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Zachary Steele Analyzes How Aquariums, Zoos Teach About Invasive Species

By Katrina Rossos

Wildlife Ecology and Conservation master’s student Zachary Steele is studying the human dimensions of invasive species in Florida under the advisement of Dr. Elizabeth Pienaar. He is assessing resident awareness of introductory pathways of species invasion, the invasion process, and the amount of concern they have regarding species invasion. Steele is also looking at how Florida citizens support mitigation efforts via management actions and how resident support varies among different non-native species.

The decorated table that Zachary Steele and Andrew Glass used when conducting their surveys over the summer. “Handsome”, the orange, stuffed alligator, is located on the left!

Over the summer, Steele conducted field work at several different zoos and aquariums in the sunshine state. To supplement his thesis, Steele came up with the idea to do a research project that looked at how guests of aquariums and zoos are retaining information about invasive species.

“As someone who has worked in multiple Florida Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) facilities, I’ve always been curious about how much guests are learning when they visit an AZA facility,” Steele said. “AZA facilities are tasked with the lofty goal of presenting multiple conservation messages while also educating guests on the extremely diverse range of species they care for. Just one of the many messages they try to educate guests about is the complicated topic of invasive species. This involves not only how these non-native species are released, but how they become established, spread to new areas, and cause negative impacts.”

Steele sent out surveys to the on-staff educators at a number of AZA facilities in an effort to better comprehend the information the zoos and aquariums are disseminating about invasive species. However, simply because the organizations are teaching their guests about invasive species does not always mean the visitors are understanding or retaining this material. “Explaining even just one of these concepts is difficult, especially when many guests may not be interested in this information,” Steele said.

Zachary Steele (left) and Andrew Glass (right).

Steele worked with fellow WEC graduate student Andrew Glass, another advisee of Pienaar. To conduct their study, Steele and Glass would arrive at an AZA facility and setup a table and tent. Then, throughout the day, they would ask guests as they were leaving the zoo or aquarium to take a survey on an iPad that inquired about what they learned on invasive species. To entertain the individuals’ family while they were taking this survey, Steele and Glass provided stickers and coloring books for children. And they even brought an orange, stuffed alligator whom they affectionately named “Handsome”. It was this stuffed gator that attracted many people over to their table, including many adults. “There was one person in particular who came back on three separate occasions trying to convince me to let him take Handsome. So I guess the lesson learned here is that if you want a higher response rate, come borrow Handsome from us,” Steele joked.

Steele and Glass conducted these surveys for three consecutive days at each of the zoos and aquariums that agreed to participate in the study. They finished collecting data in August and are currently analyzing the information.

“When analyzing this data, we are hoping to understand what information Florida AZA facilities currently have on invasive species and what information guests are noticing during their trip,” Steele explained. “For example, if a zoo has 14 different invasive species on display, but guests are only noticing half of them (or learning that half of these are invasive), this is important information we need to relay to the zoo so that they can attempt to make appropriate adjustments.”

The information provided at the zoos and aquariums is important to Steele for another reason, as well. He initially became interested in wildlife and ecology when he visited zoos and aquariums as a child. Originally from Safety Harbor, a town within the Tampa and St. Petersburg area of Florida, Steele said it was his early trips to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay that inspired him to pursue a career in wildlife ecology.

“There are many different reasons that people decide to visit a zoo or aquarium; some are visiting to have a fun day with their family, some are going for a chance to see the animals, and others may be attending just to get out of the house for the day,” noted Steele. “The experience a person is going to have at a zoo or aquarium really depends on the individual and their reason for deciding to visit. This is a large part of why we decided to conduct this study, to see not only what information about invasive species is available to guests, but to understand what information guests are actually noticing during a routine visit, and how this may change from one guest to another.”