Two red pandas in exhibit

Modeling the Future of Zoo and Aquarium Populations

A red panda eating leaves in exhibit


Zoo scientists are analyzing the future of zoo and aquarium populations by conducting population viability analyses (PVAs) for Species Survival Plans®. PVAs can help animal managers plan for the future and determine the best management strategies.


Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plans® (SSP) are cooperative programs that manage species across AZA-accredited institutions as single populations. AZA Animal Programs aim to maintain healthy, sustainable zoo and aquarium populations to meet the education and conservation goals of AZA institutions in addition to acting as assurance for wild populations. Today, SSPs 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 is strong interest in understanding their future. To explore their long-term health and sustainability, Lincoln Park Zoo scientists are conducting population viability analyses (PVAs) for SSPs.

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. These analyses can project the population-management strategies that scientists at the zoo-based AZA Population Management Center (PMC) use to manage zoo and aquarium populations and the dynamics of small populations.

Scientists in the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology use 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 project, the 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 and aquarium population. This project was made possible in part by grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.


Senior Director of Population Ecology
Population Analyst
Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology
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