Could virtual reality be the future of poultry health?

Researchers at Iowa State University are trying to improve the welfare and health of hens using virtual reality (VR).

In recent years, VR technology has found its way into every aspect of life. From video games to professional training, virtual reality tries to give users an experience as close to reality as possible. Although to many this technological advancement may seem dystopian, researchers across the country are finding ways to improve our daily lives.

Melha Mellata, associate professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, and Graham Redweik, a recent doctoral student in the Iowa State Interdepartmental Microbiology Program, see if virtual reality can be used in another unconventional way, this the time of the birds.

Researchers at Iowa State have recognized that the growing demand for cage-free eggs stems from the goal of providing hens with better welfare, especially in terms of natural behavior. But because cageless systems can present challenges, such as injuries and bacterial infections, most laying hens are kept in conventional cages. Mellata saw VR technology as a way to simulate an outdoor environment in laying hen housing.

“There are many challenges associated with free-range production environments for laying hens, including the potential for injury, illness and additional risk from predators,” Mellata said. “However, hens in free-range environments tend to engage in positive, ‘normal’ behaviors more often that appear to improve their overall health and immunity.”

The study, “Exposure to a virtual environment induces biological and microbiota changes in laying hens”, published in the peer-reviewed journal frontiers of science, found that showing virtual reality scenes of chickens in more natural environments reduced stress indicators in the blood and gut microbiota of hens. “It’s fascinating to think that even just showing hens free-range environments can stimulate similar immunological benefits,” Mellate said.

Chickens are very receptive to visual stimuli. Like their T-rex ancestors, chickens have poor depth perception and recognize objects better when in motion than when stationary. According to the study, this means that environmental factors, such as color, light quality, duration and intensity, all affect the feeding behavior of poultry.

For example, by watching a video of chicks feeding, the birds will mimic these behaviors and approach their food faster.

The study found that virtual reality scenes induced biochemical changes linked to increased resistance to E. coli bacteria, which poses health risks to poultry and humans who eat contaminated eggs.

The researchers displayed video projections of chickens in outdoor environments. The scenes showed indoor facilities with access to a fenced outdoor area and an unfenced open meadow with grasses, shrubs and flowers. A group of 34 commercial poultry hens were exposed to the videos for five days on the four walls of their housing. The videos were tested during a high-risk stress period – 15 weeks post-hatch, a stage when commercial hens are routinely moved to laying facilities.

The visual-only recordings showed various groups of free-range chickens performing activities associated with positive poultry behaviors depending on the time of day, such as preening, perching, dust bathing, and nesting. The videos were not shown to a control group of the same size and age in the same type of dwelling.

The researchers analyzed blood, tissues and samples of their gut microbiota. Chickens in the treatment group showed several beneficial changes compared to the control group. Differences included lower stress indicators and increased resistance to the avian pathogenic E. coli bacteria that can cause sepsis and death in young birds.

“We need more research, but this suggests that virtual reality could be a relatively simple tool for improving poultry health in confined environments and improving food safety,” Mellata said. “It could also be a relatively inexpensive way to reduce infections and the need for antibiotics in egg production.”

The team hope to expand the research to conduct a similar study over a longer period, with more chickens and chickens at different stages, to see if the results can be replicated.

“Future research in collaboration with our partners in veterinary medicine is also needed to investigate the neurochemical mechanisms linking visual stimuli to changes in the intestines of chickens,” Mellata said.

The full study can be viewed here.

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