Chicago Zoological Society Takes Lead on Multi-Institutional Cetacean Study

Scientists in seven countries will collect data to increase understanding of health and welfare of cetaceans in professional care

The Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages Brookfield Zoo, is taking the lead in the largest-ever, multi-institutional study of how physical habitat, environmental enrichment, and animal training impact the welfare of cetaceans in zoos and aquariums worldwide. This study will take place across 44 accredited facilities in seven countries where scientists will gather data regarding approximately 290 common and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, 20 beluga whales, and eight Pacific white-sided dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphins, the most common cetacean in zoos and aquariums, are generally regarded as a species that thrives in professional care. But there is a surprising lack of scientific-based inquiry into what conditions optimize good welfare of cetaceans in managed environments; most animal-care decisions are made using information gained from research on a smaller scale combined with professional judgment from decades of experience. This study seeks to fill that void by collecting robust and objective data that can help inform future facility design, enrichment, and training programs.

“Cetaceans currently receive high levels of care in accredited zoos and aquariums around the world, but it is important to use science to cultivate best practices and make continuous improvements,” said Lance Miller, Ph.D., senior director of animal welfare research for the Chicago Zoological Society, and one of the six principal investigators on the study. “It is wonderful to see the cetacean community coming together to help optimize the care these animals receive now and in the future.” Some of the study’s institutional partners include Shedd Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium, Ocean Park Hong Kong, Indianapolis Zoo, Texas State Aquarium, and Delphinus Mexico. Approximately $740,000 in funding is being provided through a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), with additional funding from partner facilities.

There are two main objectives of the cetacean study: developing reference ranges for indicators of health and welfare for cetaceans in zoos and aquariums and identifying factors that influence the welfare of bottlenose dolphins. Researchers will attempt to quantify welfare by measuring activity and movement through a bio-logging device worn by the dolphins, through observation of video taped segments, and through measuring hormones and other biomarkers of health and welfare. 

Data collection will take place in two timeframes – July/August of 2018 and January/February of 2019. Then, data analysis will be conducted by the six principal investigators and additional project staff over the following two years, and research will likely be published in 2020.

The questions that researchers seek to answer will include:

  • How do habitat characteristics impact environment use, energy expenditure, and swimming behavior of bottlenose dolphins?
  • How does environmental enrichment influence behavioral and physiological indicators of animal welfare?
  • How does the type and timing of animal training influence behavioral and physiological indicators of welfare?

In addition to Miller, principal investigators also include Lisa Lauderdale, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Animal Welfare Research department for  the Chicago Zoological Society; Joy Mench, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis; Jill Mellen, Ph.D., affiliate professor from Portland State University Biology Department; Michael Walsh, DVM, clinical associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine; and Douglas Granger, Ph.D., professor and director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at the University of California, Irvine.

 

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