Number of nearby visitors and noise level affect vigilance in captive koalas
Larsen, MJ, Sherwen, SL & Rault, J 2014, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. 154, pp. 76-82.
Both proximity to and noise created by visitors to zoos and other facilities displaying captive koalas have been identified as causing increased vigilant behaviour of captive koalas. These findings have implications for the welfare management of captive koalas.
Captive koalas spend the majority (>75%) of their time resting. Of their time spent awake, more than 25% of their activity could be classified as ‘visitor-vigilant behaviour’. Visitor-vigilant behaviour includes moving away from visitors, actively watching them or listening with ears pricked. No significant correlation was found between the total number of visitors to a wildlife park over the course of a day and the display of visitor vigilant behaviour; however, the number of nearby visitors to the koala exhibit does have a significant impact on koala visitor-vigilant behaviour. The greater the number of nearby visitors, the more visitor-vigilant behaviour a koala performs. Koalas in exhibits located in close proximity to visitors also displayed more visitor-vigilant behaviour than those further away. Other factors such as time of day, sex or age did not appear to have any effect on visitor-vigilant behaviour. Exposure to loud visitor noises resulted in significantly more vigilant behaviour than did natural background noise, but no significant difference could be found between quiet visitor noise and background noise or loud visitor noise. As larger numbers of visitors generally make more noise, it is not clear whether it is the presence of visitors or the noise they make that is the greater stressor.
The minimisation of stress is of utmost importance for the welfare of captive animals, as the stress response is biologically costly in terms of energy metabolism. This is particularly important for koalas as their highly specific diet of eucalyptus leaves provides them with little energy, thus making them more vulnerable to the negative physiological effects of stress than other captive animals.
Increased noise levels and visitor presence have previously been identified as being responsible for abnormal behaviour in a variety of captive species, such as wild cats and primates. The increased vigilant response of koalas to nearby visitors indicates that further research is necessary to determine and manage the welfare implications of close encounters with koalas, such as pats and holds, offered by some zoos and wildlife parks.
Summarised by Alexander Hendry
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