Tapping into Animal Behavior

February 1, 2018

John Wilcox, behavioral husbandry and enrichment intern, uses ZooMonitor to record observations of pygmy hippos.

Technology created at Lincoln Park Zoo is fostering a deeper understanding of animal welfare and health here and around the globe.

A Lincoln Park Zoo volunteer is holding an iPad and taking notes as she stares intently at Howie, a stout pygmy hippopotamus shimmering in the water at Regenstein African Journey. Just a moment earlier, she says, Howie wandered across the exhibit to chomp on a piece of lettuce that fell from a feeder above. From the volunteer’s voice, you can tell she’s excited at the activity, and for good reason: the iPad app she’s using, called ZooMonitor, collected the data that led to the installation of that very feeder. By observing Howie’s activity, this volunteer is part of a larger team helping the zoo better understand animal behavior and improve their care.

“ZooMonitor promotes data-driven decision making,” says Jason Wark, Ph.D., a research scientist with Lincoln Park Zoo who manages the volunteer-driven monitoring program, analyzes the data, and introduces the technology to other animal-care professionals around the world.

Designed at Lincoln Park Zoo, ZooMonitor launched in 2016, and the app is now a global tool freely used by more than 200 institutions, including zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries, universities, and other facilities in more than two dozen countries.

Lincoln Park Zoo volunteers spend 10 minutes per animal conducting observation sessions. In the case of Howie, for example, every 60 seconds the iPad beeps, and the volunteer enters information, such as his location in the exhibit and what he’s doing at that moment, whether it’s eating, walking, interacting with fish, or taking a snooze. That data gives zoo staff a baseline understanding of the animal’s behavior. If that behavior changes—say the animal begins foraging less or sleeping more—staff can work quickly to try and understand why.

Research scientist Katie Cronin, Ph.D., uses the ZooMonitor app to observe African penguins’ behavior and exhibit use.

The data helps staff compare the actions of an animal in the zoo to the species at large, says Allison Kao, who, as the zoo’s behavioral husbandry and enrichment manager, uses ZooMonitor to help her evaluate whether animals are engaged in their natural behaviors.

In the case of Howie the pygmy hippo, for example, she was able to look at the insights from the app and assess his activity level. She compared that information to statistics showing the movement of hippos at other institutions and in the wild and discovered that Howie would benefit from being more active and foraging more. That’s why those feeders were installed. In the past, Howie was fed twice a day at the same time and place. Now, the four new feeders drop food randomly, and he—along with his pygmy hippo counterpart, Annie—walks around and searches for food.

“They’re definitely more active and they’re doing some interesting behaviors that we haven’t seen them do before,” says Kao. “They’re going over to where the feeders are when there isn’t food dropping, and they’re doing ‘jaw jabbering.’” Jaw jabbering, she says, is something the hippos usually do during breeding season when they’re close to one another—although, adds Wark, “It’s anecdotal to assume anticipation. We’re not certain of its role in social behavior.”

ZooMonitor was inspired by monitoring technology created to collect data on primates at the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Regenstein Center for African Apes. There, since about 2001, scientists and zookeepers have recorded the apes’ behavior in order to learn from it.

Cronin indicates the location of a penguin in the exhibit using the app’s built-in map feature.

The challenge, says Wark, was that the earlier technology demanded a certain level of technical expertise to operate. With ZooMonitor, which was built with the support of grants from the Rice Foundation and Institute of Museum and Library Services, the goal was to devise an easy-to-use app for data collection by experts and non-experts. That way, volunteers could observe animals and collect data, allowing researchers and zookeepers time to focus on other duties. Today, a team of more than 40 volunteers visits the zoo once a week for four hours at a time to collect information on 26 species. Curators can access online reports to quickly gain insights about those animals.

Research scientist Katie Cronin, Ph.D., says ZooMonitor gives animals a way to communicate about their own welfare. “The information it gives you paints a picture that lets you know whether an animal is thriving or just kind of getting by,” says Cronin. She’s using ZooMonitor to better understand the African penguins. Last year, the zoo launched Malott Family Penguin Encounter, in which guests join penguins in their cove and learn about them. ZooMonitor allows Cronin to study the birds’ behavior and evaluate the impact of the human interaction. “We want to make sure the penguins are benefitting from this and experiencing positive welfare,” she says.

The team monitors the birds before, during, and after the encounters to see if any changes occur. They’re also observing whether penguin personality (bold versus shy) determines which penguins are more eager to interact with humans. “We can say that there are a few penguins that are repeatedly going to the encounters. They are motivated to go in there as soon as the keeper comes around,” says Cronin.

ZooMonitor data is also being used to inform the upcoming renovation of the lion house. Thanks to the app, zoo staff have a wealth of insights on how the lions use their space—which areas they spend time in, which areas they avoid, how temperature impacts their movement—and are sharing that information with the architectural firm redesigning the building as a part of The Pride of Chicago capital campaign. Once completed, it will be a lion house designed around the behavior and preferences of the lions that will live there.

In time, Wark says he hopes that data collected by ZooMonitor will contribute even broader insights among institutions. Right now, one of the challenges that zoos face is they’re working with a limited number of animals, and they tend to keep the information they compile to themselves. By collecting and sharing data across the globe, ZooMonitor could one day help change that. “In the future, we hope to build population-level understandings of animals and bridge that gap,” he says.

Research scientist Jason Wark, Ph.D., observes plains zebras at Regenstein African Journey. ZooMonitor research helps caregivers make data-backed decisions benefitting species throughout the zoo.

What Does ZooMonitor Monitor?

Jason Wark has traveled the world to instruct institutions on using ZooMonitor. He has visited Asia to work with Wildlife Reserves Singapore, as well as Belgium for a ZooMonitor workshop with the European Alliance of Rescue Centres and Sanctuaries.

ZooMonitor is also used widely at facilities in the United States. Here’s how:

  • Detroit Zoo is monitoring penguin behavior.
  • Shedd Aquarium in Chicago is collecting data on dolphins and beluga calves.
  • Multiple institutions are participating in a sand tiger shark study.
  • Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is monitoring multiple species, including a project evaluating several bear species that rotate daily through different habitats.
  • San Francisco Zoo is developing a zoo-wide volunteer monitoring program, similar to the system at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Kate Silver