Gorilla Blind Date

Jun 11, 2013

Technology and Teamwork Help Make Gorilla Matches

“Muscular, family-oriented male seeks hairy female with excellent maternal instincts” might not sound like the typical personal ad, but for western lowland gorillas – like many other endangered species – finding the right mate is a high-stakes dating game where making a good match can make the difference in ultimately saving the species. Finding a partner in the animal kingdom isn't always easy, even in the wild, and where animals live under human care there’s an added responsibility to assist by setting up the perfect gorilla “blind date.”

The Calgary Zoo, in cooperation with accredited zoos throughout North America, participates in managed breeding programs for many species facing extinction in the wild including western lowland gorillas, Amur tigers, Asian elephants, just to name a few. Regardless of the species, the overriding objective is the same – to maintain healthy, genetically diverse, self- sustaining captive populations.

Dr. Jake Veasey, the Calgary Zoo’s Director of Animal Care, Conservation and Research explains how maintaining a healthy captive population can act as insurance. “If wild populations face serious threats then we need to have options available to save them from extinction. Managed breeding programs could one day support animal reintroductions or efforts to increase genetic diversity in wild populations using assisted reproduction techniques.”

For western lowland gorillas – like many other endangered species – finding the right mate is a high-stakes dating game.

The Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP), the breeding management group for gorillas, meets every two years for a master-planning session where they painstakingly review each of the nearly 400 gorillas living in North American accredited zoos. In many ways, these planning meetings are like a modified online-dating service for these endangered apes.

If you’re a gorilla, either living in the wild or in a zoo environment, growing up and making an ideal match likely means relocating.

The SSP team incorporates updates from a variety of advisors – nutritionists, veterinarians and researchers – to gather as much information as they possibly can. “We weave together the information from all these sources to make breeding – or relocation – recommendations.

“The movement of animals is an important part of managing their welfare,” explains Evans. “Gorillas are one of the best-managed species in the history of zoos. Thanks to careful management and collaboration over the years we can be selective when pairing individuals to maintain as much genetic diversity in the captive population as possible.”

From the Summer 2011 issue of the Calgary Zoo’s Wild Life member magazine.