10 February 2023

Every January, the international Master's Programme in Applied Ethology and Animal Biology heads to Kolmården, a zoo for a huge number of animals. Part of the program is the course Zoo biology, where students spend four weeks with the researchers at Kolmården, to learn about research, conservation, health care and training with zoo-animals.

Students observe how dolphins are trained in the course Zoo biology. Olov Planthaber

Kolmården is a Swedish zoo north of Norrköping, with a spectacular view over Bråviken, a bay that opens into the Baltic Sea. Here, visitors can experience animals from all over the world, and researchers can study dolphins, elephants, capybaras and many more.

This year, forty master´s students take the LiU-course in Zoo biology, which is part of an international graduate programme. Most students come from abroad, providing a rich cultural diversity. Leonardo Piovanelli is from Italy, and when he found the course, he applied immediately.
- It´s a very, very great experience and I feel honored to be here at the zoo. I hope to work with animals later, as it is my passion, and I´ve learned a lot from the practical experience that we´ve had here, he says.

Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler is in the same class and she also sees a lot of benefits from the Zoo biology course.
- I want to work with animals in the future, especially with conservation. At a zoo there are a lot of possibilities to make a good impact, she says.

Master´s students Leonardo Piovanelli and Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler. Master´s students Leonardo Piovanelli and Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler. Photo credit Olov Planthaber

Training leads to cooperation

The main focus for the course is to give the student an introduction to how animals are managed to give them a high welfare. One of the keys to this is the training, that not only enrich the animals’ lives but also allows them to participate of their own free will in care and research. Today, Kolmårdens head of research, Andreas Fahlman, tests the respiratory function and health of some of the dolphins.
- It is very important with healthy lung capacity for dolphins when they dive deep. Here we develop the tools to perform these tests, which is done in almost the same way we do on humans. We then apply new knowledge to assess the health of dolphins in the wild, he says.

A spirometer is used to measure the respiratory functions of the dolphins. It gives the researchers at Kolmården data used to diagnose health issues and how the lungs perform in a dive. - If we understand their physiological capacity, we can understand better how climate changes will affect their capability to find food, says Andreas Fahlman.A spirometer is used to measure the respiratory functions of the dolphins. It gives the researchers at Kolmården data used to diagnose health issues and how the lungs perform in a dive. - If we understand their physiological capacity, we can understand better how climate changes will affect their capability to find food, says Andreas Fahlman. Photo credit Olov Planthaber Spirometer used on a dolphinSpirometer used on a dolphin Andreas Fahlman (sitting) is the head of research at Kolmården. Fredrik Gustafsson is a professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering at LiU.Andreas Fahlman (sitting) is the head of research at Kolmården. Fredrik Gustafsson is a professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering at LiU. Photo credit Olov Planthaber To perform a respiratory function test on a dolphin, it needs to be trained. Like most other research at Kolmården, it is later used in conservation efforts around the globe. One of this year’s lecturers, Fredrik Gustafsson, a professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering at LiU, also works with conservation and his research is focusing on tracking rhinoceroses in Kenya, using machine learning and sensors. A broken strap holder and a gps-tracker for big mammals.A broken strap holder and a gps-tracker for big mammals. Photo credit Olov Planthaber Before any research equipment can be used in the wild, it is first tested in a controlled environment. Andreas Fahlman explains why.
- You don’t want to travel to Kenya and have a gps-tracker break immediately. New tools can be validated on animals in professional care and make sure they work and are tough enough for the job, he says.

Movement and energy

Similarly, a second year master student is now working on a project, where elephants wear a fitbit (pedometer), to count its steps. If the method works, the data will later be used to get a sense of an elephant's energy consumption, this can later be applied in the wild.

- It gives us an idea of the elephant’s energy budget. This information is extremely important to obtain from animals in the wild so we know that, one, there is enough food where they are, and two, the energy it takes to do certain activities, says Andreas Fahlman.Elephant with fitbitThis elephant is wearing a fitbit, as part of a master´s students project.

By bridging the gap between research and animal training, the course gives the students both knowledge and experience in how to learn more about animals in professional care, and then apply this knowledge in the wild. The course´s focus on applications and hands-on experience is very welcomed by the students.
- It´s a chance to get out of the classroom and get practical experience. I’ve wanted to do this for a very long time and it's been very practical and oriented towards real jobs, says Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler.

 

 

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