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Category — plant research

CREW Joins the Race for Plant Survival

Guest blogger: Suzanne Yorke, CREW Research Lab Assistant

Plant conservation work at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) was featured in The Public Garden, the journal of the American Public Gardens Association, earlier this year in an article entitled “The Race for Plant Survival” written by Janet Marinelli. The article discussed the important role that public gardens like the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (CZBG) play in plant conservation, the technological advancements that are being made in this challenging work, and the goals for plant conservation in the future.

The article begins with the story of the 24-year (and counting!) conservation quest to bring the autumn buttercup, Ranunculus aestivalis, back from the brink of extinction, and how such large-scale conservation efforts have become increasingly collaborative.

Autumn buttercup

Autumn buttercup

Shortly after The Nature Conservancy purchased land in 1991 to protect the habitat of the autumn buttercup along Utah’s Sevier River, they realized that just setting aside protected land wouldn’t be enough. The population was dwindling too fast, and additional partners would be needed to save this federally listed species. Seeds were collected from the mere 20 remaining plants at the preserve and sent to CREW. Valerie Pence, CREW’s Director of Plant Research, germinated the seeds to grow a handful of genetically unique individuals. She then used her expertise in micro-propagation to develop tissue culture protocols for the autumn buttercup and the power of tissue culture to make hundreds of “copies” of these plants in vitro in test tubes.

Autumn buttercup (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

Autumn buttercup (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

The tiny plants were sent to Arizona to enter the care of the next partner in the process, the Arboretum at Flagstaff, which potted the plants in soil and prepared them for out-planting in their native habitat. The out-plantings and subsequent monitoring of the plants was achieved through additional partnerships with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Weber State University.

Autumn buttercup outplanting

Autumn buttercup outplanting

Three out-plantings since 2007 demonstrate how this reintroduction effort has required the long-term commitment and collaboration of several stakeholders to continue to boost the autumn buttercup population until it is self-sustaining. The autumn buttercup story is a great example of “integrated conservation”, whereby public gardens partner with government agencies, non-profit organizations, and universities to preserve endangered plant species. Learn more here.

Multifaceted conservation strategies are increasingly incorporating technology into species survival plans, which often combines reintroduction of plants into their native habitat, banking seeds and tissues in long-term storage, and maintaining living collections in gardens and arboreta. For example, the Frozen Garden in CREW’s CryoBioBank uses liquid nitrogen and cryogenic technology to store seeds and shoot tips of some of the most threatened plant species, like the autumn buttercup, at very cold temperatures.

CryoBioBank

CryoBioBank

However, even if species are banked, their native habitat may be changing faster than the plants can adapt to the changes. Advancements in molecular genetics ensure that public gardens are also preserving the genetic diversity of the species that are banked and in living collections. Therefore, when plants are ready for reintroduction, higher genetic diversity should increase their chances of survival in the wild and ability to adapt to changing conditions. Plants that are especially vulnerable to changes in climate include certain long-lived, slow growing tree species.

Globally, more than a thousand tree species are considered critically endangered. One aspect of their biology that makes them a conservation challenge is that many species of trees produce seeds that are not easily frozen in seed banks. Oaks, for example, produce large acorns that don’t survive freezing. CREW scientists helped develop techniques to dissect the tiny oak embryos out of the acorns, which they were then able to cryopreserve.

Oak embryo

Oak embryo (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

CREW scientists tested the technique using four endangered oaks and three were successful! More research is needed, but these advancements at CREW will improve conservation strategies for endangered oaks and other large-seeded tree species.

Unifying the plant conservation effort is the Center for Plant Conservation, which is made up of 39 gardens, including CZBG. This network of gardens safeguards seeds, tissues, and specimens of 788 of the rarest native plant species in the United States. With nearly 5,000 species considered at risk, there is much work ahead to achieve the goals of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, which includes preserving 75% of plant species in living collections and seed banks by 2020.

