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Important ethological and other considerations of the study and maintenance of reptiles in captivity

Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 27, (1990) 363-366

Clifford Warwick


Behavioural and related studies involving reptiles occur commonly in establishments around the world. Despite the convictions of researchers, it is clear from published material and ongoing studies that captivity and general research stresses on animals offer the potential capacity to influence results. Although many biologists are aware of this, it is an aspect which is scarcely promoted and is seldom a conditional requirement in research. It is not uncommon to find that the concept of animal welfare, for scientific reasons as well as for its own sake, is poorly understood and unfortunately frequently dissociated from scientific work.

Many biologists are privately supportive of good animal welfare for purely ethical reasons while others have straightforward, sincere commitments within husbandry programmes. However, in my experience in herpetology, very few, even of the most humane-minded people, are prepared to openly state their concerns for "humane ethics" or criticise their colleagues for insufficient considerations towards the welfare of the animals in their care and during research projects. A major reason for this appears to be that the majority of scientists seem to make great efforts to avoid being associated with "animal welfarists" or to become open to allegations of being somehow "scientifically soft." However, awareness of actual and potential stress and distress among animals in whatever situation should not be regarded as subjective but as a sound scientific base for the study of animals. Whether an observer maintains a high personal respect for the well-being of the individual animal or holds basic concepts of animals as experimental "models", it should be more widely recognised that there is typically a scientific necessity to have animals at ease with their environments if studies are to remain objective.

The maintenance of animals in captivity is a subject which cannot be addressed casually, as in addition to a researcher's own particular knowledge of a subject, the issue effectively comprises two areas - the natural history of the species concerned and the management of artificial environments - both of which are greatly dissimilar from each other and require specific understanding. A few basic examples of the importance of animal welfare in studies may offer assistance in understanding several principles for research.


Ethological Considerations
Certain behaviours, for example flight and defence reactions, are clearly immediately life-saving functions. All behaviours, however, could be said to constitute the biological tools between an organism and its environment which permit the preservation and continuance of life. Because of this, the influences of ethology should be considered by observers as having as great an importance as any other biological subject. Despite the considerable integrity of ethology, it is usual to encounter reptiles being maintained in captivity in environments which have little in common with the natural habitat. In practice, this could be argued to indicate a form of "non-recognition" of a fundamental component of biology. There are, of course, substantially varied standards and concepts in the maintenance of captive animals. Conditions typically change between commercial interests, private "pet" keepers, enthusiasts, and laboratory and zoological collections. Of particular relevance to this paper are examples of the latter two categories wherein scientific studies are conducted, although several principles are broadly applicable to the former categories mentioned.

The need for "reliable" base-line conditions when compiling data is generally recognised; for example bacteriological samples could not be adequately assessed if the material was poorly maintained and processed under unhygienic surroundings, as results of studies would clearly be dubious. However, such meticulous attention is less rigorously applied to many biological studies and is almost absent from others.


Environmental Considerations
Whilst the potentially negative effects of captivity on animals is often discussed, reptiles (and possibly other lower vertebrates) are often regarded as warranting less concern for "rich" captive environments than the higher mammals. However, reptiles are more susceptible to certain types of environmentally induced trauma (EIT) in captivity. This is due largely to their innate education and consequential comprised ability to adapt to artificial environments (Warwick, 1987, 1989, 1990). Greater consideration towards the ethological needs of reptiles is a valid subject, even if applied only to the quality of life of the individual animal. Inadequate quality of artificial environments and maintenance of reptiles, which effectively result in abnormal types and levels of stress and distress, can affect several areas of research quite profoundly.

Examination of animal behaviours can only be inconclusive in a captive situation which is not "natural history friendly" for the species contained, especially as ethological manifestations may be as the result of maladaption or non-adaption to captivity (Warwick, 1987, 1989, 1990). From a biochemical perspective, although animals may be examined in the field and show measurable changes as a result of capture for example, it is not uncommon for such disturbance to rapidly balance following the specimens' release (L.J. Guillette, personal communication, 1989). However, medium-term trauma relating to captivity and improper maintenance has been demonstrated to cause hormonal and other biochemical imbalances which consequently disrupt research data (Mahmoud et al., 1989). Similarly, stressors may affect nutritional uptake, hinder recovery from disease, or aggravate or cause disease (Murphy, 1973; Cowan, 1980; Warwick, 1989, 1990).

Studies which address ethological, biochemical and pathological subjects are greatly susceptible to interference from even short-term EIT and other stressors. Numerous anatomical and physiological studies are more resilient to interference from "unnatural" environments as, particularly short-term, captive specimens are not usually subject to rapid changes in morphology as a result of unease with their environment. In the medium- and long-term, however, ethological (maladaption), biochemical and pathological problems may also affect anatomical and physiological studies.


Whether herpetologists and other biologists are working in physiology, evolution, conservation, and so on, it is basically the study of the individual animals with which we are concerned and because of this we have strong, perhaps overriding, obligations to provide the most comfortable environments for those individuals. More attention needs to be given to the ethological and environmental requirements of reptiles, but such efforts may only become widely practiced when the implications of concept- and design-deficient environments and policies are commonly appreciated.



Cowan, D.F. 1980. Adaption, maladaption and disease. In: J.B. Murphy and J.T. Collins (Editors), Reproductive Biology and Diseases of Captive Reptiles. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Contributions to Herpetology, No. 1, pp. 191-196.

Mahmoud, l.Y., Guillette, Jr., L.J., McAsey, ME. and Cady, C., 1989. Stress-induced changes in serum testosterone estradiol-l 7 ß and progesterone in the turtle Chelydra serpentina. Comp. Biochem. Physiol., 93: 423-427.

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