SSP Meeting Notes: Lesser Hedgehog Tenrecs

March 2, 2023

It’s a day at the office like any other. Several people are sitting at a large table in a conference room. Their laptops are set up, showing the telltale squares of a Zoom call. A virtual desktop full of data is being shared to the screen at the front of the room. It’s a scene that could be taking place at any business in the country, with a few differences. The conference room is modern and airy, with large windows that overlook Lake Michigan to the east. The snow is coming down in little fluffy bursts on DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

This is a meeting of the Lesser Madagascar Hedgehog Tenrec Species Survival Plan (SSP), an initiative of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). It’s taking place at Hurvis Family Learning Center at Lincoln Park Zoo. The session is focusing on the small, nocturnal mammals that look like hedgehogs but aren’t really related: the tenrec. This work doesn’t involve hiking through African landscapes in the Goualougo Triangle—which Lincoln Park Zoo employees have also done—but this data-driven work helps determine the future of animal populations in AZA institutions.

The Room Where It Happens

Not all the zoos are present today in person, but some expert advisors have shown up online to weigh in on some important logistical issues. Specifically, the attendees of reproductive planning meeting go through inputs and requests from every AZA-accredited zoo — almost 70 of them in total — that care for tenrecs. The Tenrec SSP representatives are figuring out how to support the AZA population in a way that makes the most sense for maintaining and growing the population toward a targeted number to ensure the sustainability and genetic diversity of the population.

The meeting starts around 9 a.m. with some statistics — the growth rate of the animal population, average births and deaths per year for the past five years, population trends. Basically, an overview looks at the demography of the AZA tenrec population, with recommendations for holding, breeding and transferring animals to take place over the next three years.

After an overview, Vice Program Leader John Andrews, who is also the assistant director of the AZA Population Management Center, and SSP Program Leader (and Studbook Keeper) Shannon Irmscher of Mesker Park Zoo & Botanical Garden start getting into the nitty-gritty of things. This requires collecting information from zoos that are on the call, or who have provided requests through the PMCTrack website. It’s like solving a logic puzzle.

Driven by Data

In making recommendations, these managers must consider important aspects. Foremost among these is inbreeding. The genetic makeup of tenrecs in human care is currently less well-documented than certain other species, in part because members of the public can obtain tenrecs being bred by private owners who sell them as pets. Nevertheless, the SSP knows which tenrecs are related and how closely, so they can account for this factor and make sure valuable genes are passed down to another generation.

They must also consider the realistic breeding age of tenrecs, the individual health histories of each animal, their role at the zoo (some are animal ambassadors used in education programming), and timing. The tenrec breeding season takes place between May and August; there must be time allotted for animals to be transferred, quarantined, and acclimated to their new environments before then. Some institutions want to create habitat for tenrecs; others would like to send their younger ones to other institutions so they can experience the next stage in their lives. Some request advice on how to manage tenrecs if they are new to caring for them; others prefer to keep their current zoo population stable.

Doing this work is important—but, as you can imagine, it’s a long process when there are 64 AZA facilities involved and 168 individual tenrecs to consider. It takes the entire workday. However, when you hear about an SSP-recommended birth at a zoo, this is the type of work that goes into it.

Species Survival in a Nutshell

Every SSP has a program leader and a studbook keeper, who documents the pedigree and demographic history of each animal in a population. Using these data, AZA zoos collaborate to manage both small animals, like the tenrec, and large mammals, from eastern black rhinos to polar bears.

Following this meeting, different facilities will start the processes involved in moving tenrecs around based on these recommendations. This ensures that animals in AZA institutions are healthy, with diverse genetic lines. Breeding can continue to grow population sizes and make the tenrec population more sustainable.

For more on population management work at Lincoln Park Zoo, see this video:

So, consider this cooperative management process repeated for all your favorite animal species. Meetings like this take place for SSP animals at different AZA institutions and are informed with data provided by AZA Studbook Keepers from around AZA member facilities. AZA’s Population Management Center at Lincoln Park Zoo uses studbook data as well as the PMCTrack program to make informed decisions for individual welfare and population sustainability. And they are vital for the long-term survival of animals in human care.

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