Animal welfare and ethical behaviour are closely connected. There even are Ethics Committees that through their policies and guidelines try to safeguard high ethical standards in all research projects. The most comprehensive information is given on, which is a NSW Department of Primary Industries and Animal Research Review Panel initiative.

This Infolink also sets rules for ‘Opportunistic research’ for which approval can be sought after the research. However, citizen science projects clearly do not fall under this category as the person carrying out the research has to have current research authority from an AEC (Australian Ethics Committee) and must hold a scientific licence.

The approved activities for opportunistic research include prolonged observation with a spotlight and  flash photography but also invasive actions like capture of animals and sample collections.

Rules for spotlighting limit exposure of the animals to bright light to no more than 2 minutes, recommend red filters and dimmers, low wattage light (30-50 W) and a narrow beam.

This all sounds very reasonable and appropriate! However, if we have to safeguard ethical practices by researchers, why do we not set any standards for so-called awareness raising community activities as they are for instance conducted by natural resource management groups?
It is not unusual that simultaneously 20 extremely bright LED lights are shown into the animals’ eyes. As this is not deemed research, it obviously does not matter how damaging it is for the spotted animals.

Radio-tracking is for very good reasons restricted to official research projects but marking of animals for monitoring reasons has been suggested. (see ‘Are official relocations necessarily of higher quality?’)  

Night photos are monochrome. Monochrome images would not capture colour markings.
Most likely the marking would be done to the white part of the tail but in a colony of animals there are all kinds of tails – long white, short white, spotted ……we even released an animal with no white to the tail at all. An added marking that would show up as a mere shadow anyway would not make the animal identifiable.  The marking would also need to be applied to both sides of the tail as we never know which side will be displayed. How many ways of marking a tail can we think of so that every animal can have its distinct marking?
Photos or very detailed descriptions of the markings for every single animal released would have to be provided to have a slight chance of identifying any of them.
Photos are rarely clear enough to even ‘measure’ the length of the white part – a bit of movement blurs the transition. Only a series of photos would give any insights.
The crudeness and biases inherent in this method are obvious.

The best case scenario is that an animal comes back to the cage to sleep in the box! However even then we cannot see the tail without massive disturbance as the animal usually sits on it bent forward with its head over the cloaca. If the animal is forced to move in order to reveal any markings on the tail, it will not come back to use the box again.
Would an AEC regard this manipulation and invasive treatment as justifiable? 

Microchipping is non-invasive, but the animals would have to be caught to be scanned due to the short read ranges of microchips and PITs, which in my understanding is illegal outside of approved research projects and requires a ‘taking’ license.

Ear tags would at least enable us to determine whether the animal in a photo is one of the releases. However, they can get infected and/or could be ripped out causing ear damage if caught for instance on a branch.

Requests for guidance in these issues were either ignored or verbal replies were highly contradictory and so vague that no actions could be taken – a lost opportunity to increase animal welfare and monitoring protocols.

The above mentioned Infolink also covers  radio-tracking in wildlife research.

Radio-tracking – the use of radio signals from or to a device carried by the animal - gives insight into animal movement, home range, habitat use, behaviour, breeding and survival and predator-prey interaction and provides data for population estimates.
Prior to the use of this technique,  live-trapping and tagging animals and then hopefully recapturing  them was the only available method.
However, radio-tracking is still clearly intrusive in that it requires live-capturing animals (e.g. darting them with the help of a tranquillizer gun) and attaching a collar or other device to them.
When monitoring, a person on the ground would then receive signals from the device – a person usually armed with a high energy spotlight to enable the recording of data such as the animal’s height in the canopy, its position and location type (e.g. foraging).

collar taken offAccording to the above guidelines, “the total package weight (collar, transmitter, battery, aerial and bonding material) should ideally be less than 5% of the animal's bodyweight and no greater than 10%.”

Radio collars are quite bulky, and particularly for smaller animals, they would have some impact on the ability of the animal to move fast enough to escape predators. According to Barbara Jones collars also provide a useful ‘handle’ for a predator (B. Jones, personal communication).

In research projects animals just over 600 grams – in some cases even below 600 grams - were collared. Recapture was due about every 4 to 5 months. If we take into account that a young animal at around 600 grams tends to put on up to 100 grams per month until they reach their adult weight,  a collar could be a choking devise.
Even if the fit is only snug, chaffing can be expected.

