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2018 Conservation Wins, Part One

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is dedicated to saving species. Every year, its team of conservationists here and around the globe works hard to make that mission a reality — and 2018 was no exception.

In fact, it was such a busy year that we couldn't fit it all in one blog! Take a look back at some of the biggest conservation success stories of 2018:

Saving Frogs with Science

Though once common along highland streams in western Costa Rica and Panama, the variable harlequin frog is now endangered throughout its range. It is especially sensitive to the amphibian chytrid fungus, which has pushed many frog species to the brink of extinction in Central America.

In January, Smithsonian researchers released 500 variable harlequin frogs (bred in human care) in Panama’s Colon province as a first step toward full-scale reintroduction of the species.

The Birds and the Bugs

Insect-eating birds require high-calorie, high-protein cuisine — namely caterpillars and spiders — during the breeding season. Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center scientists discovered that landscaping with even a small proportion of nonnative plants reduces the insect menu.

A snowberry clearwing caterpillar (a bright green caterpillar with small black spots along each segment of its body) crawls upside-down along a small branch

More than 90 percent of herbivorous insects, like this snowberry clearwing caterpillar, will only eat one or a few native plants. The use of these plants in landscaping is essential to ensure breeding birds have enough insect prey to eat.

Their study, published in October, found that a lack of insects led to a decline in the breeding success and population growth of the Carolina chickadee. It was the first study to link the decline of common backyard birds to reduced insect prey brought on by the presence of nonnative plants.

The good news? Replacing those plants with native species can provide food for both common North American species and migratory birds that rely on suitable stopover habitat during their journeys. Check out this guide to creating a bird friendly home and yard.

Breakthroughs in Coral Conservation

For the first time, SCBI scientists successfully cryopreserved (froze) and thawed coral larvae from the mushroom coral — a breakthrough that will allow scientists to biobank coral in its early developmental stages. By banking coral larvae, conservationists can safeguard at-risk species and their genetic diversity, helping to prevent extinctions and potentially bolster the health of wild populations.

Following this groundbreaking science, Smithsonian researchers and partners collected more than 150,000 live eggs from endangered elkhorn coral in Curaçao and fertilized them with frozen elkhorn sperm from Florida, Puerto Rico and Curaçao.

It was the first time researchers used cryopreserved coral sperm to support the gene migration of coral populations that would otherwise remain geographically and genetically isolated.

Coral reefs are living, dynamic ecosystems that provide invaluable services. They nurture more than a quarter of all marine life, provide storm barriers for coastlines and add more than $300 billion annually to the global economy. But they are disappearing rapidly due, in part, to greenhouse gases that are warming and acidifying oceans, making corals more susceptible to stress, bleaching and disease.

Live corals are difficult to move safely between locations for breeding. This new gene migration technique provides an effective way to mix coral genes from different populations, with the aim of making offspring more resistant to bleaching and disease.

Welcoming Whooping Cranes

Two whooping cranes (large birds with slim, long legs, long necks and pointed bills) explore grasses and a pond in their new habitat at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Twelve whooping cranes arrived at SCBI in December. Less than 900 of these birds exist on the planet, and the six mated-pairs will be the founding members of SCBI's whooping crane research and breeding program. The chicks that the pairs hatch will be candidates for reintroduction to the wild!

Restoring America’s Wild Prairie

In November, SCBI announced a three-year collaboration with the American Prairie Reserve to protect and restore one of North America’s greatest treasures: the prairie.

From the mighty bison to the tiniest insects, many animals call the grasslands home. Researchers hope to better understand this important ecosystem and, ultimately, reintroduce species that have disappeared from this landscape.

Stay tuned for part two, featuring more of 2018’s conservation success stories!