Research Project: Enhancing the welfare of captive Platypus - examining tolerance to handling and benefits of enrichment
Healesville Sanctuary has held Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) in captivity since 1933 and husbandry practices have developed throughout that time, including the use of enrichment to stimulate natural behaviour and enhance welfare.
The Platypus is difficult to observe in the wild due to their aquatic and predominately nocturnal nature but research suggests that wild animals may need to spend nearly all of their awake hours searching for food just to meet their energy requirements.
In captivity, food is plentiful, which means less time is needed for foraging and platypus may become bored. When captive animals are frustrated or bored they can become inactive or start to exhibit behaviours which are abnormal, undesirable or detrimental - what we call stereotypical behaviours.
Environmental enrichments are designed to reduce these by offering goal-oriented activities towards a new stimulus. These can include new objects for play, changes in water streams, movement to new enclosures and interaction with visitors during behind-the-scenes encounters.
To identify the incidence of stereotypical behaviour in captive Platypus at Healesville Sanctuary and assess the effect of different types of environmental enrichment on their behaviour
To determine if visitor encounters impact on the welfare of conditioned Platypus by assessing their behavioural response to behind-the-scenes visitor encounters
Five enrichments were assessed (blackworm, dragonfly larva, floating objects, bubbles and an enclosure change). Animals were observed in the water immediately after the enrichment was given and again five hours later. Ethograms were then generated for a range of behaviours including circling, locomotion, feeding, grooming, hiding, spurring (males), using enrichment, and playing.
In and out-of-water encounters were recorded with no visitors (keeper only), low visitor frequency and high visitor frequency. Platypus were observed during the visitor encounter and again in their enclosures afterwards. Ethograms were then generated for a range of behaviours including moving, hiding, biting, interacting with people, playing, sitting still and feeding.
The only stereotypical behaviour seen before enrichment was some swimming in a circle. This can be territorial behaviour in males
Floating objects were the most popular enrichment items for most individuals. A decrease in circling behaviour of approximately 50% was seen in response to floating objects
Food enrichment encouraged a type of foraging behaviour that was not previously observed (feeding vertically, head down tail up) and took some animals time to learn
No difference in behaviour was seen between encounters with the keeper alone or with low and high visitor frequency
Platypus displayed more playful behaviours with in-water versus out-of-water encounters
Primary researcher: Jess Thomas (with assistance from Ann Nowland)
Participating organisations: Zoos Victoria