Fitting it loosely would however add the danger that branches get stuck in the collar and trap the animal. Collars are extremely stiff but the photo below shows a distorted collar that was only cut to free the animal. The force to bend it like this must have been severe.

collarIn research in the jarrah forest, ringtails were not translocated, only radio-collared for monitoring purposes and mortality was still high. 32 of 46 radio-collared individuals died during the 18-months study. (Wayne et al, 2005)
This does not seem to be a typical average death rate and the question is warranted whether the radio-collar had played a negative role. ‘Little evidence that a radio-collar could have caused or contributed to the death of an animal in translocation research’ (Clarke, 2011) is not meaningful in the light that the study was not designed to test the potential impacts of radio-collars and the reasoning that data cannot prove that there is no adverse effect but only state that ‘no effect was detected when tested using the specified statistical power’ (Mech and Barber, 2002)

Kaori Yokochi’s study also was not designed to investigate the relation between radio-collars and mortality and she recommends more well-designed studies. However, the need to look into the issue became evident during her study and she took it up. A very ethical decision!
She established that the weight of the radio-collar in her research was the most influential factor for survival rates – increase in collar weight meant decrease in survival. Collars weighing between 15.8 and 22.6 grams which equated to 1.2 to 2.7% of the animals’ body weight were used and Yokochi concluded that 2% of an animal’s body weight should be the upper limit of the collar weight.
A collar weight of 15.8 grams resulted in a 90% chance of survival for 6 months, while this decreased to 76% for 20 grams and to 63% for 22.6 grams.
Animals  wearing collars weighing above 20 grams accounted for half the mortalities in her study even though only 36% of the monitored possums were fitted with heavy collars. (Yokochi, 2015)

The weight of the batteries is clearly the most important factor and more efficient power sources, i.e. lighter, smaller batteries are needed.
There are also newer technologies available where for instance radio-collars transmit only at certain times (“duty cycling”) which can increase battery life significantly and therefore reduce the need to recapture an animal for collar changes. (Mech and Barber, 2002) The trouble with ringtail monitoring is however that researchers also want to determine their rest locations during the day.
Some collars can transmit the animal’s location to the operator via satellites and reduce the need for disturbance.

Expandable collars that allow for growth of young animals have not been tested on ringtail possums yet as far as I know but break-away collars that degrade fairly rapidly and then fall away have been used in the past.
As early as 1988 it was recommended that adverse impacts from the weight of radio-collars should be examined for every species and for the differing sizes within a species. (Aldridge and Brigham, 1988) There clearly is no ‘one size fits all’.

There can be changes to an animal’s behaviour through the presence of the extra weight and distort outcomes of behavioural studies but also through the necessary capture and handling for collar changes.

Interestingly the literature recommends avoiding handling animals during any critical life history period but especially reproductive periods. (Mech and Barber, 2002)
As reproduction is usually part of the research, this has so far been ignored. Pouch young are taken out of the pouch, measured and weighed. The consequences are probably unknown.

The AEC guidelines state that transmitters should be removed from all animals after the study is finished – another rule that has at least not always been followed. However, the AEC allows itself to ‘approve otherwise’. Is convenience and cost reduction more important than ethics even for a committee established for the sole purpose of safeguarding ethical behaviour?

Have Yokochi’s finding been incorporated into the approvals process for research with radio-collared ringtail possums?

Firstly, I have met and worked with scientists and carers/rehabilitators that were highly intelligent and critical but also caring and ethical.
However, the disdain these groups have for each other is palpable even though they at times are very similar in their way of thinking and resulting behaviour.
Both create myths in which they seem to believe fervently. Those myths have one thing in common: they are convenient for the person believing in them but mostly harmful to the animal they work with.

Carers are usually motivated by animal welfare issues but still often anthropomorphise animals and treat them like human babies  – they are carried around in their bras even in noisy environments. They are given fruit because the animal ‘loves’ it. They get released in the own backyard no matter how crowded it already is or how inappropriate the habitat as they will then come ‘home’ to mum to show their own offspring. Unrelated animals are ‘paired up’ in one cage so that they ‘have a friend’ instead of new arrivals being quarantined and  ringtails should be released immediately after weaning as they are then accepted by the resident ringtails…….
Pointing at scientific evidence that this is not in the interest of the animal, usually falls on deaf ears.
No ethics committee seems to have any interest in those practices and DBCA is only interested in ‘the final, releasable product’.
Is this behaviour unethical or just acceptable needy ‘human nature’? And would any ‘authority’ have a right to call this ‘unethical’ while they refuse to take on the job? 

Scientists on the other hand claim to be professional and unemotional. The ‘them and us’ distinction probably saves them from feeling guilty when their target species suffers for the satisfaction of the scientist’s curiosity.

Decades of using heavy radio-collars have most likely killed significant numbers of animals – and often endangered animals as those are the species we think we need to study.
Do we change our practices when we gain new knowledge even if it increases costs drastically?

