Project highlights

  • An exciting combination of behavioural observations and social science techniques, collecting data on a wide variety of zoo-housed animals and zoo visitors
  • Developing enclosure modifications to encourage natural behaviours, to support and inform future conservation breeding and reintroduction
  • Providing an evidence base enabling zoos to manage the balance between the competing goals within their missions


Most modern zoos have four main goals built into their mission statements: conservation, education, scientific research, and entertainment, while maintaining the highest welfare standards possible for the animals in their care. Balancing these goals can be challenging. For example, providing enclosures which enable animals to express their natural behaviours (Chappell & Thorpe, 2022), and choose whether to be ‘on show’ or not, is important for welfare, conservation and education. However, these measures can make animals less easy for visitors to see, potentially impacting upon zoos’ educational role, engagement with animals, and reducing income to support all their activities (Sherwen et al., 2019; Williams et al. 2022). Immersive exhibits are continually staffed by education rangers (at a cost to the zoo) to keep the animals safe, but it is unknown whether the rangers’ interactions with visitors increase the knowledge or enjoyment they get from the exhibit. Finally, what is the value of immersive exhibits of non-conservation breeding species in zoos: do they increase visitor engagement, perceptions or knowledge?

This project will address this research gap by working closely with our CASE partner on the project, Twycross Zoo, as well as working with other zoos where appropriate. The project will combine behavioural studies on both zoo animals and visitors with questionnaires on visitors’ attitudes, knowledge and experience to investigate these complex effects. Knowledge gained from this data will then be used to develop with enclosure modifications and management changes to encourage natural behaviours, to support and inform future conservation breeding and reintroduction, while maintaining the exhibit’s educational role. It will focus on immersive enclosures for a variety of taxa (e.g. rainbow lorikeets Trichoglossus haematodus, domestic goats Capra hircus, and Sumatran tigers Panthera tigris sumatrae, as well as mixed species finch and butterfly walk-through exhibits), comparing the behaviour of animals, the behaviour of humans, and the attitudes and experiences of humans around these enclosures with those of the same or similar species in more traditional enclosures. Our aim is to provide an evidence base enabling zoos to manage the balance between the competing goals within their mission.

null Figure 1: Visitors feeding rainbow lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) nectar in Lorikeet Landing, Twycross Zoo, UK. Photo credit: Twycross Zoo.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding


University of Birmingham


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

Dr Jackie Chappell, University of Birmingham ([email protected])



Prof. Susannah Thorpe, University of Birmingham  ([email protected])

Dr Rebecca Biddle, Twycross Zoo ([email protected])

How to apply


  1. Literature reviews of the behavioural ecology of the chosen species, including social behaviour and social structure, cognition and locomotion, as well as reviews of the literature on visitor effects on animals.
  2. Field work in zoos. This will include: behavioural observations on animals (probably using Zoo Monitor); behavioural observations on visitors (e.g. dwell time, orientation towards animals, frequency of exhibit-related gestures, conversation etc.); questionnaires for visitors assessing their attitudes, experiences and knowledge.
  3. Quantitative analysis, interpretation and presentation of the data collected, using R.
  4. Following evidence gained in 2 and 3, modification of enclosures, management of the exhibit or guidance to visitors with the aim of improving outcomes for animals and/or visitors. Data collection and analysis would then be repeated and compared to determine whether the changes had been successful.

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.

Training in the specialist methodologies required for behavioural fieldwork and construction of questionnaires will be provided by all supervisors. Chappell will provide training in sampling and recording cognitive and social behaviours, Thorpe will provide training recording movement and ecology, and Biddle will provide training in applied issues related to the health and welfare of zoo animals. Chappell and external training will provide additional training in the specific programming and statistical techniques required (e.g. R, linear modelling techniques, Bayesian analysis etc.). All supervisors will support skills development in delivering impact and engagement from the project with zoos, sanctuaries and the public.

Partners and collaboration

This PhD studentship is part of a broader research programme in which we are working with a number of organisations involved in conservation and rehabilitation of a variety of species. This includes zoos in the UK (e.g. Chester, and Drayton Manor Zoos) in addition to the CASE partner Twycross Zoo, as well as NGOs involved in ape conservation in range countries. Thus, the student will be embedded in an existing network of organisations, and will benefit from the extensive experience and network of staff at the CASE partner Twycross Zoo.

Further details

We expect candidates to have a Merit or Distinction at MSc level in a relevant subject. Some experience (through a formal qualification or self-taught) of programming is essential. Experience of collecting behavioural data would also be an advantage, and field work experience would be desirable. You can find information about our project on great apes here, and a talk on our previous work on parrots here.

Dr Jackie Chappell

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 3257

[email protected]

Prof. Susannah Thorpe

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

+44 (0)121 414 5040

[email protected]

If you wish to apply to the project, applications should include:

  • A CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three and who can comment on your academic abilities)
  • Submit your application and complete the host institution application process via: and go to Apply Now in the PhD Bioscience (CENTA) section. Please quote CENTA23_B1 when completing the application form.

Applications to be received by the end of the day on Wednesday 11th January 2023. 

Additional information for international applicants

  • All international applicants must ensure they can fulfil the University of Birmingham’s international student entry requirements, which includes English language requirements.  For further information please visit
  • Please be aware that CENTA funding will only cover University fees at the level of support for Home-fee eligible students.  The University is only able to waive the difference on the international fee level for a maximum of two successful international applicants.

Possible timeline

Year 1

Literature review of the behavioural ecology of the species selected. Development of observational behavioural data collection, and formulation of questionnaires. Training in developing data collection protocols using Zoo Monitor. Initial training on data analysis and statistics. Field work at zoo(s) – initial baseline data collection on immersive exhibits at zoos.

Year 2

Continue initial baseline data collection on immersive exhibits at zoos. Data analysis on baseline data and generation of recommendations. Data collection on ‘animal experiences’, analysis and publication.

Year 3

After modifications of enclosures, management of the exhibit or guidance to visitors, collection of post-modification dataset and comparison to baseline data to determine if outcomes have improved. Write and publish resulting papers.

Further reading

  • Chappell, J., Thorpe, S.K.S., 2022. The role of great ape behavioral ecology in One Health: implications for captive welfare and re-habilitation success. American Journal of Primatology 84, e23328.
  • Fernandez, E.J., Upchurch, B., Hawkes, N.C., 2021. Public Feeding Interactions as Enrichment for Three Zoo-Housed Elephants. Animals 11, 1689.
  • Sherwen, S.L., Hemsworth, P.H., 2019. The Visitor Effect on Zoo Animals: Implications and Opportunities for Zoo Animal Welfare. Animals 9, 366.
  • Williams, E., Carter, A., Rendle, J., Fontani, S., Walsh, N.D., Armstrong, S., Hickman, S., Vaglio, S., Ward, S.J., 2022. The Impact of COVID-19 Zoo Closures on Behavioural and Physiological Parameters of Welfare in Primates. Animals 12, 1622.


The main risk to the project from any respiratory and contact infection pandemic is to the fieldwork component. Short-term disruptions because of lockdowns could be accommodated by flexibility in the timeline, and may provide unique opportunities to study the behaviour of animals in the absence of visitors. If all fieldwork is stopped, focus could shift to a quantitative meta-analysis of already published data on this topic. Avian Influenza outbreaks in wild birds may prevent access to bird enclosures, but could be mitigated to switching to other taxa.