Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Simple enrichment can be just as enjoyable for the animals as many of the more involved enrichment devices and toys we work on. Browse—twigs, leaves, and branches—is a particular favorite of the lorikeets. For the health of the birds, the browse that we give them comes from an approved list of safe plants and has to be free of pesticides and other chemicals that can make the birds sick. After the browse has been approved by an aviculturist (bird biologist here at the Aquarium), it can be given to the lorikeets.
Why is this different from the plants the animals have in their exhibits all the time? The lorikeets love to nibble on plants and shred twigs and leaves. New browse is fresh, and when it’s a plant that’s not a normal part of their home, it has new textures, smells, and flavors to enjoy. When the lorikeets get fresh browse, it’s a lot of fun to watch them engage in all sorts of natural behaviors. Some of the birds look very curious, both about the new plants and about whether or not there may be something in the plants. The birds will strip the twigs of bark, clean their beaks on the browse, roll in the leaves, shred the browse with their beaks, or just drag it around. Sometimes it really is the simple things in life.
Saturday, March 01, 2014
While we spend a lot of time on the water in SoCal, we also like to travel to other places to see and learn about whales. Kera Mathes, our boat programs coordinator, and I recently took a long vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii, where I used to live. We spent ten days in Hilo and Kona looking for whales! We had many incredible experiences, and captured some great moments with the migrating humpback whales and even spent time with spinner dolphins, manta ray,s and Hawaiian green sea turtles. We also had the pleasure of meeting other boat captains and naturalists on the Kona side and visiting my alma mater to talk to the students about cetacean internship opportunities, especially our photo ID internship program. On the boats, we were able to listen to the humpbacks vocalizing and singing, saw several cow/calf pairs, saw males running to compete with each other, and heard tons of trumpeting out of the water. I included some amazing photos that Kera shot while on a multitude of boats in search of cetaceans!
Meanwhile, the whales here in Long Beach have been sighted daily! It’s been gray whale city out there, seeing either southbounders or northbounders. Now that we are approaching March, we will start to see many northbounders who have completed their business in Baja, or are in tow with their business; a new calf! We have even seen quite a few calves, and are still seeing many breaches! We have also been seeing tons of Pacific white sided dolphins interacting with gray whales. The whales will stop and roll around in the water with the dolphins, and I wish we knew what was going on in their brains to know what these interactions mean. Several whales traveling together have also delighted guests with some great shots of multiple whales surfacing and fluking together. We have also had a few humpback whale sightings as well! I guess you don’t always have to go to Hawaii to see them, since we have a small stock of them that feed off of our coast. One of the humpback whales we saw was very curious about the boat and came rather close and also surprised the guests with tail slapping and breaches.
Blue whales have already been reported in the area as well, maybe scouting the area for krill before the rest appear come summer. Fin whales have also been out and about and been sighted very frequently along with Pacific white sided, common, and bottlenose dolphins. We are still getting fantastic winter weather here in Long Beach and why not spend the nice sunny days out on the water with these amazing creatures? Follow this link to research your tickets. We are now offering early morning whale watches on the weekends at 9:00 a.m.!
Thursday, February 27, 2014
What does it mean when we say that we use positive reinforcement to train our animals?
Positive Reinforcement is more than just throwing a fish to a sea lion after it has performs a behavior. It requires getting to know the animal and what is reinforcing to it. Positive Reinforcement is not a bribe. It is a consequence for executing a behavior properly.
Points to ponder about positive reinforcement:
In the case of a sea lion, it has to like the fish being tossed to it. Offer the chance of being given a yummy capelin to Parker the sea lion, and he’ll do high pillar for his trainer. Offer him a sardine, and he may swim off and find something else to do. You have to know what the animal likes.
Sometimes food might not be the only motivator to an animal. Harpo the sea lion may find a quick pat on the chest after a behavior reinforcing, while his buddy Milo the sea lion may not. Milo may instead enjoy being asked to perform a series of high-energy behaviors after a low-energy husbandry behavior. To him the fun behaviors are reinforcing in themselves and are the rewards for doing the “boring” husbandry behaviors.
The reinforcement, whatever it is, also has to be given in a manner that the animal knows it is getting it because of its behavior. When the animal is close, you can give it the reinforcement immediately after the behavior. When training a shark to enter a stretcher held by aquarists, it is easy to give the reward exactly when the behavior meets the acceptable training criteria. But what if the animal is on the other side of the exhibit when it performs the desired behavior? In this case the animal is taught that a cue given by the trainer tells it that it has performed the behavior correctly and will receive a reward. The cue can be many things like a whistle, a verbal feedback, or even a visual cue like a hand gesture. To first train the cue, it has to be given right when a reward is accepted by the animal. Like Pavlov’s dog, it begins to associate the cue with the reward. After a while whenever the cue is given the animal knows that something positive is coming. This cue bridges the gap between the behavior and the reward and lets the animal know at what moment in time it earned the reward. This is called the bridge in animal training.