CREW plant growth chamber (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

CREW plant growth chamber (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

While achieving these goals may seem daunting, what is known is that the future of plant conservation will continue to be collaborative, it will rely on technological advancements like those developed at CREW, and public gardens like CZBG will continue to be at the forefront of this critical conservation effort.

July 13, 2015   No Comments

One Year After First Outplanting of CREW Propagated Ferns in Florida

Florida has more fern species than any other state in the mainland United States, and CREW is working with partners at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami, Florida, to help propagate several of the most endangered from rapid urbanization and habitat loss.

The gridscale maiden fern, Thelypteris patens, is a large, beautiful fern that can reach over five feet in height. The patens variety is known only from the pine rockland habitat in Miami-Dade County and is listed as endangered in Florida. The population in one particular preserve declined to a single plant, which died in 2013.

Thelypteris patens (Photo: Daderot)

Thelypteris patens (Photo: Daderot)

However, before it died, researchers from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden collected spores from that plant and sent them to CREW’s Plant Lab here at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. CREW plant scientists germinated the spores in test tubes (in vitro) to produce tiny gametophytes, which represent the first stage in the fern life cycle.

Growing T. patens in test tubes at CREW

Growing T. patens in test tubes at CREW (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

These were then nurtured further in culture to produce sporophytes, which represent the second stage of fern growth and are the plants we normally think of as ferns. The sporophytes were acclimatized to soil at CREW, and then over 200 of these plants were sent to collaborators at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden where they were grown further in their greenhouses.

T. patens

T. patens (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

Finally, in May and June of last year, over 150 of the ferns propagated at CREW were outplanted back into the preserve where the species had been extirpated.

Outplanting T. patens in Florida

Outplanting T. patens in Florida

The plants are being monitored by Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. As of February 2015, the plants have had an 89% survival rate.

June 23, 2015   No Comments

Saving Animals in the Wild: The Zoo’s Top Field Conservation Efforts of 2014

Happy New Year! As we look back on 2014, let’s reflect on some of the Zoo’s significant contributions to wildlife conservation in the field this past year:

Nasha and cubs snoozing on the  savannah

Nasha and cubs snoozing on the savannah

Helping Lions Thrive in Kenya’s South Rift Valley

Since 2011, the Zoo has partnered with the African Conservation Centre and the South Rift Association of Land Owners in Kenya on the Rebuilding the Pride program. This community-based conservation program combines Maasai tradition and modern technology to restore a healthy lion population while reducing the loss of livestock to lions in Kenya’s South Rift Valley. Once down to a low of about 10 known lions in the area, the population has grown to more than 65 lions in 2014. This past April, a lioness named Nasha gave birth to another litter, this one containing three cubs. That the population is growing in the South Rift Valley at a time when lion populations are severely declining across the continent overall is significant and a testament to program’s community-based approach.

Sumatran rhinos at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia

Sumatran rhinos at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia

A Giant Step Forward for Sumatran Rhinos in the Wild

The Zoo has been committed to saving the Sumatran rhino for 25 years. Despite the devastating blow of the loss of our female rhino, Suci, back in March, the Zoo continues to work to conserve and protect the species. In 2014, a Debt-for-Nature deal was struck between the United States and Indonesia. In return for lowering the debt Indonesia owes to the United States, it will commit nearly $12 million towards the conservation and protection of critically endangered species, including the Sumatran rhino, and their habitats over the next seven years. The debt swap was made possible by a contribution of about $11.2 million from the U.S. government under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (first introduced by Ohio Senator Rob Portman in 1998) and $560,000 from other organizations funneled through Conservation International. The Zoo was proud to help secure this funding by pledging a major gift.

