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A more holistic approach to animal research needed

Monday, October 5, 2015

There may be some changes on the horizon for when animals are researched.

For whatever reason, the vast majority of animal research has been conducted during a certain season – breeding season. To bring this to light, Scott Loss, assistant professor in Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, teamed up with Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists.

“The breeding season is only a part of the year,” Loss said. “It’s an important part, but for most animal species, we don’t know what’s going on for the rest of the year.”

Loss and collaborators reviewed more than 2,000 scientific articles from a period of more than 18 years. They were looking at what season other researchers were focusing on, if any of them considered more than one season, if any studies considered carryover effects (when events during one period continue to influence individual animals and animal populations during subsequent periods) and if there were any trends in these above research tendencies over time.

The group looked at journal articles on amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals and found that more than 73 percent of all studies take place during a single season, and 61 percent of the studies took place only during the species’ breeding season. Only 5 percent of studies looked at carryover effects.

“Carryover effects, also called seasonal interactions, can have major ramifications for animal biology,” Loss said. “Take spring migration in birds - if a bird hits a window and dies while en route to its breeding ground, it can’t even attempt to breed. This event during migration could influence the abundance of that species during later seasons. Conservation efforts focused only on an understanding of what happens to this species during the breeding season would overlook this potentially important event.”

Part of the reason breeding season is of great focus to researchers may be the lack of funding and technology to look at other periods, or even the academic calendar, which often constrains researchers to collecting data only during the summer.

“It’s technologically difficult to follow animals. If someone wants to research sea turtles, they have to wait until a short period when the turtles come ashore to lay eggs,” said Loss. “Tracking turtles during the vast majority of their time spent at sea is extremely expensive and difficult.”

However, there are new technologies emerging that can be used for many types of animals to study them throughout the year, such as miniature tracking devices that use cell phone towers or satellites and GPS.

“There is a dogma that breeding is more important that anything else,” Loss said. “I would argue that, for most animal species, we don’t have enough information from the entire year to say that is the case.”

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