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ZIMS at Work: The California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium contributes to global knowledge of species

For this ZIMS at Work article, we spoke with two leaders from the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Laurie Patel is an 18-year veteran of the Academy, and has served as Senior Manager of Animal Health and Aquarium Operations and as Associate Director of the Steinhart Aquarium. In her current role as Senior Manager of Records and Registration, Patel has streamlined workflow and established a best-in-class approach to managing the way that teams record and communicate critical information.

Lana Krol, DVM, Veterinarian, and Manager of Animal Health for the Steinhart Aquarium, also serves as Chair of the Veterinary Advisors Group for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. A self-described fan of ZIMS, she has lent her expertise to help Species360 shape new capabilities such as the recently-released ZIMS for Medical Quick Split and enhancing information sharing capabilities for medical teams working on species conservation programs.

Rose-veiled fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa). (Photo by Luiz Rocha, California Academy of Sciences)

Laurie Patel, Senior Manager at the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium, is the force behind a best-in-class approach to managing critical information on species.

When scientists discovered an as-yet-unnamed species among the coral atolls of the Maldives, they launched a series of “firsts.”

The team from the California Academy of Sciences, the University of Sydney, the Maldives Marine Research Institute, and the Field Museum, were working together as part of the Academy’s Hope for Reefs initiative. The fish, which came to be known as the Rose-veiled fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa), is the first fish to be formally described by a Maldivian researcher. It is one of the first species to have its name derived from the local Dhivehi language: ‘Finifenmaa’ means ‘rose’, a nod to the island nation’s national flower.

And a small group of the species, now living at the Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium, became the first of their taxon to be recorded in the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), the largest set of data on species in human care.

The taxon addition began when Laurie Patel, Senior Manager of Records and Registration at the Aquarium, gave the new group an identifier in ZIMS — ensuring that all future husbandry and medical updates would be linked. Next, she contacted the aquarium’s Species360 member advocate, Kim Larson, to share the paper describing the new species and to request that Species360 create the new taxonomic classification in ZIMS.

Some of the earliest recorded details on the species came while the fish were still in quarantine.

“It was so cool to see the wrasse come through quarantine when they were not yet even categorized with a genus species,” says Lana Krol, DVM, Veterinarian, and Animal Health Department Manager for the aquarium.

“The veterinary side worked with ZIMS for Medical while the husbandry side tracked feeding and other parameters in ZIMS for Husbandry. On the veterinary side, we track animals the entire time they are with us, from when they arrive, to a visual of how they look, results of a physical exam, and any diagnostics like skin scrapes, X-rays, or other medical diagnoses. Our quarantine biologist continues to track essential information that, when combined with the Medical and Husbandry teams’ observations, creates a standard medical record,” said Krol.

Lana Krol, DVM, Veterinarian, is Manager of Animal Health for the Steinhart Aquarium and serves as Chair of the Veterinary Advisors Group for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Pictured here in the quarantine lab at Steinhart Aquarium. (Photo: California Academy of Sciences)

Tracking coral care and progress

Aquarium staff use the same process to track the care and progress of individual corals, which often stem from damaged or fragile habitats.

“When a coral comes in as a patient, we set them up in their own tank and treat them as needed. Each will have a ZIMS medical record, which includes a history of any pathologies sent out and the histopathology report findings. Once the medical team clears them, it may be another year or two until we see them again. Their treatment history and records are invaluable ways we track their health and our interventions,” says Krol.

Corals in public-view habitats are also tracked in ZIMS. And when the aquarium conducted an exhaustive study on coral bleaching, biologists pulled ZIMS data for several exhibits to include in the study.

“Different staff noticed isolated instances of bleaching within our in-care coral population, here and there. Being able to look at the bleaching phenomenon as a whole is so important. By looking at the combination of care assessments and water quality data, along with observations from staff, we noticed that there were fluctuations in the alkalinity of our incoming water. With that information we were able to change our salt water recipe to keep creatures healthy,” says Patel.

