We can’t conserve what we don’t understand: Advocating for the inclusion of behavior in conservation biology

Every year when deciding what conference to go to, I am always torn. I don’t fit in a neat box of animal behavior, conservation biology, or ecology (my main areas of research). University departments emphasize the importance of multidisciplinary study, but the talks presented at scientific meetings still largely represent distinct disciplines. At the behavior meetings, I desire more applied research. At conservation biology meetings, my research seems very theoretical. Although I support studying behavior for the sake of behavior (because animals are just so cool), given the state of the planet, I feel for me, personally, this is no longer a luxury, and that priority should be shifted to threatened and endangered species.

Recently, Caro and Sherman published a paper highlighting 18 reasons why animal behaviorists avoid involvement in conservation issues. Many issues deal with the lack of incentives for animal behaviorists, which are usually employed in academia, to be involved in conservation (e.g. lack of direct funding, rewards from the university, and attitudes about conservation biology to name a few). However, there is a misconception that these issues are distinct. Recently, on ResearchGate.net, someone posed the question “Do you think behavioral ecology and conservation biology will ever truly be integrated?” (See responses here) Yes, I do and here I respond with some examples on how they can be integrated, but also advocate for more positions within state and federal governments, non-profits, and zoos/aquariums on their integration.

When trying to save a species, goals may include protection of habitat and keeping numbers up. But setting aside land may not be enough. For some species, it could be, but for many species, this is no longer possible, even if desirable for protection. Habitat fragmentation is a given in most parts of the world and protected areas should be connected through corridors to maintain gene flow. As human development and expansion continues, encroachment creeps upon habitat and animals will be forced to adapt. Where animal behavior comes in is through understanding how animals respond to change imposed on them and using this information to mitigate the effects of fragmentation. For example, roads serve as significant barriers for many species. Individuals may either change their behavior (avoid roads), which could affect evolutionary process such as gene flow and mate choice, or chose to cross roads, but suffer injury or mortality. The Ventura Freeway near Los Angeles has created a significant barrier for both bobcats and coyotes, limiting their dispersal capabilities, which is creating genetically isolated populations. To alleviate problems like this, bypasses for wildlife have been created on some roads, and in some cases specific structures have been created to accommodate specific species. Knowledge of animal behavior is needed to develop and evaluate how well these modifications work.

A wildlife crossing in Banff National Park, Canada. Source
A wildlife crossing in Banff National Park, Canada.

When species are at critically low numbers, animal behaviorists play a large role in their recovery. This is especially true for reintroduction programs, which involve heavy management as individuals are temporarily housed in captivity, reproduce there, and are released into a novel environment. Capturing wild animals and placing them in captivity can cause problems with breeding. Being in a novel environment and the capture process itself likely causes stress, their social structure may be disrupted, and the choice of mates is largely limited for individuals. Captive breeding and reintroductions are typically a last resort for conservationists because of these reasons. The low numbers of individuals and in some cases lack of knowledge about the biology of the species makes captive breeding a difficult process. Additionally, environmental or behavioral cues (such as social structure through the presence or competition of other individuals) may trigger or influence mating, and the captive breeding program may not be able to include these components or may be unaware of them.

If mating and captive rearing of young is successful, the actual release of individuals into the wild opens up new areas of study for behaviorists. A common misconception is that conservation is all about numbers. If we have X individuals, then the population is doing well. However, there is a whole suite of factors that are critical to consider when evaluating a species’ success including genetic diversity, age/sex structure, and social structure. In the Asiatic wild ass, although there were five males initially re-introduced, only one of those was breeding because the social structure favored one territorial male. This lasted for six years, making the population functionally smaller. Behavioral syndromes (or animal “personalities” or types) can also play a big role in captive breeding. Following tweets from the International Mammal Congress (#IMC11), behavioral syndromes were correlated with breeding and dispersing. In San Joaquin kit foxes, bolder foxes were more likely to breed, but in swift foxes, bolder individuals had higher mortality rates.


Finally, as mentioned before, it is becoming less and less possible to separate people and wildlife. Animals do not stay in their designated protected areas and often people live right up to the edges of park boundaries. Human-wildlife conflicts are bound to occur. One of the biggest (no pun intended) conflicts is between elephants and people. In Africa and Asia, elephants crop-raid locals’ farms. These conflicts are costly financially, as a person’s livelihood can be wiped out in a single night, and also dangerous as people who defend their farms can become injured and even killed by the elephants. At the International Conference of Conservation Biology this past year, I attended a talk by Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando on the translocations of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka. In order to reduce human-elephant conflict, the government translocated groups of elephants from villages to national parks. Fernando tracked the movements of these animals using GPS-collars and found that not one single elephant remained in the national park. Translocation is costly and also stressful to elephants. It is important to evaluate the effectiveness of such a program. If translocations are not the answer, the solution will definitely lie within the elephants’ behavior, which may include surrounding crops with bees or using predator noises as a deterrence.

A male elephant being translocated by the Kenyan Wildlife Service. Source
A male elephant being translocated by the Kenyan Wildlife Service.

These are just some of the reasons why animal behavior is essential to conservation biology. In order to further the crossover between these two disciplines, it is important for behaviorists and conservation biologists to communicate. This means people need to reach out to one another and create collaborations. Nature is becoming increasingly more fragmented and in close contact with humans requiring a deeper understanding of behavior to solve problems. As in one of the quotes from the ResearchGate.net forum “We cannot conserve what we cannot understand.”


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