Posts Tagged 'Dolphin Discovery'

Get to Know Dolphin Discovery

For the 1.3 million people who visit us annually, there’s a lot to see and do at the Aquarium. However, there’s even more going on with our animals and staff behind-the-scenes.

Although our blog often offers sneak peeks into the everyday lives of our 17,000+ animals, we thought it would be fun to give our readers a breakdown from the perspective of our exhibits!

This week’s highlighted exhibit is Dolphin Discovery:

Dolphin Discovery, the Aquarium’s largest exhibit, first opened in 1990 and is home to our colony of eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins!

The Animals:

  • Six females: Nani, Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley and Chesapeake
  • Two males: Beau and Foster

Nani, our eldest dolphin at 42, is the mother to Beau and Spirit. Chesapeake was the first dolphin born at the National Aquarium and she is the mother to our youngest dolphin, Bayley.  Maya is a half sister to Chesapeake (via dam or mother) as well as half sister to Spirit (via sire or father).  Jade is the mother to Foster. All but one of our dolphins were born right here at the Aquarium. Nani came to us from another aquarium that had to close.

This colony structure represents a complex social group for the dolphins and provides them with essential relationships. Bottlenose dolphins live in a matriarchal society due to the level of care that females provide to their young; the males live in separate social groups consisting of a few members that are called bachelor groups or alliances.  Here are at the National Aquarium, we house our animals in what we call a nursery group which consists of all of our females ranging in age from 42 to 5 and our two males have formed a pair bonded group.

Exhibit Staff: In Dolphin Discovery, we have 13 marine mammal trainers, a Director of Marine Mammal Training, Allison Ginsburg, and our Director of Animal Programs, Sue Hunter. Our marine mammals team is responsible for the everyday care of our dolphins including medical care, diet and nutrition, teaching and learning, research, and of course a lot of playtime.

We have staff who work in this exhibit full time and we also have team members who assist with the care of dolphins. Our veterinary team, led by Dr. Leigh Clayton, provides state-of-the-art medical care to each animal on a routine basis. It’s not unusual for guests to come in and see our vet team checking in.

A Typical Day: 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 per day, roughly every hour and half.

Sorting fish for the dolphins

Food is an essential part of their training through positive reinforcement. Our trainers work with the animals to create an enriching environment where they can learn new behaviors through play. Play is also a great way for us to build our relationship with the animals, which is key in all of the training that we do. We even help the dolphins learn certain behaviors to help us take care of them. For example, as part of regular their physicals, our veterinary team needs access to a dolphin’s fluke fin to take blood samples, so our trainers work with the dolphins through a series of play/reward sessions to obtain the desired fluke-raise behavior.

Our staff does some of this training work behind-the-scenes, but most are done during the day while guests are in the exhibit. There are many different types of sessions they participate in: some are focused on training these brand new behaviors, others are dedicated to husbandry and some consist entirely of playtime.

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 the animals’ habitat. All trainers are SCUBA certified, which allows us to enter the water and scrub and vacuum each and every day.

In 2012, we changed over our Dolphin Discovery exhibit to allow our guests more access to the animals and our expert staff. Every day our dolphin exhibit is open for visitors to stop in as many times as they like for as long as they like during operating hours!

Stay tuned for next week’s highlight of Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes!

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

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!

Happy Birthday, Foster!

The National Aquarium is celebrating a birthday today: Foster, one of our youngest Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, born at the Aquarium on September 9, 2007, is 5 years old today!

Guests can recognize Foster by his light coloring and big eyes.

About Foster

Name meaning: Foster was given his name due to his very unique upbringing. Because Jade was a first-time mother, experienced moms Shiloh and Chesapeake helped her raise him. All three females nursed Foster when he was a baby.

Gender: Male
Weight: 270 pounds

Foster and his best friend Beau love to play with bubbles!

Family Tree: Son of Jade (dam) and Sebastian (sire)
How to Recognize: Guests can recognize Foster by his light coloring. He also has big, beautiful eyes and a slight underbite, much like his mom Jade.

Trainer’s Note: Even though he’s one of our youngest dolphins, Foster has a big appetite. He eats about 21 pounds of fish per day!

If you can’t make it to the National Aquarium, Baltimore, today, leave your birthday wishes for Foster in the comments section below!

Happy Birthday, Beau!

Beau, one of the National Aquarium’s male dolphins, is turning 7 years old today!

Beau smiling at this morning’s birthday fish feeding

Beau day one

Beau with mom Nani, on his first day of life

During one of today’s enrichment sessions in Dolphin Discovery, we’ll be creating a big birthday card for Beau, made out of a shower curtain. The trainers also have some special birthday enrichment toys for him and a nice, tasty fishcicle—his favorite!

Beau, at one week old

Guests can stop by the birthday pledge station anytime today to leave their birthday wishes for Beau, and pledge to help his friends in the wild.

Beau’s 1st birthday

If you can’t make it to the National Aquarium, Baltimore, today, leave your birthday wishes for Beau in the comments section below!



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