The California Academy of Sciences has a long history of breakthroughs, many of them on behalf of marine and freshwater species conservation. The Academy was the first to spawn coral in human care in the United States. And Academy scientists conducted the first exploration of little-known “twilight zone” reefs 100-500 feet below the ocean’s surface as part of its Hope for Reefs initiative. (Photo: Tim Wong, California Academy of Sciences)

Good data is essential to animal care and conservation

Patel recounts that, as recently as 2005, aquarium staff used clipboards to record information on the more than 785 different species at the Aquarium. Illegible handwriting and misspellings slowed the process of entering that data into the records management system.

Ultimately, the aquarium began to collect records digitally. Patel, who also handles permitting, contracts, acquisitions, digital asset management, and workflow, rolled out the tablet-enabled approach that is still used today, one that ensures Academy records in ZIMS are complete and accurate.

“Good data is essential for quality animal care. Today, we share the animal health record with the entire medical team and follow progress, such as when we send out a skin scrape for analysis. If an individual in a quarantine group dies, the medical team can enter all of the necropsy information and at the end, that’s captured in the historic information of the group,” says Patel.

Krol agrees. “I’m such a fan of ZIMS. I love that I can do everything online, from looking up the medical record, to seeing what our teams did yesterday, and what prescriptions were used. The day the (Rose-veiled fairy) wrasses arrived, for example, I could see all of the things that had already been done and the results,” she says.

(Photo: Tim Wong, California Academy of Sciences)

Global Medical Resources are possible due to shared data

“To see how an individual is doing through blood work, we not only look at the individual’s previous results but we also compare them to ZIMS’ Expected Test Results, which are based on data from global animal populations. For example, we can see the hemoglobin values other teams across the globe see in their African penguin colonies, which then informs how we interpret our colony’s results. I love that ZIMS does this for us – you get your results and the global references are right there adding invaluable context,” says Krol.

When Academy scientists record data in ZIMS, they expand our knowledge of species. This may be as simple as entering standard test results or as complex as recording a life-saving response in an emergency situation. When a 27-year-old green female anaconda underwent surgery to remove a large ovarian cyst, she had an unexpected reaction to an analgesic administered during recovery. Aquarium veterinarians quickly administered a reversal agent that saved her life.

Aquarium veterinarians captured the incident in ZIMS, ensuring that herpetologists benefit from their experience when treating other individuals of the same species. (Read more in the paper by Krol and fellow Steinhart Aquarium Veterinarian Freeland Dunker published in the Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery.)

The Academy has recorded data on jellyfish since 2014, amassing a trove of insight to the care and welfare of several subspecies. (Photo: Tim Wong, California Academy of Sciences)

Rocking transfers – and the AZA certification review

The Aquarium sets a high standard for streamlining animal records management. As the organizer for AZA certification reviews, Patel compares having polished, cohesive information with having a clean lab for an OSHA inspection.

“Having a clear protocol – down to a standard font and format – makes it faster and easier to identify if data is missing or incomplete,” says Patel.

Periodic internal reviews are part of quality control for all aspects of the aquarium. This starts with the Steinhart’s six largest most iconic tanks, like the Philippine Coral Reef, and extends to smaller exhibits like the one housing its Panamanian Golden Frogs. Patel meets with Academy water quality, commissary, care, and welfare teams for a holistic annual review. Together, they answer questions about water quality trends, who’s received their physicals, and what’s being fed to whom. Once the census is complete. Patel makes sure the data in ZIMS accurately represents reality.      

“Having that time to spend with all of the teams is really important and it keeps us current. It’s easy if you do it all the time,” says Patel.

During the Academy’s most recent AZA inspection and certification review, that work paid off with amazing results. “We are really proud to achieve accreditation with no concerns,” says Patel.

Transfers, often a headache for records managers, are equally well-oiled. The aquarium’s process for exchanging information with other institutions is fast – often completed in a single day. Relevant information is pulled, managers click approve on an emailed form and it goes to the next person. The other institution receives an email with the Animal Transfer Confirmation (ATC).

