Straight from the Source: How zoos and aquariums fight to stem mass extinction
Editor's note: Chuck Knapp oversees Shedd Aquarium's conservation research, with a goal of saving endangered animals and ecosystems. He began volunteering at Shedd at age 18, earned a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology and conservation, helped win expansion of the West Side National Park in the Bahamas, and now oversees research ranging from sustainable fisheries and shark biodiversity in the Bahamas to migratory and invasive species in the Great Lakes region.
By Dr. Chuck Knapp
Vice President of Conservation Research, Shedd Aquarium
Zoos and aquariums were long viewed as modern-day Noah's arks, protecting wildlife from the potential "flood" of species extinction. Our planet, however, is now experiencing its sixth mass extinction event in history, and thus zoos and aquariums must serve a much larger role in stemming the tide of extinction.
Indeed, zoological organizations are uniquely positioned to address the biodiversity extinction crisis and are diversifying and expanding their conservation roles to include public awareness, education programs and high-quality research that focuses on detecting, diagnosing and halting population declines in the wild.
In March, the University of Chicago Press published a book that explores this evolution of conservation at zoos and aquariums. The book, "The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation," traces the history of zoological organizations, beginning with the rise of the modern European zoo, while focusing honestly on the historical dimension of zoo and aquarium conservation.
The book also considers the road ahead for zoological organizations, including several alternative pathways. Can zoos and aquariums save animals from extinction? And if so, how can they do it?
Here in Chicago, we're lucky to have three zoos and aquariums where Chicagoland residents and tourists from afar can feel the smooth skin on a stingray's pectoral fins or come face-to-face with a lion. In addition to introducing people to wildlife from around the globe, these organizations spark curiosity and compassion for wildlife, and by delivering messages to guests through interpreters and exhibit signage, can spark conservation action, too. In fact, more zoos and aquariums are focusing on action that people can take to make a difference for wildlife.
But beyond educating guests on-site at Lincoln Park Zoo, Brookfield Zoo and Shedd Aquarium, these organizations are also at the forefront of wildlife conservation through research.
Whether it's studying Rwanda's mountain gorillas, the Bahamas' sharks or urban wildlife in northeastern Illinois, saving wild animal populations from extinction requires these organizations to devote, in part, their missions and resources to conservation research. For Shedd, protecting aquatic wildlife in the Great Lakes region and Caribbean is our focus.
For more than 25 years, Shedd has led research programs at the aquarium and in the field to proactively conserve wild aquatic animal populations. In 2011, Shedd significantly expanded the research program to include a team of Ph.D.-level scientists who conduct research in local and remote places of the globe with the goal of saving species and their habitats.
Besides publishing research papers in academic journals, our scientists work with local stakeholders and other conservation organizations to apply research results to conservation action. The results have been important and impactful for the species under study.
Indeed, results from a decadelong research program led by Shedd scientists resulted in the expansion of an existing national park -- or protected area -- on Andros Island in The Bahamas.
This expanded park now includes critical habitat and important endangered iguana populations.
Other examples of Shedd's field programs include conducting research on important fishery species in The Bahamas, like Nassau grouper and queen conch, to help our Bahamian colleagues manage their stocks in a sustainable manner. In the Chicago area, one of our research studies explores best practices for restoration activities in our forest preserves to help local frog and salamander species rebound. As we continue to expand our efforts to study and protect wild species and habitats, Shedd Aquarium is proud to be part of the zoological community dedicated to using our engagement and research opportunities to advance conservation.
The biodiversity extinction crisis is real and it will take a coalition of diverse groups working collectively to stem the loss. Zoos and aquariums are doing their part, and Chicagoland residents can be part of the effort too.
Whether it's watching video footage and counting sharks that come into view, submitting photos and stories about your personal bat sightings, or heading to the tropics to tag and release iguanas with me, you can be part of the effort to save wildlife through your local zoos and aquarium. You can find out more about these citizen science opportunities through each organization's website.
Find out moreShedd Aquarium's shark observations:
Lincoln Park Zoo's bat sightings project:
www.lpzoo.org/ conservation-science/projects/monitoring-bat- diversity-and-around-chicago
Shedd's iguana expeditions to the Bahamas: