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The Zoo's Hidden Gem

Journey into rural Virgina to explore the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute—an expanse of pastures, woods, and groundbreaking science.

By Brittany Grayson

“Something tells me,” Simon and Garfunkel sang back in 1967, “it’s all happening at the zoo.” That’s doubly true for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which boasts two distinct campuses: the popular park in Washington, D.C., and the lesser known conservation facility in Front Royal, Virginia. Some of the most exciting things happening at the Zoo take place in Front Royal, 90 minutes away from the noise and crowds of the city.

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institure: aerial view

Rolling Virginia hills surround the headquarters of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Our outpost there serves as the headquarters of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), which conducts conservation biology research at Front Royal, at the Zoo’s main campus, and at worldwide field research and training sites. We call the facility SCBI Front Royal.

Sprawling over 3,200 acres of pasture and forest, SCBI Front Royal is home to more than 300 animals of 26 species. The animals tend to belong to species in which the Zoo has a vested research interest. Research topics include the reproductive biology of clouded leopards and red pandas; the behavior of maned wolves; the hormone profiles of antelopes, gazelles, oryx, wild horses, and onagers; and the genetics of the blackfooted ferret.

SCBI Front Royal represents something only a few other zoos in the world possess—a location where scientists can observe, study, and breed animals without the logistical demands of visitors and tourists. Its pastures, barns, corrals, laboratories, and open spaces play a vital role in the Zoo’s conservation efforts and in the international arena of conservation biology.

Horsey History

The land that became SCBI Front Royal, abutting Shenandoah National Park, has a long history of housing and breeding animals. In the early 1900s, the United States Army bought up farms in the area and combined them together for a cavalry remount facility—where horses and mules could be bred and trained for active Army service. The remount provided horses that took part in both the First and Second World Wars. Distinguished horses, including Gen. John J. Pershing’s favorite mounts, Jeff and Kidron, are buried in a horse cemetery on the slopes of Racetrack Hill.

During the Second World War, the remount began training dogs for the Army and housed more than 600 German and Italian prisoners of war. The POWs worked in the fields of the neighboring farms and beautified the facility. They built a stone wall and turret that stand to this day on Racetrack Hill. One Italian prisoner turned out to be a muralist of some fame and painted murals on some of the buildings. They were lost when the structures housing them were condemned and torn down in the 1960s, before the Zoo acquired the property.

After the World Wars, the Army cut back on its equine programs, and the land was transferred to the Department of Agriculture. The USDA turned it into a beef cattle research station where scientists could study Angus, Hereford, and shorthorn cattle, and breed them to maximize beef production. At the same time, the State Department set up a communications station on the property. The station played an important role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The State Department also designated several buildings as backup offices in case of a national emergency. There was room at Front Royal for the secretary of state and 700 employees.

In 1973, the USDA decided it no longer needed the land. S. Dillon Ripley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, and Theodore Reed, then Director of the National Zoo, caught wind of this welcome news. For more than a decade, they’d been looking for a large parcel of land relatively close to D.C. upon which to start a captive breeding center. The Smithsonian acquired a large chunk of the property in 1974, and the National Zoo took ownership.

A Home Where P-Horses Rome

In the 1960s and 1970s, zoos began to recognize that they, as organizations both dependent upon and committed to wild animals, were in a unique position to breed endangered species. Breeding rare species meant that they could be featured in zoos without having to take more animals out of the wild. It also established an “insurance” population of animals—in case they should go extinct in the wild—and gave scientists an opportunity to breed animals that could eventually help repopulate the wild through reintroduction efforts.

The land at Front Royal went from being the site of breeding domestic horses, mules, dogs, and cows to the site of breeding much more exotic, endangered species: red-crowned and white-naped cranes, Bali mynahs, red pandas, blackfooted ferrets, clouded leopards, scimitarhorned oryx, maned wolves, Eld’s deer, cheetahs, and Przewalski’s (zhih-VAHLskeez) horses, also known as P-horses.

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institure: aerial view

Scimitar-horned oryx are extinct in the wild, yet a herd of them thrives at SCBI Front Royal. (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Scientists can also keep herds of animals. In the Zoo, it’s difficult to find enough space for a group of scimitarhorned oryx or P-horses. And visitors may be sated after seeing one or two of these extinct-in-the-wild creatures. Yet SCBI Front Royal affords animals the space to live in natural groups, as they would in the wild. The animals at SCBI Front Royal live in spaces that are clearly meant to be more utilitarian than the lavish animal exhibits downtown.

SCBI Front Royal’s generous landscape is a boon for other species as well. The blackfooted ferret was thought to be extinct in the wild until a ranch dog discovered a tiny population surviving in Wyoming in 1981. Scientists had to breed the species back from only 18 individuals. Because of the small number of original animals, the population has become inbred despite the Zoo’s best efforts. That results in animals with depressed immune systems. Consequently, breeding black-footed ferrets have to be kept in strict quarantine. SCBI Front Royal’s size and isolation have allowed scientists there to breed about 500 ferrets, many of whom have been successfully reintroduced into their natural habitat.

