Online dating new tool for zoos with rare species
Attention, amorous guys: Killarney's an Australian cutie, but woo her with care.
The feisty gal once swatted at a beau who got a little close, and gave another poor fellow the cold shoulder during their introduction.
Undaunted, Killarney's friends keep updating her online profile in the hope of finding her Mr. Right. Like many of her contemporaries, the koala might find her dream date waiting somewhere in the files of a computerized matchmaking service, keepers at the Riverbanks Zoo theorize.
Just like the digital dating services that pair up people, so-called studbooks are used to match most animals held in captivity. The databases containing information on sex, age and weight — not so much about favorite comfort foods or long walks on the beach — are used by more than 200 zoos nationally and some internationally. They're practically taking the place of Mother Nature in the not-so wild world of captive animal breeding.
Now, new software is going to the Web, promising more easily accessible data, faster matches and — in a page out of the most particular of human dating sites — details on an animal's personality to ease what can be a testy process.
Zoos won't be required to document the turn-ons and turn-offs of each animal in Zoological Information Management Systems, a collaboration between about 150 zoos and aquariums that's a year or two away from wide distribution.
At the very least, though, the software will give zookeepers better access to species-level details currently found only in zoo husbandry manuals that now are mostly e-mailed back and forth, said Bob Wiese, director of collections for the Zoological Society of San Diego.
While there's no candlelight or Marvin Gaye being played in the back rooms of zoos, there are endless tricks used to get the animals in the mood, said Wiese, widely considered the authority on ZIMS. In China, breeding experts have claimed success putting giant pandas in the mood by showing them images of other pandas mating — panda porn, as it's been called.
"There are some frogs that you have to simulate rain for or they won't come out and breed," Wiese said. "Other frogs, they just need to hear the sound of rain and the sound of lightening and thunder. That's what sets off their hormones."
Around since the 1980s in paperback form, most of today's studbooks are in computerized databases. Basic information such as family tree, medical history, age and weight are entered by studbook keepers, then sent to a central location where the data is analyzed and converted into a "master plan" for breeding.
But the databases have their limitations. They aren't updated quickly and don't include the extra information from the dog-eared husbandry manuals on setting the optimal conditions for an animal's breeding.
So zookeepers who rely on the databases might not know, for instance, that satanic leaf-tailed geckos like group sex, that fighting equals foreplay for giant leaf-tailed geckos or that expectant gecko moms should eat snails.
That could mean the difference between a sustainable population and extinction of a species, said Ed Diebold, director of animal collections at Riverbanks Zoo, one of the only zoos to successfully breed several species of geckos.
"Big populations out in the wild breed randomly," Diebold said. "In captivity, usually these populations are considerably smaller than wild populations, which is why you can't afford to allow animals to inbreed or breed along closely related lines. That's why you have the studbooks."
Careful planning among zoos may take some of the wild out of "the wild thing" but it also ensures that the most genetically diverse animals breed, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquarium, which oversees all studbooks.
"To paraphrase an old Jeff Foxworthy joke, it's important that your family tree forks," Feldman said. "This way we can have a genetically diverse population."
The Columbia zoo is one of about 20 chosen to test the ZIMS software once it becomes available. Walt Disney World, which manages one of the largest collections of studbooks in the U.S., will be another test site.
"Studbooks are the key to our long-term breeding plans," said John Lehnhardt, animal operations director at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla. "We want to ensure that these endangered species are here for the future and that's really what the studbooks are all about. What we're trying to do is maintain a savings account in species."
Disney manages about 27 studbooks, like the one for the African elephant. It also holds one of the nation's largest herds of elephants, which includes a female elephant recently sent to Disney World from Riverbanks Zoo. Keepers remain hopeful that Tumpe is a good match for the young bull that's already fathered a few calves through artificial insemination.
"She is now cohabitating with a very handsome young male," Lehnhardt said. "We have put these two together in the hopes that we'll have some success."
It's not exactly animals finding love online, but experts say matchmaking software for zoos is bringing together the single most important factor in ensuring the survival of animals — people.
"It's really about us gathering the best scientific information we can get to make the best decisions about the long-term viability of our populations," Wiese said.