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Behaving Naturally

Smithsonian National Zoo Fujifilm curatorial resident Erika Bauer specializes in studying why animals behave the way they do.

by Jodi Legge

When Erika Bauer came to work at the National Zoo in April 2007, she could not have imagined the impact she  would have in the area of animal behavioral studies. Bauer not only initiated new and important research, she also started an extremely successful internship program focused on observing animal behaviors and investigating how these behaviors can indicate the overall health and happiness of animals living in a zoo environment.

Bauer came to Washington, D.C., with a doctoral degree in psychology and a strong focus on animal behavior. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she always had a love for animals and worked in animal shelters during her high school years. As an undergraduate at John Carroll University in Ohio, she had the opportunity to work with a visiting professor researching chimpanzee behavior at the Cleveland Zoo. In that first foray into zoo research, Bauer spent many hours collecting data about how often the chimps used the environmental enrichment devices provided to them, and how social they were with one another.

This jump-started her passion for behavioral research, which she continued while working at the Pittsburgh Zoo after college, and then by pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her doctoral work focused on a comparative study of social play style in three species: chimpanzees, bonobos, and domestic dogs. “The dog study provided a convenient reason to go to the dog park in the name of research!” she says. Bauer was chosen from many interested and qualified candidates to be the National Zoo’s first Fujifilm curatorial resident as part of a two-year fellowship program; the Zoo didn’t have a behaviorist on staff and was very interested in her specific area of expertise.

“At the National Zoo, my research can have a direct impact on the animals I study,” says Bauer. “So this is essentially my dream job.”

Soon after she started her fellowship, Bauer realized that there was enormous interest in her research. National Zoo curators and keepers had many questions about the animals they cared for. Why does the male sloth bear pace back and forth, and what would reduce that behavior? How does altering the tank environment or introducing new objects or stimuli affect behavior of octopus and cuttlefish? How does the Zoo environment, with its high visitation rate and ongoing construction noise, affect the behavior of the animals that live here?

Erika Bauer
Erika Bauer studies sloth bears. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Inquiring Interns

The first thing Bauer did was to develop an internship program focused specifically on behavioral research. During each three-month term, these interns would be assigned a specific question to study and would develop a hypothesis about a specific aspect of animal behavior that was of interest to them.

One intern, Courtney McLaughlan, wanted to study the behavior of the Zoo’s Asian elephants. “I decided to study the dominance-related interactions between the two female elephants, Shanthi and Ambika, to see which one was more assertive and which one was more submissive,” she says.

Once a hypothesis was established, the intern worked on developing an ethogram—a list of behaviors related to the research question, and their corresponding behavioral definitions. This research tool allows the interns to catalog data during eight weeks of field research. This typically includes spending several hours each day observing specific animal behaviors and working closely with animal keepers. Throughout the observation phase, the interns continuously collect and enter data into a spreadsheet.

For McLaughlan’s elephant study, she monitored Shanthi and Ambika to look for assertive behaviors, such as pushing, headnudging, and claiming food from the other elephant’s mouth, trunk, or body. She also watched for deferent behaviors—backing away from or relinquishing food to the other female.

“My average day began earlier then most of the other interns. I would come in at 7:30 a.m. to observe the elephants until at least 9 a.m., and I would come back for another observation midday,” says McLaughlan.

Courtney McLaughlan
Courtney McLaughlan studies Asian elephants. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

She observed that Shanthi was the one that usually initiated interactions, and she exhibited assertive behaviors in the vast majority of interactions. But she also noted that keepers had observed some striking examples of Ambika asserting dominance over Shanthi. Another interesting twist was that interactions between the two females were much more likely to occur if Kandula, Shanthi’s male offspring, was nearby.

“Data collected in this study indicate that these two female elephants display the sort of pattern that is characteristic of an egalitarian social relationship, and Kandula is an important factor in their interactions with each other,” explains Bauer. “No single pair stands alone in such a tight-knit group. The relationship between Shanthi and Ambika is complex, and it’s these sorts of complexities that make it fun for researchers—we’re always developing new questions to answer and examining the puzzle of social life.”

