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Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park in study challenging evolutionary theories of ageing

The Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park (AWCP) has contributed data to a study focusing on the inevitability of ageing, and how turtles and tortoises differ from humans in this pattern of ageing. 


The study, published in the academic journal Science, saw researchers work alongside zoos and aquariums to examine 52 species of turtle and tortoises.


Data recorded from AWCP turtles and tortoises was logged by Species360, a global non-profit organisation which maintains the Zoological Information Management Systems (ZIMS) – the largest database on wildlife in human care.


“The [ZIMS] enabled researchers to discover that, unlike humans and other species, turtles and tortoise defy common evolutionary theories and may reduce the rate of ageing in response to improvements in environmental conditions,” AWCP said.


As part of Alameda Wildlife Park’s commitment to conservation and providing high standards of animal welfare, it uses ZIMS to keep detailed records of its animal collections. 


“Evolutionary theories of ageing predict that all living organisms weaken and deteriorate with

age, a process known as senescence – and eventually die,” AWCP said.


“Now, using data captured by Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park and others, researchers from the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance and the University of Southern Denmark show that certain animal species, such as turtles and tortoises, may exhibit slower or even absent senescence when their living conditions improve.”


Out of 52 turtle and tortoise species, 75% show extremely slow senescence, while 80% have

slower senescence than modern humans.


Study co-author Prof. Dalia Conde, Species360 Director of Science, Head of the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, said: "We find that some of these species can reduce their rate of ageing in response to the improved living conditions found in zoos and aquariums, compared to the wild."


“In addition, modern zoological organisations play an important role in conservation, education and research, and this study shows the immense value of zoos and aquariums keeping records for the advancement of science.”


The research explained that organisms that keep growing after sexual maturity, such as turtles and tortoises, are believed to have the potential to keep investing in repairing cellular damages and are thus thought to be ideal candidates for reducing, and even avoiding, the harmful effects of ageing.


"It is worth noting that the fact that some species of turtle and tortoise show negligible

senescence does not mean they are immortal; it only means that their risk of death does not

increase with age, but it is still larger than zero. In short, all of them will eventually die due to

unavoidable causes of mortality such as illness," said Dr Fernando Colchero, Principal Statistical Analyst, Species360 Conservation Science Alliance and Associate Professor at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Southern Denmark.


The AWCP was set up to house illegally trafficked animals found on ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. It has since been developed into an accredited zoo, housing a wide range of endangered exotic species from around the world. 


Many new acquisitions are unwanted pets kept locally, a diverse range from parrots to tortoises and turtles.


“We are proud that the data we have collected and curated on the turtles and tortoises in our collection has contributed to this study, and helped researchers better understand ageing in these species,” said Jessica Leaper, AWCP manager.


“This is not the first research success for the AWCP.”


The AWCP recently won an award at the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums AGM for research relating to the grey parrots at the park.


Ms Leaper said this research demonstrated the “vast improvement in the welfare of pet parrots, when integrated into a larger group. Thus, strengthening the argument against keeping parrots as pets.” 


The AWCP currently houses nine species of turtles and tortoises and is in the process of creating a ‘Turtle World’ exhibit.

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