The Zoo Scientist; Zoos as Science Boosters
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The Zoo Scientist; Zoos as Science Boosters

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The need to discover new things and the curiosity to explain the unknown has led us to where we are now. It was the curious nature of man and the desire to acquire knowledge that allowed evolution in the first place and drove us to seek information about what we don’t know, and what we have never seen. The exotic, the unfamiliar, the bizarre have always been an object of attraction and study; and perhaps this originated the wish of keeping exotic animals. The world’s greatest inventions were possible due to this inquisitive nature of ours. These developments, unfortunately, took a toll on the natural world.

The evolution of zoological institutions accompanied the scientific advances and social changes during the 20th and 21st centuries. Modern zoos are now committed to promoting welfare of animals through the implementation of high standards concerning housing, sanitation, nutrition, ethology and veterinary care. This is only possible due to extensive research projects carried out to determine how to provide these animals with the highest quality care, and at the same time satisfy our innate curiosity.

Scientific investigation and experimentation in zoos can provide useful data for the management of both wild and captive populations. Multi-institutional cooperation allows to collectively make scientific breakthroughs, by providing data that serve as a base to fill gaps in scientific knowledge. Knowing specific features like normal range values for blood tests, anatomical peculiarities, physiological particularities (such as reproductive and life history characteristics) and drug dosages is only possible through extensive investigation by research in zoological institutions. Improved approaches to husbandry and veterinary care throughout the last decades have been achieved due to long-term research projects.  It serves no good to portray ourselves as safe harbours for animals, if we are unable to provide them with great animal care. Evidence of the zoo’s commitment to research is shown by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and its members, which have spent $26.8 million in research in 2016 alone, and were involved in 1249 research projects and 237 peer-reviewed publications.

Obtaining blood from several animals from different facilities, age classes and sexes is fundamental for establishing a representative database of reference ranges for blood parameters. These data is essential for the management of captive animals and can be used by professionals worldwide. Pictured is an orangutan trained for conscious venipuncture at the Oklahoma City Zoo. (Photo: Oklahoma City Zoo)

Zoos’ research collaborations go beyond the zoo community, as they are often partnered with universities and other institutions. Many undergraduate and postgraduate students do their projects and dissertations in zoo settings, and academics often use zoo animals as models for their research. These mutually beneficial collaborations allow universities to have easier access to resources such as species, individual animals and the important knowledge of zoo professionals, while allowing zoos to further extend their involvement in the world of research and academia.

Collecting, sharing and analysing data is an essential part of scientific research by zoological institutions. It’s only when people with the same purpose are willing to work together that great progress is achieved. We live in a time where communication and sharing information is easier than ever, so why not make full use of it? One of the tools that institutions have available is ZIMS by Species360. And this is the perfect example on how data help preserving biodiversity. Sharing data, collecting information and presenting findings to the scientific community can indeed save not only single individuals but a whole species. Scientific research is an essential part of our efforts to protect species from further decline, or even total extinction. This is only possible when we come together to find out more about the creatures that we share this beautiful planet with.

It was Cincinnati Zoo’s commitment to research that allowed this institution to breed the first Sumatran rhino calf in over 100 years, in 2001. Research into the reproductive physiology of this species was the key to unlock the mysteries of breeding this species in captivity. Since then, other successful births have happened, at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, a long-term partner of Cincinnati Zoo in the fight to protect this critically endangered species.

Andalas was the first Sumatran calf born in captivity in 112 years.

In 2007, he was relocated to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia to breed with a female. Photo: David Jenke/Cincinnati Zoo

For many years, zoological institutions were incapable of successfully maintaining Proboscis monkeys in their collections. Incorrect nutrition, housing and husbandry were the culprits for the failure to keep proboscis monkeys alive in captivity. Long-term studies carried out by Singapore Zoo concluded that correct management of these animals is possible with the maximisation of their natural diet and minimisation of human contact. Supplementation with primate biscuits, cod liver oil, boiled eggs, multivitamins and mineral syrup were found to   further ensure a more complete nutritional regime for the captive proboscis monkeys. The development of guidelines and the sharing of such information is the key to creating a species-specific management model, allowing the survival of captive animals kept worldwide.

