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ZIMS at Work: Transforming 163 Years of Data into Knowledge with Copenhagen Zoo

Written by: Jo Seton, Contributing Editor

This ZIMS at Work feature on Copenhagen Zoo is one of a series of stories about Species360 member institutions that record and share data to help improve animal welfare and inform species conservation.

The Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark recently celebrated its 45th anniversary as a Species360 member. Credit: Frank Rønsholt.

A Century and a Half of Data

1859. Forty-five years. Thirteen thousand and thirty-four. Eight hundred and fifty-six. Six thousand, seven hundred and fifty-one. Two hundred and fifty thousand. Three.

What do all these have in common?

Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark’s capital.

For our latest ZIMS at Work feature, we’re highlighting Copenhagen Zoo — which opened in 1859 —as it marks 45 years with Species360, one of our many long-standing members. During that time, the Zoo has entered data into the Species360 Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) on 13,034 animals in 856 taxa, entering and exiting the system on 6,571 occasions. As for the significance of that “two hundred and fifty thousand” and “three,” read on!

A bear with the iconic Copenhagen Zoo tower in the background, which was built in 1905. The zoo itself was founded in 1859 and is one of the oldest zoos in Europe. Image credit: Henrik Petit.

Well-respected for its science-based conservation, Copenhagen was one of the very first zoos to employ scientific and conservation staff. And, as one of the visionary entities that realized zoos’ conservation and scientific potential early on, it helped develop the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and Ex Situ Programs (EEPs). Still very active in EAZA, the Zoo continues to help determine the former’s future. We spoke recently to two members of Copenhagen Zoo’s large Conservation Department about their work, and how ZIMS facilitates it.

Registrar, Nenna Overmark Sebæk, uses ZIMS for Husbandry and ZIMS for Medical modules as she gathers information (such as animal weights, births and hatches, deaths, and notes) from keepers and vets to register in ZIMS. She also manages and delivers data to and from ZIMS to colleagues, and coordinates animal transports.

Curator and Collection Manager Flemming Nielsen’s role involves collection planning to correspond with the Zoo’s vision and mission; master planning; initiating animal transports; and working with EAZA (in the Monotreme and Marsupial Taxon Advisory Group, EEP for Trumpeter Hornbills, and European Studbook for Atlantic Puffins). He uses multiple ZIMS modules, including Available/Wanted lists, Reports, Species Holding, Global Resources – Animal Management/Husbandry functions, Tools and Husbandry, Studbook Module.

Transforming Data into Knowledge

A self-confessed and enthusiastic “nerd,” Nenna is fascinated by how ZIMS “transforms data into knowledge.” She says, “I absolutely love doing statistics,” and enjoys the “satisfying feeling of having a species completely updated in ZIMS, with history of all individuals recorded, since Copenhagen Zoo opened in 1859.” While she admits that sometimes getting all the data to “add up” can be challenging, she notes that “working with the keepers, doing the ‘detective work’ … and finally figuring it out – those days are fantastic!”

Both she and Flemming acknowledge that 45 years of dedicated input to ZIMS by Zoo staff has more than paid off. “I am very aware that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” Nenna declares. For his part, Flemming believes this development in knowledge over the decades has translated into benefits for the Zoo’s animals: “For me animal welfare is the most important parameter, much more so than just having a certain species.”

Flemming also finds ZIMS an invaluable tool for gathering information about animal history and planning. Satisfaction for him is “When we – across the teams on the Zoo – have agreed on plans according to animals, breeding programs and enclosures, and it all works out.” 

Involving the Zoo’s keepers in conservation work and helping them understand their crucial role in turning ZIMS data (on animal training, enrichment, welfare and breeding, for example) into knowledge has “led us to where we are today,” says Nenna, “with professional and passionate keepers.”

