Blog post

Science at the zoo

February 18, 2022
By Louis Lazure

Visitors looking at animals in a zoo Visitors at the zoo, unaware of all the science going on in the back scene! Credit: Bertrand Duhamel.

Zoos and aquariums are very popular tourist attractions, accepting over 200 millions visitors per year in North America, and around 700 millions in the world. While being a prime holiday and weekend destination, zoos also have their critics. Values and ethical concerns are usually put forward by people opposing zoos.

But not all zoos are created (or rather managed) equally. What are called “roadside zoos” often exhibit poor animal welfare and lack any educational, conservation or research efforts. On the contrary, accredited institutions are part of a network of zoos that value animal welfare, the preservation of species and their habitats, and science. They submit themselves to public scrutiny and regular inspections by legal and regulating bodies. As the research coordinator at a zoo (and of course part-time PhD candidate here at Concordia), I wish to highlight how doing research in a zoo can benefit animals, institutions and science in general.

Having diverse animals in the same place allows to conduct multi-species comparative research, a fruitful way to address many fundamental questions about biology, physiology, cognition and evolution. Zoos also offer the opportunity to study rare or endangered species that are difficult to observe in nature. For example, there are less than 100 individuals of the rare and elusive Amur leopard in the wild, but approximately 350 in captivity.

The opportunity to study wild populations of Amur leopards is very limited, therefore, studying captive individuals provides ample opportunity to better understand this species improving conservation efforts. For the Amur leopard, and many other of the 40 000 species threatened with extinction, captive research gives us important information on physiology, reproductive biology, health, behaviour and much more. This data is essential for a better understanding of the species’ biological requirements and to design effective management plans and policies.

Amur leopard Amur leopard at Zoo de Granby

Practically, researchers can test new methodologies and material very easily and quickly. Before spending a fortune to buy, transport and use materials in the field, it can be very cost-effective to do pilot-projects at a zoo. Some cutting-edge methods can also benefit from small projects in captivity before becoming widespread and exportable to the field.

Accredited zoos include many professions within their team: keepers, biologists, veterinarians, nutritionists, educators, tradesmen, to name a few. With the addition of outside researchers, including many university professors and students, this allows a multidisciplinary approach to research projects. It unlocks research possibilities and facilitates the development of new methodologies. It is also extremely convenient, for a biologist like me, to be able to simply ask colleagues about their expertise in other fields. Unlike in many other research environments, we are always exposed to different visions and practices, which makes it almost impossible to have a narrow and close-minded view on our research topics.

Two employees in a lab Multidisciplinary teamwork

Research in zoos also allows for the evaluation of practices, systematically and objectively. Being under intense scrutiny, zoos and aquariums need to be transparent and honest about what works or not. Scientific research on our animals’ health and welfare, on the impact of animal care practices and the efficacy of educational efforts are crucial ways to do this. Additionally, when submitted to the peer-review process of scientific publications (some academic journals are dedicated to zoo research), our practices are evaluated by anonymous and professional reviewers, and available to the public.

Of course, there are downsides to research projects in captivity. Sample size (i.e. the number of animals that can be included in a study) is limited to animals living in the zoo, although multi zoo collaborations is a way to alleviate this hurdle. The ecological settings (weather, habitat, predators, competitors, human threats, diseases, etc.) are also extremely powerful forces affecting wildlife. Although we have better control on the environment and can focus on very specific questions in a zoo, captive research will never recreate the complexities of the natural habitat.

Overall, zoo research can eventually be funneled into conservation efforts (like the reproduction of endangered species, direct support of field conservation programs or reintroduction in the wild) which is another essential aspect of an accredited institution. As the zoological community strives to increase its investment in conservation in the future, zoos and aquariums will become a hotbed for scientific research, allocating millions of dollars annually on research and hiring more and more research-dedicated staff.

About the author

Photo of Louis Lazure

Louis Lazure is a doctoral candidate in Biology. He received a BSc in problem-based learning Biology (UQÀM, 2005), a master’s in International Ecology (Université de Sherbrooke, 2007) and a MSc in Biology (Western University, 2009).

With his expertise in ecology, zoology and animal behaviour, he worked and conducted wildlife research in many countries and in captive settings. Louis is also the Research Coordinator at Zoo de Granby since 2013. His current research precisely explores raccoon’s cognition within a context of human-wildlife interactions in protected areas

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