How do seals and science intersect at the Alaska SeaLife Center?
Through scientific research training!
As a mammalogist at ASLC, my responsibilities through our training program are to first train our resident marine mammals for husbandry and veterinary care to ensure their well-being, and second, to train the animals to cooperate in behaviors and activities that support science.
Presently, we have several very special seals in our care. These include sub-Arctic spotted seals (Phoca largha), and Arctic ringed seals (Pusa hispida) – species that are rarely studied in captivity. These seals are threatened by a rapidly warming environment and associated changes in sea ice and prey availability. We also have these amazing research scientists trying to conserve our environment and the animals that live in it, coming up with questions and wanting to know more about these animals. As a mammalogist, we are the bridge between the researcher and the animal. We are the provider of data!
To the left, a spotted ices seal in a ‘chin station’. A chin station is a fixed point the animal knows to put its snout on and hold it there until the trainer lets the animal know the behavior is complete. This is a base for the training for data collection. Once the animal knows how to do the chin station, we can then use it to not only manage the animal, but to collect data such as ultra sounds, body measurements, whisker mapping, and hind flipper tag assembly. To the right, Margaret Black introduces the chin station to our newest member, Dutch the ring seal.
What does research training entail?
One of our amazing current projects is focusing on how Arctic seals may be affected by sea ice loss, specifically, what the energetic consequences of sea ice loss will be for these seals. Now we have a researcher, an important question, and of course, we have resident seals to help us make the necessary measurements. It is now up to the mammalogists to teach these animals to cooperatively participate in the data collection for this research.
This project is called PHOCAS, or physiology and health of cooperating Arctic seals. Cooperating is the key word! The seals are our research partners! As trainers, we use positive reinforcement to communicate with the animals, resulting in reliable and cooperative behavior for health sampling and to monitor physiology — training also keeps the seals physically and mentally fit.
Having animals as active research partners requires individuals to voluntarily participate in the project in a way that makes it sustainable for years. Due to the longitudinal nature of the data we are seeking, reliable behavior is essential. Every day the seals are positively conditioned to look forward to a routine. This routine consists of regular and predictable training sessions to collect data with minimal handling. After establishing a regular routine, the animals learn what is expected of them. They are then rewarded when they accomplish the goals of the session. They are provided an opportunity to choose to participate and cooperate as a partner and they learn from the positive consequences of their actions. My job as a research trainer is to prepare these seals to be enthusiastic and reliable participants every single day. This rehearsal results in the most unbiased data possible. This strong cooperative framework produces valuable data that can be used to go towards conservation and management efforts for these animals.
VIDEO: Trainer Shelby Burman rehearsing our daily metabolic training routine. This shows our seals cooperatively participating in the behavior so that we can learn the animals energetic costs in a resting state. This behavior is done first thing in the morning before any food is given. The seal knows this ‘routine’ is the start to everyday and actively participates in it. This rehearsal has been carried out for over a year and the animals will rest in the dome for over 10 minutes before being fed!! AMAZING!
Training animals for these types of behaviors is challenging and requires patience. The process of building a strong training foundation is slow for projects aiming to last multiple years. The choices made in the training process are pivotal. In order to set the animals up for success, as a trainer it requires an understanding the animals interpretation of what we are communicating to them. When we see the animals learn and become confident in each task it is rewarding because ultimately the research enables us to better understand these animals’ wild counterparts.
Here are some pictures of the other types of data we are helping collect through training:
Above images: Trainer Halley Werner working with PHOCAS project researcher manager Brandon Russell taking ultrasound measurements on our research partner or participant, Kunik who is a spotted ice seal. Data collection for ultrasounds is conducted weekly and is not only a good indicator of body condition in our animals, but also tells more about this important energy store. This training requires the animal to hold calmly in his station while the researcher takes a series of data points along different areas of his body.
Above: Lead trainer on the project Jamie Mullins works closely with Brandon on collecting weekly morphometric and molt photos. These photos document the animal’s physical change and growth. This entails animals to hold in different orientations for durations of time and to be comfortable allowing different objects to move around and be placed close to the animal. Taction, or touching, is also important for the animal to be accustomed to allow for manipulation if necessary for data collection . We need to ensure that the animal is comfortable not only around the trainer, but the researchers who are collecting the data as well.
Left: Shelby applying a hind flipper tag on a spotted seal, Amak. The two pictures on the right are ringed seal Pimniq’s hind flippers and tag. This device detects temperature every 5 minutes, which allows us to know how much time the seals spend in the water and on land. This is really important for studying the molt cycle and understanding how much time theses seals typically spend out of the water. This training takes a great deal of trust and time. The seal learns to hold still and allow for gentle manipulation and application of the tag.
Whiskers can tell us a lot about a seal’s diet. Whiskers can fall off during the annual molt cycle. As the whisker grows back, it records information about their food consumption. With this study, we are learning how and when whiskers molt, how fast do they grow, and how often they shed.
Above: we are measuring the growth of a particular set of whiskers by placing a small pipe with a ruler over the whisker to measure its growth.
Above: Researcher Brandon takes weekly photos to be able to map the changes of the whisker growth and patterns on Pimniq.
As with all training, monitoring whisker growth takes trust and time. The seal must sit still and allow manipulation on a highly sensitive part of their body and to allow different objects close to them that move around. Remember, we are training for long-term data collection. Breakdown of the behavior is not ideal for consistent data collection. The training process is slow and consistent to allow the best environment for the animal to cooperatively participate.
Strong communication is pivotal! Communication is not only important among researchers so that we understand the needs of the project, but also important with our animals so that they are prepared for what to expect when collecting data. Working closely with our ‘research partners’ is not only very rewarding, but allows us to collect the most accurate data as possible.
TEAM WORK makes the Dream work!!
All mammalogists work closely with our researchers here, at other institutions/facilities, and with our star research partners, the seals! For successful data collection, everyone has to show up. It takes the whole team to make the data collection happen.
I like to train for a purpose and the Alaska SeaLife Center has given me this platform to intersect animal care and science. I train for science and conservation to protect what I love and what I am passionate about. Being a research trainer has given me new growth and skills, new challenges, and a personal fulfillment where I truly feel like I am living my life’s dream!
Written by: Juliana Kim, Mammalogist
All animal research activities are conducted under authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service (marine mammal permit 18902) and with the oversight of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of the Alaska SeaLife Center.
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