The Role of Science in Aquaria
IAAAM 1991
M.G. McCormick-Ray
Research Coordinator, National Aquarium in Baltimore

A modern oceanarium is more than a place for entertainment. It is a structure in which scientific inquiry helped build and which it continues to sustain. It is a place that advances the public's first impression about aquatic life; life in which few of the general public have the opportunity to see under natural conditions. It is a place in which diverse taxa are maintained under environmental conditions that affect the animals' long term health and well being; subtle conditions that often are not fully understood by those who care for them. The modern aquarium is also a business. And this business is dependent on the health and productivity of natural environments in order to maintain the living collection. Thus, a modern oceanarium is indebted to the scientific inquiry of biology, ecology, and technology for advancing the knowledge that sustains the aquarium business. Yet science plays a relatively minor role in most oceanarium programs and it is seldom represented at scientific conferences important to aquarium interests. And the new information that has been advanced by aquarium science needs to be synthesized and summed so that new concepts can emerge and become useful for management. The purpose of this presentation is to open discussions by focusing on a few examples to illustrate potential needs for advancing aquarium science, to highlight a few existing research programs in various North American aquariums, and to emphasize that aquarium research programs can benefit both the biology and the industry in their conservation and education efforts when they are fully supported.

The Role of Science: to provide opportunities for aquarium staff to advance their skills and knowledge.

Modern aquariums require special kinds of biologists to manage the living collection. These specialists have to be sensitive to the varied needs of the diverse specimens without losing perspective of public viewing. Unfortunately, few college programs today focus on organismic biology, and very few graduates receive training in the biology of aquarium organisms. Lenhoff, in BioScience (1990) asks whether the organismic biologist is an endangered species because of the tendency of academic programs to concentrate on subceIlular topics, often neglecting whole organisms.

George Bartholomew (1986) reminds us about the complexity of biological systems and the massive amount of new information generated each year. New college graduates becoming aquarium staff are handicapped by deficiencies in training and in comprehensive knowledge about the complexity of biological organisms. This handicap is compounded by a general ignorance of aquatic organisms' in their ecosystems and their adaptive nature, and by an insufficient understanding of the artificial environment in which they are held. Although there are numerous journals and publications to contest the lack of available information, the staff is limited by time to consult the literature and to synthesize the needed information. The staff, then, must work with limited knowledge to unravel observed phenomena in the midst of numerous publications. In this era of explosive information, there needs to be a mechanism for meeting husbandry needs. The role of science in aquaria, then, can be to bring specialized scientists trained in biology (including immunology and pathology, etc), ecology and physics together to focus on the holistic needs of individual organisms in artificial environments. A science of aquaria then advances to not only benefit the display organisms but also to stimulate new directions in education and conservation through a better informed husbandry staff.

The Role of Science: to stimulate research on diverse organisms and on various topics related to captive animals.

The role of science in aquaria should be to encourage an array of research projects on diverse organisms and various topics related to the artificial environment. The results should be communicated at major scientific conferences by persons representing aquarium research. This would disperse information and invite collaboration. Yet animal studies in aquaria are seldom represented, as exemplified by studies on cetaceans.

We know that the major interest animals in oceanariums are the cetaceans. They are the oceanarium's major exhibit and they are the major costs in terms of veterinary care and maintenance even though the majority of taxons held at aquariums, as listed in AAZPA (Boyd, 1988), are represented by fish (56%) and invertebrate (25%) species. Mammals only represent 5% of the species, at most. The scientific potential, then, is for a diverse array of taxon studies, with a major interest on cetaceans. But this scientific potential has yet to be realized and the interest in cetaceans dominates research.

The dominant interest in cetaceans is confirmed in papers presented at IAAAM conferences. When 478 papers were reviewed as presented at the 12 most recent IAAAM annual conferences (1979-1990), the results confirm the low interest in invertebrates, which represented only 1 % of the study animals, and the major interest (99%) in vertebrates, especially mammals. Mammals represented 68% of the vertebrate studies while fish represented 22%. And of the mammals, 44% of the studies were on cetaceans, and 59% of these were studies on Tursiops truncatus. Thus, the bottle-nosed dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, is the most dominant study animal at IAAAM meetings.

