A sleeping baby panda is as cute as a rolling baby panda or an eating baby panda. The debut—which consisted of a short question-and-answer period with Thompson, a weigh-in, and the nap—was covered by multiple media outlets. It’s understandable why conservationists get frustrated by our obsession with pandas. There are reams of species that are disregarded and vanishing before our eyes. Nature is brutal, and species have emerged and disappeared throughout the history of the Earth without humans to blame. But many researchers believe we’re currently in the middle of a mass extinction event, one that’s seeing species wiped out at 50 times the normal extinction rate. Why are we seemingly wasting so much time on one chubby bear? But when you look at the challenges of conservation, the success of the panda program, and the utter devotion people give to these animals, it becomes harder to argue against. If there’s any species on this planet we ought to be able to save, it’s the panda. If we can’t even restore a species beloved worldwide, we don’t have very much hope for the takins of the Earth.

News Article | February 20, 2017

An investigation into bird populations on the Alaskan island of Chirikof has turned up evidence that the Arctic ground squirrel might not be an invasive species after all. When Catherine West, a research assistant professor in Boston University’s archaeology department, arrived on the small island in the Gulf of Alaska, she planned to study how the island’s bird population had changed over time. More specifically, West wanted to see what native Alaskans’ food waste could tell her about the island’s bird population, and vice versa. She started to excavate the island’s middens (the trash dumps of ancient people) to see what the animal remains in there could tell her. She kept bringing up bones from birds, whales, seals, and, surprisingly, a lot of ground squirrels. “It was kind of an accident,” says West. “We didn’t know that they were going to be there.” She didn’t know, because it was commonly thought that these Arctic ground squirrels—amber rodents resembling small groundhogs—were brought to the island by Russian settlers only around 200 years ago. That recent (ecologically speaking) introduction, and the fact that they are known to prey on native birds and eggs, earned them the label of “invasive species.” If biologists hoped to one day restore Chirikof to its natural state, all invasives would have to go. But West was digging deeper than 200 years, 1,700 years deeper. Finding 2,000-year-old rodents on a remote Alaskan island began research—detailed in a paper in Conservation Biology—that highlights just how complicated terms like “native” and “invasive” can be. Chirikof Island, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge that stretches across 3.4 million acres of tundra and choppy ocean, is home to thousands of native birds and a few invading mammals. “Chirikof Island has introduced Arctic foxes, it has feral cattle, and it has these ground squirrels,” says Steve Ebbert, a wildlife biologist for the refuge. “I know where the Arctic foxes came from—I know very well where they came from. I know where the cattle came from.” The foxes, he says, came from Russian settlers. Documents show that about 200 years ago, Arctic foxes were let loose to fuel the Russian fur trade. And he has similar documents showing the more recent introduction of cattle. But documentation on ground squirrels—”not so much.” The ground squirrels were thought to be brought over by the Russians, as well, as fox food and to be harvested for their own pelts. But the lack of documentation on them led to some speculation on how “invasive” they really were, even before West got to the island. When she came up with 2,000-year-old bones, Ebbert encouraged her to dig deeper into the mystery. Back in her lab, West lays out three small plastic baggies of sorted and labeled “ground squirrel bones.” The bones are mostly humeri—arm bones—the longest no bigger than a pinky finger. They look old and have lost their ivory luster; they more closely resemble dirt, rock, or brittle bark. “This doesn’t look like a lot here,” she says, pointing to another six cardboard boxes of various animal bones, “But there are tens of thousands of bones. We sorted through 17,000 squirrel bones alone.” To answer the invasive question, West needed to know both when the squirrels got to the island, and how. Those answers, she hoped, were hidden in the bones, and she teamed with Courtney Hofman—then a PhD student at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics and now an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma—to look for them. With radiocarbon dating, Hofman and West confirmed that the ground squirrel bones were 2,000 years old, but they couldn’t say much beyond that. Did the animals walk over on a land bridge 10,000 years ago when the oceans were lower? That would certainly make them native, but West and Hofman couldn’t say. Maybe they swam or rafted over only a couple of thousand years ago. That would also make them, technically, native. Hofman and West knew that the native Alutiiq people frequently traveled from island to island; could they have brought the ground squirrels over? Any human involvement might label them invasive. Hopefully, DNA analysis would yield more clues. In many bones, DNA can degrade quickly, but Hofman was in luck. “Ancient DNA preserves better in cold, dry environments,” she says. Chirikof isn’t exactly dry, but the cold and the very recent excavation kept enough DNA intact so that the bones “worked pretty well.” Hofman extracted DNA from the cells’ mitochondria to look at a gene called cyt B. When it comes to knowing how two animals relate, cyt B is particularly helpful, because it changes and mutates at a reliable pace. Like a molecular clock, cyt B can indicate how closely related two populations are, and when they might have separated. They compared the cyt B in fossil ground squirrels to modern ground squirrels, both on the mainland and nearby islands, to see where Chirikof’s population might have come from. They got the results back; the ground squirrels weren’t closely related to those on the mainland. Their DNA most closely matched those from the Semidi Islands, about 45 miles away. “It seems unlikely to me that they rafted [to Chirikof] or swam there, because it is so isolated,” says West. “It’s well known to be extremely rough sea. It is possible that this little squirrel got there successfully, but it seems far-fetched.” Instead, she says, the ground squirrel might have been introduced by people after all, just not Russians. The most likely hypothesis, she thinks, is that they were carried there by native Alaskans, though for now she can’t say for sure. If that is true, then in the eyes of the refuge, says Ebbert, they’re invasive—though he is quick to point out that they are far from the most damaging species. The refuge has no plans, or funding, to eradicate Chirikof’s ground squirrels. Instead, says West, the more important point is the conversation that it brought up. “If we eradicate the cattle, we get back to a landscape that was pre-cattle, but it had foxes on it. So then do we eradicate the foxes to get back to a pre-fox landscape?” says West. “Okay, then we get back to a landscape where native people were using this island heavily. Do we go back, then, to before native people came to the island? What is our goal in conservation and restoration in the landscape? And it is out of that bigger question that all of this has emerged—and that is applicable anywhere.”

