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!


Rat tickling and thermography

This summer is one of professional workshops  – to an unusual extent and spanning an unusual broad range of topics.

It started in Amsterdam in early June, with a social lab on Responsible Research and Innovation in the NewHorrizon project. This was nothing I had planned and in fact when the invitation arrived only a couple of weeks before the event, I had to change my plans to make room for it. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet new people and learn about something I know is important and I actually work with – the concept of RRI. The workshop was fantastic in all aspects. Indeed I got to know new people and in a very constructive way, as the organisation was impressive. Within half an hour, we were working in pairs of people who had never met before and talking about important experiences and priorities in our professional activities. I took a lot of ideas about how to help people work well together from this event, and hope to be able to apply them in my own teaching and event coordination. Of course I also learned about RRI. And hope to learn even more, since one of the other workshop participants is already booked to come and co-organize a workshop with me in Porto.

A month later I spent a week in Lisbon for the EMERGENCE digital media science communication hackathon. An entire week of crossdisciplinary creativity is too much to even attempt to cover in a paragraph in a blog post, but have a look here for a glimpse of the week and here for a more formal presentation.

The next workshop I’m signed up for is one on a specific research methodology, infrared thermography to measure animal welfare. This is an Animal Welfare Research Network event to be held at Roslin Institute in Scotland in September, and it promises to be very practical and hands-on. I read between the lines in the registration form that participants will leave with their clothes smelling of pigs!

What about rat tickling? This is indeed also a workshop opportunity, as a pre-conference event before the International Society for Applied Ethology congress on Prince Edward Island nest week. However tempting the workshop sounds, it coincides with the meeting of the ISAE council so I will spend the day talking with fellow ethologists instead.

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.

Research ethics: why we have separate animal ethics committees

“It doesn’t make sense to have separate research ethics committees for animal and human research subjects” is something I’ve heard more than once the last few months. Behind this statement is a theory-based argument based on that different kinds of research cannot be separated and that there is only one research ethics, and the practice-based question of what happens with a project that is approved by one committee but not by the other.

I disagree with the idea that the best approach is a single committee for ethics review, and I think that as soon as we try to test the arguments in practice, it becomes clear that they work best in theory.

It may be that in an ideal world, there is really only one area of research ethics, where the discussion of all issues of how research interacts with other living beings can take place. But this is not how the ethics field looks today, neither as a research discipline nor as a practical activity. Today there is bioethics, which is closely related to medical ethics, and is about the consequences that research has on human beings. And there is animal research ethics, which in terms of approaches and principles is much closer related to the wider field of animal ethics than to the human focused bioethics. In terms of people who work with these issues, there are two communities which overlap very little. And in terms of the approaches they use and the principles they rely on, they are also distinct.

Of course, if we look at ethics as a subdiscipline of philosophy, there are way more than two schools of thinking. But if we focus on biological/biomedical research ethics as a practical activity with a regulatory function, which is what this post is about, there are really two ways. When the research subjects are humans, the analysis is based on Beauchamp’s and Childress’ four principles of respect for autonomy, beneficience, non-maleficience and justice. When the research subjects are animals, the analysis is based on the 3Rs principle of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement.

But this is not just a matter of principles – there are practical consequences having to do with the expertise you need to work with the different kinds of questions. People who review and give recommendations for research projects with human beings have expertise and practical experience in matters such as informed consent and data protection. People who review and give recommendations for animal research are experts on matters such as anaesthesia and environmental enrichment. These areas of expertise are hardly ever combined in the same people, because they really belong to different background training and professional areas.

Now, what about the practical question of projects which include both research with human and animal subjects? it is true that these projects exist – but it is rather rare for the animal and the human parts to be so intertwined that they actually depend on their respective approval to be successful. The few examples that I have seen are when cells of human origin are transplanted into animals, a technique that is quite common in for example cancer research. And from the practical perspective of an animal ethics committee, the issue can be dealt with pragmatically. We do what is our task as an animal ethics committee and review these projects from the perspective of consequences for the animals – and add one requirement: that the procedure of obtaining the cells and using them for the purpose has been approved by the respective human ethics committee. If there is no such approval, we tell the applicant to come back when the approval is in place.

