#78: A Trainer's Holiday Story

Once upon a time there was a group of talented trainers who worked at the New England Aquarium. These trainers decided to send holiday cards to all their friends to let them know they were thinking of them. "What sort of card should we send?" they wondered. They thought and they thought and they thought. Then one said, "Let's have our photogenic harbor seals kiss under mistletoe!" "Brilliant!" shouted the trainers with glee.

So one of the trainers gathered some fake mistletoe (because real mistletoe is dangerous) and held it above Cayenne and Chuck. For three days the trainers tried to get the perfect picture, but this wasn't as easy as they had thought. The mistletoe had to hang lower to be seen in the picture, Cayenne didn't like the mistletoe so close to her head and Chuck kept smelling the fake mistletoe and leaving in disgust--yuck! At the end of the third day when all the trainers were starting to get discouraged they reviewed their pictures and what did they find...


They quickly uploaded it, because these trainers are computer-savvy, and created a card to send to all of their friends. So to you, our friend, the Marine Mammal Department wishes you a happy holiday season!

The End.




#77: Lumpfish goes to school

As Justin has mentioned in previous blogs, we are all getting the awesome opportunity to work with a wide variety of animals around the aquarium. I am training a juvenile lumpfish that I have named Blondie.

I know, I know "training a fish?!" you say. But you would be surprised how much a fish can learn and in a pretty short period of time. Right now, I am training her how to go to her target (a specific object that I have deemed "hers") which is a red spoon. I am also training her how to push a lightweight ball around the tank and even do spins!

Here are two clips of a "spin" training session. In the first one, you can see it takes a few trials to get her to spin. I tap the water to give her direction.

In the second clip, it only takes two trials with two distinct taps, one at almost halfway around and the other almost at the endpoint. She spins super without any taps on the water at the end!

Now that's pretty cool; what should I train next?

Stay tuned for more fish training...


#76: All I Want for the Holidays is a Nice Plump Seal

Reggae, a nice plump seal for the holidays. Truthfully, he's plump most days ... Valentine's Day ... Groundhog Day ...

When we have guests on the seal exhibit, visitors often ask, "How can I get close to the seals too?" The answer is ... Check out our Play with the Seals or Trainer for a Morning programs!

Play with the Seals brings guests behind the scenes and on exhibit to give the seals some of their favorite toys.

Trainer for a Morning is a chance to experience what it's like to be a Marine Mammal Trainer here at the aquarium. If you're interested in a career in training or just want to learn more about the animals, this is a terrific program.

If you're looking for that one of a kind gift, our seal programs are perfect. Aquarium gift certificates can be applied toward Play with the Seals or Trainer for a Morning. If you prefer not to get your feet wet, check out our Proud Parent Animal Sponsorship Program.

Happy Holidays,

~ Jenny



#75: Winterize Me

As Justin mentioned in his recent blog, the Marine Mammal Training Staff is taking advantage of a little extra time by learning about new animals and helping out where we can. We're also spending more time getting dressed and undressed. Before you say "Whoa! I didn't think it was that kind of blog", let me explain.

In this picture Justin is wearing what all fashionable trainers wear in the summer; Shorts, a short sleeve shirt, water sandals and a seal on his cheek.

Our winter outfit takes up a little more room...

As Lindsay models her winter wear, it's clear that the seal accessory is out of the question.

While Justin has chosen to brave the toe-numbing waters of the penguin tray, some of us have opted for a different climate. Personally, I sought warm weather dwellers. Poison dart frogs are typically found in a tropical climate. I'm working with a Blue poison frog (Dendrobates azureus) in the video. The pink object is a plastic clip I put in to see how she might react to new objects. Ultimately we'll introduce a name target as we have with the harbor seals. You might hear the clicker in the background. This is the initial training of a bridge. To teach the frog to equate the bridge with food, I'm clicking, or trying to, just as she eats a piece of food.

