All Creatures Great and Small

As pollution, habitat loss, global warming, and disease increase the number of threatened and endangered species, attempts to protect them are more crucial than ever. That’s where the Frozen Zoo comes in.

By Alisa Opar

Illustration by Bill Mayer

Even as the condor population continues to climb, the Frozen Zoo’s resources guide conservation efforts for the birds in other ways. Researchers have discovered, for instance, a genetic disorder that causes some chicks to develop shortened appendages, which makes most of them unable to hatch. With cell samples from the Frozen Zoo, scientists have created a genetic map of the birds and are using it to find the mutation that causes the disease. They then will design a genetic test to identify the carriers (the process is akin to a test for cystic fibrosis in humans). Once they find out which birds have the mutation, they can adjust their breeding plans accordingly. “In the space of three years, we’ve made progress on the condor genome that took 20 years in human genetics—at one ten-thousandth the cost,” says Ryder.

While Ryder says the Frozen Zoo’s contributions to species conservation and genetic research have been exhilarating, he still feels an immense obligation to grow its collection. “All this technology is becoming available to ask questions that weren’t answerable before, and the material we’re trying to save is disappearing,” he says. “It’d be a real shame to have a collection of really good materials from something that went extinct. So the Frozen Zoo, though it may be the largest of its kind, is a token effort. We have 675 species out of millions.”

Ryder has reason to be concerned. A number of studies indicate that extinction rates for many species are accelerating, spurred by loss of habitat, pollution, and disease. According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), more than 16,000 species face extinction today; in many cases, the loss or decline of even a single species has a ripple effect on other species that depend on it. A 2004 paper in Science, for instance, estimated that 6,300 parasites, pollinators, and other species might be “coendangered” because the animals they rely on for survival are endangered. These threats will only worsen, scientists say, if global warming continues unchecked.

All these challenges are also compounded by the fact that researchers often only realize what’s happening to a species “almost when it’s too late,” Ryder says. In part, this is because despite all of our knowledge, scientists still don’t fully understand how ecosystems work, and they can’t always predict how environmental disturbances will affect a particular species. Though the Frozen Zoo can’t answer every question, the studies conducted with its resources give the people who draw up conservation plans—not only the scientific community, but also policy makers and a host of others—a better understanding of the animals they’re trying to protect and the environments they live in. Black rhinos, for instance, are found throughout Africa, but researchers only recently discovered that different geographic groups are quite genetically diverse. “That means that if we want to preserve genetic diversity as it occurs in nature, or as we think it occurs in nature, we shouldn’t be interbreeding those animals right now,” says Ryder.

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Issue 25

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