Phylogenetic comparative methods: Harnessing the power of species diversity to investigate welfare issues in captive wild animals

Emma Mellor, Heather Mcdonald Kinkaid, Georgia Mason*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)
479 Downloads (Pure)


This paper reviews a way of investigating health and welfare problems in captive wild animals (e.g., those in zoos, aviaries, aquaria, or aquaculture systems) that has great potential, but to date has been little used: systematically comparing species with few or no health and welfare issues to those more prone to problems. Doing so empirically pinpoints species-typical welfare risk and protective factors (such as aspects of their natural behavioral biology): information which can then be used to help prevent or remedy problems by suggesting new ways to improve housing and husbandry, and by identifying species intrinsically best suited to captivity. We provide a detailed, step-by-step "how to" guide for researchers interested in using these techniques, including guidance on how to statistically control for the inherent similarities shared by related species: an important concern because simple, cross-species comparisons that do not do this may well fail to meet statistical assumptions of non-independence. The few relevant studies that have investigated captive wild animals' welfare problems using this method are described. Overall, such approaches reap value from the great number and diversity of species held in captivity (e.g., the many thousands of species held in zoos); can yield new insights from existing data and published results; render previously intractable welfare questions (such as "do birds need to fly?" or "do Carnivora need to hunt?") amenable to study; and generate evidence-based principles for integrating animal welfare into collection planning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)369-388
JournalZoo Biology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jul 2018


  • Independent contrasts
  • PGLS
  • Species differences
  • Welfare


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