7 Dec 2014

A pause from watching apes to train seals

Nelly before moving from Denmark
(Image from:
If you get a chance to visit the St Andrews Aquarium, go say hello to the seals. If you get a chance to visit them during training times, I highly recommend it. This semester, I took an animal training course with Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) because I thought that training would help me to understand captive research, especially if I ever do captive work myself.

Throughout the semester, I went to the aquarium for an hour every Friday morning. The seal that I’ve been training is called “Nelly” and it’s amazing to see how she’s progressed in that short time. There are 5 of us who train her on weekdays and we meet regularly to talk about how the training plan is going.

Training is a way of providing cognitive enrichment for the seals. We don’t train “trick” behaviours – no balancing balls or jumping through hoops. Actually, we do have hoops but they serve a different purpose. We are training the seals to stick their noses through the hoops and to wait until they hear the sound of a beeper. Why is this practical? Well, by changing the pitch of the beeper, we can discern the hearing range for the seals – if they stay still in the hoop then it means that they weren’t able to hear that frequency. Pretty cool. Nelly is very good at waiting patiently in the hoop, but the younger ones have to work on their patience.

My new favourite fleece jacket. If you see anyone at the aquarium wearing
one of these, ask them lots of difficult questions!
Another simple behaviour that we’re training is to open their mouths. It’s an easy way for them to have a quick dental exam. Eventually, Nelly will be able to hold her mouth open long enough for the keepers to have a good look at her teeth from a distance, saving her the stress of a veterinary procedure.

The most complicated research task that we’re training is a “match to sample” scenario. We have a pole with a sample shape on one side and the seal has to touch it, then to match it with the same shape on the other side. At the moment they only have one shape on the test side, but eventually there will be three. It’s going to be a way of looking at cognitive and spatial abilities for the seals.

SOI is offering the training course again next semester, and a new group of trainers will take over the seals. Hopefully collaboration between SOI and the St Andrews Aquarium can continue for a long time to come. And I’ll definitely be visiting Nelly regularly when I get back to St Andrews next year!

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