#107: Marine Mammal Exhibit Update

What's new at the construction site of the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center?

Well, this pile of dirt has made way for ...

A covered visitor path to the exhibit ...

Roof supports along haul out areas for the animals...

Support structures for rocky islands in the exhibit for the animals to enjoy ...

More of the visitor path with a view of the harbor to the left and the exhibit to the right ...

And another beautiful view from the exhibit to the harbor.

It's exciting to see the exhibit coming together and we're looking forward to welcoming the fur seals back!



#106: Biggest Lobster Training at NEAQ

The biggest lobster at the Aquarium.
Note: He is not on exhibit at this time. This blog is the best place to see him.

You've seen a few posts on training we have done with some smaller lobsters (here and here), but did you also know we are training a 24 pound lobster? That's right - this lobster is the size of 3 newborn babies! I initially started off just learning how to feed him, but have since introduced a target and he is doing great.

Lobsters are really cool animals. Did you know that like people, they can develop handedness? All lobsters start out with their two claws the same size, but as they get older, they will start to use one claw more than the other. This claw will develop a lot of muscle, get really big, and become what we know as the "crusher" claw. The muscle of the crusher claw doesn't tire easily, so when the lobster needs to break open a shell (to get the food inside), the lobster can apply a lot of pressure over a long period of time. The other, smaller claw becomes the "pincher" claw. This claw can be moved quickly and is designed to cut through softer things, like fish.

Crusher claw (left) Pincher claw (right)

In the case of our big lobster here, his crusher claw is on his left and the pincher claw is on his right. I found that the best way to feed him was to lightly hold his pincher claw so I can get the food directly to his mouth. I don't have to apply a lot of pressure, but this way he knows where to focus and doesn't accidentally mistake my arm for food.

This video shows some of the training sessions with this big boy. You can see exactly how I feed him, how fast he can move his claw if I don't hold it, and his really great reactions to the target.




#105: What was the name of M.J.'s monkey ... ?

You guessed it (or not), Bubbles! This is the newest behavior in Blondie's repertoire.

During training sessions, the lumpfish would look up at us while they were waiting for food or the next cool behavior. Sometimes, Blondie pushed water from her mouth right below the surface to make a mini bubble machine. It was so cute, I wanted to show everyone. I put this behavior on a signal by positioning my hand above her head so that she is facing upwards. I give the signal, which is "a starburst of fingers..." (that's a hard one to describe!) with my right hand and wait for her to spit out a little bubble. I immediately reinforce. You can see in the video, she catches on fast- one time she even jumps the gun and blows just as my hand gets into position! This is a great example of capturing a behavior; she blows the bubbles on her own, I put a signal to it.



#104: A Fish in the Hand is Worth...

Blondie is back! It's been a while since our last post, so here is a new behavior to get your lumpy fix. I thought it would be cool to train her to sit comfortably in my hand. You can see how I kept my hand steady and let her come to me. After a few nibbles on yummy shrimp, I lightly move my fingers up and touch her belly. You can see at one point I run out of food and as I reach over to get more, she sits on my finger! After a few trials of light tapping and her hovering over my fingers, I start to lift my hand. This behavior took a few weeks to complete, but here is a minute version of what we did. Be sure to check back in with Blondie and me; next behavior...blowing bubbles!



#104: Flipper Licking Good!


As you can see, each seals' tongue is shaped a little bit differently. Here are a few of the seals that we have trained or are in the process of training the tongue behavior.


#103: Lobster Flipping and Targeting

If you have been following our blog, you should be familiar with the training term "target" (if you need a refresher, check out the definition) and how we use it to train the marine mammals here at the Aquarium. Some of you may also remember that we are using a target to train some of the other animals at the Aquarium, including lungfish, lumpfish, frogs, and Myrtle the green sea turtle. Well now there's another animal we can add to the list ... lobsters!

Now I understand if you are wondering why we would want to train a lobster to target; we get that question a lot. As Justin previously explained, we were tasked to see if we could train the lobsters a behavior, then test how well they remember it over time. The results may be able to give us more information on a lobster's brain power.

Over the past few months, I have tried a number of approaches with this lobster, most of which involved trying to capture a behavior he was already doing. Here I am waiting for him to flip over on his back, which several of the lobsters did on their own before we started working with them. At first I wasn't having much success getting a particular behavior to happen with any regularity. However, I was learning a lot about this individual lobster: the best way to approach him, how to feed him, how he seemed to experience things. While I am certainly not a lobster expert by any means, learning all of these different things gave me a better appreciation for what might work best for us. Once I started training a "target" station with him, things moved more smoothly.

You can partially see him flipping over in this video:

One challenge was figuring out the best sized object to use as a target--what may seem small enough to me could be very large to my lobster (he is, after all, only a few inches long). I tried a few objects and had the best success with a small shell glued to a stick (below).

Now check out this video of him targeting the shell:

The first time I put the shell in the water, the lobster's inquisitive nature brought him over to investigate, but he stopped a bit short, a bit unsure of the situation. You'll notice though, as I introduce some food just beside the shell, the lobster comes all the way over and, while he is eating, checks out the shell a bit. His concerns must have been alleviated, because a few minutes later, I put the shell in again and this time he didn't hesitate at all. He came right over and I was able to feed him after he touched it.

Since we started this last week, he has come right over to the shell every time it was placed in the water! We have our first "test" ahead of us ... my lobster recently molted and for a few days after they are more concerned with staying safe and expanding their new soft shell than anything else. This time off will give us an opportunity to see just how much he remembers. Will he still associate the shell target on a stick with food?




#102: Who's Who?

One of the most popular questions the trainers hear is "How do you tell the harbor seals apart?" The answer sounds simple; just by looking at them, but it can take a long time if you don't see the seals every day.

First you need to know who is in the exhibit. We currently have seven Atlantic harbor seals in the plaza exhibit--two males and five females. We can divide them into two easily identifiable groups, the 'spotted' and the 'non-spotted' seals. The spotted seals have distinct dark spots on their necks and bellies. All of the 'spotted' seals are related.

Our spotted seals are Trumpet Cayenne & Chacoda:


The non-spotted family: Amelia and Reggae:


Last but not least, our seventh seal is Lana. She is not related to any of the other seals, but she most resembles the non-spotted family.

Other than the obvious spot patterns, we look for differences in the shape of the head, nose, and eyes. They also differ in their body length and girth, but this can be deceiving. The seals' weight can fluctuate between 10 and 30 pounds depending on the time of year, so weight isn't a reliable way to distinguish individuals.

Now that you've looked at the pictures, will you be able to tell the seals apart on your next trip to the Aquarium? Don't worry if you can't. Start by telling the spotted from the non-spotted first. It took all of us a while to figure out Who's Who too and we see them every day!