Documenting Aggression, Dominance and the Impacts of Visitor Interaction on Galápagos Tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra) in a Zoo Setting

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Laura Freeland, Charlotte Ellis, Christopher J Michaels
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Ensuring high levels of welfare is imperative for modern zoos, but such organisations must also engage visitors in order to successfully spread awareness and raise conservation funds. It is therefore important to understand the responses of animals to visitor interaction to optimise welfare. Often, the opportunity to interact with humans may be enriching for animals, but in other contexts, this interaction may have negative welfare effects. We observed captive female Galápagos giant tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra) to describe aggressive interactions, characterize hierarchy using Elo ratings and assess the impact of visitor interactions. Elo ratings indicated that one individual was dominant over two equally ranked subordinates; aggressive interactions are discussed in this context. We detected significant effects of the presence of visitors and visitor type (keepers, vets or public) within the enclosure on aggression and activity. We suggest that previous miscategorisation of a natural behaviour (the finch response) as an operantly conditioned behaviour, rather than a fixed action pattern, may have triggered aggression. We then document changes made to the management of the animals to mitigate the impacts discovered. This work highlights the importance of empirical evidence in determining optimal management strategies for zoo animals with regards to public interactions and animal welfare.


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