It’s the scientific side of the zoo most people never see. Seventy miles outside D.C., in Front Royal, VA, scientists are studying the complex process of breeding cheetahs, black footed ferrets and cranes. The goal: rescuing species on the brink of extinction. We talk with the head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Guests

  • Steven Monfort Director, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (Front Royal, VA)

Stories From the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Specialists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, VA, discuss how they brought back two species from the brink of extinction – the Prezewalski horse and the black-footed ferret:

The Kojo Nnamdi Show: Janine Brown, a reproductive physiologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, VA., talks about the steep learning curve in assessing and improving animal fertility across species:

Transcript

  • 12:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's a Smithsonian Institution task that's saving and breeding the world's most endangered species. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., a converted Army base at the beginning of Skyline Drive, home to cheetahs of Namibia, cranes of Northeast Asia and wild horses of the Asian Steppe. The goal is to breed stable populations in captivity with scientists playing the role of Match.com or eHarmony.

  • 12:07:03

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the science of saving species is filled with riddles and mysteries, sometimes glamorous, sometimes decidedly unglamorous, tales of reverse vasectomies, artificial insemination and lots and lots of animal dung. Joining us to describe the science taking place there is Steven Monfort. He is director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute or SCBI. Steve, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:55

    MR. STEVEN MONFORTThank you, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.

  • 12:07:57

    NNAMDIAll zoos are a combination of museum and scientific institution. Most people are familiar with the public face of the National Zoo on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington, but tell us about the work you do at the Conservation Biology Institute.

  • 12:08:13

    MONFORTWell, first of all, the Conservation Biology Institute serves as an umbrella for the zoo's and the national and the Smithsonian's efforts in conservation biology, where we're about conserving species and the habitats they require for survival, and also about trying to train the next generation of conservationists.

  • 12:08:32

    NNAMDIOn one level, you guys are kind of like, as I mentioned early, eHarmony for endangered species. You keep track of the genes and ages of animals across the country, and you can make an educated guess as to which animals could and should mate. But the laws of animal attraction don't always work, do they?

  • 12:08:52

    MONFORTNo, Kojo. And what you have to remember is that, for many of the endangered species that we care for, the founder populations are incredibly small. So imagine if 10 or 12 or 14 humans landed on a desert island, and the goal was to maintain genetic diversity and founder representation for many, many generations to come. We can put a computer program together, and we can tell you who should mate with whom to avoid inbreeding. But then behavior and other types of things might come in to play that prevent your plans from being implemented.

  • 12:09:27

    NNAMDIWe went down to SCBI to meet some of the scientists doing this work. We've posted videos on our website. You can go there, kojoshow.org, to see some of the videos. One of the people we met was Janine Brown, who works in the endocrinology lab. She told us a very interesting story that gets to the complexity of the birds and the bees or, in this case, Pallas Cats.

  • 12:09:52

    MS. JANINE BROWNWhen I first started working here, the goal was to look at all the different 36 species of wild felids. And we were kind of assuming that, you know, cheetahs and leopards and tigers would be fairly similar to domestic cats, for example. And what we're finding is, there are huge differences in reproductive strategies that are used in -- that are being used even by very closely related species. And I think one of the most fun projects that I did was studying a species called the Pallas Cat, which is a really interesting-looking cat that lives in very high altitudes. So they're very bushy. They're practically all hair. And they -- as it turns out, they have a really, really short breeding season. They're only fertile for a couple of months out of the year.

  • 12:10:33

    MS. JANINE BROWNAnd we were helping a zoo, and they had a very unusual hormone profile. So the female was showing what looked like two breeding seasons, but they weren't getting pregnant. So I called the zoo, and I said, is there anything going on during this particular part of the year that didn't look natural? And they said, oh, we have what we call a festival of lights when we turn all the lights on at the zoo so the public can come in and look at the animals. And it turns out that that festival of lights was causing these females to go into a premature breeding season 'cause their hormones were turned on. But then the festival of lights didn't last very long.

  • 12:11:07

    MS. JANINE BROWNAnd when it was over, they're kind of going, oh, okay. It's not the breeding season anymore. And then when the real breeding season came, the males and females weren't synchronized, and they didn't have any reproduction. So the following year, the zoo moved the cats away from the festival of lights, and they had kittens for the first time. So that was just by accidental discovery. Serendipity always -- you know, you have to always be looking for that sort of odd thing out to try to figure out what's going on. So that was actually really fun. So now we know never to put Pallas Cats near a light festival.

  • 12:11:36

    NNAMDIWho would have thunk (sic) the festival of lights were keeping the Pallas Cats from reproducing? But, Steve Monfort, you also worked in the endocrinology lab when you started at SCBI. Endocrinology -- I'm reliably informed by my dictionary -- is the study of hormones 'cause she did mention the Pallas Cat's hormone profile.

