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

Part III: Conclusion and References

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


It is not uncommon to discover that a keeper's knowledge of a species within his or her care is frequently lacking in either fundamental biological information or a comprehensive understanding of the species' natural ethology, or both. However, many highly conscientious herpetologists adopt a more responsible position and energetically gather material related to maintenance. It is extremely important to accumulate all available data and opinion pertaining to the natural history and captive management of a particular species prior to their acquisition. This may sound like an obvious course of action, but it is a philosophy which is not as widely and actively employed as is warranted. The common perception of the reptilia in general being an adaptable class in captivity, from an ethological perspective, is largely responsible for the neutrality of keepers in their assessment and provision for the behavioural needs of reptiles in artificial environments

Environmentally induced trauma (EIT) may not actually appear problematic if the animals are feeding or being force fed and thus being clinically maintained. However, stress may have short or long-term pathophysiological effects. Stress can result in loss of general condition whereby a physiologically and immunologically compromised specimen is naturally at a disadvantage in the possible event of disease.

Basically, there seem to be two voluntary ethological reactions to highly inadequate and stressful environments: (1) mobile activities by which individuals use considerable motor energy; (2) hypoactivity/lethargy and anorexia. In (1) the symptoms tend to be related to searches for more appropriate environments and in (2) the strategy seems more one of "waiting out" the problems of the situation. As has been explained though, many complications, ethological, biochemical and pathophysiological, are involved and arise from poor adaptation.

The presence of a single obvious symptom, hyperactivity, for example, can lead to confusions in evaluating the underlying condition because several different (or combined) potential causes give rise to apparently the same manifestation.

Behaviours and other reactions, even if apparently abnormal or redundant, are based upon one or another form of natural expression, although these may have become "distorted" through maladaptation. Therefore the object of an investigator into symptoms of behavioural problems is to assess from which basic biological function the symptom(s) have arisen. Alternatively, or in conjunction with such examinations, evaluation of environmental offerings and stimuli should be made and their appropriateness judged. Such studies must of course be made with a sound understanding of the species' natural life style. It is, needless to say, very important that observers are aware of the "normal" physical appearance and condition of specimens for reasons of comparison.

If normal behavioural repertoires are not exhibited, or specific behaviours are excessively exhibited, or if abnormal behaviours occur, EIT is probably the cause and this can be as serious a problem to resolve as any disease.


Cowan, D.F., 1968. Diseases of captive reptiles. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc., 153: 848-859.

Cowan, D.F., 1980. Adaption, Maladaption and Disease. S.S.A.R. Contributions to Herpetology Number 1, Reproductive Biology and Diseases of Captive Reptiles. Co-editors: James B. Murphy and Joseph T. Collins. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles.

Kaneene, JR., Taylor, R.F., Sikarskie, J.G., Meyer. T.J. and Richter, NA., 1985. Disease patterns in the Detroit Zoo: a study of reptilian and amphibian populations from 1973 through 1983. J. Am. Med. Vet. Assoc., 187: 1132-1133.

Murphy, J.M., 1973. A review of diseases of captive chelonians: Dietary deficiencies: Part 5 of a series. HISS (Herpetol. lnf. Search Systems) News-.J., 1:173-179.

Snyder. R.L., 1976. The Biology of Population Growth. St. Martin's Press, New York.

Warwick, C., 1987. Effects of captivity on the ethology and psychology of reptiles. Herpetoculturist, 1: 10-12.


Back to Part I: Abstract, Introduction, Methods and Part II: Findings and Discussion


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