UC Davis Today

Four really cool animal studies

(Editor's note: This story originally ran Feb. 12, 2014)

Frustrated elephants, human-hippo conflict, endangered killer whales, climate change for bees. These are the topics that draw people to UC Davis graduate school.

They come seeking answers to vital questions that could save the Earth’s dwindling species.

By the time they have turned in their dissertations and received their diplomas, our graduate students will have created new knowledge to improve the lives of animals across the globe.

Get inspired about how you, too, could make a difference in the world.

Photo: An orca breaches

An orca breaches in the Salish Sea where Deborah Giles conducts her research. Deborah Giles/UC Davis photo (NOAA permit No. 781-1824)

Tracking killer whales

Deborah Giles is featured in this Earthfix news video that shows her working with the equipment and the orcas.

By Deborah Giles, Geography

My graduate and postdoctoral work, which focuses on saving an endangered population of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, involves a number of projects.

One project involves examining fine-scale killer whale behavioral data, habitat use patterns, and high-resolution bathymetric data in order to identify areas of critical importance to the whales.

Another allows me to document geo-referenced location and behavior data on the whales and ships and boats to find out if vessels may be changing whale behaviors such as resting, traveling, foraging and socializing.

I also collect data for a study that uses a satellite tag temporarily attached to a whale with suction cups. It collects whale speed, pitch and roll for underwater swimming information as well as acoustic information received by the whale from vessels.

Read a New York Times story about my work on the orca scat study and learn more about my biotelemetry laboratory.

As part of his national elephant welfare project, UC Davis doctoral student Brian Greco documents Msholo and Vus'musi play sparring — an unusual activity for captive elephants. Videography by Brian Greco/ reproduced with permission by the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Zoo elephant welfare

By Brian Greco, Animal Biology

A former elephant trainer at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park, I want to improve the lives of North American zoo elephants. Their welfare is particularly controversial: Captive environments often fail to provide animals with adequate environmental challenge, affecting their welfare by inducing negative states and/or by causing frustration. 

Since elephants are highly intelligent with a complex social life, it is often suggested that they could be particularly susceptible to psychological issues like neurological dysfunction, depression and aggression from the restrictive nature of captive environments.   

My project incorporates 70 zoos with elephant facilities in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. I am developing epidemiological models to predict how various individual and environmental factors (e.g., life history characteristics, physiological measures, management practices, enclosure features, etc.) influence behavioral and physiological measures of welfare.

Photo: Hippo mostly submerged

Geography graduate student Kristen Denninger-Snyder examines zoo and aquarium management of hippos in North America in order to find ways to improve their welfare. Marianne Hale/photo

Hippos, wild and captive

Brian Wilson, the hippo at the San Francisco Zoo, engages in vigorous play. Videography by Sandy Huang, reproduced with permission by the San Francisco Zoo

By Kristen Denninger-Snyder, Geography

I work to conserve the common hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius) by using scientific principles to address multiple issues that pose barriers to the species’ conservation.

My research explores human-hippo conflict, conservation planning, and the management and welfare of hippos in captivity. By partnering with zoos and aquariums, I hope to improve captive management and facilitate a better understanding of hippo behavior. My research can also aid conservation efforts in the wild through my work to address human-hippo conflict in Kenya and determining priority areas for conservation across Africa.

Ultimately, I hope that my research will be part of fostering an improved appreciation of the common hippo and in creating a rationale for its conservation that benefits people and wildlife.

Bees, parasites and climate change

Photo: A male mason bee

Ecology graduate student Shahla Farzan is studying the orchard mason bee and its parasites. This is a photo of a male orchard mason bee. Photo courtesy of Shahla Farzan

By Shahla Farzan, Ecology

My research goal is to better predict the impacts of climate change on interactions between a native pollinator, the orchard mason bee, and its parasites. Understanding interactions between pollinators and their parasites is critical because parasites can affect host population size, which may alter pollination services in the surrounding community.

Like many species interactions, whether the parasite attacks the bee partly depends on whether the two are active at the same time. Climate change is altering the timing of activity for many species, but we know little about the broader impacts of these shifts on populations and communities. Through a series of experiments in Utah, I am investigating how shifts in the timing of bee activity impact rates of parasitism and bee survival.

On the home page: Brian Greco uses a training whistle, or bridging stimulus, with 8-month-old Tsundzu to clearly communicate to the elephant that the behavior he just performed was correct and that the youngster can expect to be rewarded with treats. Jenny Greco/photo, reproduced with permission by the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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