An Empty Lab Filled with Active Science

August 31, 2021

Author: Eli Baskir, Manager of Behavioral Sciences
Department of Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences, Saint Louis Zoo

An empty lab at the Zoo. Last year, many students abruptly ended their Zoo internships to return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing safety precautions and university shutdowns. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Over the past months, research interns again became a familiar sight in the Endangered Species Research Hospital. Their presence is a welcome change from last year, when many students abruptly ended their internships to return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing safety precautions and university shutdowns. In a normal season, we accept two or more Behavior Research interns and interns in the Endocrine and Reproductive Sciences labs. Having these individuals on site was not an option for 2020, and the Zoo had to rethink how we would host interns and perform research.

Luckily, the Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences department already used many tools to gather data when circumstances made it difficult to rely on live observers, like when we studied nocturnal animals, animal behavior in behind-the-scenes areas or animals that were likely to adjust behaviors when humans were present. We have a collection of cameras and environmental loggers for these circumstances. Thus, although live observations were paused in 2020, our previous investments in data collection technology allowed many projects to either begin or continue.

Additionally, the closure of the Zoo gave members of our research team the opportunity to perform a project that would have been otherwise impossible. Animal Welfare Scientist Dr. Ashley Edes collected data on several animals to examine how they moved around their habitats while guests were absent for long periods of time. While we cannot definitively say that animals were "missing" guests, once we are finished reviewing this data, we will know if the presence of guests affected which parts of their habitats animals used. This study will answer the question of whether our animals moved closer to visitor walkways and viewing areas when no guests were present. Insights about how animals perceive their environments and the people who visit them enable us to better understand their behavioral and psychological needs as our Zoo continues to raise the bar for animal care.

The indoor public section of polar bear Kali's habitat with visitors. The abrupt disappearance of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic was noticed by many animals. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Although not physically at the Zoo, our interns did a host of essential projects for Zoo research by accessing Zoo computers while working remotely. In addition to watching video for the Effects of Guest Presence on Habitat Use study, they supported many projects touching a number of different areas. Some scored videos of vipers that were behind the scenes in the Herpetarium and recorded how often the snakes flicked (extended and quickly retracted) their tongues in a certain amount of time, helping the Zoo investigate whether vipers flick their tongues more often in response to a disturbed environment.

Another project that interns supported remotely was comparing the frequency and duration that Bali mynahs spend either actively in contact or in proximity with enrichment items, furthering our evidence of the usefulness of progressively challenging enrichment and how they can help retain interest in animals over more regularly introduced, static enrichments. In another assignment, interns helped collect activity budgets (how long an animal spends performing certain behaviors and their variety) from three species of primates in the Primate House before the construction of Primate Canopy Trails. This data will be one part of a larger project determining the effect of the new habitat on the primates' activities.

Happily, we were able to not only support our regular intern programs but also host a graduate student who completed and submitted their thesis on courtship behaviors of tawny frogmouths all while working from home. While the interns gave the Zoo important support in research development, we did our best to provide them with valuable experiences. During a normal internship, students would interact with our staff in-person every day and would have opportunities to attend intern-only events like behind-the-scenes tours. Though that was not possible last year, we tried to keep interns feeling connected to the department by hosting journal clubs that covered topics like cognitive enrichment and how animal wellbeing is assessed.

A Behavior Research intern works on a project while social distancing and following safety precautions at the Zoo. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

In summer 2021, we welcomed a small number of interns back on grounds as we took tentative steps to collect live behavioral data from rhinos and monkeys. Even today, our labs are not nearly as full as they used to be, and we carefully plan how and where our interns work so that they do not crowd each other. A Plexiglas divider now splits the Behavior lab in half, and the room that used to hold up to 10 people now accommodates two in order to keep everyone appropriately spaced.

While remote work was able to get us through the past year and a half, we eagerly anticipate the day we can safely accept more interns again. We are grateful to the Zoo's dedicated Technology Services team for helping guide our interns through the steps needed to connect to the Zoo. While it is doubtful we will return to an entirely remote intern workforce, off-site students might be a good complement to in-person teams. We look forward to publishing and discussing the results of the studies that were underway during this unusual period in time, and we also hope that our efforts were able to provide a valuable experience to our 2020 and 2021 interns.

Category: Conservation

Zoological Registrars and the Gateway to Zoos

July 27, 2021

The Saint Louis Zoo Registrar Department, managed by Animal Division Registrar Rae Lynn Haliday, Certified Records Manager, and supported by Assistant Registrar Lily Moore, Certified Records Analyst, provides a comprehensive Records and Information Management program.

