16 Feb 2023

“Back in 2003 when I first started, research in conservation was still very much based and focused on the natural sciences like biology and ecology.”

Having just passed my 20 year working for Chester Zoo, one of the main things I can say for sure is that the world of conservation has changed dramatically during that time.

Lead Conservation Scientist, Dr Andy Moss shares everything you need to know about how we use social science at the zoo.

Back in 2003 when I first started, research in conservation was still very much based and focused on the natural sciences like biology and ecology. Fast forward 20 years and conservation is now a hugely interdisciplinary endeavour, with the main change being the inclusion of social sciences. But what are these social sciences?

The reason that the social sciences and biodiversity conservation are so closely linked is simple – because the reason that species and habitats are threatened is almost exclusively due to the behaviours of people.

The destruction of habitats, over-harvesting of species, pollution and climate change are the key drivers of the current biodiversity crisis, and all of these drivers are people-led. So, in order to address ‘people problems’ like these, we need to understand people better.

Dr Andy Moss
Dr Andy Moss

At Chester Zoo, we can probably split our social science research projects into two broad categories; projects that study phenomena here at the Chester Zoo site (and at other zoos), and projects that are part of our UK and overseas field conservation work.

For example, one of our Chester Zoo-based projects is trying to work out how best to educate and empower people to live more sustainably. This is a difficult task, as understanding why people behave in the way they do is extremely challenging. Empowering them to behave differently even more so.

At a much broader level, we also want to understand and maximise the role zoos have in our society. For example, working out if connecting people to nature in zoos can have positive health and wellbeing benefits.

Further afield, an example of a project that is helping our field conservation would be the work we are doing to try and understand how to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions in Brazil. This issue affects a number of species, including the already threatened giant anteater.

This research is being led by Chester Zoo Conservation Fellow, Dr Mariana Catapani and aims to make Brazil’s roads safer for both wildlife and drivers.


While social science research probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of zoos, it is extremely important in trying to halt and reverse biodiversity loss around the world. This was perhaps stated best by the late conservation psychologist Dr Carol Saunders, when she said that “the challenges ahead for biodiversity conservation will require a better understanding of one species: our own”.


Become a scientist for the day! Grab your science journal and discover our five WONDERLABS to learn loads about the incredible science we do to prevent extinction!

18 February – 5 March