Zoos and Aquariums Deliver 800 Percent Increase in Knowledge to Save Species

Previously Untapped Information Shared by Nearly 1,200 Zoos and Aquariums Worldwide Boosts Knowledge Used to Assess Wildlife Populations

Despite volumes of data currently available on mankind, it is surprising how little we know about other species. A paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) confirms 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. It’s a gap with far-reaching implications for conservationists seeking to blunt the impact of mass extinctions.

 “It seems inconceivable, yet scientists tasked with saving species often have to power through with ‘best-guess’ assumptions that, we hope, approximate reality,” said  Dalia A. Conde, lead researcher and director of the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance. At a minimum, scientists working worldwide on behalf of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the IUCN Species Survival Commission, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), TRAFFIC, Monitor and others require more complete data to make informed decisions.

A multidisciplinary team led by researchers from the Interdisciplinary Center on Population Dynamics (CPop)Oxford, the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, the University of Southern DenmarkSan Diego Zoo Global and Species360 Conservation Science Alliance—with participants from 19 institutions—believes we can substantially increase what we know by applying new analytics to data that has been long overlooked.

Predicting when species are at risk and how best to bolster populations requires knowing at what age females reproduce, how many hatchlings or juveniles survive to adolescence and how long adults live. To understand what data are currently available and to measure the void, the team of 33 scientists—including data analysts, biologists and population dynamics specialists—developed a Species Knowledge Index (SKI) that classifies available demographic information for 32,144 known species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. The index aggregates, analyzes and maps data from 22 databases and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“The demographic knowledge of species index provides significant information that, in conjunction with genetic data, allows estimations of events that affect population viability,” said Oliver Ryder, Ph.D., director of Conservation Genetics, San Diego Zoo Global. “Severe population declines, sometimes called genetic bottlenecks, influence the sustainability of populations, as we have found in studying endangered rhinos.”

Turning first to go-to global sources of information, the index registers comprehensive birth and death rates for just 1.3 percent of these major classes of species. The map, which illustrates demographic knowledge for individual species, shows that many remain blank.

That changed when researchers added data from a previously untapped source, the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS). Across classes of species, key blanks were filled with salient data.

“Adding ZIMS was like turning on the lights in an otherwise very dim room,” said Conde. “Class by class, from mammals through amphibians, we saw large gaps fill with fundamental data needed to help conservationists assess populations and advocate for threatened, endangered and vulnerable species.”

ZIMS is curated by wildlife professionals working within zoos, aquariums, refuges, and research and education centers in 97 countries. It is maintained by Species360, a nonprofit, member-driven organization that facilitates information sharing among its nearly 1,200 institutional members, and is the world’s largest set of wildlife data.

Incorporating ZIMS data boosted the Species Knowledge Index eightfold for comprehensive life table information used to assess populations. Information on the age of first reproduction for females, a key piece to estimating how a population will fare in coming years, grew as much as 73 percent.

            The study, “Data Gaps and Opportunities for Comparative and Conservation Biology,” suggests a value far beyond the data itself. As Species360 Conservation Science Alliance researchers and others apply analytics to data aggregated across global sources, including ZIMS, they may glean insights that impact outcomes for species in danger of extinction, said Conde. Moreover, this could provide key insights for comparative and evolutionary biology, such as understanding the evolution of aging.