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Published: Monday, 11/26/2007

Monclova Township scientist saving at-risk species 1 byte at a time

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For a certain self-important species of mammals, the notion of computer dating took hold a decade ago with the hissing sounds of modems and chirps of you ve got mail.

Yet several years before humankind evolved to nurturing its lonely hearts in chat rooms, there was computer dating in the animal kingdom.

Since the later half of the 1980s, animal caretakers have been able to search other zoos around the world for ideal mates for their animals using the International Species Information System. The recipe for a perfect animal pairing often runs counter to the advice of an entire canon of well-meaning dating literature: It s all about physical attributes and pedigree.

Robert Lacy, a conservation scientist and population geneticist who lives in Monclova Township, might seem an unlikely professional match-maker, with his doctorate in evolutionary biology and authorship of more than 100 scientific papers. But it was Mr. Lacy who designed the original software in the mid-1980s to help rare and endangered animals find the right mate.

He is one of 29 animal conservationists nominated to receive the 2008 Indianapolis Prize, a top international award given biennially to an individual who has made significant strides in animal conservation efforts.

The prize comes with $100,000 and is presented by the Indianapolis Zoo. It was first given in 2006.

Mr. Lacy, who is 52, was nominated for his work creating computer software for determining the probability of a species extinction. A prize committee will whittle the field to six finalists next month and the winner will be announced by the summer.

Mr. Lacy, who is married to Anne Baker, executive director of the Toledo Zoo, sat for an interview last week in the living room of their three-story, high-ceilinged house overlooking the Maumee River along North River Road. Colorful illustrations of exotic animals hung from the walls, and the couple s African Gray Parrot, Papageno, perched in a nearby cage.

Mr. Lacy is employed by the Chicago Zoological Society at its Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago. He is also chairman of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, a global network with a mission to save threatened species. Additionally, Mr. Lacy is on the faculty of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago.

Aside from a monthly commute to Chicago or occasional flight to a zoological hot spot, Mr. Lacy said that he can get nearly everything done without leaving his house.

Almost all of my work is on the computer or on the telephone, he said. Basically I get called when things are in trouble.

Mr. Lacy uses his computer to devise strategies for zoo keepers and wildlife agencies on how they can keep endangered species from going extinct. Almost as important to this work as the number of animals is the genetic diversity of each species. And that s where match-making comes in.

Breeding for traits

The software he developed helps animal keepers determine which males and females need to mate for certain traits to get passed on.

In the end, the animal that breeds most often has the rarest genes, or the fewest relatives, said Mr. Lacy, also an expert in inbreeding prevention.

If you re in a population of 1,000, the probability that you ll mate with a cousin is pretty low, he said. In a population of 10 a pretty high chance.

Mr. Lacy s nomination came from his work developing software that considers genetic and environmental factors to gauge the threat of a species extinction. During the 1990s, Mr. Lacy was with a group that used a version of his software to determine whether Kenya s black rhinoceros was in danger of dying out, he said.

They discovered that some of the rhino population was indeed threatened, and Mr. Lacy said that they suggested loading rhinos on trucks and moving them among the country s national parks to maintain genetic diversity.

Stopping evolution

Some of the work that Mr. Lacy does for zoos can be especially tricky; It involves stopping evolution. Species that remain in captivity for too many generations can lose the ability to survive on their own. So while cute and cuddly endangered animals can make great visitor attractions, conservationists hope to reintroduce rare species to the wild once their numbers rebound.

Mr. Lacy uses mice and computer simulations to estimate the point that a certain population of endangered animals will have become too tame for its own good. The Black-Footed Ferret, Peregrine Falcon, and California Condor are examples of species that have been reintroduced successfully to their natural habitat.

We re trying to do exactly the opposite of what most breeders do, Mr. Lacy said. It s a strange fine line we want them to be as healthy as possible, but we don t want them to lose the genes to survive in the wild.

Saving a toad

He and R. Andrew Odum, curator of herpetology at the Toledo Zoo, were both members of a conservationist workshop that convened in Puerto Rico to devise strategies for saving the Puerto Rican Crested Toad. While still critically endangered, the toad, which can be seen at the Toledo Zoo, is on a comeback path.

He is one of the brightest people I know, Mr. Odum said. Although he is in a highly technical speciality, he is somebody that anybody can talk to.

A trim man with a graying beard, Mr. Lacy is relatively new to northwest Ohio. He and his wife arrived in early 2006 from Syracuse, N.Y., when she accepted the zoo s directorship position. The two met in the mid-1980s while working in adjacent offices at Brookfield Zoo.

Mr. Lacy was born in Cleveland but later moved with his family to Gary, Ind., and spent his high school years in Connecticut. He received both bachelor s and master s degrees in biology from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. His doctorate is from Cornell University.

George Rabb, former director of the Brookfield Zoo, said he was fortunate to have hired Mr. Lacy.

He has contributed substantially to the real manifestation of conservation, said Mr. Rabb, widely considered to be a leader in world conservation efforts.

Bob has been a very productive person, and very able at working in networks with people around the world.

Last week Mr. Lacy returned from a conservationists workshop in St. Louis. A leading topic was whether there are unseen hazards in having humans and computers play match-maker for animals.

It could be possible that they know what they re doing when they choose their mates, he said.

Contact JC Reindl at:jreindl@theblade.comor 419-724-6065.



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