ChickenStress: Tom Smulders about a new European research training network

Congratulations, Tom Smulders at Newcastle University and your eleven collaborators to the success in getting funding for the ChickenStress training network! These grants are so competitive that getting one is an enormous achievement in itself. And I think this is the first time ever there is one in animal welfare. Please tell us what this network is about!

The network aims to better understand the different factors that affect stress responsivity and stress resilience in laying hens. We go from the assumption that in the end, the stress resilience is based in the brains of the animals, but that the factors that determine this stress resilience are a combination of genetics, early-life experiences, and current (adult) environment. The network therefore aims to better understand how the stress response is regulated in the avian brain, but it also looks at all three factors that affect resilience. We don’t just want to understand what the effects of these different factors are, we also want to know what we can do to improve stress resilience in the future. Hopefully this will lead to new recommendations to the egg industry to improve laying hen welfare, by providing them with the resources to be more resilient to stress-full experiences.

Logo slide

ChickenStress offers 14 positions for PhD students across the different participating institutions. The opportunity to do research in an internationally competitive research group is of course an important part of doing a PhD, but being a student in a European training network is not only about the individual projects. What is special about the ChickenStress project, why should people apply to this network?

The 14 positions vary widely in the scientific disciplines they represent: from basic neuroscience projects, trying to understand how the stress response is regulated in the forebrain, through more bio-informatics projects, to applied hen behaviour projects. In addition to being trained in these specialist disciplines represented by the different supervisors, who are all international leaders in their fields, the students will all also do a secondment (placement) in another lab in the network and another secondment with an industrial partner. These placements will increase the students’ scientific skill sets and their employability skills more widely. They will also see how their academic research can have real-life implications with real impact. In addition, we will have 4 network-wide events in which the students learn about different aspects of stress regulation, genomics and the interaction between research and industry, as well as present their (interim) results to each other. The aim is that the 14 students, even though they will be based across Europe, form a real cohort, who communicate with each other regularly through electronic means, and contribute significantly to the success of the network as a whole. They will be expected to organize webinars within the network, and to communicate with the public. Anybody interested in applying can still do so before May 15th 2019, by going to our provisional website:

With a background in poultry welfare research myself, I know how big and complex the issues in this field are. ChickenStress offers an opportunity to tackle some of these questions in a concerted way with quite a lot of resources. May I ask you to be bold and suggest one or two questions where – if successful – ChickenStress can make some real progress?

Hopes are of course always high at the start of such an endeavour, and we all know how slow and twisted the paths from science to application can be. However, I do believe that we are (still) in a crucial time with regards to the changes in housing systems from the old battery cages to whatever the new standard will be. Cage-free egg production seems to be growing very rapidly, with the USA now starting to follow the example of Europe. However, there are still very many unanswered questions about the different cage-free systems. The parts of the network that I think are the most likely to make some real progress when it comes to laying hen welfare, are the projects aimed at understanding the best route from early-life experiences (incubation, hatching, rearing) to adult laying environment. By hopefully making some very concrete recommendations about how hens should be incubated, hatched and reared, so they can cope optimally with the new adult housing environments (e.g. using different levels in multi-tier barns, using the range in free-range systems), I hope that this network will contribute to the successful implementation of these new cage-free production systems, both in terms of animal welfare, and in terms of egg production.

outdoor hens

What does IKEA have to do with animal welfare? Interview with Priya Motupalli

Priya Motupalli, Global Sustainable Sourcing Specialist sure is a cool title for an animal welfare scientist. Tell us what you do at IKEA Food Services AB!

Thanks!  It’s a mouthful, but it’s an incredible position where I get to place animal welfare at the heart of our vision for more sustainable agriculture.  My role is to develop and support the implementation of our sustainable sourcing strategy for the animal products in our range across all of the 52 markets we operate in.

This strategy consists of a set of programmes which covers animal welfare, environmental impact, and public health issues at the farm level.  The first of these species-specific programmes, the better chicken programme, was launched publicly in the beginning of this year.

Priya with chicken

What are the principles you apply to your work?

The mission of IKEA is to create a better everyday life for the many people.  I take this to heart in my own work—I’m not interested in good animal welfare or sustainable food production getting stuck in a niche market where only a small segment of the population benefits or has access to it.  My goal is to consistently find a place for animal welfare as a core tenant of more sustainable food systems.  This isn’t simple, as there are documented trade-offs—so I try and focus how animal welfare can connect to environmental or social issues to move the conversation forward, rather than not moving at all.

