Cheryl Asa, director of research for St. Louis Zoo, tests a sample.
Combining two sperm donors at Brookfield Zoo, cutting-edge science and nature’s tried-and-true reproductive methods, zoologists are fighting to save the wolves.
Traditionally, breeding programs in wolf conservation efforts entail physically transporting animals to and from facilities to mate and breed, wolf-to-wolf, which can be logistically difficult and ineffective.
So it was a heartening development last week when Felipe and Redford, two 5-year old Mexican gray wolves living at Brookfield Zoo, were able to contribute to science and their species through a donation of their sperm. It will be frozen and stored at the St. Louis Zoo in Missouri for possible future use in artificial insemination.
Encouraged by the collaboration between the two zoos, Joan Daniels, associate curator of mammals at the Brookfield Zoo, spoke optimistically about recovery efforts. “There’s been so much bad news for such a long time,” she said, speaking about the grim outlook for the Mexican Wolf. “But their outlook has become a lot brighter.”
Ongoing research points to a future where artificial insemination using frozen sperm and eggs may be a viable option. As a result, the zoos are cooperating to bank as much genetic material as possible from donor animals – animals like Felipe and Redford.
Like humans, animals cannot breed with others that are too closely related to them. This will pose a problem if scientists only have a limited group of animals – and therefore a small amount of genetic material - from which to breed. So, even if zoos have hundreds of wolves in captivity, eventually they will encounter the problem of inbreeding.
With the samples such as those being stored at Saint Louis Zoo, scientists could potentially use the genetic material from both living and deceased animals, giving breeders a far better chance of creating a population with enough varied genetic material for long-term survival.
Cheryl Asa, director of research at the Saint Louis Zoo, is a proponent of using artificial insemination instead of traditional breeding methods. “I would recommend it for wolves,” she said of the practice, citing high success rates in tests with artificial insemination.
Additionally, she noted, involving science could lead to a less traumatic conservation process for wolves. “They’re like us, they have their preferences,” Asa explained about wolf pairing. “You can’t just put two together and have them form a long-term, monogamous bond.”
Asa, who holds a doctorate in reproductive physiology, is in favor of preserving personal preference. Asa relayed the story of a female wolf named Frijole, who was valued highly for her genetic traits. She bonded closely with a male wolf whose genetics were significantly less desirable.
Initially, scientists were planning to separate the pair to allow Frijole to breed with a wolf with more desirable traits. But Asa encouraged the use of artificial insemination, with sperm from a genetically valuable wolf, while not splitting up the pair. That allowed Frijole to produce pups that could carry on a stable population while at the same time keeping her chosen mate. Frijole produced pups and, Asa noted happily, "The male took care of them as if they were his own."
Developing artificial insemination is not good news only for wolves, but for many endangered species. As Daniels explained, the future of many of earth’s endangered species is uncertain. At the current rate of loss, some of the earth’s most iconic and awe-inspiring animals – the black rhino, the painted dog – may well be extinct in the wild and exist only in zoos. While not excited about the possibility, zoologists are preparing for the possibility that they will be preserving entire species in captivity.
“We’re not just managing for today, we’re managing for the future,” said Daniels.