19th April 2011, 12:07pm
Free online resource offers answers to animal behaviour
cat The answers to why many animals behave in the ways they do could soon be available in one comprehensive online resource thanks to the work of Animal Behaviour researchers at the University of Lincoln.

This free access virtual learning environment, called AnimalLincs, will help people recognise and understand the behaviour, biology and health of a range of animals including dogs, cats and horses – and people are being asked to get involved by submitting their own content.

The interactive online resource will contain a wealth of high quality photographic and video material, virtual animals in which different biological systems can be explored, scientific descriptions and interactive exercises. Everything can be undertaken in an enjoyable and intuitive way at different levels, according to the user’s experience and knowledge, and dependent on their requirements.

The development of the virtual animal learning site has been supported by funding from the National Lifelong Learning Network for Veterinary and Allied Professionals (VETNET LLN) so it can be used in the education of animal and veterinary scientists, and also help to provide greater insight into the needs and welfare of various species.

A major challenge is the assembly of a data base of good copyright-free material to illustrate and educate users, and the researchers would appreciate hearing from people who are interested in contributing to this, for example with images or videos of different  behaviours, disorders and presenting signs.

The first part of AnimalLincs to be launched is a website on feline behaviour, ‘Cat Behaviour Described’, of which the first chapter (Maintenance Behaviour) is now available. Dr Sarah Ellis, a feline behaviour specialist at the University of Lincoln, worked with University colleague Helen Zulch and Jenna Kiddie from the Royal Veterinary College in London to develop this free online catalogue of feline behaviour and body language.

She said: “Developing this resource has been an immensely challenging but rewarding task. We have spent many hours collecting thousands of photographs and video clips from cat owners, breeders and cattery establishments from all over the world as well as filming footage ourselves. These have all then been categorised and scientific descriptions compiled for them. Only the best examples of behaviours to be described have been selected in order to provide a high quality, unambiguous resource.”

VetNet Regional Manager, Nia Huws, said: "VetNet Lifelong Learning Network is committed to enhancing learning opportunities for students from vocational backgrounds. The multi media nature of this online study resource will bring the learning experience closer to the learner, and we were therefore keen to support its development."

The resource is modelled on a traditional ethogram (a pictorial inventory of behaviour patterns) where behaviour of a species is catalogued into discrete categories and scientifically described. Generally, ethograms concentrate on descriptions of behaviour and not purpose or function. This is of particular importance in the domestic cat as the function of many behaviours has not yet been scientifically investigated, often leading to misguided interpretation based on personal opinion and/or experience.

Dr Ellis added: “Welfare assessment must always remain objective, thus, the use of an ethogram when assessing an animal’s state and communicating about it to others is a key resource. This will enable people to better understand feline behaviour and, consequently, learn to respond more appropriately to cats in terms of both their husbandry and handling.”

Initial user feedback has been very positive. Rachel King, a part-time PhD student at the University of Lincoln and deputy manager of the Cat Section at Woodgreen Animal Shelter, said: “The site provides a modern and interesting, yet comprehensive guide to feline behaviour. Clearly labelled, the resource is easy to read and understand. The interactive exercises provide a means of understanding the world from a feline perspective. It is a fabulous resource which can be used by the novice cat owner through to those studying within the area.”

Cat Behaviour Described can be found at http://catbehaviour.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk

Donations of copyright-free photographic and video material of behaviours, health disorders and presenting signs for the horse, dog and cat would be most greatly appreciated to continue to make this resource as detailed and comprehensible as possible.

If you would be interested in submitting either photographs or videos for consideration for Cat Behaviour Described, please contact Dr Sarah Ellis at sellis@lincoln.ac.uk  For equine or canine submissions please contact Professor Daniel Mills: dmills@lincoln.ac.uk or Fiona Williams: fwilliams@lincoln.ac.uk  Please note - you must own the copyright of all footage submitted.

Photograph courtesy of Anne-Marie Dossche.
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