UK zoos have had a relationship with science ever since the creation of the Zoological Society of London in 1826 and the later opening of Regents Park Zoo. It was said that this should be "a scientific establishment... for teaching or elucidating zoology".
This theme has continued and today it is recognized that modern zoos and aquariums offer scientists unique opportunities to study the biology of animals housed there (WZACS 2005). Often these animals are extremely elusive and threatened in the wild. Therefore undertaking research in a zoo can take advantage of a significant opportunity to study factors important to conservation, which cannot be undertaken effectively in the wild.
A significant number of zoo animals housed within the UK are part of European breeding programmes (EEPs) which aim to preserve threatened species for the future by pairing compatible individuals. This creates self-sustaining populations, meaning that there is no need to bring in animals from the wild. Because of the importance of these programmes a great number of scientific studies are dedicated to understanding the reproductive biology and needs of our animals.
For many species, the zoo or aquarium environment differs greatly from that of their natural, wild habitat (e.g. medical care is available, should an animal become sick or injured and there is no competition for food), and this may have some effect on the animals, who have adapted to the challenges of the wild. Therefore, a large proportion of research carried out in a zoo or aquarium focuses on understanding how the captive environment may influence the animals, and where appropriate, how this can be minimized. Additionally, some studies set out to investigate whether aspects of animal husbandry could be improved. Examples include focusing on diets and how these can be enhanced, identifying best practice in medical care for specific species, finding out how visitors may affect animals and vice versa, evaluating the effectiveness of education tools, visitor awareness of native species and much more.
There are legal considerations that must be taken into account when undertaking research on animals. Scientists cannot carry out intrusive studies which may cause distress to the animals. Proposals to carry out research within a zoo or aquarium are reviewed by the collection and assessed in terms of ethics as well as other factors such as quality of science and logistics. This ensures only the most worthwhile and non-harmful studies are undertaken.
Ultimately research in zoos and aquariums is driven and governed by one main goal; to gather knowledge that benefits the conservation of threatened species through welfare, education and a good day out.
Key Research Resources:
To find out more about how BIAZA helps its members undertake research see the Research Committee webpage.
Please refer to the Research Handbook for more information on how to go about undertaking research in a zoo or aquarium environment.
To view a list of projects completed within BIAZA collections please see the BIAZA Research Database.
For a list of suggested research areas view the Priority Research Areas spreadsheet.
To read more about research policy and guidelines on legal requirements for ex-situ research in zoos, please see the following link: Making Research Happen.
To hear more about the latest zoo and aquarium research news, join the BIAZA Research Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/biazaresearch
Amonthly round up of relevant zoo research articles can be found here on the website of professional associate BIAZA member Gavan Cooke.