We also have something called the 7 Food Principles which set the general business direction at IKEA Food—although there is a principle around animal welfare, my favourite one is actually “food is pleasure.”  Consumers are so overloaded now with information on the dos/don’ts of sustainable consumption!  I think part of our job is to ensure that they can pick up something in the Swedish food market, or dine in the Restaurant, or grab something in the bistro and simply feel good about it, without having to panic about where it was sourced, or what the working conditions were like, or how the animals were raised, etc.  Food is such an intimate, enjoyable part of our lives—and making more sustainable or healthier choices shouldn’t be a barrier to this enjoyment!

Of course, providing this experience for our customers is a journey and there is a great saying by our founder, Ingvar Kamprad that “most things remain to be done.”

In which way does animal welfare science get into your job? Do you use actual research data or methods?

Animal welfare science is a critical part of the job—and one of the main reasons I was hired!  Current research forms the backbone of any animal welfare sourcing criteria we create.  However, as the science only tells you what you can do, not necessarily what you should do, our sourcing criteria is also a product of country specific legislation, feedback from NGOs and suppliers, and customer desires.

In addition, data collection and the use of this data to improve animal welfare over time is an integral part of our better chicken programme, and will form an integral part of our other species-specific programmes as well.  Alongside any input criteria we set, we have also identified key welfare outcomes that we will measure with the help of our suppliers and retail partners.  These welfare outcome measures will provide objective information on the quality of life for animals’ specific to our supply chain. In time, we can use this information to establish key areas of improvement and apply targeted interventions.

Our first data-set related to the better chicken programme came in recently and I’m keen to get it to start working for us!

If you are interested in how IKEA works with sustainability in general:

If you want to learn more about IKEA’s view on animal welfare:

Follow Priya on twitter:@drpriyamots

Coverage of Better Chicken:

Does cold stress make mothers kill their pups?

This is what a team of researchers claim in a short report published this spring in Journal of Animal Science and Technology. They base this claim on a study in which they housed female periparturient mice in different environmental temperatures (20-23C versus 10-15C) and counted pups.

Based on what I know about on mouse maternal behaviour and pup survival, a topic I have been researching for more than a decade, I don’t believe that cold stress makes females kill their pups. In fact, our research shows that females often eat their already dead pups, but rarely ever do they actively kill pups.

But if presented with convincing data, I would of course change my mind. The important thing about the short report cited in the first paragraph is that it did not present any data on maternal behaviour. The only data presented is about pups – numbers born and numbers surviving.

A few years ago, these reflections would not have left our informal research group discussions, but now there are public fora for this kind of critical discussion. So I just wrote my first PubPeer comment.

More broiler catching research

In the beginning of August, I posted about a study with Brazilian broiler catchers. One of the observations in this study was that catchers were aware that catching broilers by their legs was worse for welfare. (On the poster this is expressed as “catching by the back is better”; you can see that if you enlarge the photo).

Interestingly, this view by the catchers is confirmed by  a recently published study from Norway in which two catching methods were compared in two flocks.  Four professional catchers caught a total of 3951 birds and either caught the birds under the abdomen and carried them upright, or by the two legs carrying them upside down. Capturing under the abdomen and carrying upside down resulted in faster loading into crates, more equal and lower crate density and also tended to reduce the number of wing fractures. The study by Kittelsen et al was just published in the journal Animals.

Cultural differences of ethological relevance

(There was dancing at the congress dinner. That’s an unwritten ISAE rule and something I fully support. But it left less time for writing, so this morning I will present a shorter reflection rather than a full resume of the 3rd conference day)

This post is not about how applied ethologists differ depending on where they come from or where they work. They don’t, actually, or at least not much, not in a significant way that I have been able to observe during my 25 years as an ISAE member. The kind of work they do may differ, because that’s in part determined by the local context in which they work. Some aspects of animal use differ indeed very little: laboratory animals are housed and used in similar ways across the world and lameness scoring is unfortunately needed for dairy cows most everywhere. But sometimes differences are huge because the way certain practices work is so different.

Yesterday presented two examples from the area of animal production. The photo below shows Victor Abreu de Lima from São Paulo, Brasil and his poster on broiler catchers and their attitudes to animal welfare.


