Captive breeding

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USFWS staff with two red wolf pups bred in captivity

Captive breeding is the process of breeding animals in controlled environments within well-defined settings, such as wildlife reserves, zoos and other commercial and noncommercial conservation facilities. Sometimes the process includes the release of individual organisms to the wild, when there is sufficient natural habitat to support new individuals or when the threat to the species in the wild is lessened. Captive breeding programs facilitate biodiversity and may save species from extinction. Release programs have the potential for diluting genetic diversity and species fitness.


The oldest known instances of captive breeding is attributed to the menageries or collections of European and Asian rulers.

Captive breeding has been successful in the past. The Pere David's Deer was successfully saved through captive breeding programs after almost being hunted to extinction in China. Captive-breeding was employed by modern conservationists. Peter Scott and Gerald Durrell, founders of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Jersey Zoo, in the 1950s and 1960s. They demonstrated success with a wide variety of species in the 1970s ranging from birds (e.g. Pink Pigeon), mammals (e.g. Pygmy Hog), reptiles (e.g. Round Island Boa) and amphibians (e.g. Poison arrow frogs). Their efforts were successful in reintroducing the Arabian oryx (under the auspices of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society), in 1963. The Przewalski's horse has recently been re-introduced to the wild in [Mongolia].[citation needed]


The breeding of endangered species is coordinated by cooperative breeding programs containing international studbooks and coordinators, who evaluate the roles of individual animals and institutions from a global or regional perspective. These studbooks contain all the basic knowledge of all the particular animals within the program including birth date, gender, location, and some known lineage. With this information analyses can be made to determine several factors such as survival and reproduction rates, number of founders of the population, and inbreeding coefficients.[1] A species coordinator will then look at all this information and make decisions on how to breed their animal in such a way that would create the most advantageous offspring. The coordinator does not only look through the studbook of their own specific institution but also those of institutions around the nation and sometimes around the world. If two compatible animals are found at different zoos, there are a few ways of mating the animals This could be done by transporting one animal from one location to another, but unfortunately this places quite a bit of stress on the animal which could result in lower likelihoods of mating. This is still a popular way of breeding animals in European zoological organizations,[2] but this means that two highly compatible animals may not be able to be mated simply due to the locations, distance and variety of travel. Another option employs artificial fertilization techniques such as shipping semen, however these animals can become stressed during the collection of the semen or in the process of artificially inseminating the female. Yet another problem with this technique is semen quality will be decreased while being made possible to ship it and extending the life of the sperm. There are regional programmes for the conservation of endangered species:


Captive breeding techniques are usually difficult to implement for highly mobile species like some migratory birds (e.g. cranes) and fishes (e.g. Hilsa).

Conservation biologists define endangered species as one that is likely to become extinct in the near future and is designated as endangered on the IUCN Red List [3]

Conservation efforts are directed toward eliminating threats from human activities. Threats can include: habitat loss and fragmentation, hunting, fishing, pollution, predation, disease, and parasitism.[4] Conservation biologists are concerned with biodiversity, species diversity, and ecosystems.


Recall that endangered species are those on the verge of extinction and so are more than a very small population. A risk of captive breeding includes inbreeding, that is, mating between two closely related individuals as a result of a small gene pool. Some problems associated with inbreeding include a decrease in immunity to disease and phenotypic abnormalities. With the possibility of inbreeding, populations may under go genetic drift where genes have the potential to disappear completely not only reducing genetic variation but creating detrimental effects on natural selection by putting pressures on the remaining population and the species that prey on them.[5]

Over a sufficient number of generations, inbred populations can regain "normal" genetic diversity.[6]

For example, since the 1970s the Matschie's tree-kangaroo, an endangered species, has been bred in captivity. The Tree Kangaroo Species Survival Plan (TKSSP) was established in 1992 to help with the management of Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The mean kinship strategy (MK) is used by TKSSP to make annual breeding recommendations to preserve genetic diversity in small populations. This is done to retain their adaptive potential and avoid the negative consequences of inbreeding. Comparison of the genetic diversity of the captive breeding population to wild populations is done to evaluate how the captive breeding program is retaining the population’s genetic diversity over time. In a study done by McGreezy et al. (2010), "AZA Matschie tree kangaroo’s haplotype diversity was almost two times lower than wild Matschie tree kangaroos." This difference with allele frequencies shows the changes that can happen over time, like genetic drift and mutation, when a species is taken out of its natural habitat.[7]

