Tallying Social Ties

Once zoo researchers thoroughly understand the behavior of a species, such as the Sichuan Takin, they can then easily realize is something is wrong.

Sichuan takins were the pilot species for the zoo-developed ZooMonitor app, which aims to improve care by providing a scientific baseline for "healthy" behavior.

New App Makes Big Strides in Animal Welfare Monitoring

How do the zoo’s animals spend their time? As any visitor could tell you, they swim, snack, snuggle…and sleep. But fun as they are, those observations don’t add up to a complete snapshot of animal activities, one that helps curators better manage the species in their care.

A new tool, though, will let caregivers see daily activity patterns for species throughout the zoo. Funded with a grant from the Rice Foundation, the ZooMonitor iPad app lets users record data ranging from social spacing to play. Similar to the behavioral monitoring system in place at Regenstein Center for African Apes, ZooMonitor will help caregivers determine what’s “normal” for these animals.

“You need a good baseline to notice when something’s out of the ordinary,” says Conservation Programs Manager Katie Gillespie, who’s contributing to the project.

Gillespie has been giving the app a trial run with the zoo’s Sichuan takin herd. She and her partners record behavioral, space-use and body condition data for the five-member herd anywhere from one to five times a day. There’s a lot of eating, she reports, but also nuzzling between the two moms and their babies—and the occasional head butt when one of the little ones needs gentle correction.

A snapshot from the ZooMonitor iPad app hints at the type of insights and knowledge now available to zoo researchers.

Knowledge gained from the takin pilot will be extended through the zoo this summer as three interns begin a robust monitoring program. The budding scientists will complete a daily circuit that could include black rhinos, spotted hyenas, red river hogs, African wild dogs, snowy owls, red pandas, African lions, red wolves and American beavers (whew!). All that info will ensure a solid foundation for researcher Matt Heintz when he starts as the zoo’s first welfare monitoring postdoctoral fellow this July.

In the meantime, Gillespie continues to spend time with the takins—and think of ways to improve the app. “How much can we collect?” she says. “How much can we analyze? How often should we share the results? This summer is a bit of an experiment—we look forward to seeing what we find.”


By Craig Keller • Published July 17, 2014 • Originally published in Summer 2013 Lincoln Park Zoo Magazine