Monday, November 14, 2016

URSP Student Ashley Fortner Investigates Effectiveness of Programs Monitoring Endangered Red Panda

My name is Ashley Fortner and I am a senior studying Applied Global Conservation. I am currently working with Dr. Elizabeth Freeman to investigate the effectiveness of two new technology programs in monitoring behavior in the endangered red panda. Due to its status as endangered, scientists are working to promote successful reproduction of this species in captivity. However, red pandas face many challenges such as poor milk production and poor maternal care. To better understand these challenges, Dr. Freeman and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) have placed video cameras within the nest boxes of female red pandas at SCBI. Although these cameras are helpful, problems such as continuous recording and having to hand score behaviors make this process lengthy and difficult. Ruby for Good, a non-profit software company, developed two new programs; one to cut out the video feed not containing red pandas (dead space) and another that will facilitate scoring of red panda behaviors. I will be comparing these new programs with the old methods of behavior monitoring to see if they are as effective at monitoring red panda behavior.

What got me interested in my project was seeing the red pandas daily while I was studying at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal, Virginia. I was curious about their personalities and their behavior and was dying to learn more. I found out that Dr. Freeman, whom I had known since my freshman year, was currently working with them so I reached out to her to see how I could get involved and she helped me develop this project.

Although my long-terms goals are not concrete, I know that I want to be zookeeper when I graduate in the spring. The ability to study an animal’s behavior and understand what they are expressing will be an invaluable skill as a zookeeper. It is essential to be able to understand these cues to recognize when there is something the animal needs from you and will allow you to implement enrichment to better their quality of life.

A really cool thing about my project is that what I do on a weekly basis is constantly changing as the project develops. Last week, I summarized chapters on proper protocol for monitoring behavior and this past week I poured over 30 hours of red panda footage practicing scoring behaviors. One thing that I have discovered this term is that monitoring animal behavior is not a walk in the park. Animals, like humans, tend to do many things at once. It may seem easy to watch an animal and document its behavior, but as an observer, you have to have an unparalleled attention span and the speed to keep up with what is going on.