Catching broilers at the farm to ship them for slaughter used to be something you got anybody who needed to earn some extra money in to do. When I was a teenager, this was something a local football team could get money for a training camp doing. Obviously, having teenagers who know nothing about chickens and who just want to get out of the dark smelly dusty chicken house as quickly as possible isn’t great for animal welfare, This is at least one of the drivers for replacing manual catching with automatic. But in Brazil the development has gone the other way, and catchers are now professionals who – at least in the case of the company Victor and his colleagues work with – have a proper work contract and are trained in how to perform their task. And as you can see from the poster, they know and have a lot to say about the welfare of broilers on the farm and during catching. Whether it’s better for a chicken to be caught by a machine or by a professional handler has not been studied, but it seems quite obvious that professional handlers with this kind of insight makes for better animal welfare than unprepared occasional workers!

The next photo shows Marina von Keyserlingk from British Columbia, Canada presenting work by Jane Stojkov on whether dairy cows sent for auction are actually fit for transport. (The answer is that far too many of them aren’t). This question surprised me, as the only auctions for dairy cows I have experienced are those where a farmer sells their surplus heifers to a farmer who is expanding or improving their herd. But the auction pictured on the photo is one for culled dairy cows intended for slaughter, because that is the route between the dairy farm and the slaughter house in Canada today. And since many cows are culled because of health issues, it is a real problem for animal welfare that these cows need to go through an extra round of transport, housing and showing before they are slaughtered.


What’s the problem with this photo?

I was asked to comment on what the problem is with the stock photo above. RSPCA did well in pointing out that there is a problem, even though they somehow missed the opportunity to explain what the problem is!

The photo shows a mouse female and her litter. Based on that the pups have some fur but don’t yet have their eyes open, I would guesstimate that they are perhaps a week old. Mice are an altricious species, which means that the young are born in an undeveloped stage and are fully dependent on parental care for basically everything during their first week of life. They do develop very fast, and are ready to leave the nest at about a month of age, and sexually mature just a few weeks later. But at the stage of development in this photo, they aren’t capable of doing very much. The place for such young pups to be is the nest that their mother (or parents, males share the parental care if they can, although under laboratory conditions they may or may not be present) have prepared. That provides them with the thermal microenvironment they need – which needs to be warmer than that of an adult mouse given their poorly developed fur.

Judging from own experience of how long it takes to get a good photo of animals, by the time this photo was taken, the pups were no doubt cold. But that is only part of the problem. Anyone who has seen a professional photo session, or having had their photo taken in a studio, knows that this involves lots of bright light and reflectors. Well, this is precisely the kind of environment neuroscientists use to test anxiety in mice – an open and brightly lit space. Mice are nocturnal animals who spend their lives in tunnels and rarely venture out in the open light, and being forced to be in an environment which in nature would be dangerous is stressful for any mouse. Most likely, it is even more stressful for a female when her rather helpless pups are also exposed in this way.

If you want to learn more about our research in this field. check out the Alive Pup Project. But before you go there, let me just reflect on the different ways of making photos and for which purpose. You will see that in the Alive Pup Project we also show photos of pups taken out of their nest. But these photos were taken when the pups were weighed and inspected as part of a research project aiming to elucidate factors behind pup mortality. This is a big problem in laboratory mouse breeding, and research into the problem requires collecting data. In contrast, it is possible to make nice photos of mice in environments which are less stressful for them the one illustrated above

Still, I need to admit that we have also used stock photos of mice in unnatural environments. We simply did not think. Now we will!


School holiday animal welfare scientists

Every summer, 16 high school students participating in Universidade Júnior at the University of Porto have the opportunity to learn about animal behaviour and welfare – and practice some of their new knowledge in measuring behaviour and welfare. In the Laboratory Animal Science group at i3S – Institute for Research and Innovation in Health, we receive two groups of 8 students who spend a week each with us. Of course, we teach them a lot of theory – we’re scientists after all! – but we try to do it in as playful a way as possible. And there’s plenty of animals.


There are direct behaviour observations of zebrafish habitat preference, and observations from video recordings of the behaviour of mice and rats during the light and dark period.


There is a visit to a dairy farm, where the students perform a simplified WelfareQuality assessment and also potentially get some close-up contact with cows.



And there is a demonstration of dog training as well as a chance to clicker train one’s colleagues.

For our research group, these are two intense but also very rewarding weeks. It is fantastic to be able to share our knowledge and passion for research into animal behaviour and welfare with 16- and 17-year olds who are as interested in animals as we are. We have been doing this since 2014, and of course we hope that some day we will meet a new colleague who once did Universidade Júnior with us!

Thanks to Sara Capas, Andreia Costa, Ana Maria Valentim and Gabriela Morello for the photos.