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Marine mammals in zoos are now living longer, healthier lives

A new study indicates that marine mammals in modern zoos and aquariums are now living longer and healthier lives. This trend is a result of advances in animal care practices centered on animal welfare, according to the researchers.

The research was led by Species360, in collaboration with an international team of dozens of experts.

Focus of the study

The study was focused on life expectancy and lifespan equality as indicators of population welfare among marine mammals.

Interestingly, the findings show that marine mammals in zoological environments tend to live longer than those in the wild. 

How the research was conducted 

To investigate, the researchers used the Species360 Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) – the world’s most comprehensive database on wildlife in human care. 

The experts processed an enormous cache of data, spanning 200 years, starting from the early 1800s up to 2020. 

The primary focus was on four marine mammal species: harbor seal, California sea lion, polar bear, and common bottlenose dolphin. 

The goal was to estimate the improvement in their living conditions and verify it by the increasing number of individuals attaining old age.

What the researchers learned 

In a comparative analysis, the team examined data from wild populations of the same species. The study revealed that, remarkably, the life expectancy of the captive mammal species has surged by more than threefold. 

Furthermore, the mortality rate in the first year of life has plummeted by up to 31% in the past century in the studied zoos and aquariums. Currently, these species enjoy a life expectancy that is two to three times higher in zoos and aquariums than in the wild.

Quality of life

The study also incorporated an analysis to gauge the quality of extended lives and the mitigation of unpredictable early deaths. 

The results showed that there has been an upward trajectory in lifespan equality for all four species in captive environments. This means that not only are these animals living longer, but their quality of life has also improved.

Zoological practices 

A pivotal turning point was observed from the 1990s onwards, which the researchers attribute to enhancements in zoological practices. 

These include advanced veterinary care, improved environmental conditions, enriched nutrition, and the inclusion of positive reinforcement training in routine animal examinations.

Transformative journey 

Study lead author Dr. Morgane Tidière of the University of Southern Denmark emphasized the transformative journey of zoological institutions.

“Our findings indicate that significant progress has been made in enhancing the welfare of marine mammals in zoological institutions, as a result of improvements in management practices in progressive zoos and aquariums. Professional zoos and aquariums of today cannot be compared to zoos 30 years ago,” said Dr. Tidière.

“This kind of research is possible as a result of the standardized data collected and shared by Species360 member zoos and aquariums around the world.” 

Study implications 

The study authors emphasize that these findings predominantly represent the average welfare standards of marine mammals in Species360 member institutions, but not necessarily the global standards of all zoos and aquariums. 

The hope is that these results will motivate other establishments to refine their animal management practices.

The study stands as a significant contribution to the debate on animal welfare in zoos and aquariums, highlighting the critical role of scientific research in shaping the future of animal care in these institutions.

The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences

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