Second Annual Meeting of AWRN – Report

Date: 14/03/2017








Summary of the Meeting

The Second Annual Meeting of the AWRN aimed to build on the success of the Opening Meeting which took place in June 2016. It started with an update on the network and all the achievements of the last year, including the construction of this website. There were introductions to the
 three upcoming workshops on “Media & Communication”, “Measuring Positive Welfare” and Understanding the role of economics in animal welfare assessment and policy design” and discussion of the upcoming call for further workshops. The speed networking session was really popular with delegates again and this was followed by the Spotlight on Aquaculture Welfare, with talks by Simon Mackenzie on “Thermal Choice and Fever in Fish” and Rod Wilson on “How water chemistry within aquaculture (especially high CO2) can influence the physiology, behaviour and welfare of fish”. Lunch was combined with a poster session and then there were parallel workshops on “It’s not just me….?! Challenges faced by Early Career Researchers”, “Understanding fish-environment interactions to improve 21stCentury fish welfare” and “What can neuroscience bring to animal welfare?”. The closing remarks did not end the discussions, with delegates staying to enjoy a coffee with new and old acquaintances. 

Report on the overall meeting by Helena Telkanranta 

Networking is fun on a personal level and fruitful on a professional level. Especially when you get the best minds in animal welfare science to design – not an experiment, but a two-day session to foster your own oxytocin secretion and neuronal growth.

The annual get-together was attended by 70 members of the AWRN: mainly from academia but also from the government and other organizations, and mainly from the UK but also from overseas. After updates on upcoming events available to members of AWRN, there was a speed networking event, a fun and superfast way to get to know each other. In a design of rotating pairs, participants introduced their research interests to each other at the breathtaking speed of 2min/pair, which in several cases spawned further discussions during the next available break.

One of the themes of the day was fish welfare, with talks by two invited speakers. Rod Wilson reviewed how the behaviour, physiology and ontogeny of fish are affected – often substantially indeed – by the dissolved carbon dioxide at concentrations commonly seen in fish farming and laboratories. Simon MacKenzie presented a series of findings showing that fever occurs in fish too, and its function in fighting pathogens is similar to that in mammals and birds. Fish and other ectothermic animals just need to create it for themselves by moving to warmer water, an option often absent in fish tanks and other managed environments. Fish even show stress-induced hypothermia (also known as emotional fever) similarly to us land vertebrates, adding an interesting component to the discussion on affective states in fish.

After lunch and posters on participants’ ongoing projects, there were three parallel workshops. One of them, chaired by Tom Smulders, focused on what neuroscience can bring to animal behaviour. With additional talks by Bruno Frenguelli, Rick D’Eath and Colline Poirier, the workshop delved into methods and technologies for measuring cognitive processes in a range of species. Another workshop, chaired by Jimmy Turnbull with Simon Mackenzie and Rod Wilson, delved into how an understanding of fish-environment interactions can be used to improve fish welfare. Among the priorities identified were improving research in natural as well as farmed environments, understanding of biological regulation in animals that regulate their temperature by moving between environments, challenges for conventional experimental design and the need for scaling current statistical and mathematical models to accommodate fish populations. In the third workshop, planned especially for early-career researchers, Carole Fureix and Alison Bard treated the participants to a charming collection of scientific failures. Kindly provided by a number of colleagues including some highly respected ones, the real-life stories served as a consoling remainder that other people are human too. The take-home message was that when things go wrong, just pick up the pieces, learn what you can and proceed to the next endeavours, some of which are bound to succeed. The workshop also mapped wishes of early-career researchers for the topics of future AWRN workshops.

The meeting as a whole was yet another reminder that animal welfare science has something that is quite rare in many other fields of science: a warm, welcoming and supportive community. It fosters not only collaborative networking but also happiness in general. Both are remarkable strengths that we can utilize in increasing our impact on improving animal welfare.


Report on Workshop 1

– It’s not just me….?! Challenges faced by Early Career Researchers by Alison Bard and Carole Fureix

Early career researchers (ECRs) at this year’s AWRN meeting were invited to attend a session titled ‘It’s not just me….??! Challenges faced by ECRs’. At this session, Carole Fureix and Alison Bard (University of Bristol) presented ‘Anti-CV’ information1 on the research setbacks and failures of 17 animal welfare scientists; from difficulties networking and getting academic jobs, to issues conducting and publishing research. This information was presented positively to illustrate that behind every successful researcher in our field there are many ‘invisible’ setbacks, but that these do not define who we are nor do they define our careers. This presentation was followed by a brainstorming experience on behalf of participants, who were grouped by career level (postgrad, postdoc or position holder) and asked to identify any ideas for training and support that would help them navigate their experience and progression in this field. Ideas across career levels were collated as the session progressed, organised by themes and discussed with attendees before closing.

