Evolution at the Zoo

Zoos, aquaria, and natural history museums all showcase amazing biological diversity in their exhibits, but after years of visiting both kinds of institutions across the globe, I’ve noticed that zoos emphasize different messages than natural history museums. Natural history museums are great at telling the story of evolution, and explaining the science behind evolutionary biology, through exhibits based on palaeontology and biodiversity. Museums do a great job of explaining the role of extinction in shaping diversity in the past, and modern exhibit renewals are often doing a great job of linking changes in Earth’s history to the changes we see around us today.


Evolution on exhibit at (clockwise from top left): the Field Museum, Utah Museum of Natural History, Perot Museum of Nature and Science, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Zoos and aquaria, on the other hand, tend to emphasize conservation as their primary message. Take a look at the information placards at zoos or aquaria and you’ll typically see information like the species name, geographic range, a couple of comments about diet or behaviour, and its conservation status, and many zoos will group animals that live in similar ecosystems together (think Amazonian rainforest, the poles, etc).


The Maui Ocean Center does a great job of grouping animals by ecosystems – it focuses on the sea life around Hawaii, and takes you through ever deeper zones of the coral reef and their changing fauna, out to the pelagic zone with sharks. (Also a bonus: a great exhibit on marine mammals which doesn’t involve keeping any in captivity!)

How and why did evolution and conservation become separated in zoos and museums? I don’t have an answer for that, but I’d love to see more evolutionary stories making their way into zoos. The evolutionary history of species, subspecies, and populations is increasingly important for identifying which populations need the most protection, and for making the best plans for successful conservation of species. We’re learning that not all populations are interchangeable even within one species, and framing species conservation priorities in terms of the loss of phylogenetic diversity can help motivate the protection of endangered populations.


A nod to evolutionary storytelling at the Toronto Zoo – African rift lake cichlids are a classic example of an adaptive radiation.

An example of an evolution-based mindset that I find compelling: Let’s say that we managed to lose the platypus and the four species of echidna. That’s five species, which isn’t very many species to lose. The platypus and echidnas all belong to a clade called Monotremata, which, along with their extinct relatives like Pseudotribos and Shuotherium, first diverged from the lineage leading to all other living mammals more than 220 million years ago. Living monotremes are really far away from placental mammals and marsupials on the evolutionary tree – placental mammals and marsupials are each others closest relatives (as clade Theria), but a whole bunch of other clades sit between Theria and the monotremes, all of them extinct: the extremely successful multituberculates, the dryolestoids and eutriconodonts, things like Fruitafossor and Volaticotherium. To lose just five species would be to lose a huge chunk of phylogenetic diversity and a deep branch of the tree of life. To lose any twig of the tree is heartbreaking; even more so to lose old giant branches.


On this evolutionary tree, humans, as placental mammals, are in the red branches, marsupials like kangaroos are in the blue branches, and monotremes are way down the tree on the green branch. No species from the yellow branches in between survive today. (From Luo 2007, Transformation and diversification in early mammal evolution, Nature 450.)

This isn’t a story that gets told very often, partly because we’re still learning so much about the evolution of mammals, partly because not many zoos have a platypus, and partly because it can require a lot of background information about evolutionary thinking that zoos might not have the space to teach. But there are many stories like this one, and I think these are compelling narratives for visitors to encounter at zoos. Zoos do a great job of explaining the ecological interconnectedness of animals, why not their evolutionary interconnectedness?

Here’s another example of an evolutionary story that zoos are well equipped to discuss, and I’ll use an example here because there is a GREAT example at the San Diego Zoo. Species loss and defaunation is a critical issue we’re currently facing, but what constitutes a ‘natural’ ecosystem, anyway? Even prior to European colonization, North America had a surprisingly depauperate fauna missing most of the megafauna that had existed up until about 10 000 years ago. Ten thousand years isn’t a very long time for animals to adapt to such a dramatic shift in their ecosystem, and so around us we see evidence for evolutionary ghosts. The incredible speed that pronghorns can achieve makes a bit more sense when you realize that North America used to have a cheetah. The weird, giant, and typically uneaten fruits of trees like the Osage orange, pawpaw, and honey locust make a bit more sense if you picture mammoths, gomphotheres, and ground sloths in the picture. And that brings us to the San Diego Zoo:


When you walk around to the back of the San Diego Zoo where the elephants hang out, you enter one of the best zoo exhibits around: Elephant Odyssey. This area links the fossils of the La Brea tar pits with the animals still living in southern California today. (There’s even a tar pit that ‘drains’ to reveal fossils, which sadly I did not photograph way back in 2009 when I visited.) This area has animals found in southern California today, like the California condor (itself an amazing ambassador for extinction and conservation) and pronghorn, living relatives of extinct species from the tar pits, like tapirs, camels, and jaguars, and life-size statues of extinct species like ground sloths and mammoths.


