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Looking for Love

February is the month of love, and the ABQ BioPark has a number of animals that are getting cozy to help save their species.

Leaving Home

Once a baby is born to a zoo mom, they can’t stay forever. In the wild, many animals leave home at a specific age. AZA-accredited zoos follow this natural pattern by transferring offspring to a different zoo at about the same age they would leave home in the wild. For instance, orangutans usually leave their mother at about 7 years old. This means the ABQ BioPark’s newest orangutan baby, Pixel, will be sent off at about 6 or 7 years old. Snow leopards are an exception to this rule. In the wild, they generally stay with mom for about two years in order to learn important hunting skills. Because hunting skills are not needed in a zoo setting, snow leopards leave their birth zoo at about 1 year old to allow their mother the opportunity to mate again.

azeo and kachina snow leopard pairReunited (and it feels so good)

If you’ve visited the ABQ BioPark Zoo recently, you may have noticed that Azeo and Kachina—the zoo’s snow leopard pair—have reunited just in time for Valentine’s Day.

The two, who welcomed cub Karli last May, have quite the past. They’ve produced seven litters together—welcoming 11 cubs—since 2007.

But Azeo and Kachina are part of something much larger. A handful of the zoo’s residents—including the snow leopards—are part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for their species. This program, managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), aims to cooperatively manage specific, and typically threatened or endangered, species at AZA-accredited facilities.

The zoo has had a lot of success with its snow leopard program in particular, in part because female Kachina and male Azeo love being together—if you’re lucky you might catch the two grooming each other in their shared exhibit. Normally, snow leopards are solitary, so most zoos only keep males and females together when they predict the female is going through estrus. That’s not the case for the ABQ BioPark’s snow leopards—the two remain together year round, unless there is a young cub with Kachina. This likely has increased their breeding success.

Hippo-baby.jpgWho gets to breed?

Each species within the SSP has a special AZA-sponsored committee looking out for it. This committee meets once a year to recommend specific animals to breed. The committee has access to years of genetic data on each animal and uses this information to decide who can breed each year.

The committee works somewhat like a dating service, considering personalities of individual animals as well as their genetic history—pairings should help maintain or increase the species’ genetic diversity within AZA-accredited institutions. Also important is maintaining the population of a species—ideally, annual births should outpace any deaths. Wild born pairings are preferred since they introduce new genes to the pool. Once a wild born animal begins breeding in zoos, they become founders of a new genetic line.

The committees also make sure not to over-breed any one animal or pair—for instance, if a pair has had 10 litters, their genes may be over-represented and the two may be retired from breeding.

There are a few things that zookeepers can do to promote amorous relations between two creatures. Animals should be comfortable and happy—not stressed—and must have ample space and privacy. Diet is also important—if a female is overweight, it is unlikely she’ll become pregnant.

But while zookeepers may do all the right things, two animals might just not be interested in each other.

“We can put animals together, but sometimes they don’t breed,” said Zoo Manager Lynn Tupa, who is the studbook keeper for the snow leopard SSP. “Personalities matter. We’ve been so lucky we’ve had some really great pairs at the ABQ BioPark Zoo.”

So how do zookeepers know if two individuals will get along? Tupa said introduction is very important when zoos are trying to breed animals. Initially, zookeepers usually introduce two animals through a fence. Tupa said that if the two growl or act aggressive toward one another, it’s probably not a good match. But if they’re purring and rolling around, it just might be love in the making.

Love is in the air

The ABQ BioPark Zoo participates in a number SSPs and has plans to breed in the coming months. Here are a few highlights.

Sunny Komodo dragon squareKomodo dragons  

About the pair: Zookeepers are hoping to introduce Sunny and Nancy for breeding for the first time in the coming months. The reptile crew is hoping the two will hit it off and produce hatchlings.

Fun facts: Male Komodo dragons select their desired female by using his most important sensory organ—the tongue—to assess her receptivity. Initially, the female will resist approaches very aggressively, using both teeth and claws. The male must fully subdue and restrain the female during the actual act of mating to avoid getting injured. After the pair conceives, they sometimes form a monogamous relationship.

Snow leopards

About the pair: Azeo and Kachina have successfully produced seven litters, resulting in five male and six female snow leopard cubs since 2007. Zookeepers attribute their success to a simple fact—Kachina likes Azeo, so it is a good match. The program has great news too—the AZA has recommended Kachina and Azeo to mate again in 2016. This may be their last litter since Kachina is now 13 years old and at the end of her breeding life.

Fun facts: Snow leopards generally remain solitary except to mate, but the ABQ BioPark’s snow leopards like each other so much that they stay together year-round (as long as there isn’t a cub for Kachina to care for).

Reticulated giraffes

About the pairs: June and Camilla both breed with Buck, the ABQ BioPark’s dominate bull. Last year, June had her tenth baby, Kumi. Breeding will continue with both females after Kumi leaves home for another zoo.

Fun facts: Male giraffes assess female fertility by tasting the female's urine to detect estrus. Only older, dominant males get to breed with females. The male courts and keeps track of his preferred female for several days.

Northern Sumatran orangutans

About the pair: The ABQ BioPark has one successful breeding pair—Sarah and Tonka. While Sarah is not recommended to breed anytime soon, she welcomed Pixel in 2013.  

Fun facts: Orangutan males are ready to mate at approximately 15 years old, while females are ready at about 12. To attract a female, males make long calls followed by bellowsthese calls can be heard for a very long distance and can go on for hours. A determined male will even pass up eating in order to continue his love song.

Chinese alligators

About the program: The ABQ BioPark is attempting to breed Chinese alligators, which are critically endangered in the wild.

Fun facts: Alligators have very interesting mating rituals and can really turn up the tunes. Males are the showiest of the species, as they advertise their availability and mating interest by head slapping, vibrating their torso, bellowing and jaw snapping. Females join in with a sound more like a bellowing growl (without all the fanfare of the males).

Mexican Gray wolves  

About the program: Up until 1995, the ABQ BioPark was part of the Mexican gray wolf breeding program, producing 69 cubs over the years. The zoo hopes to start breeding wolves again and is waiting for a female to arrive from Mexico. The Mexican wolf breeding and reintroduction program is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which meets yearly to decide where captive wolves go—this could be another zoo or accredited institution or a pre-release site within the Mexican wolves’ historic range. Over the years, the ABQ BioPark’s wolves have gone to other zoos and some have made it to Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge for pre-release.

Fun facts: Mexican gray wolves are very social animals. They live in packs, which are complex social structures that include the breeding adult pair (the alpha male and female) and their offspring. The alpha male will pull the female aside to breed with her. Breeding season is mid-February to mid-March.