As a result of this session, it became clear that there was a demand for training and support in four core areas (see attached figure for further details): research skills workshops (broadly covering many questions related to how to efficiently design and perform experiments, and analyse, present and disseminate results); aspects of personal coping (how to be more resilient and better at ‘selling yourself’), accessing professional skills information related to career progression (e.g. identifying the next steps after a PhD and how to get there); and using the AWRN as a database / skills network (e.g. providing members with databases on (i) available courses, (ii) available grants and (iii) other members’ expertise and their willingness/availability to offer advice, perhaps via a mentoring scheme).

We discussed how these areas could best be served by the network, concluding that suggestions associated with ‘research skills’ and ‘personal coping’ would be best suited to a developing resilience workshop (open to all) followed by a graduate day, whilst ‘professional skills’ and ‘AWRN as a skills network’ would be best facilitated via the AWRN. Possible formats and structure of a resilience workshop and graduate day were briefly identified, with commitment to submit an application for funding to the AWRN given by Carole and Alison with the promised support of many attendees. Ideas and commitment to develop professional skills information, mentoring schemes and/or AWRN skills databases are also needed from wider members of the network, given that Carole and Alison can only tackle so much. Can you help the AWRN by contributing to the development of these support structures in any way? Please do get in touch!

Anonymous feedback on this session was gathered before participants left, which indicated that 16/17 attendees had a positive experience. Feedback indicated that it was ‘really useful to discuss issues/potential opportunities with peers’ and that it was ‘great to discuss the issues with others… very reassuring’. One participant reported mixed feelings, having enjoyed the discussions but finding the acknowledgement of failures and setbacks to be less useful in their appraisal of career challenges.

Before concluding, feedback was also gathered on the experience of these ECRs at the ‘Grant Writing and Reviewing Workshop’ held the previous day via the AWRN. Comments on this experience were overwhelmingly positive, with participants feeling their understanding of the funding landscape and grant review process advanced in both meaningful and useful ways. We would therefore also like to emphasise that ECRs, despite of not being BBSRC grant writers (… yet!) themselves, would benefit from inclusion in experiences of this type offered through the network in the future.

1See for more information

Report on Workshop 2

– Understanding fish-environment interactions to improve 21st Century fish welfare by Jimmy Turnbull

At this meeting, there were talks by Dr Simon MacKenzie (University of Stirling) and Dr Rod Wilson (University of Exeter).  These talks not only highlighted some of the excellent work that has been conducted to understand the interaction between fish and their environment, but also the serious gaps in both our understanding of basic process and their implications for the health and welfare of farmed and experimental fish.

The talks were followed by a workshop that was attended by approximately one third of the meeting attendees, “Understanding fish-environment interactions to improve 21st century fish welfare”. 

The workshop broke up into two groups each considering three issues.  While farmed fish were considered, much of the discussion focused on zebrafish welfare in experimental systems where lack of understanding and application of recent findings has led to widespread lack of choice for the fish and inappropriate environmental conditions.  This has implications not only for the welfare of the fish but compliance with Home Office legislation and quality of data across much biomedical research using zebrafish.

The topics of discussion were:

Improving research, natural and farm rearing environments through intelligent design. This discussion considered the implications of behavioural fever and other fish environment interactions and how they might be incorporated in to current husbandry systems.  This is a two-phase challenge, developing new systems and encouraging implementation against a background of substantial long term investment in existing systems.

Understanding biological regulation in ectotherms and challenges for conventional experimental design. Both the physical and social environment can have a dramatic effect on the welfare of fish and the quality of data produced in research studies.  Recent improvements in understanding has allowed us to better control these important but previously ignored experimental variables but a great deal more work is required.  It was agreed that some current research may be using fish that are already severely compromised and producing abnormal responses.

Scaling current statistical and mathematical models to accommodate fish populations. Fish are generally kept in very large populations occupying large three dimensional spaces.  RSPCA standards suggest flock sizes for broiler chickens should not exceed 30,000 birds for indoor systems and half that for free range birds.  The average salmon cage in the sea is around 100,000m3 holding up to 300,000 fish at harvest and potentially many more earlier in the production cycle.  Monitoring the welfare of such populations is immensely challenging and new ways to collect data representative of the population and identifying compromised individuals are urgently required.

