AboutZoos, Since 2008


Data of zoos and aquar­i­ums, so far unused, is essen­tial for species’ con­ser­va­tion efforts

pub­lished 27 April 2019 | mod­i­fied 27 April 2019

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.

Guereza monkeys and newbornsMan­tled guereza mon­keys (Colobus guereza) are among many species of ‘howlers’ assessed as endan­gered by IUCN Red List, often due to defor­esta­tion. Know­ing fun­da­men­tal demo­graph­ics, such as fer­til­ity rates and how many ado­les­cents sur­vive to adult­hood, equips sci­en­tists to assess whether pop­u­la­tions can stave off these threats — and for how long.
Image credit: Species360.

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.

It seems incon­ceiv­able, yet experts cen­tral to sus­tain­ing bio­di­ver­sity of life reg­u­larly encounter a dis­ap­point­ing lack of data. To com­pen­sate, sci­en­tists power through with best-​guess assumptions.

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 Species360 Con­ser­va­tion Sci­ence Alliance, 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.

Adding ZIMS was like turn­ing on the lights in an oth­er­wise very dim room.

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™.

Landscape of demographic knowledge for tetrapodsSim­pli­fied ver­sion of the land­scape of demo­graphic knowl­edge for tetrapods. (A) Rep­tilia. (B) Mam­malia. © Aves. (D) Amphibia. Pink shades rep­re­sent high knowl­edge of sur­vival and var­i­ous lev­els of knowl­edge about fer­til­ity. Dark gray shades rep­re­sent low or fair knowl­edge, and the light gray areas indi­cate no demo­graphic knowl­edge. For the entire range of tetrapods, only 1.3% of species have high sur­vival and fer­til­ity infor­ma­tion, less than 0.6% have high sur­vival but lit­tle or no fer­til­ity infor­ma­tion, 43.3% have lim­ited sur­vival and fer­til­ity infor­ma­tion, and 54.8% have no sur­vival or fer­til­ity infor­ma­tion.
Source: Dalia A. Conde et al., 2019. Data gaps and oppor­tu­ni­ties for com­par­a­tive con­ser­va­tion biol­ogy, PNAS.
License: Cre­ative Com­mons License 4.0 (CC BY-​NC-​ND)

About Species360

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)

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