Science at the Zoo


Photo credit (from Dublin Zoo): Citron-crested cockatoo in the wild – Thomas Arndt, ZGAP

Imagine a world without lions, leopards or lemurs. These are among hundreds of species across the world whose existence is under threat.

“The rate of extinction of all types of species is extremely high,” according to Sandra Molloy, Dublin Zoo’s registrar and research and conservation coordinator. “In the next 30-50 years, we are looking at losing 30% of mammals and birds.”

European collaboration

Dublin Zoo is a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), which coordinates conservation activities within zoos.

This includes population management, which Molloy says is “vital to ensure that populations of animals that we keep in zoos are kept healthy”. Genetics plays an important and is used to prevent inbreeding of related animals, which can result in health problems.

“The ultimate aim with many populations in zoos is that, if the situation changes, a lot of these animals can go back to the wild.”

Breeding programmes are one of the main methods of conservation across zoos. There are 380 different programmes running across Europe, with Dublin Zoo participating in 40 of them. 

Breeding cockatoos

Molloy coordinates two breeding programmes: one for the Moluccan cockatoo (Cacatua moluccensis) and the other for the citron-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea citroncristata). For this, she needs to maintain a studbook, where she records the birds’ births, deaths and zoo transfers. She also looks for information on eggs, including fertility and hatching.

Molloy and other coordinators use the studbook to forecast where the population is going in the next few decades.

Information is key for conservation, which means Molloy does a lot of detective work, including genetic analysis of the birds. This work helps the zoos across Europe to ensure the correct animals are paired together and their babies will be healthy.

However, despite all of the science and data that go into the animal matchmaking, sometimes the pairs don’t hit it off. “You have to take into account the personality of the bird [or animal], which makes or breaks your plans,” she explains.

Species on ice

Dublin Zoo is also involved in a lot of field projects, one of which is The Frozen Ark. Members around the world hold 48,000 samples from more than 5,500 endangered and non-endangered species.

Dublin Zoo collects small blood samples that contain DNA and keeps them frozen at -80 degrees. This should keep them stable for hundreds of years.

It’s a backup plan for species under threat, says Molloy. If other conservation projects don’t work, “we have DNA samples of these animals”.