It’s an amazing exhibit that weaves together evolution, conservation, and biodiversity, all while getting to hang out with cool animals in a great setting. Bringing all of these large mammals together into one area highlights the diversity that has been lost from North America already, and hopefully inspires people to conserve the species that still call southern California home (like the condor! And don’t forget cougars, slowly making a return!).



So, those are two approaches to evolution at the zoo that I’ve come up with: using the interconnectedness of species through their evolutionary histories, and using stories of extinction, to emphasize conservation priorities. Have you got any examples of zoos or aquaria that incorporate evolution into their interpretive materials? I’d love to hear about them, so please share them below in the comments!

This post was inspired by conversations at a discussion group I attended at the University of Toronto last week, where we talked about the role of natural history museums, zoos, and aquaria in conservation biology. There’s definitely lots to think about on this topic and I’m sure it’s one I’ll revisit in the future!



This year’s SVP in Salt Lake City was chock full of exciting dino stuff. My first visit to the Natural History Museum of Utah since its move to a brand-new building (I last visited in December 2008, just prior to its move) during the conference’s opening reception was a real treat. Utah has such a great fossil record for dinosaurs, and it was awesome to see new takes on old classics like this Ceratosaurus – take note of the osteoderms running down the midline of the spine!


Also extremely excellent: not one, but TWO glass floors over bonebed recreations. This is the famous Cleveland-Lloyd bonebed, full of classic Morrison dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Diplodocus. There was also a Gryposaurus quarry from the Kaiparowits Formation. Great stuff all around, possibly the only type of display I enjoy more than Walls of Stuff.


The Jurassic dinosaurs might be the best known dinosaurs from Utah, but the record of Cretaceous dinosaurs from Utah is slowly being filled in. There were excellent displays of material from the Kaiparowits Formation (similar in age to what we find in Alberta), like this beautiful Gryposaurus skull and some excellent ceratopsians, as well as dinosaurs from the earlier Cedar Mountain Formation.


There are some cool dioramas scattered throughout the galleries that bring the fossils on display to life. These reward close inspection of the corners and crevices – I was delighted to see this little varanid lizard skulking at the corners of a dinosaur’s nest.


One day during the poster sessions at the conference hotel, we were also treated to some original vintage palaeo-art by Bill Berry. Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs has a great post about this art display but I couldn’t resist sharing these highly charismatic Stegosaurus, as well. (Bonus Vintage Dinosaur Art comment: if you haven’t been following LITC already, then you might not know I’ve started guest blogging over there! I’m trying to share vintage dinosaur art from my own collection once a month or so, hope I’ll see you over there!)


The SVP fundraising auction is another great opportunity to spot new and vintage palaeo-art, dinosauriana, and amazing crafts by society members. This spectacular Eryops would surely have come home with me if only I had an unlimited budget.


And I would literally wear this vest every day in the field if it had been in my size.


The 90s nostalgia was strong with this one, a truly amazing set of Dinotopia enamel pins. Amazing!!

And whatever delightful nonsense this was, we need more of it next year.

SVP is a great chance to share new science and also geek out over goofy things with my colleagues. If you haven’t done so already, please check out my previous post about SVP presenters and how you should tick the box to to opt in to an oral presentation at next year’s SVP in Calgary. See you in my frozen homeland next August!

Your Project is Good Enough for a Talk

I’m back from yet another whirlwind week of conferencing, since the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting (this year in scenic Salt Lake City) just wrapped up last weekend. I’ll share some photos of the conference and welcome reception at the Utah Museum of Natural History soon, but today I’d like to talk a bit about who is giving talks at SVP and how we can increase speaker diversity. I hope you will share this with your colleagues and students!

This year at SVP, as in previous years, I was one of only a handful of female speakers talking about research on dinosaurs or other archosaurs. In order to delve into this phenomenon in greater detail, let’s just do a quick recap of how SVP structures its abstract submission process and conference schedule. SVP includes a couple of different formats for presentations:

  • Technical Sessions (oral presentations): competitively scored abstracts submitted by society members; some abstracts are submitted for talks and are given posters instead because of the limited number of slots for talks relative to abstract submissions
  • Poster Sessions: competitively scored abstracts submitted by society members; the vast majority of presentations at SVP are given in this format with about 150-200 posters presented each day.
  • Podium Symposium (oral presentations): symposia topics are proposed about a year before the conference and presenters are invited by the symposium conveners; the abstracts are still competitively scored
  • Poster Symposium: similar to the podium symposia but in poster format
  • Romer Prize Session (oral presentations): senior grad students submit a special application in addition to their abstract in order to be considered for a talk slot in this session; highly competitive and requires extra work

When authors submit their abstracts for review for the conference, we’re given a couple of options for what format we prefer: consider the abstract for a talk but if a talk isn’t possible then a poster is ok; only consider for a poster; consider for a talk but if not then withdraw abstract. The abstracts are then reviewed by (I think) 5 reviewers, scored numerically, and the top-scoring abstracts get talk slots and other acceptable abstracts get posters.

