Jonathan Ballou, Smithsonian Institution captive breeding expert

Jonathan Ballou

CLEMSON — A Smithsonian Institution expert will talk about how scientists are designing plans to save such rare species as  giant pandas and golden lion tamarins during Clemson University’s annual Darwin Week.

Jonathan Ballou is the featured presenter during Clemson University Darwin Week, an annual event celebrating the birthday of Charles Darwin. He will speak about breeding strategies used to preserve endangered animals in captive populations at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13 in Holtzendorff Hall Auditorium. The talk is free and open to the public.

“A lot of breeding goes on behind the scenes at your local zoo,” according to Clemson biologist and anthropologist Lisa Rapaport, who has worked with Ballou on breeding plans for golden lion tamarins, small Brazilian monkeys. “In an age of decreasing global biodiversity, zoos play a major role as species conservators, but a zoo typically only has a few individuals of any one species; inbreeding and compatibility are a real worry.“

It’s a big concern for Ballou, population manager at the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on the genetic and demographic problems confronted by small populations, especially of threatened and endangered species.

To deal with these issues, zoos form cooperative breeding programs in which they agree to exchange individuals between them to keep the gene pools healthy.

“It’s not necessarily the fastest or strongest or smartest of an animal species that succeeds; it’s the one that is best at adapting to changes and challenges in the environment,” Clemson evolutionary biologist Margaret Ptacek said. “DNA and genes transmit the traits of species. We need to have as much genetic variety in a species as possible in order to raise the chances of success.”

“Small populations of rare and endangered species, like our Bengal tiger mascot, are at a big threat of extinction due to their loss of genetic variability,” Ptacek said.

Zoos play a vital role by designing captive breeding programs that help to maintain genetic diversity and provide us with the possibility of restoring natural populations or at least keeping threatened and endangered species from complete extinction, according to Ptacek.

For 10 years, the biological sciences department, the BioSci Club and the Biological Sciences Graduate Student Association have organized Darwin Week campus events. The week is sponsored by the biological sciences department; the School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences; and the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences.