Cause-specific mortality in wild animals
Understanding the causes of wild animal mortality to inform animal welfare interventions

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This profile is tailored towards students studying biological sciences, engineering, agricultural sciences and maths, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions in this area that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

The welfare of wild animals is poorly understood, having received little research up until recently despite their vast numbers. One of the few things we can say with confidence is that only a small minority of all wild animals who are born survive to adulthood. Death often entails extreme suffering; and for those individuals who die young, the process of dying may comprise a significant proportion of their lifetime. 

Understanding how and why wild animals die is therefore crucial for understanding the current state of welfare in nature, as well as identifying ways to improve it.

To provide the most value for understanding the welfare of individual wild animals, a few shifts in approach are recommended relative to most past research on the topic, including a focus on species with the largest population sizes, as well as on juvenile animals and the causes of death that most commonly affect them. Ultimately, reliable data on cause-specific mortality rates for specific populations can be incorporated into ‘multiple decrement life tables’ to identify opportunities for improving wild animal welfare by averting early deaths by a specific cause or substituting a less painful manner of death for another.

Because the field has been relatively neglected, there is plenty of opportunity for applying the current best practices to new species and ecosystems, or developing new methods.

Explore existing research

These posts from the Wild Animal Initiative give an overview of relevant research and research methods:

The Wild Animal Initiative supports researchers studying wild animal welfare.

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

Veterinarians could document cause-of-death indicators on the bodies of wild animals who have died in known ways, to enable more accurate identification in the field.

Ecologists and biologists could apply the current state of the art to field work, generating hard data on cause-specific mortality in wild animal populations.

Students with engineering backgrounds could work on miniaturising tracking devices to monitor the deaths of very small animals, including insects.

Research into wild animals’ causes of death depends in part on the use of demographic statistics. Statisticians could improve models for dealing with uncertainty in the fates of unobservable wild animals, which are crucial for avoiding biases that have marred many previous studies.

Further resources

See this list of research priorities from the Wild Animal Initiative for further research ideas.

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas.

If you want to do research on this direction or other aspects of wild animal welfare, we also recommend applying to join the Wild Animal Initiative’s online research community. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

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Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.


This profile was last updated 22/05/22.  Thanks to Luke Hecht for first creating this profile.

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