Sustaining Wildlife: Uniting field and laboratory studies to ensure the long-term survival of endangered species in zoos and in the wild.
Accelerating major discoveries in the ecology, physiology, and behavior of endangered species that inform conservation
A key goal for the Institute is to elucidate the ecological, physiological, behavioral, and genetic factors that affect survival and reproductive success in zoos and in the wild. Our multidisciplinary approach is aimed at filling important knowledge gaps in our understanding of such critical wildlife issues as breeding biology, maternal care, stress, habitat requirements, and population dynamics. In many cases, we are able to successfully utilize similar, non-endangered animals in the Zoo’s diverse collection as models for their endangered counterparts.
Innovating and applying new techniques that enhance reproduction of endangered species
We strive to optimize reproduction, particularly in small populations, by applying innovative technologies pioneered for human and domestic animal reproduction to the cause of endangered species recovery. We pursue non-invasive approaches that provide managers with strategies that maximize preservation of genetic diversity over the long term.
Monitoring and managing endangered populations at the gene level to maintain fitness and ensure survival
Over time, small populations lose genetic diversity and their ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions, both in zoos and in the wild. Through long-term monitoring and careful management of endangered populations, we ensure that they retain maximum diversity and remain genetically viable. Our work has formed a key component of recovery programs for California condors, Anegada iguanas, Przewalski’s horses, black rhinos, kangaroo rats, bighorn sheep, and many others.
Discovering and understanding the impact of animal communication systems on reproduction and survival
We are working to better understand how animal communication influences reproductive success and other processes important for conservation. Our approach is to apply advances in the growing field of sensory ecology to help us better manage species in our care, as well as in nature. Knowledge of the perceptual abilities of animals is invaluable for mitigating human impacts on wild populations and modifying animal behavior to maximize success of challenging translocation and reintroduction programs. Our current focus is on koalas, cheetahs, African elephants, giant pandas, and polar bears.
Improving management of the living collections at the Zoo and Safari Park through scientific research and discovery
The world-renowned living collections at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park serve as a critical safety net should populations ever be lost from the wild. We work closely with San Diego Zoo Global curators, veterinarians, and horticulturalists in concert with partners at zoos and botanical gardens around the world to establish and maintain populations that can be self-sustaining over the long term.
Preserving Genetic Resources: Safeguarding the legacy of life by maintaining, utilizing, and sharing genetic resources in support of conservation.
Increasing our involvement in endangered plant seed banking
San Diego is home to more species of endemic plants than any other county in the continental United States. At the same time, our region contains more threatened and endangered species than any other on the continent, the vast majority of which are plants. Seed banking has recently emerged as an invaluable tool to prevent the loss of native plant biodiversity. The first of its kind in the region, our Native Plant Seed Bank is positioned to provide banked material to support research, conservation, restoration, and management. Our goal is to bank seeds from all of San Diego County’s native plant species over the next decade.
Expanding the depth and breadth of the species resource foundation of the Frozen Zoo®
Containing over 10,000 samples from more than 1,200 species, the Frozen Zoo® is the world’s largest collection of living cell lines and gametes. It represents an irreplaceable resource that serves as a crucial tool for managing and enhancing gene pools, promoting sustainable collection management, facilitating studies to inform conservation decisions, and preserving the legacy of life for future generations. The Frozen Zoo® is positioned not only to help us address current conservation needs, but also those yet to emerge.
Developing and establishing stem cell resources to support conservation efforts
Stem cells are the ideal genetic resource because of their potential to create whole organisms, including germ cells that are capable of generating sperm and eggs. We are exploring new potential applications of stem cell resources to sustainable population management, disease treatment, and the induction of resistance to genetic diseases through germ cell engineering. Initially, we are focusing on the critically endangered northern white rhino.
Devising improved field collection and preservation methods for harvesting plant and animal germplasm
Collecting and preserving germplasm is critical to the sustainable management of zoo and wild populations. It allows transfer of genetic material without the need to transport animals, reduces importation of animals from the wild, and supports the development of assisted reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination. With an emphasis on endangered carnivores, we are pioneering new techniques for collecting and preserving germplasm in the field.
Contributing to global networks for preserving bioresources by sharing our databases and leading cooperative banking efforts
We are committed to sharing information and developing cooperative bioresource banking efforts with our conservation partners worldwide. Global databases achieved through collaboration provide the knowledge base needed to prioritize and focus conservation efforts, identify and recognize new species, inform habitat conservation planning and reserve design, and support enforcement of international legislation to combat over-harvesting of wild plants and animals. We provide DNA and cell cultures from our Frozen Zoo® to scientists around the world.
