As a little girl, I wanted to become a veterinarian. I had to be a vet. I could never imagine a world without animals, so I wanted to help make sure that animals would stick around. Being a vet would certainly do the trick—at least I would be able to save a few lives. After a long school education and a couple of university graduate degrees, I have become a biologist. I changed from veterinary school at the last minute in college once I realized I wanted to help wild animals rather than working with domestic animals. Since I graduated, I have had veterinarians as colleagues, as they, too, work with wildlife out in the field, just as I do.
As a biology student at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, my heart lay in ecology, but my head admired the complex, yet logical principles of genetics. I dreaded another difficult choice. Then I learned that genetics are not only used to understand the looks of fruit flies; genetics can also help answer fundamental ecological, evolutionary, and behavioral questions. I learned the basic skills and, for my master’s thesis, used genetic markers to test whether newts prefer less related individuals as mating partners. This was fun, but my study didn’t really benefit newt populations.
After I graduated, I was given the opportunity to work for a conservation organization in Tanzania. For the first time, I witnessed how conservation projects and research help save endangered species. This is what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t quite done with genetics, either. A Ph.D. project in conservation genetics allowed me to combine the two, and endangered mockingbirds in the Galápagos Islands became my guinea pigs. With a drop of blood from the birds, which contains genetic markers, I was able to investigate conservation-relevant questions. Instead of just observing the birds in the field, I could look “inside” them to see what their genetic pattern could tell me about their status and behavior. Genetics can reveal if a population is large or small, whether there is migration into or out of it, detect inbreeding, and who is related to whom. Genetics can even reveal things that happened to the species in the past, like whether it went through tough times of population size decline or when it colonized an island.
All this information can come in handy for endangered species conservation. It can point to which species need more active help from us, in addition to preserving their habitat. Such management actions are diverse and range from simple monitoring or moving individuals around to taking them into captivity for assisted breeding. With San Diego Zoo Global, I am now working with a species whose survival is entirely dependent on us. When the numbers of alala or Hawaiian crows were rapidly dwindling in the wild, a few birds were brought into captivity in an effort to boost their population size. They are paired up specifically to maintain what little is left of their genetic diversity. The birds are doing well in the safe environment of our aviaries. Sadly, their relatives in the wild did not last. Now the captive birds will provide the only source for reestablishment of this iconic species in the Hawaiian forests.
Our mission at San Diego Zoo Global is to save species from extinction, and that’s what I am passionate about. It’s a tricky business, time-consuming and expensive, and despite all efforts, conservation measures can fail. But it is the only way. After all, we have to make sure these species stick around for generations to come.
Paquita Hoeck, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral associate for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.