How to Save a Species in Captivity

Everything on earth will perish. And the Lord said you are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground. 

~Genesis 6:20

God wasn’t much of a biologist. Despite heated discussions with my deacon grandfather, birds are animals. They are archosaurian reptiles, to be specific. But the bible wasn’t big on dinosaurs, so the error isn’t much of a surprise. Male and female is a little off-the-mark too; whilst parthenogenesis is miraculous in Homo sapiens, it is a rather common occurrence throughout the animal kingdom. More germane to this discussion, it doesn’t really take a scientist to work out that attempting to recover a species from only two surviving individuals is fraught with difficulties. In modern conservation we have the 50/500 rule, which essentially states that any species that drops below 500 animals is unlikely to persist in the long term, and anything below 50 won’t even persist short term. A population of two is fucked. Genetically, demographically, and functionally fucked. You can’t just let them off the boat and think everything is going to be tickety-boo.

If we want to have any hope of saving species, we must act before the situation becomes so dire. Unfortunately the law largely prevents us from being proactive in conservation science. The funding is only afforded when species are on the brink. Extinction captures the public imagination. If the loss is not palpable, it is difficult to convince people to care. California Condors were allowed to dwindle down to two dozen individuals before anyone intervened. Many South and Central American frog species are now restricted to captive facilities because the spread of the chytrid fungus was left unabated for so long. Captive breeding is a last ditch effort. In an ideal world, we would not let the situation get so bad as to warrant it. But this is not an ideal world. We have a biblical situation on our hands, and the flood is entirely our own doing. With each passing day, the outside world becomes more and more inhospitable.

In the modern age, arks abound. Zoos, captive rearing facilities, fish hatcheries; we are snatching up animals for their own safety, left, right, and centre. But what now? It is far from a permanent solution. Disease risk is a major concern with housed animals, inbreeding is largely unavoidable, and all of this husbandry is ruinously expensive. Stockpiling species at risk is not the solution, it simply buys us time. Luckily we have several longstanding institutions that can guide us through this interim. We take a lot of our methods from agriculture. The recovery of the American alligator is one of the great success stories of conservation, and was due in large part to alligator ‘farms’. Farmers have been diligently keeping stud books and carefully tracking the genetic lineages of livestock for millennia. So much for GMO-free. Farmers are fastidious for good reason; lives and livelihoods are at stake. Without such a cautionary approach, famine and bankruptcy are almost inevitable. Similarly if conservation is not exacting in its methodologies, any reintroduction efforts would be doomed to failure.

The pet trade also has a lot of expertise to offer. In the trade of reptiles and amphibians for instance, husbandry techniques far surpass anything conservation has achieved. We lack the history, and the institutional knowledge. Clearly a priority then, is to codify this information that largely remains sequestered in the minds of a select few. We must first lose the elitism that pervades academia before scientists will be willing to partner with animal breeders. The black market for exotic animals does nothing to improve these relations, and besmirches the reputations of enthusiasts who truly care about the fate of these creatures. Once unity between the two communities has been achieved, and the black market eliminated, the problem becomes largely an economic one. The last-chance saloon is irritatingly crowded, and there simply isn’t enough to go round.

As a society, we pay for the things we deem important. It is a savage indictment of our education system that we do not consider endangered species deserving of our protection. And I extend this lament to the entire natural world, for as we will see next week, the biggest threat to most species is habitat loss, and if that habitat is not restored, all the captive breeding facilities in the world will not make the slightest difference. The story of Noah says nothing about the trees, the grasses, the fungi, the microbes, the parasites. When the floodwater receded, what habitat remained for the delirious, emaciated animals that disembarked? How long did it take for tropical rainforests to regrow? Where did the buffalo roam? These are not trivial questions. We have hundreds of giant pandas in zoos but nowhere to put them. Bison are relatively easy to farm, but the Great American Prairie is all but extinguished. Captive rearing can save a species from the brink, but without wholesale restoration of natural ecosystems, it is an exercise in futility. For the ark to work, Eden must be reclaimed.

How to Save a Species

It’s pitch black. As we trudge through the undergrowth, the hum of jet engines grows louder. Sirens wail, and speakers are blaring military commands, indecipherable by the time they drift past our ears. Night missions are common on Eglin Air Force Base, and they take things pretty seriously here. Although no live rounds are being used, the experience is terrifying, and likely the closest I will ever come to knowing what it is to live in a war zone. I cannot decide which is more spine-tingling – the sight of tracer rounds illuminating the night sky like headlights on highways, or the ghoulish silhouettes of stealth planes just above the treeline, slicing through the darkness in utter silence. I must keep reminding myself that we are permitted to be here. In fact, we ourselves are on our own mission; a mission of great importance. 

