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Environment and Animal Behavior

Animal behavior can make conservation difficult. Those darn animals that just won’t mate make it hard for conservationists to help them. But what’s the deal? Why do animals hate breeding in captivity? Sometimes, imprinting is the culprit. Pandas are notoriously stubborn about mating in captivity. The London Zoo’s panda Chi Chi imprinted on the humans that raised her, so she refused to mate with her own species and instead attempted to mate with a human zookeeper. Sad panda.

Panda. Image from here.

A similar problem with imprinting occurred in endangered whooping cranes that were raised by sandhill crane foster parents. The whooping cranes imprinted on the sandhill cranes and then would not mate with other whooping cranes. Now, conservation biologists expose baby whooping cranes to sounds of their own species, so they form a mating bond with members of their own species as adults.

An endangered whooping crane.

Schooling behavior in fish also causes conservation problems. Fish that form big schools are easier to catch than solitary fish, and many species that school (sardines, anchovies and other small fish) are being overfished. That is, humans catch them at rates faster than new fish are born, causing fish shortages. The unfortunate thing is that it is not just our fish that we are eating too much of—ocean predators like dolphins, whales, and seabirds depend on these fish for their own food. Dolphins can’t exactly go to the grocery store when their refrigerators are getting low.

In the mid-1900s, California’s sardine fishery collapsed; the Atlantic fisheries have gone through turbulent times as well. Cod was so overfished in the 1970s and 1980s that in 1992, the Atlantic northwest cod fishery completely collapsed and still has not recovered. Currently, scientists recommend that fisheries leave half of what they normally catch in the ocean to protect marine life and ensure the longevity of the fisheries. As with most conservation issues, doing what is best in the long-term has huge economic impacts in the short-term. Sigh.

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