Editorial: Research in Zoos


There are already signs that research in zoos and aquariums has begun to take on a sense of urgency. Throughout the zoo world, professionals have always been aware of the social, nutritional and welfare benefits to be gained for their animals by a better understanding of the biology of the ‘beasts in their care’ (e.g. Hosey et al., 2009; Kleiman et al., 2010). Indeed, the contribution of biological research on zoo animals to our understanding of animal life histories has been substantial and not been fully appreciated to this day (Hofer et al., 2005). Prompted in part by the zoos and aquariums themselves, partly by the type of staff they employ, by the staff in associated institutions, partly by regional, national or international zoo and aquarium association conservation or research strategies (WAZA, 2005; Reid et al., 2008; Penning et al., 2009) and governmental legislation (Council Directive, 1999), and not least by academic scientists (e.g. Dehnhardt et al., 2001), research within zoos has not only increased in breadth and depth, as demonstrated by the contents of this volume, it has also found exciting new ways of establishing constructive and close collaborations with academic institutions. The urgency arises from an increased general awareness of the loss of biodiversity and the urgent need to conserve it, and the impacts of climate change on individual species and habitats (Barnosky, 2009), together with the anticipated scale of impact in the future as calculated by the increasing number of significantly more sophisticated climate projections and analyses (IPCC, 2007; Hansen, 2009; Loarie et al., 2009; Met Office, 2010).

Therefore, ‘Time’ can be considered as the hidden underlying theme running through this communication, our introduction of the articles in this volume of the International Zoo Yearbook; time's passage; time's importance; what is done with it; how we are constrained by it; how much time does something take to do; what can be done in time? These important questions are all intrinsic to the articles of this volume. As members of interlinked zoological communities in different parts of the world, some of us may think that not much change has taken place in the environment in which we live over the past decades or longer; others of us have seen dramatic changes brought about by war, environmental destruction, weather or disease. Today, all are now aware that changes are under way – whether the seas are being emptied of sustainable fish stocks (FAO, 2010) or the weather appears to show ‘exceptional modifications of natural variation’ (Slingo, 2011): too much snow too early, longer summers, rains not coming when they should, for too short a time or too long.

As a zoo community, we have become used to looking 100 years into the future and arranging the planning of our conservation breeding efforts on that time scale (Lacy, 1993/1994; Seal, 1993; Westley & Miller, 2003). Until recently, this was carried out on the basis that we would be dealing only with ‘anomalies’ along the way and that there would be some sort of ‘business as usual’ environment within which to work. Somehow, insufficient account was taken of the daily consumption and enhanced aspiration patterns associated with the rapid population growth (Fig. 1) of one particular primate species, Homo sapiens (United Nations, 2004; Foresight, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2011a). As a consequence of the latter, the space left on the planet and ‘available’ for other species has greatly shrunk in the last 50 years (Lindenmeyer & Fischer, 2006). Most of us have personal awareness of it shrinking (e.g. under roads, housing, agricultural land, palm oil plantations and deserts) (UNEP, 2005). And the human population is estimated to grow further, to over 9000 million by the year 2050 (Fig. 1), almost four times the already large number that it was in 1950 (United Nations, 2004; U.S. Census Bureau, 2011b). The legacy of the first part of this 100 year period is likely to be a perpetual commercial encouragement to ‘want more, get more’. By 2007, people were estimated (Ewing et al., 2010) to be using the equivalent of 1.5 of Earth's annual resources to support their consumption (Fig. 2).

Figure 1.

The world human population increased from 3 billion in 1959 to 6 billion by 1999, a doubling that occurred over 40 years. It is projected to grow from 6 billion in 1999 to 9 billion by 2044. This graph is reproduced from: U.S. Census Bureau (2011b): World population summary. World population growth rates: 1950–2050. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Available at http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/worldpopgraph.php

Figure 2.

