Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
By Emily Persico
“So we want 2735 to breed with 2764 because that’s a genetically valuable pair,” explains Amanda Lawless. The computer in front of her displays two columns of beetles, males on the left, females on the right. This pair is a match made in heaven – or, more accurately, a match made by an algorithm, which determines the rarity of different genes and rates the favorability of potential offspring on a scale of one to six. 2735 and 2764 – two beetles in a zoo – are a perfect genetic match. Together, they produce a beautiful little one.
This may sound like a bit much, micromanaging the relationships of beetles in a zoo, but it is entirely necessary. And it gets much more complicated with larger animals. Ron Kagan, the executive director of the Detroit Zoo, is in the business of moving polar bears.
“He was born in Denver, then went to Pittsburgh, and then he came [to Detroit],” says Kagan, as if shipping a polar bear across the country is a simple matter.
In fact, shipping animals is kind of a big deal, which is why matchmakers must consider factors like distance, age difference, and social compatibility in addition to genetic desirability. It’s a complex science but, without it, there would be no zoos.
This problem is a relatively new one. Before the 1970s, zoos would restock their populations with animals from the wild. These days, though, zoos manage their populations themselves, creating a closed system and a limited gene pool.
“The simple thing to do if we were breeding animals would be, for example, to have 100 giraffes in zoos and just let them breed on their own,” says Bob Lacy, one of the developers of the matchmaking software. “The problem is if we did that, probably five or 10 of the males would be good breeders, and they would exclude the other males from breeding and we would very rapidly have a population where everyone is closely related to everybody else, and therefore we would lose [genetic] diversity.”
In essence, the giraffes – or beetles or polar bears – would start inbreeding, and the whole population would eventually fail. Maintaining diversity is critical, and it is especially important when trying to repopulate a dying species.
So goes the case with the Mexican Gray Wolf. With just seven wolves remaining in the 1980s, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the bunch in and resurrected the population.
“We used the computer analyses to decide exactly which animals should be bred each year, how many to breed, so we didn’t lose any of those seven lineages,” says Lacy. “And from those seven, they’ve increased numbers up to, now, about 250. And they’ve been releasing ’em in the wild for about the last 20 years.”
The situation can get a little sticky, though. When animals naturally form genetically undesirable matches, scientists must act—sometimes to the detriment of the individual—to preserve the genetic diversity of the species. As a result, there are chimps on birth control pills, aardvarks with birth control implants, flamingos sitting on dummy eggs, and storks unknowingly raising chicks that are not their own. It’s a bit strange but, in the world we have created, it is all but necessary to save wildlife.