Preventing Disease: Enhancing the health and well-being of zoo and wild populations through innovative diagnostics and research.
Developing novel diagnostic approaches and disease risk assessment to address population health problems
We continue to spearhead new approaches to diagnose diseases and assess health risks both in zoos and in the wild, with an emphasis on hoofed mammals, amphibians, and a variety of bird species. Our team is committed to identifying and confronting disease problems affecting population sustainability, as well as ensuring that reintroduction candidates are healthy and fit for release into the wild.
Identifying and characterizing new pathogenic agents and developing appropriate prevention and control methods and strategies
We work closely with San Diego Zoo Global health professionals not only to understand how diseases spread, but also to prevent and control them. Such knowledge is critical in responding to emerging disease crises and guiding management decisions. Two areas in which we have assumed a leadership role are avian flu preparedness planning and screening techniques for chytrid fungus in our Amphibian Disease Laboratory.
Investigating factors associated with susceptibility and resistance to disease using comparative genomics
Genetic studies are crucial to understanding the heritability of disease susceptibility. We use cutting-edge molecular technologies to identify genetic risk factors that threaten small populations, including California condors, ‘alala, Przewalski’s horses, and gorillas. Results of our work allow for effective management of genetically-mediated diseases, both in zoos and in the wild.
Developing better approaches for disease surveillance in zoo populations and animals destined for reintroduction
Pre-release health screening is essential in order to identify appropriate candidates for reintroduction, avoid placing wild populations at risk, and assure the long-term survival of reintroduced individuals. Through the discovery and application of rigorous protocols for disease surveillance, we are filling a critical need in the recovery of many endangered species, including California condors, Hawaiian forest birds, and giant pandas.
Advancing our understanding of disease ecology, especially the interface among humans, domestic animals, and wildlife
As habitats shrink and become increasingly fragmented, human and animal populations are coming into contact on an unprecedented scale. As a result, we are faced with a host of emerging and previously uncharacterized diseases. We seek to better understand disease interactions among human, domestic animal, and wildlife populations in order to protect our living collections and mitigate pathogens that put wild populations at risk.
Conserving Habitat: Protecting, studying, and managing the natural areas that support plant and animal communities.
Developing new conservation programs that utilize flagship species to protect associated habitats
We recognize the conservation value of wide-ranging charismatic animals and plants to serve as flagship species that can promote protection of entire ecosystems vital to hundreds of lesser known species. We are building on our past ground-breaking success with giant pandas by extending this promising approach to other species, including Asian leaf monkeys, koalas, African elephants, and aguaje palms.
Designing and implementing science-based approaches for the long-term conservation of managed natural areas
There is a pressing need to put into action habitat monitoring and management strategies that will ensure the long-term viability of preserved lands and the ecological communities they support. We have the expertise and tools to design and implement innovative methods to achieve this goal. In particular, we are expanding our efforts to develop long-term databases on population trends of key indicator species and pioneering new methods for invasive weed removal and restoration of disturbed areas.
Applying advanced telemetry and mapping technologies to habitat conservation issues
In our dedicated Spatial Ecology Lab, we incorporate GIS technologies, remote sensing, and advanced GPS satellite tracking telemetry systems to detect patterns of habitat change and resource use, better understand species distributions, and document animal movement patterns. Such approaches generate important data that can be used in the design of reserves that optimize population persistence by establishing corridor systems that connect areas of natural habitat, promote dispersal, and allow gene flow between small, isolated populations.
Managing field stations in biodiversity hotspots worldwide
We currently manage field stations in the Peruvian Amazon, the remote Ebo Forest of Cameroon, the Hawaiian Islands, San Clemente Island, and Baja California’s Sierra San Pedro Martir mountains. In the future, we hope to establish several more satellite research centers at key locations around the world. We believe that training local biologists in developing nations is critical for conservation efforts to succeed over the long-term. At these sites, our biologists are working on ways to improve ecosystem health and ensure the long-term viability of wildlife populations.
Using the natural lands surrounding the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to develop effective management strategies for San Diego’s native biodiversity
Of the 1,800 acres that comprise the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 800 are undeveloped, consisting largely of coastal sage scrub vegetation. This expanse of natural habitat, which occurs at the nexus of two regionally important habitat corridors, provides an unparalleled opportunity for determining science-based management strategies for our native biodiversity. As stewards of one of the largest remaining tracts of coastal sage scrub habitat in San Diego County, we are committed to taking a leading role in local habitat preservation and management.
