New research suggests animals prefer human connections

What do animals really want? A new study from the University of Florida suggests it might be human contact, at least in the case of some Galapagos tortoises.

Lindsay Mehrkam, a UF doctoral student in psychology, and psychology professor Nicole Dorey have published a paper in the journal Zoo Biology that examines different types of enrichment preferences in zoo-housed animals.

The findings are particularly important for those who work with animals in captivity every day – zookeepers, trainers and students – and strive to provide the best experience for them.

“Zoos are at the heart of our work, and the welfare of zoo animals is second nature,” Mehrkam said. The team said non-mammalian species have been understudied, and they set out to better understand what makes tortoises happy.

In the experiment, three tortoises at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Gainesville named Larry, Moe and Curly, were given four choices of keeper interaction: playing with a large rubber ball or under a water sprinkler, or having their shells scrubbed or necks rubbed. The zookeepers had used all of these enrichments at least twice a month for several years.

“We wanted to determine if the keeper interactions are just as enriching for the animals as they are for the keepers,” Mehrkam said. “What effect does it have on the animals? Do the animals find it enriching or rewarding?”

The inanimate object and the human were placed on opposite sides of the enclosure. The tortoises were released from the barn and had five minutes to make a choice. Time and time again, they beelined – as much as a lumbering tortoise can beeline – for the human.

“Not only did they prefer keeper interaction overall compared to the traditional forms of enrichment,” Mehrkam said, “but the individual tortoises had preferences for the kind of interaction they wanted. Larry and Curly like having their necks rubbed. Moe liked the shell scrubbing.”

In a follow-up study, Mehrkam and Dorey surveyed zookeepers to see if they could predict which enrichments the animals they work with on a daily basis prefer. They couldn’t.

“The long-term staff who’ve been there for a very long time were the worst at guessing this but were very good at knowing what the animals didn’t like,” Dorey said. “We want to feel like we know our animals, our dog, the animals who live with us and we care for, but in reality [we] don’t. We anthropomorphize how they’re feeling. We really don’t understand their perspective, and that’s what our research shows.”

Both Dorey and Mehrkam use behavior analysis as the foundation of their research. This methodology, used primarily in human study, focuses specifically on behaviors and what factors or situations influence them rather than looking at root causes. The team also is studying aggression in dogs around guarding behaviors in a paper to be submitted for publication soon.

Research shows hunting can have catastrophic effects on tropical forests.

Overhunting has been disastrous for elephants, but their forest habitats have also been caught in the crossfire.

A first-of-its-kind study led by researchers at the University of Florida shows that the dramatic loss of elephants, which disperse seeds after eating vegetation, is leading to the local extinction of a dominant tree species, with likely cascading effects for other forest life.

Their work shows that loss of animal seed dispersers increases the probability of tree extinction by more than tenfold over a 100-year period.

“The entire ecosystem is at risk,” said Trevor Caughlin, a UF postdoctoral student and National Science Foundation fellow. “My hope for this study is that it will provide a boost for those trying to curb overhunting and provide incentives to stop the wildlife trade.”

Caughlin, joined by colleagues from UF, the Conservation Ecology Program in Thailand, Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the Royal Thai Forest Department, published their study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B showing how vital these animals are to maintaining the biodiversity of tropical forests in Thailand.

The team looked specifically at seed dispersal and how elephants contribute to moving the seeds around the forest.

The elephant has long been an important spiritual, cultural and national symbol in Thailand. At the beginning of the 20th century, their numbers exceeded 100,000. Today, those numbers have plunged to 2,000. Elephants, as well as other animals such as tigers, monkeys and civet cats, are under attack from hunters and poachers, mostly for fabled properties of their organs, teeth and tusks.

Caughlin spent three years gathering tree data in Thailand. He looked at the growth and survival of trees that sprouted from the parent tree and grew up in crowded environs, compared with seeds that were transported and broadcasted widely across the forest by animals. The data were supplemented with a dataset from the Thai Royal Forest Department that contained more than 15 years of data on trees to create a long-term simulation run on UF’s supercomputer, HiPerGator.

The team discovered that trees that grow from seeds transported by those animals being overhunted are hardier and healthier.

“Previously, it’s been unclear what role seed dispersal plays in tree population dynamics,” Caughlin said. “A tree makes millions of seeds during its lifetime, and only one of those seeds needs to survive to replace the parent tree. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like seed dispersal would be that important for tree population. What we found with this study is that seed dispersal has an impact over the whole life of a tree.”

Jeremy Lichstein, an assistant professor of biology at UF and one of the paper’s authors, said, “Our study is the first to quantify the decades-long effects of animal seed dispersal across the entire tree life cycle, from seeds to seedlings to adult trees.”

Richard Corlett, director of the Center for Integrative Conservation at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens in Yunnan, China, underscored the study’s importance.

“This study fills a major gap in our understanding of how overhunting affects forest trees, particularly in tropical forests,” he said. “We knew hunting was bad, but we were not sure why it was bad, and therefore could not predict the long-term impacts. Now we know it is really, really bad and will get worse. The message that ‘guns kill trees too’ should help put overhunting at the top of the conservation agenda, where it deserves to be.”

book cover for Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century

Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century

Sean Patrick Adams
Sean Patrick Adams, Professor in History. Available from Amazon.

Home Fires tells the fascinating story of how changes in home heating over the nineteenth century spurred the growth of networks that helped remake American society. Sean Patrick Adams reconstructs the ways in which the “industrial hearth” appeared in American cities, the methods that entrepreneurs in home heating markets used to convince consumers that their product designs and fuel choices were superior, and how elite, middle-class, and poor Americans responded to these overtures.

Adams depicts the problem of dwindling supplies of firewood and the search for alternatives; the hazards of cutting, digging, and drilling in the name of home heating; the trouble and expense of moving materials from place to place; the rise of steam power; the growth of an industrial economy; and questions of economic efficiency, at both the individual household and the regional level. Home Fires makes it clear that debates over energy sources, energy policy, and company profit margins have been around a long time.

The challenge of staying warm in the industrializing North becomes a window into the complex world of energy transitions, economic change, and emerging consumerism. Readers will understand the struggles of urban families as they sought to adapt to the ever-changing nineteenth-century industrial landscape. This perspective allows a unique view of the development of an industrial society not just from the ground up but from the hearth up.
For more see the article in the Boston Globe.