As an internationally recognized expert in rare breeds conservation, Dr. Phil Sponenberg has traveled around the world studying rare and endangered breeds of livestock and making recommendations about how to establish conservation programs that will help maintain genetic diversity in the animal population.

Recently, Sponenberg, a professor in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology and a resident of Blacksburg, traveled to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico to attend the Sixth Iberoamerican Symposium on the Conservation and Use of Animal Genetic Resources at the Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas, where he presented a paper entitled “Rescue and Conservation of the Randall Cattle Breed in the United States.”

This meeting has become an annual event in which researchers from around Portugual, Spain, and the Americas meet to discuss the conservation of rare livestock breeds, according to Sponenberg. “Most of these breeds are of Iberian origin, and nearly all are exquisitely adapted and productive under very compromised production systems,” he said. “They are all in danger of extinction from crossing with higher producing but much frailer, breeds that are imported from the USA or Europe.”

This group has been meeting annually or biannually since 1992, which was the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish discovery of the Americas. Since then, the group has identified, characterized, and conserved many useful and productive breeds of livestock, some of which are now enjoying secure roles in sustainable agricultural production systems in a number of different countries.

Through the group, Sponenberg has become engaged in several ongoing multinational research projects. One of these involves the DNA characterization of turkeys in Mexico. A second involves the DNA fingerprinting of horses in southern Spain (Tuertas), other locations in Spain, and throughout the Americas. A third collaboration involves the DNA fingerprinting of Iberian type cattle in the USA so they can be compared with Portuguese, Spanish, and other Central and South American populations.

A trip to the Post-Katrina Mississippi Coast that Sponenberg took in November, 2005, to evaluate what was left of the local, adapted landrace Pineywoods cattle breed provided him with some useful information for that third study effort.

“The devastation of Katrina was obvious,” said Sponenberg. “Stands of pine and hardwoods that were approaching maturity and harvest had been snapped off like matchsticks. This had a huge impact on fencing. Some long-time breeders of adapted livestock have decided to not rebuild, but to quit. With their exit go some very important and well adapted strains of livestock.”

The Pineywoods cattle are of Spanish origin, and remain from the earliest days of Spanish control of what is now the southeastern United States. Their usefulness to local populations as sources of meat, milk, hides, and oxen persist today.

While on that trip, Sponenberg also studied other species. Sheep in the area are descendants of old family flocks, and trace back to an Iberian origin much as do the cattle. Local goats have all but disappeared – largely due to crossbreeding to the imported Boer goat.

Sponenberg also identified swine that are remnants of an old Iberian type that can be found from Uruguay to the Gulf Coast of the USA.

In the early 1900’s, geese were extensively used to weed cotton fields. Geese avidly consume grassy weeds and leave broad-leaved plants like cotton alone, he said; as a result geese were once vitally important in the cotton-producing regions of the deep South. Very few of these old “Cotton Patch” geese now remain, Sponenberg remarked.

He also examined a few remnants of old strains of saddle horses. These again were all very Spanish in origin.

Sponenberg and colleagues are now working to establish plans to help preserve these endangered breeds.

The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM) is a two-state, three-campus professional school operated by the land-grant universities of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Maryland at College Park. Its flagship facilities, based at Virginia Tech, include the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, which treats more than 40,000 animals annually. Other campuses include the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va., and the Avrum Gudelsky Veterinary Center at College Park, home of the Center for Government and Corporate Veterinary Medicine. The VMRCVM annually enrolls approximately 500 Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and graduate students, is a leading biomedical and clinical research center, and provides professional continuing education services for veterinarians practicing throughout the two states.