Modeling the Future of Zoo and Aquarium Populations

Zoo scientists are analyzing the future of zoo populations by conducting population viability analyses for Association of Zoos and Aquarium Animal Programs such as Species Survival Plans®.

Using Population Viability Analyses to Boost Species Management

Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plans® (SSP) are cooperative programs that manage species across AZA-accredited institutions as single populations. SSP coordinators and studbook keepers manage and advise hundreds of these AZA Animal Programs. AZA Animal Programs aim to maintain healthy, sustainable zoo populations to meet the education and conservation goals of AZA institutions in addition to acting as assurance for wild populations. Today, AZA Animal Programs collectively include more than 500 populations encompassing tens of thousands of individual animals in more than 200 institutions. 

Since these populations are so important to the zoos and aquariums that care for them, there has been growing interest in understanding the future of these populations. To explore the long-term health and sustainability of these populations, Lincoln Park Zoo scientists are conducting population viability analyses (PVAs) for AZA Animal Programs with a two-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Population viability analyses are stochastic computer models that predict the likely future status of a population. PVAs are ideal for zoo populations since the history of every managed animal is tracked through a detailed studbook.  They mimic the population-management strategies that scientists at the zoo-based AZA Population Management Center use to manage zoo populations and the dynamics of small populations. 

The project team is using ZooRisk software, developed at Lincoln Park Zoo, to create the models. PVAs enable scientists to determine the future status of a population under its current conditions and then evaluate how different management actions (e.g., increasing reproduction, increasing space) might increase the long-term sustainability of the population. 

Through the course of the grant, the project team works with SSP coordinators, studbook keepers and Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) chairs throughout the country to identify each population’s challenges and develop key actions needed to improve or sustain a population’s viability. Overall, this project provides the AZA community with the necessary roadmap to better understand the current status of their populations as well as assist with important decision-making and planning for each zoo population.


Lisa Faust, Ph.D., is Lincoln Park Zoo's vice president of Conservation & Science.

Lisa Faust, Ph.D.
Vice President of Conservation & Science

Lauren Mechak is a research assistant in Lincoln Park Zoo’s Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology Lauren Mechak
Assistant Population Biologist, Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology
Sarah Long, M.S., is director of Lincoln Park Zoo's Population Management Center.

Sarah Long, M.S.
Director, Population Management Center

Joseph Simonis, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology. Josie L. Simonis
Adjunct Scientist
Brent Johnson is a population biologist in the zoo’s Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology

Brent Johnson, M.S.
Population Biologist, Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology

Kayla Melton is a research assistant in Lincoln Park Zoo’s Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology. Kayla Melton
Research Assistant