Animal behaviour: it’s a tool conservationists can use

You’d be forgiven for thinking an in-depth understanding of animal behaviour has little to offer conservation. After all, what could detailed insights into the eating, sleeping and mating patterns of animals possibly offer to landscape-scale conservation problems such as habitat loss and invasive species?

Conservation problems have traditionally been addressed by tools including protected area designation, limits on species use and trade, and the establishment of breeding programs. Yet, recent success stories in the growing field of ‘conservation behaviour’ may provide new approaches for the conservation toolkit1,2. The key insight exists not in the mere understanding of behaviour as a fixed entity, but in the knowledge that it can be modified by individual experience (learned) and therefore manipulated towards positive conservation outcomes.

Let’s take a tour through some case studies, which demonstrate potential contexts where a behavioural approach could be applied.

Teaching native species to coexist with invasive species

In a vast country like Australia where eradication of invasive species (except locally) is often unfeasible, the focus has shifted to reducing impact on native wildlife. One way to do this is to help native wildlife learn to live alongside their invasive neighbours.

The cane toad, which was introduced to Australia from the Americas in 1935, is highly toxic when eaten owing to its venom-secreting poison glands. For large predators (such as quolls, goannas, crocodiles and snakes) that eat large toads, the high dose of poison is often fatal3. For smaller predators that prey on smaller toads, the dose of poison is enough to make them ill but does not kill them. Importantly, this provides an opportunity for learning, where a predator can understand to avoid toads in the future.

This insight provided the framework for a new conservation initiative. By making sure a predator’s first toad encounter is with a small toad rather than a large one, researchers were able to induce aversion by making them sick. The poor predators learned their lesson and were able to live happily ever after alongside toads4.

Cane toads are invasive species in Australia. Large predators such as this juvenile carpet snake are often fatally poisoned after eating toads.
Photo: “Juvenile Carpet Snake eating Cane Toad” by Andrew Mercer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Encouraging porpoises to avoid fishing nets

Wherever there is fishing, there is a bycatch problem – the accidental capture of non-target species. Animals including dolphins, sea turtles and seabirds are understandably attracted to fishing areas where they are sadly entangled in fishing nets and drown.

In the early 1990s, the bycatch of harbour porpoises in one fishery in the Gulf of Maine was recorded at around 2000 individuals per year, more than twice the legal limit1. Understanding how harbour porpoises use sonar, researchers developed acoustic alarms or ‘pingers’ that would induce aversion and encourage porpoises to avoid the area. This was shown to reduce harbour porpoise bycatch by up to 90% across multiple fisheries4.

Being able to manipulate harbour porpoise behaviour using acoustic alarms was such a significant insight that it encouraged further research into alarms for other cetacean species and has become the legal standard for fishing vessels in many jurisdictions (including the UK).

Teaching captive bred animals to live in the wild

Of all conservation problems, understanding animal behaviour has perhaps the most obvious applications to the reintroduction of captive populations of endangered species into the wild. The selective pressures experienced by captive animals differ significantly from animals in the wild (e.g. less predation pressure), which complicates reintroduction efforts. To alleviate this, conservationists have shown that pre-release training of captive animals can improve reintroduction efforts by conditioning animal behaviour to adapt to situations they could expect to encounter in the wild.

For example, pre-release training of captive-reared critically endangered Puerto Rican parrots involved flight conditioning to increase stamina and predator aversion training. These behavioural modifications were believed to significantly contribute to a higher-than-expected first-year survival rate of 41%6. Similarly, antipredator behaviour training of captive-reared prairie dogs using alarm vocalisations resulted in significantly higher post-release survival for trained animals compared to untrained animals7.

Using behavioural training techniques as part of the reintroduction process has improved the post-release survival of captive-reared Puerto Rican parrots. 
Photo: “Puerto Rican parrot” by Tom Mackenzie is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Let’s add behavioural biology to the conservation toolkit!

What insights can we gain from these case studies? Broadly speaking, there is common ground in the way animal behaviour is understood as a complex and dynamic property that can potentially be manipulated for positive conservation outcomes. However, looking at the finer details, each specific behavioural intervention will necessarily be highly situation and context-dependent. Designing an appropriate intervention will of course require vast knowledge of animal behaviour, but just as importantly, it will also require a high dose of creativity, interdisciplinarity and forward-thinking.

Human activities causing land use change, non-native species introductions and climate change (to name a few), are creating completely new ecological ‘scenarios’ with many potential ‘behavioural unknowns’8. This presents a great need to understand more about behavioural responses to change, but also an opportunity for experts on animal behaviour to be involved in conservation issues.  Of course, behavioural study will be neither appropriate nor a priority in many circumstances, but occasionally, it may just inspire an innovative solution to a problem where traditional methods fail.


  1. Buchholz, R. Behavioural biology: an effective and relevant conservation tool. Trends Ecol. Evol. 22, 401–407 (2007).
  2. Berger-Tal, O., Polak, T., Oron, A., Lubin, Y., Kotler, B.P., Saltz, D. Integrating animal behaviour and conservation biology: a conceptual framework. Behav. Ecol. 22, 236-239 (2011).
  3. Shine, R. The ecological impact of invasive cane toads (Bufo Marinus) in Australia. Q. Rev. Biol. 85, 253–291 (2010).
  4. O’Donnell, S., Webb, J. K. & Shine, R. Conditioned taste aversion enhances the survival of an endangered predator imperilled by a toxic invader. J. Appl. Ecol. 47, 558–565 (2010).
  5. Cox, T. M., Read, A. J., Swanner, D., Urian, K. & Waples, D. Behavioral responses of bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, to gillnets and acoustic alarms. Biol. Conserv. 115, 203–212 (2004).
  6. White, T. H., Collazo, J. a & Vilella, F. J. Survival of captive-reared Puerto Rican parrots released in the Caribbean National Forest. Condor 107, 424–432 (2005).
  7. Shier, D. M. & Owings, D. H. Effects of predator training on behavior and post-release survival of captive prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). Biol. Conserv. 132, 126–135 (2006).
  8. Paz-y-Miño, C. Behavioral unknowns: an emerging challenge for conservation. Conserv. Biol. 4, 2 (2006).


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