Vaglio, S., Kaburu, S. S. K., Pearce, R. et al. 2021. Effects of scent enrichment on behavioural and physiological indicators of stress in zoo primates. American Journal of Primatology 83(5), e23247.
Captive breeding is vital for primate conservation, with modern zoos serving a crucial role in breeding populations of threatened species and educating the general public. However, captive populations can experience welfare issues that may also undermine their reproductive success. To enhance the wellbeing of endangered zoo primates, we conducted a study to assess the effects of a new scent enrichment program on captive red-ruffed lemurs (Varecia rubra), black howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya), siamangs (Symphalangus syndactylus), lar gibbons (Hylobates lar) and orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus). We combined behavioral observations and fecal endocrinology analyses to evaluate the effects of a series of essential oils (benzoin, lavender, lemongrass) on five captive troops (N = 19) housed at Dudley Zoo & Castle and Twycross Zoo (UK). We recorded observations of natural species-specific and abnormal stress-related behaviors for 480 h using instantaneous scan sampling. We collected 189 fecal samples and measured the fecal cortisol concentrations using radioimmunoassay. We found a significant effect of the scent enrichment on behaviors, with red-ruffed lemurs and black howler monkeys reducing their social interactions, as well as red-ruffed lemurs and lar gibbons decreasing their stress-related behaviors after they were exposed to the series of essential oils. We also found that red-ruffed lemurs displayed a significant increase in fecal glucocorticoids following exposure to essential oils. Our contradictory findings suggest that the effects of this series of essential oils may change depending on the species-specific social lives and olfactory repertoires of primates. In conclusion, we cannot recommend using these essential oils widely with zoo primates without additional evaluation.