Despite large volumes of data currently available on mankind, it is surprising how little we know about other species. A paper published on 19 April in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reveals that critical information, such as fertility and survival rates, is missing from global data for more than 98 percent of known species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
This gap has far-reaching implications for conservationists seeking to blunt the impact of mass extinctions. IUCN Species Survival Commission scientists, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), TRAFFIC, Monitor, and others tasked with saving thousands of species require comprehensive data on which to make informed decisions.
Dalia A. Conde, lead author, Interdisciplinary Center on Population Dynamics and Department of Biology, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark, and Species360 Conservation Science Alliance director
A multidisciplinary team led by Conde and researchers from the University of Southern Denmark, Oxford, the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany), Radboud University (the Netherlands), San Diego Zoo Global Institute for Conservation Research (USA) and , alongside more than 17 other academic institutions, believes we can substantially increase what we know by applying robust analytics to data long overlooked. Data from a previously unused source on captive wild animals, originating in zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries, research and education centres.
Predicting when species are at risk, and how best to bolster populations, requires knowing when females reproduce, how many infants or hatchlings will survive to adolescence, and how long adults live. To understand what data are currently available, and measure the void, the team developed a (SKI) that classifies demographic information for 32,144 tetrapods, or species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
“The index provides significant information that, in conjunction with genetic data, allows estimations of events that affect population viability. Severe population declines, sometimes called genetic bottlenecks, influence the sustainability of populations, as we have found in studying endangered rhinos,” said Oliver Ryder, Ph.D., Director of Conservation Genetics, San Diego Zoo Global.
Using go-to global sources of information, the index registers comprehensive birth and death rates for just 1.3 % of these major classes of species. A map, which illustrates the demographic knowledge available for all tetrapod classes, shows that many remain largely blank.
That changes when Conservation Science Alliance researchers add a previously untapped source, the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS). By inviting ZIMS to the party, the Species Knowledge Index gains an eightfold increase for comprehensive life table data used to assess populations.
Dalia A. Conde
“Class by class, from mammals through amphibians, we saw large blank spaces fill with points representing usable data,” Conde added. Nonetheless, the researchers note that caution is required when interpreting data from captive populations. Zoo and aquarium populations are intensively managed, therefore, likely to differ from wild populations. This will lead to, especially, different survival and reproduction rates. So, care must be taken when using data from captive populations to model wild populations.
ZIMS is curated by wildlife professionals working within zoos, aquariums, refuge, research, and education centres in 97 countries. It is maintained by Species360, a non-profit member-driven organisation that facilitates information sharing among its nearly 1,200 institutional members, and is the world’s largest set of wildlife data.
The study, ‘Data gaps and opportunities for comparative and conservation biology,’ suggests a value far beyond the data itself. As Conservation Science Alliance and other researchers apply analytics to data aggregated across global sources, including ZIMS, they glean insights that impact outcomes for species in danger of extinction. Moreover, this can provide key insights for comparative and evolutionary biology, such as understanding the evolution of ageing.
Demographic Species Knowledge Index
A multidisciplinary team of 33 scientist including data analysts, biologists, and population dynamics researchers developed the Species Knowledge Index to map just how much we know about species worldwide. The first, the Demographic Species Knowledge Index, aggregates, analyses and maps data from 22 databases and the IUCN Red List of Threatened species™.
Species360, a non-profit NGO and global leader in wildlife care and conservation, mobilizes a network of more than 1,100 zoo, aquarium, university, research and governmental members worldwide to improve animal welfare and species conservation. Their members address today’s most urgent wildlife issues, including establishing best practices in husbandry, enrichment, medical care, welfare, reproduction, population management, and biodiversity.
Together, Species360 members curate the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), the world’s most comprehensive open database of knowledge on more than 22,000 species. ZIMS vastly increases what is known about thousands of species, and is instrumental in identifying sustainability strategies for many of the species assessed as vulnerable, endangered, and extinct in the wild.
(Source: Species360 Conservation Science Alliance press release, 19.04.2019)