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Zoos will not be required to document each animal’s turn-ons and turn-offs in the Zoological Information Management System, a collaboration by about 150 zoos and aquariums that is a year or two away from wide distribution.
At the very least, though, the software will give zookeepers better access to species-level details now found only in zoo husbandry manuals that are mostly e-mailed back and forth, said Bob Wiese, director of collections for the Zoological Society of San Diego.
While there is no candlelight in the back rooms of zoos, there are endless tricks used to get animals ready to mate, said Mr. Wiese, widely considered the authority on the information system. In China, breeding experts have claimed success after showing pandas images of other pandas mating.
“There are some frogs that you have to simulate rain for or they won’t come out and breed,” Mr. Wiese said. “Other frogs, they just need to hear the sound of rain and the sound of lightning and thunder. That’s what sets off their hormones.”
Around since the 1980s in paperback form, most of today’s studbooks are in computerized databases. Basic information like family trees, medical histories, age and weight are entered by studbook keepers, then sent to a central location.
But the databases have their limitations. They are not updated quickly and do not include the extra information from the dog-eared husbandry manuals on setting the optimal conditions for an animal’s breeding.
So zookeepers who rely on the databases might not know, for instance, that fighting equals foreplay for giant leaf-tailed geckos or that expectant gecko mothers should eat snails.
That could mean the difference between a sustainable population and extinction of a species, said Ed Diebold, director of animal collections at Riverbanks Zoo, one of the only zoos to successfully breed several species of geckos.
“Big populations out in the wild breed randomly,” Mr. Diebold said. “In captivity, usually these populations are considerably smaller than wild populations, which is why you can’t afford to allow animals to inbreed or breed along closely related lines. That’s why you have the studbooks.”
Careful planning among zoos also ensures that the most genetically diverse animals breed, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which oversees the majority of studbooks for exotic species in the United States.
“To paraphrase an old Jeff Foxworthy joke, it’s important that your family tree forks,” Mr. Feldman said. “This way we can have a genetically diverse population.”
The Columbia zoo is one of about 20 chosen to test the information system software once it becomes available. Walt Disney World, which manages one of the largest collections of studbooks in the country, will be another test site.
“Studbooks are the key to our long-term breeding plans,” said John Lehnhardt, animal operations director at the Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla. “We want to ensure that these endangered species are here for the future, and that’s really what the studbooks are all about. What we’re trying to do is maintain a savings account in species.”
It is not exactly animals finding love online, but experts say matchmaking software for zoos is bringing together the single most important factor in ensuring the survival of animals — people.
“It’s really about us gathering the best scientific information we can get to make the best decisions about the long-term viability of our populations,” Mr. Wiese said.Continue reading the main story