June 15, 2007

Happy zoo animals drives Case, zoo research in Cleveland

To understand behavior of captive animals

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Mokolo, a Cleveland Metroparks Zoo gorilla, sits as quietly as a Rodin "Thinker." Elena Hoellein, a Case Western Reserve University biology graduate student, also appears as pensive, but is actually recording every move 19-year-old Mokolo and his companion, 22-year-old Bebac, make—some behaviors so subtle that many Zoo visitors miss them.

Meanwhile a few exhibits away in the Zoo's primate house, Grace Fuller, also a graduate student in Biology at Case, observes infant and juvenile interactions in two family groups of guenon monkeys. On the Zoo's lower level, Jenni Mueller, who is the only Case biology graduate student not studying primates, records the movements of elephants and rhinoceroses.

While most graduate students have offices and labs around the Case campus, Fuller, Hoellein and Mueller are housed in the Sarah Allison Steffee Center for Zoological Medicine under the direction of their graduate advisor Kristen Lukas, curator of conservation and science at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and an adjunct professor in Case's department of biology.

In addition, Case undergraduate biology major Leslie Sadowski continues a study on an Asian crocodile species known as a gharial begun through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-supported Summer Program in Undergraduate Research (SPUR). She has discovered that this animal actually likes playing up to the public. Another biology undergrad, Megan Brady, has written up a manuscript for publication about her research on Giant Pacific octopus behaviors conducted during her participation in the SPUR program.

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These graduate students and undergraduates from biology are engaged in a unique research and education collaboration with Cleveland Metroparks Zoo that holds potential for better understanding how to manage and care for wild animals in captivity.

Each doctoral student spends many hours observing and recording animal activities on paper or with hand-held computers. They note behaviors to determine how closely they approximate those reported in their wild counterparts and then find ways to enrich the animals' environments to increase opportunities to exhibit species-typical behaviors.

While many other universities have relationships with zoos, according to Lukas, few zoo curators serve as the primary doctoral advisors for graduate students and have students that are considered part of the zoo staff.

"This ability to integrate graduate students on zoo staff makes us strong and different from other programs that Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has with Malone College and Kent State University," she said.

Because half of the graduate students' stipend comes from Zoo support and the other half from the university, they have integral roles at the Zoo as "insiders" with access to information, staff and the animals that other graduate students just visiting and observing do not have.

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Mueller, an equestrian who did her undergraduate work at Lake Erie College, became the first biology graduate student in this track in 2003. She started out by helping Lukas with research projects on a mongoose-like animal called the fossa (pronounced "foo-sah") from Madagascar and the Batagur turtle.

Now her graduate work focuses on the behaviors of the Zoo's elephants and black rhinos.

"The main purpose of my project is to look at some captive welfare issues by integrating information on animal behavior, exhibit use and physiology," Mueller said.

Because it is hard to capture a blood pressure in elephants and rhinos, Mueller has zookeepers supply her with their fecal droppings. An analysis of the fecal matter for stress and reproductive hormones gives her a broader view of how the animals adjust to Zoo life.

Mueller has come to know the behaviors and personalities of the Zoo's three elephants—Jo, Moshi and Martika. Each exhibits behaviors typical of captive elephants such as swaying back and forth and head bobbing. They also exhibit friendly social behaviors like the greeting ceremony that involves twirling their trunks together. Just like elephants in the wild, these females spend lots of time feeding and examining objects in their environment.

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The Zoo collaboration started shortly after Mark Willis, associate professor of biology and an expert on moth flight, began teaching Case's undergraduate animal behavior class. He invited Lukas to speak to his class about her research on gorilla behavior, and to describe animal behavior research in the context of a zoo environment. That talk led to incorporating behavioral work at the Zoo into the laboratory component of the animal behavior course.

Willis' students participated in projects suggested by zookeepers interested in certain aspects of their charges' behavior. The final assignment for the lab component of last fall's behavior course was for the students to present the results of their research at a special meeting at the Zoo. The presentations were attended by zookeepers, managers and curators.

