Opportunity for Ethologists Down on the Farm The Buzz


They have been known to use video and vocal surveillance of their targets. They sometimes spend a significant amount of time spying on their subjects in person. They could be called the private detectives of the animal world.

They are ethologists -- also known as animal behaviorists. They sometimes take a hands-on approach with their subjects.

Many people have heard of Jane Goodall and her research of chimpanzees in Africa. Goodall is a wildlife ethologist.

In 1960, Goodall went to Africa's Gombe National Park to study chimpanzees. She researched the social interaction among the chimps, the types of communities these primates formed and how they communicated. Her work changed the way people view these intelligent animals.

A newer field within this area is called farm ethology. Farm ethologists study livestock in their natural habitats, as undisturbed as possible. That's according to Don Comis. He is a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In an article in Agricultural Research magazine, Comis points out that USDA farm ethologists work to find objective ways of measuring stress in farm animals to improve animal handling practices. Their observations have already identified certain problems and possible solutions, Comis writes.

The USDA began a national program in farm ethology in 1994, says Comis. "The program aims to find solutions to problems like piglet mortality through observing animal behavior," Comis says.

This research can help the livestock farmer, he says. It can help reduce piglet mortality by keeping sows from lying down on their young and crushing them in the first 24 hours after birth.

Ethologists at the USDA are also studying beef cattle. Research in this area has found that shifting the cattle's feeding time from dawn to dusk helped control fighting and other aggressive behavior in the animals, Comis says.

Julie Morrow is the research leader of the USDA's Livestock Issues Research Unit. She says her research involves studying both the stresses on the animals and their well-being.

"A lot of what we do has to do with the immune system and hormones within the animal and also studying their behavior," she says.

Morrow says she always knew she wanted to work with animals. As an undergraduate, she took a farm animal behavior course.

"I liked it and was very interested in it, and found out I could actually have a career in that field," she says. Morrow went on to earn her master's degree and a PhD.

Getting a PhD is vital to becoming a research scientist in ethology, according to Morrow. "If you want to be an animal technician or a laboratory technician, then probably you can get a position like that with a bachelor's or master's degree," she says.

But to become a research scientist, you need a PhD.

"I like to see students who want to do behavior work come out with a strong background in animal physiology as well, because I don't think you can separate behavior from what is happening physiologically to the animal," says Morrow.

"The hormones and the connections between the neurons and the brain [are] what causes behavior to happen. You also need research experience -- experience developing, designing and planning studies."

Lab technicians are also vital to the USDA research, Morrow says. "What my technicians do is they work with the blood samples to actually get the data. They also look at the video [surveillance] tapes to, again, actually get the data," she says.

These technicians, who the USDA calls biological lab technicians, usually have training in ethology, Morrow says.

Technicians can use their positions as a stepping stone to higher-level jobs, Morrow says. "As people gain more skills, they can also move up within the system," she adds.

Morrow says it's important that someone considering ethology as a career talk with people in the field.

"Let them know your name and let them know you are interested. Find out if they have any positions,...volunteer or paid, so you can get some experience," she says.

At the technician level, this is an open field, Morrow says. But there are probably only about 12 to 15 universities that have a farm animal ethologist position within their departments.

Dan Weary is an animal behaviorist at a university. He is an applied scientist doing research in the field of ethology.

"The kinds of work we do here...is that we are practically interested in improving the living conditions for animals that are used by humans," he says. "Those include companion animals, livestock and animals used in sport."

One of the tools that has seemed to be very useful in terms of improving conditions for animals has been the study of their behavior and their behavioral responses to different conditions, says Weary.

Weary's university has studied piglet mortality. Sows are put in a farrowing crate after they have produced their piglets in commercial farms in North America.

"That is highly restrictive of their movements," he says. "One of the reasons why this piece of apparatus was invented was because one of the biggest causes of mortality of little piglets was being crushed by their own mother."

In order to improve the conditions for both the sows and piglets, both of their behaviors have to be understood, Weary says.

Another thing ethologists can learn by studying animal behavior is the underlying problems that these behaviors reflect. "One of the most typical things people look at is abnormal behavior," he says. A pacing zoo tiger or an animal that licks off its own fur can reflect problems in the way the animal is housed or kept, Weary explains.

"The other thing we have been looking at is some natural behaviors that can be used as indications of either good things or bad things in the way we are keeping animals."

Weary says one of the areas of his research interest is animal vocalizations, or the calls of animals. "That is really neat because in some situations the animals have developed a vocal repertoire that is designed to signal certain problems," he says. "A baby calf, for example, lets its mother know it is hungry by its call."

In certain areas, like animal welfare, funding is increasing, Weary says. "The public is becoming increasingly concerned about farm animal welfare issues and one of the ways of coming up with sensible solutions to these welfare problems has been through the study of animal behavior," he says.

"This is an area which is going to increase. There has been considerable growth in Europe, somewhat so in Canada and it is only just beginning in the United States. There are now opportunities in the United States and there will continue to be opportunities in this area.

"That isn't going to [create] thousands of jobs," Weary adds. "But there will be an increase in the number of positions available."

Links

Animal Behavior Society
Encourages and promotes the study of animal behavior

Purdue University -- Animal Sciences
Information on the university's undergraduate and graduate programs, research, faculty and facilities

Texas Tech University, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources
Information on the degrees offered

Observing Swine Behavior to Lower Piglet Mortality
An article on ethologists' work to save piglets

Jane Goodall Institute
Learn about Goodall's work with chimpanzees in Africa