Our research in applied ethology focuses on assessing and improving the welfare of farm and laboratory animals. Many of our upcoming projects will focus on the factors that determine robustness, or the capacity of animals to successfully overcome challenges to their welfare. Potential determinants we will investigate include the animals' personality, social relationships and play in juveniles. We will start by using piglets as an excellent model in which to study these questions. Across nearly all projects, we also aim to develop and validate non-invasive techniques to automatically monitor behaviour. These will have applications in research as well as in practical welfare assessment.
The reasons why play first evolved in animals are mysterious. How can a behaviour that seems so frivolous possibly help animals survive or reproduce? We will investigate the potential functions of play, specifically in terms of how playing might affect the development of personality and of robustness. We are also interested in understanding the circumstances under which play might serve as a useful and valid indicator of animal welfare. Ultimately, we are asking both what play can tell us about welfare, and what play can do for welfare.
Welfare problems are typically addressed by modifying the environment in which animals live in order to remove or minimize challenges to their welfare. A complementary approach is to "modify" the animals themselves, to ensure that they can successfully overcome the challenges that remain. We propose that promoting robustness - the capacity to overcome a wide variety of challenges or threats to welfare - is an important way of making sure that animals are fit to live in a wide variety of different farm environments. This is particularly important because technological developments, climate change, and shifting societal demands will alter production practices and shape captive environments of the future. It is difficult or impossible for us to correctly anticipate what production systems will look like in fifty years. This is why it is imperative to begin fostering robustness, such that animals will be prepared to maintain good welfare on farms of tomorrow, whatever they may resemble.
"Piglets" by A. Sparrow is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Many of our research projects require that we efficiently collect very large quantities of data. The same is true of some potential methods of using behaviour to monitor welfare. We therefore make it a priority to develop and validate automated behavioural measurement techniques. These include wearable devices (e.g. accelerometers) as well test apparatuses that are integrated in animals' home environments, and with which they can voluntarily interact. Where existing technical solutions are not available, we will design and build our own.
Pictured above is an in-cage cognitive testing apparatus for laboratory mice.