Human demand for resources from the earth's biosphere more than doubled between 1961 and 2007, and has exceeded the world's biocapacity since the late 1970s (redrawn and modified from data in Ewing et al., 2010).

Policy makers and politicians with a long-term view are currently coming to terms (House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 2010) with this ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968). Research within the zoo community is likewise beginning to engage with ‘learning how to cope’ and ‘preparing for the future’ beyond attempts to turn the tide. Further research is clearly needed to find more effective ways of communicating with members of the public but its results are beyond the scope of this volume. Current estimates of what to expect in terms of climate pattern changes are shown diagramatically by the IPCC (2007), NASA (2011), Lewis (2011) and sequentially at Met Office (2010, 2011). The global trend of rising land and sea temperatures seems clear enough. As always, more research is needed to understand better what may happen in the multitude of ‘local’ situations. However, take note of the scale of the temperature rises and that the time scales are short. ‘Soon’ is the meaning and the take-home message. Junhold & Oberwemmer (2011) discuss the impact of climate changes on zoo policy and collection planning in some detail.

So what is to be done, by us, for our animal community responsibilities? Developing novel strategies of cooperation with academic institutions and thereby enabling zoos and aquariums to participate in finding solutions to questions of wildlife conservation is illustrated in the articles by Andrén et al. (2011), Macdonald & Whiten (2011) and Pereboom et al. (2011). The latter state ‘the key to success in building up or developing a global zoo research community lies in investing in formal relationships with universities and research institutions, with intergovernmental conservation bodies, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and local non-governmental organizations, and by building collaborations with other zoo research departments’. How to create the research environments that facilitate forward-looking results is also explored by Kotze & Nxomani (2011). Perhaps we are already past the point when the zoo community simply waits, and leaves to others the duty of undertaking, organizing or commissioning regular reviews of the scientific literature pertaining to their species or groups of species. Should not also the zoos, aquariums and zoo communities, at the level of the various Taxon Advisory Groups, be actively doing that themselves, or at least be doing the research together with colleagues in the academic community? ‘Abundant time’ seems not to be on our side any more. Some time will be required to find and to develop the research links and relationships that will nurture the best outcomes. Make time to take the first step.

And there are other, simple options. A fine example of ‘think global and act local’ is illustrated by the research carried out in Basel Zoo and reported by Baur (2011). It gives the clue to how zoos can act now to measure what biodiversity they harbour within their gates. The study will allow comparisons to be made and conservation practices to be improved within that individual zoo environment. It also hints at how activities such as these may be able to generate more information of how that, and nearby, biodiversity will change as time passes. Linking the experience of such studies by clusters of zoos will illustrate patterns of change over geographical space as well as time. A better understanding of how to communicate this sense of urgency to zoo staff and the public in a more effective way is a natural component of zoo and aquarium research deserving of focused analysis in itself (WAZA, 2005). Recent advances in conservation psychology will help us to understand these complex issues (Clayton & Myers, 2009).

Clearly, zoo research should put itself into a position to contribute substantially to the needs that are being forecast, and experienced, with regard to wildlife conservation. In order to fulfil this mandate, well-informed husbandry guidelines are needed for all kinds of animals (Dick & Gusset, 2010). More will be needed soon, perhaps urgently, to support integrated species conservation management in the shrinking ‘wild’. New, serious research approaches will be needed, such as the potential of time-based studies and the values derived from their consideration as explored by Berger (2011), and Dehnhard's (2011) article, which summarizes our current knowledge of pheromones in mammal species and how these pheromones may be used as an indicator of physiological status and stress, thereby highlighting the possibilities of how pheromones might be used to improve the management and welfare of zoo animals.