Success of carer releases are doubtful, and evidence from the reintroduction literature would suggest that unless the release site is predator free, high levels of mortality are likely. As it is improbable that any release site chosen by wildlife rehabilitators will be predator free, it is not unreasonable to assume that animals will not even survive in the short term. However, radio-collared animals have died shortly after release too – maybe because of the radio-collar. The difference between scientifically monitored releases and carer releases could be that researchers know when they failed while carers can still pretend that they did not.

According to scientists we need to build up self-sustaining colonies – I agree with this. However, if we then eliminate any chance of a colony to be self-sustaining by destroying or fragmenting their habitat or by failure to mitigate threatening processes such as high predator pressure, this does not make sense.
I cannot supplement food or provide water as that would add unnatural components and therefore bias to the research – but I can tranquillize them, put heavy collars around their necks, then frequently shine the brightest of light into their eyes? The latter is a natural component of a ringtail’s life while support measures
are not?
Is this a well thought-through argument or a mere focus on convenience?
Admittedly support measures are usually highly labour, time and often cost-intensive and it is questionable if a colony in need of constant management is viable in the long run. Predator-exclusion fencing is also extremely expensive but it seems to be accepted, even highly valued – but clearly colonies in such a habitat are not self-sustaining as their success mainly depends on constant management.

If stress is a major factor in relocation failure and Judy Clarke’s findings regarding elevated white blood cell counts seem to validate this, then all scientific studies as they are currently conducted are confounding!

Scientists are looking at the big picture – or so they claim – but any big picture is a puzzle made up of a myriad of little issues which could be very hard to even spot from the departmental and/or scientific ivory tower.

I was told that publishing without having ethics committee clearance for surveys is close to impossible – even if the entire ‘research’ is just based on long-term non-intrusive spotlight monitoring.

There seems to be a considerable grey zone between ‘ethical’ and ‘legal’. Ethical treatment of animals would be a high priority for every person involved in conservation, however that does not make what we do legal.
Government led research is clearly legal but due to the many shortfalls such as inadequate funding and provision of manpower , ethics sometimes seem to be limited to obtaining a clearance number.

It is questionable whether ethics committee clearance would add any benefit for the species researched.
Do we conduct research in order to learn and then implement this superior knowledge into our conservation strategies?
The valuable findings and recommendations of Judy Clarke’s translocation research seem to have been forgotten. Should it not be a condition for AEC approval of a potentially damaging research set-up to follow up on the results before we engage in the next project?

I doubt that any serious carer or conservation organisation would refuse to get ethics committee clearance – if there was any chance to even engage with an AEC. Without involvement of a student project, it is a bureaucratic nightmare to apply for clearance – if it should be at all possible.

This stringent set of rules set by AECs seems to only be applied to scientists and their research.  Could they really be the most dangerous threat to species survival and animal welfare so that they and nobody else need to be closely watched and restricted in what they are allowed to do?
According to David Suzuki some scientists can be so driven by ambition that they turn into monsters blinded to the horror of their research. (Suzuki and Taylor, 2009)
This surely represents only a tiny percentage and would not lead to the formation of AECs. My hypothesis would be that most scientists need as much or as little strict guidance as most ‘ordinary’ people and the emphasis on the need for AEC approval is mainly window dressing. They are seen as providing strict rules – and if those rules should be broken, they can always amend them.  Does AEC approval safeguard wellbeing of animals or justify science?

Has the AEC been involved in formulating the recovery plan so that the resulting conservation strategy meets the species’ recovery objectives? I cannot find an AEC clearance number – but I actually also cannot find a conservation strategy!

On the other hand, is there for instance ethics committee clearance necessary for controlled burns in an area inhabited by a critically endangered species?  Also, if there are indications that another CE listed species might be present in very low densities, would this trigger ethics committee involvement and/or their request for investigation prior to burning the animals out? Unfortunately I think I know the answers to these questions.
Do infrastructure projects need AEC clearance? Has the question been raised how ethical major habitat destruction was for a gigantic freeway-style by-pass road around small town Margaret River? Was the clearing for a massive road widening at Capel discussed at a AEC meeting? This clearing was done even though there was no money to build the road. Is that ethical? 

What is ethical and what is not depends on our underlying moral framework. Climate change based ecological destruction is probably the greatest moral issue we are faced with. Ringtail possums might become one of the first climate change victims but it is also a major threat to our own long-term survival. Our consumption of the natural world without regard for the need of other species and our dependency on continual growth destroys their habitat and eventually our planet’s ability to maintain life. Should this not be a central topic for every AEC?

behaviour coming soon