Restoring Nature: Revitalizing functional ecosystems by restoring species to the wild.
Developing and optimizing release programs, including critical evaluation of sites, candidates, and strategies through multidisciplinary collaborations
Restoration of native species to their natural environments can revitalize healthy, intact ecosystems. We are a recognized leader in the application of science-based approaches to reintroduction biology. We are uniquely qualified to foster a comprehensive multidisciplinary approach that combines population genetic management, health assessment, and intensive behavioral, physiological, and ecological research in order to enhance success. Our leadership role is evident in endangered species recovery programs for kangaroo rats, Pacific pocket mice, California condors, Hawaiian forest birds, San Clemente Island loggerhead shrikes, Turks and Caicos iguanas, and mountain yellow-legged frogs.
Applying technological advancements to improve post-release monitoring of reintroduced and translocated populations
Previous efforts to understand the fate of released animals have been constrained by our ability to locate and monitor them. We develop and apply the latest technologies to track post-release success and guide intervention if necessary. From GPS satellite tracking of California condors and koalas to miniaturized telemetry developed specifically for tiny pocket mice, the data we obtain provide critical feedback to ensure that long-term genetic and demographic goals are met and allow us to improve the design of future reintroduction and translocation efforts.
Improving methods for managing the impacts of invasive species and restoring disturbed habitats
Invasive species are second only to habitat loss as a cause of extinction. Through our growing plant conservation program, we are working to develop new methods for controlling invasive species and protecting native plants from their negative impacts. At the same time, we have launched a research program centered on plant germination requirements, propagation techniques, and use of non-invasive radiography to assess seed viability in support of habitat restoration efforts.
Accelerating habitat recovery following wildfire and other catastrophic events
In 2007, wildfires damaged much of the cactus scrub habitat at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park 900-acre biodiversity reserve. Natural recovery of coastal sage scrub habitat has been slow, and is compounded by the invasion of exotic species. To assist the recovery process, we are actively restoring 45 acres of cactus scrub habitat that will serve as critical habitat for the endangered coastal cactus wren.
Inspiring Change: Educating and motivating people to take action that will protect and nurture the natural world.
Training new generations of conservation scientists regionally, nationally, and internationally
In order to have an enduring impact, we are committed to training the world’s future conservation leaders through mentorship, technology transfer, capacity building, and empowerment of local communities. Endeavors such as our unique postdoctoral fellowship program extend our reach by linking the scientific work conducted at the Institute with field researchers dedicated to implementing local outreach and education in the areas where we work.
Providing conservation science experiences to diverse student populations around the world
We believe strongly in connecting people with the wonders of the natural world in order to make a difference for conservation. We achieve this by providing unique hands-on conservation research experiences that engage students fully, drive their sense of curiosity, and create a sense of ownership for conservation problems that inspires positive action. Every year, we host a significant number of Undergraduate Summer Student Fellows at the Institute, as well as visiting researchers at our field sites around the world.”
Creating alternatives that encourage the sustainable use of natural resources
We work closely with local communities to collaboratively develop viable economic alternatives based on sustainable resource use. Internationally, we are working with rural communities in Mexico and Peru to develop alternatives to destruction of the forest, including sustainable harvest methods for native palms, ecotourism, and international marketing of locally-available non-timber forest products.
Engaging local communities in effective stewardship of natural resources
As the human population grows and natural habitats shrink, conflicts between people and wildlife are inevitable. We carry out a number of programs aimed at reducing conflict and helping ensure that people and wildlife coexist in a mutually beneficial manner. Our efforts to date have been focused on the Andean bears and giraffe. Our approach involves education regarding the realities and benefits of living with wildlife, promotion of innovative management approaches, and a philosophy that entrusts ultimate responsibility for natural resources to local communities.
Connecting students and teachers to the science of wildlife conservation
With the creation of a dedicated Conservation Education Lab, we are uniquely suited to connect people to wildlife by connecting them to conservation science. We provide diverse experiences that enrich lives, make technology accessible and relevant, achieve new levels of conservation literacy, and creatively showcase the Institute’s science programs and approaches. We encourage informal learning among students of all ages, as well as holding annual workshops for life science teachers that highlight innovative ways in which conservation approaches can be used to meet formal science education standards.