The final stumbling block for a combined committee is the sheer number of people needed to cover all the expertise. To handle project review well, a committee needs to have sufficient expertise also in the different types of research. Since very little of that expertise overlaps between research with human and research with animal subjects, a joint committee needs to include roughly twice the number of people.

This does not mean that animal and human subjects research committees cannot learn from each other. But that is a different topic.

Agent-based modelling in animal research – interview with Iris Boumans and Eddie Bokkers

Congratulations Iris Boumans and Eddie Bokkers to the publication of two papers in Physiology and Behaviour! These papers present work using a relatively new behaviour research approach. What is Agent-Based Modelling and how is it useful in the study of farm animal behaviour?

Agent-based modelling is a computer simulation method in which agents (representing pigs in our case) are individually programmed to have their own goals and can make their own decisions, within the limits of certain rules. Especially interesting in these simulation is the interaction between agents and the environment, which can affect the decisions agents make. In this way behaviour can emerge that was not programmed on forehand. Due to conflicts at a feeding place, for example, pigs can adapt their feeding behaviour and aggressive interactions might occur. Or a stimulus-poor environment can trigger redirected behaviour in an individual, such as tail biting, which can develop into a large scale tail biting outbreak in a group. These kind of simulations provide us more insight in the underlying mechanisms of pig behaviours, the effect of the environment and pig characteristics on this behaviour, and how this affect the performance and welfare of pigs. This can be very useful in the study of farm animal behaviour to understand how housing and management conditions affect animals and to learn how we can use behaviour as indicator for performance and animal welfare. The advantage of using simulation models such as we did is that many variations of situations can be explored without the need of doing animal experiments.

Feeding_motivation_pigs_140106 view- groot4

In your first paper (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.04.032), you present the development of the model, and in the second paper (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.03.030) you use it to study feeding patterns, social interactions and growth in pigs. Tell us more about what you actually did and what you found!

Large variation in feeding behaviour can be observed among pigs: some have large meals where others ‘nibble’ more, some eat fast where others eat slow, and some eat more in the morning where others eat more in the afternoon. What is causing this variation, and what can it tell about the performance of the animals? The aim of our studies was to understand this variation in feeding behaviour of pigs and the implications of these various feeding patterns for their productivity and welfare. In the first paper we explain how we developed an agent-based model to understand the mechanisms underlying feeding and social interaction behaviour. We used the model to explore the complex interaction between physiological processes (metabolic, hormonal and growth processes) and the social context (social facilitation, competition and behavioural strategies). We found that high levels of competition can be recognised by changing meal-based patterns (e.g. meal frequency), which can either increase or decrease due to varying behavioural strategies of pigs (approach or avoid). Especially increased meal frequency was associated with increased aggression, although both an increased and decreased meal frequency caused problems, such as a reduced feed intake and reduced growth. The group size at which competition levels reduced productivity and welfare could be predicted from the average daily feeding time of pigs. In the second paper we further explored the variation in feeding, social interaction and growth patterns in pigs. In literature, studies found contradicting results on relations between dominance rank of pigs, feeding types (e.g. meal eaters vs. nibblers) and growth patterns. These contradictions can be explained by variation in pig characteristics, such as growth potential and coping style. Model results showed that variation in characteristics among group-housed pigs can benefit animal welfare by reducing aggression at group level, but can also make some pigs more susceptible to competition, such as low-ranking pigs and pigs with a passive coping style. Pigs that are socially constrained in a competitive situation can be identified by a changed 24 hour feeding pattern with reduced feed intake in the morning.

This is quite a new approach, and so knowledge is still rather limited. Is it possible to say something already about the potential practical applications of this work? What is needed before this research can be put to practical use?

