Report on AWRN-Funded Workshop on Novel Minimally Invasive Tools


Angela Kerton1 and Jordi L.Tremoleda2, 3

1The Learning Curve (Development); 2The Blizard Institute, Barts and the London School of Medicine, 3Biological Services. London.

The Novel minimally invasive tools to investigate animal behaviour and welfare workshop took place on Thursday 21st January 2021 and due to COVID-19 restrictions was undertaken on online, with international delegates linking in from as far afield as Asia and Africa.  There was a wide range species interest from the 90 attending animal welfare researchers ranging from laboratory mice, zebrafish, and poultry to even elephants kept in captivity in zoos. Dr Jordi L. Tremoleda (Queen Mary University London) and Dr Angela Kerton (The Learning Curve Development Ltd) welcomed everyone to the meeting and described the purpose of the workshop and gave an overview of what to expect from the planned breakout room interactive session scheduled for the afternoon session which permitted time for social (virtual) interaction, discussion and sharing of experiences and challenges associated with AI remote technology used for welfare monitoring. The objective of this workshop was to bring together experts in the field of automatic tracking behaviour, particularly working with different species and models, to discuss their success, including the benefits and challenges associated with their practical implementation, and how this can be applied to improve our care and welfare assessments. Delegates were encouraged to spread their messages and thoughts about the workshop during the day using social media with the #AWRNworkshop tagging @AnimalWelfareRN in the hope that it would start trending!


Image 1: 3D mapping of zebrafish behaviour (Sneddon)The first webinar was presented by Dr Lynne Sneddon (Senior Lecturer. Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg) on “Zebrafish and automated behavioural analysis”. Fish are the second most common group of species used in scientific studies in the UK, but relatively little is known about their welfare in comparison to other laboratory species such as rodents. Many routine procedures in zebrafish, including fin clipping for identification purposes, invasive tagging and surgery, result in tissue damage. Evidence supports the consensus that fish have the potential to experience pain and appropriate analgesia should be provided. By detecting subtle changes in behaviour, the Fish Behaviour Index (FBI), an automated tool to monitor the behaviour, can allow quicker welfare assessment, interventions and administration of analgesia, representing an important refinement.

Image 2: Rodent Big Brother (Armstrong)


This was followed by Professor Douglas Armstrong (School of Informatics, Institute for Adaptive and Neural Computation, University of Edinburgh) who provided an overview of “The impact of the "Rodent Big and Little Brother program” across various pharma and academic institutions.

Following Prof. Armstrong, also focusing on the widely used laboratory rodent animal model, Professor Andreas Schaefer (Sensory Circuits and Neurotechnology Laboratory, The Francis Crick Institute, London) provided an excellent introduction to “The AutonoMouse- a "smart" house for rodents”.Image 3 AutonoMouse in action (Schaefer)

Both systems acquire non-stimulated spontaneous behaviour in grouped laboratory mice in their home cages. Data is automatically acquired through specific ID sensors and video recordings, which provides an enormous potential to better understand how the individual animal feels /responds to their housing and experimental set up, and to provide better clues on their well-being, particularly addressing their social interactions. These talks provided an excellent example of how such home cage automatic recording systems can positively impact on large phenotypic and cognitive and sensorial studies through objective and non- bias outcomes.

Image 4: Bandicam video footage of dairy cow behaviour (Russell)The webinar session was wrapped up by Ms Alison Russell (School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham) who gave a very insightful presentation, with various video demonstrations on “The use of location monitoring and video technology to evaluate behaviour and welfare of dairy cows”. Alison’s PhD is a behavioural and epidemiological study to evaluate positive welfare in dairy cows. The research is focused on behavioural and physiological aspects of positive welfare in adult cattle, specifically in relation to housing and enrichment. It was fascinating to see this line of work applied in large animal species, with enormous potential to animal welfare and husbandry.

After lunch, discussion groups were organised across different breakout rooms following the indicated preferences of attendees, including 2 groups for each fish, rodent and large animal species related. In order to facilitate the discussions, a questionnaire was previously circulated to the attendees to propose their key benefits and challenges associated with behaviour testing and the use of automatic tracking systems. Each group had their own facilitator and were asked to think about the following challenges and summarise their response on a virtual “post-it note” Padlet board for feedback to the main group after a 45-minute discussion period.

- Key challenges from the animal welfare perspective on the use of automated systems

- Key challenges from a user perspective on the use of automated systems

Specific questions for each group to consider with regards to the species they were working with included:

Q1- Usage and applications of these systems: If you were planning to use your ideal system-What would be your best experimental targets?

Q2- Impact on animal welfare: Most of the answers from a pre circulated delegate questionnaire agreed that further guidance regarding the impact of these systems in welfare is required. What type of discussions are lacking to better address the use of these systems, particularly regarding animal welfare?

Q3-How best to address current challenges? Mostly associated with cos, data processing, analysis and storage and transparency of methodology


Discussion and exchange of ideas, opinions, experiences, and concerns flowed within the breakout rooms and the 45 minutes flew by. Some notes made by delegates included the following, which provided “food for thought” and an opportunity for self-reflection:

- There can be differences between observers in behavioural assessment so the monitoring system would remove this as well as eliminate observer bias and error.

- Measures should include activity or motility, social behaviours both positive (shoaling) and negative (aggression, isolation from group). For other aquatic animals such as amphibians vocalisations and stereotypies would be useful measures.

- Is instrumenting truly non-invasive monitoring? As an example, is placement of a pit tag going to affect your animal behaviour? Are we considering the welfare consequence of procedures that are done as ‘husbandry’, but are benefiting the science as well? There will be large differences in captive vs wild animals. Are we jumping to new technology when there tried welfare indicators that we are using? E.g. water consumption.

- It is easy to provide buckets of data. The challenge is to turn that into knowledge.

- The division between experimental and welfare assessment, is not a division and can be used in both contexts.

- In commercial application, monitoring systems need to be minimally invasive. The driver here is the need for reliable long-term operation. Knowledge creation is key and there are and will be good opportunities in food production animal husbandry systems for people with advanced training in these areas to add value to data flows from farms.


Feedback from the workshop was extremely positive, with many delegates sending messages of thanks after the workshop. As usual in AWRN events, the day also had provided an opportunity to network with other researchers, learning about one another’s projects and perhaps starting new collaborations in the future. We were blown away with the number of interactions of social media, using the #AWRNworkshop and have listed a few examples of the fantastic tweets are below:

Video footage of the presentations given at this workshop are now available on the Members only section of the website. Simply log in and click on the "Meeting Presentations" menu. 

Finally we would like to thank the AWRN, particularly Dr Poppy Statham for all her advice and support in the organisation of this online workshop. It is a learning curve but we are very grateful for all the great participation and engagement of all attendees.