Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Who doesn’t love smoothies? I love my fruit and veggie smoothies for breakfast (no kale, please). The lorikeets happily lap up their pureed fruit smoothies. Even the otters enjoy smoothies—seafood flavored, complete with a vitamin boost. With all this smoothie love, Enrichment Intern AnnMarie made a food enrichment smoothie for our bearded dragon, Matches, to see how she’d like it.
The recipe for a bearded dragon smoothie is probably a little different than what you’d expect to see on a juice bar menu. Matches’ smoothie consisted of yellow squash, carrot, zucchini and lettuce—not too bad so far—and five crickets. All of the lizard’s favorite foods blended into one balanced and drinkable meal!
AnnMarie presented Matches with the smoothie in her regular food bowl. However, having never had a blended meal before, the bearded dragon didn’t seem to recognize the watery substance in her bowl as food. She just ignored it. To entice the lizard, AnnMarie added an extra live cricket to the smoothie. Recognizing that as food, Matches clambered over to the bowl and lunged for the cricket. While the cricket escaped her jaws, smoothie splashed onto Matches’ face. She paused, not chasing the cricket. She licked her face. She licked her face again. Matches seemed frozen in thought, slowing licking splashes of smoothie off her face and staring at AnnMarie. lick Why does this taste like food, but not feel like food?lick Is this food? lick Do I like this new, smooth food? lick
Encouraged by Matches’ interest, AnnMarie put the escaped cricket back in the bowl. The bearded dragon leaned over and plucked the cricket right out of the smoothie. Matches thoughtfully made her decision: Only the cricket was bearded dragon-approved food. At least in this case, bearded dragons do not like smoothies.
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Charlie is a very special sea otter. He was the first otter in the world to give a voluntary blood sample. He participated in a landmark study on sea otter auditory abilities. And he and longtime female otter companion Brook were there in 1998 when the Aquarium of the Pacific first opened. On March 1, 2014, Charlie celebrated his seventeenth birthday.
According to the Aquarium of the Pacific’s resident sea otter authority, senior mammalogist Michele Sousa, a male southern sea otter’s life expectancy is roughly ten to twelve years. This makes Charlie way above average when it comes to otter longevity. Charlie’s seventeen otter years would be close to a centenarian in human years, or about 100 years old!
Charlie’s birthdate is recorded as March 1, 1997. Because Charlie was rescued as an orphaned animal, this is an approximate date. I first met him in 1998 during the Grand Opening Summer of the Aquarium. Although he and Brook looked very much alike in those early years, I could always tell him apart as he had a habit of sucking his paw and was also much more vocal than Brook. To this day he still sucks his paw and vocalizes like a pup when he wants attention. The years haven’t taken away Charlie’s youthful vigor—a testament to the wonderful veterinary care he’s had over the years. I really enjoy working with him during my Saturday volunteer shifts.
Assistant Curator Rob Mortensen was Charlie’s first trainer at the Aquarium. In fact, he cared for Charlie and Brook even before they came to Long Beach while they were temporarily housed at another facility. In the early 2000s Rob would also play a part in Charlie’s first claim to fame in the sea otter world. He, along with Michele Sousa, helped successfully train Charlie to voluntarily give a blood sample when asked. To this point in time, it was taken for granted in zoological circles that a temperamental animal like an otter would never sit still while a needle was inserted to draw blood. Charlie proved them wrong. As long as he got his coveted reward of clams, he would sit perfectly still during the blood-draw procedure.
Even in his senior years, Charlie made his contribution to sea otter-kind. When their otter, Odin, was found to be hearing impaired, Charlie was temporarily loaned to the Long Marine Lab at University of California, Santa Cruz, to participate in an important study on sea otter hearing thresholds. For more information about this research project check out the following talk given during the Aquarium of the Pacific lecture series last June. Exploring the Sensory Biology of Sea Otters Through Cooperative Research
Returning to the Aquarium last year, Charlie not only had to reacquaint himself with Brook, Maggie, and Ollie, but also he had to introduce himself to newcomers Betty and Chloe. Always the professional otter, Charlie integrated himself smoothly back into the exhibit as if he never left.
Happy Birthday, Charlie!
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.
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