Dressing up for science

Source text and photo: news.nationalgeographic.com, photo by Tom Lynn
Some people like to dress up as animals - and not only for Halloween or Carnival. Wearing an animal costume just might be the best way to approach animals, whether for research purposes or to care for animals to be released into the wild.
Caregivers in the China Research and Conservation Centre for the Giant Panda not only wear a panda suit; they also treat this suit with panda dung and urine. Wearing the suit and masking their human scent is meant to reduce animal stress. As these pandas are to be released back into the wild, these precautions are also meant to prevent them from developing an attachment to humans.

A similar protocol is in place in Wisconsin, at the International Crane Foundation. Whooping cranes born at that centre stay for about six months. During that time, the young birds learn to care for themselves and find food. To help the birds develop these skills, caretakers drape themselves with white cloth and use a hand puppet that resembles the head of an adult whooping crane. Using this puppet to offer the immature birds food and to catch grasshoppers helps the cranes to mimic and learn the behaviours themselves.

Researchers also make good use of this principle. For example, in order to investigate the reaction of wild moose to predators such as wolves, the dung of these natural enemies had to be deposited nearby. A moose costume made that possible. A similar approach was used to study the effects of hippo dung on water quality: because hippopotamuses and crocodiles live together peacefully in the same habitat, a submarine made to look like a crocodile could be sent right through a group of hippos to collect water samples.