iHerp Australia Issue 6 - Page 47

Train the Brain or go Insane! Reptile Cognition, Welfare and the Importance of Behavioural Enrichment for Captive Herps. Mitchell Hodgson is in the process of completing a PhD on the thermal physiology and behaviour of Jacky Dragons, and is a familiar face in the reptile department at Kellyville Pets. In this issue he investigates whether behavioural enrichment can deliver any real benefits for captive herps – and their keepers. W e live in an era where every second heated debate about captive herps relates to whether tubs, tanks or outside is best for our pets. After starting a discussion on a Facebook group about barren tub set-ups, I was forced to wonder about how important behavioural enrichment is for captive herps? Is there really any impact on their wellbeing? After exploring some veterinary and zoologi- cal literature I hope to provide a bit more of an informed basis for keepers to make decisions about the use of enrichment in their captive regime. Please keep in mind that this isn’t an attack on a keeping style (everyone takes these discussions so personally!), but rather a toolbox of tips to help improve your captive environment. Think of enrichment as solving a riddle; it’s a mental workout, like physical exercise to stay healthy. Without mental stimulation to keep the reptile mind ticking over, our pets are susceptible to poor wellbeing, which may be to the detriment of their behaviour, overall health and, god forbid, breeding success! Behavioural enrichment is intrinsically linked to the concept of welfare, which is dependent on animal-environment interactions. In modern welfare science there are three key concepts: 1. An animal’s perception of its environment is a determinant of welfare. 2. Good welfare requires stimulation through overcoming challenges. 3. Welfare is improved by changes to the environ- ment or changes to the way that animals perceive the environment. I think the best way to start looking at this topic is by debunking the misconception that reptiles are ‘dumb’. I’m not trying anthropomorphise your pet herp and argue it is capable of complex emotions such as love, loss and affection. But squamate reptiles have evolved a suite of Furthermore, there is evidence to show that certain cognitive (evidence-based learning and decision making) factors of captive animal environments are strongly abilities to help them survive in the wild, such as com- correlated with welfare, including similarity to the plex spatial learning and social learning. Central Bearded natural world, the ability of the animals to make choices, Dragons (Pogona vitticeps) have even been able to meeting species-specific needs and overall environmental imitate each other opening a sliding door for a food complexity. How many keepers out there think they have reward! Unfortunately, much of the early research on achieved those criteria effectively? I know I’m probably reptile cognition and captive behaviour utilised methods barely scraping through. appropriate for studying birds and mammals – the scientists were asking questions the wrong way. Reptiles quickly fell into the shadow of the other two Right: Central Bearded Dragons have taxa, which is disheartening learned to open a door to receive a food as some contemporary reward. Image by ifong. studies suggest they have an equal amount, or in some circumstances greater diversity of behaviours. In the past five or so years the global interest in pet reptiles has boomed, and so has the quantity and quality of work investigating their wild and captive behaviour.