Conservation practice meets Behavioural Ecology – Chimp practical, measuring behaviour and compiling ethograms!

Behaviour Ecology, University

As a component of my Conservation Practice module, we began (much to my fulfilment) learning about the importance of, and the roles, of animal behaviour in conservation.

It’s been a joy to combine my two passions!

Therefore, in order to carry out our own study and to gain a further insight into the area, we headed to Welsh Mountain Zoo where we proceeded to carry out a chimp practical.

Peter (a keeper at the Zoo) gave us a talk about the chimps, their feeding habits and ways in which we could identify each individual, since there are 11 chimps living at the zoo (including males and females) this could’ve been considerably difficult. Some chimps were easy to distinguish, especially Mabel, since she was the oldest of the group, the smallest and had noticeable sexual swelling on her behind.

It was interesting to hear about the chimp’s captive diet, where they are fed a range of vegetables and special primate pellets, alongside fruits occasionally acting as a treat. I believe the prime feeding method used is scatter feeding, which is wonderful at replicating natural feeding habits and encouraging foraging (searching) behaviours. And, of course, limiting boredom and creating both mental and physical stimulation.

The process began by placing ourselves into groups of six, enabling us to work together to compile a list of behaviours and codes which we could implement into our ethograms. Ie: feeding, movement and resting behaviours. The behaviours noted were then coded, so (for example) feeding was listed as FE.

We divided the group into pairs, with one group observing their chosen male chimp, whereas my friend and I studied an easily identifiable female chimp – Katie.

For a duration of one hour we kept our eyes on Katie, closely observing her every move and flinch. To implement accuracy to the study, we ensured we didn’t take our eyes off Katie, as we wanted to avoid missing any behaviours, with one of us engaging in recording duties and the other acting as the source of information in regards to the behaviours being carried out, alongside the times they began and finished. And some behaviours interestingly had a longer duration than others and it was wonderful witnessing Katie using a stick as a tool to aid her foraging behaviour.

During the practical, we noted a range of behaviours. Including perching, feeding, climbing and vocalisations which were noted shortly after being fed, as Katie proudly left the outdoor area, walking back indoors mischievously armed with vegetables.

After an hour, the alarm ringed and it was time to end the experiment, which was a blast to carry out! The information gathered could then be collated into an organised ethogram, preferably in hierarchical order, which can be added to our behaviour reports.

Behavioural Ecology – Oystercatcher practical and measuring vigilance

Behaviour Ecology, University

A component of my second year Behavioural Ecology module (BSX-2018) was carrying out an Oystercatcher practical in order to learn more about, and measure, vigilance.

Vigilance: The action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties

Prior to the practical experiment, we learned about vigilance during a lecture. And, evidently, vigilance can easily be measured in animals through assessing the number of times the animal raises their head, thereby scanning their environment in search of predators aswell as other potential threats.

Oystercatcher

Noticeably, animals in larger groups are known to be less vigilant following the ‘many eyes hypothesis’, since there are more eyes available to scan for predators, and more bodies to count for safety in numbers, it significantly reduces the need for individuals to scan on their own accord. In comparison to animals staying on their own, who need to scan more frequently in order to search and to keep themselves safe.

The experiment:

In order to successfully carry out the experiment, we were each assigned three videos of Oystercatchers to watch which had been previously recorded on Bangor Harbour.

We watched each video for a duration of three minutes, recording the number of times the Oystercatchers were vigilant (raising their heads) to measure the head-up rate with the use of a clicker, to provide accuracy to the experiment by ensuring we didn’t take our eyes away from the screen. Simply, whenever the animal raised their head, we were to press the clicker to count the head up rate.

During the experiment, we also had to assess which diet the Oystercatcher had to understand whether this did or did not affect vigilance in the individuals. This was done by monitoring how deep the animals searched for food. Noting that the animals engaged in a range of different searching methods, including:

  • Pecking
  • Boring
  • Sewing
  • Ploughing

And the prey handling methods for Bivalves consisted of:

  • Stabbing
  • Hammering (Dorsal)
  • Hammering (Ventral)

The information gathered was then recorded in the class datasheet for each of the Oystercatchers we observed, to which we could compare with the results of other students. Though, this wasn’t a component required for the completion of the practical experiment.