I have no previous experience with poison frogs. In a future blog, I'll describe what information one needs before embarking on a training program with a new species. For now, it's time to get ready for a harbor seal session. It starts in an hour and it might take me that long to get into all of those clothes.



#74: Lana Says RELAX


Each seal seems to have a place or position in the exhibit where they feel most comfortable. After a long day at the office, Lana likes to find her favorite spot in a shallow area, put up her flippers, rest her head on a rock and relax. To me it looks like a guy in a La-Z-Boy. The only thing missing from this scenario is a bag of Doritos.

Check out this adorable video of Lana reclining on a rainy day:



#73: Getting Cold Feet

Me hosing guano (penguin poop) off an island

With our fur seals temporarily at the New York Aquarium, many of the marine mammal trainers are helping out in other areas of the Aquarium in addition to our normal duties taking care of the harbor seals. Patty and I are being trained to work in the penguin exhibit. Two days a week we squeeze ourselves into attractive wetsuits (mine makes me look like a giant bumblebee ... neon yellow and black. Yowzahs.) and spend a few hours in the 55 degree water with the birds.

It's a completely different perspective being eye to eye with them. In addition to feeding them (the fun part), we spend the rest of the time cleaning, cleaning and cleaning some more. They're messy birds (projectile poop!) and the entire exhibit gets scrubbed and disinfected every day. We use a veterinary disinfectant that is safe around the birds. It's mixed with water and then scrubbed on the islands. So you might say we like our disinfectant stirred and on the rocks. So far our challenges include learning the 80+ birds' names, and preventing our feet from going numb in the cold water. I think we'll have better luck with the first one.



#72: People Think We're Crazy

Recently we've taken on the challenge of trying to train many other animals at the Aquarium other than the seals. Many people believe you can train any animal to do anything that they are physically capable of doing. So we've been challenged to train lobsters, fish, frogs, turtles and even anacondas. I'm pretty sure co-workers from other departments think we're nuts. A bunch of us have been working with juvenile lobsters that were raised in the Aquarium's Lobster Lab.

If we are capable of training the lobsters to do certain behaviors and they are able to remember them, it may shed more light on crustacean brain power. One behavior some of us are attempting to train is to turn over on their back on a signal. These small lobsters sometimes do this on their own when being fed so our challenge is to get them to do it on cue. Watch this video to see what it looks like. Once the lobster flips I am reinforcing it with some brine shrimp from a dropper.




#71: Want to get more involved?

If you have an interest in marine animals, there are a variety of ways for you to get more involved. Many zoos and aquariums offer volunteer and internship opportunities that give you an up close look at the world of marine animal care and training. There is also a great organization called the International Marine Animal Trainers' Association (IMATA) that provides information on marine animals and the many aquariums, zoos and parks where you can visit them. I joined IMATA two years ago. Just recently some of my coworkers and I attended the annual conference. Luckily for us New Englanders, it was held in sunny Cancun, Mexico!

But marine animals weren't the only things we saw while we were down there ...

Check out Erin's blog for more info on all the cool things we learned and participated in during the conference!

The IMATA organization is open to everyone so if you are looking for a way to find out more about our field, this is a great place to start. Membership includes a quarterly magazine with articles about training and access to a member's section of their website for training ideas, a trainer forum for Q & A, and even an area for job postings. Currently we have over 1300 members but we are always looking for new faces to join the group. You don't have to be a trainer to be a member, just a fan of marine animals!

And with a face like that, how can you not be? :)




#70: More Playtime!

As you all know by now, there are many different ways to enrich our seals. Here is a short clip of Rochelle and I playing with Chacoda and his sister Cayenne through the glass.

They really get a kick out of people playing with them at the shallow end of the exhibit. Here's another post that has a video of that. Try it sometime--just remember not to bang on the glass. Sometimes you can even catch Cayenne waiting to play!



#69: My First Behavior


As a new trainer, it is a big deal when you finally get to teach an animal something new. I am teaching my first behavior to Smoke, our oldest harbor seal. Smoke can often be found in a resting position called bottling in which she floats with her head above the water (much like a bottle would float). My challenge has been to teach her to go upside-down and stick her hind flippers out of the water, which we call... are you ready? An inverted bottle.