Loss S.R.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute | Will T.,U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service | Marra P.P.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Nature Communications | Year: 2013

Anthropogenic threats, such as collisions with man-made structures, vehicles, poisoning and predation by domestic pets, combine to kill billions of wildlife annually. Free-ranging domestic cats have been introduced globally and have contributed to multiple wildlife extinctions on islands. The magnitude of mortality they cause in mainland areas remains speculative, with large-scale estimates based on non-systematic analyses and little consideration of scientific data. Here we conduct a systematic review and quantitatively estimate mortality caused by cats in the United States. We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4-3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals annually. Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact. © 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.

News Article | February 5, 2016

The white-tailed deer, maybe the best-studied wild animal in North America, turns out to carry a malaria parasite that science has overlooked for decades. The malaria parasite in deer is a completely different species from the ones that cause disease in humans. A report in 1967 based on one deer in Texas had claimed that the parasite existed and a 1980 paper had named it Plasmodium odocoilei. But no one had reported it again until Ellen Martinsen of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., and her colleagues accidentally rediscovered it. Their find dashes the current belief that no mammals other than people in the Western Hemisphere carry their own native forms of malaria, Martinsen and her colleagues say in the Feb. 5 Science Advances. And the work also challenges the conventional wisdom that no members of the deer family anywhere have their own malaria parasites. “I feel a bit discombobulated by the paper,” says Penn State evolutionary parasitologist Andrew Read. According to the new paper, the parasite is found in 25 percent of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) sampled at some locations. “How could anybody have missed malaria at these levels?” he says. The parasite has so far appeared at very low concentrations in animals’ blood, but Read is now wondering what other forms of malaria biologists have overlooked. The old report of a deer parasite had been “really just a mystery,” Martinsen says. It came from a leading malaria parasite expert and so was difficult to dismiss lightly. But Martinsen wasn’t even thinking about it when she and Robert Fleischer were using genetic methods to survey for bird malaria parasites in mosquitoes at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  A peculiar sample of malaria-parasite DNA turned up in a mosquito that had bitten a white-tailed deer (a scenario gleaned from other DNA in blood the mosquito had fed on). Then smears of deer blood checked under a light microscope revealed actual parasites —in the forms they take while reproducing in mammalian hosts. So far, the parasite appears to be a phenomenon of white-tailed deer mainly in the southeastern United States, with some reports from as far north as Westchester County, New York. The parasite didn’t show up in genetic tests of some blood samples from elk, pronghorn, mule deer, black-tailed deer or even in all of the samples from white-tailed deer. Nor did it show up in mosquitoes tested from San Diego County in California. Testing has discovered the malaria parasite in populations of white-tailed deer, mainly across the southeastern United States, as well as in mosquitoes in the Washington, D.C., area. Deer in other parts of the country, as well as some elk and pronghorns, tested negative for the parasite (inset). Now what’s needed is large-scale sampling, says Juliane Schaer of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin. “There is always the chance that other deer, or other mammals, have malaria parasites that just haven’t been detected yet.” The mosquito Anopheles punctipennis, which could spread human malaria should those parasites return to North America, could be spreading the deer disease, Martinsen suggests.  