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Animal Behavior

The animal care teams at the North Carolina Aquariums are dedicated to keeping our animals as healthy as possible, and also to their overall wellness. I use animal behavior to help inform the staff about how animals are spending their time, how they interact with other animals, and where they like to hang out. To do this, I use ZooMonitor, a software app developed by Lincoln Park Zoo to survey animal behavior.

The male sand tiger shark at the NC Aquarium Pine Knoll Shores swims in his normal pattern. Did you know the spots in the side of sand tiger sharks can be used to individually identify them? To learn more, see my Spot A Shark research page

NC State CMAST students have helped develop and conduct behavior surveys for sharks, eagles and other raptors, two species of otters, and fish. This research involves developing comprehensive ethograms – inventories of the behaviors and activities exhibited by an animal – for our target animals. Then we fine tune a ZooMonitor survey to answer specific questions the keepers have. Students spend lots of time watching animals and delving into the scientific process of quantifying the behaviors they observe.

Such tools are useful to monitor responses to habitat changes, training and enrichment. ZooMonitor is used extensively at other zoos and aquariums to enhance husbandry and promote wellness.

One of our most exciting studies focuses on sand tiger sharks – how they are using their space, their swimming patterns, and social interactions including reproductive behaviors. This research project is part of a large-scale, synchronous study conducted in collaboration with the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC) and more than 10 other AZA certified aquariums in the United States. When this project is completed in 2022, it will be the first ever study of its kind! The behavioral data collected will inform breeding efforts and aquarium design, and enhance our ability to care for these animals in optimal conditions conducive to their overall health and wellness.

Michael Mann (Semester at CMAST, 2018) developed the sand tiger shark ethogram that is currently being used in a multi-aquarium collaborative study. Each behavioral observation session takes 10 minutes. Observations are conducted on different days and at varying times to ensure our data represent the sharks’ range of behaviors.
Sand tiger sharks are popular in public aquariums due to their fierce demeanor, but docile nature. Our behavior study tracks how they interact socially with the other fish, including the sandbar and nurse sharks. Wild sand tiger sharks are often found around the shipwrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, as the NC coast is called.
Researchers at SEZARC analyze all the data collected at all the partner aquariums and generate maps like these to show where the sharks spend their time. These maps indicate the male and female sharks at the NC Aquarium Pine Knoll Shores utilize nearly all the available space (areas in green) for swimming. However, note slight differences in where they spend most of their time (areas in yellow). Like many of the sharks in the collaborative study, our sand tigers really like to swim around the edges.
Many guests enjoy carefully watching animals too. The North Carolina Aquariums develop activities to engage guests in animal behavior studies. We share the story of how we use science-based approaches to ensure we meet the highest standards for animal health and wellness.
AnnMarie Gooch (Semester at CMAST, 2019) preparing to start a red-tailed hawk behavior survey at the North Carolina Aquarium Pine Knoll Shores. All data is entered into ZooMonitor from a tablet.
Lydia Bjorklund (Semester at CMAST, 2020) really got to know the three American river otters at the North Carolina Aquarium Pine Knoll Shores. Slight differences in body size, whiskers and fur coloration help her tell these boys apart. She used her experience with these otters to build a survey for Asian small-clawed otters at the NC Aquarium Fort Fisher.
Lydia Bjorklund (Semester at CMAST, 2020) conducted behavioral observations on American eagles at the North Carolina Aquarium Pine Knoll Shores. Both of our females eagles are non-releasable due to wing injuries. As they adjust to their new environment, behavioral surveys help the keepers assess their space use. For example, we can use the data collected to determine if the birds prefer to use the same or different perches.