Aquariums to the rescue? The role of zoos and aquariums in conserving aquatic biodiversity

Reference Article: da Silva, et al. (2019). Assessing the conservation potential of fish and corals in aquariums globally. Journal of Nature Conservation 48, 1-11.


Most likely, you have at least one cherished memory set along a body of water – you may have many. However, despite the vital role of freshwater and marine ecosystems (not only as settings for beautiful memories, but also in human and environmental health), their biodiversity is extremely threatened. Habitat degradation and loss, pollution, over-fishing, and climate change (among others) pose significant risks to aquatic habitats and the species populating them. Though the primary goal of conservation is to protect species in their natural habitats, the myriad pressures sometimes make this tremendously challenging. In such cases, captive breeding of species may play a crucial role in their persistence. Zoos and aquariums often have programs focusing on species conservation, but information on species presence and abundance within these establishments must be readily available for conservation efforts to be most effective.


The Species360 network provides a platform for zoos and aquariums to communicate information on their programs with university, governmental, and other researchers and conservationists around the world using the network’s Zoological Information Management Platform (ZIMS). ZIMS includes information on species presence and abundance as well as studbook information (detailing pedigrees of animals bred in captivity) from zoos and aquariums worldwide. Using this resource in conjunction with data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and assessment on species vulnerability to climate change, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) score, and the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE), researchers have determined the proportion of fish and Anthozoans (corals, anemones) at various levels of extinction risk present in Species360 zoological institution member facilities. Recommendations for prioritization of species conservation efforts have also been put forward.


ZIMS includes records of 3,511 species within Anthozoa and the 5 fish classes studied, and 3,370 of these species had taxonomic information detailed enough for use in the study. Cartilaginous fishes (Elasmobranchii) were the group with the most individuals recorded in zoos and aquariums. Ray finned fishes (Actinopterygii), however, were the most speciose among partner institutions. Nearly 3,000 ray finned fish species of around 32,000 total described were present in zoos in aquariums, representing roughly 9% of known species in this class. The Holocephali (a class of primitive cartilaginous fishes) and hagfish (Myxini) were the fish taxa with the least percent species representation. About 8% of the fish species found in participating zoos and aquariums are recognized as threatened by the IUCN Red List, while about 2% of their collections are considered “Critically Endangered.”

For the corals and anemones, roughly 4% of species (257/6,407) were recorded as present in zoos and aquariums. CITES lists 27% of described coral/anemone species, and 9% of those listed can be found within partnering institutions. A third of the “Critically Endangered” species are found in zoos and aquariums. About 17% of coral and anemone species deemed evolutionarily distinct by EDGE may also be found among Species360 partners. Further, many coral, anemone, and fish species present in these establishments are considered “Data Deficient,” and thus their conservation status is currently unknown. This could, however, be important, as lack of data may reflect difficulty locating or assessing populations of imperiled species.

The butterfly splitfin, Ameca splendens is one of four “Extinct in the Wild” fish species found in Species360 aquariums. (This image by domdomegg is licensed under CC BY 4.0.)


What does this mean for conservation?

The ongoing biodiversity crisis means that populations of fish and corals found in zoos and aquariums could play an increasingly important role in conservation efforts. Determining how captive populations of species may be used to respond to this crisis, however, requires a great deal of data. The authors of this paper helped to shed light on this by: determining the number of species present in Species360 institutions at various levels of conservation concern; highlighting specific target species and putting forward different management suggestions (development of studbooks, collection planning); and demonstrating the importance of easily accessible, real-time, data on species presence and abundance for conservation efforts. Because of their extensive collections, potential for research, and the unique relationships that zoos and aquariums have with the public, these establishments could play an increasingly important role in conserving aquatic species. Their effectiveness, however, is dependent on the quantity and quality of the data they share.

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Riley Lovejoy

I am a PhD candidate at the University of Alabama, where I completed a Master’s degree in 2017. My current research focuses on biological invasions of ecological communities, using freshwater plankton as a study system. I believe science is for everyone, and love connecting others with topics they can become passionate about. Because of this, I founded an organization called Delta Tree Initiative that introduces middle and high school girls to STEM research and careers. If I’m not at a microscope, in a pond, or doing outreach, you can likely find me hiking, baking, or spending time with family and friends. Instagram:

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