by Emma Clear


As part of my Animal Behaviour Masters project I looked at active touch theories and how we human’s use our finger tips to define a shape compared to how a pinniped (seal, sea lion etc) uses their facial whiskers. I really enjoyed the critical review element to the project as it meant I could research previous studies and really get to grips with this fascinating new topic. During my research I came across the Marine Science Centre; a hub for research in sensory ecology and cognitive processes of pinnipeds located in Northern Germany, and a part of the University of Rostock’s Institute of Biosciences. Using the links with my supervisor and previous researcher at the centre, Dr. Robyn Grant, I was able to secure a four-week internship in early 2016.

As I’d spent
much of my time in the John Dalton laboratories or tracking precise fingertip movements on my laptop, I was eager to venture out to complete some hands on training and work with these incredible animals. Upon arriving in Hamburg then catching the connecting train to Rostock I was filled with excitement and put in touch with the other English intern, Shanie. I met her the next morning and made the journey with all my bags to the centre, a docked boat next to a busy shipping port, where I would be living and working for the next month. The boat itself was great; big enough for a couple of intern cabins, offices, a kitchen, seminar room, fish kitchen (for seal food prep) and storage room, and surrounded by the animal enclosures and connecting floating platforms to work on. There are eight harbour seals, two sea lions and a fur seal at the centre; all of which have come from zoos around Europe and some of which have been there for many years. On my first day I had a safety briefing and induction with the head of animal training, Dr. Sven Wieskotten, and met Yvonne Krüger, a PhD candidate studying the perception of hydrodynamic stimuli on pinniped whiskers using water vortexes. Her research involves two of the youngest harbour seals at the centre, Filou and Moe, and the two sea lions, Eric and Teun. She uses positive reinforcement training to identify whether the animal recognises differing water movement using just their whiskers.
Each morning would begin the same, with me and Shanie putting on our waterproof overalls and conducting a quick clean of the outdoor platforms then checking the day’s training plan. There are several different experiments going on at the centre, including those of acoustic and visual abilities, navigation, timing and spatial orientation of pinnipeds. They run throughout the day so it’s important to refer to the plan and make sure you’re not going to be in the way of other researchers, and are preparing food and enrichment at the correct time. I assisted by preparing fish and daily vitamins in the appropriate quantities, taking notes and whisker length measurements with Yvonne and helping to set up her experiment in one of the pools.
The best part of the internship though was learning how to use positive reinforcement techniques and conduct my own animal training. Alongside the behavioural tests conducted there are daily medical checks of each animal. The welfare of each individual is of utmost importance and these checks allow us to monitor any possible illnesses or injuries. To make the seal lay down, roll over, produce his flippers, open his mouth and more I used hand movements and German commands. If the seal adhered to the request Yvonne would blow the high pitched whistle to let the animal know it had displayed the correct behaviour, and I would feed them the fish reward. Yvonne taught me medical training, how they would teach a new animal from the beginning, and how they teach brand new skills needed for particular experiments. Whilst I was there we were familiarising a sea lion, Eric, to wear a black eye mask for Yvonne’s experiment. It became obvious just how long it can take to teach new skills. In the month I was there we went from holding the mask in front of him to lying it on his snout; there is still a way to go before getting him to the point of instinctively putting his nose inside the mask when presented with it. On the other hand we had Filou, a harbour seal, who would quite happily push his whiskers through and wait for his next command. He had done the experiments before and was one of the best working seals for this project!
I had some of the best experiences ever at the Marine Science Centre! I had the opportunity to live on a boat with spectacular views of the Baltic Sea and surrounded by pinnipeds, I learnt so much about training and how a research centre really works, and met some great people who I will definitely keep in touch with. I hope to visit the centre again this summer and assist with the busier time of year, when members of the public are allowed in to watch the training and interact with the animals. If anybody is looking for a placement in Europe with training in positive reinforcement, pinniped husbandry and cognitive research then this is the place to be!