Maternal Behaviour in Sheep

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Summary of your observations and what you learnt about recording observations

Over the past several weeks, studying the attitudes and actions of pregnant ewes helped to solidify the definition of maternal behaviour as being the archetype of care and attendance an offspring receives exclusively from its mother. Domestic sheep occur in a somewhat manipulative environment, allowing for a relatively predictable reaction composed of both acquired and innate behavioural factors. Variance in the components of maternal behaviour are categorised into subsections, including protective behaviour, post-parturient and pre-parturient behaviour and behavioural endocrinology. The task of note-taking, numerous different times, allows for a detailed and varied description of my observations of sheep behaviour, resulting in a more credible chronicle, however, as a neoteric note taker, there will be definitive improvements that I can learn to increase my skills.

The study of animal behaviour, known as ethology, is cardinal to the understanding of the significance of maternal conduction and its importance for the survival of sheep offspring. The reasons for the need of a strong maternal bond include, auspicious rearing of offspring, which then in turn result in advantageous gene transfer, decreased incidence of mortality, abandonment and the reduced necessity for hand-feeding by individuals. Behaviour is classified into two predominant branches, including learned, known as the adaptive behaviour resulting from environmental conditions and the animals’ personal experience and innate, which is the instinctive behaviour. Early indications of examples of innate behaviour while completing my note taking was seen when analysing maternal behaviour as a ewe was entering the early stages of labour. As a pregnant ewe is going into labour, it shows many behavioural signs to indicate that it is ready to give birth. This is known as the preparatory stage. It begins with the ewe become restless and uncomfortable about 2 weeks before their due date. They then present isolation behaviour, separating themselves from the rest of the flock and will distinguish a birthing site. Ligaments around the pelvis and muscle relax and ewes usually lie down to give birth. If a maternal bond isn’t created, it isn’t unusual for another ewe to adopt the lamb, also lamb swapping isn’t uncommon. If a maternal bond fails to beget, perinatal mortality may occur with 80-90% of deaths happening within 7 days after birth. The account of these deaths a predominantly due to mismothering and starvation, proving the point that maternal behaviour and bonding is essential in the survival of sheep offspring. The essential maternal behaviours following the parturition of an offspring involve smelling, sound and licking, all of which strengthen the maternal bond. Olfactory cues are important for the imprinting of mother to young, so as to be able to differentiate their offspring from other lambs in the flock. The distinct smell of the amniotic fluid is what triggers the odour-influenced learning process in ewes, which allows them to memorize the smell of her lamb, which she then forms an exclusive maternal bond with. These reactions are all influence by chemicals and hormones in the body, a process known as behavioural endocrinology.

Behavioural endocrinology is the study of the secretion of hormones that influence behavioural activities in a species. It is a colossal justification for the maternal behaviour of ewes, during both pre-parturient and post-parturient stages. Herbert (2007, p.425) elucidated the importance of understanding how and why hormones function:

“Interest in the roles of hormones rests on the fact that specific behavioural patterns of great biological importance can be regulated by chemical substances produced outside the brain”

This strengthens the argument of innate behaviour as being instinctual and...
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