Research; Not Just for Research Papers

Countless hours, and resources go into research in zoos and aquariums every year. Studies that cover education evaluation, breeding programs, visitor trends, behavioral analysis, and many other areas are published every year. Zoos and aquariums want to be the best at what they do, and for this to be the case you have to know how effective your programs are. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the gold standard for the industry, requires program, animal behavior, and enrichment evaluations. This is a financial, and staff time encumbrance for almost every institution. But, if you want truly make a difference, you have to put the resources into research.

15 years ago, Dr. Kurt Benirschke, Director of Research for San Diego Zoo at the time, said “zoo research” was essential for maintaining wildlife species in captivity.[1] Zoos and aquariums were doing research, but it was only reactionary and not proactive. Dr. Benirschke thought that if organizations combined their research they could collect and generate biological databases for numerous species. These databases could now be used in the wild, and in captivity, to create the best practices and breeding models for the species. Snyder, and colleagues, thought that mandated research could help zoos and aquariums hit their conservation and biodiversity goals.[2]

The AZA has created a directory for all research performed by accredited members for easy access and analysis by members. The development of research programs is still in the infancy stage. Programs are altered on a yearly basis to be more thorough and effective, but the field is growing. Another result of the research has been the creation of Scientific Advisory Groups (SAGS) for multiple species. SAGs are composed of experts from the zoo and aquarium field, as well as university and government scholars. Dr. Matt Allender, Professor from the University of Illinois, is our veterinarian here at Miller Park Zoo. He is also on multiple SAG and Veterinary Advisory Groups (VAG). He leads multiple turtle VAGs. He uses the AZA directory to consult other experts when making diet, husbandry and breeding recommendations for our animals at the zoo.

One of the zoo species that has struggled to breed in captivity is the polar bear. A lot of breeding knowledge was anecdotal in the past. Keepers would hand down information, but didn’t have a lot of science, or research, to substantiate their claims. Research has changed this. Institutions gathered all 99 years of studbook keeping for the polar bears and analyzed it. They studied latitude, year of birth, parental demographics, sex, survival, litter size and litter order.[3] Research like this can create a shift in breeding strategies. One important result was that first time mothers had a much greater chance of the offspring not living to adulthood. Mothers become more successful if they have multiple litters. Zoos and aquariums know to give mothers multiple chances to rear young, as their natural instincts improve with each birth.

Decades of research has resulted in zoos and aquariums becoming much more effective at breeding. Data is analyzed to determine factors such as most effective time of year, animal holding areas, nutrition, and other important influences to create the best chance for successful copulation. Research notes all of these factors in successful, and unsuccessful breeding, so that every institution can make informed and strategic decisions when choosing a breeding strategy. Zoos will also incorporate domestic research into similar exotic species. This was true with domestic dogs and the red wolf breeding program.[4]

Although breeding is a very important role of zoos and aquariums, it is not the only reason for research. Multiple studies have looked into animal behavior and the effects of human visitors. The segment of the population that is against zoos and aquariums would argue that it is not right for animals to be kept in captivity. They say the animals should be in the wild. This argument is perfectly valid, and most in the industry would not disagree. But, it is important for people to see these animals so that they can become engaged, and take a role in their survival and well-being. This is why researching their behavior while in captivity is vital. A group studied spider monkeys on an island in Lake Catemaco, in Mexico, to see what result human visitors had on their behavior.[5] They found an increase in self-directed behaviors and decreased vocalizations when humans were present. Although the results varied among individuals, the conclusion was that the human visitors did have a slightly negative effect on behavior. Zoos can use studies like this to change exhibit layouts, and decide the best practices for displaying the species in the most calming manner.

Another study similar to the spider monkey research, was is a study of ambassador animals. Dr. Chris Kuhar wrote about this study in a recent issue of Connect.[6] Ambassador animals are used for guest engagement and education classes. Here at Miller Park Zoo we have a special collection that is not on display to the general public that we use for special occasions and education opportunities. A lot of professionals wanted to study the well-being of the animals who were used for encounters. No data existed to measure the psychology of the ambassador animals. The AZA decided to evaluate these animals with a thorough study. The study is just beginning, but results have led to a change in the way ambassador animals are held, and the frequency of their interactions. Documentation is now required for every animal interaction, and length of the interaction. There is now a standard length of time, and number of visits a month, that an animal can be used for engagement. Every animal is different, so every requirement is different. Research into ambassador animals has led to a safer exhibit spaces and more animal welfare friendly regulations.

Zoo and aquarium research has improved, not only the breeding programs, but husbandry, nutrition, and animal well-being. With the industry spending more resources on research the possibilities are endless. Zoos will become more effective in every aspect of their mission. Evaluation of the research will lead to breakthroughs, and eventually, a shift to more effective conservation practices. The end goal for zoos and aquariums will be a world in which animals and humans can live in close quarters without infringing on the animals natural habitat. Science and research will lead us to new and innovative ways to create products, and live without destroying the nonrenewable beauty of this world.

[1] Goodrowe, Karen. (2003). Programs for Invasive Research in North American Zoos and Aquariums. ILAR Journal. 44(4). 317-323.

[2] Snyder NF Derrickson SRBeissinger SR Wiley JW Smith TB Toone WD Miller B. 1995. Limitations of captive breeding in endangered species recovery. Cons Biol 10: 338– 348.

[3] CURRY, Erin. Reproductive trends of captive polar bears in North American zoos: a historical analysis. Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research, 3(3), p. 99-106, july 2015.


[4] Goodrowe KL Mastromonaco GF Ryckman DP Walker SL Bateman HL Platz CC Waddell WT. 2001. In vitro maintenance and effects of cooling and cryopreservation on red wolf ( Canis rufus ) sperm characteristics. J Reprod Fertil 57 (Suppl) : 387– 392.

[5] Perez-Galicia, Sergio and Manuel Miranda-Anaya. Visitor Effect on the Behavior of a Group of Spider Monkeys Maintained at an Island in Lake Catemaco. Zoo Biology. 2017; 1-7.

[6] Kuhar Chris PhD. Ambassador Animals. Connect. May 2015. 10.



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