During the next part of the experiment, we were informed on how to use R statistics for the first time. Admittedly, I’ve always been nervous around stats, but I loved grasping the concept of using a new software and stepping aside from SPSS, and I quickly felt confident with using the software. The practical handout was a blessing and our knowledgeable, and kind, lecturers were around and keen to issue support and guidance if and when we required it.

We made our way through the practical handout, each of us working at our own pace and facing our own individual (but expected) hurdles along the way. The experiment took approximately four hours to complete as we were issued with codes we had to transfer into the software in order to create a graph, which could simply be done by running the code.

Following on from this, we made our own codes and plotted different categories on the X and Y axis, thereby allowing us to formulate our own graphs which could then be used to gain an insight and a further understanding into different relationships between Oystercatchers and vigilance. For example, how the diet affects the head up rate, or how group size affects head up rate.

And then we simply had to perform a stats test for each of the 6 plots we had previously created in earlier steps. Which, again, could be done by simply creating a code, running it and noting down the important parts of the test, such as the p-value to determine whether each of the relationships were significant or insignificant.

Behavioural Ecology – Habituation and morphology in the green shore crab

Behaviour Ecology, University

In a component of my Behavioural Ecology module (BSX-2018) we began learning about habituation, one of my favourite subject areas, which we were then able to study through a practical experiment using green shore crabs obtained from The Menai Straits, North Wales.

Habituation: Diminishing of an innate response to a frequently repeated stimulus.

The experiment:

In order to successfully carry out the habituation and morphology experiment, we paired up and collected a crab from the bucket sitting at the front of the lab after carefully reading the practical handout and stating our practical hypothesis.

We placed the crab in a large tray of salt water, setting the timer for thirty minutes for each individual crab, and the experiment was carried out on three crabs in total, per group. Though, Rosie and I opted to use a forth crab following our enjoyment of the experiment, and because we were keen to experiment using a Female after already using three Males. And that way, it would be interesting to distinguish differences in results between the two sexes.

Asked to label each of our chosen crabs, my friend and I excitedly named each of ours (appropriately, of course…)

Fred, Leo, Barney and Penny. 

Fred, our first crab and the largest we experimented with, was noticeably aggressive nearing the beginning of the experiment and would raise his claws as an indication of a warning signal to fend off predators. And our third crab (Barney) was unfortunately missing his right claws, which could’ve given him a disadvantage throughout the experiment in comparison to the fully-clawed crabs, since he had less limbs to assist him in turning himself back around.

The task was to gently flip the crabs over on their backs, distinguishing whether the individual was a Male or a Female. So we could time how long each of the crabs took to get themselves back over to an upright position. We carried this out for thirty minutes for each of the crabs, noting down in a table the duration of time the crab took to turn back over (without assistance!)

Hint: The Male’s abdomens are more triangular in shape whereas the abdomens of Females are more rounded, as pictured below.

Crab

We then measured the crabs carapace height and width alongside their left and right minor and major claws – also referred to as cutters and crushers – described which crabs were small (< 45mm) and which were larger (> 45mm) and recorded the information into a table.

The hypothesis being: When an animal is exposed to a stimulus, they’ll react differently to it over time and will no longer become affected, or stressed, by it. Similar to if a Human was constantly exposed to the ringing of a car alarm. At first, the alarm would be annoying and would cause distress, but over time and following more exposure to the stimulus, it would become more tolerable and significantly easier to deal with. The more times we flipped the crab over, the longer they’d take to flip themselves back over, since they learned that the situation wasn’t threatening and therefore didn’t invest as much energy into manoeuvring themselves.

We noted that different crabs had different reactions. Therefore, some were quicker at flipping themselves in comparison to others. For example, one of our crabs (who we named Leo) took approximately one second to turn back around to begin with, and a crab monitored by our friend took several minutes to obtain an upright position. Though, a series of factors could contribute to this, including: size, sex, exposure to the stimulus and possibly whether or not the animal has experienced a similar situation in their natural environment.

Additionally, one of the crabs we experimented with (Penny) appeared to be pregnant! As were many of the crabs used throughout the practical since it was mating season; we had permission from our lecturer to flip them over. So this may have also had implications on the results gathered. Ie: Her reaction rate could’ve been quicker due to predation risk and her maternal instinct to protect herself and her offspring.