Miller, L. J., Lauderdale, L. K., Bryant, J. L. et al. 2021. Behavioral diversity as a potential positive indicator of animal welfare in bottlenose dolphins. PLoS ONE 16(8), e0253113.
Accredited zoological facilities are committed to fully understanding the behavioral, mental, and physical needs of each species to continuously improve the welfare of the animals under their professional care and detect when welfare has diminished. In order to accomplish this goal, internally consistent and externally valid indicators of animal welfare are necessary to advance our understanding of the current welfare status of individual animals. Historically, efforts have focused on monitoring visible or observable signs of poor health or problem behavior, but lack of signs or problems does not necessarily demonstrate that an individual animal is thriving. The current study examined fecal hormone metabolite levels and behavior for two species of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus and Tursiops aduncus) from 25 different accredited zoological facilities. At the time of the study, all facilities were accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and/or the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This was part of the multi-institutional study ‘Towards understanding of the welfare of cetaceans in zoos and aquariums” commonly referred to as the Cetacean Welfare Study. Behavioral diversity was calculated using the Shannon Diversity Index on species-appropriate behavioral events. Behavioral diversity was compared to the fecal metabolites of cortisol, aldosterone, and the ratio of cortisol to dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) as well as the stereotypic behavior of route tracing. Similar to previous studies on other species, there was a significant inverse relationship between behavioral diversity and both fecal cortisol metabolites and route tracing. Additionally, a significant inverse relationship also exists between behavioral diversity and the ratio of fecal cortisol to DHEA metabolites. Behavioral diversity and fecal aldosterone metabolites were not associated. Additional research is still needed to validate behavioral diversity as an indicator of positive animal welfare for bottlenose dolphins and across species. However, based on current results, facilities could utilize behavioral diversity combined with other measures of welfare to more comprehensively evaluate the welfare of bottlenose dolphins.