Studies of courtship, mating and paternal care behaviors are integral components of larger research projects on reproduction. Results can show whether a particular pair is compatible or whether a mother is taking proper care of her offspring. Other studies focus on social interactions or on reactions to potentially stressful situations. Research on behavioral enrichment identifies items or protocols that best stimulate physical activity and engage an animal's interest. Together with hormone assays, such data can provide insights into animal well-being.
At the Saint Louis Zoo, college students work as research interns, observing animals both in their habitats around the Zoo and on video in the Behavior Lab. An example of live observations is the study of Somali wild ass and Grevy’s zebra social, courtship, mating and maternal behaviors. Although both Grevy’s zebras and Somali wild asses are reported to be primarily solitary in field studies, asses have been domesticated several times, while zebras have not.
Because sociality (the degree to which individuals in an animal population tend to associate in social groups and form cooperative societies) favors domestication, zoo researchers look for any differences in interactions that may provide clues to explain this distinction. In addition, because very little is known about the natural behavior of Somali wild asses, anything learned may help zoos provide better care and improve breeding programs for these endangered animals.
Proper maternal care is critical for an infant to thrive and to learn species-appropriate behavior, but Zoo staff will intervene and hand-raise infants if mothers fail to provide that care. However, for some species determining whether care is appropriate presents a challenge. Different ungulate species (hoofed animals such as antelope, deer, cattle and zebras) show divergent strategies for protecting infants from predators, dubbed either “hiders” or “followers." Hider species such as white-tailed deer leave infants camouflaged in bushes and come to them only a few times a day for nursing, so as not to draw attention to the vulnerable baby. In contrast, followers such as zebras and wildebeest keep their babies with the herd, protected by the group of adults. Those babies have almost constant access to their moms and may nurse as much as a few times per hour.
Little is known about the maternal strategies of antelope, so judging whether a mother addax is behaving appropriately is challenging. Should she be avoiding (hider strategy) or tending (follower strategy) the infant? The Zoo’s study will show what suite of behaviors is normal for female antelope that successfully raise infants. The results may not always apply directly to animals in the wild, but they will provide keepers with the information they need to make informed decisions about infant care. Because new mothers can be nervous about being watched, and antelope are active on and off around the clock, video is the best approach for capturing their behavior. Behavior interns then review the video footage back in the Lab.
In the wild, animals spend most of their time hunting or foraging for food, avoiding predators, competing for mates and defending territories. By comparison, animals in zoos have a pretty cushy life, but it can also get boring. Inventive zookeepers are continually devising new strategies to help animals stay mentally engaged and physically active. Enrichment should also allow animals to engage in species-appropriate behavior. Interns assist busy keepers by observing animals interacting with various enrichment devices, to determine which ones the animals prefer and which keep them busy.