These points can be used to train just about any animal. I once trained a rabbit to walk on a leash. The rabbit could care less about a food reward, as it always had a yard full of grass to munch on. However, it did enjoy having its head rubbed. I used the head rub as a reward for behaving properly on a leash. My bridge was a verbal “Good!”
Think of what your pets like. You can use their favorite treat, toy, or activity as a positive reinforcement for training them. Have some fun training your pets like we train our critters.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Although intelligent, seals and sea lions can’t recognize themselves in a mirror. As a sensory enrichment, Enrichment Intern AnnMarie decided to see what the seals and sea lions would do when presented with their own reflection. Would they be confused? Intrigued? Territorial or playful? Would they see the reflection as another animal? AnnMarie placed a full-length mirror in several different areas that the seals and sea lions frequent in their exhibit. As the animals swam by she carefully observed and recorded how they reacted to the new addition to their exhibit.
The sea lions—Parker, Milo, and Harpo—played it cool and calm. As they swam by, they’d give the mirror a quick over-the-shoulder glance. Occasionally they’d slow as they looked into the mirror before taking off to resume their whirlwind courses around the exhibit. They all seemed to acknowledge that their reflection was indeed something, but something worth only a furtive glance if it didn’t come into the real world to play.
If the sea lions were calm, the seals were just too cool for school. The older seals, Shelby, Ellie and Troy, hardly seemed to notice anything had changed around them at all. Ellie and Troy didn’t even peek at the mirror as they swam peacefully past. Time and time again they just glided by unfazed and unnoticing. Shelby stopped once to give the mirror a fleeting look, but generally adopted the indifferent attitude of her fellow seals.
But the little seals, Bixby and Toby, where enthralled. Toby came up to his reflection and bobbed his head up and down. He did not like this new baby seal coming into his territory! Bixby even bumped her little brother out of the way to see what was going on in Mirror World that warranted so much attention. Whatever it was, she deemed it not a threat and it didn’t hold her attention for too long. After she left, Toby went right back to bobbing enthusiastically, protecting his seal family from the imaginary invader.
The mirror was taken away to ensure Toby didn’t get frustrated or upset that the “other” little seal wouldn’t leave his home. It’s incredibly important that enrichment occurs in a supervised environment so that it stays a positive and enhancing experience for the animals. As AnnMarie whisked the mirror away, Toby must have felt so proud having warded off the reflection of a seal pup.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
How to use positive reinforcement training to stop an undesirable behavior.
Positive reinforcement training is a wonderful way of getting animals to do desired behaviors. But what if you want to stop an undesirable behavior?
Can positive reinforcement and operant conditioning be used to stop an undesirable behavior? It can, as long as the trainer has a good answer to the following question: What would you like to have the animal do instead of the undesirable behavior?
Let’s say that you’d like to stop a dog from constantly barking at everything. Instead of trying to teach the dog not to bark, an easier solution would be to train the dog using positive reinforcement to bark when asked. Why teach an already barking dog to bark on cue? Well the dog will soon associate the command to bark with a reward. It will notice that when it barks without the command it doesn’t get a reward. It soon learns to only bark when given the signal to bark. You can then gradually ask for the bark less and less until it is extinguished as a behavior. We answered the question of what we want the animal to do instead by saying that we only want the dog to bark when asked. Then we don’t ask for it again. Easy!
We used this type of training on one of our otters that had a habit of continuously rolling around in the water during a training session. This actually hindered the training process because the otter’s full attention would not be on the trainer during a roll. So the otter was trained to roll only on cue, and then eventually not asked to roll again during a session. The undesired behavior was soon extinguished during subsequent training sessions.
There are other ways to stop an undesired behavior. You could figure out what stimulus triggers the behavior. You can then ask for a behavior during that stimulus that is incompatible with the undesired behavior, but more rewarding. You also want to make the right behaviors easier to do. Let’s say that you want to stop a dog from rushing to the door whenever someone arrives. The stimulus of the people arriving triggers the undesired behavior. You can train the dog to go to a station, say a pad on the living room floor, when asked—an easy behavior for the dog to do. You then ask the animal to go to that pad whenever someone arrives at the door. Going to the pad in the living room is incompatible with the behavior of rushing the door, but more rewarding. The dog soon associates that when someone arrives at the house it should go to that pad instead of the door. Problem solved.
There is a lot more to positive reinforcement training than just the idea of rewarding a desired behavior. Perhaps in future blogs we’ll go deeper into some of the finer details of training.
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All blogs and comments represent the views of the individual authors and not necessarily those of the Aquarium.