Welfare and conservation

The study of animal behaviour allows us to apply our findings to animal welfare and conservation. Our research covers both in and ex situ studies of animal behaviour. 

Animal welfare is highly dependent on what animals feel (their emotional - affective -state). Accurate measures of animal emotions are thus essential in order to correctly assess whether the ways we house and manage domestic and captive animals promote good well-being. However, measuring animal emotion can be challenging because we cannot know for sure about the subjective experiences of other species. Parts of our research interests are thus in developing and validating behavioural, cognitive and postural indicators of animal emotions (affect). To do so in mammals and birds, we adopt a translational ‘from humans to animals’ approach whereby human affective states (e.g. depression, anxiety) serve as ‘models’.

We also investigate the impact of various management practices on the animals’ well being, working in both vertebrates (mammals, birds, fishes) and marine invertebrates (hermit crabs, lobsters). Studies of animal behaviour in zoo environments for instance enable us to discover and promote husbandry measures that are beneficial for welfare, for example positive feeding and enrichment regimes, which benefit both the captive welfare and ex-situ conservation of species. We also study aspects of animal behaviour which can answer questions that are important to the in-situ conservation of species. Understanding behaviour at the individual level: how animals are affected by, evaluate and cope with environmental disturbance, can help us to predict how populations will respond to climate or anthropogenic impacts in the wild. We have a particular focus on behavioural syndromes. These describe variation between individuals in their response, sensitivity or susceptibility to environmental stressors, thus potentially conservation threats.

Current projects

Validating inactivity in the home-cage as a depression-like state indicator in mice 

Funder: BBSRC; collaboration Professor Mike Mendl and Dr Anna Trevarthen, University of Bristol. 

This project aims to test the hypothesis that displaying a specific form of waking inactivity in the home cage; namely remaining motionless but awake with eyes open (as if the animal is apparently doing nothing); reflects depression-like states in the most inactive mice. If you want to know more about this research, contact Dr Carole Fureix.

Out of the darkness: do some dogs suffer from depression-like conditions?

Funder: WALTHAM, collaboration Dr Naomi Harvey, University of Nottingham. 

This project has just finished and aimed to test the hypothesis that remaining motionless but awake with eyes open in the home kennel reflects depression-like states in the most inactive dogs. If you want to know more about this research, contact Dr Carole Fureix.

Validating a new cognitive proxy measure of animals affective state 

Funder: UoP School of Biological and Marine Sciences, supervisors Carole Fureix, Ben Brilot, collaboration Mike Mendl, University of Bristol.

Working with horses, this PhD project aims to validate a novel cognitive proxy measure of animal affect, i.e. affect-related cognitive bias in attention. If you want to know more about this research, contact Sarah Kappel.

Developing more naturalistic housing conditions for captive European lobsters Homarus gammarus 

Collaboration The National Lobster Hatchery (NLH). 

Some of the European lobsters at the NLH are housed under a full daylight regime due to the need to allow public viewing of the developing lobsters. Yet these are benthic organisms that use seafloor shelters to avoid predation, thus exposure to bright light may be stressful, cause behavioural abnormalities or deficits in visual capabilities. The project aims to develop more naturalistic housing environments for the lobsters, starting with testing their preference for differing light regimes using a combination of coloured acrylic light filters, such that we can mimic near-darkness shelters for these animals whilst still allowing public and technician viewing of the animals in their individual containers. If you want to know more about this research, contact Dr Ben Brilot.

Behavioural effects of anthropogenic noise on the European hermit crab Pagurus bernhardus from personality, individual to group level jointly hosted at the University of Plymouth (UoP, UK) and the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT, Ireland) 

Funder: UE Erasmus Mundus Doctoral Programme on Marine Ecosystem Health and Conservation and University of Plymouth, supervisors: Professor Mark Briffa (UoP), Dr Martin Gammell (GMIT), Dr Clare Embling (UoP)). This PhD project investigates if and how noise affects crustaceans in behaviours crucial for survival and reproduction such as shell selection in solitary and group context under repeated exposure and in the presence of predator cues. If you want to know more about this research, contact Svenja Tidau.

The effect of feeding schedules on the behaviour of zoo-housed carnivores. 

Animals in zoo environments are often fed according to regular schedules and there is evidence that the timing and predictability of these schedules can have an effect on animal behaviour. In particular in large carnivores, variation in the quantity of food provided each day (to match wild feeding behaviour) can further impact the effects of feed scheduling. This project aims to investigate the effects of feeding schedule on the behaviour of carnivores in zoo environments. If you want to know more about this research, contact Dr Joanna Newbolt.

Non-invasive measurement of stress 

Previous funders: BBSRC, Innovate; collaboration Dr Lucy Asher (Newcastle University) and the Thermal Ecology Group (University of Glasgow). 

This series of recently completed projects explored the potential of thermal imaging and acoustic monitoring as non-invasive tools for monitoring stress. We investigated whether these markers capture stressor intensity, were consistent across laboratory, farm and wild contexts, and explored phenomena such as social contagion in emotion. If you want to know more about this research, contact Dr Katherine Herborn.

Impacts of pharmaceutical pollutant exposure on starlings (Sturnus vulgaris; collaborators: Dr Kathryn Arnold & Sophia Whitlock (University of York), Dr Tom Bean (University of Maryland)). 

This ongoing collaboration explores the impacts that Prozac exposure from foraging in sewage treatment plants has on the emotional state, behaviour, and thermoregulation of starlings, and potential fitness consequences. If you want to know more about this research, contact Dr Katherine Herborn.

Conservation of the cirl bunting 

Previous funders Seale Hayne Educational Trust.

The cirl bunting (Emberiza cirlus) is on the UK Red List as a species of conservation concern and has been the focus of a number of conservation initiatives, including a reintroduction programme. By studying the song characteristics of different populations, including the reintroduced population, we were able to show the effect fragmentation of populations is having on their vocal diversity. We are also modelling the population distribution, comparing the UK and the mainland European population to determine the habitat characteristics that affect the species’ ability to disperse in the UK. If you want to know more about this research, contact Dr Sarah Collins.