Science & Technology

The Matchmaking Algorithm That Lets Zoos Swipe Right on Animals

In this day and age, you've probably used a dating app or at least know somebody who has. It can be a frustrating experience since the impression you get of somebody through the algorithm doesn't always line up with what they're like in person. If only somebody could make a matchmaking formula that actually works! The good news is that somebody has. The bad news? It's mainly for gorillas, rhinos, and other zoo animals.

The Algorithm of the Wild

Baraka was obsessed with Calaya from the moment he saw her. The female gorilla was a new resident of the National Zoo, having just arrived from Seattle. For her first 30 days in her new home, she stayed in quarantine — the other gorillas could see her but could not interact in any way. Baraka wanted to watch her the whole time, according to Becky Malinsky, the zoo's assistant curator of primates. When they were finally allowed to be in the same room together, they mated within an hour. It wasn't exactly a match made in heaven — it was a match made in a piece of advanced software.

The animal matchmaking program isn't just for gorillas, and it takes some things into consideration that probably aren't on Tinder's radar. It scores every animal on a variety of traits (and when we say "every" animal, we mean there's an entry for each flamingo in each American zoo), including social skills, age, experience, family history, and interpersonal relationships. Oh, and genetic diversity. Animals with rare genes are more valuable to breeding programs because their offspring will introduce more genetic diversity into the dating pool. These animals aren't royals from medieval Europe — an inbred population living in cushy conditions isn't what zookeepers are going for.

You know how on OkCupid, they tell you that you're, say, 80 percent friends, 15 percent enemies, and five percent neutral to another person? The animal matchmaking program also tries to guess how well any two critters will get along — but they do so on a scale of one to six. A one is the best — the two don't share a lot of genetic similarities, and their personalities are likely to mesh well with each other. Baraka and Calaya scored a one before they ever met, so zookeepers weren't especially surprised to see that they got along so well. He's laid back but responsible, and she's confident and quirky. That means he'll be able to provide her with a sense of security, but he won't be put off by some of her odd habits (like how she refuses to walk on the ground if she can help it). It's not an exaggeration to say that these animal dating sites are a whole lot more successful than human ones.

The Problem with Pan Pan

Giant pandas are probably the best-known example of a breeding program working right. In 1980, biologists started panicking after China's bamboo forests all went to seed at once — it's a normal part of the bamboo life cycle, but it means a couple of decades or so of bamboo famine, and that was trouble for the 1,000 or so pandas still living there. Among other efforts, conservationists began making plans to ramp up breeding pandas in captivity. Enter Pan Pan.

Pan Pan was born in the wild but raised in captivity. He spent five or so years in the care of a man named Li Wuke until he was eventually entered into the giant panda studbook in 1986. (Yes, that's what it's called.) In 1991, he was transferred to Wolong Nature Preserve in Sichuan Province, and from there, he started changing the fate of panda-kind.

See, before Pan Pan, breeding pandas in captivity was a slow, frustrating, and often fruitless process. Between 1936 and 1998, only 12 males and 21 females successfully reproduced, and 48 percent of their offspring died in their first month of life. Captivity was just so far off from panda's normal lifestyle that the natural breeding cycles were thrown entirely out of whack. But Pan Pan broke the mold. You might say he was a natural ladies' Pan — the offspring he produced were more likely to survive than those created by other methods such as artificial insemination. Today, there are about 520 pandas living in zoos and research facilities, and Chinese experts believe more than 130 of them are direct descendants of Pan Pan.

Maybe you can already see the problem with this. Remember how important genetic diversity is? It's hard to keep the population healthily diverse when only a few of its members are interested in reproducing. Fortunately, we've learned a lot about how to set the mood for panda lovin' in the years since, so current breeding programs aren't so reliant on Pan Pan's particularly amorous personality. However, there's another problem that's a little more complicated than a lack of genetic diversity. It turns out that the pandas that reproduce the best are also the ones that are most comfortable around humans, and that's a trait that seems to be at least partially based on genetics. The result? The next generations of pandas might be very different from the ones who came before — and they might even be more inclined toward human company than toward living in a bamboo forest.

Pandas are a contradiction — they're not bears, but they sure look like them. They might look cuddly, but they're also 200 pounds of muscle and claws. They don't have thumbs, except they kind of do. Check out "The Panda's Thumb" by Stephen Jay Gould to see how evolution can produce such an intriguing creature. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 6, 2018

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