Ethology as a tool for conservation of endangered animals

Senast ändrad: 16 december 2022

Jenny Loberg.

Ethology, the study of the behaviour of animals, became a science around 1930 with the studies by Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch. However, humans have always been interested in the behaviour of animals, so our studies of animal behaviour has a long history. The study of animal behaviour gives us information about how the animal experience their surroundings, how they organize themselves in groups, how they make decisions and we, to some extent, explain why they behave the way they do. Ethology is also an important tool when studying animal welfare in domestic animals, and is used more and more when animals are kept ex-situ for conservation purposes, e.g. in zoos.

In today’s zoos, the focus has changed from being amusement parks, to organisations that work actively with the conservation of species that are endangered. For many species, the population kept in zoos are so called rescue populations. For them there are no active plans for reintroduction in the wild. However, if the species goes extinct in the wild, there is the possibility to reintroduce them again. For these animals the design of the environment in the zoo is extremely important tokeep them healthy and to allow them to express as much of their natural behaviour as possible. All these individuals lives their whole life in enclosure. For other species, breeding and keeping has the goal of reintroduction. Here the knowledge of the behaviour both in captivity and in the wild are important, in order for us to give them the best chances of survival when released.

The mountain chicken frog, living on two islands in the Caribbean, is critically endangered according to the IUCN red list, and the goal is to reintroduce them. However, but there have been problems with reproduction in captivity. By studying the reproduction behaviour and changing husbandry routines, we have succeeded to provide an environment where we get reproduction on this species, and thereby increased the number of frogs in captivity. This is crucial for the future plans of reintroducing this species in the wild.

One of our most endangered Swedish toads, the green toad, have been reintroduced on the island of Öland. For many years young toads have been released but it have been difficult to assess if the toads just stay at the release site or migrate to new areas. This toad is active only during dusk and dawn and have a good camouflage which makes it difficult to find. We have now released toads fitted with radio transmitters in order to find out how they spread from the release site. The information can help us to understand their behaviour in the wild and give us more knowledge on how to give them the best opportunities when released.

Markhoors are a wild goat native to Central Asia. They have been hunted and are displaced by domestic sheep and goats. At the moment, there are no plans to reintroduce this species to help the wild population, so the animals held in zoos has to be given the best opportunities to thrive. We have, for several years, studied the behaviour of one flock of markhoors held in Sweden to study how their enclosure affects their behaviour in regards to foraging and maternal care, two behaviours crucial for conservation. We have found that an enclosure resembling their natural habitat is beneficial. Furthermore we have found that these animals need to be handled very careful during reproduction and have been able to formulate best practice recommendations for zookeepers.

My vision for future research is to use the knowledge of ethology to continue to improve the housing and management of wild animals in captive environments. I want to use ethology to solve problems in breeding endangered species, to improve our knowledge about what behaviours are needed for successful reintroduction of different species and to improve the welfare of wild individuals in captivity when are held as rescue populations.