It’s impossible to go to every talk at SVP given that there are four concurrent sessions each morning and afternoon, and invariably I don’t get to sit through all sessions because there are lots of other things occupying my attention at SVP. The talks are usually grouped by taxon, so similar groups of animals are covered in a morning or afternoon session. I usually manage to sit through the bulk of the dinosaur presentations and either keep notes on the presenters or recognize the names of the people presenting. How many women were first authors (and therefore, typically, the presenting speaker) in the dinosaur talks this year? Let’s take a look:

  • Sauropodomorpha Technical Session: 0 women, 8 talk slots
  • Theropoda Technical Session: 0 women, 10 talk slots
  • Ornisthichia Technical Session: 2 women, 10 talk slots

I have to be honest, this is both pretty dire and also par for the course. And those two women in the ornithischian session? One of them was me. Over the last 5 years or so I’ve informally kept track of how many women presented in the dinosaur sessions and it has rarely (never?) been more than 3. Where are my female colleagues?

Let’s take a look at the breakdown for three of the Podium Symposia, one of which I attended in nearly its entirety (the molecular symposium); I checked the names of the other symposia by hand to see who presented:

  • Molecular Symposium: 11 women, 16 talk slots
  • Paleo-Evo-Devo Symposium: 5 women, 16 talk slots
  • Endothermy Symposium: 0 women, 8 talk slots

Here’s where things start to get interesting: the endothermy and evo-devo symposia were convened by men [update: I goofed on the conveners for the endothermy symposium, which included 2 women; blame my late-night brain for missing this and my apologies to the conveners! See also M. Silcox’s comment at the end of this post], but the molecular symposium had a woman on the organizing team. I am not alone in noticing that a symposium with a female convener had more women presenters.

SVP abstracts are reviewed in a double-blind fashion, meaning the authors of the abstracts don’t know who their reviewers are, and the reviewers aren’t given the names of the authors for the abstract. In theory (and in practice), double-blind review helps reduce gender bias in the acceptance of scientific papers, so I would hope that we can safely rule out bias from the abstract review committee as a reason there aren’t as many women presenting talks at SVP. My working hypothesis for the past few years has been that the absence of women as oral presenters is because women are not opting to be considered for oral presentations at abstract submission time. If women don’t put themselves forward to give a talk, double-blind review won’t solve the problem. As such, we probably need more women to request oral presentations in order to increase the number of female speakers at SVP. I think the high proportion of female speakers in the molecular symposium and the low numbers in the technical sessions suggests that, broadly speaking  (broadly! speaking! please don’t get upset at this generalization!), when women are invited to speak, we speak. But we don’t invite ourselves. And men need to get better at inviting us.

This hypothesis is supported by some recent discussions around trends in job applications, where women tend to apply to positions only when they match a high number of the listed qualifications, whereas the threshold number of qualifications is lower for men to submit an application. There’s also this example of an evolution conference where women were less likely to ask for the longer, 12-minute talk option vs the 5-minute talk slots. And don’t forget the link I mentioned before between women on the organizing committee and the number of women presenting.

While a bit discouraging, there are several concrete actions we can take (right now!) using this data:

  1. If you’re convening a symposium, invite more women to speak in your symposium. Make an effort to seek out female researchers on the symposium topic, especially people who maybe don’t often get up to speak. Here is a great blog post with concrete suggestions for increasing diversity in your symposium. Women in video gaming are also making good suggestions for how to increase diversity in what is currently a very, very skewed environment.
  2. If you’re a supervisor of female grad students or in any kind of mentoring capacity for female colleagues, encourage them to tick the box for oral presentations. Find ways to boost their confidence in public speaking, and teach them to write punchy, data-rich abstracts with strong narratives that are likely to score well with the abstract review committee. Make it really, really normal for everyone to request a talk. Take steps to avoid unconscious bias (we all have it!) that might influence your mentoring style with different groups of people.

I cannot keep count of the number of times I have heard something along the lines of “Oh I’m not sure this project is ready for a whole talk” from my female colleagues. And while I agree that some topics (e.g. descriptions of new specimens) might be better suited to the discussion-rich format of posters, I also believe that you can find an interesting narrative for most projects that make them suited to the oral presentation format. I also cannot understate the importance of getting up in front of a crowd and being *noticed* for your work. Being noticed has benefits: you get feedback, you get collaborators, you get respect. And so, I just feel like I need to shout this from the rooftops: fellow ladies, your projects are good. Your projects are good enough for a whole talk. MAKE your projects good enough for a talk. Let the abstract review committee decide if your project isn’t the right fit for a talk. You will not get a talk slot if you don’t ask for one. I want to see more of you up on the stage with me when I’m invariably moderating the ornisthichian talks again in the future. Let’s make a promise to ourselves that next year you’ll tell yourself that your project is awesome and you’ll just tick that little box that says you want to do a talk.

I can’t invite each and every one of you to a symposium, but consider this a personal invitation from me to present in the technical sessions. There. You’re invited. See you in Calgary.

Thanks for sticking around all the way to the end of this post even though there was a catastrophic absence of fossils. Your reward is this Dyoplosaurus tail club, enjoy!