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Zoo and museum collaborations could alter how we think about animals

A Madagascar day gecko in the Masoal rainforest hall at a zoo in Zurich in 2013. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)
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Museums and zoos contain important information about animals and biodiversity. But what could happen if they worked together?

In a paper in BioScience, a national group of biologists and zoologists lay out a pathway to do just that. They make a case for zoo/museum partnerships as a way to bolster scientific research and expand our understanding of the animal world.

Both zoos and museums are based in collections — museums have artifacts and zoos have living animals. But “formal partnerships between these institutions are infrequent,” the authors say, and despite rich potential for biodiversity research across both types of institutions, zoos and museums rarely work together.

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There are reasons for the gap. Despite an estimated 800,000 zoo animals and up to 3 billion biological specimens in museums worldwide, the researchers say that there can be hurdles to cooperation.

The organizations can have different research priorities and directives, and “significant institutional barriers” exist, including regulatory issues and the perceived threat of animal rights activists, the researchers say.

But there are ways to start collaborating.

Zoos could share data and animals with museums, which are prepared to preserve animals postmortem. Both types of institutions could make their data publicly available and linked to serve the public and researchers.

Preserved animal specimens come to museums. Pairing them with information about their lives — the animals’ health, provenance and daily care — could deepen the specimens’ research value.

A decade ago, the world agreed to 20 biodiversity targets. It did not meet any of them.

Ultimately, the researchers say, it comes down to values — something zoos and museums already share.

“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,” Sinlan Poo, senior research scientist at the Memphis Zoo and the paper’s lead author, said in a news release.

The paper emerged — or, in the words of its authors, was “born in digital captivity” — from a 2021 workshop. During the event, Steven Whitfield, a conservation biologist at Zoo Miami and a co-author of the paper, says in the news release, “We saw great interest in collaborations from people who had really never been in a room together.”