Zoological institutions rely on scientific data to underpin excellent animal care and advance animal welfare standards. Staff and student research at Sparsholt College Hampshire, in collaboration with the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter and with WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre has been investigating the social relationships existing within groups of highly-familiar zoo-housed birds.
Collecting data on key behavioural traits enables management regimes to be fashioned alongside a species’ specific needs (i.e. provision of environmental features that are needed for expression of important behaviours).
This research used flamingos as a model species whose ubiquitous presence in zoos means research output is widely applicable. Social Network Analysis (SNA) identifies important bonds between individuals, and helps evaluate any impact on these relationships if the social environment of the animals was changed. SNA documented male-female stable bonds, and male-male and female-female relationships suggesting that such associations are important not just for courtship and nesting, but general flamingo “quality of life” too.
Sparsholt College undergraduates and postgraduates analysed data from all species of flamingo, currently held in captivity, and showed consistency in patterns of social relationships across species. Flamingos clearly choose social partners carefully; therefore, flocks should be managed with this in mind if bird welfare is not to be compromised. This SNA research is widely applicable to numerous social species in zoos, and results can inform conservation breeding plans, and provide information on how many individuals to keep within a group so that biologically-relevant social relationships can flourish.