Animal Welfare: If You Build it, They Will Explore

Juvenile Madagascar giant hognose snakes recently moved into new homes in the Detroit Zoo’s Holden Reptile Conservation Center and indicators measured showed this had positive welfare impacts.

Although Madagascar giant hognose snakes can grow to 6 feet in length, the individuals that live at the Detroit Zoo are still rather small, and have been living behind the scenes since they hatched two years ago. They have a distinctive upturned snout, which they use to burrow and search through leaf litter and other ground substrates in search of food and shelter. Several months ago, the reptile department created new, more naturalistic habitats for the snakes, providing them with additional opportunities to display species-typical behaviors.

These larger spaces were outfitted with multiple types of shelter and natural substrates such as sand, mulch and cork bark. Complex spaces with ample options for making choices can contribute to positive welfare and one of our recent residents at the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and Ethics, Marisa Spain, decided to conduct a study examining the impact that these new habitats had on the snakes. Little attention has been given to the welfare of reptiles, and as such, less information is available about conditions in which they thrive than for mammals and birds. Marisa studied the snakes before and after they moved into the new spaces, spending hours recording their movements. In their new habitats, the Madagascar giant hognose snakes significantly increased their rates of tongue flicking, which is indicative of exploratory behavior. Similar increases have been seen in other reptile species and categorized as positive indicators of welfare. The snakes also increased how much time they spent burrowing, which is a species-typical behavior now better supported by their enhanced environment. The snakes exhibited more active behaviors in general, something we were hoping to see, as activity levels can indicate how engaged an animal is with its environment. The snakes also showed an increase in behavioral diversity, which is also being used as an indicator of positive welfare.

Overall, we were thrilled to see that the move to their new homes was a valuable change for the snakes. Reptiles perform activities for the same reasons other animals do; for example, to seek food, to explore and to find comfortable places to rest. Because of these welfare studies, we have a better understanding of how reptiles living in the care of humans are faring. All individual animals have welfare needs and while it is our responsibility to ensure those needs are met, it is also incredibly rewarding to see the animals thrive.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and Ethics.

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