Scientific Papers


© Rory Harper

Learning and hunting success of burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) during pre-release live-prey training in the Manitoba burrowing owl recovery program (Anholt et al., 2020)

May 21, 2020

Abstract: Reintroduction biology is a new and expanding discipline for which experimental study is critical to progress. We evaluated training methods for live-prey capture as part of a breeding and reintroduction project for the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), an iconic prairie species endangered throughout Canada. Handling of owls prior to training sessions had a negative effect on the proportion of mice depredated. Owl experience exerted a measurable effect on depredation, suggesting that there is a learned component to hunting behaviour; however, this effect was not statistically significant. Overall, the proportion of mice depredated was low, probably because the training session environment presented additional challenges to the owls that would not occur in nature. In response to these findings, changes were made to training protocols the following year and, anecdotally, these changes resulted in a marked increase in the proportion of mice depredated. Mouse colour and owl sex had no effect on depredation.

Photo credit: Assiniboine Park Zoo

Impacts of dietary modifications on the behaviour of captive western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). (Smith et al., 2020)

March 02, 2020

Abstract: Behavioural profiles of captive and wild Gorilla gorilla gorilla have been shown to differ greatly, with captive gorillas moving and foraging much less than their wild counterparts and often experiencing high levels of obesity and cardiovascular disease.  Captive gorillas are typically fed an energy dense diet and housed in relatively small enclosures compared to wild gorillas that forage for large quantities of fibrous fruits and foliage over expansive home ranges.  These differences could be one of the leading factors in behavioural and health problems observed among captive gorillas.  This study examined behavioural profiles of captive gorillas fed experimental diets more nutritionally similar in both nutrient content and volume to those seen in the wild, particularly with the addition of woody browse and tamarind seed.  We predicted that when gorillas ate the experimental diets, they would display behavioural patterns more similar to their wild counterparts.  We found that feeding woody browses led to a reduction in coprophagy and regurgitation/reingestion (R/R) behaviours, but the addition of tamarind seed led to increased rates of coprophagy. These findings could be an important addition to management strategies in improving health and well-being among captive gorillas.  

Photo credit: San Diego Zoo

Influence of male presence on female Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) behaviour in captivity (Colaço et al., 2020)

February 19, 2020

Abstract: The maintenance of natural behaviour in captivity is relevant for optimizing animal welfare and reproductive efficiency. In captivity, few studies have evaluated the male´s influence on the behaviour of Asian females’ elephants (Elephas maximus).  Therefore, we investigated foraging, standing, elimination, vocalization, courtship, mating and stereotypic behaviours in four female Asian elephants after the recent introduction of a dominant male. Elephant activity was video recorded and behavioural data were collected through observing video footage. In male´s presence, females spent less time foraging and more time standing (p<0.05). Although differences were not statistically significative, an increased elimination behaviour frequency was also observed when the male was present. Females also performed more vocalisations (p<0.05) in male’s presence.  Behaviours, such as courtship and mating, were highly correlated (r=0.793 and p<0.05), demonstrating that both sexes were performing sexual behaviours. The females also exhibited less frequently stereotypic behaviours when the male was present (5,6% of the time) than when he was absent (26,8% of the time)(p<0.05). Therefore, we have shown that in captivity female elephants behave in a male’s presence as their wild conspecifics, which is beneficial for their conservation and well-being. It can be concluded that temporary integration of a male elephant in a female group in captivity has a positive influence on females, leading them to perform less stereotypies and to promote their reproductive behaviours. Further studies should be performed to enhance the knowledge on male´s influence in female welfare in captivity.

Photo credit: Copenhagen Zoo

Spatial considerations for captive snakes (Warwick et al., 2019)

February 10, 2020

Abstract: Captive environments for snakes commonly involve small enclosures with dimensions that prevent occupants from adopting straight line body postures. In particular, the commercial, hobby, and pet sectors routinely utilize small vivaria and racking systems, although zoos and other facilities also commonly maintain at least some snakes under broadly similar conditions. Captive snakes may be the only vertebrates where management policy commonly involves deprivation of the ability and probable welfare need to freely extend the body to its natural full length. In this report, we present background information concerning some relevant physical and behavioral characteristics of snakes, discuss pervading beliefs or folklore husbandry and its implications for animal welfare as well as factors concerning stress, its manifestations and measurement, and provide criteria for the assessment of captive snake welfare. As part of this review, we also conducted an observational component involving captive snakes and report that during 60-minute observation periods of 65 snakes, 24 (37%) adopted rectilinear or near rectilinear postures (stationary 42%; mobile 37%). Of the 31 snake species observed, 14 (45%) adopted rectilinear or near rectilinear postures. Ectomorphological associations, normal behavior, and innate drive states infer that snakes, even so-called sedentary species, utilize significant space as part of their normal lifestyles. We conclude that future policies for snake husbandry require a paradigm shift away from an erroneous belief system and toward recognizing the greater spatial needs of these reptiles.