Rare Animal Reproduction

The concentration of scientists, lab space, research equipment, and resources in such an idyllic location has also made SCBI Front Royal the site of critical scientific discoveries. For all the species listed above, scientists have pioneered some remarkable reproductive technologies.

For reproductive biologists, SCBI Front Royal is something of a mecca. The concentration of all these endangered species in need of critical support led to the creation of a world-class reproduction lab. Scientists studied the reproduction of domestic horses, cats, and ferrets in order to apply that knowledge to their wild cousins: P-horses, clouded leopards, and black-footed ferrets. Noted scientists, including JoGayle Howard, Janine Brown, Dave Wildt, and Steve Monfort, pioneered new technologies for adapting reproductive techniques usually used in humans—including artificial insemination, induced ovulation, and the freezing of sperm and eggs.

SCBI Front Royal scientists also explored new ways to study hormone levels, which are important to reproduction. Traditionally, reproductive scientists had to capture, restrain, and draw blood from struggling animals. The problem with this, of course, is that they only get samples from animals with a lot of extra stress hormones in their bloodstream. Scientists at SCBI Front Royal began using something animals produced a lot of—urine and feces. This revolutionary technology meant scientists could track what was going on with an animal’s hormone levels on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

This expertise has blossomed into what Howard calls a “wildlife fertility center.” Scientists and zoo professionals from all over the world send samples to SCBI Front Royal to be analyzed. The scientists there offer breeding and reproduction advice for everything from dwarf rabbits to elephants.

That’s not all. For the past three decades, people from around the world have come to SCBI Front Royal for training courses in conservation biology. Scientists at SCBI Front Royal have also mentored thousands of undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals who have gone on to key leadership positions in zoos, wildlife organizations, and universities. To date, more than 5,000 people from more than 85 countries have taken part in such efforts.

Large-Scale Lab

SCBI Front Royal’s mountain forest location also lends itself to more local research. Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains are home to a rich diversity of salamander species, many of which are under threat from habitat destruction and modification, climate change, and amphibian chytrid, a fungal disease that is devastating amphibian species around the world. Another local animal being studied is the white-tailed deer. Scientists are trying to determine how injected contraceptives may help control the deer population.

SCBI Front Royal’s vast and largely undeveloped acreage also makes it a handy laboratory for ecosystem-scale studies. For instance, the site is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). This project, funded by the National Science Foundation, studies how climate change, alterations in land use, and invasive species affect natural resources and ecosystems. SCBI Front Royal is the core study site for the mid-Atlantic region.

Hand in hand with NEON, the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatory monitors forest plots at SCBI Front Royal, maintaining research areas where scientists measure, identify, and categorize every tree. This information will help inform further studies on climate change, carbon fluxes, and shifting biodiversity in temperate forests.

Not only are SCBI Front Royal forests helping scientists study current woodlands, they may also provide the seeds for future forests. Historically, scientists estimate that American chestnuts made up almost a fourth of American hardwood forests, particularly in the Shenandoah region. Between 1900 and 1940, however, almost all of the American chestnuts were wiped out by the American chestnut blight, a lethal fungus. Through a partnership with the American Chestnut Foundation, SCBI scientists are growing an orchard of protected chestnuts in an effort to breed trees that are resistant to the blight. If they succeed, eastern forests may someday be populated by chestnuts that trace their lineage directly back to trees at SCBI Front Royal.

Autumn Invitation

The enormous spaces that give scientists the room to study entire forest ecosystems and grow hundreds of trees also provide space to grow something a little more utilitarian: fodder for Zoo animals. Since the days when the Army bred horses and mules, the land has been used to grow hay, grass, and alfalfa.

Zoo nutritionist Mike Maslanka says that SCBI Front Royal grows between 12,000 and 16,000 bales of hay every year—between 400 and 410 tons. That’s enough to feed most of the herbivores at the Zoo. He and his colleagues are working with local farmers to increase the sustainability of crops grown at and near SCBI Front Royal. This is part of the outreach the Zoo strives to do in the community—both in D.C. and Front Royal.

As part of that outreach, SCBI Front Royal opens its doors to the public for one weekend every year. This year’s Autumn Conservation Festival will take place on October 2-3. It will showcase both the superb science done on site as well as work by Smithsonian scientists around the globe. In recognition of the site’s diverse and complex history, the event also includes historical cavalry maneuvers and horse-drawn wagons.

Consider dropping by the festival to see how it’s all happening at our hidden gem.

 

—BRITTANY GRAYSON is a web editor and science writer for Friends of the National Zoo.

 

More: "The Last Wild Horses"

 

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(5) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.