  • 12:11:57

    MONFORTRight. Well, you can imagine if you wanted to study hormones in a wildlife species, perhaps a lion or some sort of a cat, you wouldn't go up and take a blood sample -- at least not every day -- and you wouldn't be able to study their patterns over longer periods of time. We use this very basic premise that the hormones that circulate around in the blood are eventually passed out of the body into the excreta, the animal waste, into urine or feces. And you can now pick up those samples right off the ground. The animals don't even know they're being sampled. And you can learn a great deal about their fundamental biology. I give you one example. This is pretty typical, what Janine said, but with cheetah as well. We've had cheetah in captivity for thousands of years.

  • 12:12:47

    MONFORTAnd it wasn't until about 10 years ago, when one of our post-docs was studying the reproductive patterns using fecal samples in cheetahs, that we discovered when you put multiple females together in the same enclosure, there's almost always one female that's dominant and suppresses the reproductive cycles of the subordinate individual. This is not a behavioral thing you could pick up, only with the hormones. So this has completely revolutionized the way that we now manage cheetahs. We keep females solitary, just like they would be in the wild. We keep males together in coalitions. And we now do breeding encounters that are more along the lines of simulating what you'd see in the wild. That basic science finding came directly from the study of hormones.

  • 12:13:21

    NNAMDIOur guest is Steve Monfort. He's director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. -- SCBI. If you have questions -- do you have any questions about the science of breeding endangered animals or questions or comments about the center in Front Royal, period? You can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or go to our website. Join the conversation there at kojoshow.org. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, or an e-mail you can send to kojo@wamu.org.

  • 12:13:51

    NNAMDINot all of the work you're doing is focused on exotic fauna from distant corners of the earth. The Institute is also doing some interesting work in our native environment. One project we find fascinating, you set aside a large plot of land and set up something called an exclosure. We've all heard of enclosures, but what's an exclosure? And what are you learning from that project?

  • 12:14:15

    MONFORTWell, Kojo, in this case, an exclosure is a -- about a 25-hectare or 25-acre parcel of land that has a fence that will keep white-tailed deer out of the -- in the area that you're trying to study. Why is this important? It's because white-tailed deer are overabundant in our area. As most people know, there's estimated to be 25 million white-tailed deer in North America. They have a tremendous impact on the forest. And what we say is, as go the white-tailed deer, so goes the forest.

  • 12:14:46

    MONFORTWhat we've learned over about 20 years now, if you look inside the exclosure and you compare the growth of trees and the progression of the forest, the dynamics of the forest, compared to the areas where the white-tailed deer are readily feeding, what you'll notice is you have a successional -- normal successional forest occurring. Small seedlings are growing. They're ready to grow as soon as a tree falls to take their place. In the outside, outside the exclosure, what you have is an absence of seedlings. The forest is essentially static, and it's slowly dying over time because the white-tailed deer are not allowing normal forest regeneration.

  • 12:15:23

    NNAMDIOne of the major lessons as, apparently, you've deduced, which you just told us, is that deer are literally killing our natural environment. So the forests that, to us, may be looking healthy from a distance -- if younger trees are being decimated, what does that mean for the future of those forests?

  • 12:15:39

    MONFORTWell, it doesn't bode well for the health of the forests. The eastern deciduous forest, this oak forest, that is so lush -- in fact, it's more prevalent now than it was in Colonial times. The whole Shenandoah National Park used to be farmland 100 years ago. It looks fantastic from a distance, but as you get down and you start to look at what's there, what's going on, the basic ecology, you find that there is trouble. And it has to do with this herbivory or overabundance of these deer who are eating the vegetation. This is leading to increased invasive species of other types of plants that normally wouldn't be found there. So the forest is out of balance, essentially, because of the deer's impact.

  • 12:16:18

    NNAMDIAnd what is -- what accounts for the overabundance of deer?

  • 12:16:22

    MONFORTWell, deer -- white-tailed deer, and this is -- they're overabundant. Let me make the point that half of the 40 main species of deer on the planet are actually endangered or threatened with extinction, but white-tailed deer are just incredibly resilient. They're what we call edge habitat animals. They love nothing better than to take a piece of forest, disturb it -- somebody to put their home in there, and they've got a nice little patch of green and some azaleas. And then the forest, they like to come in and out of that kind of a matrix. Also, reproductively, they can easily have triplets or twins in a good year when their nutrition is high. So they have this ability to fill the space incredibly quickly. It's amazing resilience to our efforts to try to put their numbers down.

  • 12:17:07

    NNAMDIThe irony is that, on the one hand, you have an exclosure, where you have a habitat to see how the plants will survive without white-tailed deer. On the other hand, you have endangered species of deer that you're also looking at in the very same location, so to speak.

  • 12:17:21

    MONFORTAbsolutely. So we're talking about the science of extinction and also the science of overabundance. And, fundamentally, I think it's about science to manage species and habitats for the long-term. I tell people that half of what we do out at our Front Royal facility is really about ecology. And, now, in the face of people's awareness of climate change and so on, we're doing work to try to document, what is the status of the forest now? How much carbon is being sequestered?

  • 12:17:52

    NNAMDIYeah, you also have been testing levels of carbon.