Another example is the cheetah. The cheetah is the least genetically variable felid species[8] making it very difficult to within breeding programs to find pairs of animals that would increase genetic diversity when all cheetahs are basically genetically identical. It is also possible that human practices are causing even more of an inbreeding depression in the handling of the cats in zoos than exists within the wild populations.[9] Though it is important to note that some animals such as the cheetah have undergone genetic drift in the form of bottlenecks in the wild thousands of years ago, yet seem to experience little detrimental effects of inbreeding.[8]

Behaviour changes[edit]

Impacts of captive breeding include behavioural problems in released animals, which are not being able to hunt or forage for food leading to starvation. This could occur because when in captivity young animals miss critical learning periods. Released animals often do not avoid predators and are not able to find ample shelter for themselves and may die as a result. Golden Lion Tamarin mothers often die in the wild before having offspring because they do not have the climbing and foraging skills they need to survive. This results in populations continuing to decline despite reintroduction because the species does not produce viable offspring. Training can improve anti-predator skills, but the effectiveness of such interventions is influenced by a number of constraints.[10][11]

Loss of habitat[edit]

Another challenge with captive breeding is the habitat loss that occurs while they are in captivity being bred (though it is occurring even before they are captured). This may make release of the species nonviable if there is no habitat left to support larger populations.

As climate change increases and more invasive species are introduced, more and more species become threatened with extinction. Just from a decrease in population size, reductions in genetic diversity occurs which leads to a decrease in the ability of populations to adapt to the changing environment. In this context, loss of genetic polymorphism, which is a difference in DNA sequence among individuals, groups or populations, is related to extinction risk. Conservation programs can now obtain measurements of genetic diversity at functionally important genes due to advances in technology.[12]

Assortative mating[edit]

A study in mice found that after captive breeding had been in place for multiple generations, and these mice were 'released' to breed with wild mice, that the captive-born mice bred amongst themselves instead of with the wild mice. This suggests that captive breeding may affect mating preferences, and has implications for the success of a reintroduction program.[13]


In 1971 the de Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre was established. Between 1975 and 2005, 242 litters were born with a total of 785 cubs. In a study done by Bertschinger, H. J., Meltzer, D. J. A., & Van Dyk, A. (2008), the survival rate of cubs was examined. "Mean cub survival from 1 to 12 months and greater than 12 months of age was 71.3 and 66.2%, respectively." This study shows that cheetahs can be bred successfully and that their endangerment can be decreased through these breeding programs. It also indicated that failure in other breeding habitats may be due to "poor" sperm morphology.[14]

Recently, the number of wild Tasmanian devils is declining from transmissible Devil Facial Tumor Disease. A captive insurance population program has started, but the captive breeding rates at the moment are lower than they need to be. A study done by Keeley, T. J., O, J. K., Fanson, B. G., Masters, K., and McGreevy, P. D. (2012), had a goal to "increase our understanding of the estrous cycle of the devil and elucidate potential causes of failed male-female pairings." The temporal patterns of fecal progestogen and corticosterone metabolite concentrations were examined. The majority of unsuccessful females were captive-born, suggesting that if the species' survival depended solely on captive breeding, the population would probably disappear.[15]

In 2010, the Oregon Zoo found that Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit pairings based on familiarity and preferences resulted in a significant increase in breeding success.[16]

Recent advances[edit]

The Major Histocompatibility Complex is a region of the genome that is being studied by researchers in the field. Scientists have found that genes that code for the major histocompatibility complex have an effect on the ability of certain species (such as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis[17]) to resist certain infections because the MHC has a mediating effect on the interaction between the body’s immune cells with other body cells. Measuring polymorphism at these genes can give an indirect measure of the immunological fitness of populations. It is suggested that captive breeding programs that place emphasis on selectively breeding those organisms that carry the disease resistant gene, can help in reintroducing endangered species with a better chance in the wild.[18]