 Pretend the Saint Louis Zoo needed to provide individualized care for an animal. Perhaps the animal is sick and needs medicine, or maybe a team is considering options for a mate. To make big decisions like these, keepers need a holistic view of the animal’s history. Where is it from? Where has it been? How old is it? What other animals is it related to? For detailed information about an animal, there’s really only one place to go: the Registrar Department!

A critical part of providing exceptional animal care is tracking important details about each animal, and the Zoo supports an exceptional team of individuals who do just that! The Zoo recently received the 2021 Program Excellence Award for its Records and Information Management (RIM) program for animal and veterinary records from a leading organization in records management, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA). This award reflects our historical and continued commitment best practices for RIM to standards created for zoological animal information. It’s a huge job that makes a huge difference!

In commemoration of this great achievement, we asked Animal Division Registrar Rae Lynn Haliday, Certified Records Manager, about this work.  

Tell us more about what zoo registrars do?

Not all registrar positions are structured in the same way. The zoological registrar role varies greatly among zoos and aquariums; however, at the Saint Louis Zoo, it is accountable for a number of key duties, including: Records and Information Management (RIM) and the RIM program for Animal and Veterinary records; permit compliance for transactions and activities with wildlife; and animal and related-product transport. This means any animal that needs to enter or leave our Zoo as part of our organization goes through our department!

A group of Grevy’s zebras at the Saint Louis Zoo

The mission of the Saint Louis Zoo is to conserve animals and their habitats through animal management, research, recreation, and educational programs that encourage the support and enrich the experience of the public. How has the Registrar Department helped the Zoo in its mission? 

Our team has implemented a framework for records management that deploys global best practices that align with industry specific standards. These standards ensure animal information is created, captured, stored and maintained over time to facilitate access to important information resources that help our animal management teams take care of animals in the best way possible. 

We work closely with keepers and managers to ensure that data collected about the animals is accurate and complete. This data is then used to create studbooks and genetic profiles for species in human care. Additionally, it is a great resource of knowledge on animal behavior and health for the species in the wild! From our records, animal keepers, managers and veterinarians can learn nearly everything about an animal, including where it was born, who its parents are and additional important husbandry information.

As we learn more about species, our efforts to conserve animals and their habitats grow as well. Have you ever wondered how two animals are paired for breeding at a zoo or how it’s decided to move an animal from one zoo to another? Registrars ensure that recommended transactions, or animal moves, for endangered or otherwise protected species can be completed in an efficient, legal, and safe way; this has a direct impact on activities required to support the conservation goals for many species held in zoological institutions nationally – and globally!  

Animal records support animal care and welfare, transactions and related transport – all of which are core business activities that fall under the Zoo's mission. The work we do is critical to providing the framework for applying global best practices in records management, animal transport and permit compliance in the zoological profession.

What is something that would surprise people about the registrar and the work you all do?

I think most people would be surprised at the "shepherd" aspect of the role we play in helping to bring animals into and out of the Zoo. We work diligently behind the scenes with the veterinary and animal management teams to coordinate so many of the details and processes that allow animals to enter and leave the collection. Registrars must approach their job with the highest of ethical standards to ensure transaction s are 100 percent compliant. The registrar position must be structured with the appropriate level of authority and accountability to be effective in those duties.

What do you feel is the most important records management challenges facing zoological institutions?

I believe that professional development for records managers is critical and key to the success of a registrar team. Records managers need competencies in all core components of RIM, and positions like registrars should be able to apply information life cycle management concepts to animal and veterinary records. Acquiring the appropriate training, like RIM certification, provides the means to acquire the skills needed to succeed. We are the people that ensure the vital animal, veterinary and research records with enduring reference and legal value will be preserved for future use. The information we track and organize today will be used for many years to come!

 

The Saint Louis Zoo was awarded the 2021 Program Excellence Award for animal and veterinary records management from the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA). Visit the press release and the NAGARA announcement for more information.

Secret Science at the Zoo

June 16, 2021

Author: David Powell, PhD
Director of Research
Director, AZA Reproductive Management Center

Observations of polar bear Kali at the Saint Louis Zoo. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Have you ever noticed someone with a stopwatch and clipboard watching animals at the Saint Louis Zoo? Or, have you ever participated in a survey while at the Zoo? If you have, you’ve caught a rare sighting of a zoo scientist in action! The Zoo supports a diverse team of scientists who conduct research on a range of topics including animal behavior, reproduction, endocrinology, welfare, veterinary health, ecology, genetics, and nutrition. There are even scientists that study people! Our research is extensive and diverse, and it’s a key reason why the Zoo is a leader in science and conservation efforts around the world.