  • 12:17:54

    MONFORTAbsolutely. So we're one of the focal -- one of the 20 core sites in the United States for this effort called the National Ecological Observatory Network. This is a distributed program funded by the NSF, which will start to collect long-term data sets on carbon sequestration in the forests. If we're going to make good decisions about the future and climate change, we have to have good data, and it has to be collected over long periods of time.

  • 12:18:21

    NNAMDIMany of the exotic species at Front Royal have been kept in captivity for decades, even centuries, but for scientists, like yourself, you say it's pretty shocking what we don't know about these animals.

  • 12:18:32

    MONFORTRight, Kojo. I mentioned -- I heard earlier in the lead-in that there's about 5,000 species of mammals. And what we know about the fundamental biology of species is limited to only a couple of hundred of animals. Now, that's -- a lot of those are domesticated animals, laboratory animals and so forth, not really wildlife species. When we talk about our match.com model, when an animal doesn't want to breed for whatever reason, you know, we have to have basic science information before we can learn how to overcome that block, how we can do assisted breeding, artificial insemination and so on.

  • 12:19:08

    NNAMDISo it means, in effect, that just because we know how to detect hormone levels in a house cat, doesn't mean we can use that knowledge to predict when a cheetah or a spotted leopard is in heat.

  • 12:19:20

    MONFORTAbsolutely. We hear so much in the media about the big successes, of course -- cloning and in vitro fertilization and things of this nature come along -- and they're momentous accomplishments from a scientific point of view. But each individual species has evolved to be unique in its own way. It has its own mechanisms. And it's almost always a mistake to extrapolate what we know about a domestic species, a livestock species or even a cheetah to a leopard or a leopard to a Pallas Cat, for example.

  • 12:19:50

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Alex in Fairfax, Va. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:55

    ALEXHi, there. Thank you for taking my call, Kojo. I just had a question. I had read recently about efforts of conservation for a species of wild horse that's native to Iran, and I've read about efforts in Iran for preservation of the Persian cheetah. I was just wondering how it works with nations that have sour political relationships with the U.S., how the Smithsonian or the U.S. handles that type of conservation effort. And I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 12:20:31

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Alex.

  • 12:20:33

    MONFORTOkay. Well, first of all, politics is almost always bad for conservation and for species. We do have Persian onagers out at our Front Royal facility. We have only a small number. There's only about 40 to 45 individuals in the entire North American managed population, but they are a symptom of the problems that we're dealing with. We're talking about -- let's take tigers, for example. There's -- people don't understand that there were 100,000 tigers in 1900, and we're down to 3,500 or less now. And much of this problem is only going to be solved if we start dealing in a way that is across the entire tiger landscape.

  • 12:21:14

    MONFORTThere are 13 countries where tigers currently exist. Any one country working alone or by itself, in order to save tigers from extinction, will fail. So, currently, we're working very hard on something called the Global Tiger Initiative, and that's in partnership with the World Bank and the World Wildlife Fund and a number of other organizations to bring these ranged countries together to help them come up with action plans and help them adopt a strategy, including developing funding plans for how they can go forward to help save tigers.

  • 12:21:48

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. Our guest is Steven Monfort. He's director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. If you have any questions or comments for him, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Questions about the science of breeding endangered animals. You can also send us an email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:23:35

    NNAMDIWe're talking about the work being done at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., with its director, Steven Monfort. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you have questions about breeding stable populations in captivity, 800-433-8850, or about any of the science that goes on at SCBI, you can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question there. Or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. The zoo runs a lab, which in some ways looks and operates like a human fertility lab, and it's my understanding, Steve, that this lab actually tests all kinds of samples from across the country?

  • 12:24:16

    MONFORTActually, we monitor hormones in almost any wildlife species. If it's blood or urine or any kind of excreta, we'll take a crack at trying to figure out the code for being able to monitor those hormones. We also have scientists who specialize in the science of cryobiology or freezing of sperm, embryos and the like, as well as trying to manipulate the reproductive cycle of females. Not only biomedical science laboratories, but we also have spatial analysis laboratories for geographic information system studies. We use satellite telemetry and field ecology techniques on studying species all around the world.

  • 12:24:57

    NNAMDIPeople can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and see some video that we took of SCBI, but that may not give you a real sense of the scope of the activities involved there. How would you describe that, Steve Monfort, for our listeners?

  • 12:25:12

    MONFORTWell, first of all, our focus is on science and discovery, and we think that that's the foundation. We're part of the Smithsonian, and that fits with our strategic plan that the institution has put forth. And as a conservation biology group, our premise is that the conservation of biodiversity and functioning ecosystem is a benefit to human kind. So we're really emphasizing the science and solving problems in the field of conservation. Those are the fundamental things. And then the second thing is trying to figure out how can we inspire and train the next generation of conservation professionals. The problems we face are going to go on for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and we're trying to also work to inspire the public through our exhibits at the zoo and elsewhere.

  • 12:25:58

    NNAMDIThe Institute is closed to the public all year except for one weekend in October. Describe what it looks like for our listeners.

