Life history: Scholars call for greater collaboration between zoos, museums

A new paper lays out a pathway to increasing collaboration between these groups that would enhance our understanding of the animal kingdom.
CT Scan image reconstruction of YPM HERA 023166

A CT scan image reconstruction of a Caecilian, a group of serpentine amphibians. The Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, donated the specimen to the Peabody Museum. (Credit: Jaimi Gray, Nanoscale Research Facility at the University of Florida.)

The animal collections housed at zoos and natural history museums — living specimens in the first case, preserved in the other — constitute an exhaustive trove of information about Earth’s biodiversity. Yet, zoos and museums rarely share data with each other.

A new paper published in the journal BioScience lays out a pathway to increasing collaboration between these groups that would enhance our understanding of the animal kingdom.

Museums have a wealth of preserved specimens that provide scientists massive amounts of information, but very little data about how the animals lived their day-to-day life,” said Gregory Watkins-Colwell, collection manager for herpetology and ichthyology at the Yale Peabody Museum and a co-author of the paper. “Zoos and aquariums, on the other hand, have rich data on an animal’s life history, behavior, and health. Combining this complementary information would be a boon to scholars and serve the research and educational missions of both museums and zoos.”

Institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums hold about 800,000 living animals, primarily in the United States. Zoos and aquariums keep extensive records for each animal in their care, including information on their life history, behavior, health, pedigree, physiology, and husbandry protocols used during their life, such as diet and veterinary treatments. They also periodically collect and preserve biological samples, such as blood, plasma, and DNA.

Natural history museums house roughly 500 million to 1 billion biological specimens in the United States and about 3 billion worldwide, according to the paper. A specimen’s records typically include information on where, when, and by whom it was collected, as well as its taxonomy and method of preservation. These records tend to capture the moment in the animal’s life immediately preceding its death but offer little information about all the time before that, Watkins-Colwell explained.

Natural history museums would clearly benefit from having access to the detailed life-history records zoos keep, which are data largely unavailable to museums and the researchers who rely on them,” he said. “For example, the blood chemistry of a cheetah could be very valuable to a researcher. At the same time, zoos can also be important sources of preserved specimens for museums.”

Many zoos house species that are rare, endangered, or even extinct in the wild, making them extremely difficult, if not impossible, for museums to collect ethically, according to the paper, whose 35 co-authors represent zoos and museums located throughout the United States. Disposing of deceased animals is a logistical and often a legal necessity for zoos, which lack the expertise and facilities to house preserved specimens, the authors add. As an alternative, zoos could deposit specimens of high scientific value with natural history museums, extending the research and teaching value of their collections and strengthening their credibility as conservation-oriented scientific organizations.

Depositing specimens in museums can help zoos learn more about the health of the animal while it was living under their care — perhaps an elephant had an infected tooth that went undetected while it was living — knowledge that could inform a zoo’s practices and benefit its collections, Watkins-Colwell explained.

Depositing a specimen from a zoo into a museum can extend the ‘life’ of that animal in perpetuity — providing research, education, and conservation opportunities for years to come,” said Alex Shepack, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Notre Dame and coauthor on the paper.

There are existing partnerships between zoos and museums. For example, the Peabody Museum has received specimens from zoos across the United States. Since 2010, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas has donated more than 770 specimens and tissue samples to the museum. Those materials have been used in 22 research projects and courses at Yale.

The barriers to increased collaboration are largely cultural, Watkins-Colwell said.

When we started discussions between zoo and museum staff, we realized how little each other understood of the ways we all use collections and maintain data,” said co-author Steven Whitfield, a conservation biologist at Zoo Miami. “As we worked together over three days to organize this manuscript, we saw great interest in collaborations from people who had really never been in a room together.”

The two types of institutions vary in their emphasis on research. While many museums are heavily focused on research, zoos place more emphasis on the health and welfare of their living specimens, the paper explained. There can also be legal hurdles to transferring animal specimens between zoos and museums, and the digital record management systems that museums and zoos use are often incompatible.

However, what should unite these institutions is a shared interest in preserving biodiversity, in its various forms, and contributing to our collective knowledge of these animals,” said Sinlan Poo, senior research scientist at the Memphis Zoo and lead author of the paper.

Ultimately, enhanced collaboration will require staff at zoos and museums to build relationships and share their ideas and scientific approaches with each other. The new paper, Watkins-Colwell said, is a first step in initiating that dialogue.

Gary P. Aronsen, a biological anthropologist and supervisor of the Yale Biological Anthropology Laboratories, is also a co-author of the paper.

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