Beardsley Zoo and Fairfield University’s Behavioral Study Program
Critically endangered, the Amur Tigers are a subspecies of Siberian Tigers. They live up to 25 years in captivity. Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo is home to two Amurs—a male, Petya, and a female, Changbai.
Photos courtesy Beardsley Zoo
Here’s an AP bio test word for you: ethology. It is the study of animal behavior that helps us to understand the link between living organisms and the environment. Since behavior is how animals define their lives, including humans and our own behavior, then understanding animal behavior should be at the top of our priorities. Well, it certainly is for Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo and a group of biology students from Fairfield University who are collaborating on a study program—the only one of its kind in the country.
Administered by Jim Knox, the zoo’s education curator, and Rob Tomas, associate curator, with Dr. Ashley Byun, Fairfield University’s associate professor of biology, the program engages undergraduate students in observing and documenting animal behavior. Undergraduates are primarily biology majors, but others participate that are interested in advancing the understanding of animal behavior.
“Our students contribute 400 to 450 hours of behavioral observation each semester,” explains Knox. “They receive extensive training before beginning to look for patterns and behavior that can help us further our mission of animal care and conservation.”
Students observe the behavior of zoo animals, but also wild animals that live on the zoo grounds. In their initial classroom training, students are shown how to collect and analyze data by developing an ethogram, a template for behaviors that can be observed. Observable behaviors include time spent climbing, swimming, foraging, interacting with others, and scent marking. Results are interpreted under the direction of Dr. Byun.
“What they observe allows us to make the best choices for animal welfare and enrichment, helps in the ongoing breeding program for endangered and threatened animals, and contributes to environment and resource management. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the students’ contributions,” says Tomas.
The program began as an outgrowth of the University’s Service Learning Course, designed to help students gain experience in an academic field while providing community service. Traditionally, the course focused on helping children, for example, instead of animals. “It was unusual to think of Service Learning as extending to the animal community,” explains Byun. “But community includes everything, because we share the world with animals.”
The importance of behavioral studies is directly linked to the importance of zoos. Byun suggests that we reframe our point of view and think of zoos as a kind of an ark. “The role of zoos today is very different because there is nowhere else for these animals to go,” she explains. “For declining animal populations, it’s not realistic to try to increase their numbers in the wild, because there’s not enough habitat to support them.”
Don Goff, deputy director of Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, said that students have measured tiger responses and behavior during estrus, identifying valuable information critical to successful breeding. The zoo’s Amur (or Siberian) Tigers are critically endangered due to loss of habitat and the illegal use of tiger bone for medicinal purposes. “If we can successfully breed more tigers based on student observations, then we’re able to help bolster dwindling populations.”
One of the most interesting behavioral studies resulted in identifying critical information about beloved zoo residents: the Prairie Dogs. Because the Prairie Dogs live primarily underground, the zookeepers were aware of some aggressive behavior occurring periodically, but couldn’t be sure what was triggering it.
Students interested in learning more about the connectivity of the burrows inserted a (harmless, non-toxic) fog machine into a burrow to see where the smoke exited. They realized there were two separate colonies. The zookeepers had been placing food and hay for bedding material in only one area in the exhibit, creating territorial issues. The study caused a change in feeding procedures. Today, food is placed in two different areas. Aggression problem solved.
Students also documented first year interactions between the Zoo’s mother and baby Giant Anteater. There is very little research anywhere in the world on Giant Anteater behavior, raising hopes that other zoos may begin to copy the work begun by Beardsley. The students set up a camera trap, and captured rare footage of Anteater labor and birth. With that baby now a year old, the Anteater study is refocused on acoustic signals similar to Anteater baby sounds that elicit a powerful response.
Students are also studying the North American Porcupine—trying to solve a practical problem for the typically shy animal: how the exhibit can be changed to make the animal more comfortable, which may result in less hiding behavior.