  • 12:26:05

    MONFORTWell, first of all, it was a Calvary remount station beginning in 1911, and so it looks very much like an Army base. Many of the same buildings are there, and it has that character. We have a horse cemetery and a dog cemetery where the camp commanders used to place their favorite animals after they passed away. So we're steeped in that horse history. And so it's very beautiful area. It's -- about 50 percent is forested areas that we use for ecology studies. About 20 percent is for farming. We do the hay production for the zoo downtown as well as for our own animals. And then the rest are a variety of facilities for endangered species.

  • 12:26:49

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones, again. Here is Stephen in Washington, D.C. Stephen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:26:56

    STEPHENThank you. I'm calling about bats in particular. And I'm curious as to why I'm seeing lightning bugs so late in the year. Is it because the bats are so severely impacted by the white-nose fungus?

  • 12:27:12

    MONFORTWell, that's a great question. I'm not an expert in that area. I can tell you that with bats -- insectivorous bats, we know very little about some of their feeding habits. And it's possible -- with white-nose syndrome has been going through the northeast of United States and wiping out hundreds of thousands of bats. Perhaps -- for those that don't know, it's a fungal syndrome that appears to be associated with mass die-offs that have been occurring, and yet, the reasons for the disease and the etiology or how it's spread and whether or not it actually is responsible for the deaths is unknown. So, right now, I think we don't have enough knowledge to answer the question about fireflies.

  • 12:27:55

    NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call, Stephen. With all of the successes the institute has had, a few years ago, you tried to develop a captive population of Virginia big-eared bats. You mentioned -- that was the fungus called the white-nose syndrome is what devastated that species. You took in 40 bats from a cave in Virginia, but the entire group collapsed. What happened? What kind of challenges did you end up facing there?

  • 12:28:20

    MONFORTWell, first of all, Kojo, that was a very challenging situation. The SCBI and the National Zoo, we have a long history of taking on challenging cases of bringing in animals for which nothing is known and making our best effort at figuring out the challenge of husbandry and maintaining those animals. The white-nose syndrome was affecting the Virginia big-eared bats. There are estimated to be about 15,000 animals left in the wild. And the time to begin doing the science is when you still have enough animals in the wild and not to wait until you're down to your last 100 or 200 animals.

  • 12:28:54

    MONFORTThe fish and wildlife service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was concerned about the impact of white-nose syndrome and asked us to participate in creating an insurance population. This was actually last year. We brought those animals in, and we encountered a number of challenges that ultimately led to many of the bats not surviving -- most of the bats, actually. So we don't know very much about why some of them died, in fact. But for a great deal of them, it had to do with things like stress, not being able to adapt to eating, some injuries and so on. But what was really working against us is this is a species that hibernates or goes into a state of torpor in the wintertime.

  • 12:29:34

    MONFORTAnd the animals were brought in, in around November, and many of the animals were already beginning to experience torpor at that time. And so we were working against their physiology to get them to adapt to feeding and so on. So what this really was an example to us was a case where it reminded us again of how different species are. And even though we reached out to experts that studied other bats and scientists and so on, what worked in one bat species, did not work in this species. We were not successful.

  • 12:30:07

    MONFORTWe still have four bats that are now thriving and doing well. But what I will say is that we're not sorry we took it on because, if we wait too long, then you won't even have the opportunity to make a chance at coming up with a successful protocol. And our staff was extremely dismayed about it, but they worked so hard -- I was very proud -- 12 to 16-hour-days, seven days a week. But despite their best efforts, we weren't successful.

  • 12:30:34

    NNAMDIThe idea with the big-eared bat project was to create something called a security colony. How is that supposed to work?

  • 12:30:41

    MONFORTWell, the idea with almost all species that are rare -- at least in the zoological community -- is to create something like a species survival plan. And in this particular scenario, what one tries to do is bring in a founder population that has a good cross-section of the diversity of genes that are left in the wild population and then reproduce them in a balanced way across many generations. We've had some stunning successes. One of them is the black-footed ferret. This was a species that was down to the last 18 surviving individuals. In fact, they had been thought to be extinct in the early '80s. And the Wyoming Fish and Game discovered a small group, brought them into captivity, and, of those original 18, 14 ended up reproducing.

  • 12:31:32

    MONFORTNow imagine if you just had 14 individuals, and you had to have every one of those founders try to reproduce. It's a very challenging thing. Our team was the first to receive ferrets out at SCBI. And since then, we've reproduced 23 generations. We've produced over 500 individuals, including 150 using artificial insemination. One of the coolest things is that, last year, we produced offspring from a male, Scarface, who was one of the original founder males with sperm...

  • 12:32:02

    NNAMDIScarface.

  • 12:32:03

    MONFORTHis sperm had been frozen for nearly 20 years, and he was long -- since left the earth. It was used to produce offspring. And now we have reintroduction of well over 1,000 ferrets in eight states, plus Mexico and Canada. So that's one of the places where this kind of approach of a security population, restoring animals to the wild, really can work. It's one of the examples.

