Thursday, August 14, 2014
The Otter Days Of Summer
While the rest of us endure the “Dog Days of Summer” our otters spend their days chilling out on their ice patch. However the reason why the otters enjoy the piles of ice that the staff regularly places in their exhibit may surprise you. The sea otters at the Aquarium of the Pacific like rolling around in the ice because it helps dry their fur. It may seem counter intuitive but grooming themselves while on the ice helps keep them warm. The ice actually absorbs the excess salt water off their pelts helping them to maintain its insulating qualities.
Since sea otters have no blubber layer they rely on their thick coat of fur to form a barrier to the cold sea water that they live in. This barrier forms an insulating air layer between their skin and fur in the same way that a down jacket helps keep us warm. If they don’t maintain the waterproof integrity of their coats, water can seep through and cause hypothermia. So sea otters have to constantly groom their fur to guard against this. Ice or snow is not something Southern Sea Otters would see in their natural environment. Our otters however have learned to use the ice patch in the exhibit as a towel to help dry themselves so that they can more thoroughly comb through their fur with their paws and teeth. You’ll even see them undulating their whole bodies on the ice to help get the water out. Of course sometimes they also just like to roll around in the ice because it’s fun.
Check out the images of the otters hanging out on their little ice oasis.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Kevin the Aracari loves enrichment, but usually only when it involves something for him to snack on. So, we made him a food enrichment toy—made to look mildly like a flower—using a green, recycled and sterilized soda bottle with holes cut in it and re-purposed red beads. In the bottom of the bottle we placed meal worms, a tasty treat and great motivator for Kevin.
Since the bottle was clear, Kevin could see the worms straight away and tried to nibble at them through the bottom of the bottle. He quickly realized he there was something between him and his snack, but tried again a several more times just to be sure.
Next, he tried putting his head through a hole, but it wasn’t at the right angle for his long beak to reach down to the worms. He hopped from perch to perch around the bottle eyeing it from every angle. He tried another hole, but that was the wrong angle too. He stared at the bottle and turned his head, thinking hard. He turned his head so far in deep though I thought he might fall off his perch. Frustrated, he flew away.
We took pity on Kevin, since enrichment is supposed to be fun, and moved the bottle so that the right hole was the easiest one for him to reach, right next to his perch. However, we might have made it too easy because he came back over and immediately put his beak in the hole and quickly gobbled down all the worms as though he’d knew what to do the whole time…. almost as though he’d outsmarted us into doing all the work for him.
Thursday, July 31, 2014
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.”
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
For a fun food enrichment for our behind-the-scenes bamboo sharks I used a dog toy in the shape of a hollowed out soccer ball. I stuffed the soccer ball shell with restaurant quality shrimp, squid, clam and sardines (the sharks’ favorites) and dropped it in their exhibit. And they were off! Bumping the ball with their noses, batting it with their tails! As the sharks hit the ball, bits of food popped out offering up a reward. The sharks swam about batting the “soccer ball” around, jostling tasty morsels loose, to make it to the goal of eating all the food!
Thursday, July 24, 2014
On January 18, 2011, I was in the middle of a pod of fin whales and I remember seeing a whale that just seemed off to me. That’s the only way I could describe it. At this time I’d been whale watching for about 3 years and felt I knew fin whale behavior pretty well. This one particular whale would surface differently than the other whales, and at one point it even came up and rolled right at the boat. I was shocked. I’d never seen fin whales do that before. It wasn’t until I got home and was going through my pictures that I realized something very important was missing from that one “weird” whale…the lower right jaw wasn’t white. This is a for sure physical characteristic that would identify this whale as something as other than a fin. I knew it! But if that wasn’t a fin, then what was it?
Initially I sent the pictures off to some researchers and they thought it was just a fin and the white was just hidden in a shadow. Some other local researchers agreed that they didn’t think it was a fin, so that left two other potential whales; a sei whale or a Bryde’s whale. Both were pretty rare sightings. Finally, after two and half years, we have gotten final word. Local whale researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger, the director of the ASC-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, who initially agreed with me that this wasn’t a fin whale, followed up with two researchers from NOAA. Their conclusion? Sei whale! Finally this mystery has been solved. Alisa and I both have talked about this whale over the years, and now we can officially refer to it by its proper name.
As it turns out we recently had a sighting of another mystery whale that we think is a sei whale. However, we’ve also had some sightings of Bryde’s whales the last few weeks, including another sighing just last week! It’s actually very difficult to tell these whales apart, so I thought I’d touch a little on that.
We got a lot of great information about Bryde’s whales from Julien two weeks ago. Here is a brief summary of all of the whales
- Up to 85 feet long and 160,000 lbs
- Larger, falcate (curved) dorsal fin
- Bottom right jaw is white where the bottom left is black
- Up to 60 feet and about 100,000 lbs
- Very erect, falcate dorsal fin
- Single ridge on the rostrum and very curved rostrum
- Up to 55 ft and 90,000 lbs
- They have three distinctive ridges on their rostrum
- Erect, falcate dorsal fin
Just by looking at these brief descriptions you can see it’s not easy to tell them apart! I’ve put some pictures of all of the whales for you to see and compare as well as some animals from our recent sightings including blues, Risso’s and a rare booby bird. With the waters being a little warmer than normal, we’re not sure what this summer will hold. So far it’s been full of surprises and I can’t wait to see what else will come. If you’d like to try your hand at telling these whales, apart, head down to the Aquarium and come on one of our whale watches. Who knows, maybe you’ll take a picture and find us another mystery whale!
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