Ask Fairfield University student Rylee Harrell why she signed up for the Research, Internships and Zoo Education (RIZE) course taught by Associate Biology Professor Ashley Byun, Ph.D., and she replies, “We’re actually doing real work here.” That “real work” for Harrell involves observing and recording courtship and mating behaviors of the white-naped crane pair at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.
Nine Vertebrate Zoology lab students gather on Zoo grounds each Tuesday for four different behavioral observation studies, with an additional seven students working on an ongoing RIZE research project with spider monkeys. Each spring since 2013 (with a one-year interruption due to Covid), Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo has welcomed Dr. Byun and students from her Vertebrate Zoology lab course to observe the day-to-day interactions of selected species.
This year, in addition to the white-naped crane study, lab students are observing a new female red wolf‘s introduction to the Zoo’s male; big cat vocalizations as indicators of estrus, part of a larger project focused on reconstructing the ancestral vocalizations of big cats; and identifying causes of trout aggression in fingerlings prior to their release in wild waterways. An ongoing study of the Zoo’s spider monkey troop includes introducing an iPad as cognitive enrichment, a first for New World monkeys.
Prior studies helped to ease conflict in the prairie dog colony with the discovery that the colony had fractured into two competing coteries. In another study, when Zoo staff noticed that the female anteater exhibited anxiety when exposed to sounds from lawn maintenance equipment, a RIZE research student found similarities in the acoustics to that of a baby anteater, a sound female anteaters would naturally be attuned to.
The public is invited to see the students present their findings on Wednesday, April 26, from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. at Fairfield University in the Library Multimedia Room (NYS 101 Auditorium).
This year’s studies are both “fun and challenging,” according to Professor Byun. “We have no idea what will happen from this. There’s so much we don’t know. But these studies help us gain fundamental knowledge.” The hope is that this year, as in previous studies, the animals will benefit from the students’ hours of observation.
The RIZE program is a community engaged learning program, with research projects selected by Zoo staff, based on Zoo questions and needs. With resources such as time and money often limited, RIZE students carry out projects that are important but have yet to be explored. Projects can last anywhere from a single semester to several years in duration.
Victoria Pellegatto, a senior biology major, has been involved with spider monkey observation since January 2020. Project One consisted of initial observations of the Zoo’s first two spider monkeys, Gilligan and T.T. Project Two began when giant anteater Tupi joined the spider monkeys in a trial mixed-species habitat. Project Three studied the addition of two more females, Bertha, and Janet. Project four: a Cognitive Touch Study examined food puzzles and monkeys mirroring human behaviors.
Today, Pellegatto is overseeing a Cognitive Enrichment Study, the first of its kind to be explored with New World monkeys. In this study, monkeys were encouraged to interact with a plexiglass piece, with a food reward delivered through a tube. The next step replaced the plexiglass/tube apparatus with an iPad. With music playing to encourage the monkeys’ interest, on a Tuesday several weeks ago Gilligan rushed to investigate it. A game with popping bubbles tracks how he interacts with the iPad through a screen recording which can be played back for analysis.
Beyond the hours spent watching the animals and filling out ethograms, a record of their behaviors, there are high-tech components to the tasks. The big cat research team utilizes a “continuous capture” audio recorder. To process and analyze thousands of hours of recordings, Dr. Byun’s colleagues from Fairfield University’s School of Engineering and Georgia State University developed an A.I. program called FelidDetect. Next for that project is developing other programs and models to study these calls which will require collaboration with colleagues at Georgia State University as well as the Yale School of Music.
Animal Curator Rob Tomas emphasizes that the purpose of the RIZE project is to enhance animal welfare and behavior. “Our staff has limited time throughout the day, so the students’ ability to focus on specific species’ behaviors, record them and come to us with a hypothesis is invaluable in meeting the Zoo’s conservation goals,” he explains.
Insights into animal behavior help Zoo professionals understand more about the family of animals in their care, and in turn, creates a better environment for saving endangered species. “Every species has its own complex life and social structure,” says the Zoo’s Education Curator Jim Knox. “The RIZE program and Dr. Byun give us the ability to understand more, so we can do more to preserve the delicate balance that exists in nature.”