Social networks research in ex situ populations: Patterns, trends, and future directions for conservation‐focused behavioral research

Social networks research using non‐human animals has grown over the past decade, utilizing a wide range of species to answer an array of pure and applied questions. Network approaches have relevance to conservation, evaluating social influences on fecundity, health, fitness and longevity. While the application of network approaches to in situ populations with conservation concern appears in published literature, the degree to which ex situ and zoo‐housed populations are the focus of “social networks for conservation research” is limited. Captive environments provide scientists with an ability to understand the social behavior of species that may be hard to observe consistently in the wild. This paper evaluates the scope of network research involving ex situ populations, analyzing output from 2010 to 2019 to determine trends in questions and subjects using ex situ populations. We show that only 8.2% of ex situ social network analysis (SNA) implications are of conservation‐focus, apparent in papers relating to birds, carnivores, bats, primates, reptiles, and ungulates. Husbandry and welfare questions predominate in ex situ network research, but over half of these papers have nonpractical application (basic science). The chance of a citation for a basic science paper was 95.4% more than for a conservation‐based paper. For taxonomic groups, primate‐focused papers had the most citations. The focus of ex situ conservation‐based networks research may be driven by the needs of conservation programs (e.g., population recovery outcomes) or by a need to evaluate the efficacy of ex situ conservation goals. We evaluate our findings considering the IUCN's One Plan Approach to conservation to show how in situ and ex situ network research is applicable to global conservation efforts. We have identified that there is a lack of application and evaluation of SNA to wildlife conservation. We highlight future areas of research in zoos and hope to stimulate discussion and collaboration between relevant parties.

Publish DateAugust 24, 2021
Last UpdatedAugust 24, 2021