#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



#64: Greetings from New York!

I recently took a trip to see the fur seals while they spend time at the New York Aquarium (NYAq). The girls are getting settled in with two other female fur seals, Roxie and Taz. Here's a picture of Cordova and Ursula relaxing with their new roommates. This picture was taken soon after Cordova and Ursula had a fun play session of chasing each other underwater. Luckily we were able to catch them on video for all of you to see.




#63: New Marine Mammal Center Update!


I recently had a house full of family and friends, including two brothers; a three year old and a nine month old. The younger brother would grin and stare as his big brother stacked the small, wooden blocks higher and higher. Then, sporting a mischievous squint, the older boy would whirl his arms through the column of blocks. The brothers shrieked with delight as the blocks crashed to the floor.

Watching the demolition of our old pinniped exhibit makes me wonder if the crew members get to feel like kids again. The current demolition phase is making way for the construction of our New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center. Right now, the exhibit site is all about demolition.

This picture shows the construction, make that the destruction site a couple of days ago. Notice that the dumpster has a beautiful harbor view. Once the exhibit is completed, our seals and visitors will have the same view, minus the dumpster.

Here we see the same area after the rubble removal.

This machine is used to hammer and break concrete. I don't know what it's called, but I'll bet a certain three year old knows.

That's all for today, but be sure to check back for the next installment of "Extreme Exhibit Makeover."

~ Jenny