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by Sofia Villegas
06 November 2023
University of Glasgow develops world-first interactive enrichment system for giraffes

Blair Drummond Safari Park in Stirling is home to five giraffes | Alamy

University of Glasgow develops world-first interactive enrichment system for giraffes

Researchers from the University of Glasgow have developed a system allowing giraffes to trigger sounds on demand.

Partnering with zookeepers at Blair Drummond Safari & Adventure Park, they have developed two devices which trigger giraffe humming noises.

Interactive activities are often used to help maintain captive animals' mental and physical health. Giraffes' unusual sleeping patterns (they rest via brief naps during the day) make this a difficult task for zookeepers.

When awake at night, they make humming noises – but it is unclear why.

The project aimed to discover if giraffes would choose to hear the humming if they could trigger a recording of it on demand. Researchers also wanted to find out if doing so stimulated their natural behaviours, suggesting it as an ‘enriching’ experience.

Research leader Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas said: “Giraffes are increasingly endangered in the wild, so for wildlife preservation purposes it’s important that we try to make their lives in captivity as rewarding as possible. Previous studies, including my own, have shown that computer systems have real potential to deliver enriching experiences for zoo animals.”

One device is activated by touch, whereas the other is activated by proximity to a sensor.

When the systems are triggered, each releases white noise or humming recordings.

Blair Drummond Safari Park’s research coordinator Alasdair Gillies said: “Using interactive systems as a form of enrichment represents an innovative and exciting approach to empowering animals, granting them control and choice over their environment and how they spend their time.

“Conventional enrichment methods often rely on food as the primary motivator, which can be restrictive. We take pride in contributing to the ongoing effort to expand the type of experiences we can offer our animals."

Following an initial stage, a two-month testing period showed the animals had no preference for either noise, with their interactions declining once they became familiar with the sounds and devices.

However, their differing interactions with each prototype suggested proximity was optimal for initially grabbing their attention, whereas touch helped to sustain their engagement.

“As it turned out, it seems the sound of other giraffes humming isn’t as appealing as we might have expected, which gives us an important data point to move forward with. It could also help unravel the mystery of why giraffes in captivity make this humming sound, which is similar to the vocalisations they make to each other but could have another purpose which they don’t necessarily enjoy hearing played back to them,” Hirskyj-Douglas added.

The research - limited by the size of the single-sex research group – is the latest addition to her animal-computer interaction studies, including her project on empowering dogs and parrots to take part in video calls.

The paper, titled ‘Hum-ble Beginnings: Exploring Input Modality of Touch and Space for Audio’, will be presented at the ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces conference this week in Pittsburgh.

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