Animal Behavior Laboratory

Picture: Rhesus monkeys along a provisioned feeding path in Delhi, India
Rhesus monkeys along a provisioned feeding path outside Tughlaqabad Fort in Delhi, India

Research Areas

Topical Focus

Our research program has both a basic and applied focus with an emphasis on animal behavior and management. The basic science component concentrates on understanding the social and communicative dynamics of domesticated, laboratory, captive exotic and wildlife animal systems. The applied component of our program uses the knowledge gained from this basic research to develop ethological tools for enhancing animal health, welfare and conservation.

Ongoing projects under these topical foci can be explored through the links on the left.

Basic Research: Social Networks & Health

Over the past several years, we have built an interdisciplinary team to study how adverse health outcomes (e.g., inter-animal aggression, self-inflicted trauma, immune suppression, communicable diseases) are the consequence of specific hierarchical elements within and the result of the structure of social networks. We are interested in how the spatial and mathematical relations of networks relate to the content and quality of relationships at the individual, family and community levels and how variation in these relationships at different levels influences health and health-related outcomes.

Network structure is linked to the fundamental characteristics of individual agents and to the environmental and social contexts in which such individuals interact. Both internal factors (e.g., personality and temperament, genetic predispositions, kinship and ancestry) and external factors (e.g., different types of environmental and social stressors), as a part of the gene-environment dynamic, are considered in the interaction between multiple individuals and their multi-level relationships to examine their effects on longitudinal network dynamics. Utilizing such an approach provides greater insight into how and why basic behavioral and social processes influence specific health outcomes as well as overall health and well-being.

This research involves multiple species such as free-ranging humpback whales, African ungulates, macaques and ground squirrels as well as more managed captive populations such as laboratory macaques, sanctuary chimpanzees and beef cattle. This research also involves collaboration with multiple international agencies including the Wildlife Institute of India, India Central Zoo Authority, Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, Ol Pejeta Conservancy (Kenya), Chimpfunshi Sanctuary (Zambia), and Songshan Lake Pearl Laboratory Animal Sci. & Tech. Co. Limited (China). This research is multidisciplinary comprised of genetics, behavioral biology, infectious disease ecology, epidemiology and network dynamics. 

Applied Research: Animal Health, Welfare and Conservation

The major programmatic focus for our applied research is on animal health, welfare and conservation. We have taken an ethological approach with a broad species base. These set of studies share the common goal of developing biobehavioral tools for managing wildlife and captive animal populations as well as measuring health and well-being in captive exotic, laboratory animal and domesticated species.

For example, at the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC), we run a comprehensive behavioral management program for their breeding and research colonies. This NIH-funded program focuses on developing new biobehavioral tools for monitoring and enhancing primate management and well-being for both individually-housed and group-housed animals. The data from these studies is used to enhance current enrichment strategies, design new enrichment techniques and minimize the development of behavioral pathologies through methods such as selective breeding, effective nursery-rearing strategies, appropriate assignment between individual primates and specific research projects, and optimal housing arrangements. For the group-housed animals, projects currently underway include the development of quantitative and predictive social network models of dominance, power, aggressive and affiliative relationships in group-housed macaques to assess social stability and cohesiveness for managing established groups and formulating new groups. We are currently expanding this research to include other health outcomes, such as infectious diseases, immune suppression, and syndrome disorders. This research has generated considerable interest from international agencies in Kenya, Republic of Congo, India and China for managing both wild and captive populations of nonhuman primates. Our developing partnerships with multiple governmental agencies, sanctuaries and nonprofit institutes will expand this research to address important animal and human health & welfare issues in these countries and beyond, such as the debilitating human-macaque conflict that poses a serious public health threat in India as well as other areas.

Beyond nonhuman primates, our emphasis has been on the role of social networks and behavior in the transmission of infectious disease in other animal systems. Dr McCowan has been conducting collaborative research with Dr. Atwill on the social network risk factors associated with Cryptosporidium transmission in Belding’s and Golden-mantled ground squirrels in Yosemite National park and White Mountain Nature Reserve (respectively). We are also conducting collaborative research on the social network risk factors that are associated with Cryptosporidium transmission in beef calves, which can be used to develop best management practices for avoiding disease transmission in livestock production systems. Finally, we participate in a collaborative project studying social network models of commensal E. coli transmission in African ungulates such as giraffe, zebra and rhinoceros managed in Kenyan conservancies that co-manage cattle. Our goal is to improve endangered species management and conservation, such as the highly endangered black rhinoceros, in relationship to wildlife social systems, mixed-species interactions and consequent health outcomes in wild and domesticated animal populations.