  • 12:32:25

    NNAMDIThe black-footed ferret had been whittled down to fewer than 20 breeding animals when you started this project. Today, they are a couple thousand. We do have some video of black-footed ferrets at our website, kojoshow.org. But before the intervention, it's my understanding -- people didn't even know what ferrets ate. They assumed that they ate a lot of things.

  • 12:32:45

    MONFORTRight. And the basic science actually demonstrated that black-footed ferrets inhabit prairie dog towns, and they're imprinted on prairie dogs as their food source. One of the unique things we did out at SCBI is we actually constructed prairie dog towns. We brought in prairie dogs. They dug the burrow system. We took our pregnant ferret females, and we introduced them into the prairie dog town, moved the prairie dogs out, let them give birth. And then we gradually fed them prairie dog meat, and then eventually live prairie dogs. They learned how to actually kill prairie dogs to survive. This pre-release conditioning strategy was pioneered at SCBI and has now been applied prior to release for the black-footed ferrets that are now successfully reintroduced.

  • 12:33:31

    NNAMDIAnd we know that now -- that they are 100 percent carnivorous, correct?

  • 12:33:35

    MONFORTAbsolutely.

  • 12:33:36

    NNAMDICheetahs have been kept by humans for millennia. In some cultures, they were even kept as pets, and they have been held in zoos for decades. But humans have never been able to breed them in captivity until relatively recently. Tell us about your cheetah program.

  • 12:33:52

    MONFORTWell, the cheetah program -- I alluded to it earlier with the hormone work that we did. We've constructed a facility now that takes into account the natural history of the animal. This is something you would think that zoo biologists would have done 100 years ago. But, basically, what we do is we keep the females on their own separate small territory. We put the males together in small coalitions. And we actually have something in the facility, a central aisle way. We called it lover's lane. And this is where we introduce our -- we let our males parade by the females. They investigate one another.

  • 12:34:28

    MONFORTAnd based on getting aroused and the kind of interest that we can elicit, we can actually -- ovulation can be induced in a female, and successful breeding can occur. And we just began implementing this program in the last year, and we're very hopeful that we have a couple of pregnancies. We just had successful breeding using this new strategy in June, so it's really -- sometimes, the science ultimately tells you that the fundamental thing that's needed more than anything else is common sense, good husbandry and management.

  • 12:35:00

    NNAMDIMost of the cheetahs at SCBI were born here in the U.S. Will these populations ever be introduced into the wild?

  • 12:35:07

    MONFORTIt's unlikely at this time, but we don't know the future, Kojo. It's very difficult to predict. The numbers of cheetah in the wild are declining, along with many other species. And so the ideas that we're going to have these populations -- and we probably will have them for hundreds, if not thousands of years -- it's just very difficult to look that far forward and know what might be needed. I hope they're never needed, but, if they are, we want to make sure that we have a genetically diverse and healthy population available.

  • 12:35:38

    NNAMDIOn to Steve in Waynesboro, Pa. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:35:44

    STEVETed Reid was my mentor, and I was a zoo director. And in the '70s, I got to spend a number of weekends at Front Royal when there were only two Army Mules there. And I just want to say that I have sort of lost my taste for zoos, but, I think, the Front Royal facility is doing a fantastic job. Thank you.

  • 12:36:13

    NNAMDITalk about how the science of biology in this regard has evolved over the past 30 years or so, since he mentioned the 1970s.

  • 12:36:20

    MONFORTWell, at the same time, this evolution has involved zoos evolving. And zoos have really started to recognize that their own survival as organizations is going to depend on what work they do to conserve species. It's -- educating and inspiring people within a zoo is a fine mission. But the public is increasingly expecting that we're doing the work to connect this -- the work we're doing in captivity with what we're doing to save them in the wild. And science is just the fundamental part of that. So the best zoos are those that are evolving, that do recognize that science and conservation are fundamental, that we need more knowledge, more action. And, perhaps, we -- you know, the zoos will evolve to become synonymous with conservation organizations in the future.

  • 12:37:09

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Steven Monfort. He is director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. -- SCBI. We got an e-mail from Ed. "Is the zoo working on conservation of invertebrates as well? If yes, what species?"

  • 12:37:24

    MONFORTWell, the one that comes to mind is coral. We have, actually, a scientist, Mary Hagedorn, with a laboratory in Hawaii, and she specializes in the propagation and freezing of sperm from coral that are endangered in Hawaii and also in the Caribbean. So our scientists, as well as our husbandry staff, our zoo staff and the Invertebrate House in Washington are doing some very stellar work in this area. It's a new area people don't quite understand. But, you know, the parallel of things like coral, they're just as endangered as many other species -- maybe one in three species of coral are threatened with extinction. So these kinds of new scientific studies are coming on board, and our team is at the forefront of doing that.

  • 12:38:14

    NNAMDIHere's Rick in Fredericksburg, Va. Hi, Rick, your turn.

  • 12:38:18

    RICKHi. Hello, Doctor. How are you today?

  • 12:38:22

    MONFORTFine. Thank you.

