DOI: 10.1242/jeb.246037 ISSN: 0022-0949

Physiological differences between wild and captive animals: a century-old dilemma

Andy J. Turko, Britney L. Firth, Paul M. Craig, Erika J. Eliason, Graham D. Raby, Brittney G. Borowiec
  • Insect Science
  • Molecular Biology
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Physiology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Laboratory-based research dominates the fields of comparative physiology and biomechanics. The power of lab work has long been recognized by experimental biologists. For example, in 1932, Georgy Gause published an influential paper in Journal of Experimental Biology describing a series of clever lab experiments that provided the first empirical test of competitive exclusion theory, laying the foundation for a field that remains active today. At the time, Gause wrestled with the dilemma of conducting experiments in the lab or the field, ultimately deciding that progress could be best achieved by taking advantage of the high level of control offered by lab experiments. However, physiological experiments often yield different, and even contradictory, results when conducted in lab versus field settings. This is especially concerning in the Anthropocene, as standard laboratory techniques are increasingly relied upon to predict how wild animals will respond to environmental disturbances to inform decisions in conservation and management. In this Commentary, we discuss several hypothesized mechanisms that could explain disparities between experimental biology in the lab and in the field. We propose strategies for understanding why these differences occur and how we can use these results to improve our understanding of the physiology of wild animals. Nearly a century beyond Gause's work, we still know remarkably little about what makes captive animals different from wild ones. Discovering these mechanisms should be an important goal for experimental biologists in the future.

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