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Otterly valuable: Moving beyond the clipboard to support conservation science

sea otter conservationSea otters are key to coastal conservation

It’s Sea Otter Awareness Week (#SeaOtterWeek), and for those of you that know me as a former otter keeper, you know that this and World Otter Day (May 30, 2018 – mark your calendars!) are causes near and dear to my heart.  Otters are awesome in many ways, not the least of which is their importance as an indicator species for the health of the environments they inhabit.  Monitoring the health of sea otter populations can tell humans many things about their coastal habitat:  water quality, population health for invertebrates and filter feeders, and the presence of marine pollutants. When prey animals eat plankton or plants, they are filtering pollutants out of the water, and are sometimes also exposed to infectious pathogens or parasites. As these prey animals are then consumed by sea otters, scientists can look at blood and tissue samples from wild otter populations to help determine the overall health of the local ecosystem.

sea otter conservation 2What does “healthy” mean for a sea otter?

But what can scientists compare those values to?  In a world with regular chemical spills, coastal urban development and an ocean filled with plastic, how do we know what “healthy” means for a sea otter?  Our managed otter populations may very well hold the key.  We know these animals live in controlled habitats, with regulated water quality and minimal exposure to wild pathogens.  Zoo and aquarium animals are not just ambassador species for education; they also provide critical information that can be used to help save their wild counterparts. That critical information lives in Species360 ZIMS.

How shared data makes a difference

Nowhere else in the world can forty years of medical information for aquatic species be compared with years of water quality data. That is powerful information when assessing the relative health of a keystone species and their habitat.  Every routine water chemistry test entry and normal blood work result has great value when combined with those same tests performed by 1000+ member zoos and aquariums around the world.  That pooled data creates an unparalleled resource unique to ZIMS, and, as the sixth mass extinction continues to evolve, this information becomes more invaluable to conservation scientists racing the clock to save species.

zoo medical records

Folders of paper files (Photo credit: St. Louis zoo)

As a former aquarist, I know firsthand that being an aquarist isn’t a desk job.  I, too, was partial to my trusty clipboard with paper logs hanging off the back of my tank; water-spotted and occasionally smeared pink where krill-juiced fingers grabbed the paper to record a quick feed log.  And there it stayed, until the paper stacked up enough to warrant transferring to a file cabinet, rarely to see the light of day again.  But what good do those pink log sheets do now?  Daily records help aquarists assess change in their animals and enclosures, and it’s helpful to see that data in front of you every time you check your systems.  But what about the data from six months ago?  It’s easy to file away and forget, thinking that those sheets have served their importance and no longer offer much value.

ZIMS data for conservation

Value, however, lies in the eye of the beholder.  And to conservation scientists, ZIMS data can hold tremendous value.  This is why it is imperative that zoos and aquariums go beyond simply tracking inventory electronically, and support their staff to incorporate time for data entry into their days.  Water quality, behavior notes, collection trip location details, feed logs – all of these can provide essential information on how species handle change, or provide researchers a way to link health and behavior to define “normal” for aquatic species that may be much more difficult to study in the wild.  It doesn’t take a research or conservation initiative to create important data – sometimes, the daily status quo can provide just as much value.  What is important, is to make sure that data that can save species doesn’t get buried in a file cabinet, or banished to an Excel file, but instead, is contributed back to science, and back to help those wild counterparts of our ambassador species.

Data entry might not feel like a hero’s job, but at the end of the day, it might just save a life, or, an ecosystem.

-Meredith Knott, Product Owner, ZIMS for Aquatics

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