What is the dominant study animal at the marine mammal conferences? I examined this and again the bottle-nosed dolphin was the major subject of study. To determine this, I tallied every study species in 727 abstracts of the two most recent marine mammal conferences (1989, 1987), along with 14 major topics of study, as I had done for the 478 papers presented at the IAAAM conferences (- 1979-1990). The most commonly studied marine mammal of the approximate 113 species was the bottle-nosed dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. It represented 20% of the study animals, followed by killer whales (7%). Further, the bottle-nosed dolphins were the study animals in 40% of all behavioral studies, the second most common topic of study next to studies in field ecology. Bottle-nosed dolphins led other species in other major topics of study, e.g., field ecology and physiology. When I examined just studies of captive animal, bottle-nosed dolphins were also most commonly studied (40%). It is also significant to note that the bottle-nosed dolphin, after the California sea lion, is the most commonly held marine mammal species in aquaria and zoological parks in North America (Asper, et al., 1990). The California sea lion, however, was used very little in research studies, representing 6% of the marine mammals in behavioral studies. Thus it seems that major opportunities are missed. For example, in the two marine mammal conferences, there was no research study on the bottle-nosed dolphins' captive social organization or on long term behavioral activities. This suggests that aquariums might be missing an important opportunity to exchange information with field scientists and to translate important captive information for field biologists after certain concessions are made. These concessions can be a focus of study with the right study design. Further, aquarium research could include studies on display specimens that represent threatened and vulnerable species. Aquariums and marine zoological parks have continually housed the Amazon River dolphin, Inia geoffrensis (Asper, et al., 1990) listed by the IUCN Survival Service Commission as a vulnerable species. Yet only three studies, field related, were presented on these animals at the two marine mammals conferences. And these aquariums hold representative species in 4 of the 6 small cetacean families, relatives of which are now in peril (Brownell, et al., 1988). Aquariums could do more to advance research and education on them.

Many other research opportunities are missed. A tally of research papers involving fish and invertebrates in aquaria needs to be done. However, on superficial examination of fish journals, few papers have been published on captive fish, sharks, and invertebrates in aquaria, e.g., understanding their adaptive and social nature.

The Role of Science: To advance the biology of captive animals and contribute to conservation education and husbandry management.

Although the science of aquariology appears not to be advanced in published scientific papers or at scientific conferences, most aquariums and oceanariums have on­going research activities. A few examples follow. Monterey Bay Aquarium has a structured research program, which includes a review process, 12 research staff members, and collaboration with numerous outside scientists. Their research centers around sea otter ecology and behavior, and kelp forest ecology, with efforts in both field studies and aquarium exhibits. This aquarium is also associated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, an independent basic research facility with a major interest in the Monterey Bay. The New England Aquarium has the Harold E. Edgerton Research Laboratory that carries out the aquarium's research program. This laboratory supports 3 full time principal investigators and 3 full time technicians, with numerous associates and collaborators. Their research centers on conservation biology, aquatic and experimental biology, and stewardship research and development, and it is supported principally by such organizations as NSF and NIH. The Mystic Marine life Aquarium has a research program centering on sea water chemistry, marine biology, and marine mammal biology and medicine, with numerous publications to their credit. And although Sea World does not have a formal research program, the staff and collaborators has been actively involved in various research activities, especially on marine mammals. Sea World is associated with the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute that concentrates on field studies. Vancouver Aquarium has a research program with 3 full time staff actively involved in research on killer whales, early life history of fish and shrimp breeding. Other aquariums, including Shedd and Brookfield Zoo include on-going research activities. A modest research program at the National Aquarium in Baltimore is underway which aims to create a diverse program responsive to the health and well-being of the display animals. The program's goals are to (1) improve the technical skills and research capacity of husbandry staff, (2) to encourage and promote research from qualified outside scientists, (3) to facilitate inter-institutional research and collaboration, and (4) to improve the information base of aquarium science and display in order to advance the educational and conservation value of the display specimens.

Why research is not a major part of aquarium programs, however, is difficult to explain. The reasons, no doubt, are varied and perhaps relate to differences in philosophy and practical differences between aquarium business and scientist's thinking. But a research program tailored to the needs and conditions of each aquarium can be designed to deliver the scientific tools for aquarium needs without major costs or commitments or loss of scientific credibility. Coordination, cooperation and communication are the three operant needs under a program plan that can benefit both the scientific community and the aquarium business. It can also benefit conservation aspects of aquarium programs by reducing the needs and costs of animal replacements as well as provide the justification for taking wild specimens for display. The aquarium's conservation interests could also benefit by an educational program which stresses that the major threat to aquatic species such as cetaceans is the loss of their habitat --the health of coastal ecosystems and their productivity.


1.  Asper, E.D., D.A. Duffield, N. Dimeo-Ediger, and E. D. Shell. 1990. Marine mammals in zoos, aquaria, and marine zoological Parks in North America: 1990 census report. Zoo Yearbook.

2.  Bartholomew, George A. 1986. The Role of Natural History in Contemporary Biology. BioScience 36(5):324-29. Boyd, L., ed. 1988. Zoological Parks and Aquariums in the Americas. American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, Oglebay Park, Wheeling, WV.

3.  Brownell, R.L., Jr., K. Ralls, and W.R. Perrin. 1989. The plight of the 'forgotten' whales. Oceanus 32(1):5-11.

4.  Lenhoff, H. M. 1990 Viewpoint: Is the organismic biologist an endangered species? Bioscience vol 40(2).

Speaker Information
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M. G. McCormick-Ray, MS