April 19, 2018
Most people think of zoos and aquariums as tourist destinations: educational but fun diversions for animal lovers. However, according to a new study from the University of Illinois, modern zoos and aquariums are increasingly contributing to the knowledge base on biodiversity conservation and other scientific topics.
Through an analysis of scientific literature, the study's authors determined that researchers at zoos and aquariums have contributed at least 5,175 peer-reviewed articles to conservation, zoology and veterinary journals over the past 20 years.
"This paper is the first quantification of research productivity of zoos and aquariums. It shows a trend of substantial and increasing publishing through time," said Eric Larson, a freshwater ecologist in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois. "Zoos and aquariums are definitely players in scientific research."
The 5,175 papers came from 228 zoos and aquariums, all of which are members of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). As part of its accreditation standards, AZA requires conservation and research activities. Larson and his co-authors wanted to see if these standards were having an effect in terms of research output and found that they were.
Other factors mattered, too. The authors looked at the age, size, financial status, type and mission statements of the 228 institutions in their sample. Of those, age, size and the inclusion of research in mission statements were most important.
Larson thinks older zoos and aquariums have had more time to build endowments that support research. "We also found that larger organizations have more capacity to do research, but there's some control at the organizational level about that; choosing to put research in your mission statement does matter," he said.
On the other hand, publishing in conservation journals doesn't necessarily translate into adoption of conservation practices on the ground, Larson noted. That so-called implementation gap is hard to quantify and is not unique to zoos and aquariums. However, unlike other research institutions, zoos and aquariums often participate in conservation activities like species survival plans, including captive breeding to ensure genetic diversity.
"Zoos and aquariums also have much greater impact in terms of public outreach and education than traditional research institutions," said Tse-Lynn Loh, lead author and visiting tutor at Quest University Canada.
Larson said he and his co-authors would like to dive deeper to get an even better sense of the research output of zoos and aquariums. For now, though, he said the reaction from zoos and aquariums to the paper has been very positive. "Based on some of the reactions on social media, I think we found a much larger volume of papers than researchers at those institutions had expected," Larson said.
The article, "Quantifying the Contribution of Zoos & Aquariums to Peer-Reviewed Scientific Research," was published in Facets, an open-access journal.
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