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Cognitive and behavioral research

For several years, Marineland has carried out at-sea campaigns to study the population, abundance and distribution of cetaceans in the Mediterranean as a function of environmental parameters. These studies have raised awareness among the French, Italian and Monegasque authorities of the presence of cetaceans in their territorial waters. 8 species are commonly observed there: fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus), pilot whale (Globicephala mela), bottlenose dolphin (Turiops truncatus), common dolphin (Delphinus delphis), striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) and ziphius (Ziphius cavirostris). The Pelagos sanctuary was created in response to the need to preserve cetacean biodiversity in Western Mediterranean waters. The result of an agreement between France, Monaco and Italy in November 1999, the aim of this protected maritime area, which came into force in 2002, is to guarantee a favorable conservation status for marine mammals by protecting them and their habitats from the direct or indirect negative impacts of human activities.

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Numerous scientific publications

In recent years, scientists, students and researchers from numerous French and international research organizations have regularly approached Marineland to carry out research on the marine species present at Antibes Marine Zoo. During this research, Marineland also makes available data (spanning several decades) and the skills of its animal teams. This enables researchers to explore and validate scientific hypotheses that are often difficult, if not impossible, to test in the wild.

Numerous scientific publications have resulted from these projects.

A wide range of research projects

Because of their rarity in zoological structures, Marineland's orcas have regularly taken part in various studies.  In addition to enriching our knowledge, the research sessions have made a major contribution to the environmental enrichment of these animals.

  • Evaluation of orca imitation skills. Initiated in 2010, this project has continued to evolve over the years, uncovering the impressive skills of orcas, capable of imitating a variety of behaviors and sounds. Scientists suspected from observing orcas in the wild that they learn by imitation. Studies (2013, 2018, 2023) carried out at Marineland zoo by researchers from the Universities of Madrid and St Andrews have demonstrated this.
  • Assessing creativity in killer whales: Drs. H. Hill and K. Dudzinski set out to assess orcas' ability to create new behaviors.  At the start of the project, the animal husbandry and scientific teams had no idea that these research sessions would stimulate orcas to such an extent. Once the concept of "Do something different from what you've just done" had been acquired, the test phase was able to get underway, proving that orcas have a strong capacity for creativity and innovation. The results also confirmed the very different personalities of the orcas involved.
  • Cetacean metabolism: these marine mammals have a wide range of activities, from resting to intense exercise, and each of these activities represents a different energy cost for the animals. Using accelerometers deployed on orcas in the wild, scientists were able to measure the activity levels of various behaviors. To translate these activity levels into energy costs, the animal teams at the marine zoo taught the orcas to wear these accelerometers and breathe into an instrument to measure oxygen consumption at rest and after breath-holding.  As oxygen consumption is indicative of energy expenditure, the scientists were able to determine the relationship between the animal's activity and the associated energy expenditure.  As this work has also been carried out for bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), the addition of data obtained from Marineland's orcas means that, thanks to modelling work, we can estimate the impact of human activities on the survival and reproduction of many other cetacean species.
  • Determining the hunting tactics of penguins. Researchers at the Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé (France) and the Marine Mammal Research Unit in St. Andrews (Scotland) have created an innovative miniaturized sonar beacon.  When deployed on penguins, this microsonar reveals the hunting tactics of these formidable predator-divers, in addition to data on the nature and location of prey. Tests to determine the ideal location and effectiveness of these microsonars were carried out at Marineland zoo with king penguins prior to a full-scale experiment on the Kerguelen Islands. This test phase in Antibes enabled the ideal location to be determined without disturbing the animal's movements. Researchers still have to analyze all the data collected to improve our knowledge of penguins faced with natural changes or those induced by man's impact on nature.
  • Evaluate the main source of hydration in cetaceans. Do dolphins drink the salt water in which they live? Until now, this question had not been fully elucidated. Paleontologist Nicolas Séon's research, based on blood and urine samples, tank water analysis and dolphin diets at Marineland, has finally lifted the veil!
  • Study the evolutionary processes of swimming pallets in mammals, reptiles and seabirds using X-rays of their front flippers. These X-rays, which are difficult to obtain from animals in the wild, are easily performed at Marineland, thanks to our medical training program. The animals actively participate in the x-rays, adopting the required postures.
  • Evaluate whether behavioral diversity can be an indicator of well-being in bottlenose dolphins. Knowledge of the range and frequency of a species' behaviors is invaluable for assessing its well-being, even in zoos. Dolphins have a particularly rich behavioral repertoire, and their systematic observation has made it possible to assess whether behavioral measurements and their quantification could be used as a welfare monitoring tool.
  • Determine which type of hook has the least impact on pelagic stingrays. The effects of hook shape (J-type or circular) were investigated using recovering pelagic stingrays from Atlantic bluefin tuna bycatch. The type of wounds inflicted, the speed of self-excretion and healing, and the chances of survival revealed that J hooks had less impact on stingrays.  However, as other marine animals are much more affected by J-hooks, the circle hook will be retained. In the case of accidental catches of pelagic stingrays, it is therefore appropriate handling practices that will maximize crew safety and ray survival.

The essential role of zoos in conservation

In the latest edition of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (version 2023.1), 44,016 of the 157,190 species studied are classified as threatened. With species disappearing at a steady pace, understanding how animals interact with each other and with their environment, and improving scientific knowledge are more essential than ever.

In October 2023, the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publicly recognized the significant contribution that zoos and aquariums make to species conservation and the essential role that these institutions play in the conservation of species, plants and animals in-situ and ex-situ.

In the seas and oceans, the intensification of human activities is causing disturbance to the animals (noise, accidental catches and injuries linked to fishing, pollution, habitat degradation, etc.); such studies within the zoo enable us to assess the physical and physiological capacities and particularities of adaptation of these extraordinary marine animals, and can guide the protection measures to be put in place in the wild to reduce the impact of human activities on these species.

Our missions

Our missions