In 1988, the Zoo hired Dr. Cheryl Asa, a reproductive physiologist, to launch its research department. Over the next two decades, the Zoo expanded its research endeavors and created laboratories for the study of animal behavior and endocrinology. Major achievements included producing the world’s first banteng, an endangered species of wild cattle from Southeast Asia, by artificial insemination, and producing the world’s first wolf to be conceived using cryopreserved (frozen) semen. Today, we are one of the only zoos to maintain a “Frozen Zoo” that holds sperm, eggs, and other tissues from animals to preserve genetic diversity in animal populations for the long-term.

Our dedication to science and research continues to expand. In 2004, the Zoo established the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute, pledging to support initiatives where animals are threatened by shrinking habitats, poaching, and disease. In 2011, to address the challenges associated with the growing interconnections between the health of humans and the animal kingdom, we established the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine. Though our Zoo staff have been studying animal welfare for many years, the Zoo just hired its first full-time animal welfare scientist in 2020. It is this ongoing investment by the Zoo in growing its research capacity that makes it a world leader in zoo-based science.

Researchers working in the Zoo’s “Frozen Zoo” facility. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Today, the Zoo is among the top 10 most productive zoos in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in terms of research output. In the last five years, the Zoo has produced 127 publications in edited books, peer-reviewed scientific journals, and trade publications, and it has developed 456 publications since 1968. Recent publications include studies of how walking through naturalistic immersion exhibits at the Zoo positively impacts psychological and physical well-being in visitors, the role of season and reproductive status on hormone levels in Cuban crocodiles, nutritional status of wild Humboldt penguins, and mother-infant behavior in Somali wild asses. We report our research activity to the AZA annually and on average, our scientists work on 43 projects every year. Currently, our staff are working on projects focusing on habitat use in the Zoo’s black rhinos, studying the native biodiversity at the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park, and developing indicators of welfare in snakes, among others. Our research endeavors cross barriers and support many aspects of our community at home and abroad both for animals and people. They provide important opportunities for students to obtain advanced degrees necessary to ignite careers in conservation, wildlife management, and the natural sciences. Since 2015, students working with Zoo scientists have earned 12 master’s, doctoral, veterinary or other professional degrees.

Researcher at the Saint Louis Zoo. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

 It goes without saying that our work behind-the-scenes is essential to conservation efforts and providing excellent animal care, and the Zoo is an incredibly important resource for scientists at other facilities. Our research committee has reviewed 104 proposals since 2016, and 58 of those were from external scientists looking to study zoo animals, obtain biomaterials (e.g. blood or hair samples), access animal records, or survey our staff about various animal-related topics. Our research is not only expansive – it’s also diverse: 62% of these projects focus on mammals, 24% focus on reptiles and amphibians, 10 % focus on birds, and 2% focus on invertebrates. Animal husbandry, welfare, genomics, and veterinary health are the most common topics of proposals from outside researchers who want to collaborate with our experts and resources. But those aren’t the only areas of interest. Since 2016, the Zoo has reviewed four proposals from outside researchers wanting to study our visitors! Some scientists at the Zoo study humans to better understand peoples’ affiliation for animals, likelihood of engaging in conservation activities, and the impact of zoo visits on visitor health.

Visitors at the Saint Louis Zoo. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

 The results of the studies completed by Zoo scientists and outside collaborators are used to further our knowledge of animals, enhance their care, and support their survival in the wild. One key example of the success of these efforts can be seen in the Channel Island fox. Studies by Zoo scientists on behavior and reproduction of this species supported a collaborative recovery program for the foxes that was very successful and lead the fastest downlisting of any endangered mammal listed on the Endangered Species Act, just 12 years after it was listed. Our research and conservation initiatives will expand with the creation of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park and the Saint Louis Zoo Sears Lehmann Jr. Wildlife Reserve.

Channel Island Foxes. Credit: National Park Service

With the Saint Louis Zoo’s continued commitment to supporting science, it is certain to maintain its status as one of the leading zoo-based research facilities and a leader in conservation efforts in the United States. It’s just one more reason to be proud of your Saint Louis Zoo!