08 29/08/2017

Meet Lydia Underwood: Behaviour and Welfare Intern

  • Sun bears
  • Biodiversity Surveys and Ecological Research

Lydia is a zoology student from the University of Manchester who always had a strong interest in animal behaviour. She had the opportunity to do various field courses where she always picked behavioural projects whenever possible. When she saw the zoo advertising a Behaviour and Welfare Internship she knew she had to apply!

Lydia Underwood
Lydia spends a few hours a day observing the sun bears.

Lydia’s research project is focusing on the two sun bears at the zoo, Toni and Milli. Born in the wild in Cambodia, Milli was being mistreated as a pet while Toni had entered the illegal wildlife trade. Luckily those two bears were rescued by the organisation Free the Bears. After being moved to the Rare Species Conservation Centre in Kent in 2013, they then moved to Chester Zoo in 2015.

The two bears could be found in the Spirit of the Jaguar area, before they were recently moved to their new habitat in Islands. Lydia’s project titled ‘Bear behaviour: A behavioural study of a breeding pair of Malayan sun bears (Helarctos malayanus)’ is looking at the way the move affected the two bears’ behaviour. Using a continuous focal sampling method, she recorded over 120 hours of live behavioural observations.

Now that her placement year is reaching an end, we asked Lydia to reflect on her year at Chester Zoo.

Sun bears
Our sun bears, Milli and Toni, were rescued from the illegal wildlife trade

Please could you tell us a bit more about your project at Chester Zoo?

“The aim of my project was to look at the sun bears before and after they moved to Islands to look at how they might be affected by the habitat move. As they have just moved, I have not obtained full results for a comparison of before and after but I found some individual differences between individuals before they actually moved.

“I found that Toni sleeps a lot more than Milli and that both of them slept more when they were together compared to when they were separate which leads to the conclusion that they are more relaxed when they are together. They also moved more when they were outside compared to when inside which was quite unusual. I wasn’t really expecting that but it might indicate that they are more alert when they are outside because there is higher visibility of surrounding areas.

“Now I’m collecting data after their move to Islands to see if they behave differently. So far there are no major differences apart from higher alertness, but I have not finished collecting and analysing my data yet.”

What was the biggest challenge you encountered during your research?

The biggest challenge was definitely that the bears only moved very recently so it only gave me about four weeks to collect my post-move data. However, I think that’s one of those things that helped me learn how difficult it can be to actually collect behavioural data because there are always outside factors that you have to take into account.”

What’s a typical day like for you at the zoo?

“Generally I would do two or three hours of observations usually working on a couple of species at a time. For example at the moment I’m focussing on the sun bears and the lions and then in between those hours I’ll do other work like data input and analyses. It’s very mixed and every day is different!”

Lydia Underwood
Lydia records all the behaviours she observes on her tablet

What are you taking away from your year at Chester Zoo?

“A massive amount definitely! Being able to be part of a science team and to feel like you’re contributing to something, learning so much from being around all those really good scientists has definitely helped me gain so many skills.”

What is your best memory from this year at Chester Zoo?

“Seeing the sun bears once they had actually moved because I had been waiting for so long for that to happen. Being able to go there and actually seeing them wandering around their new habitat before it opened to the public was really cool especially because most people wouldn’t get the chance to see that.”

Lydia Underwood
The sun bears moved to their new habitat over our Islands area.