New research partnership gives students unique field site

Photo courtesy of Stig Nygaard on Flickr

A few graduate students at Concordia may soon be able to watch monkeys and pandas all day –and get paid for it –thanks to a new five-year partnership between ecologist and assistant biology professor Dr. Robert Weladji, and Zoo de Granby.

Specifically, the zoo will be funding some salaries for the graduate students who will work on projects at the zoo.

“We’ve received $10,000 already,” said Weladji, and he anticipates that a similar amount will be provided every year for the next four years of the partnership.

Weladji particularly appreciates the hands-on experience the zoo can provide, he said.

“As a researcher, you have to go out there and look for research opportunities, field sites, to have your students get the best out of their training at Concordia,” he said.

For students interested in exotic animals like red pandas and African mammals, the Granby Zoo’s proximity — just an hour away from the city — provides a unique opportunity.

Undergraduate students have spent time at the zoo before, collecting behavioural data for honours projects, but now master’s students will be doing the bulk of the research. This will mean more data collected as master’s students spend commensurately more observational data for their projects, according to Patrick Paré, director of research and conservation at the Granby Zoo.

The hands-on research experience at the zoo, however, will not involve actually touching of the animals. “We do more observational work,” clarified Weladji. “There is no direct contact.”

Photo courtesy of Stig Nygaard on Flickr

Even without touching the animals, researchers will construct an activity budget for their animals by recording how long each animal spends on certain behaviours like eating or grooming, and researchers like Weladji will also record how animals interact with new objects by describing, “how often they approach it, do they touch it, are they just looking at it, and so on.”

Zoos have an important role to play in conservation efforts, according to Weladji. An example is Concordia master’s student Emily Anderson’s research, which is already benefiting from the partnership, and her work with the endangered Japanese macaques at the zoo.

“We can use that species of primate as a model to save or to help other, more endangered species,” said Paré.

There are many other ways Concordia researchers can help the zoo’s efforts, according to Paré.

Researchers can measure the animals’ behaviours in their habitats to determine what the zoo might need to add, subtract, or change in those habitats, and they can help zookeepers understand more about the behaviour of zoo animals, such as how the animals organize themselves into groups and move around an exhibit. Weladji’s own work, with his colleagues in 2011, indicated animals in one exhibit could be fed in a different way to ensure all the animals received enough food.

Some changes have already been made based on reports from researchers. The marabou storks at the zoo had been having some trouble reproducing, but one researcher provided several tips to help the birds reproduce. “For the first time, we got some eggs from these birds,” Paré said, though he added that sadly, the eggs were not fertile.

While Weladji has already been working with the zoo for five years, this was an ideal time to expand the existing research collaboration; Paré said zoo has been working over the last ten years to update and modernize the animal habitats.

“It’s pretty rare for a zoo to have the chance to study the same group of animals in two different exhibits,” said Paré.

The results of the partnership between Concordia and the Granby Zoo could affect animals far beyond Quebec’s borders.

“The most important thing for us is to improve the welfare of animals in captivity and to share our data with our colleagues all around the world,” said Paré.

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