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Species360 CEO Blog: What is the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance?

The Species360 Conservation Science Alliance is developing the Songbird Species Knowledge Index to help combat the illegal trade in songbirds.

Jim Guenter, Species360 CEO.

The Species360 Conservation Science Alliance (CSA) presents a unique opportunity for conservationists around the world to collaborate using one-of-a-kind data and professional expertise shared by Species360 members and partners to serve animal care and species conservation. Led by Species360 Director of Science Prof. Dalia Conde and the Species360 science team, the Alliance is intended to be a broad, open collaboration of experts focused on using data to serve animal care and conservation science. As the Alliance grows and our partnerships prove more impactful, I would like to explain the role of the CSA so you can better understand our aims, how our work can help you, and how you might work with us or support our work. 

How it began

Prof. Dalia Conde, Species360 Director of Science.

In 2017, a group of leaders met in a conference room at the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark.  We were discussing the future vision for Species360’s Science team as well as that of invaluable data held within ZIMS. The Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) contains data diligently collected by Species360 member institutions worldwide and is globally unique. Among other things, it is the single largest set of data on wildlife in human care. This spans husbandry, medical, welfare, studbooks, and population data.

As a non-profit organization, we wanted to examine how we could best take advantage of that data to serve our members’ animal care and species conservation goals. To truly leverage complex data it needs to be understood, aggregated, analyzed, cleaned, and shared. We would need diverse, passionate, and skilled people in biology, demography, genetics, veterinary care, animal husbandry, computer science and many other sciences. We would need experts in data visualization, statistical models, communications, and a vision for how the data can be used. We would need staff, students, partners, collaborators, coauthors, and sponsors. If we could find the right team and partners, we knew we could make a global impact.

But we also knew this would take more than the Species360 team alone. We needed to mobilize our community. We needed allies. The small Species360 science team needed to recruit an army of conservation-minded people interested in leveraging the unique data in ZIMS, coupled with data from other global and open conservation databases to serve conservation science. And with that, the idea of the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance was hatched.

The Species360 Conservation Science Alliance would bring together our best biologist, data, analytics, and population management scientists with conservationists to deliver new, data-driven insight. We had a great idea, but we had a lot of work to do. There were many questions about the value of the data. Is it clean enough? Is there enough data for analysis for each species? Is the data on animals in human care (ex situ) relevant for saving animals in the wild (in situ)? What data and analytics would be relevant? Will other partners help?

Species360’s Conservation Science Alliance harnesses the power of the data in ZIMS to increase knowledge about the animal kingdom.

Our challenges

Funding was a big question. Our members pay an annual membership fee to support Species360. How much of that funding can we use to fund a science team? If the team is underfunded it will never accomplish our lofty goals, but we can’t divert too much funding from our core responsibility of building and supporting ZIMS. Fortunately, we found a small group of excited sponsors that understood our vision. Copenhagen Zoo, Mandai Wildlife Group, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) provided multi-year funding. Many small grants were also used to staff the CSA team and to support their projects. Another challenge was to pull the complex data out of ZIMS, clean it, aggregate and transform it in new ways for new purposes, and define new algorithms and methods to use the data for science. Again, we were fortunate. Our science team is hosted by one of our key partners, University of Southern Denmark (SDU), and includes leadership from two associate professors, Dr. Dalia Conde, Species360’s Director of Science, and Dr. Fernando Colchero, Species360’s Principal Statistical Analyst. Because of their academic affiliation and proactive partnership and support from leaders at SDU, they were able to collaborate with key thought leaders in demography, computer science, statistics, and other disciplines. They have access to supercomputing resources and they collaborate on projects and grant writing.

Accomplishments

Much of the early work of the Alliance was foundational science, which establishes the value of our members’ efforts in collecting the data in ZIMS. These projects also allow us to establish data extraction and cleansing, and analytical methods for using the data for applied science and animal care. Publishing this research in leading scientific publications may also help us find additional sponsors, partners, and resources to expand the valuable work of the Alliance. Some examples include:

Species Knowledge Index

The Demographic Species Knowledge Index (SKI), started by Prof.  Conde before joining Species360, was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 2019), and showed that ZIMS data provides an eightfold increase in information for scientists to assess world populations of known species and support their fight to save species from extinction. SKI provides scientists and policy-makers with a comprehensive view of critical data on known species.

