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The COPEWELL project

The COPEwell project aims is to develop a new integrative framework for the study of fish welfare based on the concepts of allostasis, appraisal and coping styles. We want to provide a deeper understanding of the underpinning mechanisms involved in variation in individual coping styles and ability. The project will also focus on the understanding of how fish experience their world, and what effects early life experiences have on later development and coping abilities.

The COPEwell will establish a new framework for studies of fish welfare based on the evolutionarily rooted concept of allostasis, the processes of maintaining homeostasis through changing conditions. A functionalist hypothesis driven approach is observed, where the ability of the brain to mediate coping responses and subjectively experience welfare status is seen as an evolved property. The project will explore the links between individual variation in cognitive appraisal of the external and internal environment, and how stress coping ability are affected by an interaction between genetically based physiological and behavioural trait correlations (coping styles) and earlier experiences during ontogeny.

Allostasis is defined as the adaptive process for actively maintaining stability through change (Sterling and Eyer, 1988), and involves central neurobiological mediators that change the controlled physiological variables by predicting what level will be needed to meet anticipated demand. COPEwell will lead to novel discoveries and knowledge about a range of underpinning mechanisms: Evolutionary explanations imply the presence of individual variation, thus the project will address the presence of individual stress coping styles in farmed fish, including its basis in brain structure and function, gene expression, behaviour, and their plasticity and consistency of specific trait constellations during changing conditions. The emotional brain plays a central role in allostasis by controlling all the mechanisms simultaneously, involving experience, memories, and re-evaluation of needs in anticipation of physiological requirements (Korte et al., 2007). In this framework the ability to experience welfare is an emergent quality in animals with advanced central nervous systems, and a part of the animals evolved motivational and survival mechanisms (Berridge, 2004).

By focusing on cognition and emotion as evolved properties COPEwell will initiate a novel hypothesis-driven scientific approach to animal welfare, and actuate new discoveries and knowledge about how teleost fish experience their world. According to the homeostatic-based definition, which postulates a negative linear relationship between stress and welfare, stability and no threats to homeostasis means the best welfare. The new concept of welfare based on allostasis suggests an inverted U-shaped relationship, where both too little (hypostimulation) or too much stress (allostatic load) gives poor welfare (Korte et al., 2007). We will put forward that the allostasis concept holds particular value as a model to discriminate between normal adaptive stress responses and situations of potential consequence to animal welfare. In this framework, good animal welfare is characterized by a broad predictive physiological, cognitive, and behavioural capacity to anticipate and respond to environmental challenges in a way that matches the environmental demands. Reduction of such capacities will lead to a mismatch between 1) the response required by the actual conditions and events and 2) the actual responses mounted by the individual, limiting the animal’s ability to experience rewards and good welfare.

COPEwell will study how the mediators of allostasis and coping ability are affected by stress level, ranging from hypo- to hyper-stimulation, as well as the effects of cognitive anticipation/prediction of the stressor based on earlier experiences. In this way, we will test if fish have memory based mechanisms as basis for plasticity and efficiency to deal with environmental challenges. Finally, we will study the ontogeny of neuroendocrine and physiological processes mediating allostasis, and the long-term effects of chronic stressors at early developmental stages on the functions of allostatic mediators, coping styles, and performance later in life. The most important aquaculture species in Europe, Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) and gilthead sea bream (Sparus aurata) will be the main species used in the project and will be used in a comparative and balanced way. In addition we will use model species, zebrafish (Danio rerio) in selected tasks where these models are especially suited.

The project will propose and implement, an innovative hypothesis driven multidisciplinary approach, where a range of hypotheses will be tested. The COPEwell  project will through four scientific work packages focus on underpinning mechanisms in four essential welfare relevant concepts: COPING STYLES, APPRAISAL, ALLOSTASIS and ONTOGENY. Through the selection of aquaculture relevant stressors, and by conducting experiments at different scales, at different life-stages and in different rearing systems, this will provide new insights on the interrelations between different relevant husbandry practices, fish performance and welfare. 


Berridge, K. C. 2004. Motivation concepts in behavioral neuroscience. Physiology & Behavior 81, 179-209
Korte, S.M., Olivier, B., Koolhaas, J.M., 2007. A new animal welfare concept based on allostasis. Physiology & Behavior. 92:422-428.
Sterling, P., Eyer, J., 1988. Allostasis: A new paradigm to explain arousal pathology. Handbook of life stress, cognition and health (Sterling, P., Eyer, J., Fisher, S., Reason, J., eds.) John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, pp. 629-649.

The COPEwell Project:

COPEWELL – A new integrative framework for the study of fish welfare based on the concepts of allostasis, appraisal and coping styles

Project period: 2011-2015

COPEwell leaflet (PDF)


Tore S. Kristiansen 
Project coordinator
Animal welfare