#101: Harbor Seal Slam Dunk

The harbor seals had a very special visitor the other day, Harlem Globetrotter Buckets Blakes. Buckets had a fun scrimmage with Amelia and Chacoda. Check out the video!




#100: Reset Your Sights

Hello, my name is Belinda and I would like to share my training experiences with some animals I've had the pleasure of working with. These animals are very interesting because they don't necessarily use their eyes.

Smoke is our 37-year-old Atlantic Harbor seal, which makes her one of the oldest seals in an aquarium. (Here's how we celebrated her birthday last year). She has had cataracts in both eyes for many years and is blind with the exception of seeing an occasional shadow. Some older seals, like other older animals and people, can develop cataracts. When an animal is blind, it is easy to assume that they cannot be trained. However, this is not the case. Smoke can be trained to do virtually anything a sighted seal can. However, there are some differences in HOW she is trained.

Smoke, being a seal, has sensitive whiskers. The technical term is called "vibrissae" because they are sensitive enough to pick up subtle changes in vibrations in her surroundings. This is great news for training. Using a hand target, I can guide Smoke's head and body into different positions. Here is a video of several behaviors all being asked for by very subtle changes in my hand position to her whiskers. Metaphorically speaking, communicating with touch could be compared to using braille vs. sign language.

Lana is another older seal with cataracts. Like Smoke, we utilize her whiskers as much as possible in the training process. Many of the seals have been trained to retrieve a seal toy from the water. Obviously, this can become a difficult task if you can't see. With Lana, I retrained her fetch behavior basing it on her sense of hearing and touch vs. sight. I attached a long, blue strap to Lana's retrieval toy. Initially, Lana hears the toy splash into the water and swims toward that general direction. Once she touches the strip with her whiskers she can follow it all the way to the toy and bring it back.

I have recently begun working with another interesting character. It's an African Lungfish that lives behind the scenes here at the New England Aquarium. The first thing I wanted to teach him was to target. In this case, I wanted to reinforce him for touching a particular bead. However, it became clear to me quickly that this fish does not have good eyesight.

I decided to take a similar route as I did with training Smoke and Lana; refusing to base the training on his sight, and instead using vibrations in the water to guide him. An African lungfish has several sensors on its face and a lateral line system down its body that, like whiskers on a seal, can detect subtle changes. This is a picture of the Lungfish targeting (at left) and a video of him responding to vibrations to be guided into a tube (below).

Last autumn, it was a wonderful experience when residents from the New England Homes for the Deaf came to visit. The residents, who happened to be blind and deaf, met Smoke. The interaction between both Smoke and the residents was completely based on touch. Smoke used her whiskers to touch their hands and the residents were able to feel her whiskers and face. Communication through touch alone seemed to be more than enough for each resident to crack a huge smile.

Working with these animals has taught me how significant touch is for communication. Adapting to different training techniques has helped broaden my experience and look at training situations from several angles. I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with these animals. They have taught me more than I could ever teach them.

- Belinda



#99: "Fishsicle"-- Chacoda's Ice Toy

Enrichment is a big part of what we do every day to make sure the animals are stimulated in their environment. Ice toys or"fishicles" are one of their favorites. Here's a "seal's eye view" of Chuck (Chacoda) playing with an ice toy during a "Play With the Seals" program. Our program participant is standing on the rocks above and is using the other end of the blue car wash strip to drag the toy through the water to entice Chuck though he doesn't look like he needs much enticing!

It looks like he has it all to himself too until Mom (Trumpet) comes over to check it out.

- Paul


#98: Lobster Growth Spurt- Night Vision Video!

This is cartoon from the "Maine Dictionary."
A sheddah is a lobster that recently molted.

A few weeks ago I told you that we were starting to train some juvenile lobsters in the Aquarium's lobster research lab. These lobsters were hatched at the Aquarium and it's been really interesting watching them grow. Lobsters don't grow gradually like we do, they only grow when they molt their shells. Their shells don't grow with their body, so in order to get larger they have to pull their bodies out of the old shell. They have a new shell underneath but it is very soft.

While they are soft they take water into their bodies to expand, and then harden up after that. All crustaceans molt. Have you ever eaten a soft-shelled crab? You're eating a crab that has recently gone through this molting process. Younger lobsters tend to molt more frequently than older ones. I think the coolest things about lobster molting is that they usually eat their old shell after they've shed it. Yum!

The other day Erin and I went up to do a training session with the lobsters and we caught one of my lobsters in the middle of molting. This video shows you the end of the molting process. We took it with "night vision" which is why the lobster is green with creepy glowing eyes. He is just about all the way out of his old shell.

With some encouragement and lamaze breathing techniques from Erin and me, it was quickly all the way out and well on its way to getting bigger. You can see its old shell in the lower right side of the screen. My little crustacean's growing up so fast.