Taronga’s Behavioural Studies Unit (BSU) is based at Taronga Zoo and has two permanent Behavioural Biologists who are assisted by Animal Watch and Behavioural Enrichment Volunteers. Teams of observers monitor animal behaviour to answer specific questions on the origin of behavioural patterns in wildlife, the impact of these behaviours on ecosystem function and how to maintain species specific behaviour and the well-being of animals in the Zoos’ collections.
The Zoo environment offers the unique opportunity to increase our basic understanding of species that are difficult to observe in the wild. This is important for several reasons. Firstly, animal behaviour has evolved under environmental pressures and so can tell us about important aspects of their habitat. For example, predators avoiding brightly coloured frogs may indicate that species is poisonous or at least unpalatable. Secondly, behavioural preferences will tell us about the optimal environment for the species, for example, Platypus will spend more time in places with a significant water flow rate – this is also the environment in which they have the best reproduction, giving them an evolutionary advantage. Finally, species behaviour helps us understand their role in the ecosystem, and the potential impact of a changing environment. For example, if Cassowaries strongly prefer a specific temperature band and moved to a more southern climate band to maintain that temperature or humidity, their current role of eating, germinating and dispersing quandongs, lilypillies, and laurels would be lost, resulting in changed forest composition and likely ecosystem function.
Our entire business is grounded in excellent animal welfare, so the BSU also designs and prepares enrichment devices for keepers to give to animals in the collection. This is based on extensive knowledge of species’ needs and abilities, and the BSU undertake detailed studies of how the animals respond to the enrichment devices or programmes. If enrichment devices are not engaging the target animal, or do not elicit the target behaviours, it will be redesigned to be more effective. Margaret Hawkins, leader of the group, is often invited to run courses and workshops on wildlife enrichment around the world. Because we apply much of our research to developing theories about wild populations, ensuring the best animal welfare in our collections also means that our health, nutritional and reproductive data are more meaningful.