Our work shows that feeding patterns can tell us much more about pig welfare and productivity then was thought so far. With currently ongoing technological developments in pig farming, such as automatic feeders and individual recognition, pig behaviours can be monitored individually and real-time on farms. Recognising behavioural signals, preferably at an early stage, can help to prevent problems and improve productivity, health and welfare in pigs. At present, however, interpretation of these behaviours and early detection of deviating behavioural patterns is still challenging due to the large variation within and among individuals. With our model we gained a deeper understanding of variation in feeding behaviour and found feeding patterns that can serve as indicators for reduced growth, aggression and social constraints. We learned, for example, that it is important for these indicators to analyse patterns on individual level and within 24 hours, instead of at group level and daily averages as is currently common. Furthermore, we should not only look at one component of a behaviour, such as feed intake, but also at other components of feeding behaviour, such as feeding time, meal frequency and feeding rate. Changes in feeding behaviour have been associated with several welfare issues, such as health problems and tail biting behaviour. For future studies, it would be interesting to study the relation between feeding patterns.


Openness about animal research – whose responsibility?

On June 21st, the Transparency Agreement on Animal Research was launced in Portugal. The presently 16 signatories of the Portuguese Transparency Agreement agree to:

  • Have a statement concerning animal welfare on the Institution’s website.
  • Link to the Transparency Agreement.
  • Provide adequate information to the media and the general public on the conditions under which animal research is carried out and the results achieved.
  • Develop initiatives that promote greater knowledge and understanding of society on the use of animals in scientific research.
  • Report progress made every year and share experiences.

With this move, Portugal becomes the fourth European country with a formal agreement to communicate more openly about animal research, after the UK, Belgium and Spain. This is a welcome initiative and if it is successful, which I hope, we will move towards a climate of discussion where scientists can speak openly about the fact that they use animals in biomedical as well as fundamental research.

But what this implies in terms of roles and responsibilities is not obvious. That it means that we need to talk about how animals are treated is obvious to me as a researcher in laboratory animal welfare and a professional engaged in a number of institutional measures to promote a responsible use of animals in research, such as review of projects with animals and organization of training for researchers in laboratory animal science. And I’m happy to take on my responsibility in communication and talk about these matters. In fact, I already do this. Whenever asked by media, I comment, I have during nearly a decade regularly written about the issue on the blog Animalogos and I have also written opinion papers in leading newspapers.

When looking up the latter link, to an opionion paper published three years ago together with three colleagues, I realise that we opened with an argument that I personally really don’t think is mine: the usefulness of animal research. Not because I don’t believe that research with animals can provide useful understanding of biological mechanisms, but because I think that this is a message which should be communicated by those who use animals in research to provide such understanding. This is the responsibility of my colleagues who do research in neuroscience, biomaterials, immunology and infection, cell division and cancer.

And here is a real challenge for the official promotors of the inititive, in Portugal the national laboratory animal science organization SPCAL. This organization mainly brings together professionals who are involved in caring for animals and providing advice to researchers using animals. These professionals already take a huge responsibility in working for more responsible research with animals – it is not fair to also give them the responsiblity of communicating why this research is important!


Working on the visuals

António Sá is one of the most talented photographers of animals and people in Portugal. He is also a lovely person and a great teacher whom I have had the privilege to learn from in one of his inspiring workshops. So I didn’t think twice about where the visuals of Animalogues would come from. Right as I type, I’m experimenting with different layouts and different photos. I think I’ve settled for the layout Twenty Seventeen as it makes the photo really stand out while at the same time presenting the text well. Now to select from the dozen splendid photographs suggested to me!

Coming soon

Animalogues is a science communication blog about the behaviour and welfare of domestic animals. It is managed by Anna Olsson, senior researcher in the field at the University of Porto. The blog will be launched in the end of June 2018.

Animalogues is a word play alluding to the ambition of the site – a place for scientifically informed dialogues about animal issues. It is the international cousin of Animalogos, a Portuguese-language blog on the same topic.