When training a new behavior there are a number of steps you take to reach the finished product. We call these steps approximations. Training a new behavior is like climbing a ladder. You have to climb one rung at a time to reach your goal. Each rung is like an approximation. In this video you can see some of the approximations that I've taken.

At first I got Smoke to follow a target, in this case a white bead on the end of a pole, until she was upside-down. After removing the target from the scenario I worked on getting her to maintain a vertical body position with her flippers sticking out of the water. She was still relying on me to guide her and help her balance. Now with a soft tap on her chin she goes down on her own and balances in the position. Watch this video to see some of the steps I took in training my first behavior!



#68: Sealcam

One of the major hurdles in doing research on most marine animals is the fact that much of what they do and experience takes place under water. Even diving underwater to observe them is problematic because of our own physical limitations as well as the inherent dangers divers sometimes encounter.

In 1986, during a dive trip off Belize, a shark approached marine biologist and filmmaker, Greg Marshall. As the shark swam off, Marshall noticed a remora (sucker fish) attached to it. It occurred to Marshall that if he could replace the remora with an underwater video camera, he would be able to see first hand how a shark moves through and functions in its environment. Thus, the "Crittercam" was born.

In 1987 Marshall strapped the first awkward crittercam prototype to the back of a captive loggerhead turtle. Since then, crittercams have evolved from large and awkward systems into smaller, more hydrodynamic pieces of equipment. This new technology has provided scientists with an unprecedented look into the lives of all sorts of underwater creatures. Other versions of the crittercam have even been designed for and successfully deployed on terrestrial mammals such as bears and lions.

Here at the New England Aquarium, two of our harbor seals, Amelia and Chacoda, have been trained to wear a harness to which a video camera and underwater housing have been attached. This video gives you an idea of how I went about teaching the seals to be comfortable with the various components of the harness and video housing.

Though the present version of our "crittercam" might be as unwieldy and awkward as Greg Marshall's first prototype, the chance to see what Chacoda and Amelia see as they move through their exhibit is exciting and fun.

As we gradually work out the kinks and design problems in our crittercam system we'll give you the opportunity to get a "seal's eye view" of our exhibit and it's residents. If you're interested in learning more about "Crittercams" go to the National Geographic crittercam website and find out more about this exciting research tool and the look that it's given us into the "hidden" lives of all types of animals.

- Paul



#67: Exhibit Makeover Update 2

With the demolition finished, the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center is beginning to take shape.

This is a view from the shallow area into the deep. The dirt in the foreground will become a shallow area for the animals to splash, slide around in or just relax. Glass panels will allow you to come almost nose to nose with the animals.

This is Kathy, the curator of the Marine Mammal Department. We'll take this same picture each month to see what she's looking at as time goes by.

~ Jenny



#66: What does that mean?

Alright, we get it. Sometimes we use terms that make sense to us, but not necessarily to you. So here are a few of the terms that you might find useful when we talk about training:

Signal: Any touch, word, sound or visible gesture that cues the animals to do a particular behavior. For example: saying the word "Wave" directs a seal to move their flipper back and forth. The word wave is a verbal signal.

Putting our hands out and moving from side to side is a gesture that directs the seals to dance. We call this signal a hand signal.

Touching the top of a seal's nose is a signal that cues them to exhale. The touch is called a tactile signal.

Here you can see Jenny giving Lana the hand signal to dance - notice that Lana is raising her left flipper out of the water to mirror Jenny's right hand. Check out this video of dancing behavior.

Bridge: A signal that is used to indicate the precise instant that the seal did something correctly. When the seal hears or feels the bridge, they immediately stop what they're doing and look to the trainer for fish or other reinforcement. It "bridges" the time between the behavior and reinforcement. Like a signal, a bridge can be visual, auditory or tactile.

