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Research in the modern Zoo

Zoos have come a long way from their beginnings as menageries in the 19th century. Rather than showcasing exotic animals purely for profit and entertainment as early zoos did, modern accredited zoos are active participants in scientific research and wildlife conservation. Research and conservation go hand-in-hand: in order to protect wild animals and their habitats, we need to understand these animals and the threats they face. Our mission at Zoo Atlanta – to save wildlife and their habitats through conservation, research, education, and engaging experiences – drives our contributions to these efforts. Read on to find out how to connect your students to current research and inspire conservation action within your classrooms.  

There are two broad types of wildlife research: in-situ research and ex-situ research. In-situ research is conducted out in the wild. This type of research can directly study the threats facing wild animal populations. It allows scientists to monitor and evaluate animal behavior, population dynamics, and ecosystem processes. The benefit of this type of research is that you are studying wild animals in their wild habitats. 

Ex-situ research is that which takes place outside of an animal’s natural habitat, such as here at the Zoo. This type of research can focus on topics like veterinary medicine, animal training, and individual animal personalities and behavior. Ex-situ research allows researchers to study animals up close and evaluate individual animal behaviors, development, and physiology. Ex-situ research can help conservation efforts that help protect wild animals and their habitats by providing information that would be difficult to obtain in the wild. It also helps zoos learn how to take better care of their animals. 

Zoo Atlanta participates in both in-situ and ex-situ research projects. In-situ research efforts are conducted through field work by zoo teammates and by providing support for the research projects of trusted partners. One effort we have participated in is the discovery and naming of new species of amphibians. Dr. Joe Mendelson, the Director of Research at Zoo Atlanta, is heavily involved in these efforts and argues that taxonomy is “central to our understanding of the planet and central to our efforts to conserve our increasingly threatened biodiversity.” The Zoo partners with the Central Florida Zoo’s Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation and Auburn University to track and monitor re-released eastern indigo snakes, many of whom were reared at Zoo Atlanta, in the Conecuh National Forest. We also work closely with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, an organization devoted to researching and protecting gorillas in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of our flagship projects focuses on studying a deadly fungus that has caused Panamanian golden frogs to become extinct in the wild. We care for a small population of these frogs at the Zoo with the hope that they can one day be re-released into the wild.  

Zoo Atlanta also conducts many ex-situ research projects on Zoo grounds. As one of the only zoos in the United States to house giant pandas, we have been able to study giant panda maternal behavior and sensory perception. These studies can help zoos take better care of panda cubs and provide better enrichment for pandas, while also providing insights that may aid wild panda conservation. The Zoo is the headquarters for the Great Ape Heart Project, which aims to understand heart disease in great apes such as gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees. The project studies the causes, diagnosis, and treatment for heart disease in great apes. We also collaborate with researchers from Georgia Tech to study how elephants can use their trunks to delicately pick up objects and suck in large amounts of water. Veterinary medicineKomodo  dragon genome sequencing, and sidewinder snake movement and biodesign are just a few of the other ex-situ research projects that Zoo Atlanta participates in. 

Both in-situ and ex-situ research efforts are vital to wildlife conservation. Zoos are particularly well-situated to conduct ex-situ research, which makes them valuable partners to conservation organizations seeking to learn more about how to protect wild animals. They also support in-situ research projects by contributing money, providing staff and expertise to assist with these efforts, and educating the public about the value of research. You and your students can learn more about Zoo Atlanta’s research efforts by visiting the Research section on our website or reading Beyond the Zoo, which outlines more ways that Zoo Atlanta contributes to wildlife research and conservation efforts. Advanced students who are interested in pursuing biological research can peruse our list of Zoo Atlanta scientific publications. If you want to visit the Zoo, meet some of the animals we care for and study, and talk to knowledgeable Zoo Atlanta staff members, check out our Teacher Resources to start planning your trip

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl