Social learning about predators

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Teaching captive-reared marsupials to fear predators before they are released into the wild is a positive step towards conserving endangered Australian marsupials. The marsupial used in the research is the southern brown bandicoot. It is trained to avoid predators. By teaching the southern brown bandicoot how to fear predators before releasing them into the wild, it will be seen whether there will be increased conservation of the endangered marsupial or not hence its relevance to ecology. While studies have shown predator avoidance training to be somewhat effective, little is known about whether the experience changes animal behavior long term. In 2002, Alberts carried out a study on the temporary alteration of local social structure in a threatened population of Cuban iguanas to help limit the genetic variation. In this research, it is hypothesized that proper training can lead to long-term behavior changes in animals. Its importance to conservation and behavioral ecology would be great, as the objective is to provide a solid basis for the creation of training programs. These programs could prevent the extinction of Australias animals and also provide valuable insight on how animal survival skills and behavior will be linked to physical experiences.

INTRODUCTION:

According to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), There are four critically endangered, 35 endangered and 56 vulnerable Australian mammals many of which have conservation programs. These programs aim to ensure the survival and reproduction of the mammals in the wild. The programs involve captive breeding or translocation of the animals to safer locations for given periods of time (Griffin. 2010). The animals are finally released or taken back to their natural habitat. Though these interventions will be aimed at preventing the extinction of these animals, they will result in low mortality rate. The major cause of mortality is predation (Griffin & Galef, 2004). Mortality a result of inexperience, which influences wild animal behavior and is essential for survival and reproduction (Griffin, 2010). Many animals that reared in captivity do not gain experience especially on handling predators and, therefore, have limited survival skills due to behavioral incompetence (Griffin and Galef, 2004).

Studies on training animals to respond to predator threat have been performed on various animals including juvenile rainbow trout, bilbies, robins and rufous hare-wallabies to deal with behavioral incompetence. Some of the studies done by Griffin et al. over the years include training captive-bred or translocated animals to avoid predators, Social learning about predators in marsupials, classical conditioning and its significance to conservation. This literature provides a platform for further, mores specific research. The studies highlighted show that predator training alters animal behavior by enabling them to identify and evade predators (Mesquita & Young, 2007). There is a significant knowledge gap about whether predator training skills are remembered and utilized long-term by the animals. Further work is needed to determine whether training benefits the ecosystem (Moseby et al. 2012).

The extinction of endangered species will affect communities and ecosystems in devastating ways. Practices designed to prevent the extinction of specific animals should be of high priority (Vic. Gov. Dept. of Sustainability and Environment, 2009). Behavioral ecology will also increase understanding on whether specific animal behaviors will be manipulable by artificial resources at the hands of humans. This research will find out whether endangered Australian marsupials can be trained to avoid predators over short and long periods of time. There are speculations that due to the unpleasant nature of experiences with predator stimuli, the animals behavior will be manipulated to ensure effective predator avoidance takes place in the wild, and long-term survival results. The results are thought to be a reasonably accurate hypothesis as, in terms of survival, it makes sense for short term experiences to cause long-term behavior changes. Ultimately, the aim of this study is to show whether the animal behavior will be changed by human training techniques. It also aims to provide a pathway for more research into predator avoidance training of specific endangered animals species.

RESEARCH PLAN:

a) Study Animal

The animal to be used in the experiment is the Southern Brown Bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus obesulus) which, according to the EPBC Act, is endangered. It is an average sized marsupial preyed upon by European Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), Wild Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and by Feral Cats (Felis catus) in many areas (Dept. of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, 2012).

b) Experimental Design

A study site will be created at Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, where the southern brown bandicoot will be found. Predators will be largely non-existent (due to strict quarantine and animal management programs, very small numbers of feral cats remain the only potential risk). This setting simulates a captive-breeding or translocation project where the animals will not be readily exposed to predators and will therefore not develop survival skills to deal with them.

Ten males and ten females will be caught from the park to be micro chipped and fitted with tail transmitters; five from each group will become controls. These animals will be taken to two nearby study sites. These are large enclosed areas with suitable habitats for them that will allow researchers to observe each animals location and its activities. The control animals will be put in a separate site from those to be trained (Pen 1) and will be allowed to adjust to the area for five days before the experiment starts. The training will take the form of classical conditioning where animals learn an association between a conditioned stimulus (i.e. the predator) and an unconditioned stimulus (i.e. fear). Classical conditioning is just like Pavlovian conditioning (Griffin, 2010). The bandicoots will be exposed to predator stimuli in the form of feral cat carcasses and urine that will be collected by feral animal control regulations.

