Zoological Research

Author: Malcolm McDowell Woods

Published Date: 1/26/2018

Categories: Animal Behavior F1RST Magazine F1RST Spring 2018 Students

A Walk on the Wild Side


A visit to the zoo is a peculiar thing if you think about it: a quick glimpse of the wilder, natural world usually beyond the reach of our everyday, sheltered lives. 

Zebras and lions and bears and more. Beasts and birds and fish we generally wouldn’t ever come across. We peer through the bars of a cage or the thick glass of the exhibit window and bear witness to the exotic and otherworldly. For most of us, outside of our dogs and cats, this is as close as we get to another species. This brief walk past a simulated African plain or Central American jungle is our walk on the wild side.

Zoos were once sideshow material—collections of curiosities accumulated by the powerful or wealthy. Over time, the role of zoos evolved, from entertainment to education and ultimately, even to conservation. Today, teaching us about these wild lives and helping to preserve them is crucial to the mission of most zoos, including the Milwaukee County Zoo

And, for more than 20 years now, students from Carroll’s biology and animal behavior programs have been conducting research at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

The Milwaukee County Zoo was founded in 1892—only
46 years after Carroll!

Watching Over the Animals

The nest is a good three-feet wide and nearly as tall, a covered, saucer-shaped assemblage of twigs, branches and other scavenged detritus. In the wild, in the wetlands of Sub-Saharan Africa, these nests can top 50 pounds in weight and contain 8,000 pieces of sticks and other material. 

This particular one is under construction on the far west side of Milwaukee County, in the Herb and Nada Mahler Family Aviary building at the Milwaukee County Zoo. It’s being pieced together by the zoo’s only pair of hamerkops, medium-sized waterbirds with long beaks and sharp crests at the back of their heads. 

The nest building is a huge undertaking for these birds and a bonding process for a mated pair. The zoo’s duo has not yet had offspring, but the birds are being watched closely, and the person doing the watching is Elizabeth Alagna, a senior animal behavior major at Carroll University. 

Alagna is at the zoo as part of Dr. Susan Lewis’ behavioral ecology class. The course investigates the biological basis of animals’ social behavior and requires that students undertake a semester-long research project. For this project, students will spend time over seven weeks observing animals at the zoo. Lewis has been bringing her students to thezoo for as long as she’s taught at Carroll—more than 20 years.

It’s a unique relationship, according to Kari Williams, the sustainability, conservation and research coordinator at the zoo. “Nothing else we do with other schools is on the scale of the research observations performed by Carroll students.” It’s a relationship grounded in the zoo’s mission.

“The zoo is an important institution in the community,” said Mary Kazmierczak, librarian and information specialist at the zoo. “This is the only place students can observe endangered and other exotic animals. Zoos don’t exist simply as entertainment venues. Education is a very important role.”

Students in Lewis’ course began the semester with a meeting with zoo staff, where ideas for research projects are bandied about. Occasionally, zoo keepers may have study requests for the students. In some cases, the students perform important work for zoo staff, who can’t commit several hours at a time to observe a specific animal.

“We always solicit research project ideas from the zoo staff,” said Lewis. “I think it is very important to serve the research needs of the zoo as much as we possibly can.”

The experience is certainly useful for students, many of whom may be headed on to graduate school or to careers in which this experience in the research process will be invaluable.

“Nothing else we do... is on the scale of the research observations performed by Carroll students.”

Kari Williams
Sustainability, Conservation and Research Coordinator
Milwaukee County Zoo

“When students conduct their own research, they develop a better understanding of the processes that lead to the published research they read and they improve their ability to critically analyze that work,” explained Lewis. “It also prepares them to do more involved research in the future. Regardless of their future careers, being involved in a research project builds a wide range of transferable skills: problem solving, critical and creative thinking, time management, oral and written communication.”

Near the end of the semester, students will present their research at the zoo, with large posters documenting their findings. “Everyone from the zoo director to the keepers to Zoo Pride volunteers will come and can ask the students about their work,” said Kazmierczak. “It’s an important opportunity for everyone here.”

Lewis agrees. “The poster symposium is consistently amazing! Zoo staff are curious about the students’ findings and the conversations around the research are always lively. It’s very rewarding for the students to be able to give back. The zoo staff really care about the studies, they are really interested.” 

Several students have had research projects published and a study last year resulted in actual changes at the zoo. Two students investigated how a change in exhibit lighting from blue-hued to red-hued lights in the nocturnal house affected the behavior of the potto and the springhaas.

The quantitative data they collected was instrumental in the zoo’s decision to change the lighting throughout the nocturnal house. The work is also slated to be published in Animal Keeper’s Forum, where it may influence similar decisions in other zoos as well.

Even studies that may go unpublished can add to the general knowledge about a species. For Alagna, that has meant hours watching the pair of hamerkops build their nest and interact with one another. She estimates the female has done 80 percent of the work and noted that the birds have moved on to more pronounced mating behaviors. “They spend a lot of time engaging in mating behaviors and I have witnessed them copulate multiple times. Alagna has already decided to extend her research into the spring semester in hopes that eggs will be laid. She’s curious to see if the distribution of parental care and effort switches roles once a chick enters the picture.

Alagna plans on continuing on to graduate school for a master’s in conservation biology. Her career goals are focused in wildlife conservation and management. “A major part of wildlife management is field research so this course has definitely prepared me for my future and taught me how to collect and synthesize data. I have a specific interest in birds so that is why I chose to work with the hamerkops and this study has helped build my avian knowledge for graduate school.”

In another building at the zoo, fourth-year student Amber Grezinski is at her station, in front of an exhibit of goeldi monkeys, a pair of small New World monkeys a little smaller than a typical house cat. Grezinski, another animal behavior major, is studying both the goeldi monkeys and nearby cotton-top tamarins. Both sets of monkeys are male/female pairs, and Grezinski is trying to determine which gender drives more social interaction. 

Whatever the findings, the research process is certainly beneficial to Grezinski. 

“I think this class will benefit me by giving me more experience in animal behavior and firsthand experience in the field,” she said. “It has taught me the complexities of studying animal behavior and all the hard work that goes into it. This research has helped me learn how to manage my time, record detailed observations and interpret my data in order to answer my research question."

Grezinski has no immediate plans for graduate school and hasn’t settled on a career yet, though she knows she wants to work with animals. For her, like many of the students involved in the research at the zoo, it’s the skills the project builds that are most valuable. 

“Students talk about these skills in job interviews or in applications…and their research projects give them concrete examples of their success,” said Lewis. 

Perhaps an egg will never appear; perhaps the monkeys’ behavior won’t noticeably change. Perhaps the polar bear or seals or tigers or giraffes or any of the other creatures watched over won’t provide any startling behaviors. Perhaps the voluminous notes taken by the students this semester won’t record any groundbreaking insights.

That’s all right. The students have learned how to slow down, observe and be attentive. They have turned their gaze for a while to the other—to a wilder world removed from smart phones and screens, figuratively, to a distant country. And their discoveries may have at least as much to do with themselves.

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