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Thursday, July 31, 2014


Nicky training Fern the Zebra Shark's voluntary tonic immobility behavior.

Tonic immobility Training

Lately there has been a rash of news and social media posts about people encountering sharks. Many suggest that humankind’s relationship with the shark is mainly adversarial in nature.

A common portrayal of a shark is that of a mindless, violent creature, stalking the shores to be feared by people. And then there’s Nicky and Fern.

Nicky is a senior aquarist at the Aquarium of the Pacific who loves sharks. Fern is a zebra shark who challenges the stereotype of her kind by being intelligent and gentle around humans. Together they’ve teamed up to show just how wonderful the human relationship with sharks can be.

Nicky has taken the same training techniques we use with our pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) and sea otters and has applied them to the sharks she oversees at the aquarium. (To check out a blog on Fern’s early training click here) The scientific title of the behavior she is currently working with Fern on is called Tonic Immobility Training. Tonic immobility is when a shark goes into a state of paralysis after being turned onto its back. Nicky is training Fern to allow her to put her arms around her body and physically turn her over. Think of the trust Fern has to have in Nicky to allow herself to be put into a vulnerable state of paralysis by a human!

It reminds me of the same trust I had to build with Shelby the harbor seal while training her “hug-a-seal” behavior which allows people to put their arms around her. This is why I sometimes whimsically call Fern’s Tonic Immobility Training, “Hug-a-Shark”. Just like with our seals, training tactile behaviors like this allows the staff to perform physical examinations of the body with minimal stress to the animal as part of their normal healthcare. It also allows the staff to more easily move the animals if necessary.

As a special treat, check out the video I made of Fern being trained. It will amaze you and blow the stereotype of sharks out of the water.

In reality our relationship with sharks is what we make of it. Sharks are vitally important for keeping the ocean’s food chain in balance. Below is a statement on sharks generously contributed to my blog by the Education Department of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

“Sharks have inhabited the ocean for more than 400 million years, more than 150 million years before dinosaurs appeared on Earth. Sharks have amazing adaptations and are diverse in their body forms and behaviors.

Sharks have an undeserved reputation; they are not the vicious “man-eaters” that they have been made out to be. Sharks are graceful, intelligent animals that have always played a vital role in making the oceans vibrant and productive. As apex predators, sharks maintain healthy fish populations, robust food webs and high biodiversity in the ocean. Wasteful practices like overfishing are leading to the dramatic decline of sharks worldwide. According to a recent study, nearly a third of all shark species are threatened or near-threatened. About 40 percent of all shark species do not have data to determine whether or not they are at risk.

There is still a great deal to learn about sharks- we know relatively little about their behavior and their biology. Learning more about sharks and how humans negatively affect sharks can help protect shark populations and prevent irreversible damage to the ocean.”

Aquarist Nicky turning Fern the Zebra Shark over.
It takes a lot of trust to train a shark. Nicky has earned it with Fern.

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