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Conservation: Species360 member aquariums provide data essential to identifying corals

Global aquariums that curate and share data using the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) help researchers to identify corals available for conservation and provide further insight to species.

The genus Acropora is among the most diverse and geographically widespread reef building corals. (Photo: Adobe Stock Images)

Learn how the Zoological Society of London, London Zoo, and Whipsnade Zoo use Species360 ZIMS to manage corals, water quality, populations of endangered freshwater fish, and more in “ZIMS at Work: Managing animal welfare and contributing to species knowledge at the Zoological Society of London.”

The unprecedented threats to coral reef ecosystems from global climate change require an urgent response from the aquarium community, which has become an increasingly vital resource for coral conservation. Unfortunately, many hermatypic corals — corals that deposit the hard material needed to build reefs — in aquaria are not identified to species level, which hinders assessment of their conservation significance.

In the recent publication, “What’s left in the tank? Identification of aquariums’ non-ascribed coral collections with DNA barcodes as part of an integrated diagnostic approach,” published at Conservation Genetics Resources, the authors use DNA barcodes instead of the traditional approach of identifying corals simply by structure. In all, the researchers identify aquarium specimens of the diverse reef-forming genus Acropora from 127 samples.

The Species360 Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) was essential to the success of this study, as researchers used ZIMS to analyze the status of these identification difficulties across a large group of global aquariums. More than 95 aquariums in 24 countries use ZIMS to record data on their collections.

Given the extinction crises, zoos and aquariums have an important role to play in sustaining corals used to repopulate reefs and to advance our understanding of these species. But we need good information to better manage corals being raised around the world. ZIMS has never been more important since it contains standardized global records of hundreds of corals across hundreds of aquariums worldwide that can help drive scientific discoveries to save species from extinction.”

– Dalia A. Conde, Ph.D., Director of Science, Species360, and head of the Conservation Science Alliance

This paper represents a breakthrough in better identifying corals for study. The traditional approach of identifying corals by morphological features – or identifying corals by their structure — can be challenging even in optimal conditions. By delivering a standardized and easily repeatable methodology to increase the capacity of aquaria and other facilities to assess species, scientists may use what they learn in more ideal aquaria conditions when they go to identify corals in the wild.

Our study provides not only a new methodology to help identify corals, but also shows the enormous conservation potential and scientific value possibly residing in aquarium collections. Within the thousands of aquariums that dedicate hours to record the species under their care in the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) approximately 42.9% of corals of the orders Scleractinia, Alcyonacea, Helioporacea, Antipatharia, Corallimorpharia, Pennatulacea, and Zoanthidea in aquaria are identified to genus or higher taxonomic level. We hope that our methods will support in the effort towards better identification of all the species in aquarium collections,” said Luigi Colin, Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and first author of the paper.

Number of records from member institutions of the Species360 network at genus or higher level in light blue (i.e. order, family and genus) and at species or lower level in purple (i.e. species and subspecies). This information is based on the rank field from the holdings information reported by each institution through the ZIMS software. Information downloaded from ZIMS (Species360, 2020) on 4th June 2020

Researchers 80 percent of samples (101/127) in the form of a list of species names with associated confidence values.

Better understanding corals populations is critical to conservation

Among the study’s authors is Species360 Director of Science, Prof. Dalia Conde, head of the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, which aims to harness the value of ZIMS for the advancement of science and species conservation.

By recording and sharing this information in the global, standardized ZIMS database, conservationists better understand where to go to study corals endangered in the wild, or to cultivate new corals to help reinforce or rebuild reef systems.

Combining DNA and visual approaches

The study emphasizes the value of integrating the approach of identification via DNA with morphological identification that optimizes usage of authoritative identification guides and expert opinion. This combined approach is of tremendous value for more accurate corals identification and will also help to advance the identification of species distribution in the wild.

The authors of the paper identified 44 percent of the analyzed samples to species name and provided provisional identification for 80 percent of them (101/127) in the form of a list of species names with associated confidence values.

Researchers analyzed corals identification in ZIMS (Zoological Information Management System)

“…Notwithstanding the taxonomic difficulties, the identification of coral species can be challenging even in optimal ‘wild’ conditions. However, identification requirements are far more than just for well documented field collections, but also cover aquaria collections, that in some cases are held in conditions dramatically different from the wild. Furthermore, customs officials rely in proper taxonomic identification even at the genera level for threatened taxa by the international wildlife trade (AC25 Doc. 23 CITES 2011), although currently Acropora are covered by the blanket listing of all Scleractinia under CITES appendix II.

A status of these identification difficulties in aquaria can be demonstrated by an analysis of Species360 Zoological Information Management Software (ZIMS), adopted by more than 95 aquariums in 24 countries. Assuming correct identification ZIMS indicates c. 42.9% of corals of the orders Scleractinia, Alcyonacea, Helioporacea, Antipatharia, Corallimorpharia, Pennatulacea, and Zoanthidea in aquaria are identified to genus or higher taxonomic level (ZIMS list of species holdings—4th June 2020). Most of the records correspond to the order Scleractinia, which is also the order with more species represented in aquariums. Corallimorpharia is, however, the order with the highest number of reported individuals in aquariums members of the Species360 network (Fig. 1).

In addition to this the non-species associated genera (e.g.: Acropora sp.) is usually recorded once in the ZIMS database and most other aquarium inventory systems, which possibly significantly underestimates the actual number of non-identified specimens. Moreover, there are currently no confidence values ascribed to any taxonomic level a collection allocates to a specimen which means that there is likely to mean that a significant number of species ascribed specimens are actually at the lower end of the confidence spectrum and would benefit from being reassessed.”

Read the full paper here. Learn more about the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance.

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