"My perception is that if you go around the country, you will not find many zoos where a curator is an active researcher or find zoos that have fully developed research programs," said Willis. "This is a great resource, and the interaction between our biology department and the Metroparks Zoo enables mutual support of the research and educational roles of both institutions."

The joint Case Biology-Metroparks Zoo program is similar to the one Lukas trained in at Zoo Atlanta while a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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The behavioral psychologist has become a leading expert on gorilla behavior and chairs the Association of Zoos & Aquariums' Gorilla Species Survival PlanĀ® committee. This committee is responsible for the long-term survival and breeding of the captive population of gorillas in the U.S.

Lukas, Hollein and zoo staff are currently researching new ways to modify gorilla diets to improve their health and prevent them from regurgitating their meals.

"The behavior may be pleasurable for the animal but unpleasant for visitors to watch," said Lukas. "The primary mission of the Zoo is to educate, and it is hard for the message to come through when gorillas are eating regurgitated food."

The behavior has never been seen in wild gorillas that spend nearly half their days foraging for food and eating. In captivity, feeding occupies only a small portion of the day.

One idea is that the gorillas regurgitate their food and re-ingest it to compensate for that lost feeding time. Lukas suspects, too, that the animals do not feel as full as they would when foraging throughout the day.

With Zoo colleague and epidemiologist Pam Dennis, Lukas is experimenting with adding fiber to their diets to see if the behavior subsides.

Hoellein is from the Pittsburgh area and works with Lukas on research aimed at finding ways to curb regurgitation and other abnormal gorilla behaviors such as hair plucking and eating fecal matter. She noted that there are known human psychological disorders that include some of these behaviors.

Hoellein said she always had a desire to work with animals after graduation from Mt. Union College. She got her break when Lukas asked if she could record gorilla behavior at the Pittsburgh Zoo when she was home from college for breaks.

Originally interested in marine animals, Hoellein has come to respect gorillas. She finds them smart, gentle, peaceful and almost human-like, but never gets over the fact that they are wild animals, weighing between 400 to 600 pounds, and massively strong.

Her most recent experiments have been aimed at learning whether, and how, gorillas use tools to collect food items. Additional expertise and support for these experiments has come from Sara Waller, an assistant professor in Case's department of philosophy and member of the department of cognitive sciences. Waller's own research aims to decode wild dolphin language and behavior.

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Fuller, of Shaker Heights, is the newest graduate student at the Zoo. She came to Case in 2006 after graduating from Ohio State University with her B.A. and Kent State University with her M.A. in anthropology.

It was through an internship at the Zoo that Fuller learned of the Case-Zoo program. She has undertaken a project with guenons, monkeys that live in Africa and are similar to baboons. She is studying both the tree-dwelling Wolf's guenon and the swamp-dwelling Allen's swamp monkeys.

Little is known about guenons in the wild or captivity. With a Pancoast Fellowship for international studies from Case's School of Graduate Studies, Fuller aims to remedy that situation by spending next spring gaining field experience and expanding knowledge of wild guenon behavior at the Kakamega Forest Reserve, one of the last native rain forests in Kenya.

While there, she will study a (forest) tree-dwelling guenon species called the blue monkey.

"This opportunity will afford us the chance to understand how this guenon behaves in the wild," said Fuller. "We cannot know the best ways to manage animals in captivity without understanding their behaviors in nature."

In her studies of the Zoo's guenons, Fuller is looking at some possible modifications to allow an overprotective mother to integrate her juvenile son into the family's feeding time within the exhibit. "Working at the Zoo has allowed us to apply so much of the knowledge we have learned in our classes," she said.

One thing is clear about the students who have picked up Lukas's enthusiasm for zoo work; when asked about future plans, they all responded, "work at a zoo."

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, June 15, 2007 09:58 AM | News Topics: Collaborations/Partnerships, College of Arts and Sciences, Faculty, Graduate Studies, Science, Students

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