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Last updated January 1, 2014

Reptilian ethology in captivity: Observations of some problems and an evaluation of their ætiology

Part I: Abstract, Introduction, and Methods

Clifford Warwick, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 26, (1990) 1-13


Evaluations were made of >4000 reptiles maintained in captive situations to assess numerous abnormal behaviours and any related environmental and other influences. Certain behavioural restrictions warrant concern because they result in physical injuries while others are primarily related to inhibited ethological expression; this paper concentrates on the latter. Hyperactivity, hypoactivity, persecution from other occupants, disposition-related environmental temperature preference, interaction with transparent boundaries and aggression are a few examples of abnormal behaviours resulting from concept- and design-deficient artificial environments, and all may be related to poor adaptability and environmentally induced trauma. It is probable that the adaptability of reptiles to unnatural environments is substantially compromised the fundamental biological principle of their innate education system which results in greatly reduced susceptibility to other educative influences.

The importance of a sound knowledge of a species natural life style (wherever possible prior to their acquisition) is to be emphasised if preventative action regarding abnormal behaviour and evaluations of current problems are to be thoroughly addressed. Very little work has been done on this subject probably because natural behaviours of reptiles may present observational difficulties and because "lower" vertebrates are often perceived as being highly adaptable to captivity and thus warrant law priority.


Reptilian ethology in captivity has been neglected in comparison with, for example, mammalian and avian research. Examinations of the effects of artificial environments on reptile occupants, in particular those which potentially have traumatic influences, are rarely scrutinised or described. This is a disappointing situation because there are many opportunities for study among herpetological collections internationally. The lack of common investigation of this subject may be largely related to two main areas. (1) Certain observational problems, for example, the relatively uncomplicated social structures of many reptiles, mean that symptoms of abnormal behaviour often do not manifest in a readily recognisable form and as a consequence are frequently probably misinterpreted or remain unnoticed. (2) There is a commonly held perception that reptiles, along with other "lower" vertebrates, are highly adaptable to captivity. A result of this lack of interest in the field is that reptilian ethology under the influence of captivity is a relatively deficient subject in terms of data and also with regard to general awareness of the concept.

The aims of this paper are (a) to raise general consciousness on the subject of monitoring potentially abnormal behaviours of captive reptiles and (b) to describe several behaviours which probably form symptoms of environmentally encouraged modified behaviours (EEMB) and environmentally induced trauma (EIT). The ætiologies and implications (biological, ethical and managerial) of EEMB and EIT are discussed together with the adaptability of reptiles to captivity.


Practical studies were based on opportunistic and premeditated evaluations, and comprised both pure observational examination and experimental work. Observations were conducted of >4000 captive reptiles of four orders (crocodilia, testudines, sauna, serpents) over 12 years at zoological establishments internationally, as well as collections held privately by herpetologists and personally. Regular general personal communications with keepers of herpetofauna also offered valuable contributions. Experimental work pursued the principle of providing typical enclosures and furnishings for numerous species than making alterations to their concept and structure. The aims of these adjustments were to refine environments so that abnormal behaviours and related problems could be avoided or eliminated.

To Part II: Findings and Discussion

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