Another paper out for Becky

30 05 2012

Somebody stop her! Here’s another paper out this week for Becky (

Meagher, R., Bechard, A., Palme, R., Dı ́ ez-Leo ́ n, M., Hunter, D. B. and Mason, G. 2012. Decreased litter size in inactive female mink (Neovison vison): Mediating variables and implications for overall productivity. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 92: 131􏰆141. Farmed mink vary dramatically in activity: very inactive individuals rarely leave the nest-box, while others spend hours active daily, often performing stereotypic behaviour (SB). SB typically correlates with increased reproductive output, and inactivity, with decreased output. Our objectives were to determine whether SB or inactivity best predicted litter size (LS), and to test three hypothesized reasons for inactive dams’ reduced LS: H1, excess fat; H2, chronic stress (potentially underlying inactivity because fear motivates hiding); and H3, health problems. We assessed time budgets pre- breeding, scored body condition visually, conducted health exams, and assessed stress using faecal cortisol metabolites (FCM) and ‘‘glove tests’’ for fear. Results did not support H2 and H3: inactive females were no more fearful than active females (P􏰋0.10), they excreted lower levels of FCM (P􏰊0.033), and were considered healthy. As predicted by H1, inactive females had higher body condition scores (PB0.0001), which predicted decreased LS (P􏰊0.040). However, path analysis determined this was unlikely to mediate the inactivity􏰆LS relationship. Compared with SB, inactivity more consistently predicted both LS (negatively, P50.038) and kit weight (positively, P50.037). Therefore, decreasing inactivity in farmed mink, rather than increasing their SB or decreasing their body condition should most improve productivity.

The welfare implications of plastic trash

23 05 2012

A sad and shocking find by Maria ( abw/people/graduate_students/#Diez_Leon)

Becky’s Ethology paper published, with added penguins

21 05 2012

The citation details are: Ethology 118 (2012) 543–554; and the abstract is below. This is Becky’s 5th paper, with two more in press and one currently under review; for more on Becky see… Ethology proved a great journal to deal with; speedy, with a very nicely laid out final product. Stable individual differences in activity levels within populations have been linked to differences in reproductive rate or parental care in several species, including American mink (Neovison vison). Fur-farmed mink are good models for studying such effects because they yield large sample sizes and readily allow investigations into maternal behaviour, reproductive success, offspring performance and the relationships between these factors. On farms, very inactive individuals generally have smaller litters, and this held true in our study populations. We tested two competing hypotheses to explain this: (1) inactive individuals are failing to cope with a challenging environment and experiencing chronic stress and ⁄ or depression-like ‘apathy’; this predicts female-skewed litters, poorer maternal care, higher infant mortality and poorer infant growth and (2) inactive individuals do not have reduced fitness but instead employ an alternative adaptive reproductive strategy, trading off offspring quantity for quality; this predicts enhanced maternal care, reduced infant mortality and enhanced infant growth. Inactive females’ kits, especially their sons, grew faster than active females’, even after statistically controlling for litter size; and by 21 d, inactive and active dams’ litters no longer differed in total biomass, despite the former’s smaller litter sizes. In kit retrieval tests, inactive females were faster than active dams to reach their sons (as well as more likely to contact their sons than their daughters: a bias towards male kits not evident in the active dams). Furthermore, kit growth rates and dam latencies to touch them co-varied, suggesting the existence of consistent differences in maternal style across inactive and active dams. Hypothesis 2 was thus supported: inactive females favour offspring quality over quantity, investing more resources in fewer kits, particularly males. This potentially boosts their sons’ adult fitness. More broadly for laboratory-based studies, possible ‘captivity effects’ on the fitness correlates of activity and other personality traits are discussed.

One of the few people who can call me ‘grandma’…

21 05 2012

… Collette Thogerson, was awarded her PhD by Purdue University a few days ago. She’s my second ever academic grandchild to get a PhD AND I was on her committee too, so I’m doubly proud of her. Here she is, beaming, with her supervisor, the brilliant Joe Garner ( research/garner_lab.html), who was my first ever PhD student, in Oxford, about 100 years ago….

Jamie presents at the OE3C

20 05 2012

This is a week late, but last Saturday Jamie ( people/graduate_students/#Dallaire) presented his findings that levels of juvenile play in male mink predict their mating success 8 months later, in their first breeding season. This was at the OE3c (, a really great Ontario conference that’s held every year for graduates and post-docs working in ethology, ecology and evolution. Carole (Fureix) and I gatecrashed for just that session (scrupulously avoiding the coffee we’d not paid for in the break afterwards!) and really enjoyed it. A particularly nice talk (aside from Jamie’s of course) was given by Chelsea Kirk, who’s based in Bill Roberts’ lab at Western ( robertsanimalcognition/lab) on information-seeking by lab rats: very cool stuff.

Megan Jones’ PhD thesis is approved! (And with flying colours)

16 05 2012

Megan Jones, the PhD student I co-supervise in South Africa with Neville Pillay ( pillay/7019/profnevillepillay.html) had her thesis approved today! It used the African striped mouse, Rhabdomys, as a model for understanding the developmental risk factors for stereotypic behaviour. One of the three examiners described it as “wonderful” and “an examplary piece of work”, while one of the others judged that “the thesis falls within the top 5% of PhD theses that I have examined or supervised”. Very nice: well done Megan!!!!!

