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Zoo conservation and taxonomic changes

Discussion in 'General Zoo Discussion' started by Jurek7, 18 Sep 2023.

  1. Jurek7

    Jurek7 Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    Just some thoughts of how zoos should react to splitting or lumping species or subspecies. Recent proposals to split subspecies into species affected among other ungulates and primates. Split species included giraffe, antelope, deer, caprids, mouse lemurs, loris, night monkeys, sakis and gibbons. A proposal in the opposite direction was for lion and tiger, where many subspecies were proposed to be lumped, with one of main arguments was that otherwise wild conservation is too difficult for the organization doing it. I wonder what others think about it?

    My thoughts:
    - Zoos will have to live with taxonomy changes. Conservation plans take decades, but taxonomic opinions can change with every paper.

    - Taxonomy of mammals is actually better than other animals. Aquarium keepers regularly work with undescribed freshwater fish. Entomologists know that insect species are too numerous to be discovered in the time frame when conservation must be done.

    - That taxonomy is uncertain, changing, or only hybrids are available should not be the reason of giving up conservation.

    - Conservation wishes should not affect taxonomy. Neither splitting subspecies to help conservation, nor lumping because conservation is deemed too difficult. We realized that every animal lineage is not replaceable once extinct, so we protect them. Not we want to protect something, so we make it unique.

    - Switch focus to protecting distinctive, locally adapted populations, whether they are 'only' populations, subspecies or species. This would remove much of an incentive to artificially manipulate taxonomy, for example to look better in a scientist CV.

    - Realize that animals do not change when humans rename them species, subspecies or populations. If subspecies are split into very similar species, this does not affect hybrids. It simply makes makes hybrids which occur in the wild valuable for conservation.
     
  2. Neil chace

    Neil chace Well-Known Member 5+ year member

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    The biggest issue for zoos is when they have a already-stable population of animals that is later split into multiple species. A number of SSPs have been struggling with this, and have had to either opt to breed hybrid animals (not necessarily bad from an education perspective, provided there is no negative health concerns in the hybrids) or to do extensive genetic studies to determine which new species is held (which can take a lot of time and resources, and in the mean time are harming the breeding programs). Neither option is the "right" or "wrong" approach, and unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a perfect option either. A few AZA examples I can think of in recent years to have to deal with taxonomic changes are Cuban crocodiles, king cobras, Galapagos giant tortoises, squirrel monkeys, and Geoffroy's spider monkeys.

    This is something I disagree with. "Taxonomy" isn't scientifically "real", and as you said it doesn't change what the animals are. Instead, "taxonomy" is just how humans classify living things in a way to better make sense of the world. Unfortunately, given the presence of multiple species methods (e.g., biological, phylogenetic, ecological, morphological), and the fact most of these methods don't have a clear "threshold" for what constitutes a species, it becomes an unfortunate reality that there is no way to reach a scientific consensus of what is or isn't a species. Lacking a scientific consensus makes the determination of what is or isn't a species a very subjective one, and I think it's essential to consider when making that decision the conservation implications of it.

    For example, consider night monkeys. Historically, all of Aotus has been one species, classified as least concern. However, when the species is split into multiple, there are suddenly some species that are vulnerable and endangered. We now face a conundrum:
    • If we treat all of Aotus as one species, we risk losing real biodiversity by not working to conserve the endangered taxa.
    • If we treat Aotus as heavily split, we risk spending resources on populations that may not be biologically significant, and moving resources away from taxa that may be more deserving.
    There isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer to this conundrum, but I think it's wrong to make arbitrary decisions of what is or isn't a species without at least considering the real-world implications of the decision- considering that oftentimes it's a lot easier for a "species", not a mere "population", to be given governmental protection.
     
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  3. Swampy

    Swampy Well-Known Member 10+ year member

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    Just to be pedantic- the issue with Cuban crocodiles wasn't really a taxonomic change, just a discovery of historical hybridisation far too late after the fact.
     
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  4. Jurek7

    Jurek7 Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    Such a practice exists, although is controversial. However, zoos must have a way that their breeding programs are not overthrown by taxonomic changes.
     
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