Reptiles have emotions: Cold-blooded but not cold-hearted

A tool is being trialled at Adelaide and Melbourne zoos to help keepers decode reptile body language and measure their welfare.

Research from the University of Adelaide has come up with a list of health-based and behavioural clues which could help rewrite welfare policies for reptiles in zoos and homes.

The tool is now being trialled to monitor tortoise welfare at Adelaide and Melbourne zoos, which are collaborating with Adelaide and Melbourne universities in the research.

Vet scientist Dr Alex Whittaker from Adelaide University says mammal welfare in zoos has long relied on recognising behaviours and body language as a cheap and practical way of monitoring animal welfare, but until now, we’ve had very little understanding of how a happy or sad reptile might behave.

“Reptiles aren’t as easy to read as mammals, so we wanted to come up with a useful, practical checklist for assessing their welfare,” says Alex. “If we can interpret behaviour we can measure emotions – positive ones such as being content, as well as negative ones which might indicate poor health or discomfort.”

Reptiles often don’t show strong reactions to their surroundings and their signs of pain or distress are poorly understood, so the researchers asked zookeepers, breeders and vets for their insights: people who spend a majority of their time working with reptiles.

“We asked experts to share their experiences of working with four groups of reptiles – land and freshwater turtles, snakes and lizards. The survey helped us identify about 10 welfare indicators for each group of reptiles,” says Alex.

Signs of positive emotions include reptiles exploring their surroundings, or being alert to what is going on around them.

On the other hand, aggressive behaviour or physical symptoms like discharge from the eyes and nose, are signs that the reptiles may be struggling.

“We may not see reptiles as behaviourally “needy” but they do value the opportunity to carry out a wider range of activities, and our work shows that this will lead to welfare improvements,” says Alex.

The team are now working towards a simple checklist for different reptiles so that zoos can monitor the welfare and behaviour of reptiles in a more systematic way.

“Zoos regularly use formal methods to assess and document animal welfare, but this requires a reliable way of assessing whether the animals are comfortable and happy,” says Whittaker.

“Once we develop this system for reptiles, it will be easier to assess how changes in housing and management affect them.”

Adelaide Zoo wildlife vet Dr David McLelland says animal behaviour is one of the best clues we have to understanding the welfare of captive animals in zoos or at home.

“We know so much less about reptiles than we do about mammals, so we were thrilled to be able to contribute our expertise to expanding the research base on these fascinating creatures,” says David.

This research was a collaboration between the University of Adelaide, University of Melbourne, Zoos South Australia and Zoos Victoria, funded by the Australian Veterinary Association’s Animal Welfare Trust .

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