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Zoo Atlanta is a top-10 research organization!

Hi all! I trust you all have enjoyed our guest bloggers over the last few posts. Big thanks and kudos to our intrepid research interns, Avery Twitchell-Heyne and Liam Kelly. Their blogs and their efforts are a perfect segue into today’s topic. Short version: Zoo Atlanta is #7 on the top-10 list of most research-productive organizations in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)! Last week, a research group based at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago published the results of their analyses and a review of the state-of-research among AZA zoos and aquariums, and we were so excited to see our top ranking. The authors presented a number of different avenues of analyses, all of which are interesting, but the gist of their paper is in this list:

Top 10 most research-productive AZA members by total publications [1993–2013]

1. Smithsonian National Zoological Park
2. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
3. Chicago Zoological Society
4. San Diego Zoo
5. New England Aquarium
6. Lincoln Park Zoological Gardens
7. Zoo Atlanta
8. Saint Louis Zoo
9. Disney’s Animal Kingdom
10. Alaska Sea Life Center

Wow. I don’t even have to comment regarding the company we keep on this listing. The authors also ran analyses to account for important issues such as the organizations’ sizes, annual budgets and age. Their results were remarkable, and certainly flattering to Zoo Atlanta. They found that, as is certainly understandable, the very smallest organizations produced few publications. Larger organizations produced the most publications. But, moderately sized organizations, such as Zoo Atlanta, were unpredictable. In other words, as the authors clearly related, moderately-sized AZA organizations have a choice as to commit to a research program or not to do so. The list above makes clear that we are one of the few such organizations that makes and meets that commitment in a big way. The authors also noted that many of the largest organizations, not included in this list, under-perform, with respect to research. Importantly, the authors revealed that research productivity was positively correlated with the inclusion of “research” in the mission of any given zoo or aquarium. While their statistics are robust, I came away lamenting that “research” was not in the mission of every relevant AZA organization. Zoos present such powerful opportunities for basic and applied research, not to mention baccalaureate, graduate and post-doctoral teaching.

In 2017, I was lucky enough to welcome Zoo Atlanta intern Cheyenne Cato into a project I had envisioned with an aim to capture Zoo Atlanta’s history of research. Cheyenne was applying to colleges (and was accepted to her dream institution) and had a steady-eye on a career of veterinary medicine. She labored through every online search-engine available to recover our never-accounted research legacy. There are many different ways to measure and assess research productivity, and the authors were perfectly clear on their criteria. By their search criteria, Zoo Atlanta produced 211 peer-reviewed publications between 1993 and 2013. This is impressive, and is the value that lodged us as #7 on the list. This is all that matters, as far as the published list is concerned, because comparisons are only useful among equal search criteria. In passing, however, I’ll note that Cheyenne’s amazing searching skills found that Zoo Atlanta actually produced 244 publications during that period.

So, with a very proud—and now acknowledged—research tradition as a backdrop, we continue to move forward. We are early in the calendar year, and too early to send out requests for updates, but I’m already aware of two new manuscripts submitted, one published, and at least two more anticipated for the year. Not bad at all. To quote a dear friend, who commented to me on this particular topic “Zoo Atlanta punches far above its weight.” I am so proud of our Zoo!

Loh, T.L., Larson, E.R., David, S.R., de Souza, L.S., Gericke, R., Gryzbek, M., Kough, A.S., Willink, P.W. and Knapp, C.R., 2018. Quantifying the contribution of zoos and aquariums to peer-reviewed scientific research. FACETS, 3(1), pp.287-299. Read the full article here.
Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Research

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