DNA indicates that the deer parasites, sucked up during a blood meal, can at least make it from this mosquito’s gut to its salivary glands, where they might dribble into the next deer the mosquito bites. What effects that bite has on the deer could have been overlooked, too, says Steve Demarais of the Mississippi State University Deer Lab. In male sage grouse, for example, no measurable effects show up in health exams, but the birds infected with avian malaria don’t spend time on the breeding grounds as regularly or mate as early and as frequently as uninfected birds do. At first glance, “impacts are not always obvious,” Demarais says, yet behavioral differences matter a lot to an animal’s breeding success. More information on deer malaria is already on the way. Another research group independently rediscovered malaria parasites in white-tailed deer, says group member Diana Outlaw, also of Mississippi State. She and her colleagues have submitted a paper to a journal and are continuing to check the 30,000 mosquitoes they’ve collected for signs of the parasite and the animals the mosquitoes have bitten.

Pukazhenthi B.S.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Reproduction, Fertility and Development | Year: 2016

Wild ungulates throughout the world face the impending risk of extinction. Small founding population size, lack of interest in exhibiting wild ungulates and declining space in zoos are not sustaining ex situ populations. Animals managed in ex situ collections continue to experience >20% neonate loss globally. To ensure population sustainability there is a critical need to: (1) manage ungulates in large herds, increasing mate choice and reproductive efficiency; (2) improve husbandry and genetic management; and (3) develop consistent assisted reproductive technologies, including sperm cryopreservation and AI. Recently, new models in the management of ungulates have begun to emerge. Animal managers and researchers are also beginning to exploit advances in genomics to improve genetic management of their collections. Furthermore, the past decade has witnessed significant advances particularly in semen collection and cryopreservation in numerous species. Advances in gonadal tissue cryopreservation now offer additional opportunities to preserve male genomes. The new knowledge generated is enabling the creation of genetic (sperm) banks to rescue and enhance reproductive management of wild ungulates. The present paper reviews the threats to ungulate populations, the status and relevance of animal management and biomaterial banking efforts to ensure long-term survival of these charismatic species. © CSIRO 2016.

Mcshea W.J.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences | Year: 2012

Due to chronic high densities and preferential browsing, white-tailed deer have significant impacts on woody and herbaceous plants. These impacts have ramifications for animals that share resources and across trophic levels. High deer densities result from an absence of predators or high plant productivity, often due to human habitat modifications, and from the desires of stakeholders that set deer management goals based on cultural, rather than biological, carrying capacity. Success at maintaining forest ecosystems require regulating deer below biological carrying capacity, as measured by ecological impacts. Control methods limit reproduction through modifications in habitat productivity or increase mortality through increasing predators or hunting. Hunting is the primary deer management tool and relies on active participation of citizens. Hunters are capable of reducing deer densities but struggle with creating densities sufficiently low to ensure the persistence of rare species. Alternative management models may be necessary to achieve densities sufficiently below biological carrying capacity. Regardless of the population control adopted, success should be measured by ecological benchmarks and not solely by cultural acceptance. © 2012 New York Academy of Sciences.

