Thirty and Thriving

November 19, 2019

Eastern black rhino in exhibit

Lincoln Park Zoo’s Conservation & Science department began in 1989 with only a single scientist, but has become one of the largest zoo-based science programs in the country.

On any given day at Lincoln Park Zoo, animals explore their habitats, families criss-cross the Main Mall, and wild pollinators flit between native plant species. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There’s much more happening beneath the surface—or, more appropriately, around the world.

Lincoln Park Zoo, the 49-acre urban oasis that takes 15 minutes to walk end to end, has been a global leader in understanding and protecting wildlife for three decades. Since its founding in 1989, the zoo’s Conservation & Science department has blossomed into one of the largest zoo-based science programs in North America.

With more than 40 scientists pooling their diverse expertise, its research advances conservation initiatives and state-of-the-art animal care from Chicago to the Serengeti, and helps ecosystems thrive in our urbanizing world. It all started when the zoo hired Steve Thompson, Ph.D., as its first scientist in 1989, and it continues to this day with the near-constant development of new research techniques and new collaborations to save species.

“It’s hard to even envision what Conservation & Science will look like in another 30 years considering how much we’ve grown in the past 30 years,” says the department’s vice president, Lisa Faust, Ph.D., who joined the zoo as a full-time employee in 1998. “I’m so proud of our successes in using science to improve the lives of animals in zoos, as well as impacting the conservation of species in the wild. Our program is somewhat unique in that we are very focused on developing real-world solutions to problems facing wildlife. It’s exciting to imagine where future opportunities will take us.”

The department’s science centers weren’t formally established for a few more years, but zoo researchers were breaking ground from the very beginning. In fact, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) partnered with Lincoln Park Zoo to open the Population Management Center (PMC), the zoo’s very first center, in 2000 because of the staff’s already established expertise in the field.

After the creation of the PMC in 2000, the department began looking for gaps where its scientists could lend their scientific expertise to important problems facing zoos. That, in turn, led to adding the first zoo epidemiologist to study disease, building a sophisticated program in primatology and primate welfare, and developing novel methods in endocrinology.

As its scientific staff grew, the department developed the expertise to look outside of zoos and apply its science to wild populations, collaborating with field biologists on the ground to support their conservation work. It also identified a unique niche, urban ecology, and is now recognized as a world leader in how wildlife use cities and promoting human-wildlife coexistence.

“Throughout it all, we’ve had a group of dedicated scientists strongly committed to solving problems faced by managers and conservationists on the ground,” says Faust. “It’s an approach that has meant that our work has relevance and impact as soon as the data is analyzed or the paper is published.”

Photo by Lisa Faust

As Conservation & Science has grown, it has achieved many significant accomplishments. Here, we highlight a key story for each.

Over the past 30 years, the department has:

Photo by Ian Nichols

Supported 500+ Species in Zoos through Science-based Management

The PMC collaborates with professionals around the country to guide the management of every Species Survival Plan® (SSP), but zoo staff have taken the lead on the Bali Myna SSP, managing the critically endangered birds at more than 45 zoos across the country to create and sustain a healthy population. Zoo Director Megan Ross, Ph.D.; Hope B. McCormick Curator of Birds Sunny Nelson; and Thompson have worked with the PMC to carefully plan breeding and transfers for decades. They also collaborate with Indonesian partners on conservation strategies to ensure the SSP benefits the species in the wild.

Studied 250+ Wildlife Species from Chicago to the Republic of Congo

Deep in the forests of the Republic of Congo, zoo scientist Dave Morgan, Ph.D, has spent decades tracking, observing, and working to protect wildlife in one of the most pristine and unique ecosystems on earth. Through the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project (GTAP), his team collects detailed information on the area’s wildlife, including endangered chimpanzees and western lowland gorillas, to find ways to reduce human impact on the region and conserve the natural world.

Trained 450+ Undergraduate Interns, Graduate Students, and Post-doctoral Fellows

Christopher Schell, a new assistant professor at the University of Washington at Tacoma, began his science career at the Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology as a Ph.D. student. During that time, he broke ground on urban carnivore behavior, and even discovered the personality traits that increase a coyote’s chances of surviving in urban areas. Since leaving, he has founded two sites in the zoo’s Urban Wildlife Information Network (UWIN), a growing web of urban research sites geared toward understanding how wildlife and people can coexist in cities. “Chris is a rising wildlife biology star,” says Faust, “and we are proud to have helped him launch his career.”

Photo by Allison Sacerdote

Published 275+ Scientific Articles and Book Chapters

Rachel Santymire, Ph.D., director of the Davee Center, recently pioneered a non-invasive method for measuring amphibian stress hormones: skin swabs. The novel technique takes advantage of their naturally permeable skin, which secretes hormones, and is ideal for use in the field. So far, the technique has been applied to more than 13 species, ranging from arboreal to fully aquatic amphibian species, and by sharing the procedure with her peers through the journal “Conservation Physiology,” Santymire’s scientific breakthrough may soon benefit even more animals.

Photo by Lisa Faust

Partnered with 100+ Universities, Ngos, Government Agencies, Zoos, and Aquariums Around the World

Lincoln Park Zoo works closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act. Through that partnership, zoo specialists support the recovery of many threatened species, including black-footed ferrets, trumpeter swans, ornate box turtles, piping plovers, Puerto Rican parrots, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, red wolves, Louisiana pine snakes, Guam kingfishers, and Guam rails.

Science Centers at Lincoln Park Zoo

AZA Population Management Center (PMC)

Formally Established: 2000
Specialty: Population Biology (Genetics and Demography)
Purpose: Matchmaking and family planning for animals across all 200+ AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums ensures healthy populations.
Interesting Fact: The PMC has issued more than 350,000 breeding and transfer recommendations to individual animals at AZA insitutions since its founding.

Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes

Formally Established: 2004
Specialty: Primatology
Purpose: Understanding primate behavior, biology, and cognition enhances their care at zoos and sanctuaries and conservation in the wild.
Interesting Fact: The zoo’s gorillas, chimpanzees, and macaques complete voluntary cognition tests on touchscreen computers to help researchers better understand how they learn.

Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology

Formally Established: 2005
Specialty: Population Viability (Genetic and Demographic)
Purpose: Considering demographic, genetic, ecological, and evolutionary factors helps improve the management and conservation of small, at-risk animal populations.
Interesting Fact: The Alexander Center has built computer models to inform the recovery of dozens of critically endangered species, including Puerto Rican parrots and red wolves.

Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology

Formally Established: 2005 Specialty: Physiology (Disease and Hormones)
Purpose: Non-invasively analyzing stress and reproductive hormones, as well as assessing diseases that may impact wildlife and people, helps enhance care at zoos and conservation in the wild.
Interesting Fact: Hair, blood, nail, semen, urine, and fecal samples are shipped to the Davee Center from zoos and field sites all over the world.

Urban Wildlife Institute (UWI)

Formally Established: 2008 Specialty: Urban Wildlife Ecology
Purpose: Studying interactions between wildlife, urban development, and natural ecosystems minimizes human-wildlife conflict in cities.
Interesting Fact: Hundreds of motion-triggered camera traps dot Chicago’s urban and suburban landscape, and UWI has expanded to collaborate with 22 other cities across North America to build a broader understanding of how wildlife use cities.