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Ex-situ Conservation

Ex-situ Conservation

Have you ever been to the zoo? If you have, you've witnessed ex-situ conservation in action. Around the world, thousands of threatened animals are removed from their natural habitat to keep the species alive and maintain their genetic diversity. But it's not just animals – plants can be conserved ex-situ in botanical gardens or seed banks. Read on to find out more about ex-situ conservation and why it's needed!

Ex-situ Conservation: Definition

First things first, what is ex-situ conservation?

Ex-situ conservation is the conservation of biodiversity outside its natural habitats.

'Ex-situ' is Latin for 'out of place'.

Ex-situ vs In-situ

Ex-situ conservation takes place outside natural habitats. In contrast, in-situ conservation takes place within a species' natural habitat. In-situ conservation is often preferred and prioritised. This is because it helps preserve recovering populations in their natural habitat, with minimal disturbance. This strategy helps to create and maintain conditions for species adaptation within their environment. As a result, ex-situ conservation is only used as a last resort.

Uses of Ex-situ Conservation

The main aim of ex-situ conservation techniques is to ensure the survival of threatened species and maintain their genetic diversity.

Why Do We Need Ex-situ Conservation?

More than 41,000 species of animal and plant are threatened with extinction around the world.

Threats to biodiversity include:

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation

  • Overexploitation

  • Invasive species

  • Pollution

  • Disease

  • Climate change

With so many species at risk, how do scientists decide which species are most in need of ex-situ conservation?

Criteria for Species Selection

Typically, ex-situ conservation focuses on charismatic, rare, or agricultural species.

Charismatic species are usually animals that possess something people see to be attractive such as intelligence, beauty and cuteness.

There is a significant taxonomic bias within animal ex-situ conservation. 41% of the world's amphibians are under threat, but only 3% are in zoos. Zoos are biased towards mammals; they achieve the most attention and concern from the public.

To decide if ex-situ conservation is appropriate, ecologists must use a five-step decision-making tool.

  1. What is the extinction risk of the species?

  2. Can ex-situ management play a positive role?

  3. What characteristics and dimensions does the ex-situ population need to meet its conservation goal?

  4. What resources and expertise are needed?

  5. Is ex-situ conservation suitable for this species?

Extinction Risk

The IUCN Red List determines and classifies species according to their extinction risk. The nine categories are:

  • Not Evaluated (NE)
  • Data Deficient (DD)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Near Threatened (NT)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Critically Endangered (CR)
  • Extinct in the Wild (EW)
  • Extinct (EX)

You can learn more about the ICUN Red list here.

Ex-situ Conservation: Strategies

Ex-situ conservation strategies vary depending on the target species. They are used for animals and plants – but it's a lot easier to maintain plants than animals!

Animals

Living animals are kept in ex-situ collections such as zoos and aquariums to keep them alive and maintain their genetic diversity. Over 700 million people visit zoos every year.

Ex-situ Conservation zoo animal ex situ conservation StudySmarter
Zoos keep many species out of harm's way. Unsplash

How do zoos help conserve a threatened animal species?

  • Research

  • Public awareness

  • Safe environment free from destruction and predators

  • Captive breeding programmes

Captive Breeding Programmes

These programmes aim to increase the number of individuals of a species if the population is very small. Scientists try to maximise genetic diversity within the captive population by using studbooks.

Studbooks keep track of the history and location of all captive animals in the breeding plan.

Using studbooks aims to ensure an equal representation of genes. Poor breeders are encouraged to breed, whilst particularly good breeders may be limited. In the future, the captive breeding population may be reintroduced to the wild.

Reintroducing captive populations into the wild isn't as easy as it sounds. If animals have been kept in captivity for too long, it can be difficult to reconnect with others in the habitat.

Behavioural changes may have also taken place during captivity. In a zoo, animals don't have to search for their food or deal with predators and similar hazards. When reintroduced to the wild, they lack survival instinct and may die of hunger or predation. Thus, animals require preconditioning before they are released back into their natural habitat.

Tasmanian devil populations were decimated by a transmissible facial tumour disease. To combat the disease, scientists established captive populations free from the disease. However, devils that were then reintroduced to Tasmania suffered unusually high rates of fatal vehicle strikes. The more generations the devils had been in captivity, the more naive they were to wild conditions, thus the more likely they were to be hit by a car.

Plants

Ex-situ plant conservation usually takes place in the form of a seed bank. These artificial yet valuable hotspots of biodiversity store millions of seeds as an insurance against extinction, and to maintain genetic diversity.

The Millennium Seed Bank is the UK's largest seed bank. This Sussex-based collection is home to over 2.4 billion seeds, from almost 40,000 plant species. The seeds are dried and then stored at -20 °C. After a few weeks, the samples are germinated to ensure their survival and then tested every decade.

As well as seed banks, plants can be kept in botanical gardens.

Ex-situ Conservation greenhouse botanical garden plant ex situ StudySmarterGreenhouses are often used in botanical gardens to simulate a warmer habitat. Unsplash

Examples of Ex-situ Conservation

Ex-situ conservation has been successful at keeping species alive.

Back from the Brink

A famous example of captive breeding success is the black-footed ferret, North America's only resident ferret species. They frequently eat rodents, but prairie dogs constitute the majority of their diet.

Prairie dogs are herbivorous burrowing ground squirrels.

Unfortunately, many prairie dog populations were eliminated because they caused damage to agricultural fields. As a result, the black-footed ferret experienced a severe decline. In 1987, eighteen ferrets were used to start a captive breeding programme, which has successfully introduced black-footed ferrets back into the wild. However, they remain endangered.

