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Students’ biology research takes them to the zoo

The sound of loud honks, squawks and flapping flamingo wings brings excited squeals from tiny tots, whose faces are pressed against the blank chain-link fence of the enclosure at the Nashville zoo at Grassmere.

The zoo is just a fun way to spend an afternoon for some, but for junior and senior Belmont students in Dr. John Niedzwiecki’s animal behavior elective, it’s a kind of classroom.

Over the past semester, the 15 students developed research projects based on behaviors they observed from animals at the zoo.

“I think it really inspires them to look harder at the behaviors,” Niedzwiecki, associate professor of biology, said. “It gives them a chance to apply their knowledge to something very unique.”

In his class, students explore the biological basis of behavior that helps animals survive and reproduce, he said.

Each student group observed different species at Nashville’s zoo. Altogether, they studied lined seahorses, Eurasian lynxes, red pandas, wolf cichlids, African elephants, siamang and white-cheeked gibbons and Caribbean flamingos.

And the specific animal behaviors they studied range from the social interaction between mating pair bonds in lined seahorses, to footedness in flamingos.

“One of the goals is to get students thinking like scientists, and, as an upper level class, I wanted them to really tackle a project,” Niedzwiecki said. “Students have some ability to develop their own questions, develop a hypothesis, collect data, apply statistics and test the question, without having to learn very advanced techniques or use expensive equipment.”

For Jessica Braden, a senior biology major and environmental science minor, conducting research at the zoo was a unique learning experience.

“We’ve all been in the classroom since Kindergarten and it just gets so redundant,” Braden said. “Being out in the field and doing an original research project, it just feels important, it just feels like you’re really doing something worthwhile.”

Braden and research partner Erin Pitts, a senior environmental science major, studied foot preferences in flamingos.

“You see statues of flamingos on one leg in people’s yards in Florida, and it’s kind of this iconic thing,” Braden said. “But they really have personalities, and it’s funny to watch.”

Animals in zoos aren’t widely researched because of the difficulty in replicating scientific trials and procedures, Niedzwiecki said.

“Ironically, if they work with some of the more boring animals, there’s a whole lot of literature out there that they could use as a crutch, and they might not feel like they have got a part,” he said.

“Where here, it’s very hard sometimes to find the answers, and so they are finding novel answers to novel questions.”

The students presented their findings last week to the zoo keepers responsible for the animals they studied.

“The class is also a good chance for our keepers to get answers about their animals’ behavior as well,” Dr. Heather Robertson, senior veterinarian at the Nashville zoo at Grassmere, said in an email. “Having the students be their eyes and ears is a great partnership.”

During their presentations, the students explained their hypotheses and research methods, as well as the statistical data they calculated based on their observations.

“This information allows the animal care staff to learn more about their own animals and will hopefully lead to information that will improve the animals’ care and quality of life,” Robertson said.

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