Humboldt Penguins at Brookfield Zoo

Since its inception in 1985, the Chicago Zoological Society’s Population Genetics program has played a pivotal role in promoting species health and survival. Under the leadership of Dr. Robert Lacy, a software program (PMx) has been used to facilitate virtually all cooperatively-managed zoo breeding programs around the world.

The Population Genetics program was created to address an often-ignored threat to the survival of endangered species: the loss of genetic diversity due to inbreeding. As populations dwindle or are separated by habitat devastation, the pool of available mates shrinks, and so does the pool of genetic variations available to future generations.

Our Population Genetics program takes a long-term view of species survival. Its goal is not just to ensure that threatened species reproduce, but also that they pass on the genetic variations necessary to ensure the adaptability of the species.

The program has been an international trailblazer, giving wildlife conservationists and zoo managers around the globe a detailed understanding of the effects of inbreeding and offering data gathered from computer models for use in preserving the widest possible genetic diversity.

Taking the Guesswork Out of Breeding
Program scientists are currently working to address the challenges posed by incomplete or indeterminate pedigrees. There are many animals for whom detailed genetic histories are not available, forcing conservation scientists to make breeding decisions with little or no guidance.

The Population Genetics program is taking the guesswork out of such breeding decisions by developing the next generation of population management software. This software has the built-in capability to do probabilistic analyses (averaging across alternative possibilities; e.g. when there several males that could have been the sire), which results in better breeding decisions.

Ensuring Genetic Diversity
Breeding decisions ultimately can impact whether a threatened species survives or becomes extinct. The best decisions are those that preserve the greatest genetic diversity in a species. Greater genetic diversity allows threatened species to better adapt to challenges like climate change and the shrinking of habitats.

For species that no longer have the natural habitat or population necessary to promote genetic diversity, advances made by the Population Genetics program offer their best hope against eventual extinction.