Conservation Behavior

by Lisa Barrett

The field of animal behavior broadly involves investigating why animals do what they do. Its applications go beyond exciting (and anthropomorphic) article titles by the media. Not only can the study of animal behavior lead to understanding similarities between humans and non-human animals, but animal behavior research has also seen important breakthroughs in animal welfare and conservation.  Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Conservation behavior, applying animal behavior to solve problems in conservation management, is an interdisciplinary field that combines wildlife management, conservation biology, behavioral ecology, and animal behavior. Its successful application requires that wildlife managers and conservationists see the world from the study animal’s perspective, known as umwelt.

Well known for her mastery of umwelt is Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin was instrumental in improving cattle handling practices (also depicted in the film Temple Grandin starring Claire Danes). How? She considered the handling process before slaughter from a new perspective– that of the cattle. Today, her improvements are still in use, saving time and money for farmers and making the handling process more humane for cattle.

What happens when you don’t see things from the animal’s perspective? A conservation failure. Unfortunately there are quite a few examples of conservation attempts that failed, because their leaders lacked an understanding about some aspect of behavior. One such example comes from wood ducks in North America. Ornithologists sought to increase wood duck numbers by providing the ducks with more nesting sites (nest boxes). However, wood ducks commit conspecific brood parasitism; females lay eggs in nests of absent mothers. Conspicuous nest boxes encouraged this egg dumping behavior, and while egg-laying increased, survival of nestlings plummeted. Eggs on the bottom of the pile were getting crushed, and females couldn’t care for the large number of hatched nestlings. After relocating nest boxes so that they were under cover, ornithologists finally saw wood duck population increases. wood-duck-box

Another famous example of conservation behavior in practice involves costumes and planes. Overharvesting of whooping cranes in the 1900s led to their severe decline,  and remaining cranes were so young they had no one to teach them migration paths. So, ornithologists introduced sandhill cranes in the hopes that the whooping crane youngsters would learn from these sandhill foster parents. Instead, scientists discovered that whooping cranes sexually imprint on their parents, resulting in increased breeding between whooping cranes and the “wrong” species. Whooping cranes continued to diminish. Desperate, conservationists dressed like whooping crane mothers to teach chicks how to eat. But to get the birds to learn their migration path, the costumed scientists took to an ultralight motorized plane– and the whooping cranes followed!


Costumed whooping cranes.         Photo by: Care2

These examples only begin to scratch the surface of applied animal behavior research. Other work, for instance, has led to significantly bettering our understanding of human-wildlife conflict, effects of tourism on wildlife, and urbanized animals. Only when we appreciate umwelt and acknowledge our biases can we get the full picture; only then are we equipped to wildlife management and conservation.


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