Initially, a carcass will be entered into each site on a small wheeled trolley controlled from outside the pen by pulleys, and an initial response by each animal recorded. Over four subsequent days, the animals in the Pen 2 only will be exposed to the stimuli and a frightening event simultaneously. These will include:

-The mounted carcass quickly being pulled towards a bandicoot when it approaches the carcass to simulate chasing behavior;

-The mounted carcass spraying a bandicoot with water (a small pump controlled by a researcher will be positioned on the trolley) when it approaches to simulate attacking behavior;

-Nests being disturbed with a rake and then sprayed with predator scent when the bandicoot is away. Nests of control bandicoots will also be disturbed but without the associated spray. After this training period, the mounted carcass will again be entered into both pens and reactions of animals recorded. The area around the bandicoots nests in both pens will be sprayed with feral cat scent, and the animals will be observed to see if they change nests.

After this experiment, the animals will be released back to their initial location of capture with tracking devices still in place. The experiment will be repeated with the same animals (those still present) after one month, six months and then after one year. Repeating the experiment will test whether the initial training experience had a long-term effect on survival skills and predator avoidance in the bandicoots.

c) Data Analysis

Aspects of the bandicoots behavior will be given values on a number scale and will be recorded during observation sessions, with behavioral categories including feeding/drinking, walking, running, watching and investigating. Data analysis will then involve comparing the response of each Bandicoot before, during and after the separate predator exposure events. Using two-way ANOVA testing will show differences in behaviors between and among both the control and the trained groups. The proportion of animals from each group that changes nests due to predator stimuli will also be compared using t-tests to find whether the difference is significant or not. These tests will be performed on all the data that will be obtained at each stage of the ongoing experiment to find any changes in behavior between the two groups of bandicoots over time.

EXPECTED RESULTS:

Figure 1: Graph of the proportion of Southern Brown Bandicoots that changed nests due to predator scent being sprayed in the surrounding area. A higher proportion of trained animals changed nests to avoid the predator, compared to the control animals where a smaller proportion changed nests. The trained and untrained Bandicoots include both males and females. The bars show the percentages of both untrained and trained Bandicoots respectively.

Bandicoots over numerous exposure events. The lines show the level of avoidance of both trained and untrained bandicoots respectively in relation to exposure events.

Predator learning in the wild requires a few unpleasant and terrifying experiences (Griffin et al. 2000). The short-term exposures of the bandicoots in the experiment to predator stimuli should provide adequate experience to cause a behavior change in the previously naive bandicoots that will last for a long time as seen in Figure 1. The figure which shows a higher proportion of trained bandicoots would change their nest if predator scent were spread in the vicinity. A smaller proportion of control bandicoots would, however, stay in the same nest hence an example of learned survival behavior through experience, which would continue to be displayed over time. The survival behavior is shown in Figure 2, which shows a long-term pattern of avoidance behavior in bandicoots that have been trained when compared to untrained bandicoots and is maintained over numerous exposures to predator stimuli as outlined in the method section. This result will advance the knowledge base of conservation ecology through highlighting the effectiveness of the used techniques to prevent the extinction of endangered animals. If predator avoidance training is found to be effective in the long run in southern brown bandicoots, it could be hypothesized that this is also the case for other Australian marsupials. Funding such training programs could then be increased.

Works Cited

BIBLIOGRAPHY Griffin, A.S, Evans, C.S. & Blumstein, D.T. "Training captive-bred or translocated animals to avoid predators." Conservation Biology, (2000): 1317-1326.

Griffin, A.S. "Learning and conservation." Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (2010): 259-264.

Griffin, A.S., & Galef, B. "Social learning about predators: does timing matter?" Animal Behvaiour, (2004): 669-678.

"Isoodon obesulus obesulus in Species Profile and Threats Database." Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. 19 September 2012 <http://www.environment.gov.au/sprat>.

Mclean, I.G., Lundie-Jenkins, G. & Jarman, P.J. "Teaching an endangered mammal to recognise predators." Biological Conserva...

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