Trust Me, I’m a Zoologist

Cute, yet potent

When my two action-packed weeks working with the keepers finished, it was time for me to start my ‘real work’ in the research department. But as I was to find out, whilst I had (thankfully) left behind the wheelbarrows, my animal adventures were far from over.

The research department at my zoo is closely linked with and shares a building with the education department, meaning that we also share a building with a menagerie of education animals. So even though my days are not spent chopping fruit for monkeys or raking out zebra enclosures, I’m still able to use my animal husbandry knowledge. At the time of writing, the department is home to three cane toads, two bearded dragons, one hedgehog, one bullfrog plus several millipedes, Madagascan cockroaches, stick insects, and one skunk. (An illness in his youth left him without scent glands, making him the pride of the education department. Now in his golden years, a dodgy heart has meant he can no longer live in an outside enclosure and when no suitable indoor enclosure could be found, he retired to the education cloakroom. He now spends his days pottering around the education department, looking cute in pictures and eating any insects which are unfortunate to cross his path. And pooing under my desk).

In addition to feeding animals, most of my research involves studying certain animals in the zoo in detail, watching especially their behaviour. I won’t bore you with the specific details of the projects I’m involved in (I am informed by my colleagues, housemates and the cashier at the local supermarket that the intricate details of the mating behaviour of obscure Madagascan mongooses are not of interest to most people) but I will give a quick overview of how a ‘real-life’ research project might run in the zoo.

British zoo guidelines state that research should be a top priority in zoos in order to improve animal welfare and expand our knowledge about them. Like most scientific projects, zoo animal behaviour projects start with a question. This could be something related to a specific zoo situation e.g. the effect of a change in diet or social grouping. Alternatively, zoo research can sometimes be used to tell us about how wild animals interact with each other and their environment. This is followed by a period of intense background reading (I’m sure my tutor would be proud of the sheer volume of scientific papers I’ve read since coming here) and initial behavioural observations. From this we are able to develop an ethogram; a long list of every behaviour that we would expect the animal to perform. After a brief pilot study where we check our ethogram, data collection methods and ability to recognise individuals (if appropriate) it’s time to start collecting data.

My projects usually focus on two behavioural measures: long-duration state behaviours which are usually measured using an approximate duration and recorded as a percentage of overall time; and short-duration event behaviours which are usually measured as a frequency and recorded as a rate. We may also include some measure of time spent in different enclosure locations or in close proximity to other individuals.

And whilst most of this observation takes place outside in whatever wind, rain or hail the Great British Springtime wants to throw at me, occasionally we install camera traps into enclosures to see what shy animals get up to whilst off-show or what nocturnal animals get up to after hours. This usually results in hours of footage to watch the following day (yes, my job is to watch cute animal videos), interspersed with close-ups of me or my supervisor turning the cameras on and clips of keepers singing, dancing and talking to animals, blissfully unaware that they are being recorded.

Once collected, the data may be analysed statistically, used to draw pretty graphs or added to a larger data set for future analysis. Various keepers may ask for an overview of the results or may all gather in the education office for a showing of especially cute/funny camera trap videos showing especially cute/funny behaviours of both animals and unwitting keepers.

Finally, the research is written up (this part I have yet to get to. Whilst I have started drafting it, I won’t finish until the summer when my placement ends; after all it’s difficult to write up data you haven’t collected yet…)

Whilst I primarily study animal behaviour, this is not the only thing scientists may investigate in zoos. Some studies use physiological measures such as heart rate or the presence of certain compounds in urine to, for example, determine stress levels. Alternatively the measurement of weight and faeces composition can tell us something about for example, the suitability of a diet. As every zoo is different, types of research may vary between them as each plays to unique strengths and facilities. Therefore global databases and research symposiums are used to share information and pool expertise.

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