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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.
Behavioural Monitoring of the Elephant Herd at Taronga
Intensive monitoring of pre- and post-birth behaviour of the pregnant females as well as all other females in the herd has been a primary focus in 2009 and 2010. Volunteers are trained intensively to provide information on the birth and well-being of our elephants. Following each birth, the herd has been monitored continuously to better understand the interactions within a group of different aged elephants. This is particularly interesting as the original herd from Thailand were not related, and the assimilation of these cows into a functioning herd has important implications for rehabilitation and elephant well-being.
Taronga Zoo has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and many animals have moved to new accommodation. The BSU team works hard to document animal behaviour before and after each move to determine their responses and ensure the animals’ needs are met. For example, we continue year-round analysis of the Leopard Seal behaviour in the new, larger pool in relation to ambient and water temperature, and the onset of breeding season.
The Efficacy of Enrichment
BSU scientists need to design the right enrichment and work with keepers to determine the right timing and method of introduction. The BSU’s goal is for the animals to experience the widest range of natural behaviours possible, and if the selected enrichment does not achieve the set goal then the type, timing or placement is changed.
Light Detection by Monotremes
There is very little known about the activity of monotremes (platypus and echidnas) when they enter their burrows. All attempts to capture this on video have shown that the behaviour of the animal changes to avoid the camera and lights. We are studying the platypus’s response to different wavelengths and intensity of infra-red light to test whether there is a combination that is not detectable by the monotremes, and will therefore not disturb them.
Raptor Activity in a Free Flight Show
A project is under way to investigate the activity of birds of prey that take part in the Taronga Free Flight Bird Show, compared with birds housed in an alternate facility and free-ranging birds of the same or similar species.
Gorilla Use of Exhibit Space
Gorillas are highly social primates and therefore sensitive to facial expressions, noise and social cues of people nearby. This study examines the response of the gorilla group to numbers and noise level of visitors near the gorilla exhibit, and the impact of enrichment.