Making Maths Count

Maths at the zoo

May 31, 2016 by 1 Comment | Category Animals

Whether it’s calculating a worming dose for a rhino or tracking the population growth of a gentoo penguin – everyone is doing a lot of maths at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, as Living Collections Manager, Jo Elliott, explains.

I oversee the day-to-day running of the animal collection at the Zoo. The number of animals we have varies from day to day. If you were to include things like ants it would be thousands, but if you’re thinking about the larger vertebrate animals its around 800.

Image of Jo Elliott

Jo Elliott, Living Collections Manager at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo uses maths daily

Each section has a team leader and they report to me. I started as a trainee keeper 16 years ago and have gradually moved up. It’s a varied job, but like all the roles I’ve had here, maths is something I use day-to-day. It’s something all my team use.

Monitoring weights

The handling staff have to do regular weight checks on the animals, and they’ll use that data to draw graphs. To ensure the animals are doing well, these need to be closely monitored and you need to be able to understand things like percentage differences. The animals’ weights are also used to calculate the amount of food they’ll get as they have strictly controlled diets. Working all this out can get more complex when you’ve got a group of animals and the diets fluctuate.

Image of a Greater One-horned Rhino

One of the zoo’s bigger inhabitants – a Greater One-horned Rhinoceros

The veterinary nurses need to calculate drugs doses also. Given the variety of animals we have here, the calculations can vary quite a lot in size. One day you might be working out a worming dose for a rhino and the next you’re dealing with tiny fractions of mls for a small bird.

Managing a team

As a manager, like anyone managing staff in any organisation, I’m calculating things like wages, overtime and holidays.

I also run a couple of stud books, as do many of the keepers here. These are databases which allow us to keep track of the genetics of any given breed of animal across Europe. To manage these effectively you need to be able to understand what the figures are telling you.

Population data

One of the ones I manage is for gentoo penguins, for which we have a very good pedigree going back many years. The programme will throw back a lot of numbers at you and you need to understand that. This data is vital for breeding programmes as it will let you look at how related individual penguins are if you’re considering pairing them, and on a broader scale, the numbers will tell you how a breed’s population is doing – is it stable; are you breeding enough?

Image of a gentoo penguin and chick

Jo is responsible for managing a Europe-wide database of information about the gentoo penguin

In many cases we’re not doing the complicated sums needed to calculate the figures by hand, sometimes we use a computer programme to do. But we’re inputting information and making decisions all the time based on data, so we need to know where it’s come from, how it’s been calculated and what story it’s telling us. Whether we’re deciding to ramp up a particular breeding programme because the data shows current efforts aren’t going to maintain a stable population, or taking action if a young animal is not gaining weight as we would expect, our decisions are based on data.

For me, I enjoyed maths at school and it was my strongest subject. Being able to use it in context in a job I love is great and certainly an advantage.

Jo Elliott is Living Collections Manager at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo.

Tags: , , , ,


  • Deborah Kellett says:

    I have been a teacher in the States since 1979 and have taught second grade (primary/elementary, ages 7-8) for over twenty years. I teach in a suburb outside of Detroit and would love to incorporate something on a much smaller scale incorporating everyday mathematics in collaboration with the Detroit Zoo. I am applying for a Fellowship to travel to Scotland and would love to find out more about your program. It sounds like a fantastic way to get students execited about learning, comprehending and building strategies is sound mathematical practices.

Leave a comment

By submitting a comment, you understand it may be published on this public website. Please read our privacy policy to see how the Scottish Government handles your information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *