Lose Some, Find Some: or Today I Spill the Beans

So I’ve been keeping a secret. I hate secrets. They put so much distance between us. So today, I’m just going to lay it right out there. I think you’re going to like it.

First, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, an interesting species of turtle became extinct. Last seen in 1908, the Arakan Forest Turtle, Heosemys depressa, disappeared and was never seen again. It seems like a sad story, but stick with me. About 100 years later, in 1994, a scientist visiting a food market in Asia was astounded to find a few of these animals for sale! A relic population was discovered, and animals were taken into captivity in the hopes of forming assurance colonies and potentially increasing its numbers.

With wild-caught animals in general, and reptiles in particular, breeding isn’t a straightforward endeavor. With dogs and cats, boy + girl = offspring too numerous to count. With wild animals, the equation can be far more complicated. We are just beginning to understand and respect the complex social signals and mating rituals many animals require in order to reproduce. Cheetahs, for example, need a choice of more than one male in order to breed successfully. In the last ten years or so, our thoughts on cheetah reproduction has changed dramatically, and zoos have moved their charges to breeding centers when trying for cubs rather than keeping specific pairs of animals.

To complicate matters further, getting the first generation of wild-caught animals to breed doesn’t mean the species is automatically saved.  The offspring of these wild-caught animals are noted in the studbook as F1, the first generation born in captivity. Since it is no longer desirable, or in some cases even possible, to continue to take animals out of the wild, it is important that the F1 generation reproduce themselves. Breeding programs for many different species are in a race to produce the next generation, the captive-bred’s captive-bred, the elusive F2.

Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Take the white rhinoceros, for example. Animals taken from the wild, even as juveniles, have bred fairly successfully in zoos. The two older females at our zoo, for example, have produced an impressive ten calves apiece over the last 30 years or so. There are plenty of F1 calves in zoos around the country. But for reasons poorly understood at this point, there have been precious few F2s. The offspring of the wild ones are not having babies of their own.

Producing an F2 is a pretty big deal. It means that the diet and care given to the animal are more or less correct. It means that we’re moving in the right direction, and that we may be able to save some critically endangered species.

The Arakan Forest Turtle, an animal whose life in the wild we still don’t fully understand even 20 years later and whose diet and husbandry has been educated guesswork, has been bred in captivity several times. That’s great news, of course. But zoos and private breeders have been working with that F0 generation and producing  only F1s. Until now.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the first f2 Arakan Forest Turtle in the world, hatched at Knoxville Zoo about three weeks ago.

I looked in the incubator one afternoon, and this guy was looking back at me.

I looked in the incubator one afternoon, and this guy was looking back at me.

Click the images to enlarge.

This development is especially exciting because, unlike species who are endangered due to habitat destruction, there is still wild habitat for these animals to return to. If they continue to be bred in captivity in reasonable numbers, they may one day be able to go home.

So here’s  a shout-out right here to Brad Moxley, dedicated keeper at my zoo. Congrats, Brad! Your hard work  is paying off! It’s an honor to work with you, sir.

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50 thoughts on “Lose Some, Find Some: or Today I Spill the Beans

  1. Oh that gives me goosebumps! The first in the world – how privileged to witness this. Your writing is so skilled and I learn from every one of your posts. This one about the pitfalls of breeding in first and subsequent generations is truly fascinating, and gives me a whole new appreciation for how precious our animal populations are. I love the photos with the egg shells; at first I thought he was covered with a type of protective paper, then realized it was his shell. I wish I could touch a shell!

    I posted a “turtle tangle” in your honor a few days ago, but I didn’t contact you because I know how limited your time for reading blogs is. You can see it at http://www.bemuzin.com/2014/06/17/tuesday-tangle

    Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your treasures with us.

  2. This is so cool, Heather. Glad to hear that of anywhere, it was at your zoo too and you got to witness it. What a cute little guy! Hopefully he is only the first 🙂

  3. There is so little good news about the species that are in trouble. How exciting for one to show signs that it might recover! Thanks for sharing this exciting story.

  4. Yay! That’s a huge secret! I’m surprised you could hold off on telling everyone. 😉 Congrats to your zoo and Brad for his hard work. *round of applause*

  5. Wow!! Double the congratulations!! That is so mind-blowingly amazing. My pet-turtle, Hrothgar, wishes this new guy the best of luck. Thank you for explaining some of intricacies of saving endangered species.

  6. WOOHOO!!! Happy Dancing!! Way to go Knoxville Zoo and Mr. Moxley and staff.
    I had no idea of the finer points of breeding programs. I would think reptiles would be particularly difficult because they aren’t ‘out in the open’ with their wild breeding. One must observe wild lions to get the gist of their breeding ideas/habits. Reptiles have two things against them in that way—they’re secretive and they aren’t cuddly. Furry things get more attention and more research dollars than scaly things.
    I’m passing this exciting post along to my daughter (future zookeeper)! Thanks btw for the great advice you gave me to give to her (intern, intern, intern, volunteer, volunteer, volunteer, rinse, repeat!).

  7. That is absolutely wonderful. There are so many people who are down on zoos. I do not think they realize the great work they are doing. So how can an “extinct” species turn up one day? Proves we know little about what is and what isn’t. 🙂

    • Yes, I think the better measure, the one that’s far more important, is noting whether or not a species is in decline. Because maybe there’s something we can do to stop the decline.

      There are a number of organizations that send people out to count things – calls, nests, eggs, etc. Over a number of years, they get an idea of what a population should be, and then we can see how they are doing in the wild. Radiated tortoises, for example, have declined by half in the last ten years. In another 20 years, they may be gone from the wild for all intents and purposes. There may be relic populations here and there, but not enough to fulfill the function they perform or to sustain genetic diversity for any length of time.

      It’s so complicated! But there’s hope out there. I hold out a belief that thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) still exist in remote pockets, despite being hunted down by man. 😀

  8. Pingback: Nearly Wordless Wednesday: My Spirit Animal | Becoming Cliche

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