Posts Tagged 'atlantic bottlenose dolphins'

How to Train Your [Insert Subject Here]

national aquarium animal expert update

We have all been there…contemplating how to change a behavior you don’t like in yourself or another subject. It can manifest in many ways – How do I get my dog to stop pulling on his leash? My husband to stop leaving coffee cups around the house (true story for me)? My kids to clean up their rooms? It can also be a positive behavior you want them to keep doing, such as colleagues keeping the workplace clean and organized.

Whether you are trying to decrease an unwanted behavior or increase behavior you want to see more frequently, it can all be achieved (or conditioned) the same way.

Here at the National Aquarium, and in most marine mammal facilities across the country, we use a method of training known as “operant conditioning” or positive reinforcement training.  Simply defined, this means that behavior is likely to increase or decrease in frequency based on the consequences that follow.

Chesapeake

Think about the last time you did something and what followed; if you experienced a positive outcome, you are probably more likely to do that specific something again. However, if the outcome was negative, then most likely it is not something you would want to repeat.

We use the same training technique with our dolphins. When a dolphin does a behavior correctly, we blow a whistle that basically says “good,” and then we follow it up with reinforcement. Reinforcement for the dolphins can be fish, enrichment, toys or tactile rubs.  If the behavior is incorrect, then we simply do nothing. We can choose to ask again or simply move on to something else. By not giving a reaction, we communicate to the animal that the particular behavior requested was not correct, but they still have the opportunity to earn reinforcement so the session does not become negative.

A really important lesson for any animal (or human) to learn is that it is OK to fail! Failure is all part of learning; however, it is what you choose to learn from it that provides the opportunity to grow and then succeed.

Say a child is not cleaning his or her room. The first step is to make sure that the child is capable of accomplishing such a task (i.e., is the task age appropriate?). The child receives a signal that asks them to perform the desired behavior (clean a room). Once the task is complete, they receive their reinforcement. Now I am guessing most kids do not find cold, dead, raw fish very reinforcing, so something they would like, such as piece of candy, a game of catch or sometimes something as simple as a nice big hug and lots of verbal praise, could be used as the reinforcement.

Let’s take that same scenario, only the child doesn’t perform the behavior.  Depending on the child, you can ask them to try again or even provide some help.  If not done correctly, they simply lose the opportunity for that special treat.  However, the next time you ask them to clean their room, they may remember that consequence and hopefully change their behavior. One strategy is to start simply and have them just pick up a few things, then gradually increase the amount they have to clean. In training, these steps are called approximations.

Remember the key: Always set your subject up for success!

Blog-Header-AllisonGinsburg

Dolphin Stranding Update: Tentative Cause of Unusual Mortality Event Determined

Animal Rescue Update

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has determined, though preliminary tissue sampling, that the cetacean morbillivirus is to blame for the unusually high number of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins stranding along the East Coast in recent months.

To date, 97 percent of the dolphins tested (32 of 33) are suspect or confirmed positive for mobillivirus. This is the same virus that caused over 740 marine mammals to strand in a similar event back in 1987-88, the last time a massive die-off of bottlenose dolphins along the Atlantic Coast like this was observed.

What is the morbillivirus? 

Cetacean morbillivirus is a naturally occurring pathogen in marine mammal populations. It is not infectious to humans. At this time, there is no vaccine that can be easily deployed to stop the spread of the virus in wild, migratory dolphin populations; other than the animals natural ability to build antibodies to the virus.

Recently declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) by the federal government, these strandings have now reached numbers over nine times the historical average for the months of July and August for our region.

Although we have established a tenative cause, the UME investigation is still ongoing and stranding teams from New York to Virginia will continue to further evaluate tissue samplings and genetic sequencing. It may be years before we can truly confirm the cause for these strandings.

How is the National Aquarium involved in this event? 

National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue team responded to a live stranded bottlenose dolphin last Tuesday, August 20 at Assateague Island National Seashore. After a health assessment of the animal, veterinary staff recommended humane euthanasia due to the poor health of the animal. A full necropsy (animal autopsy) was performed by Aquarium staff to determine an underlying cause of stranding. Tissue samples have been submitted as part of the UME, and results are pending.

I have also been assisting the UME Incident Management Team with drafting a weekly Incident Action Plan that outlines objectives for response in the affected areas, staff and equipment assignments, formulating safety plans, and addressing gaps in coverage that arise during response. The Incident Command Structure is very effective when coordinating response to events such as this that cover a broad area and involve multiple government and non-government organizations.

Our team will continue to work closely with regional stranding partners and the federal government to help implement this plan and document this event for future research/learning.