There have also been recent advances in captive breeding programs with the use of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology. This technology has been tested on several endangered species. Scientists hope the stem cells could be used to be converted into germ cells in captive breeding programs to help diversify the gene pools of threatened species. Healthy mice have been born with this technology. It is suggested that induced pluripotent stem cells may one day be used in producing therapeutic solutions for captive animals suffering from diseases and increasing the size of endangered animal populations.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Captive Breeding. Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
  2. ^ EAZA. EEPs and ESBs. European Association of Zoos and Aquaria.
  3. ^ Araki, H., Cooper, B., & Blouin, M. S. (2007). Genetic effects of captive breeding cause a rapid, cumulative fitness decline in the wild. Science, 318(5847), 100-103. .
  4. ^ Holt, W. V., Pickard, A. R., & Prather, R. S. (2004) Wildlife conservation and reproductive cloning. Reproduction, 126. .
  5. ^ Holt, W. V., Pickard, A. R., & Prather, R. S. (2004) Wildlife conservation and reproductive cloning. Reporduction, 126. .
  6. ^ Mace, Georginam M., "Genetic management of small populations", International Zoo Yearbook, Vol.24-25, No.1, 1986, pp.167-174.
  7. ^ McGreevy, T.J.; Dabek, L.; Husband, T. P. (2010). "Genetic evaluation of the association of zoos and aquariums matschie's tree kangaroo (dendrolagus matschiei) captive breeding program". Zoo Biology 30 (60): 636–646. doi:10.1002/zoo.20362. 
  8. ^ a b O’Brien S. J. 1987. East African Cheetahs: Evidence for Two Population Bottlenecks? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 84:508-11.
  9. ^ Michele M. 1994. A Reassessment of Homozygosity and the Case for Inbreeding Depression in the Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus: Implications for Conservation. Convser. Biol. 8:961-971.
  10. ^ Beck, Benjamin B., Kleiman, Devra G., Dietz, James M., Castro, Ines, Carvalho, Cibele, Martins, Andreia & Rettberg-Beck, Beate, "Losses and Reproduction in Reintroduced Golden Lion Tamarins Leontopithecus rosalia", Dodo, Journal of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, No.27, 1991, pp.50-61.
  11. ^ Griffin, Andrea S., Daniel T. Blumstein, and Christopher S. Evans. "Training Captive Bred or Translocated animals to avoid predators." Conservation Biology 14.5 (2000): 1317-326.
  12. ^ Ujvari, B.; Belov, K. (2011). "Major histocompatibility complex (mhc) markers in conservation biology". International Journal of Molecular Science 12 (8): 5168–5186. Retrieved April 13, 2012. 
  13. ^ Slade, B.; Parrott, M. L.; Paproth, A.; Magrath, M. J. L.; Gillespie, G. R.; Jessop, T. S. (19 November 2014). "Assortative mating among animals of captive and wild origin following experimental conservation releases". Biology Letters 10 (11): 20140656–20140656. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2014.0656. 
  14. ^ Bertschinger, H.J.; Meltzer, D. J. A., & Van Dyk, A. (2008). "Captive breeding of cheetahs in South Africa – 30 years of data from the de Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre". Reproduction in Domestic Animals 43 (16): 66–73. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0531.2008.01144.x. Retrieved April 13, 2012. 
  15. ^ Keeley, T.J.; O, J. K.; Fanson, B. G.; Masters, K.; McGreevy, P. D. (2012). "The reproductive cycle of the Tasmanian devil (sarcophilus harrisii) and factors associated with reproductive success in captivity". Elsevier Science. doi:10.1016/j.ygcen.2012.01.011. Retrieved April 13, 2012. 
  16. ^ "Love is in the hare: Zoo explores pygmy rabbit ‘love connection’". The Oregon Zoo (KVAL). February 14, 2013. 
  17. ^ Hance, Jeremy (September 27, 2011). "Scientists find frog genes that provide immunity to extinction plague". Mongabay. Retrieved April 10, 2012. 
  18. ^ "Why Bad Immunity Genes Survive: Study Implicates Arms Race Between Genes and Germs". Science Daily. February 7, 2012. Retrieved April 10, 2012. 
  19. ^ Callaway, Ewen (September 5, 2011). "Could Stem Cells Rescue an Endangered Species?". Nature magazine (Scientific American). Retrieved April 10, 2012. 

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