Animal Emotions

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The Emotional Lives of Reptiles: Stress and Welfare

Guides to using behavioral criteria to assess reptile psychological well being

Reptiles are an evolutionary old and diverse class of vertebrates (see also) who are used in different sorts of research, some of which can be harmful to their psychological well being. Various reptiles show complex parental behavior and also have been observed to play. Gordon Burghardt (see also), who works out of the University of Tennessee, and his colleagues have been among the leaders in research on the behavior and welfare of reptiles and his published papers and the references contained therein provide an ample database for those who want to know more about these fascinating and underrated animals. 

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Don't underestimate the minds and emotional lives of reptiles

I just received a new and fascinating essay published by the British Veterinary Association titled "Assessing reptile welfare using behavioural criteria" written by Clifford Warwick and his colleagues that offers many useful tips for caring for reptiles that will be of interest to many readers, professionals and non-professionals alike. They note, for example, that, "unlike dogs and cats, reptiles will almost universally be 'life-restricted' in small, arbitrarily and poorly conceived vivariums maintained by non-professionals. ... Contrary to common perceptions, reptiles manifest an array of abnormal behaviours that indicate stress." 

The authors' summary table of behavioral signs of captivity-stress is an invaluable resource. For example, in response to stress reptiles display hyperactivity, hypoactivity, anorexia, head-hiding, inflation of the body, hissing, panting, pigment change and other abnormal patterns of behavior and physiological responses. They also provide a very useful self-assessment test for assessing reptile welfare using behavioral criteria.

The authors also note that while there are stressors in nature, "captive conditions typically replace many features of the natural world with artificial and frequently poorly matched alternatives that deprive animals of known normal behaviour and associated biological needs, such as hunting, spatial range, and macro-habitat investigation ..." Even field research can alter the behavior of reptiles. For example, eye contact between researchers and free-living iguanas can change patterns of hierarchical perching.

I highly recommend this informative and timely essay not only for those people who are interested in reptiles but also for those who are interested in broader discussions of the emotional lives of animals. It's well known that many different animals suffer in captivity and this excellent essay opens the door for further comparative research that will result in better care for the animals who find themselves living in a wide variety of non-natural conditions. 

Note: A very interesting essay called "Tender turtles: Their mums do care after all" is available to subscribers of New Scientist magazine (the full essay in the March 23, 2013 issue can be seen here). In this paper author and tropical biologist Adrian Barnett writes about the fascinating parental behavior of Amazon river turtles and other reptiles and how what we're learning needs to be factored into conservation efforts. He ends his essay as follows: " ... if many turtles do care for their young, some of the strategies intended to save them could be casting them alone and adrift from an early age. And what would a mother turtle have to say about that?"

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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