Huettner, T., Dollhaeupl, S., Simon, R. et al. 2021. Activity budget comparisons using long-term observations of a group of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) under human care: Implications for animal welfare. Animals 11(7), 2107.
Zoos and aquaria must provide optimal husbandry conditions and the highest welfare standards for their animals. How the welfare state of an animal or a group of animals can be precisely assessed is currently under debate, and new approaches are necessary to reliably evaluate changes in welfare. One particular measure that is easily applicable is behavioral observations. However, for dolphins and other cetaceans under human care, reliable behavior-based measures are rare. Using long-term observations of a group of bottlenose dolphins, we investigate how their activity budgets and different behaviors changed over time and are impacted by construction noise. Additionally, we investigate whether behavioral differences are also reflected in changes in the dolphins’ performance during daily training sessions. Our results show that construction noise significantly alters the dolphins’ behavior. Play behavior decreases during construction periods; most importantly, the frequency of fast swimming activities significantly increased, and at the same time, a decrease in training performance is found. Additionally, inter- and intraindividual behavioral differences are attributed to factors, such as age or weaning. Significant changes in a dolphin’s activity budget can also pose potential welfare concerns. Thus, this study highlights the importance of regularly assessing and analyzing the behavior of dolphins under human care. Behavioral observations are essential welfare indicators and can—when complemented with other measures, such as assessment of training performance—provide zoo staff with important information about each individual’s state of welfare.