Paper Type

Master's Thesis


College of Arts and Sciences

Degree Name

Master of Science in Biology (MS)



NACO controlled Corporate Body

University of North Florida. Department of Biology

First Advisor

Dr. James Gelsleichter

Second Advisor

Dr. Gregory Kohn

Third Advisor

Dr. Quincy Gibson

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Terry Maple

Department Chair

Dr. Cliff Ross

College Dean

Dr. James Garner


Human-Animal Interactions (HAI) in zoological institutions are thought to be important in helping visitors to establish a connection with animals and thus making them more likely to contribute to conservation efforts. However, animals can respond to visitor interaction in both negative and positive ways. The growing focus on animal welfare in zoological institutions emphasizes the need for assessing different environmental inputs, including visitor interaction, and how these inputs influence behavioral outputs associated with welfare. A touch pool exhibit presents a novel interactive experience that allows visitors to directly interact with various aquatic species, including elasmobranchs, whose conservation has important implications for the marine ecosystem. Yet there is little information on how interactive experiences impact the welfare of elasmobranchs in touch pools. This study assessed the role of visitor density and activity on the behavior of four different elasmobranch species in a touch pool exhibit.

Experimental conditions were implemented to assess how regulating visitor interactions with the animals impacted elasmobranch behavior. Higher visitor numbers, frequencies of interaction, and frequencies of intense interactions from visitors were correlated with higher instances of aggression and negative reactions to visitors from the animals. Findings showed that the presence of food also had a significant effect on the occurrence of aggression and negative reactions, and it is likely that increased food provisioning during the experimental conditions lead to higher rates of aggression and negative reactions than expected. This study proposes the regulation of visitor density, interactions, and feedings to reduce aggression and negative reactions among elasmobranchs in a touch pool exhibit.

Results indicated that the pro-social Rhinoptera bonasus was much more likely to engage in interactions with visitors and was more likely to show aggressive behaviors compared to the other three less-social species. Studies of elasmobranchs in captivity and in the wild have shown that species can aggressively compete for valued resources, and there is the potential for this competition to negatively affect health and well-being of elasmobranchs if dominant species or individuals repeatedly target the same animals. Findings demonstrate that species compatibility is an important consideration for touch pool exhibits, and cross-institutional comparison should be carried out to determine if pro-social elasmobranch species are better suited to interactive experiences compared to less-social species.