Animal behaviour research creating practical impact

By generating insights into how different animals learn and interact, animal behaviour research in the Psychology department is influencing policy in farming and zoos. 

Dairy cow social structures

High tech ‘proximity collars’ are being used to study dairy cow social networks and examine how their relationships affect their health and productivity.

“Cows are social animals that form important group structures, and the addition or removal of animals from an established group can significantly alter its dynamics,” says project leader Professor Darren Croft. “We hope that the results of our study may contribute towards a blueprint for herd management that will help farmers continue to improve the health and welfare of their cows.”

The study is being co-funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and DairyCo, a levy-funded organisation working on behalf of British dairy farmers.

Bees and their environment

As bees have become a world-wide hot ecological topic, a much better understanding of how they respond to their changing environment is needed in order to provide solutions. “We ask how bees learn complex sensory information that is available in their natural environment, such as colours, pattern and odours of flower displays, how they use sensory information to navigate and choose between available food sources,” says Professor Natalie Hempel de Ibarra.

This research has had a practical input to the debate on neonicotinoid insecticides and a sponsors’ purchasing policy, and is set to contribute to farming practices in both India and Devon through better detailed understanding.

Sustaining flamingo populations

Flamingos are well-known for their mass groupings, which are somewhat constrained in zoos. “For successful breeding, zoos need to pay more attention to the importance of social grouping,” says Exeter researcher Dr Paul Rose. “My research will use social network analysis to evaluate the importance of stable relationships. By comparing enclosure usage and behaviour, we will be able to advise zoos on what to provide in order to enhance active, social behaviours.”

At the moment much of the UK population of captive birds are ageing and non-breeding; this research will go some way to help make captive flocks sustainable into the future and the use of specimens for ex-situ conservation will be improved.

Reducing pheasant mortality

Reducing mortality of reared pheasants is the aim of collaborative research with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). Reared pheasants survive poorly – around 40% die from causes other than shooting in their first year. Up to 35 million have to be released each year to support the current shooting industry which can have detrimental effects on lowland habitats and ecosystems.

A trial has been successful and preliminary results have prompted the examination of applied issues of productivity, welfare and environmental improvement. Game shooting in the UK brings large economic benefits, especially to regions that are otherwise relatively poor and is worth about £1.6 billion a year, with pheasants accounting for 79% of this.

Killer whale conservation

Exeter Animal Behaviour researchers have found the answer to why female killer whales have the longest menopause of any non-human species – it’s to care for their adult sons. The research published in the journal Science shows that, for a male over 30, the death of his mother means an almost 14-fold-increase in the likelihood of his death within the following year.

“The study population is classified as endangered in both Canada and the USA. Advancing our understanding of the relationship between population social structure and patterns of survival and mortality in the population will help inform future conservation strategies of this and other killer whale populations,” says Professor Darren Croft.