Extinct in the Wild

The Alagoas curassow is a pheasant-like bird found in northeastern Brazil. It is extinct in the wild; all 130 members of the species live in captivity. Little was known about the birds before captivity, as they were seldom seen by scientists. Reintroducing the birds to their natural habitat will be tricky. Most surviving individuals have been hybridised with another curassow species. True Alagoas curassows have limited genetic diversity.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Ex-situ Conservation

The pros and cons of ex-situ conservation depend on the species being conserved.

Animals

BenefitsDrawbacks
  • Animals are kept safe from external threats (such as predators and poachers) in a controlled environment, with all their needs provided
  • Zoos are an invaluable resource for research: they provide a greater understanding of animals' needs. Scientists can also carry out studies difficult to do in wild populations
  • Zoos educate the public about endangered species and conservation efforts
  • It has the potential to reintroduce organisms back into their natural habitat
  • Captive breeding can reduce genetic diversity. Furthermore, not all species will breed in captivity
  • Ex-situ conservation is not applicable to all species; it can be difficult to provide an adequate habitat
  • Maintaining animal populations is incredibly expensive
  • Behavioural issues: animals suffer from boredom, stress, aggression, and other behavioural problems
  • Interbreeding and hybridisation often take place
  • The artificial environment is not as suitable as the animals' natural habitat

Plants

BenefitsDrawbacks
  • Seeds can be stored anywhere in the world
  • Seed banks have low labour requirements
  • Millions of seeds can be stored per bank because they take up little space
  • Less vulnerable to disease, natural disaster and human destruction outside the natural habitat
  • Visitors to botanical gardens bring in money
  • Expensive and time-consuming to test the viability of seeds
  • Not always possible to store and test all seeds – it can be challenging to collect seeds from plants growing in remote habitats
  • Disease can easily spread in botanical gardens
  • Botanical gardens can be expensive to run

Conserving plants via ex-situ techniques is easier and less disruptive to the species, thus has fewer drawbacks than ex-situ animal conservation.

I hope that this article has clarified ex-situ conservation for you. It's a type of conservation where threatened species are taken out of their natural habitat to be stored or looked after elsewhere. The controlled conditions keep the species safe and provide an invaluable research opportunity, but the artificial environment can affect behaviour and genetic diversity.

Ex-situ conservation - Key takeaways

  • Ex-situ conservation is the conservation of biodiversity outside its natural habitats. It is used as a last resort if in-situ conservation has been unsuccessful.
  • Over 41,000 species around the world are facing the risk of extinction. Scientists follow a specific set of criteria to determine if ex-situ conservation is suitable to protect these species. Charismatic, rare, and agricultural species are prioritised.
  • Animals are kept in zoos are aquaria to provide a safe environment and research opportunities. Captive breeding programmes often take place in zoos. Plants are kept in seed banks or botanical gardens.
  • Ex-situ conservation keeps animals and plants safe from external threats and educates the public about conservation efforts. However, ex-situ conservation is expensive and can impact the behaviour and genetic diversity of animals in captivity.

1. D. Conde, An Emerging Role of Zoos to Conserve Biodiversity, Science, 2011

2. Field Studies Council, Ex-situ conservation management, 2022

3. IUCN, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2022

4. Meryl Westlake, 20 facts to celebrate 20 years of the Millennium Seed Bank, Kew, 2020

5. National Geographic, Black-Footed Ferret, 2022

6. University of Sydney, Captive-bred Tasmanian devils susceptible to car strike, 2017

Final Ex-situ Conservation Quiz

Question

Define ex-situ conservation.

Show answer

Answer

Ex-situ conservation is the conservation of biodiversity outside its natural habitats.

Show question

Question

What are ex-situ conservation techniques used for?

Show answer

Answer

The main aim of ex-situ conservation techniques is to ensure the survival of threatened species and maintain their genetic diversity.

Show question

Question

Approximately how many species of animals and plants are threatened with extinction?

Show answer

Answer

41,000

Show question

Question

What are some threats to biodiversity?

Show answer

Answer

Threats to biodiversity include habitat loss and fragmentation, overexploitation, invasive species, pollution, disease, and climate change.

Show question

Question

What kind of species does ex-situ conservation typically focus on?

Show answer

Answer

Ex-situ conservation focuses on charismatic, rare, and agricultural species.

Show question

Question

What does the abbreviation EN stand for on the IUCN Red List?

Show answer

Answer

Endangered

Show question

Question

How many people visit zoos every year?

Show answer

Answer

700 million

Show question

Question

How do zoos help to conserve threatened species?

Show answer

Answer

Zoos provide public awareness, research opportunities, a safe environment, and captive breeding programmes.

Show question

Question

What are studbooks used for?

Show answer

Answer

Studbooks keep track of the history and location of all captive animals in the breeding plan to ensure genetic diversity is maintained.

Show question

Question

Why are seed banks an important ex-situ conservation strategy?

Show answer

Answer

Seed banks store millions of seeds as an insurance against extinction, and maintain genetic diversity.

Show question

Question

Approximately how many seeds are in the Millennium Seed Bank?

Show answer

Answer

2.4 billion

Show question

Question

What is the purpose of captive breeding programmes?

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Answer

Captive breeding programmes aim to increase the number of individuals of a species if the population is very small. 

Show question

Question

What behavioural issues are common in captive animals?

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Answer

Behaviour issues in captive animals include boredom, stress and aggression.

Show question

Question

What are some drawbacks of ex-situ strategies used to conserve plants?

Show answer

Answer

Expensive and time-consuming

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Question

Botanical gardens are a form of ex-situ conservation.

Show answer

Answer

True

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