Team Mate

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Valley News Issue: August 2014
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The Phoenix Zoo and ASU band together to conserve Arizona’s endangered species.

At the back of the Phoenix Zoo, like the back of a classroom, dwell the misfits. Squirrels so sexually frustrating they attack a potential paramour on all but six hours in a single day of the year. Snails the size of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ear on a dime. Ferrets so disease-prone zookeepers must don biosecure clothing before entering their enclosure.

They aren’t the marquee animals that draw busloads of goggle-eyed third-graders. They aren’t even on public display. But they’re the cornerstone of the zoo’s lesser-known role as a modern ark for threatened species.

“Our big mantra is... our collection animals are ambassadors for their wild counterparts, so a really important way for us to demonstrate that is to be committed to conservation in the wild,” says Ruth Allard, executive VP of conservation and visitor experiences.

Since its start, the Phoenix Zoo has been a bellwether for breeding and reintroduction programs, and its role continues to grow. With the foundation of a native species conservation center in 2007, and a partnership with Arizona State University launched in January, this ark is poised to sail strongly through the choppy waters of species preservation.

Zoos have experienced a Cambrian-like evolution over the past 40 years, progressing from the image of a lone lion pacing his oversized birdcage to mini rainforests with orangutans. They’ve also increasingly focused on saving species from extinction. Arguably, the trend began at the Phoenix Zoo.

In 1962, preservation organizations approached the new zoo about a restoration program for the Arabian oryx. Operation Oryx became the world’s first global cooperative breeding program. Most of the wild Oryx in the Middle East today have Arizona ancestors.

Currently, the Phoenix Zoo is helping to restore eight of Arizona’s 37 endangered animal species. They’re piloting the first breeding program of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel. It’s been challenging. Hamstrung by bureaucracy, zookeepers waited six years for a breeding permit. Then the two females died, possibly due to stress from seeing the males through their barred cages. Program managers waited two years for replacement females; at press time, they hoped to receive them in July. Then they must determine the mysterious day on which the squirrels will breed. Meanwhile, the zoo has gathered reams of information about the species – a key element in all the zoo’s breeding programs.

Since 1995, zookeepers have bred and released around 15,000 Chiricahua leopard frogs, studying the species in the process. Together with the Smithsonian Institution, the zoo is examining the frogs’ DNA to see if certain populations are more resistant to the chytrid fungus that decimated the species. If so, they would selectively breed those populations to boost the species’ survival chances.

The Phoenix Zoo is in a prime position to do this work, says Stuart Wells, director for conservation and science. “Zoos spend a lot of time monitoring behavior changes and subtleties so we can make sure these animals stay healthy in the collection. Those same skills can be applied toward monitoring to learn about them. It becomes a huge asset to being able to do active field conservation.”

The new ASU partnership is crucial. The zoo already benefits from student researchers, who help with everything from monitoring behaviors of declining snakes to supervising seed collection for endangered plants. The partnership will provide more student researchers and increase public outreach. In addition, ASU associate professor Ben Minteer is launching a long-term zoo conservation project in his new role as Arizona Zoological Society Chair.

Jan Schipper, a conservation research post-doctoral fellow, hopes the partnership expedites the zoo’s conservationist vision. “The Phoenix Zoo is becoming one of the top in this field. If they can continue to raise the bar, then more and more zoos will take that initiative also. I really see this as an opportunity to take this model that they’ve created behind the scenes here and integrate it into everything [at the zoo] so people get to experience it.”


Four Arizona species in the Phoenix Zoo’s breeding programs:

Black-footed ferret
The Phoenix Zoo is one of six sites worldwide that breeds this ferret, believed to be extinct after its primary prey – the prairie dog – was slaughtered and devastated by disease. Thousands have been released into the wild; the Arizona release site near Seligman has proved highly successful.

Despite their size – 1.5 to 9 millimeters – springsnails play a vital role in limiting algae growth and improving water quality. The 12 subspecies live in a handful of Central Arizona springs, including Montezuma Well. All are in decline due to habitat loss.

Mount Graham red squirrel
Native to Arizona’s Pinaleño Mountains, these squirrels sparked controversy when the Mount Graham International Observatory was built in their territory. Wildfire, disease and habitat loss have reduced their population to about 270.

Chiricahua leopard frog
These amphibians with a snore-like call are native to the Mogollon Rim and Southern Arizona. The chytrid fungus, habitat loss and invasive species have wiped out 80 percent of the population.