(Photo: Tim Wong, California Academy of Sciences)

Tracking water quality throughout the day

“I’ve seen a LOT of changes in the ten years that we’ve been tracking data with ZIMS,” says Patel. That includes the newly-improved water quality tracking feature in ZIMS for Husbandry and Aquatics.

“We are using the water quality template across the board. I used to run the water quality lab and I like the template features for getting data quickly into records. I like that you can have a single sheet with all of your data, and with the click of a button 60 data points populate all at once.”

Technology has been helpful in providing easier access to information. In the water quality lab, the Water Quality Biologists pair ZIMS with Google Drive to accrue updates collected by staff throughout the day using tablets. Conditional formatting automatically turns the field red if a pH, temperature, or salinity reading is out of range. Use of a shared platform means that anyone in the lab can see water quality numbers populating throughout the day, with final end-of-day recordings submitted to ZIMS and sent to the entire staff.

“Having water quality readings right at our fingertips means we can ensure the very best in habitat and health for our aquatic groups and their environments,” says Patel.

New “Quick Split” is a game changer

Tracking the history of individuals in a large, mixed-species group like those in the Academy’s Philippine Coral Reef or California Coast Exhibit, can be tricky. For example, when Aquarium veterinarians treat a Black rockfish from the California Coast Exhibit, they need to track and retain any information about its diagnosis and treatment — even after the fish is returned to its group. This helps to ensure the ongoing quality of care for the entire group, as that history helps to alert teams if a problem recurs or another individual becomes ill.

As Species360 aquarium and veterinary experts developed a solution, they reached out to veterinarians like Krol who work with large groups in both aquatic and terrestrial environments. Working alongside Species360’s product and development team, Krol became a key advisor in shaping and testing the new “Quick Split” feature in ZIMS.

Released earlier this year, Quick Split makes it easier for veterinarians and medical technicians to separate an individual from their group in ZIMS, record medical notes, prescriptions, sample collection, anesthesia, and more, for that individual. The ZIMS Quick Split record indicates whether the animal was kept separate or returned to the group after the procedure.

Krol says it’s a game changer for aquarium veterinarians. “It’s been wonderful to work with Species360 because they really listen,” says Krol.

Giant pacific octopus (Photo: Tim Wong, California Academy of Sciences)

Improving insights for Veterinary Advisors

As the Chair for the AZA Veterinary Advisors Group, Krol has also been instrumental in helping to develop another new ZIMS feature called the Veterinary Advisor Data Sharing project. Put simply, this allows an institution to use ZIMS to efficiently share the medical records with an approved advising veterinarian to facilitate population health assessments.

The feature is designed for zoos and aquariums that rely on designated Veterinary Advisors as part of species conservation programs, such as AZA’s Species Survival Programs or European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Ex-situ Programmes. Veterinary Advisor is a welcome alternative to emailing screen shots, says Krol, and makes it easier for the institution and the Veterinary Advisor to collaborate and provide better, more informed treatment for the animals in their care.

Krol hopes that ongoing improvements like Quick Split, Veterinary Advisor, and others will encourage other aquatic institutions to begin using ZIMS and adding to the growing knowledge of marine and freshwater species.

“Through ZIMS, we are building a body of information that informs the care and conservation of species. The more data that we have on fish, the more effective we can be,” says Krol.

Read more ZIMS at Work stories here.

Underwater photographs of Cirrhilabrus from the Western Indian Ocean: (A) A Harem of putative Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis, with the male depicted in circular inset and females by white arrowheads. (B) A putative female Crubrisquamis. (C) A putative terminal male C. rubrisquamis; Photographs taken from video footage provided by K Howell, N Foster, and C Diaz from the University of Plymouth Research Expedition to Egmont Atoll and Sandes Seamount in the Chagos Archipelago, 60–70 m (D) A female C. wakanda, underwater photograph from Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa, 75 m. (E) A male C. wakanda, underwater photograph from Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa, 75m. (F) A terminal male C. wakanda, underwater photograph from Moyette, off the coast of Mozambique, 100 m. Note fuchsia dorsal fin in all individuals and pale yellowish saddle in males. Photographs by LR (D, E) and P Plantard (F).

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