After collecting the data, McLaughlan and the other interns are required to conduct a detailed analysis of the data, write a scientific paper, and present their results to Zoo staff. Their presentations include recommendations for improving animal care based on the results of each study.

All along the way, the interns have the opportunity to interact with Zoo staff, who Bauer says are vital to the research. “One of the most important aspects of this residency was learning just how important the keepers are to our animals here at the National Zoo,” says Bauer. “Zookeepers have an incredible amount of work to do every day, yet they are so in tune to the needs of the animals they care for, and can detect subtle behavioral differences that most people wouldn’t notice. Without their support and their concern for the animals, we would never have been able to conduct this type of research.”

Research and Results

Cheetahs

Cheetah research leads to breeding success. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

During her two-year tenure at the National Zoo, Bauer has successfully mentored 19 interns, sometimes being responsible for six students at a time. Bauer helps the students brainstorm ideas and develop their hypotheses, and she works closely with them as they analyze their data and write their papers and presentations. The interns selected for the program include students of various educational levels (high school, undergraduate, and graduate students), with interests ranging from understanding natural animal behaviors to animal enrichment and animal health. Of course, the interns also must have a deep interest in animals and a willingness to work in unusual places at unusual hours, often observing behaviors for long periods of time.

Many of the interns came to the Zoo with a study question already in mind. Others were given ideas from Bauer or the Zoo’s curators and keepers. The interns have conducted research at the Zoo in Washington, D.C., as well as at the Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia. Some of the behavioral studies conducted over the past two years include:

  • What is giant anteater reproductive behavior like, and how do the anteaters react to environmental noise?
  • How can environmental enrichment and social companionship help to reduce pacing in Merlin, the Zoo’s adult male sloth bear?
  • What are the social dynamics in the Zoo’s group of six Asian small-clawed otter brothers?
  • What behaviors do double-wattled cassowaries exhibit in captivity? How can enrichment lead to variations in behavior?
  • What is the relationship between the Zoo’s two female Asian elephants, Shanthi and Ambika? Is one female more dominant?
  • How can the behavior of the male cheetahs be used as a predictor of the estrus cycle of the females?
  • How does enrichment affect the behaviors of giant Pacific octopus and cuttlefish?

The outcome of this research has been shared with National Zoo staff, often resulting in modifications to animal care procedures. Some of the studies have also been published or submitted for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals and animal management newsletters.

Leaving a Legacy

Because her funding has ended, Bauer’s two-year fellowship with the National Zoo will also end in April, along with the behavioral research internship program that she began. In an effort to keep the research going, she has worked closely with Friends of the National Zoo to ensure continued involvement of the Behavior Watch program, through which volunteers are trained to collect behavioral data. As to her future, Bauer is looking at various positions with other zoos across the country, and she noted that her priority is to keep working in a zoo setting.

“This has just been an amazing experience for me,” says Bauer. “The timing was perfect and it changed my life. Don Moore [associate director of animal care at the National Zoo] has been extremely supportive of behavioral research and the staff here has been phenomenal. The keepers are truly the unassuming experts on the animals they care for.

“Not only did I have the opportunity to conduct research in my chosen field, but the training and mentoring experience with the interns has given me a renewed passion to develop opportunities for new scientists in the future. There are so many students interested in behavioral research, but so few positions available out there. We have to find a way to support these brilliant young minds.”

Otters
Asian small-clawed otters on the Zoo's Asia Trail. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

About Behavioral Science

Behavioral scientists study the interactions between different animal or human groups, within groups, or between groups and their environment. There are many different specializations within the behavioral science field, including psychology, psychobiology, social research, anthropology, sociology, and social networks.

These scientists often work in the field and in real-life situations, versus in laboratories or isolated academic projects. The research done in zoo settings can be extremely helpful, especially involving species whose behaviors keepers don’t fully understand.

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