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‘Cheetahs & Humans: Sharing a Landscape’

UD Engages Conservation, Behavioral Research Efforts with Dallas Zoo

 Date published: Wednesday, Oct. 24

Cheetah ConservationCheetah ConservationCheetahA few years back, the University of Dallas began to form a relationship with the Dallas Zoo, when Assistant Professor of Biology Deanna Soper, Ph.D., and her colleague, Professor of Psychology Scott Churchill, Ph.D., began taking class trips to the zoo. And in the spirit of further collaboration, the world’s leading cheetah expert and conservationist, Laurie Marker, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) sponsored by the Dallas Zoo, will join the UD community on Thursday, Oct. 25, to give a lecture about her work rescuing the world’s fastest land mammal from extinction.  

The lecture, titled “Cheetahs & Humans: Sharing a Landscape,” is co-hosted by the University of Dallas, the Dallas Zoo and EarthX, an international environmental nonprofit connecting a global community to create a sustainable world for future generations. UD’s Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO) assisted with promoting the upcoming lecture by managing a table in the Haggar Café on Tuesday, Oct. 23, informing students about cheetah conservation efforts and selling t-shirts and bracelets to yield proceeds for the CCF.

Meerkat MeerkatOver the past summer, as most North Texas residents cowered from the scorching summer heat, UD senior biology major Cristal Lopez, BS ’19, interned at the Dallas Zoo, enduring countless days with 100-plus-degree temps in the name of behavioral research. In need of research credits to fulfill her undergraduate degree requirements, Lopez had sought the advice and guidance of her instructor, Soper, who connected her with Nancy Scott, coordinator of animal behavior science at the Dallas Zoo.

By mid-July, Lopez began applying the knowledge of her discipline to conduct observational research on the behavioral relationships of meerkats.


“The Dallas Zoo had never collected animal behavioral research on meerkats before,” said Soper. “Cristal collected data regularly despite the wrenching weather; she went all out, persisting no matter what, collecting research every other day throughout the summer.”  

Interestingly, the Dallas Zoo’s meerkats cohabitate in the same environment as a creep of tortoises for a large part of the year, except during the winter when the tortoises relocate inside. While visiting the shared carnivore-mammal exhibit, Lopez had asked herself: “How does the meerkat interact with the tortoises? Does their behavior change any?”

“Basically, this research allows me to observe their behaviors: Anything from resting to sunbathing. … There are turtles in the meerkat’s habitat, so my research is to see if there is any change in their behavior with the presence or absence of the turtles,” said Lopez.

Lopez carefully gathered her research findings on an iPad using a program called Zoo Monitor, which pinpoints the exact location of the meerkats in their habitat. Every other day, Lopez conducted her routine observations for one and a half hours, recording the meerkat’s interactions in three-minute intervals. “In those intervals, I would record their behavior and location at that time. I made a map of the habitat as well, which I input in the program so that I was able to record their location,” said Lopez.

This semester, Churchill is leading a Zoo Habitat Research class of six students to conduct research at the Dallas Zoo. Soper also plans to lead another class trip to the Dallas Zoo on Monday, Nov. 5, conducting the semester's second outdoor laboratory class. Students in the class choose one zoo animal of interest to conduct an independent behavioral analysis project on their chosen species.