The Rarest of the Rare

Scientists at the Smithsonian’s Conservation and Research Center have snatched endangered creatures from the brink and redefined conservation biology

While spending time at the Smithsonian's Conservation and Research Center (CRC) near Front Royal, Virginia, writer Scott Weidensaul discovered that conservation biologists will go to extraordinary lengths to help the world's most endangered animals. That can include analyzing hundreds of pounds of elephant droppings, undertaking complicated surgeries on ferrets, tending to herds of oryx and traveling to the most remote corners of the world.

But it's an approach that works. The writer describes how CRC scientists helped bring North America's most endangered mammal, the black-footed ferret, back from the brink of extinction by inventing a surgical artificial insemination procedure. Along with the ferrets, Weidensaul reports, CRC has worked with Phre David's deer from China, Przewalski's horse from the Mongolian steppe, tree kangaroos from New Guinea, red-crowned cranes from Russia and China, and clouded leopards and red pandas from Asia.

The Conservation and Research Center is marking its 25th anniversary this year, a quarter-century that has seen tremendous changes in the way scientists approach the subject of endangered species propagation and conservation. Not long ago, zoo "conservation" meant warehousing a few specimens of an endangered species in cages like a latter-day Ark and simply hoping they would breed. Today conservation encompasses a far more comprehensive and multifaceted approach, focusing on natural communities as much as individual species.

That black-footed ferrets and many other endangered species survive at all is testament to CRC's significant contributions in the fields of reproductive and conservation biology.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.