Zina Morbach

Jan. - March 2014
Contact zina.morbach@yahoo.de
University Georg-August Universität Göttingen
Project at the WSC Heart rate variability of wolves and trainers in different test situations

Right now I am studying “Neural, Developmental, and Behavioral Biology” in the third master semester at the University of Göttingen. I realized during my bachelor degree in Münster that for me the behavior of animals is the most fascinating subject. Thus, I focused my bachelor thesis on this topic and investigated the effect of regular handling on guinea pigs. To deepen my knowledge of behavioral biology I went to Göttingen afterwards where I work mainly with primates, in particular with lemurs during a project in Madagascar. But since I’ve also always been fascinated by carnivores, especially those with a distinct social system, and dreamed of working with dogs since childhood, I applied for an internship at the WSC. I am very happy to be able to work with the wolves here for four months and even get credit for it at my university, before I will start my master thesis this summer.

For my project I measure the heart rate of six wolves and of the trainers working with them in different test situations - with a jogging belt for humans! I want to investigate whether the heart rate or the variability in the intervals between two heartbeats differ between different situations, i.e. in a leash walk with a trainer, during a working session on a touchscreen, or during a so called Learning Set, in which the wolves have to distinguish between differently shaped molds. At the same time, I measure the heart rate of the accompanying trainer to find out whether there is a correlation between the heart rates of humans and that of animals. Nervousness but also calmness, for example, could be transferred from trainer to wolf or vice versa. In addition, the quality of the relationship between wolf and trainer could play a role as well, meaning that the variability in heart rates, which is seen as a measure of the mental condition, could differ between the wolves depending on the trainer working with them.

There are two different reasons why I find this project so interesting: Firstly, variability in heart rates is seen as an index of psychological stress. During my bachelor thesis I analyzed the blood cortisol concentration of guinea pigs, the so-called “stress hormone”. Thus, I now have the chance to get to know a different way of measuring “stress”. Secondly and even more importantly, I can attempt to contribute to the growing knowledge of human-animal relationships and the importance of these kinds of relationships. My project is part of the doctoral thesis of Kim, who already conducted the same measurements with dogs. Thus, ultimately we will also be able to compare dogs and wolves in their relationships with humans.