Uncovering causal relationships between feather pecking and related behaviours using structural equation models (SEM)
Feather pecking is a serious problem in poultry production. It causes high economical losses and suffering in the affected birds, especially in countries where beak trimming is prohibited. In spite of intensive research, the causes of this damaging behaviour are not fully understood. Most approaches to solve the problem were focused on nutrition and management. All measures have shown only attenuating or no effects on feather pecking. Genetic studies revealed sufficient genetic variation for selection against the damaging behaviour. However, feather pecking is a complex behaviour and more detailed information on the genetic background of the motivation is required to successfully implement this trait in breeding programmes. The prevailing hypothesis explains feather pecking as misdirected foraging behaviour, but other motivations, such as feather eating, aggression, fear and general locomotor activity may be involved. The interrelationships between the above mentioned behaviours have been studied using more than 900 birds of a F2-cross of two lines which have been selected for high and low feather pecking. Heritability, genetic and phenotypic correlations between the traits were estimated using standard statistical models. In addition, structural equation models (SEM) were applied to estimate causal relationships between feather pecking and other traits. Genetic correlation and Lambda coefficients as parameter of the causal link, showed a strong causal effect of feather eating and feather pecking. This supports the hypothesis that feather eating represents a primary cause of feather pecking. There was a substantial causal influence of aggression and general locomotor activity on feather pecking. Open-field activity (fear) and foraging in contrast did not show clear effects on feather pecking.
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