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The Cincinnati Zoo is creating a massive behavioral database to better understand its animals

(from left) Research Coordinator Angie Reed and Animal Excellence Scientist Cat Razal look at the data they are compiling.
Ann Thompson
Scientists noticed that if Hudo, the Komodo dragon, has to dig for his goat meat he's much more engaged and will investigate his surroundings even into the next day. The zoo is compiling this and other findings into a massive animal behavior database.

Out of uniform and hidden from the animals, Cincinnati Zoo scientists are collecting massive amounts of information on its 400 species — like Huto the Komoto dragon, hippos Fiona and Fritz, and Nutmeg the fox — so they can live their best lives in Cincinnati.

Studying animals is nothing new for zoos, but Cincinnati has taken it to the next level by using Microsoft's business analytics program Power BI and cloud-powered platform Microsoft 365 to quantify the data. This helps get information in real time to keepers.

Animal Excellence Scientist Cat Razal explains the steps involved:

  • Her team reads up on the animal's history
  • Build an ethogram, or catalog, with all kinds of behavior observed
  • Develop a behavior plan, including the times to observe which animals
  • Enter data using a zoo monitor app developed by the Lincoln Park Zoo
  • Uses computer programs to provide timely information to keepers

Since COVID, there's been a lot of growth in animal studies, Razal says. "When the world kind of shut down the animals kept going and kept showing us their behavior and showing how important it was to keep collecting that and keep understanding how animals are doing."

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What have Cincinnati Zoo scientists seen?

A dirt pile in the elephant habitat is not new, but an elephant digging in it is. Razal describes how in the wild during the dry season, elephants dig to find water. Nobody had seen that at the Cincinnati Zoo until Schottzie the elephant did it. "One day she was like, 'I’m just going to dig into it,' " Razal says.

Schottzie digs in a dirt pile at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Zoo Research Coordinator Angie Reed with AmeriCorps observed elephants playing with small pine trees. "(They) just kind of plop it on top of their head and let it fall to the ground, like this is my hat," she says. They also used the plants to scratch themselves.

The observations aren't all for fun. Nutmeg the fox is getting up in age and observations showed she was having trouble walking up her hilly habitat. "After that study we decided to do a lot of renovations in her home," says Razal. "We gave her a lot more ramps and ways to access her habitat."

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Kudo is the zoo's 20-year-old Komodo dragon. He sleeps a lot but got really curious when staff buried his food and for days was investigating his habitat.


What happens to all this information?

Razal says the goal is to get baseline behaviors on all 400 species in different contexts and different seasons. This is to help track any trends or changes. Eventually she hopes to share and compare the information with other zoos.

Later this year visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo can also enter data via a QR code.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.