The Secret Life of the Zoo 11/08/2016

Why we study animal behaviour

  • Habitat - Enrichment Garden

There's so much work that takes place behind the scenes at Chester Zoo to ensure the highest standards of welfare and the best care is given to all our animals... all 15,000 of them!

When visiting the zoo you may have seen a person, with a clipboard in hand, stood in front of one of the enclosures watching the animals and wondered what they were up to. Well, they’re studying the behaviour of our animals.

We study animal behaviour to understand what animals do and why they might do it. This can include the way animals find essential resources such as food or shelter, how they choose a suitable mate or how they might avoid danger such as poisonous food or predators.

Animal behaviour research has taken a more evolutionary approach over the past 50 years to enable us to understand how animals can adapt and survive which is a particularly useful approach when trying to protect species in challenging environments.

Red panda enrichment at Chester Zoo
Red panda at Chester Zoo

By researching animal behaviour we can discover so much about how an animal is and whether it’s healthy. We can also learn about an animal’s needs and personality traits, and for species that live within groups, we can see how they interact with others.

Learning more about the natural behaviour of an animal and how species have adapted to the changing world can provide even better care for the animals we keep here at the zoo. Here, at the zoo, we have conducted behavioural studies with a range of species to ensure that our feeding practices are stimulating and replicate natural foraging behaviour where possible.

Natural behaviour is also extremely important for species involved in reintroduction programmes. Correctly responding to threats in the wild is essential for survival and food sometimes may be difficult to find, so animals need to be able to forage successfully.

Recording animal behaviour
Recording flamingo behaviour

How do we measure animal behaviour? It can be measured through visual observations either by standing and watching the animal or through the use of camera equipment to take photographs or video footage.

We compile a list of all the behaviours we might expect to see for each species. This contains detailed descriptions of each type of behaviour to ensure that whoever is watching the animals can immediately identify the behaviour accurately.

There are a few different ways to record the behaviour: you can watch individuals or whole groups at a time and record each occurrence of a particular behaviour (e.g. feeding or tool use, etc.) or record what each individual is doing at a particular time interval (e.g. every 30 seconds). You can also focus on one particular animal and record every behaviour you see – this provides the most detailed measure of behaviour. There are many different factors that can influence how an individual animal behaves, so it’s important to record animal behaviour regularly.

Social behaviour is of particular interest when new individuals join a group or when an animal is born. The relationships between individuals within a group can also be really important for breeding success. One of our PhD students is currently looking at the social behaviour of Asian elephants to measure the importance of social bonds, particularly between related individuals in the herd.

Recording animal behaviour - Chester Zoo
Recording orangutan behaviour

The way an animal responds to new objects or environments is very important when considering enclosure design and feeding devices (read our blog to discover more about the design and planning processes we went through when building our new orangutan enclosure). Individual behaviour is also important as it tells us how an animal is responding to a new environment or enrichment such a new feeding device.

By studying behaviour before and after a change we can monitor how an animal responds. We are currently conducting a long term study of species which have moved into Islands to ensure they have settled well into their new homes.

As with all scientific disciplines here at the zoo, the study of animal behaviour plays an important role in achieving our mission of conserving the living world. We can assess how well animals respond to new environments and determine the effectiveness of new enrichment devices or enclosures on stimulating natural behaviours.

All studies conducted in zoos should be designed to help conservation efforts; whether this is to learn more about the evolutionary history of a species or to improve the way we care for animals. Every scientific project should be transferrable to other zoos and the results are made available through scientific publications, conferences and zoo literature such as newsletters and magazines.

By learning more about the natural history of animals and the evolutionary reasons for behaviour we can share this information and help to protect many species in the wild that we’re at risk of losing to extinction.

Meet our behaviour and welfare scientist, Dr Lisa Holmes, and learn more about her role and how she got into studying animal behaviour, here.

More like this...

Visit our Act for Wildlife website for more blogs like this about the work we do to help save endangered animals in the UK and around the world.

Act for Wildlife is a wildlife conservation campaign led by Chester Zoo where 100% of your donations are spent on our conservation projects around the world, to make a very real difference to conservation in the wild.

Visit our Act for Wildlife site