What's all this talk about SSPs?

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When you visit the Phoenix Zoo or see a news story about a new animal, you may hear the term 'SSP' used. Well, for those of you who may wonder what it is, here's a brief overview of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) program.

The Species Survival Plan or SSP program in North America was developed in 1981 by Association of Zoos and Aqariums (AZA) to help ensure the survival of selected species in zoos and aquariums, and to help maintain healthy and genetically diverse animal populations within the zoo community. For a species to be selected, it must satisfy a number of criteria. Most SSP species are endangered or threatened in the wild, and have the interest of qualified professionals with time to dedicate toward their conservation. Also, SSP species are often "flagship species" or well-known animals which arouse strong feelings in the public for their preservation and the protection of their habitat. Examples of "flagship species" include the giant panda, California condor, and lowland gorilla. New SSPs are approved by the appropriate AZA Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), which manages conservation programs for related groups of species (apes, raptors, freshwater fish, etc.) or by the AZA Wildlife Conservation and Management Committee (WCMC).

AZA accredited zoos and AZA conservation partners that are involved in SSP programs engage in cooperative population management and conservation efforts that include research, public education, reintroduction, and in situ or field conservation projects. There are currently 165 species covered by 111 SSP programs in North America. In their management of captive animals, zoos and aquariums focus on the long-term maintenance of healthy populations in conjunction with education and conservation goals.

In order to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable, each SSP manages the breeding of a captive species. (Captive breeding is the process of breeding rare or endangered species in human controlled environments with restricted settings, such as wildlife preserves, zoos and other conservation facilities.) This means: maintaining a healthy age structure, ensuring that reproduction is reliably successful, protecting the population against diseases, preserving the gene pool to avoid the problems of inbreeding

A goal of some captive breeding programs may also be to reintroduce animals back to the wild, as is the case with the global breeding program for the golden lion tamarin, the black-footed ferret, and the Guam rail.

Since each zoo typically has space for only a limited number of animals of each species, maintaining healthy populations requires zoos to manage their collections as cooperative breeding populations. Think about it-if the captive breeding population is too small, inbreeding may occur due to reduced gene pool, which may lead to the population lacking immunity to diseases and other problems. That's why participating in a cooperative breeding program can benefit the species. The breeding of endangered species is coordinated by cooperative breeding programs containing international studbooks and coordinators, who evaluate the roles of individual animals and institutions from a global or regional perspective.

Each studbook is a database of all animals in the captive population detailing information on dates of births and deaths, gender, parentage, locations, and local identification numbers of animals. Analyses of these data provide critical information on historical trends in population size, age-specific reproductive and survival rates, age structure, numbers of founders, degree of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity, and other measures useful for evaluating temporal changes taking place in a captive population. These data are also the basis for making management recommendations designed to enhance the demographic and genetic security of the captive population.

Each SSP also has a qualified species coordinator who is responsible for managing day-to-day activities. Management committees assist the coordinator with the conservation efforts for the particular species, including population management, research, education, and reintroduction. In addition, each institution holding an SSP animal has a representative who attends SSP meetings and coordinates relevant SSP activities at their institution. There are programs similar to AZA's SSP in other regions of the world (for example, the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria's Australasian Species Management Program, and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria's European Endangered Species Programs).

Cooperative, scientific population management is critical to the long-term sustainability of most zoo and some aquarium animal collections. Without this cooperative program, the survival of captive species that are already endangered in the wild, have a slim chance for maintaining a genetically stable population. SSP's are a valuable asset to captive populations worldwide. The Phoenix Zoo is proud to participate in such a valued program.