Have we really explored how to make comprehensive use of all the knowledge and experience already available within our institutions? Documentation of current and past animal-handling experience is required as part of this task. The time taken and the care required for animals as they age in our collections are discussed by Longley (2011). Many senior zoo-keeping staff are becoming older and will soon be retiring from service, leaving and taking with them (often in their heads) the experience of years of (good and bad) practice. Should we not develop methods to harvest this knowledge and make it available to others via husbandry guidelines? Should there not be a way to continuously ‘grow’ these documents to capture new developments that comment on old practices, attract modifications, explanations, enhancements and better syntheses? A bit of time may be required to embrace this way forward – but there should be as little delay as possible. One outcome of the creation of such novel forms of husbandry manuals is likely to identify current needs for focused research to fill gaps in our understanding of how best to look after each individual type of animal – the zoo-driven research agenda (Hofer et al., 2005). The analyses of such research results will then be published in the usual way and, hopefully, disseminated to those who need to be aware of them and of their importance and apply them.

This leads to the specifics. The high productivity of veterinary input into zoo conservation research is highlighted in the article by Vitali et al. (2011). Problems were identified and a coordinated approach was made to resolve these difficulties; anticipation of problems to come takes additional effort; and knowing those aspects of an animal's biology well enough to assist the identification of preventative/ameliorative measures permits better coping. ‘Perhaps the most important aspect of building conservation medicine in zoos is recognizing the need to engage in strong partnerships with other stakeholders. No single institution has the mandate, the money or the expertise to undertake conservation medicine projects single handedly; positive wildlife health outcomes rely on input and expertise from a large number of agencies and stakeholders. Building and maintaining transdisciplinary relationships is vital if zoos wish to develop a meaningful role in conservation medicine efforts’ (Vitali et al., 2011). And Probst et al. (2011) reinforce the view that zoos have to be regarded as epidemiological units. Traits that influence pathogen transmission, such as the operational population density, have to be evaluated at the zoo level instead of the exhibit level. The future role of zoos as sentinels for the spread of other infectious agents must be considered carefully, and the knowledge gained from them integrated into a responsive network. This is highlighted by a detailed review by Lécu & Ball (2011) on one of the most pernicious problems experienced by zoo animals; that is, mycobacterial infections, their diagnosis, their importance and implications for conservation breeding and the management of zoo collections.

Scientific involvement can take other forms. Temporary suspension of the constraints of time and distance can take effect from the suspended animation of gametes. The cryopreservation of fish and amphibians is examined by Rawson et al. (2011), and the cryopreservation of mammalian ovarian tissue is analysed by Jewgenow et al. (2011). Saragusty et al. (2011) explore the potential for the use of cryopreservation in assisted reproduction technologies. Species knowledge is gained in incremental steps over extended periods of time. This view is reinforced by Penfold (2011): ‘it is important to note that assisted reproduction in novel species requires significant commitment and continuity from zoological institutions for optimal results’.

How much time does it take to do something? How much time does it take to get something done? Questions of breeding strategies in terms of genetic and population management are addressed by Leus et al. (2011). Asa et al. (2011) request even more brain power be made available to help investigate the potential ways forward; ‘research is needed to determine whether incorporation of mate choice in breeding programmes can increase reproductive success without compromising genetic health and the potential to contribute to the conservation of wild populations’. Those managing breeding programmes also need to be aware of the genetic material available to them; what did or could constitute founders; how best to take care of animal relationships over the medium to long term; and how to obtain helpful research results to guide the decision making (Asa et al., 2011; Leus et al., 2011).

Where will ‘the wild’ remain, and in what form, and when? Are zoos and aquariums to be some sort of translocation sites – temporary or permanent – and for which animals (or ecosystems)? The current amphibian crisis is a first small step in learning how to develop the competence for building effective conservation alliances across the entire spectrum of conservation efforts (Rodder et al., 2009; Pessier & Mendelson, 2010). Intra-zoo and external analyses will reveal much that was and is very good practice and will suggest ways of doing that sort of thing, for other types of animals, better.

Time is short. There is a lot of very useful and very interesting research work that needs to be carried out.