Photo credit: C. Warwick

The Elephant Welfare Initiative: a model for advancing evidence‐based zoo animal welfare monitoring, assessment and enhancement (Meehan et al., 2019).

February 03, 2020

Abstract: The Elephant Welfare Initiative (EWI) is an effort supported by a community of member zoos with the common goal of advancing evidence‐based elephant‐care practices that enhance welfare. The idea for the EWI came about following the completion of a large‐scale North American elephant welfare study, which demonstrated that daily practices, such as social management, enrichment and exercise, play a critical role in improving the welfare of elephants in zoos. In 2014, the Elephant Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums expressed an interest in building upon the results of this study to support the continued assessment of elephant programmes and implementation of enhanced management practices. The EWI is supported by a web‐based system of software tools and resources. In contrast to traditional record‐keeping systems, the EWI tools provide participants with real‐time analysis as well as zoo‐ and elephant‐level metrics for key welfare indicators and associated management practices. Members’ data are pooled to create opportunities for benchmarking, and to leverage the collective efforts of individual organizations to address elephant welfare challenges and generate the data necessary to identify evidence‐based strategies for enhanced outcomes. Future considerations include extending the EWI model to other species in managed settings, and to support transitional programmes for in situ elephant reintroduction efforts.

Photo credit: Kansas City Zoo

Evaluating the Reliability of Non-Specialist Observers in the Behavioural Assessment of Semi-Captive Asian Elephant Welfare (Webb et al., 2020)

January 24, 2020

Summary: It is essential that elephant workers monitor the stress levels of their animals to uphold high standards of welfare. This can be done quickly and efficiently by observing elephant behaviour, however, the consistency of this approach is likely to vary between workers. While this variation has been tested in zoo elephants when observations were carried out by experienced observers, the consistency of observations made by non-experienced observers on the much larger population of Asian elephants working in Southeast Asia has yet to be explored. By constructing a list of elephant working behaviours, we employed three volunteer observers with no experience of elephant research to record the behaviour of Asian elephants working in Myanmar. We then tested the similarity between observations collected by the three observers, as well as the consistency that individual observers could repeatedly recognise the same behaviour. Overall, observers recognised the same behaviour from the videos and were highly consistent across repeated observations. These results suggest that the behaviours tested may represent useful indicators for welfare assessment, and that non-experienced observers can meaningfully contribute to the monitoring of elephant welfare.

Photo: Zoo Negara

Swimming features in captive odontocetes: Indicative of animals’ emotional state? (Serres et al., 2020)

January 15, 2020

Abstract: Captive welfare studies in odontocete species have been mostly conducted on bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) while the welfare of many other species’ -including endangered species- remains poorly studied. More research is needed to find and validate potential indicators of welfare for each species and even for each group. Since captive odontocetes spend most of their time swimming, their swimming features are interesting to study in relation to their welfare state. We first analysed the circular swimming direction bias in three groups of captive odontocetes (Yangtze finless porpoises: Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis; East-Asian finless porpoises: N. a. sunameri; and bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus). Second, we studied the effect of environmental and social factors (i.e., time of the day, delay to training, enrichment, potential perturbation, social grouping, public presence and housing pool) on circular swimming, fast swimming, group swimming, synchronous swimming and contact swimming in the three groups. Yangtze finless porpoises exhibited a clockwise swimming bias while East-Asian finless porpoises and bottlenose dolphins swam significantly more in the counter-clockwise direction. Each studied factor significantly impacted the animals’ swimming behaviour slightly differently depending on the group. However, some patterns were common for the three groups: animals seemed to be more active in the morning than at noon and in the afternoon, and enrichment seemed to decrease circular swimming, fast swimming and social swimming (i.e., synchronous, contact and group swimming), while potential perturbations (e.g., pool cleaning, noise) seemed to increase it. In addition, behaviour differed for Yangtze finless porpoises and bottlenose dolphins right before the training or when other animals were being trained, suggesting an anticipation of this event or an excited/frustrated state in this context. Social separation also impacted these animals’ swimming behaviour with less group swimming but more circular swimming, synchronous swimming and fast swimming when separated. The housing pool had an impact on bottlenose dolphins’ behaviour with more circular swimming, more fast swimming and less group swimming when having access to a larger space. The effect of the presence of public was unclear and requires further investigation. From our results, we propose that circular swimming, synchronous swimming and contact swimming could be useful to monitor animals’ emotional state, but that additional parameters should be added (e.g., swimming speed) since these behaviours can be expressed both in quiet and relaxed contexts and in stressful ones. In addition, fast swimming can be a useful indicator of stress for porpoises but might be more ambiguous for bottlenose dolphins that engage in intense social play bouts for instance. Finally, group swimming might be a good behaviour to monitor when wanting to investigate reactions to various conditions or events that can potentially be stressful. We suggest that further research should be conducted on other groups of odontocetes to validate our findings.