Proboscis Monkey at the Singapore Zoo

The opportunity to be in close contact with these animals provides us with knowledge and data that can be of use in the management of wild populations. Hence, we can consider animals in captivity ambassadors for their wild counterparts. Research studies carried out by zoological institutions don’t always focus on animals in their collection only: a lot of work is conducted in situ, either directly by the zoos or supported by them. By applying the expertise acquired by zoo professionals, with captive animals, and by exchanging information with researchers in the field, there are higher chances of succeeding at both providing optimal care to captive animals and protecting their wild counterparts.

Conservation activities by zoos started in the mid-20th century, with a number of progressive and forward-thinking institutions describing themselves as “Noah’s Arks” by housing animals that serve as genetic reservoirs, in case of a potential decimation of the wild population. Reintroduction projects have been carried out by a number of institutions, which work closely with each other, by either totally restoring a population or boosting it using captive-bred animals. These are incredibly complex programmes that require extensive research and planning, to maximise not only the breeding success of the captive animals but also the survival of these, when reintroduced. Also, even though ex-situ measures are extremely valuable in wildlife conservation, they must always be a supplementary tool to strong in-situ efforts, which are themselves linked to more research, as mentioned above. Ecology, behaviour and social studies are some of the research necessary to guide these in-situ activities, which include monitoring the wild population, restoring and protecting its habitat and working with the local communities. Chester Zoo is one of the zoos that is at the top of its game regarding in-situ research. This institution has six regional conservation programmes and is undertaking vital research as part of them. A few examples of this research work includes the ecological surveying of the endangered Ecuador Amazon parrot, to estimate its population size and range, and a long-term study on the ecology and biology of the also threatened giant armadillo. This research will allow conservationists to identify these species’ needs and to prioritise conservation actions accordingly.

Dr. Mark Pilgrim, Chester Zoo’s Chief Executive Officer,  travelled to Ecuador with several other Chester Zoo members to study the Ecuador Amazon Parrot. (Picture: Chester Zoo)

Zoos also contribute to “pure” science, the act of learning to increase our knowledge about the universe, rather than applied science alone (where the knowledge is sought for practical applications). For example, Oregon Zoo’s black bears have helped University of Idaho’s biologists understanding more about the locomotion of plantigrades (animals that stand with their heels flat on the ground), so they can learn how these have evolved. With help from their zoo keepers, these bears stepped on a sensor-equipped runway and had their movement recorded, something that would be far more difficult to achieve in the wild. Studying zoo-housed flamingos also allowed Paul Rose, a PhD student at the University of Exeter, to identify a behaviour that had never been seen in these animals before: the deliberate barging into another bird without being provoked. Other example is Zoo Miami’s study on the motor laterality of their giraffes, which allowed for a detailed recording of this behaviour, something that has been poorly studied in ungulates. These are just a few examples of things we now know thanks to research on zoo animals, which give us a greater insight into the natural world. Knowledge is always a powerful weapon to have on our side, despite having any immediate applications or not.

Researcher Katie Shine setting up the equipment for locomotion study of black bears at the Oregon Zoo. Photo: Michael Durham / Oregon Zoo

Let’s, however, discuss some of the problems too… Even though it is true that zoos are far more committed to research than they were many years ago, it is also true that not all species housed in zoos have received the same attention from zoo researchers, and many of them remain severely understudied. Mammals, and within these, carnivores and primates, have been the main focus of zoo research so far, despite the far wider variety of taxa housed in zoos all over the world. Many species have been in captivity for a long time, but there is still little scientific work on them, and their husbandry is often based on generalisations and tradition. However, this issue has been highlighted several times in scientific reviews and commentaries, and zoos will certainly make a joint effort to expand their research focus in order to cover more and more of the species they house.

It is safe to admit that zoological institutions do not want to merely exhibit exotic animals. They want to actively learn more about the animals they keep, while supporting their conservation in the wild and educating the public about it. In the wild and in captivity, zoos are vital research institutions, with a growing role in science. With so much yet to learn, our knowledge on the natural world relies heavily on the scientific work of zoos.

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