Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How to Act in the Face of Biodiversity Loss: Conservation Behavior

By: Elise Gilchrist

Conservation behavior is a field of study that has both many proponents and many skeptics. This field uses animal behavior research to inform the design and application of solutions to halt the loss of biodiversity. Some scientists, however, have argued that the study of animal behavior does not make a useful contribution to conservation work. Fortunately for me, I had a professor in college who turned me toward some literature that argued for the great potential that this research has on wildlife conservation. Luckier still, I now work for an organization that puts this idea into action before my own eyes.

            One paper I found particularly useful when researching this topic offers a conceptual framework for how animal behavior can be integrated into the work of conservation biologists. Berger-Tal et al. (2011) give an overview of three areas in which they believe animal behavior research is most applicable to conserving wildlife.

            The authors begin by discussing how human induced, or anthropogenic, changes have both direct and/or indirect impacts on animal behavior. Overfishing, fragmentation of the environment, and the introduction of alien species are all examples of ways in which humans can alter the behavior of wild animals. Such alterations to the environment can make it so that once-beneficial behaviors are no longer adaptive. If a behavior is plastic, or easily modified, there are long-term concerns about humans can alter an entire population’s behaviors. If behavior is not plastic, then the animal may no longer be well prepared to interact with its changed environment. If it is established that a species’ behavior is not very flexible, then it is a good indication to conservation biologists that any rapid changes to its surroundings may lead to population loss of the species.

            The authors advocate a second area in which animal behavior can play a key role in conservation called behavior-based management. In other words, anyone involved in decisions like reserve design, corridor planning, or location choice for reintroductions must have an understanding of their target species’ behavior. For example, translocation of a population of birds from an island greatly affected by human activity to a more pristine island seems like a great idea. However, if the original site contained no predators to these birds it seems obvious that they may not have strong predator avoidance behaviors. If they are translocated to a site that contains novel predators, it is likely that the move will not be a success. It is this type of situation where animal behavior expertise can lend a helping hand to conservation efforts.

            Lastly, by observing changes in behavior, conservation biologists can look for early indications of declines in habitat health. In the same way, behavior can be used to monitor the effectiveness of management programs. An important way to monitor whether ecotourism is having negative effects on surrounding fauna is to watch for notable signs of stress in the target species. For example, some whale species come to the surface to breathe less often when whale-watching boats are in the vicinity. This has negative effects on the health of those whales and indicates high stress levels. Without the careful monitoring of behavior it might be difficult to assess the coming deterioration of environments or populations.

One fact that most proponents and critics of conservation behavior can agree on is that science, as a whole, needs to be more accessible to the general public, and in particular, those who have direct conservation impacts.  This means providing accessible research to individuals in roles that range from park rangers to policy makers to students. This is where Think Elephants International is showing a real proactive change. A foundation that is split in half between research and education sets itself up to disseminate knowledge gained through scientific study. Hopefully including students in our work will help influence a next generation of more conservation minded individuals. 

            If you are interested in learning more about applications of behavioral science on conservation work in New Zealand, I highly recommend reading:

Moore, J.A., B.D. Bell, and W.L. Linklater. 2008. The debate on behavior in conservation: New Zealand integrates theory with practice. BioScience. 58: 454-459


Berger-Tal, O. et al. 2011. Integrating animal behavior and conservation biology: a conceptual framework. Behavioral Ecology. 22: 236-239


  1. Thanks for the info. Does this conservation behavior apply to humans? Can we study the effects on our behavior of the changes we cause to our enviroment, etc?

    1. Great question! This absolutely applies to humans, though I am unfamiliar with that body of research. I think it would be very interesting to see how our behavior is modified in the face of environmental change. This seems an especially astute question in regards to how climate change is drastically affecting weather patterns and rises in sea-level.

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