  • 12:38:23

    RICKI'm sorry. Let me pull the phone up here. I recall back in the mid-'80s, the black-footed ferrets. Not only did you -- I was there to witness the original breeding population that you brought here, but you also had to create ways to train the black-footed ferrets about natural predators. I recalled that you used a modernized stuffed badger and an owl on a robo. I was wondering if you would describe that for the listeners.

  • 12:38:48

    NNAMDIYes. Talk about innovation.

  • 12:38:50

    MONFORTI have fond memories of that. One of our scientists, Bryan Miller, who was a post-doc at the time, actually -- we'd set aside a little arena, and we built tunnels for Siberian polecats. And they were the model that we used. And they would be in this burrow system, and then we would test their aversion to different stimuli. And those would include the kinds of things they would encounter in the wild, so birds of prey, badgers and so on. So they ultimately -- the ultimate hook there was robo-badger, and it was a stuffed badger on an electric car that was bought at RadioShack. And so Bryan would chase the ferrets back into the burrow system.

  • 12:39:33

    MONFORTAnd, actually, we did an experiment. Bryan did a release with animals that had been preconditioned versus those that were not preconditioned. And the survival in the wild of polecats that had been sterilized prior to release showed that the preconditioning, actually, was more effective than the control.

  • 12:39:52

    NNAMDIRick, thank you very much for that call and reminding Steve about that story. Here is Drew in Oakton, Va. Hi, Drew. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:01

    DREWHi, Kojo. Can you hear me okay?

  • 12:40:03

    NNAMDIWe can.

  • 12:40:04

    DREWOkay. My question is this. Your guest had indicated that they are interested in developing the next generation of conservationists. I have a 12 1/2-year-old who's a middle-schooler, who'd be very interested in an internship next summer. Do they have some kinds of programs like that going on?

  • 12:40:21

    NNAMDIFor young people?

  • 12:40:22

    MONFORTWe have a lot of great programs for young people. The zoo in Washington has a number of outstanding overnight camp experiences. They also have an award-winning summer camp that is run out and -- at Front Royal that is SCBI. And it's the week-long camp, and it's for nine to 13-year-olds. And I believe there's also a senior camp component for slightly older kids. It's a phenomenal opportunity for kids to come live and learn in the environment that we do our actual science, and it's a living laboratory. It's a phenomenal experience for young people. We also do education and training across the entire spectrum, from undergrads, from young people, but also undergrads, interns, professionals, post-docs and graduate students.

  • 12:41:11

    MONFORTWe have a really exciting program that's not going to fit for your daughter now, but she could plan for the future. It's a partnership that we have with George Mason University. It's called the Smithsonian-Mason Global Conservation Studies Program, and in this program, 15 to 20 undergraduates come and live in residence on our property for 15 weeks. And they get 16 units of credit, and it's really a phenomenal program. It's a life-changing experience for these young people. It's more of a Renaissance program for conservation, where we're exposing them to what are the problems and the issues and how they actually might make a difference in their lives.

  • 12:41:48

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Drew. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Steve Monfort, talk about his plans to open SCBI more than the one weekend in October, that it's open to the public right now, and take your calls at 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:43:55

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute -- SCBI -- in Front Royal, Va. We mentioned that it's open to the public one weekend in October. Steve Monfort, it's my understanding that you have plans to open it up more than that.

  • 12:44:13

    MONFORTWell, Kojo, we do recognize that we have a place in the community. And, especially regionally, we're trying to make a stronger effort to show our relevance to the communities in which we live in. One of the exciting programs that we're doing -- rather than just opening our doors, we're trying to work with special groups that might have an interest in doing projects with us, and I mentioned the biodiversity and work that we were doing with the forest. We're doing similar work in something called the Working Virginia Landscapes Program, and this is reaching out to other landowners.

  • 12:44:45

    MONFORTWe're a large landowner in this region. And now we're reaching out to others to try to solve some of the common problems that we face with invasive species, things like autumn olive and fescue and other types of grasses, and to convert our pasture management programs to do things like store better -- more carbon to enhance biodiversity, to work with other stakeholders and interest groups in our region and be a good member in terms of providing science and expertise by opening our doors and providing access to that science and to our staff. So that's one of the ways we're doing it. Short of opening the doors for tours, which we do periodically and so on, we want to -- we're really focusing on being relevant in terms of working in the areas in which we're living.

  • 12:45:30

    NNAMDIHere's John in Marshall, Va. Hi, John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:45:35

    JOHNHi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say I really admire the work that you do. I'm sure it's really, really, sort of quixotic or can be very depressing in the long run when you take the wrong view. But I'm actually a friend of Bill McShea, and I just wondered -- my question was, is it harder to get people interested in conserving insects and less glamorous critters? And I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 12:46:09

    NNAMDIJohn, tell our listeners who Bill McShea is.

  • 12:46:12

    JOHNI'm sorry?

  • 12:46:13

    NNAMDIWho's Bill McShea?

  • 12:46:16

    JOHNBill McShea?

  • 12:46:17

    NNAMDIYes.

  • 12:46:18

    JOHNThere's Bill?

  • 12:46:19

    NNAMDINo, no. You said -- you mentioned that you're a friend of Bill McShea. I was wondering who he is. But Steve Monfort can tell us that.

