As zoo professionals, we are well aware that human presence is an unavoidable part of our animal’s lives. Human presence commonly comes in the form of visitor presence, though we should also consider the effects of care staff, educators and maintenance. While studies of human-animal interactions in zoos are becoming more common, there is a tendency to study mammalian species (especially primates) and to focus on indicators of negative welfare, rather than both positive and negative.
Taxonomically, amphibians are still rare in zoos and aquaria, but they play a key role in conservation breeding and education, and therefore represent an excellent opportunity for collections to diversify their species. As such, there is a need for better understanding of zoo amphibian welfare in general, and the impact of human presence on behaviour and welfare specifically. To add to the current ‘pool’ of knowledge on amphibian visitor effects, we initiated a frog behaviour study at a college animal collection. This study investigated both visitor and observer effects on the behaviour of two aposematic amphibian species: the golden mantella (Mantella aurantiaca) and blue dart frog (Dendrobates tinctorius), which are housed at Sparsholt College’s Animal Health and Welfare Research Centre.
The study consisted of both observations made by a human observer, and those using camera footage with no observer present. Frog behaviour was measured using instantaneous scan sampling, and enclosure use was measured using enclosure use measures. Overall, inactivity was observed significantly more frequently when an observer was present, as were jumping behaviours, whereas frogs tended to be out of sight more often when visitors were absent. There were also interactions between visitor and observer presence. Both amphibian species used exhibit zones significantly differently when an observer was present, or numbers of visitors were higher. These initial findings suggest that captive amphibians may perceive, and respond to visitor presence. Future studies could investigate these effects to determine whether human presence is a positive or negative stimulus across a wider range of amphibian species.
This project won Bronze in the BIAZA Behaviour and Welfare Awards category in 2023.