Improving the sustainability of ex situ populations with mate choice

Martin-Wintle, M S and Wintle, N J P and Díez-León, M and Swaisgood, R R and Asa, C S (2018) Improving the sustainability of ex situ populations with mate choice. Zoo Biology, 38 (1).

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Abstract

Many breeding programs managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plans® (SSPs) are not meeting goals for population size and genetic diversity due to failure of recommended pairs to breed successfully. According to AZA Population Management Center analyses, as many as 80% of recommended breeding pairs fail to produce young before the next breeding and transfer plan is issued. Determining reasons for failure and ensuring that a specific pairing produces offspring can be challenging. Mate incompatibility, one possible reason for failure, might be addressed by allowing mate choice. Although many SSP® coordinators and breeding managers, who implement breeding recommendations at their institutions, recognize the potential benefits of mate choice, examples and models for presenting and assessing choice are lacking. Here we review examples from birds, rodents, lagomorphs, marsupials, carnivores, fishes, and insects where mate choice has been incorporated. These examples provide strong evidence that free mate choice and mating with preferred partners increase a variety of reproductive success measurements when compared to assigned mate pairings. We suggest innovative housing and breeding arrangements for better incorporating mate choice into the management strategies for species held ex situ. Further, we discuss the fitness consequences and welfare implications of allowing choice. We advocate for a more systematic use of behavioral research in cooperative breeding programs. Behavioral management for mating can yield more successful programs, thus ensuring SSP® genetic and demographic goals are met, while simultaneously improving welfare.

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