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With Zoo Science, Extinction Isn’t Forever

Three Fascinating Animals Extinct In The Wild,  On Exhibit At The Zoo

Right now, people are flocking to the Zoo to see a cuddly, chubby, toddler: giant panda cub Bao Bao. I’d be the first to admit that she sure is cute — I was fairly panda-agnostic before she was born, but now I’m as besotted as everyone else. But what sometimes gets missed in all the fuss over the fubsy is that she’s also part of an important conservation story:

Giant pandas are an endangered species. Fewer than 2,000 remain in the wild mountains of China, and habitat loss, climate change, and human encroachment threaten their future. Zoos and breeding centers, and celebrated births like Bao Bao’s, are helping save pandas.

But the Zoo holds even more dramatic stories — some of the animals at the Zoo wouldn’t be around at all if it weren’t for zoos. Once an animal has disappeared from its natural habitat, but before it disappears entirely from the planet, it can become “extinct in the wild.” That means that, while the wild animal is extinct, the species lives on in human care, in zoos, aquariums, or breeding centers.

(Not) the Last Unicorn

via Smithsonian National Zoo

For most people, extinction means gone forever. And sometimes it does. But with extraordinary efforts, unusual resources, and dedication, extinction doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

Take, for example, those animals you rushed past in a hurry to get to the pandas. Did you see something that looked a bit like a white deer out by parking lot A? You might have stopped to marvel at its long, arching horns, but you probably didn’t stay long. That’s a scimitar-horned oryx and may be the animal that inspired the legend of the unicorn.

The oryx is a fascinating species. Native to the sub-Saharan grasslands, they’re adapted to make do with very little water. Back in 1988, only a handful lived in the wild, and none have been seen since then.

However, the species survived in private hands, in zoos, and in conservation centers. Careful management, including strategic breeding and research on oryx biology, is helping bring the species back from the brink.

In addition to the oryx at the Zoo, 15 oryx live at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), the Zoo’s 3,200-acre facility in Front Royal, Virginia. Out there, animals have more space to live in a naturalistic herd environment. There are a handful of other institutions in the country like Front Royal; together they form the Conservation Centers for Species Survival, and they work with endangered species that need open spaces.

Conservationists hope to reintroduce oryx into their native habitat. But that won’t happen until scientists are sure that the threats that drove them to extinction the first time around — habitat destruction and poaching — are under control.

BFFs: Best Ferrets Forever

Another phenomenal extinction story lurks somewhere you might never look: In a corner burrow in the Small Mammal House. Curled up next to the prairie dog exhibit is a small, sleeping, critter: a black-footed ferret.

North America’s only native ferret, black-footed ferrets used to be abundant, feasting on prairie dogs and living in prairie dog burrows for centuries. With the advent of the John Deere plow and programs to poison prairie dogs, black-footed ferret populations crashed.

In 1967, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as endangered. No black-footed ferrets were seen between 1975 and 1980, and scientists assumed they were extinct. Until 1981 when a ranch dog named Shep killed a small animal and brought it home. It was a black- footed ferret.

Biologists moved quickly and discovered a colony of at least 129 black-footed ferrets near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Three years later the population had fallen to 31. Canine distemper and sylvatic plague were devastating the last surviving black-footed ferrets.

Researchers collected the remaining 24 ferrets, of which 18 survived (seven males and 11 females). No one knew much about black-footed ferret reproduction or biology, but through careful study and breeding, the population is recovering. The National Zoo has a colony of black-footed ferrets at SCBI Front Royal and has bred more than 750 kits, both through natural breeding and through artificial insemination.

Thanks to all this effort, black-footed ferrets are no longer extinct in the wild. Reintroduction began in 1991 and continues today; more than 2,000 ferrets have been reintroduced to their native habitat.

Wishing for Horses

via Smithsonian National Zoo

This last example of an extinct-in-the-wild species may be my favorite: who doesn’t love a horse story? Przewalski’s horses (which are typically called “P-horses”) went extinct in their native Mongolia and China in the 1970s. Some Przewalski’s horses survived in zoos and in private hands. Breeding, including at SCBI in Front Royal, has helped build up the population.

The Zoo had the first surviving foal born from artificial insemination in August of 2013. Zoo scientists have also done some ground-breaking work on Przewalski’s horses, including performing the first reverse-vasectomy on a genetically valuable horse. You can see a Przewalski’s horse on exhibit at the National Zoo next to the Small Mammal House.

The Neverending Story

These aren’t the only three species zoos have rescued from extinction. If you take care to read the signs, you’ll discover many more: a golden frog species that’s suffering from a fungal plague, birds extirpated from their island homes, and cat species that are so genetically similar that one bad plague might wipe them all out.

All of these species (and many more) have teams of National Zoo and SCBI scientists working to ensure their future survival, through techniques including improved veterinary knowledge, assisted reproductive procedures, improved insight into diseases and pathogens, environmental studies, and nutrition research.

It’s all happening at the Zoo!

Brittany Steff is a freelance science writer, web editor, and zoo devotee who lives in DC. Find more of her work at

Editor’s Note: Eager for more on extinction? If so, join the DC EcoWomen Book Club on February 12 to discuss “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.” This book combines the natural history of the Amur tiger, the illegal trafficking of animal parts to China, the sociological history of the Russian people in the Far East, and the difficulties faced by conservationists on the ground, all while following the hunt for a man-eating tiger in Eastern Russia. We hope you will join us for what will be a fascinating discussion (even if you don’t get a chance to read the book)!


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