The Florida mosquitoes are becoming more unbearable with each step, a good indication we are approaching our destination. Amongst the longleaf pine, the palmetto fronds, and the poison ivy, we are here to catch salamanders. With a simulated fire-fight raging overhead, we are waist deep in water, headlamps on, nets at the ready. To the confusion of many, we wade around for hours, night after night, searching for our quarry. To be fair, these aren’t just any salamanders we’re after. These are reticulated flatwoods salamanders, one of the most endangered amphibians in North America. And we are here to save them.  

Those early memories of romping through the Florida panhandle as a fresh faced student will likely stay with me forever. But they seem so distant now. The aforementioned events took place at some point during Obama’s second term in office. It is now 2020, the planet is in the grips of a global pandemic, and Donald is wringing his hands at the prospect of another four years in the hot seat. Why are the wicked so strong? How do the angels get to sleep when the devil leaves his porch light on?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Tom Waits in lockdown…

I write from the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I currently reside about a 30 minute drive from the most photographed section of the Appalachian Trail; over two thousand miles of rugged North American scenery, with innumerable, jaw-dropping vistas, and I live alongside the prettiest stretch. Not the worst place in the world to avoid the clutches of an emergent zoonotic epidemic. As I write, the view from my back porch is a sea of green. It is the height of summer, and the trees are loving it. Honey locust, Virginia pine, black walnut, American elm, shagbark hickory, sweetbay magnolia, striped maple, silver maple, sugar maple, basswood, dogwood, sourwood, black cherry, laurel oak, and yellow buckeye. It’s the kind of diversity you would expect from a tropical rainforest, but this is southwest Virginia.  At a glance the forest seems so calm and stationary, but it is anything but. Every tree is in a constant, unending battle with its neighbors, vying for space and nutrients. Battles that play out for centuries; this is the real hundred years war.

Against the backdrop of World War Tree the birds are fighting an epic struggle of their own, fighting over essentially the same necessities of life. Cardinals, chickadees, and warblers are all abundant, and the distant drumming of red-bellied woodpeckers has a delightful earthly charm. For me, the sound of Eastern forests has to be one of their greatest treasures. At night, birdsong is replaced with the incessant calls of katydids and frog choruses. How animals communicate over such a cacophony is surely a mystery to me. I have similar feelings towards twitter. There are no flatwoods salamanders in these forests, mores the pity, but there are plenty of other spellbinding creatures that are regrettably in need of saving.

The myriad trees, birds, frogs, and insects that we call by different names typically correspond to ‘species’ in biological taxonomy. The reticulated flatwoods salamander is likewise a species. The word ‘species’ is in the public lexicon; I am confident you have heard the term. The biodiversity crisis is often reported in terms of number of species threatened with extinction. The icon of the World Wildlife Fund is a giant panda, one (particularly charismatic) species. An innate sense of unease emerges when contemplating the loss of a species within one’s own lifetime, particularly if said extinction occurred at the hand of man (and I do mean men). Experts think in similar terms, and thus typical questions in the field of conservation might be: What do we do when a species is on the brink of extinction? How do we decide which species deserve protection? Are species the correct scale for conservation? What is a species? All valid questions.  All questions that were running through my mind on that warm December evening, as the F-15s and B-52s circled overhead. Flatwoods salamanders are on the brink of extinction. What should we do? It will take millions of dollars to prevent such a grizzly fate. Can we afford it? Many species have already been lost. Many species persist, but no longer have sufficient habitat to sustain viable populations. They are literally dead species walking.

We head back to the field house, soaked to the skin and despondent. Although our salamander hunt was successful, we were well below our target of 20 individuals. On the return journey I survey the fire scars left by lightning ignitions. Regular burns are essential for the health of these forests. I try to picture what this landscape will look like in 6 months’ time, when the Floridian sun will completely evaporate the wetlands these animals utilize for breeding, and the salamanders will be forced to return underground. Perhaps another wildfire will have blown through by then, and the earth will be scorched beyond recognition. It is impossible to tell.

Nature doesn’t stand still. These salamanders have adapted to one of the most dynamic ecosystems on the planet; anything else would spell their demise. Adult salamanders cannot survive in fire-suppressed forests, nor larval salamanders in permanent water. Preserving the inherently dynamic nature of nature is one of the greatest challenges of conservation biology. The fate of flatwoods salamanders has yet to be sealed, but time is running out.


Welcome to the blog series Conservation Initiatives! In this collection of essays I hope to provide some insight into the theory and practice of preserving the natural world. I want to explore past successes and failures, the relative strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, and the fate of the environment in the 21st century.

Conservation biology: this shit ain’t easy.