Pollinating American chestnut trees with cryopreserved pollen

Pollinating American chestnut trees with cryopreserved pollen

Saving American Chestnut Trees with Cryopreserved Pollen

The magnificent American chestnut tree once ranged over the entire Eastern United States, but was almost entirely obliterated by blight by the mid-twentieth century. Over the years, breeders have been working to develop a resistant tree, and one of their key tools is pollen. American chestnut pollen rapidly declines in viability so maintaining important lines of pollen from year to year is difficult. In 1993, pollen was cryopreserved (frozen) in liquid nitrogen at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). Last spring, some of that pollen was removed and used to successfully pollinate trees at the American Chestnut Foundation’s farm in Virginia. Paternity testing will be done at CREW this winter, but the indications are very good that cryopreservation can indeed maintain pollen viability for at least 20 years—a fact that should provide a new tool to those working to save this majestic American tree.

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

Kea Conservation Trust staff conducting kea research (Photo: Nigel Adams)

Committing to Kea Conservation in New Zealand

Over the past few years, the Zoo has supported the Kea Conservation Trust’s (KCT) efforts to protect and study New Zealand’s mountain parrot, the kea, in the wild. In 2014, the Zoo stepped up its efforts with a commitment to support the Kea-Community Conflict Response Plan, a multi-year proactive community-focused conflict response and resolution program. Funds from the Zoo support a key personnel position, the Community Volunteers Coordinator, who can respond to conflict situations that arise. Funds will also enable KCT staff to enhance their conflict resolution skills by participating in a Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration Workshop. Additionally, Zoo aviculturists will join the KCT team for kea nest monitoring and field work over the next couple of years.

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, installs a camera trap in Bhutan. (Photo: Steve Winter)

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, installs a camera trap in Bhutan. (Photo: Steve Winter)

Pledging Support for Panthera’s Tigers Forever Initiative

The Zoo is committed to ensuring the survival of endangered tigers of which there are fewer than 3,200 remaining in the wild. In 2014, we have pledged multi-year support of the tiger conservation efforts of Panthera, the leading international wild cat conservation organization with a mission to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action. To ensure the tiger’s survival, Panthera works across Asia with numerous partners to end the poaching of tigers for the illegal wildlife trade, prevent tiger deaths due to conflict with humans and livestock, and protect tiger prey species and habitat. Through their program, Tigers Forever, Panthera works to protect and secure key tiger populations and ensure connectivity between sites so that tigers can live long into the future.

Wetlands in restoration at EcOhio Farm

Wetlands in restoration at EcOhio Farm

Restoring Native Wetlands and Wildlife in Mason, Ohio

In 1995, a 529-acre farm in Mason, Ohio, now called the EcOhio Farm, was willed to the Zoo with the guideline that it could never be developed unless it is to further the mission of the Zoo. Over the past few years, the Zoo has worked to restore 30 of the farm’s acres to its original state of a wet sedge meadow, providing refuge for a diversity of native wildlife. Since restoration began in 2012, drainage tiles have been removed and more than 200 native plant species and thousands of trees have been planted on the site. The wetland is returning to its natural state very quickly. Already, it has attracted more than 135 native bird species, including bald eagles, bobolinks and killdeer, which would never have been there when it was a cornfield. Though not currently open to the public, walking trails and a small education center may be implemented in the future to provide opportunities to explore the wetland.

Cincinnati Zoo gorillas, Asha and  her infant, Mondika, named for the field conservation project (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Cincinnati Zoo gorillas, Asha and her infant, Mondika, named for the field conservation project (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Strengthening our Support for Gorillas in the Republic of Congo

Over the past 20 years, the Zoo has partnered with the Nouabale Ndoki Project (NNP) in the Republic of Congo, which includes the Mbeli Bai Study, the longest running study of the critically endangered western lowland gorilla. The Zoo also supports work in an area called Mondika where gorillas are habituated for up close research and ecotourism. Habituation is a process through which the wild gorillas become accustomed to and tolerate the presence of people that enables researchers and tourists to observe them up close. The Zoo recently helped facilitate the habituation of a second group of gorillas, and entered into an agreement in 2014 to support the habituation of a third group over the next three years. Special thanks goes to Gorilla Glue, our official gorilla conservation sponsor!

All of these projects and more couldn’t happen without your support of the Zoo. Here’s to you and the Zoo making more great strides for wildlife conservation in 2015!

January 7, 2015   No Comments