The paper “Cancer risk across mammals” published in the journal Nature demonstrates the value of data provided by Species360’s members. A team of international collaborators found that “the results highlight the key role of life-history evolution in shaping cancer resistance and provide major advancements in the quest for natural anticancer defenses.” Although data on wild populations would be indispensable to describe natural incidences of malignancies, such data, especially with corresponding ages and demographic histories, are unfortunately still far from our reach. Therefore, to estimate cancer mortality risk, this study uses data recorded by zoos for animals in their care using data from ZIMS.

Data from hundreds of Species360 member zoos was the key to developing the most extensive evaluation of cancer risk in mammals.

CSA work also directly supports conservation efforts, while demonstrating the critical role of Species360 members in support of international conservation:

  • The CITES Secretariat commissioned the Species360 CSA to support the implementation of CITES Decision 17.291 by developing guidance concerning the differentiation of specimens of tortoises and turtles originating in the wild, versus those originating from captive and ranching production systems. About 865,000 specimens of live tortoises and freshwater turtles are legally traded every year. Given the high number of imports and exports, custom officers and inspection officials are challenged with detecting fraudulent claims of captive breeding. Identifying illegal shipments and differentiating between animals that were raised in commercial captive-breeding facilities versus those illegally collected from the wild requires expert knowledge that is often lacking in countries where illegal trade is most common. The data in ZIMS and the husbandry and wildlife trade expertise of Species360 members and CSA allies made this work possible.
  • The Species360 CSA continues to work with CITES and other partners to fight illegal wildlife trade. Current projects are studying the trade and the impact on songbirds, sharks and rays, and ornamental fish conservation.

It is wonderful that so much of our work is published in high-impact scientific journals. This helps our community and the broader scientific community promote the conservation value of global data sharing through Species360 membership. But, the more important reason for this work is to create the foundational data, analytics, and methods that will support our work and the work of other conservationists going forward.

We recently produced an impactful report that used methods of foundational science applied to animal care through the Survival, Reproduction, and Growth (SRG) Reports released to our members. These reports provide a very unique perspective both across entire species and individual animals in our members’ care.

Our members can now see new and critical information for animals in their care. How long do they typically live? At what age do they start and stop breeding? How many offspring per clutch? Do they breed seasonally and does that seasonality match wild populations? What is the typical weight of a male or female of the species at a specific age? Where does my animal fit on that lifespan or weight curve?

Of course, this information is important for managing a population in human care, but demographic information is also critical to understanding a species’ threat status, or in the worst case, its probability of extinction. Data from zoo and aquarium populations are often the best (or only) information that can be used to understand a species. 

This unique data is being used in expert workshops with in situ and ex situ experts to assess progress in caring for a range of species. The CSA is currently working on assessing marine mammals and elephants, with future projects planned for primates and big cats. More details on these projects will be available in 2023.

The Species360 Conservation Science Alliance is currently conducting research on progress in elephant animal welfare.

Today’s Species360 CSA team, and the Alliance

Now with a membership of nearly 1,300 institutions, the depth and value of our members’ aggregated data continues to grow. The Species360 CSA team is also expanding. We now dedicate three full-time and two part-time staff to this work, funded by our sponsors, grants, project funding from partners, and Species360. This small Species360 team is focused on understanding and cleaning the data in ZIMS, identifying other global data sets that can amplify the value of the analytics, defining scientific methods, and fostering collaboration through the Alliance across our broad community. We also have a growing list of allies in the CSA including dozens of coauthors, collaborators, and species experts working with us on projects and papers.

In the coming months we will be focusing on our partnerships and making our approach to prioritizing our work more inclusive. Species360 members and partners will be able to collaborate to find the most impactful work for the Alliance. We hope that many of them join the Alliance as allies, partners, and sponsors. 

We are excited to see where we can take this Alliance together. Come join us or support us as you are able. We look forward to hearing from you.

– Jim Guenter, Species360 CEO

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