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Aquariums have a crucial role to play in sustaining aquatic species vulnerable to climate change

2019 World Wildlife Day: Life Below Water – Looking beyond the sharks and manta rays that catch the eye of visitors, researchers find great conservation potential in the wealth of fish and corals residing in the world’s zoos and aquariums. A study published this week in Journal for Nature Conservation (April 2019) reports that aquariums hold 21 percent of the coral species that are Vulnerable to Climate Change (VCC), Evolutionary Distinct (EDGE), and assessed by the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM (IUCN RL).

Conservation Science Alliance researchers map ex situ populations worldwide. Download the open access paper here.

In the study, Species360 Conservation Science Alliance researchers, in collaboration with the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), the Interdisciplinary Center for Population Dynamics at the University of Southern Denmark, Stellenbosch University, and the Zoological Society of London, evaluate conservation potential of 3,370 fish and coral species residing in 594 aquariums that share real-time data worldwide using the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS).

“Our study shows an important representation of species diversity in institutions where managers and scientists are recording observations ranging from reproduction to environment. Access to real-time information about populations of vulnerable and evolutionary distinct species makes it possible to identify whether ‘backup populations’ exist that can help conservation efforts in situations such as the current coral reef crises,” said Dr. Dalia A. Conde research author, Director of the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, and Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark.

Great Barrier Reef corals continue to be affected by bleaching.

Coral ecosystems determine marine biodiversity well beyond their immediate reach; 25 percent of marine species can be linked back to reef systems. For conservationists who may feel they are fighting a losing battle, the “ex-situ” aquarium populations are a lifeline.

“Facing issues of such magnitude as changing climate, ocean acidification and over-fishing requires the conservation community to work together to strategically decide which efforts we must focus on and how to best save species. Experts within the zoo and aquarium community have vital roles to play in the success of these conservation efforts. This study shows the value in different sets of data combining to highlight where the greatest needs and opportunities lie for us to work together,” said Dr. Kira Mileham, Strategic Partnership Director for the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

This is especially critical for coral reefs now in crises; in the last three years, half of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has been bleached and coral disease has affected much of the reef tract off the coast of Florida in the United States. Scientists hope that colonies exhibiting resilience in the wild may rebound, and that ex situ populations may help to sustain the diversity and traits that will encourage survival given the high temperatures as climate change persists.

Aquariums have 21 percent of (17 of 82) coral species listed as evolutionary distinct and vulnerable to climate change.

“The dramatic declines in coral reefs globally are of grave concern. As the world grapples with how best to respond, the vital conservation roles of aquariums and zoos become increasingly clear. Building and maintaining such biodiversity ‘safe-houses’ provides a backup plan against increasingly extreme and unexpected events, as well as against the declines that growing threats like climate change and habitat loss bring. They also bring us fascinating glimpses into creatures’ lives which we might never have in the wild,” said Professor Wendy Foden, South African National Parks and Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Climate Change Specialist Group (IUCN SSC).

Since 2014, fast-moving disease has killed vast populations of coral in the Florida Reef Tract, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protections, and consequences of the loss are economic as well as environmental. Marine activities linked to its coral reefs generate $2.36 billion in sales and income annually. Efforts to rebuild reefs can further benefit from the collaboration of more aquatic institutions worldwide. The Florida Aquarium and MOTE Marine Laboratory, also Species360 members represented in the study, are leading discovery, breeding, and re-introduction programs central to recovery efforts.

57 percent of corals affected in the Florida Tract have insurance populations in aquariums.

“The fate of the Florida Reef Tract is thoroughly dependent on our ability to remove healthy coral, and genetic material from the wild and preserve it by serving as an ark, as well as increasing populations and genetic diversity through land-based breeding programs,” said President and CEO of the Florida Aquarium Roger Germann. “We have been at the forefront of this effort and in early April will plant more than 3,000 new coral fragments raised from larvae into the Florida Reef Tract to contribute to this critical restoration initiative. Aquariums have seen the writing on the wall and are taking action now.”

“From this study we were able to identify that more than half of the coral species dying off the coast of Florida are in aquariums. These populations can provide critical knowledge and hope for re-introductions when the threats are controlled,” said research author Rita da Silva, fellow of Species360 Conservation Science Alliance and PhD student at the University of Southern Denmark.

Of equal importance are fish species in aquariums. The study reveals that aquariums hold four of the six fish species listed as Extinct in the Wild by the IUCN Red List and 11% of all the assessed sharks and rays. Of particular interest are the 106 species of Anthozoa (corals and anemones) and the 1,249 species of fish for which their extinction risk has not yet been assessed by the IUCN Red List. Information held by aquariums can help support both the development of Red List assessments and conservation actions, especially because among these species, scientists fear, are vast populations facing unanticipated crisis.

“The ZIMS database enables the Zoological Society of London’s two Zoos to directly contribute insight to conservation efforts across the globe. The data captured here allows the zoological community to more easily share information and to track and measure vast conservation efforts. The ZIMs database has played a key role in our conservation efforts of fresh water fish through international collaboration and communication. This review and my co-authors’ analysis demonstrate the benefit this collaboration provides for endangered species in need of coordinated management to ensure their survival,” said Brian Zimmerman, Chief Zoological Officer, Zoological Society of London.

“We are only beginning to truly understand how important coral is to the long-term health of oceans. The results from this study make clear that we have no time to spare. Aquariums can and must play a key role in preserving these important lifeforms,” added Doug Cress, Chief Executive Officer of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

OPEN DATA Research: This study conducted with help of partners the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), and Copenhagen Zoo, and is part of a shared commitment to make research data and analysis available to the global scientific community. Researchers from Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, IUCN Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC), the Interdisciplinary Center for Population Dynamics at the University of Southern Denmark, University of Stellenbosch, and the Zoological Society of London, conducted the research by analyzing data aggregated across global sources VCC, EDGE, AZE, CITES, IUCN Red List, and ZIMS. Download the open access paper PDF here. Download the OPEN DATA for the study here.


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