Report on Workshop 3

What can neuroscience bring to animal welfare? by Melissa Bateson

This workshop comprised four complementary talks exploring possible ways in which recent research in neuroscience could be of interest to animal welfare scientists. Three of the talks centred on the hippocampus and the likely role of adult hippocampal neurogenesis (AHN) in positive welfare.

Bruno Frenguelli described data from laboratory rodents demonstrating that environmental enrichment (EE) can reduce or even abolish the age-related cognitive decline that is usually seen in mice housed in standard laboratory caging. If old mice were housed in enriched cages for ten weeks they become leaner, showed increased exploration of the elevated plus maze indicative of lower anxiety, showed no signs of neurological aging and improved spatial memory compared with control mice housed in standard cages. Bruno argued that EE works by releasing BDNF into the brain, which in turn leads to AHN and increases in dendritic spine density. This work suggests a mechanism for some of the known beneficial effects of EE.

Tom Smulders reviewed data suggesting that AHN could be used an integrative marker of cumulative experience in a range of species including rodents and birds. He presented evidence that while both negatively and positively valenced experiences (e.g. social defeat and EE) cause increases in corticosterone, social defeat is associated with reduced neurogenesis whereas EE is associated with increased neurogenesis1. Thus AHN is not simply a neural marker of corticosterone, but appears to specifically reflect the valence of experience (although it is possible that this could arise via an inverted U-shaped relationship between corticosterone levels and the valence of experience). He showed some of his own data from chickens showing that stressed chickens had fewer new neurones in the caudal portion of the hippocampus. A disadvantage of the techniques used by Tom for measuring AHN is that they can only be used post mortem, however this technique could be extremely useful for comparing effects of different housing or husbandry procedures in farm animals.

Colline Poirier continued on a similar theme by showing that it is possible to measure AHN indirectly by measuring grey matter amount with non-invasive MRI techniques. She has used this approach to track longitudinal changes in grey matter volume in laboratory rhesus macaques and presented preliminary results suggesting that suspected major stressors such as temporary single housing result in substantial decreases in grey matter in the anterior hippocampus compared with pair housed macaques. Colline’s data supported Tom’s in suggesting that it is specifically the caudal/anterior hippocampus (the same part of the structure in rodents/birds and macaques) that is sensitive to stress (the better known effects of spatial memory use appear in the septal/posterior regions by contrast).

Together the above three talks started to build a compelling argument for the use of measures of AHN to assess cumulative experience in a range of species. AHN appears to have many of the desirable criteria for a good biomarker, being selective to the valence of experience, and sensitive to its direction. A lot of further work will be needed to establish the time course of effects and to optimise measurement strategies in order to control for potential confounds such as body size, sex, age, and differences in spatial memory use.

Rick D’Eath took a different approach from the other three speakers and described two studies he has done in which he has attempted to establish the neural changes associated with specific welfare problems. The examples he chose were measuring vasopressin and serotonin 1A receptor levels in aggressive pigs, and AGRP in hungry broiler chickens. He argued that neural measures could be useful in further understanding the mechanisms underlying behaviour.

Overall this workshop provided compelling evidence for the value in pursuing neurobiological correlates of animal welfare. Neural changes associated with good and poor welfare could be used as objective novel welfare indicators, but also to obtain a better understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying differences in welfare.

  1. Lehmann, M. L., Brachman, R. a, Martinowich, K., Schloesser, R. J. & Herkenham, M. Glucocorticoids orchestrate divergent effects on mood through adult neurogenesis. J. Neurosci. 33, 2961–72 (2013).


Feedback from other delegates

I really enjoyed the talks and discussions at the Second Annual Meeting, being based in Northern Ireland, it is particularly useful to be able to link up with researchers in GB

“The Animal Welfare Research network annual meeting was a great experience, as a PhD student it was good to have the opportunity to attend the early careers workshop, aimed to prepare you for life as a researcher. This also provided an opportunity to meet other PhD students in the field and share experiences.”

I have found the network to be extremely helpful, particularly with respect to my funding applications. The Annual Meetings have given me the opportunity expand my network and speak to representatives from funding bodies and I am even collaborating with someone I met at the first Annual Meeting.


Videos of Presentations

Members are also able to view some of the presentations, click here to view the links.