As we continue to closely monitor this situation, stay tuned to the blog for updates! 

jenn dittmar animal rescue expert

Update: Bottlenose Dolphin Strandings Continue in Historic Numbers

Animal Rescue Update

More than 200 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins have washed ashore along the East Coast this summer. This alarming number is seven times higher than what’s normally seen in the Mid-Atlantic region – a statistic which caused the National Marine Fisheries Service to declare an “unusual mortality event.” 

Unfortunately, following the declaration of the the event last week, the has been no curb in the number of dolphins stranding on our shores. It is estimated that 25 dolphins were found in Virginia just over the weekend.

“We don’t know exactly what’s causing it, but we suspect it might be a virus called the morbillivirus,” our VP of Biological Programs, Brent Whitaker, told CNN’s Brian Todd yesterday during an interview here in Baltimore. Click below to watch the entire interview: 

CNN interview at national aquarium

The morbillivirus, a culprit very similar to the measles, killed approximately 740 dolphins in a similar event along the East Coast in 1987.

Although the virus has been found in some of the dolphins studied this year, it will take months for the federal investigation to produce a clear answer on what’s behind this event.

As part of the Northeast Stranding Network, our Animal Rescue and Animal Health teams have been deeply engaged in the efforts to study these dolphins and determine a cause of death.

Stay tuned to the blog for more updates! 

Blog-Header-JennDittmar

Take the Bay Quiz for a Chance to Meet Our Dolphins!

This week, we’re excited to partner with Constellation Energy in support of their Bay Quiz initiative!

The Chesapeake Bay is one of our nation’s most prized possessions. National Aquarium has numerous conservation initiatives to help restore the Bay, but not every one can join us for these events. By taking this quiz and participating in the sweepstakes, we hope that people can better understand what conservation measures we can all take to preserve the Bay and protect its inhabitants!

national aquarium dolphins

From now until August 4, those who participate will be entered to win a training and play session with our dolphins!

Through generous contributions to the Chesapeake Conservation Corps (CCC), Constellation has been a great supporter of the Aquarium’s conservation team and initiatives.  The CCC pairs young adults with organizations like ours for a year, giving them hands-on environmental, leadership and technical training! Check out our CCC volunteer, Stephanie Pully, in this great video about conservation issues facing the Bay:

Don’t forget to test your Chesapeake Bay IQ and be entered for a chance to meet our dolphins! 

National Zookeeper Appreciation Week: Kerry Martens

In the celebration of National Zookeeper Appreciation Week, meet Kerry Martens, one of our Marine Mammal Trainers! 

kerry martens

How long have you been at the Aquarium?

I started with the Marine Mammal Department as an intern in 2006. I started full-time as a trainer the day after graduation and have been working with the dolphins ever since.

What interested you to pursue your current career path?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a fascination with dolphins.  I spent many an hour in front of the TV watching re-runs of Flipper and would get so excited to see dolphins swim off the coast during family vacations to the Jersey Shore.  I actually wrote to Sea World in fourth grade asking what it takes to be a dolphin trainer!  I took the response they gave me and used it as a life plan, making sure I did everything possible to get my dream job.

Can you briefly describe for us what your typical day looks like?

A day in the Marine Mammal Department can start as early as 6:30 in the morning. It takes two full hours to sort and weigh out the 200 pounds of frozen fish that make up the dolphins’ diet. The dolphins get fed between 7-10 times a day, roughly every hour and half. There are many different types of sessions we have with the animals. Some are focused on training brand new behaviors, others are dedicated to husbandry, the medical behaviors that help us take care of them, and some consist entirely of playtime. Play is a great way for us to build our relationship with the animals, which is key to all of the training that we do.

When we’re not working directly with the animals, we spend a majority of our time cleaning. This includes buckets, toys, the kitchen, all of our back-up areas, and even our pools. All trainers are SCUBA certified, which allows us to enter the water and scrub and vacuum the pools each and every day.

What is your favorite Aquarium memory?

I was selected to be a presenter and represent the National Aquarium at the 2010 International Marine Animal Trainers Association conference. There, I got to meet trainers from all over the world and learn about the exciting advancements and developments in marine animal care and research taking place.  At the conference, I presented on the work we did with our 41 year old female, Nani,  in which we trained her to voluntarily participate in an eye exam with a veterinarian.  The presentation won a first place award!

What is the next big project you’re working on?

We are constantly training the animals new behaviors, so I consider those my “projects.” I am in the process of training Bayley to lay calmly while the veterinarians take a blood sample from her tail, and am about to start teaching Jade a high-energy breach behavior.  

What is your favorite animal?

Although we spend a lot of time building relationships with all of the animals, a good portion of my day is spent with 4-year-old Bayley. I’m responsible for all of her husbandry behaviors, so it is important that she and I have a strong bond, as these are not necessarily the most high-energy or exciting behaviors. Bayley is extremely energetic and playful so I make sure to get some playtime in with her each day!

Stay tuned to the blog this week to meet more of our amazing staff!


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