  • 12:46:25

    MONFORTWell, Bill McShea is one of our wildlife ecologists. And when you say...

  • 12:46:29

    NNAMDIAh.

  • 12:46:29

    MONFORT...quixotic, I think the -- actually, being a science administrator and working and herding a bunch of independent-minded scientists is maybe the most quixotic part of my job. Actually, insects is an area that deserves increasing research attention. If -- one -- by one estimate, one of our scientists at the Natural History Museum has estimated that there are probably 200 pounds of insects for every man, woman and child alive at any one particular time. In terms of ecosystem services they provide, agriculture would collapse. Civilization couldn't exist without insects.

  • 12:47:08

    MONFORTSo they don't get the respect that they well deserve. I do think that there are scientists at the Smithsonian that are fully engaged in the science of entomology and studying insects from all around the world. So it's an area that we do do, and we collaborate with those scientists. But it's not something that we specialize in at SCBI.

  • 12:47:28

    NNAMDIWhat is the weekend in October that people will be able -- members of the public will be able to come out?

  • 12:47:33

    MONFORTWell, it's the first weekend of October, the -- I think -- I believe it's the second and the third, and it ends up being an open house where people can come in. And all of our scientists show up, and they have -- basically, they demonstrate the work that they're doing. They interact with the public. There's an opportunity to see a limited number of animals. We're not set up for exhibit, but it's really a festival for science and conservation. It's a great time. It's a lovely setting, and people generally walk away feeling like they've learned quite a bit.

  • 12:48:04

    NNAMDIJohn, thank you for your call. On to Brian, in Alexandria, Va. Your turn, Brian. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:48:10

    BRIANWell, Kojo, first of all, I'd like to congratulate you on an outstanding show. As usual, it's perfect, and...

  • 12:48:14

    NNAMDIThank you, Brian.

  • 12:48:15

    BRIAN…your selection of guests is equally outstanding. And, Steve, I've got an enormous amount of respect for the work you do, and I'm very curious as to -- to ask you if you can share the anatomy of your funding. How much do you get from the government, if any? And, you know, if not, why not? Because it sounds like that's exactly where our tax dollars ought to be going.

  • 12:48:38

    MONFORTWell, funding is always a challenge. And, as you already appear to know, you can't do science without adequate support. The National Zoo receives a budget from the Smithsonian, and a piece of that goes to support the work of SCBI. If you count grants, contracts and our federal allocation, we're receiving around $10 million per year for our operation, which is -- encompasses the science, as well as the training. We're constantly writing grants and proposals. Our scientists are engaged in that almost full-time, just like most academic organizations would be.

  • 12:49:16

    MONFORTWe're increasingly trying to reach out and work more with private philanthropy and through corporations and foundations. But it's a tough environment and -- but it comes with the territory. And, hopefully, we can continue to be successful. Any and all help that we could get through our budget appropriations process is always appreciated. But in the meantime, we have to make up the shortfalls with our own ingenuity.

  • 12:49:39

    NNAMDIBrian, thank you very much for bringing that issue up. Across the entire natural history of this planet, species have always gone extinct, some would say, as part of the natural evolution of our ecosystems. As someone who works on these issues and considers how species affect natural environments, do you ever worry that you're fighting against nature in saving some species?

  • 12:50:03

    MONFORTWell, you know, fighting against nature -- the natural background extinction rate for a given species is probably one in 1 million species might go extinct in a given year, and that might be the replacement level. What we're actually seeing now are extinction rates that are 1,000 to 10,000 times that rate. And so, clearly, we're in the midst of an extinction crisis.

  • 12:50:29

    MONFORTThe IUCN just -- has done an analysis on 40,000 different species. And if you just look at those, the numbers are not encouraging. One in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, one in three conifers, one in three corals, and the list goes on of species that are either threatened or endangered with extinction. So we are very far past the point at which natural extinction rates are having an impact, and almost all of this can be accounted for by human causes.

  • 12:50:59

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet, who -- from Freshly Juice, (sp?) who asks, "Is, and if so, how is SCBI involved with plant conservation, aside from invasive species management?"

  • 12:51:12

    MONFORTWell, the plant conservation work is not a core of what we do in terms of our science directorate, although the forest conservation work, I believe, is pretty critical. In terms of what you -- you may not have heard of the Center for Tropical Forest Science. It's a series of plots originally created by straw at the Tropical Research Institute that Smithsonian has. Now, these plots were set up all around the tropics to monitor the dynamics of forest over long periods of time. We're now expanding that plot network into the temperate zone, and we have a plot set up out at SCBI. And this allows us to begin to understand more about the biology of plants. We have a botanist on staff now, but most of that work is focused on the broader level of forest ecology.

  • 12:52:00

    NNAMDIA number of people may remember that you grow the bamboo, which the pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo consume. And a year ago, as I recall, there was a little bit of problem growing enough bamboo for the pandas. How is that situation now?

