June 11, 2018

By Eli Baskir, Behavior Research Associate

Frequent guests of the Saint Louis Zoo have probably seen behavior research interns outside animal habitats holding clipboards and observing our animals. Because the Saint Louis Zoo is dedicated to caring for our animals, these interns are collecting data to examine the animals’ habitat usage, activity level, interactions with enrichment, and more. Interns can’t stand in front of animals all day, however, and clipboards aren’t always the best option for recording information.  We have started introducing technology into our studies to make data collection more efficient.

The simplest tools for studying live animal behavior are the researcher's own eyes and ears. Being patient, watching closely, and making notes make a good start to any project. Although we can record data with pencil and paper on a clipboard, handheld tablet computers can automatically prompt  researchers to make observations at specific intervals—and tapping a screen is usually quicker than writing. Tablets also save time by exporting data directly into analysis software without needing to copy information from paper onto a desktop computer.

Animals, like humans, have 24-hour lives, but our interns aren’t around after the Zoo closes. We can use cameras for after-hours observations to expand on what the interns witness, or when the animals prefer privacy; however, video is not always a perfect solution. Depending on camera placement, or changes in the habitat after the camera is set up, the image may be obscured, have poor quality, or be too far away to see important details. Human observers, on the other hand, can move to adjust their line of sight. Video does offer some other advantages over human observation; for example, cameras can be fitted with infrared light detectors or night vision to see in the dark.

We are always looking for new ways to speed up our review of footage. One possible solution we are exploring  is software called EthoVision. This program tracks movement from video, telling us how animals use their habitats, such as what features are preferred and how much time is spent near them. Not only do we receive valuable data points, but EthoVision can present this information visually with an easily understood color-coded map. Brighter areas on this map reveal locations where the animal is most often recorded. The picture below of a bird habitat shows two perches; the one on the right is lit up, indicating that the bird has spent more time in that area.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) also is being tested for use in our projects. This technology uses microchips the size of a grain of rice that receive radio waves broadcast by paired antenna. Information is logged on a computer when signals from an antenna detect a nearby chip. These chips are so tiny that they can be glued to identification bands already worn by some animals, so it’s perfect for monitoring movements through specific parts of a habitat. RFID is already used in toll roads, warehouses, key cards—even your favorite fast casual restaurants can use it to serve you without knowing your name or where you’ve chosen to sit.

Each of these options has its own strengths and situations to which it is best suited. We continue to explore methods that allow us to learn more—that is, more quickly and in more detail—about behavior and welfare to provide the best possible care for our animals. As researchers, we are constantly presented with a variety of  new questions and must use all our available tools, including eyes, interns, tablets, cameras, and newer technologies, to discover the answers.