Photo credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Assessing the Psychological Priorities for Optimising Captive Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Welfare (Veasey, 2020)

December 30, 2019

Abstract: The welfare status of elephants under human care has been a contentious issue for two decades or more in numerous western countries. Much effort has gone into assessing the welfare of captive elephants at individual and population levels with little consensus having been achieved in relation to both the welfare requirements of captive elephants, or their absolute welfare status. A methodology capable of identifying the psychological priorities of elephants would greatly assist in both managing and assessing captive elephant welfare. Here, a Delphi-based Animal Welfare Priority Identification System© (APWIS©) is trialled to evaluate the reliability of the methodology and to determine the welfare significance of individual behaviours and cognitive processes for Asian elephants (Elaphus maximus). APWIS© examines the motivational characteristics, evolutionary significance and established welfare impacts of individual behaviours and cognitive processes of each species being assessed. The assessment carried out here indicates appetitive behaviours essential for survival in the wild, together species-specific social and cognitive opportunities are likely to be important to the welfare of Asian elephant in captivity. The output of this assessment, for the first time, provides comprehensive species-specific psychological/welfare priorities for Asian elephants that should be used to inform husbandry guidelines, habitat design and management strategies and can also provide a valuable reference tool for Asian elephant welfare assessment. The effective application of these insights could lead to substantive improvements in captive Asian elephant welfare.

Photo credit: Audubon Nature Institute

The use of Qualitative Behavioural Assessment to zoo welfare measurement and animal husbandry change. (Rose & Riley, 2019)

January 01, 2020

Abstract: Zoological institutions have come a long way over the past twenty years in their measurement and evaluation of animal behaviour and welfare. Environments that enable the performance of biologically-relevant activity patterns, which increase behavioural diversity and ensure appetitive behaviours can be completed in full are commonplace in zoos globally. The use of species-specific environmental enrichment (EE) techniques, where the effect of EE is evaluated and refined, further enhance the opportunities for species to experience positive welfare in the zoo. What is still required is evaluation of the lasting effect of such husbandry and housing changes that provide meaningful long-term welfare improvements. Within British and Irish (BIAZA), and European (EAZA) collections welfare state is often inferred from behavioural measurements or determined based on a correlation of behavioural responses and physiological fluctuations. To provide evidence for best practice management, we need to provide benchmarks at a species-specific level that are comparable across husbandry and management regimes, as well as across environmental conditions that captive populations occur in. This paper provides an outline of the relevance of Qualitative Behavioural Assessment (QBA) to those working in the field of zoo animal husbandry to show how valid and objective measurements of welfare state can be taken on individuals living in zoos in a range of different situations. We evaluate the current literature to show the depth and breadth of QBA application to provide suggestions for future areas of research investigation and a practical usage in the zoo. We show how QBA can be used to target the application of EE to meet specific husbandry needs or promote key welfare-positive behaviour. We evaluate the relevance of positive challenge “eustress” to captive species and identify areas for the wider application of QBA across captive population and institutions to further support the key aims of the modern zoo. We provide coverage of literature on QBA in the domestic animal field and attempt to apply these methods to a zoo-based example. We conclude by evaluating why zoos need to consider the results of qualitative, multi-institution studies and how the results of this can be utilised to improve husbandry and animal experiences in the zoo.  

Photo credit: WWT

Effects of assembly and operation of an amusement ride on the behaviour of a pair of captive Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) (Harley et al., 2019)

November 23, 2019

Abstract: The effects of construction, noise, and visitors on behavioural and physiological responses in zoo animals have become increasingly well documented. However, scientific data are lacking on the impact of amusement rides on the welfare of captive animals.  

Capital developments in 2014 at Tayto Park, Ireland included expansion of their theme park. This project provided an opportunity to investigate the effects of visual and auditory stimuli of an amusement ride on the behaviour of two Amur tigers. Data on the behaviour and spatial location of the tigers in the enclosure, as well as visitor numbers and noise levels, were collected across four phases of the project; pre-assembly, assembly, operation and when the park closed in the off-season. Differences in the tigers’ behaviour across phases were analysed with Kruskal-Wallis tests, correlations were tested with Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient and enclosure use was calculated using a modified SPI Index.

Time tigers spent off-show (in-house) was proportionately higher during Phase Two and findings were statistically significant for the male (X2(3) = 7.935, p=0.047). SPI values show that the female tiger had a strong bias when utilizing her enclosure in Phase Two with an SPI of 0.87 and spent 87% of her time off-show (in-house). There was no significant difference between phases in the proportion of time tigers spent in observed behaviours. Further, there was no statistical difference in behaviours exhibited by the tigers in Phases with high and low decibel levels and visitor numbers. It was concluded that visual disturbance from the ride was more aversive to the tigers that either noise or visitor levels.

Zoological collections should consider the potential negative impacts of novel visual stimuli and provide free access to off-show retreat, as well as to ensure visual barriers are sufficient to minimize environmental disturbance.

Photo: Tayto Park

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