The stress detector - research begins!

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Scientists at the universities of Chester and Liverpool are embarking upon a project to develop a system for the identification of stress in laboratory fish.

Fish, and especially the Zebra danio, Danio rerio, are increasingly used in research because of their easy genetic manipulation, and fast turnaround of experimental data.

However, despite their worth, as well as the numbers involved — around 500,000 fish last year alone  — little interest is currently paid to their welfare monitoring, although that now looks set to change.

The project actually intends to use intelligent technologies taken from the sphere of sheltered accommodation, that monitors residents in accommodation who need help urgently, and applying these to a fishy environment.

These currently work by using a video camera to record and monitor how and where people move, to build up a picture of 'normality' associated with their actions.

Once this normal picture has been built up, the monitor then notices any unusual movements, such as a person falling, lack of activity, or increased restlessness out of the norm and can then take automatically raise the alarm so that carers can provide assistance.

Juvenile danios, copyright © Adam Amsterdam, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Andrew Cossins, head of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology says: "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.”

The nuts and bolts of the project adapts software that monitors behavioural patterns and looks for anomalies. Fish that behave normally, it would be assumed, may be under unstressed conditions, where those that show signs of reduced or increased activity and other unusual movements could be identified and highlighted by the software.

Dr Lynne Sneddon of Chester University, the researcher who brought us the evidence that put the fish-pain debate to bed, and the lead scientist of this current project, says: "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."

The project is set to run for a three-year period, and has received £440,000 in funding from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).

The NC3Rs was set up in 2004 by the government to evaluate the usage of animals in procedures that use animals for research purposes, and licensed under the UK Animals Act.

Although a long time in the pipeline, we fishkeepers can hope that potentially such software will be available to the home aquarist — and that’s one of the long term aims, post research; an affordable monitoring system available to all. After all, how much of a benefit would it be — as well as piece of mind — if we could simply rig a webcam to our tanks, and have our computers notice and notify of any stressed fish in our tanks?

We will bring you more on this research as it develops.

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