2019 World Wildlife Day: Life Below Water – Looking beyond the sharks and manta rays that catch the eye of visitors, researchers find great conservation potential in the wealth of fish and corals residing in the world’s zoos and aquariums. A study published this week in Journal for Nature Conservation (April 2019) reports that aquariums hold 21 percent of thecoral species that areVulnerable to Climate Change (VCC), Evolutionary Distinct (EDGE), and assessed by the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM (IUCN RL).
In the study, Species360 Conservation Science Alliance researchers, in collaboration with the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), the Interdisciplinary Center for Population Dynamics at the University of Southern Denmark, Stellenbosch University, and the Zoological Society of London, evaluate conservation potential of 3,370 fish and coral species residing in 594 aquariums that share real-time data worldwide using the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS).
“Our study shows an important representation of species diversity in institutions where managers and scientists are recording observations ranging from reproduction to environment. Access to real-time information about populations of vulnerable and evolutionary distinct species makes it possible to identify whether ‘backup populations’ exist that can help conservation efforts in situations such as the current coral reef crises,” said Dr. Dalia A. Conde research author, Director of the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, and Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark.
Coral ecosystems determine marine biodiversity well beyond their immediate reach; 25 percent of marine species can be linked back to reef systems. Forconservationists who may feel they are fighting a losing battle, the “ex-situ” aquarium populations are a lifeline.
“Facing issues of such magnitude as changing climate, ocean acidification and over-fishing requires the conservation community to work together to strategically decide which efforts we must focus on and how to best save species. Experts within the zoo and aquarium community have vital roles to play in the success of these conservation efforts. This study shows the value in different sets of data combining to highlight where the greatest needs and opportunities lie for us to work together," said Dr. Kira Mileham, Strategic Partnership Director for the IUCN Species Survival Commission.
This is especially critical for coral reefs now in crises; in the last three years, half of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has been bleached and coral disease has affected much of the reef tract off the coast of Florida in the United States. Scientists hope that colonies exhibiting resilience in the wild may rebound, and that extant populations may help to sustain the diversity and traits that will encourage survival given the high temperatures as climate change persists.
“The dramatic declines in coral reefs globally are of grave concern. As the world grapples with how best to respond, the vital conservation roles of aquariums and zoos become increasingly clear. Building and maintaining such biodiversity ‘safe-houses’ provides a backup plan against increasingly extreme and unexpected events, as well as against the declines that growing threats like climate change and habitat loss bring. They also bring us fascinating glimpses into creatures’ lives which we might never have in the wild,” said Professor Wendy Foden, South African National Parks and Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Climate Change Specialist Group (IUCN SSC).
Since 2014, fast-moving disease has killed vast populations of coral in the Florida Reef Tract, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protections, and consequences of the loss are economic as well as environmental. Marine activities linked to its coral reefs generate $2.36 billion in sales and income annually. Efforts to rebuild reefs can further benefit from the collaboration of more aquatic institutions worldwide. The Florida Aquarium and MOTE Marine Laboratory, also Species360 members represented in the study, are leading discovery, breeding, and re-introduction programs central to recovery efforts.
“From this study we were able to identify that more than half of the coral species dying off the coast of Florida are in aquariums. These populations can provide critical knowledge and hope for re-introductions when the threats are controlled,” said research author Rita da Silva, fellow of Species360 Conservation Science Alliance and PhD student at the University of Southern Denmark.
Of equal importance are fish species in aquariums. The study reveals that aquariums hold four of the six fish species listed as Extinct in the Wild by the IUCN Red List and 11% of all the assessed sharks and rays. Of particular interest are the 106 species of Anthozoa (corals and anemones) and the 1,249 species of fish for which their extinction risk has not yet been assessed by the IUCN Red List. Information held by aquariums can help support both the development of Red List assessments and conservation actions, especially because among these species, scientists fear, are vast populations facing unanticipated crisis.
"The ZIMS database enables the Zoological Society of London’s two Zoos to directly contribute insight to conservation efforts across the globe. The data captured here allows the zoological community to more easily share information and to track and measure vast conservation efforts. The ZIMs database has played a key role in our conservation efforts of fresh water fish through international collaboration and communication. This review and my co-authors’ analysis demonstrate the benefit this collaboration provides for endangered species in need of coordinated management to ensure their survival,” said Brian Zimmerman, Chief Zoological Officer, Zoological Society of London.
About the Study
The paper has been published in the Journal of Nature Conservation led by Dalia A. Conde, Director of the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s (Thereafter IUCN-SSC) Conservation Planning Specialist Group and Rita da Silva, Research Fellow of Species360 Conservation Science Alliance and PhD Student, Both Dalia and Rita academic work is at the Department of Biology and the Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics (CPop) at the University of Southern Denmark. Authors include: Wendy Foden, Global Change Biology Group, Department of Botany and Zoology, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, South African National Parks, and Chair of the IUCN-SSC Climate Change Specialist Group; Paul Pearce-Kelly, Senior Curator of Ectotherms, Zoological Society of London, and Member of IUCN-SSC Climate Change and Conservation Planning Specialist Group and; Meredith Knott, Product Owner, Aquatics and Husbandry at Species360, and Member of the IUCN-SSC Otter Specialist Group; and Brian Zimmerman, Chief Curator at Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
About Species360 and the Conservation Science Alliance
Species360, a non-profit NGO and global leader in wildlife care and conservation, supports a growing membership of nearly 1,200 aquarium, zoo, university, research and government entities on 6 continents and in 96 countries. Working together, these institutions have built the world’s largest database of wildlife knowledge, the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS). The Species360 Conservation Science Alliance is a science-based consortium of progressive conservation leaders and researchers working together to advance species conservation outcomes globally. The Conservation Science Alliance operates under an agreement for cooperation among independent institutions to achieve the shared endangered wildlife conservation objective of ‘using data in the fight to stop extinction.’ Conservation Science Alliance sponsors and partners include Copenhagen Zoo, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), and Wildlife Reserves Singapore.