My Henry Spira lecture goes up online… BUT…

14 05 2012

…it’s $150 to buy if you’re not a member of PRIMR&R!!! That does get you access to other keynotes as well though, like the always-entertaining Bernard Rollins…(
GM Spira lecture

Do rats feel empathy?

12 05 2012

We read this controversial paper in Thursday’s journal club: Having heard criticisms of this work I was pleasantly surprised. What impressed me most was that rats would not just work to release a trapped rat into their own test arena (which could be explained by motivations for social contact): they would work to release a rat into a neighbouring arena. Cool. The authors also tried to deal with the criticism that that real reinforcer is the termination of distress signals: that rats work, not to release a captor, but to stop them making horrible distress calls. (After all, if I’m on a flight on its descent and the babies on board start crying, my desire for them to shut up is not driven by empathy….). However, we agreed that their attempts here were rather lame, and that the fact that the authors didn’t mention stress odours (let alone try and deal with them) was a major flaw ( As for the alleged chocolate-sharing? Meh. And to me the strangest gap was not comparing the non-releasers with the releasers: are the non-releasing rats…. not very bright? Autistic/uncaring? Did they have bad relationships with their cagemates (rat schadenfreude?!)? Or were their trapped cagemates quite content and not ‘asking’ for release? Overall, we felt these data were consistent with empathy, but not strong proof.

But everyone’s a critic right? And sniping is easy. How would WE go about testing this hypothesis? This was the fun part and here is what we came up with:

If rats really feel empathy….

– releasers’ behaviour should be driven by emotion; for example, indwelling heartrate monitors should show that a releaser’s stress response mirrors that of the captor; and captors who are highly stressed (perhaps because they have been preconditioned to associate the tube with shock or some other aversive stimulus) should be released faster than captors who are relaxed (e.g. because they have been preconditioned to associate the tube with being fed chocolate);

– former captors, especially those who had had a horrible time in their tubes, should more avid releasers of other rats than naive rats, or former captors who had had a nice, chocolate-related time in their tubes (this came from Dana….. and I love it). We imagined a 2 x 2 design using relaxed versus stressed captors, and releasers who had formerly been either relaxed or stressed captors: if empathy is the driver, it’s easy to predict which combination should lead to the most diligent releasing, and which should lead to little or none…

– cagemates who get on well should be more willing to release each other than cagemates who don’t (even into a different arena, so it’s definitely not motivated by social reinstatement); ‘getting on well’ could be quantified via in social interaction in the homecage, and better, assessing how hard cagemates will work to access each other when isolated (as in Anne Lene Hovland’s study of vixens:;

– releasing behaviour should be enhanced by oxytocin (Elena Choleris, who joined us from Psych., was keen on this:;

– other explanations need to be ruled out, e.g. the termination of stress odour release (one control might be to see if removing a source of conspecific stress odours is indeed a reinforcer), and ‘boredom’ (do groups of rats in enriched arenas still release captors?).

Jamie’s report on CSAW Research Day

9 05 2012

OK here goes, trying to mimic the tone G uses on the blog! (ps update: well only kind of ;-))

Last Wednesday, the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare held its yearly Research Symposium ( 2012CCSAWResearchSymposium_Schedule_abstracts.pdf) at the vet college. Many of the talks came from the various other labs we meet with weekly (the so-called “Behaviour Group”), discussing issues like comfort, injury, and euthanasia in swine, cattle, and poultry. Alice Hovorka also made her way over from the Geography department to tell us about planned research on donkey and human welfare in Botswana. Andrew Luescher, of Purdue University, gave a fascinating keynote lecture on the extreme characteristics people deliberately breed dogs for, and the heart-breaking consequences some of them can have for health and welfare.
We had lots of current and former lab members presenting this year! As usual, our contribution was dominated by mink research, with talks from Becky (what different types of inactivity mean for welfare; …..), Jamie (relations between juvenile play and adult welfare and mating; …..), and Lauren (providing escape bunks for nursing mothers with demanding offspring; ….), and a great poster by undergrad Kaela Shaw (effects of simple enrichments on mating). Mike (…) bucked the trend, being the only person there talking about lab animals (his plans for mouse enrichment research). We think he did them proud. Carole (…) discussed research she did while still living in France, on the welfare significance of play and yawning in adult horses. She sounded extremely disappointed to see barely any yawning in the audience; it had spread contagiously within our small lab group when she gave her practice talk a week earlier! Jessica Zaffino (, who previously did mouse research in our lab, presented work she’s done in Derek Haley’s lab on injuries and lying time in dairy cattle. 
Aw man, Heather’s poster win was gonna be the big “woohoo” moment in this blog post, but obviously I was beaten to it 🙂

Prize-winning parrot poster!

8 05 2012

Heather (…) won the prize for the best poster at the Campbell Research day last week (see Even if you can’t read the small print here, you can see what a simply beautiful job she did…