Popular with, and much-used by, Copenhagen Zoo staff, is ZIMS’ data-sharing function. This is due to its easy transfer of data on animals entering or leaving the Zoo, especially if the transfer is to or from a fellow ZIMS user. This function will become ever more important, Nenna believes, as zoos increasingly deal with vulnerable species, on which they are required to document an individual animal’s complete history with various authorities, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

As for the present, ZIMS also quickly provides answers to day-to-day Zoo visitor questions, like “How many penguins do you have?” or “How long has Copenhagen Zoo held Asian elephants?”

Young Asian elephant at Copenhagen Zoo. Image credit: Frank Rønsholt.

Using ZIMS in Global Conservation Efforts

Copenhagen Zoo’s work extends far beyond its physical boundaries, however. It is involved in many projects across the globe. It studies musk oxen in Arctic Greenland; protects rhinos in South Africa from poachers; ensures, using DNA analysis, that illegally traded chimpanzees are returned whence they originated; and breeds and releases endangered toads and amphibians in Denmark. For many of these projects, ZIMS is a source of basic biological knowledge about the particular species.

The Zoo’s local, Danish, conservation project involves breeding and reintroducing local species, such as the Natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita), European fire-bellied toad (Bombina bombina), and the Noble chafer (Gnorimus nobilis). For this work, Copenhagen Zoo uses ZIMS to record egg lays, hatches, and when and where animals are released. Says Nenna, “We’ve also gathered information for the Noble chafer about life stages, and, for both the Natterjack toads and the chafers, our collected data and know-how enabled us to create Best Practice Guidelines. And with more than 250,000 animals released, we need solid data management!”

Biobanking

Such solid data management by ZIMS also features in a worldwide project in which Copenhagen Zoo is involved. It chairs the EAZA Biobank, a primary resource for supporting population management and conservation research. To date, it is the only coordinated biobank created by, and for, the zoological and aquarium community. The Biobank provides the resources and infrastructure for collection, curation, and long-term storage of biological samples (like blood or tissue). These can lead to discoveries that can improve the welfare of an entire species.

Accurate sample data which can link to the animal from which the sample came is obviously crucial in this effort. So, the Biobank collaborated with Species360 to create a new Biobank feature in ZIMS for Medical, to capture, share, and manage the searchable data for each sample in the Biobank’s rapidly growing inventory efficiently and accurately. Part of that inventory comes from the Chimpanzee EEP which Copenhagen Zoo coordinated until a few years ago. Chair of the EAZA Biobank (and instrumental in collaborating with Species360 on the design and realization of ZIMS for Sample Storage), Christina Hvilsom explains: “Over the past 15 years, we have collected biological samples from the chimpanzees in the EEP. These samples have now been transferred to the EAZA Biobank and registered in the EAZA Biobank database in ZIMS. In addition to the EEP samples in ZIMS, we have also used ZIMS to register (using sample storage) some of the samples from the confiscated chimpanzees that are victims of the illegal trade, as well as other samples from the wild populations.”

Copenhagen Zoo and the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance

Yet another Copenhagen Zoo collaboration with Species360 is the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance (CSA), of which the Zoo is one of the three main sponsors, and has been involved in, since the idea’s 2017 genesis. “We were very keen on showing the value of the data in ZIMS gathered through decades, and which holds millions of records across thousands of species, describing husbandry and medical data,” says Nenna, recognizing the potential for using this data to advance species conservation globally.

It’s a project about which she is clearly fervent: “We are still a partner actively striving to help the CSA transform into a true alliance where progressive conservation leaders and researchers from zoos, aquariums, zoological associations, universities, and related organizations work together to target the needs and wants of the zoo and aquarium community through collaborative projects involving data held in ZIMS.”

It’s that kind of passion and commitment for species conservation, and for “turning data into knowledge” that makes us so excited about our next 45 years with Copenhagen Zoo. Congratulations to them on their stand-out membership of Species360!

Over 45 years, the Copenhagen Zoo has entered data into ZIMS on 13,034 animals in 856 taxa. Images credit: Frank Rønsholt.

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