Zoo’s experts contribute to new paper published in BioScience that identifies importance of bolstering partnerships between AZA-member zoos and museums to enhance our understanding of the animal kingdom.

Members of the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden’s leadership team coauthored a research paper published in BioScience, a monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal, that outlines how increasing collaboration between Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) member zoos and natural history museums would enhance our understanding of wildlife. Contributors to the paper are OKC Zoo’s Director of Veterinary Services, Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino and OKC Zoo’s Director of Conservation and Science, Dr. Rebecca Snyder. Read the complete article here.

In 2021, Dr. D’Agostino and Dr. Snyder participated in a three-day workshop titled “Linking and Leveraging Biological Collections: Zoos and Natural History Museums” spearheaded by Dr. Sinlan Poo at Memphis Zoo, and several other researchers from various AZA-zoos, natural history museums and universities. The workshop provided a forum for these specialists to discuss concrete steps that zoos can take to make information about their animals available to researchers through partnerships between zoos and museums, so that biological samples and information can be shared with the larger scientific community. Animals cared for at AZA zoos, which are living specimens, and the preserved specimens maintained by natural history museums, constitute a comprehensive source of information about Earth’s biodiversity, and zoos and museums should be sharing these data with each other for the scientific advancement of wildlife.

“The Zoo has great partnerships with Oklahoma’s Skeletons: Museum of Osteology and Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and has donated numerous specimen samples to these museums for research or, in some cases, to be on display for educational purposes,” said Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, OKC Zoo’s director of veterinary services. “These collaborations are beneficial as they help us further connect people to the natural world through education while contributing to the advancement of biological sciences. Guests can even discover preserved specimen displays throughout the Zoo and have the opportunity to view bio-facts during educational programs and special events that hopefully inspire them to learn more about our planet’s wildlife.”  

Zoo and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are home to about 800,000 living animals. AZA members, like the OKC Zoo, keep extensive records for each animal in their care, including information on their life history, behavior, health, husbandry protocols and more, such as diet and veterinary care. They also periodically collect and preserve biological samples, such as blood, plasma, and tissues. By working with museums to preserve whole or part of the physical specimen, zoos can learn more about the health of the animal while it was living under their care. The OKC Zoo had a geriatric elephant in its care that passed away from unknown causes and partnered with the Skeletons: Museum of Osteology to prepare the specimen as a skeleton. It was then that the Zoo’s veterinary team discovered the elephant had deformed and infected molars, which they determined to be the cause of death. Being able to view and study this specimen, provided the veterinary team with valuable insight about dental care for its elephants.   

Natural history museums house roughly 500 million to 1 billion biological specimens in the United States and about 3 billion worldwide, according to the paper. A specimen’s records typically include information on where, when, and by whom it was collected, as well as its taxonomy and method of preservation. These records tend to capture the moment in the animal’s life immediately preceding its death but offer little information about all the time before that, the paper explains. 

“The animals in our care are a tremendous source of information that have the potential to increase scientific understanding across a broad range of topics” said Dr. Rebecca Snyder, director of conservation and science. “The OKC Zoo is a leader in fostering collaboration among zoos, universities, and natural history museums, because we believe that science is stronger and more productive when conducted in partnership.”   

 Many zoos house species that are rare, endangered, or even extinct in the wild, making them extremely difficult, if not impossible, for museums to showcase ethically, states the paper, whose 35 co-authors represent zoos and museums located throughout the United States. Disposing of deceased animals is a logistical and often a legal necessity for zoos, which lack the expertise and facilities to house preserved specimens, the paper notes. As an alternative, zoos could provide specimens of high scientific value to natural history museums, extending the research and teaching value of their collections and strengthening their credibility as conservation-oriented scientific organizations, the paper argues. 

The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the last entry no later than 4 p.m. Purchase advance tickets at www.okczoo.org/tickets and avoid the entry lines. Consider becoming a ZOOfriends member or renewing your membership before visiting the Zoo. Starting at $45, memberships can be purchased at ZOOfriends.org and provide access to the OKC Zoo for an entire year plus, additional benefits and discounts. Located at the crossroads of I-44 and I-35, the OKC Zoo is a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the American Alliance of Museums, Oklahoma City’s Adventure District and an Adventure Road partner. Regular admission is $12 for adults and $9 for children ages 3-11 and seniors ages 65 and over. Children two and under are admitted free.

Stay connected with the Zoo on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, and by visiting our blog stories. Zoo fans can support the OKC Zoo by becoming a ZOOfriends member. Starting at $45, memberships can be purchased at ZOOfriends.org and provide access to the OKC Zoo for an entire year plus, additional benefits and discounts. To learn more about Zoo happenings, call (405) 424-3344 or visit okczoo.org.