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Wildt, David (1950-2020)

Fellowship Advisor
National Zoological Park staff

Reproduction and endocrinology of wildlife species; small population breeding, management and conservation.

Public Biography

  • UPDATE: David Wildt passed away on January 15, 2020. His obituary is available here.

    David Wildt was a senior scientist emeritus and formerly led the Center for Species Survival team that generates much of what we now know about how many wildlife species reproduce. He also managed the wildlife animal collection at the Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute's 3,200 acre facility near Front Royal, Virginia. He used basic and applied research to create new knowledge that lead to better management and conservation of small populations, especially endangered species. While centered on reproduction, his research efforts connected to genetics, veterinary medicine, behavior, nutrition, ecology and the reintroduction of species to nature. This cross-disciplinary integration through partnerships was fundamental to Wildt's philosophy.

    Wildt described the impact of small populations and inbreeding on sperm form and function, including on free-living cheetahs and lions. He and his team  described the biological processes related to reproductive cyclicity, sperm, egg and embryo development in carnivores, especially felids and canids. This information has been used to produce young by assisted breeding technologies. Wildt's laboratory was the first to produce domestic cat kittens by fertilization, later applied successfully to the tiger. His team conducted the first successful transcontinental shipment of frozen sperm from a threatened species (a wild cheetah in Namibia) to produce a cub by artificial insemination in North America. His laboratory also produced black-footed ferret kits using sperm that had been cryo-banked for 20 years ' a milestone that increases gene diversity in the recovering population of this critically endangered species.

    Wildt focused on increasing the speed and scale of applying animal expertise and reproductive knowledge to creating sustainable populations through multi-disciplinary/institutional partnerships. For example, his extensive studies in China that increased knowledge about giant pandas; when applied, lessons learned helped more than triple giant panda numbers in the global ex situ collection over the last 15 years. Another example is the creation of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), large-sized breeding facilities. These facilities cooperate and share resources to reproduce animals beyond a traditional urban zoo model. There, breeding programs for cheetahs and African antelopes are being coordinated on a large-scale in spacious pastures with natural group sizes and minimal public interference. Such partnerships, including those with private sector ranchers, increase the number of animals in insurance populations and available for scientific discovery, all while striving for self-sustainability.
    Wildt received scientific achievement awards from American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Illinois State University. He also delivered keynote lectures at prestigious conferences including the International Embryo Transfer Society, European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, and American Society of Reproductive Medicine. In 2017, Wildt received the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar Award in the Sciences. The award, first given in 2000, celebrates excellence in all branches of Smithsonian scholarship by honoring the sustained achievement of two outstanding Smithsonian scholars each year ' one in the sciences and one in the humanities.