Is Zoo based Research useful?

For anyone who has studied in animal behaviour, it is likely that you would have been taken to a zoo to complete a project on animal behaviour . Most Zoology degrees do this at least once during the course. But a question should be considered when researching in a zoo. Is the research useful?

Zoo animals are regularly studied for one obvious reason. It is sometime the only place that researchers can watch these animals for extended periods of time. In the field a scientist may spend 99% of their day tracking an animal and getting close just to collect some fleeting observations. So there is little surprise so many researchers enjoy the large data sets that can be gathered from observations in zoos, where they can rely on being able to see the animals for almost the entire time they are present. Whilst for some projects these observations can be invaluable. But think about the projects that can be thought of the assist with wild populations and ask, are observations in captivity applicable to how the species acts in the wild.

I spent my final year of my undergraduate degree working on a dissertation thesis looking into how animals are affected by the zoo environment with some interesting findings. When studying behaviour in zoos there are a few things that should be considered. Boundaries, boredom and observers.

Boundaries & Boredom

For many animals the addition of boundaries can have the biggest impact that captivity has on the species. Species that spend much of their lives ranging over huge areas in the wild are not suited to spend their lives in the same, small area. Some have linked animals that range large areas as being more likely to exhibit pacing when in captivity. This lack of freedom gives the animal a huge addition to their daily time budgets compared to those in the wild. Not having to spend hours a day navigating their habitats means there behaviours are a far-cry from how they behave in their natural ranges. This will be just one factor of difference that would show up in a comparison of behaviour between wild and captive animals, and what will the animal do with the extra hours? Increase the time they sleep for, pace, groom more or eat for longer? Any of these behaviours could have a negative effect on the animals and the displaying of stereotypical behaviours (any excessive behaviour that starts to have negative impacts) could make the validity of behavioural studies if trying to apply the observations to wild behaviours.


Zoos are perhaps the only place in the world where animals face regular stress caused by observers. Every day thousands of zoo visitors walk through the gates and are able to stand only metres away from animals, some that live solitary existences and are rarely seen in the wild. How animals react to this observer effect has become an entire field of study in itself, and was the main topic of my own studies.

The observer effect seems to affect many species differently and there is even variation between individuals with some showing negative behaviours more than others in a group. Some of the effects that can be seen whilst a large, or loud group is present are, aggression, threat displays, more stereotypical behaviour, attempting to hide and  behavioural shut-down as the animal freezes. All of these effects are again altering the time budgets of the animals and giving different result than those seen in the wild.

Is the data applicable?

As the zoo environment has dramatic changes on how animals behave, compared to wild population does that mean that the data should be thrown out? After all it doesn’t give any insight into wild behaviour, and shouldn’t researchers be spending more time studying wild populations so we know how to save them?

Well, No. Whilst the data cannot usually be applied as a proxy for wild animals this doesn’t make the data useless. As natural habitats are being lost or diminished we do require more research into these habitats and the species that live there. But, this also means that now more than ever we need to increase the amount of research being undertaken in zoos and animal collections. By studying how animals are reacting to captivity now, we can provide better and more natural surroundings for in the future.

Imagine if the next species to go extinct in the wild could still live on in captivity. But the stress of captivity made breeding attempts fail. Wouldn’t we have wished for more zoo based research earlier so that the tragedy could be averted and the species saved? If we know how to make captivity less stressful for species, and more enriching now. The we could well be improving our chances of saving countless species in the future.

So, the next time your college or university takes you to conduct behavioural studies in a zoo, just remember, that researchers doing just that could well save all the species we know and love one day.

So show your support to all the zoo researchers trying to make captivity work for conservation.


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