Speed Reads

The future has arrived

Frozen semen may be the key to saving endangered species

What if there were a way to keep endangered species from going extinct?

That's the hope of a new project at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. Researchers at the institute are putting information about animals threatened by extinction in a "stud book" and chronicling their lives from birth in order to gain as much insight as possible into each animal's family tree.

"We analyze the... birth rate and death rate to predict how many offspring they'll have in a given year," Sarah Long, director of the Population Management Center at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, told The Washington Post. "We need to plan for that and produce more births. We do the family tree to determine who should mate with whom to avoid inbreeding."

The Washington Post reports that zoos face three core challenges with their animals: maintaining populations without allowing inbreeding, replacing animals without diminishing the population in the wild, and replenishing the hundreds of species of threatened and endangered animals that are disappearing. To combat these challenges, more than 400 biologists and researchers are dedicated to completing the stud books.

In addition to encouraging animals to breed naturally, zoos are attempting to freeze animal semen to be used as many as 10 years later. The Post reports that in some cases, scientists have even taken semen samples from the animals after their deaths. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is currently studying and breeding 22 animal species, from the Mongolian Przewalski's horse to the American black-footed ferret.

Barbara Durrant, a reproductive physiologist at the Frozen Zoo of semen and biological material at the San Diego Zoo, told the Post that the research is "correcting what human interference has caused" in the animal kingdom.