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ZIMS at Work: Managing animal welfare and contributing to species knowledge at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)

For this ZIMS at Work article, we spoke with Zoological Society of London Registrar and Curatorial Assistant Samantha Guillaume Slatter about using ZIMS for aquatics and corals collections, for care and welfare monitoring, EEP management, and more. Samantha served as an Aquarist at ZSL for 16 years, and is currently Aplocheilidae EEP coordinator  for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). 

ZSL scientists have contributed data on more than 2,500 species to ZIMS, now one of the world’s largest sets of data on species. Pictured: Pachypanchax arnoulti of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria aplocheilid EEP. (Photo credit: Alex Cliffe)

When ZSL aquatics teams noticed that a particular population of corals wasn’t thriving as well as others, they immediately looked at historical water quality reports in the Species360 Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) to see what had been occurring over time. 

“When you see recording changes on a daily basis, it doesn’t always raise a red flag. But when you produce the graphs, you see that an element has been drifting out of range for a while,” said Samantha Guillaume Slatter, former Aquarist and currently Registrar and Curatorial Assistant, Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Aquatics teams use that information to rectify environmental parameters and provide what populations need most. Similarly, when a group of fish failed to thrive, the ZSL team evaluated temperature ranges using an enclosure measurement range template.

“We realized that a particular population wasn’t doing very well. They were not producing the young that we would expect to see. But the water parameters looked fine,” said Samantha.

When the team looked at a full year, however, they realized that natural fluctuations were lacking, and that the water had not gotten cold enough at the right intervals.

“As a species they need that cooling off period to keep pathogens in the system down. And to allow some populations to die off as they normally would, while the strong young would come through in the spring,” said Samantha.

As a result, the team now uses ZIMS calendars to set chillers and water temperatures to more closely reflect what populations would experience in their natural habitat.

Colette Gibbings, Curatorial Lead for marine taxa, takes readings from a reef system at the Zoological Society of London.

Using ZIMS for Aquatics to ensure healthy coral reef systems

To secure the information needed to keep populations healthy, ZSL teams use ZIMS for Husbandry and Aquatics to record data on 50 species of corals. They also measure and record calcium, magnesium, and other variables on a regular basis, as well as recording heavier metals occasionally. These samples are sent out for additional analysis, and the results are recorded in ZIMS, along with the pH.

“On a week to week basis, when the pH is at the lower end of its acceptable range, the corals do okay. But when that pH hovers at the lower end for a period of time, you start to see that the corals are not as happy,” said Samantha.

“So we pushed everything up. We looked at how much bicarb we were adding, to make the water harder, and how fast our calcium reactors were dosing.”

Père David deer and fawn, pictured here at ZSL’s Whipsnade Zoo, are classified within the ZSL-devised EDGE approach to ranking threatened species based on how Evolutionarily Distinct (ED) and Globally Endangered (GE) the species are. (Photo: ZSL)

Using ZIMS Care and Welfare for primates, fish, and more

In addition to using ZIMS to manage aquatics collections, ZSL is among nearly 300 institutions worldwide currently using Species360 ZIMS for Care and Welfare to record key welfare indicators for individual animals and groups.

“We use it with primates, deer herds, elephants, penguins and even our freshwater fish. We gather information such as body condition scores, foot health, fecal scores and fish spawning. We are currently in the process of evaluating how else we can use Care and Welfare to help us complete our Animal Welfare Audits,” said Samantha.

In all, 30 ZSL staff use the application to monitor and manage the well being of animals and groups. The result is improved tracking and insight to key indicators of health.

“We have been able to see which groups (of fish) are productive and at what time of year. It has helped us to plan for the coming breeding season and enabled us to know where to focus our breeding efforts,” said Samantha.

A lot has changed in Care and Welfare tracking since ZSL began using it in 2018, including a steady stream of enhancements. Species360 has added and improved features throughout the solution, from graphing tools that demonstrate changes to key indicators over time, to navigating directly from an animal or group’s ZIMS for Husbandry records to the Care and Welfare tracking. (Learn more about what’s new in ZIMS for Care and Welfare.)

The benefit, says Samantha, is maintaining a single cohesive source for the individual or group’s information.

