Elske de Haas

Curriculum Vitae

Dr. Elske N. de Haas studies the behaviour of laying hen chickens and pigs. She obtained her MSc with specialization health and behaviour, and a minor in genetics at Wageningen University (the Netherlands) in 2009. Hereafter she worked as a research assistance in a project on satiety in sows, and assisted in MSc Animal Behaviour courses. In 2010, she started with her PhD in the Adaptation Physiology Group (ADP) of Wageningen University & Research. The topic of her PhD was finding predictors for feather pecking in laying hens, on farms. After her PhD in 2014, she did a post-doc at INRA, Nouzilly (France) looking at the effect of maternal diet on chick behaviour and brain dopamine levels. After a short period at a poultry housing designer Vencomatic Group, she continued research at the Behavioural Ecology Group (BHE) of the Animal Science Department of Wageningen University & Research. Currently she works part-time at BHE and ADP. Her main research area consist of understanding the mechanisms of maladaptive behaviour – such as brain neurotransmitters,
gene-expression, methylation, physiology. For this aim she looks at the
prenatal and postnatal effects. Besides this fundamental work, she is the main researcher in the more applied Phenolab project. In the Phenolab project automatic detection of activity, location and proximity can be measured of group housed hens. Further she is actively involved in the EU COST GroupHousenet project, where health and welfare of group housed farm animals is the study focus. For this project, she is involved in review articles and she conducted DNA-methylation analysis at AVIAN group in Linköping Sweden. 

Research interests

  • Laying hens
  • Feather pecking
  • Maladaptive behaviour
  • Malfunctioning behaviour
  • Animal Welfare
  • Prenatal effects
  • Epigenetics
  • Early life conditions
  • Housing conditions
  • Serotonin, Dopamine
  • Animal Social Behaviour
  • Social Networks

Project overview

Phenolab Project

In this project we test the usability of an automatic detection technique to measure activity of individual group housed animals. Until now, limited possibilities exists to follow individual animals in a group, automatically. The aim of Phenolab is to automatically collect individual behavioural data on location, activity and proximity of group housed animals. In 2016 we set out to validate Phenolab with other software techniques and to apply it in real-life conditions with group housed animals.

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We validate the use of ultra-wide band detection technique with video tracking software. We use ultra-wide band sensor technology (Ubisense®) for the location detection and software Tracklab 1.3 (Noldus, Wageningen, NL) for further calculations. Validation of Tracklab data was conducted with video tracking software Ethovision XT (Nodes, Wageningen, NL). Currently with Phenolab we are able to collect location data with an 75% accuracy. This accuracy is based on comparison of exact location data with Ethovision XT.

We use group-housed White Leghorn laying hen birds from three genetic lines known to differ in activity and feather pecking. With Phenolab we are able to detect preferred locations of animals, activity levels and patterns on an individual basis, whilst animals move in a group. With Phenolab we can detect individual phenotypes on the basis of activity patterns in a group setting and relate this to other phenotypic traits and genomic information. The impact of the generated data of Phenolab can be used for genetic selection purposes, automatic warning systems and health and welfare monitoring of group housed animals – on an individual basis.

The projectleader of the Phenolab project is Bas Rodenburg associate professor at the Behaviour Ecology Group. This project is funded by the Breed4Food consortium. Collaboration exists with Patrick Zimmerman and Bram van Mil (Noldus Information Technology, the Netherlands), the University of Twente, and i3b partners. Funding (2016): Breed4Food.

Understanding the risk factors for feather pecking

In this project we look at the risk factors for feather pecking. To that aim we use a broad range of measurements to understand the development of the behaviour. We look at social network dynamics to detect differences in activity patterns and proximity of lines selected for and against feather pecking, and between peckers, victims and neutral birds. We also look at activity patterns in groups while they are undisturbed – to see if we can predict when feather pecking would occur. On a more individual level, we look at the epigenetic modifications in the DNA of the thalamus of lines selected for and against feather pecking. We have looked at individual differences in terms of activity
levels, impulsivity, and anxiety. These behaviour differences we relate to physiological measurements such as differences in stress sensitivity, the peripheral and central serotonin levels. The aim of this project to understand the development of feather pecking, and detect risk factors which could be reduced by farm management or breeding strategies.