Brown J.L.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Animal Reproduction Science | Year: 2011

Many felid species are endangered because of destructive human activities. As a result, zoos are being tasked with sustaining genetically healthy populations in case of catastrophic extinctions. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few species, most felids do not reproduce well in captivity. The ability to track reproductive activity via hormones is key to developing successful ex situ breeding programs. Through the development of noninvasive fecal hormone monitoring techniques, a high degree of variability in estrous cycle characteristics has been found to exist across the taxon, including the type of ovulation. For example, although all felids have induced ovulations, the occurrence of spontaneous ovulations varies across species, and even between individuals within a species. Clouded leopards, fishing cats and margays frequently have spontaneous ovulations, whereas these are rarely observed in the cheetah, tigrina and ocelot. There are marked species differences in the impact of season on reproductive function, with some being exquisitely sensitive to photoperiod (e.g., Pallas' cat), some moderately affected (tiger, clouded leopard, snow leopard), and others that are not influenced at all (e.g., ocelot, tigrina, margay, lion, leopard, fishing cat). One of the greatest challenges remaining is overcoming the problems associated with highly variable ovarian responses to ovulation induction therapies used with assisted reproductive procedures, like artificial insemination (AI). Success is relatively high in the cheetah and ocelot, but few pregnancies have resulted after AI in clouded leopard, fishing cat and tiger. Current knowledge of the reproductive physiology of nondomestic felids, including aspects of the anatomy, behavior and ovarian cycles will be presented, and how the rapidly growing endocrine database is aiding ex situ management efforts. © 2010.

Sharma S.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society | Year: 2013

Understanding the patterns of gene flow of an endangered species metapopulation occupying a fragmented habitat is crucial for landscape-level conservation planning and devising effective conservation strategies. Tigers (Panthera tigris) are globally endangered and their populations are highly fragmented and exist in a few isolated metapopulations across their range. We used multi-locus genotypic data from 273 individual tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) from four tiger populations of the Satpura-Maikal landscape of central India to determine whether the corridors in this landscape are functional. This 45 000 km(2) landscape contains 17% of India's tiger population and 12% of its tiger habitat. We applied Bayesian and coalescent-based analyses to estimate contemporary and historical gene flow among these populations and to infer their evolutionary history. We found that the tiger metapopulation in central India has high rates of historical and contemporary gene flow. The tests for population history reveal that tigers populated central India about 10 000 years ago. Their population subdivision began about 1000 years ago and accelerated about 200 years ago owing to habitat fragmentation, leading to four spatially separated populations. These four populations have been in migration-drift equilibrium maintained by high gene flow. We found the highest rates of contemporary gene flow in populations that are connected by forest corridors. This information is highly relevant to conservation practitioners and policy makers, because deforestation, road widening and mining are imminent threats to these corridors.

Studds C.E.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute | Marra P.P.,Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences | Year: 2011

Climatic warming has intensified selection for earlier reproduction in many organisms, but potential constraints imposed by climate change outside the breeding period have received little attention. Migratory birds provide an ideal model for exploring such constraints because they face warming temperatures on temperate breeding grounds and declining rainfall on many tropical non-breeding areas. Here, we use longitudinal data on spring departure dates of American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) to show that annual variation in tropical rainfall and food resources are associated with marked change in the timing of departure of the same individuals among years. This finding challenges the idea that photoperiod alone regulates the onset of migration, providing evidence that intensifying drought in the tropical winter could hinder adaptive responses to climatic warming in the temperate zone. © 2011 The Royal Society.

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