Zoos and aquaria deliver missing information critical to sustaining biodiversity

Zoos and aquaria deliver missing information critical to sustaining biodiversity

In an era of always-on information, it is surprising how little we know about key biological aspects of animal species worldwide.

Fundamental pieces of information, such as fertility and survival rates – the building blocks of how populations persist – are missing from global data for more than 98% of known species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. This is a gap with far-reaching implications, since conservationists fight to save species from extinction.

Predicting when species are at risk, and how best to bolster populations, requires knowing when individuals reproduce, how many offspring survive to adolescence, and how long adults live.

In April 2019, a multidisciplinary team involving researchers from the University of Oxford made an important breakthrough by creating a Species Knowledge Index (SKI). This index measures available data and identifies gaps, classifying available demographic information for 32,144 tetrapod species.

The 'aha' moment came when researchers added a previously untapped source, the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS). In one fell swoop, ZIMS boosted the SKI eightfold for comprehensive life table data used to assess populations, and delivered a 73% gain in what we know about the age when individuals begin to reproduce.

Professor Rob Salguero-Gomez, of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, said: 'What’s been a truly eye- opening experience in this project has been to realise that we don't actually have a lot of demographic information in the wild from many animal groups. I've come to work very closely with mammal and bird demographers, who publish quite frequently on long-term demographic datasets of extremely interesting species like Soay sheep, roe deer, yellow- bellied marmot and blue tits. However, a lot of the demographic efforts in animal natural populations are focused on just a handful of these species. At Oxford, we are overcoming this by studying "anything that moves and that doesn't", from albatrosses to corals and sponges, mistletoes, carnivorous plants, living rocks and flatworms.'

Zoos and aquaria started the member-driven nonprofit Species360 more than 40 years ago to facilitate sharing husbandry and medical information for animals in their care. Today, nearly 1,200 institutional members of Species360 collaborate to curate and share the world's largest set of wildlife data.

As researchers apply analytics to data aggregated across global sources, they glean crucial insights that affect outcomes for species in danger of extinction.