“It is always good to try and keep all your records regarding your animals in one place. If you can gather quantitative data for your animals, the Care and Welfare portion of ZIMS can be a really useful tool in helping you to streamline your recording efforts,” she said.

Cyprinodon longidorsalis at ZSL. (Photo: Heiko Brian)

Data provides insights to wide range of species

It is incoming data, and longer-term insights, that make data records management so vital to everything that ZSL staff do on a daily basis. Every fish that hatches is accessioned into ZIMS. Teams also conduct a periodic, full census that, because of coral spawning and eggs hatching, helps the aquatics team to more closely monitor and care for each enclosure.

“One of the other things that I’m quite pleased we have started to do,” said Samantha, “is recording bird eggs in ZIMS.”

The majority of eggs are recorded individually or as a clutch, then are separated into individuals as they hatch.

“I’m hoping that we can gain more insight into how productive particular birds are, and at what ages. Are there factors such as whether the female is housed with a male, that impact the number of eggs that she produces?” said Samantha.

“A major part of our ethos is to support species that the institution can significantly impact, such as smaller freshwater species for which the institution can hold large, genetically viable populations for potential future reintroduction to the wild,” said Samantha.

For example, ZSL has a long history of keeping several species that are threatened in the wild, such as the extinct in the wild Cyprinodon alvarezi, a Mexican pupfish species and Xiphophorus couchianus the Monterrey platyfish. The launch of new EEPs adds momentum, and ZSL is working towards reintroducing several species of pupfish back into habitats in Mexico.

Former aquarist and ZSL Registrar and Curatorial Assistant Samantha Guillaume Slatter has helped to make strides in successfully breeding and producing newborns for species of seahorses.  Detailed information recorded and shared in ZIMS, along with in-person counsel, has enabled other institutions to have the reference data and notes needed to successfully maintain populations of their own. (Photo: ZSL)

Preparing for Inspections: “The teams did great”

ZSL encourages its staff to record as much of the data as possible for the animals within their care. Samantha trains staff at both its Whipsnade and London Zoos in many aspects such as behavioural observations, enclosure parameters, training sections, diet etc. 

At first, the prospect of recording data in the system, rather than using previous pen and paper logs, is met with some resistance and we are still finding ways to transition some aspects of our animal’s records which are on paper to ZIMS.

“People don’t like change! But we were pushing to get more staff recording data directly in ZIMS as we prepared for government inspections,” said Samantha. “The Whipsnade Zoo was first to undergo an inspection after the roll-out, and the teams did great.”

Those results were just the beginning. Today, any animal care staff that has been with ZSL for six months or more has access to ZIMS and records data when needed. New staff start with LearnZIMS, where they accomplish the fundamentals, and then complete an hour of one-on-one training with myself to ensure everything is understood and to discuss features of ZIMS, which will be of particular help to them for the animals in their care. 

There, they learn to use templates and other tools, and complete real-world use cases. Samantha said, “We come up with something that they want from ZIMS. We approach it as ‘I want to be able to do this, how can we do it?’”

In all, more than 170 keepers are using ZIMS as they work with animals and enclosures at each of the two locations. “That’s a lot of people,” says Samantha.

By curating and sharing data on species, ZSL advances knowledge to better protect wildlife. (Photo: ZSL)

Species360 Insights: ZSL and other Species360 members establish world’s largest set of data on species

ZSL is among the earliest institutions that in 1974 launched what is now nonprofit Species360. In that time, ZSL scientists have contributed data on more than 2,500 species and nearly 295,000 animals and groups. Pair that with data from large and small aquatic and zoological institutions worldwide, and it’s not surprising that ZIMS is the largest source of data on species in human care.

The data that ZSL staff record in ZIMS fuels data-driven research that changes what we know about species worldwide. Species360 has created the Species360 Insights program to enable ecology, disease control, conservation, and other researchers use ZIMS data to drive new discoveries.

Check out more ZIMS at Work stories like this one.

Thanks to Samantha and ZSL for sharing your stories and for your long-running support of the Species360 community. We have come a long way thanks to members like you!

ZSL divers including Samantha Guillaume Slatter conduct surveys and monitor the environment in the Philippines while supporting the Project Seahorse initiative founded in 1996. “If seahorses are thriving, other species likely are as well,” said Samantha of the flagship species. (Photo: ZSL)

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