Ex-situ conservation means literally, "off-site conservation". It is the process of protecting an endangered species of plant or animal outside its natural habitat; for example, by removing part of the population from a threatened habitat and placing it in a new location, which may be a wild area or within the care of humans. While ex-situ conservation comprises some of the oldest and best known conservation methods, it also involves newer, sometimes controversial laboratory methods.
The best method of maximizing a species chance of survival (when ex-situ methods are required) is by relocating part of the population to a less threatened location. It is extremely difficult to mimic the environment of the original colony location given the large number of variables defining the original colony (microclimate, soils, symbiotic species, absence of severe predation, etc.). It is also technically challenging to uproot (in the case of plants) or trap (in the case of animals) the required organisms without undue harm.
An example of colony relocation in the wild is the case of the endangered Santa Cruz Tarweed, a new colony of which was discovered during a mid-1980s survey at the site of a proposed shopping center in western Contra Costa County in California. Once the city of Pinole had decided to approve the shopping center, the city relied on a relocation plan developed by Earth Metrics scientists to remove the entire colony to a nearby location immediately east of Interstate Highway 80 within the Caltrans right-of-way
Human care methods
Zoos and botanical gardens are the most conventional methods of ex-situ conservation, all of which house whole, protected specimens for breeding and reintroduction into the wild when necessary and possible. These facilities provide not only housing and care for specimens of endangered species, but also have an educational value. They inform the public of the threatened status of endangered species and of those factors which cause the threat, with the hope of creating public interest in stopping and reversing those factors which jeopardize a species' survival in the first place. They are the most publicly visited ex-situ conservation sites, with the WZCS (World Zoo Conservation Strategy) estimating that the 1100 organized zoos in the world receive more than 600 million visitors annually.
Endangered plants may also be preserved in part through seedbanks or germplasm banks. The term seedbank sometimes refers to a cryogenic laboratory facility in which the seeds of certain species can be preserved for up to a century or more without losing their fertility. It can also be used to refer to a special type of arboretum where seeds are harvested and the crop is rotated. For plants that cannot be preserved in seedbanks, the only other option for preserving germplasm is in-vitro storage, where cuttings of plants are kept under strict conditions in glass tubes and vessels.
Endangered animal species are preserved using similar techniques. The genetic information needed in the future to reproduce endangered animal species can be preserved in genebanks, which consist of cryogenic facilities used to store living sperm, eggs, or embryos. The Zoological Society of San Diego has established a "Frozen zoo" to store such samples using modern cryopreservation techniques from more than 355 species, including mammals, reptiles, and birds.
A potential technique for aiding in reproduction of endangered species is interspecific pregnancy, implanting embryos of an endangered species into the womb of a female of a related species, carrying it to term. It has been carried out for the Spanish Ibex.
Showy Indian clover, Trifolium amoenum, is an example of a species that was thought to be extinct, but was rediscovered in 1993 by Peter Connors in the form of a single plant at a site in western Sonoma County. Connors harvested seeds and grew specimens of this critically endangered species in a controlled environment.
The Wollemi Pine is another example of a plant that is being preserved via ex-situ conservation, as they are being grown in nurseries to be sold to the general public.
Ex-situ conservation, while helpful in man's efforts to sustain and protect our environment, is rarely enough to save a species from extinction. It is to be used as a last resort, or as a supplement to in-situ conservation because it cannot recreate the habitat as a whole: the entire genetic variation of a species, its symbiotic counterparts, or those elements which, over time, might help a species adapt to its changing surroundings. Instead, ex-situ conservation removes the species from its natural ecological contexts, preserving it under semi-isolated conditions whereby natural evolution and adaptation processes are either temporarily halted or altered by introducing the specimen to an unnatural habitat. In the case of cryogenic storage methods, the preserved specimen's adaptation processes are frozen altogether. The downside to this is that, when re-released, the species may lack the genetic adaptations and mutations which would allow it to thrive in its ever-changing natural habitat.
Furthermore, ex-situ conservation techniques are often costly, with cryogenic storage being economically infeasible in most cases since species stored in this manner cannot provide a profit but instead slowly drain the financial resources of the government or organization determined to operate them. Seedbanks are ineffective for certain plant genera with recalcitrant seeds that do not remain fertile for long periods of time. Diseases and pests foreign to the species, to which the species has no natural defense, may also cripple crops of protected plants in ex-situ plantations and in animals living in ex-situ breeding grounds. These factors, combined with the specific environmental needs of many species, some of which are nearly impossible to recreate by man, make ex-situ conservation impossible for a great number of the world's endangered flora and fauna.
- Gary Deghi, C. Michael Hogan et al., Final Environmental Impact Report of the Pinole Valley Shopping Center, City of Pinole, Earth Metrics Incorporated, California Environmental Clearinghouse (1986)
- Niasari-Naslaji, A.; Nikjou, D.; Skidmore, J. A.; Moghiseh, A.; Mostafaey, M.; Razavi, K.; Moosavi-Movahedi, A. A. (2009). "Interspecies embryo transfer in camelids: the birth of the first Bactrian camel calves (Camelus bactrianus) from dromedary camels (Camelus dromedarius)". Reproduction, fertility, and development 21 (2): 333–337. doi:10.1071/RD08140. PMID 19210924.
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- Connors, P. G. (1994) Rediscovery of showy Indian clover. Fremontia 22: 3–7
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arcata Division, 1655 Heindon Road, Arcata, Ca.
- Engels, J.M.M. and L. Visser, editors. (2003). A Guide to Effective Management of Germplasm Collections. CABI, IFPRI, IPGRI, SGRP. 174 p.
- Kameswara, N., J. Hanson, M. E. Dulloo, K. Ghosh, A. Nowell and M. Larinde. (2006). Manual of Seed Handling in Genebanks. Bioversity International, CTA (Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation), FAO, ILRI. 147 p.
- Koo, B., Pardey, P. G., Wright, B. D., et al. (2004). Saving Seeds. CABI, IFPRI, IPGRI, SGRP.
- Cloning to revive extinct species, May 28, 2002, Grant Holloway, CNN
- Reproductive Technologies and Conservation of Endangered Cats
- Louisiana's frozen ark
- ONLINE BOOK: "In situ conservation of livestock and poultry", 1992, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the United Nations Environment Programme
- "The Challenges of Ex situ Orchid Conservation", Orchid Conservation Coalition
- Botanic Gardens Conservation International – international organisation supporting ex-situ conservation of priority plant species