Collaborations between zoos and museums could change our perception of animals

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Museums and zoos contain important information about animals and biodiversity. But what if they worked together?

In an article in BioScience, a national group of biologists and zoologists lays out a way to get there. They plead for zoo/museum partnerships as a way to strengthen scientific research and expand our understanding of the animal world.

Zoos and museums are collection-based – museums have artifacts and zoos have live animals. But “formal partnerships between these institutions are infrequent,” say the authors, and despite the rich potential for biodiversity research at both types of institutions, zoos and museums rarely work together.

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There are reasons aside. Despite around 800,000 zoo animals and up to 3 billion biological specimens in museums around the world, researchers say there may be barriers to cooperation.

Organizations may have different research priorities and guidelines, and “significant institutional barriers” exist, including regulatory issues and the perceived threat from animal rights activists, according to the researchers.

But there are ways to start collaborating.

Zoos could share data and animals with museums, which are willing to preserve animals post-mortem. Both types of institutions could make their data publicly available and linked to serve the public and researchers.

Preserved animal specimens arrive in museums. Pairing them with information about their lives — the animals’ health, provenance, and day-to-day care — could deepen the research value of the specimens.

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Ultimately, the researchers say, it comes down to values ​​— something zoos and museums already share.

“What must uniting these institutions is a shared interest for the preservation of biodiversityin its various forms, and contributing to our collective knowledge of these animals,” said Sinlan Poo, senior researcher at the Memphis Zoo and lead author of the paper, in a press release.

The paper emerged — or, in the words of its authors, was “born in digital captivity” — from a 2021 workshop. During the event, Steven Whitfield, conservation biologist at Zoo Miami and co -author of the article, said in the press release: “We saw great interest in collaborations from people who had really never been in a room together.”

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