Monitoring fish behaviour to improve welfare


Professor Andrew Cossins: “It is essential for researchers to monitor the welfare of animals to minimise pain and suffering.”

Scientists at the Universities of Liverpool and Chester are using a new non-invasive technology, originally piloted in sheltered accommodation for elderly people, to identify when fish experience stress. 

As part of a major £5.1 million investment in UK universities by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement, and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), the team is investigating how to detect stress or discomfort in fish to improve standards of care in research involving these animals. 

The Merton Intelligent Monitoring System, developed by electrical engineers at the University of Liverpool, will be used to detect critical changes in the environment of zebrafish and help scientists assess alterations in behaviour that may indicate when fish experience stress.

Monitoring stress

The system was piloted with volunteers from a sheltered accommodation scheme to monitor the environment in people’s homes and provide an alert signal to indicate that the resident needs urgent assistance.

The team is using the new system to help track behaviour changes in zebrafish in barren and enriched environments.  It is thought that zebrafish are healthiest in conditions that provide enrichment, such as places to hide and forage, and other fish to interact with.

Professor Andrew Cossins, Head of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology, said: “The use of fish in scientific experiments and regulatory procedures is increasing in the UK with half a million fish being used in 2011. This rise means that large numbers of fish are subject to experimental procedures that can cause discomfort. 

”This work could help the scientific community refine and reduce experiments on millions of fish worldwide”

“Scientists currently don’t understand how to detect and assess when fish experience discomfort, yet it is essential for researchers to monitor the welfare of their animals to minimise pain and suffering wherever possible. Using this novel monitoring system, we shall understand whether changing the environment and handling of zebrafish alters their activity, such as swimming, feeding, posture, face shape and social interactions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

“We will test the theory that an enriched environment better equips fish to respond positively to stressful situations.  Ultimately, this work could help the scientific community refine and reduce experiments on millions of fish worldwide.”

A major leap forward

The research will be used to develop software that classifies fish according to whether they are behaving normally or exhibiting signs of stress.  This tool will allow researchers and animal carers around the world to accurately determine the state of the fish and allow appropriate interventions.

Dr Lynne Sneddon, from the University of Chester’s Department of Biological Sciences, proved fish perceive pain in 2002 and has published more than 20 articles on this subject. She said: “This development of non-invasive behavioural and physiological measurements will allow researchers and animal carers to accurately diagnose whether the fish is in pain or distress and to intervene accordingly – it represents a major leap forward in fish welfare.”

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