  • 12:52:13

    MONFORTRight. Well, as I mentioned before, we do grow the hay for animals at the zoo and out of Front Royal at our facility. But, also, we've started to plant small plantations of bamboo out there. In reality, the bamboo requirement for our giant pandas is pretty massive. Our nutrition team works with private individuals who have bamboo patches around the city, around the Washington area, and they have these very generous folks who allow access to those. And our staff will go out and cut the brows and bring it back for the pandas nice and fresh every single day.

  • 12:52:48

    NNAMDISpeaking of private individuals, we got this e-mail from Ellen in Washington. "I'm a gardener who would love to help take some of the poo ruminants of -- created off your hands. Do you have composted poo available for pickup or sale? What type? How is it composted? Anything in it we should know of, like antibiotics?"

  • 12:53:07

    MONFORTThere are zoos around the country that have -- actually, zoo doo -- and other products of -- like products. But we do not have that product at this time. And, so far, we don't have any plans that I know of to make it available.

  • 12:53:20

    NNAMDIAnd this e-mail we got from Joanne. "Is it true that the overpopulation of the deer is due to the fact that they have no predators in this area?"

  • 12:53:29

    MONFORTSure. There's no natural predators in this area, and -- that would eat the white-tailed deer. Hunting is probably the only realistic measure that there is, or organized culling, in order to control the booming populations.

  • 12:53:44

    NNAMDIEarlier this summer, a 21-day-old red panda cub born at the National Zoo died. Apparently, the mortality rate for red panda cubs is roughly 50 percent, but it still was something of a shock. What typically happens when we have an animal death?

  • 12:53:59

    MONFORTWell, first of all, every single death that occurs at the National Zoo is a tragedy and something that we mourn and our staff feel very deeply about, but we try to learn something from each particular case. And so every single animal that does die is submitted to our pathology department. They do a -- what we call a necropsy exam and a full pathology report, so we try to learn from each instance. You know, what was the cause of death? What was the disease etiology, if it existed? And if we, you know, can learn something from that, that will help to reduce the mortality in the future, then that's a good outcome.

  • 12:54:36

    NNAMDIAfter you save an animal, like the black-footed ferret or the Przewalski's horse from the brink of extinction, how can you manage the population when so many of the animals are, well, related to one another?

  • 12:54:50

    MONFORTWell, the management issue -- and this is something I would point out to people -- is that there's never a time when you say, a mission accomplished, because just because you re-introduce a species to the wild doesn't mean that there won't be a future catastrophe or some other reason that the animal could go extinct again. And so we're in a situation of having to maintain gene diversity over time spans that people just are not accustomed to. We tend to think of our career spans as being 20, 30 years, and we're going to solve the problem and make the impact.

  • 12:55:22

    MONFORTThis is why we focus so much on not just the science but on the training, so that we can make the right skills available to people that can carry on for generations. And that's what we're dealing with, is a -- really, a trans-generational issue of maintaining diversity of these reservoir populations.

  • 12:55:39

    NNAMDIWhen we talk about the Przewalski horse population, that was the species that necessitated a reverse vasectomy, right?

  • 12:55:46

    MONFORTYes. And I'm the chairman of the North American Species Survival Plan. Basically, it's a stud book. It's a pedigree analysis. And an animal is -- your value in the population, genetically, can go up or down depending on how many other individuals you happen to be related to. What can occur is that certain animals might die without reproducing, and all of a sudden your relative value rises. In this particular case, this animal was vasectomized in the past. And over time, he was seen to be relatively more important genetically. And so we went through other procedures to reverse the vasectomy.

  • 12:56:22

    NNAMDIWe talked earlier about the Virginia Big-Eared Bat Project, but we got this e-mail from Deborah who says, "Could you, please, discuss the failures associated with that in terms of whether local bat rehabbers were consulted on this project?"

  • 12:56:37

    MONFORTWell, first of all, I can tell you that we consulted widely. We sent a couple of our staff for training at one of the major bat rehabilitator foundations. We had people with bat rehab experience on our team. We consulted with scientists. So we very much tried to reach out and to learn what we could before we started. And as I mentioned, it was a very challenging case. And I've already gone through and given a few examples of some of the problems that we had.

  • 12:57:03

    NNAMDIThere's a lot of things we didn't have a chance to talk about, so you have to come back, like the SCBI being very successful at breeding rare cranes like the white-naped crane. If you can talk about that for maybe 20 seconds...

  • 12:57:14

    MONFORTWell, the cranes are most of the large -- most of the crane species are endangered with extinction. We have white-naped crane and red-crowned crane, and, in terms of genetic management, we've specialized in doing assisted breeding or artificial insemination of -- in cases where a couple of females have gone and -- to be 25 to 30 years old and have never reproduced. So we've learned how to overcome that, and using artificial insemination techniques have been very successful.

  • 12:57:40

    NNAMDISteve Monfort is director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. Our thanks to Lindsay Renick Mayer for helping us to visit Front Royal, and our thanks to our own Anne. You can't stop her for helping producing the videos for this. Steve Monfort, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:57:57

    MONFORTWelcome. It's my pleasure.

  • 12:57:58

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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