Miller, L. J., Lauderdale, L. K., Mellen, J. D. 2021. Relationships between animal management and habitat characteristics with two potential indicators of welfare for bottlenose dolphins under professional care. PLoS ONE 16(8), e0252861.
Accredited zoos and aquariums continually strive to ensure high levels of animal welfare for the animals under their professional care. Best management practices include conducting research to better understand factors that lead to optimal welfare and then turning findings into practice. The current study is part of the larger Cetacean Welfare Study or more formally, “Towards understanding the welfare of cetaceans in zoos and aquariums.” Facilities participating in the study were accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and/or the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Animal management factors and habitat characteristics were examined in relation to two potential indicators of welfare for common (Tursiops truncatus) and Indo-Pacific (Tursiops aduncus) bottlenose dolphins. Specifically, we examined environmental enrichment, animal training, and habitat characteristics that were significantly related to behavioral diversity and route tracing, a form of stereotypic behavior. Behavior was recorded from 47 animals at 25 facilities around the world. Overall, the rate of route tracing behavior observed during the study was very low and few animal management factors or habitat characteristics were found to be related to this behavior. One factor, enrichment diversity, had a significant positive relationship with route tracing and an inverse relationship with behavioral diversity. This finding may be a product of a response mounted by animal care specialists to the behavior as opposed to a cause. Animals that engaged in this behavior were likely provided more diverse enrichment in attempts to ameliorate the stereotypic behavior. However, multiple factors were found to significantly relate to behavioral diversity, a potential positive indicator of welfare for bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins that were trained on a predictable schedule had higher behavioral diversity than those on a semi-predictable schedule. There was a positive significant relationship between behavioral diversity and the number of habitats to which an animal had access, and a significant inverse relationship with the maximum depth of the habitat. Finally, animals that were split into groups and reunited or rotated between subgroups had higher behavioral diversity than animals managed in the same group. Information gained from the current study suggested that animal management techniques may be more important in ensuring good welfare for bottlenose dolphins than focusing on habitat size.