Dartmoor Zoo has a small but active Conservation and Research department covering a variety of research themes.
We have strong links with several universities and other higher education institutions which enables us to conduct research into cognition, behaviour, conservation and animal welfare. We are also creating projects which examine aspects of the social sciences, including visitor attitudes, which measure the effectiveness of our education and science communications activities.
Our dedicated in-house research team composed of staff and Academic Placement students create, undertake and review research programmes throughout the year. The open door policy in place within the department has played a significant role in the huge increase in the number of research projects undertaken annually.
One of our recent research projects was studying the intelligence of corvids; specifically concentrating on Carrion Crows. Until recently, the testing of animal intelligence focussed primarily on different primates, particularly Chimpanzees, and also some cetaceans such as Dolphins. However, corvids are believed to have similar levels of cognition to these animals so we wish to test for various indicators of intelligence. What we were looking at was their capability to use tools and the ability to recognise different shapes and colours.
Another research focus involves co-operation in primates. We are conducting a study to investigate whether our two Vervet monkeys, Kiki and Jay, will work together to gain food. The study has been designed so that the monkeys must work together to obtain the food; neither can reach it without the co-operation of the other. Investigating what could motivate primates to co-operate gives us an insight into the causes of social aggregation and ultimately lends an insight into the evolution of primate sociality.
Another research topic is investigating Coati foraging behaviour and whether or not they ‘contrafreeload’; this is where an animal chooses to work for food when the same food is freely available. This research involves performing observational studies on individual Coatis whilst they have access to a pot of ‘free’ food and food that is harder to obtain. In order to observe the Coatis behaviour individually, they must be trained to be comfortable in a large crate where the observations will occur.
Initially, we worked with Enzo, a male Coati who has now moved to another Zoo to meet their females. He was quite nervous around people in his enclosure, and by making him more comfortable around staff his welfare was greatly improved and was also beneficial to his keepers when they worked with him.
Enrichment involves changing or adding to an animal’s environment in order to benefit that animal, whether it is by stimulating natural behaviours or preventing boredom. These can be introduced in a variety of forms such as physical, social, cognitive, sensory and nutritional enrichment. The research department not only works alongside keepers to design such ideas, but also evaluates their success with the animals so as to improve for the future. Look out for some of our enrichment ideas around the zoo!
Most of our research is focused on animal behaviour to help better understand and manage their wild counterparts; such as studying the behaviour of our Iberian Wolves and sending this information to our students tracking them in Portugal, our in-situ conservation project.
We are in the process of creating an onsite nature reserve and have specially selected areas of natural conservation, encouraging native species and documenting what species we have on site.
As part of our ongoing improvements we are working towards the ISO14001, a standard of green practice and sustainability.
We are also fundraisers for international conservation charities and were the biggest fundraiser for 21st Century Tiger in 2013.
The role of zoos has changed dramatically in the recent past from menageries of old to the pioneers of conservation and education they are today, but few studies have been done into what visitors think about zoos and how effective they are at their primary aims of conservation, education and research. Studies at the zoo have been undertaken looking at the effectiveness of informal educational techniques used which have been able to highlight areas of improvement.
Learn more about some of the projects that we have underway and plan for the future here.