Supporting Species Survival Plan® Programs from Behind-the-Scenes

The grey seal is just 1 of 115 SSP species that you will find here at Brookfield Zoo. 

Hello again! Last summer, I explained how the work conducted by our Animal Welfare Research team fits into the “big picture” of welfare science and international conservation efforts. But did you know that most Brookfield Zoo residents are also part of a larger community? That’s right, many species are tied to professionally managed populations spread across North American zoos. 

Brookfield Zoo is one of 233 facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This organization is dedicated to enhancing the welfare and sustainability of threatened and endangered species in zoos, aquariums and other professionally managed settings. To accomplish this, AZA created the Species Survival Plan® (SSP) Program to oversee population management for particular species by promoting conservation, conducting research, creating husbandry guidelines, making breeding recommendations and developing educational programs.

There are approximately 500 SSP programs, each of which is guided by a group of experts committed to maximizing genetic diversity and maintaining a healthy, stable population. These advisors are responsible for providing an overview of the current population status, as well as offering recommendations regarding breeding and transfers. This means that the SSP helps determine which pairs of animals are a good match (in terms of maintaining a genetically diverse population), and if necessary, will arrange for individuals to be sent to different facilities to be given the opportunity to mate. It should be noted that each SSP is supervised by a Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), which supports that SSP by coordinating with other conservation programs around the world. 

Our Animal Welfare Research team supports SSPs by conducting research designed to enhance the daily lives of individual animals. For example, we design studies to determine which types of enrichment are most stimulating for particular species. Here, Amur Tiger, Whirl, interacts with rock enrichment.

 Brookfield Zoo is home to 115 SSP species – including Jamaican boas, grey seals and snowy owls. Many of our staff members are involved with these programs as either vet advisors, committee members, program managers or nutrition advisors. Some also serve as their SSP’s Studbook Keeper, working with AZA’s Population Management Center to maintain the pedigree and demographic history of each individual in the population. The studbook is a registry of all births, deaths, current locations, transfers and even “family trees” of each individual.

So how does our Animal Welfare Research team support TAGs and SSPs? Nearly all of the work that we do aims to enhance the well-being of individual animals and promote reproductive success. For instance, we focus on improving animal management strategies, such as identifying appropriate types (and schedules) of enrichment, to ensure that we are providing stimulating environments. We also conduct behavioral and hormonal monitoring, while integrating more novel methods of welfare assessment (e.g. bio-logging devices), to determine whether the changes that we make to an animal’s routine or environment positively impact its quality of life. Ultimately, animals who are thriving are more likely to successfully reproduce and raise offspring. 

SSPs also sometimes encourage facilities to participate in specific research projects. For example, our Endocrinology Lab analyzed hormone samples for a multi-zoo study examining the reproductive patterns of Amur tigers. 

So, the next time that you stroll around Brookfield Zoo, keep your eyes peeled for our SSP species. Try to imagine how each is linked to dozens or even hundreds of other individuals spread across North America. And don’t forget about all of the CZS employees working behind-the-scenes to help these species flourish!

Dr. Jessica Whitham
Animal Welfare Biologist
Chicago Zoological Society

Posted: 3/20/2019 9:33:37 AM by Bryan Todd Oakley

CZS & Brookfield Zoo

Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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