Some of the bridges that we use include saying the word "Good," a short blow on a whistle, or two gentle taps on the seal's body.

Here is Baranov using his bridge...

...and Paul is using his whistle bridge.

Reinforcement: Anything the animal wants, needs or wants more of. Here at the Aquarium, our main reinforcement for the seals is fish, but it can also be a favorite toy, a scratch on the chin or any number of things. It's good to have multiple types of reinforcement--just like people, each seal has it's own likes and dislikes which can change over time. Also, not all seals like the same thing. One seal might enjoy a scratch under the chin while another one may not want to be touched.

Here, Jenny is using fish to reinforce Lana...

...but sometimes Lana likes to have her neck scratched.

Target: Any object the animal is taught to touch with their nose, flipper or other part of their body. Targets

provide a focal point and can be used to train any behavior. The seals can be comfortable targeting for several minutes during ultra sound or blood sampling. Gradually raising the height of a target over the water helps teach a seal where to jump. Here at the Aquarium, we use three types of targets: a hand target, a target pole with a bead or ball target on the end, and a name target.

Each seal has a specific object for their name target. At the start of each training session, the seals will look or listen for their particular target. When they find it, they know where in the exhibit their session will take place and which trainer will do their training session.

Here you see Smoke is targeting on a trainers hand while Reggae targets on his name target (a plastic tire) and Amelia targets on her name target (a black plastic disc with slits in it). If you look in the background you will also see examples of other name targets--notice how they are all different.

In this video you can see how they all work together:

When I want to ask Chuck and Cayenne to go to their Name targets, I point to the targets (hand signal) while saying the word "Target" (verbal signal). Once Chuck and Cayenne touch their nose to their individual targets, I will say the word "Good" (bridge) and feed them some fish (reinforcement).

Using these four tools correctly is what has allowed us to train so many behaviors. It's fun. Try it with your friends!



#65: 36th Annual IMATA Conference

The International Marine Animal Trainers' Association (IMATA) is a collection of members that work, or aspire to work with, marine animals through training for public display and/or research. It is an organization that everyone in our Marine Mammal department belongs to and one that has been a big part of my professional career. Each year, members of IMATA meet for a week-long conference to exchange knowledge, network, attend workshops, and listen to presentations on a variety of topics.

This year Patty, Jenny, and I had the opportunity to attend the conference, which was hosted by Dolphin Discovery in Cancun, Mexico. In addition to being members of IMATA, Patty and I serve as Committee Chairs (I am the Merchandise Chair and Patty is the Finance Co-Chair) and as a result, we went down a few days early to attend the Board of Directors Meetings. While meetings in Cancun may seem like an oxymoron, it is during these meetings that IMATA's future is planned so it can be exciting; plus any time you get a number of animal trainers in a room, it's sure to be interesting!

We listened to 40 great presentations covering such varied topics a Stellar sea lions participating in a hearing test, stingray enrichment, use of honey as wound management in dolphins, turtle training, and the roles trainers and vet staff play in the care of a pregnant grey seal. There were also a number of great poster presentations on subjects like dolphin and seal painting techniques and manatee training, just to name a few. There was a career fair where you could have your resume reviewed and edited and also learn about many different aquariums, zoos and animal parks.

Dolphin Discovery also provided us the opportunity to spend the entire day at their facility at Isla Mujeres. There were many activities to choose from. We could participate in a dolphin or manatee interaction program, attend workshops or snorkel the nearby reef. I had the opportunity to meet Audrey and as you can see, I had a blast!

Each conference is different and I always leave inspired. While I enjoy every minute of the conference, I find myself excited to get back to the Aquarium to share all of the great ideas and knowledge I have acquired. This year I had another reason to be excited to get back--the New England Aquarium will be the host for the 2010 IMATA conference and I was eager to start planning. Just like we use this blog as a way to share with you what we do in our department, hosting the 2010 IMATA conference will give us the opportunity to show our peers first hand what we have accomplished here! With such great animals though, the only question is...where do we start?

- Erin