Saturday, May 24, 2008

PPG Aquarium Visit Part I - Shark Encounter

Kyle and I visited the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium on Saturday to talk with Aquarist Bob Snowden about his amazing success training sharks, a topic which I discussed a couple days ago.

Bob, and the two fellow aquarists we met, Eric and Katy, were very gracious and generous with their time. We spent about 2.5 hours with them. We first showed Bob the R2 Fish School Kit, and gave him a kit to keep. He had already watched the videos on the Fish School website and was amazed at what we've been able to train our fish to do. We showed him all the pieces, paying special attention to the feeding wand, which forms the cornerstone of the training system.

We picked a good day to visit - Bob only feeds (and trains) the sharks three days per week. Before we arrived, he'd prepared several plastic containers of food, including pieces of squid, mackerel, and shrimp. He measured out the appropriate amount for each individual shark and slipped supplemental vitamin pills inside the fish. With lunch in hand, Bob headed for the big ocean tank, with us close on his heels.

The shark training sessions was definitely the highlight of our visit, especially since we got to participate! In this picture, Bob is holding the Bonnethead shark target, a white rectangle with blue stripes on the end of a long pole. You can see one of the Bonnetheads charging at the target. Moments later, Bob rewarded her with a piece of fish. That is the back of Kyle's head in the foreground, looking on in fascination.

Bob is currently training four species in the big tank - two Zebra sharks (Sushi and Nori), Bonnethead sharks, Black Tip sharks, and a large grouper named Eugene. As we had inferred from the video of one of Bob's training sessions, the targets he uses serve the same cuing role as the feeding wand in the R2 Fish School Training Kit - as an indicator that lunch is on the way!

One big difference between his technique and ours is that rather than having the cue and the food delivery mechanism integrated into a single tool like our Feeding Wand, Bob uses one of his stick-mounted targets as the cue, and delivers food either using a pair of long-handled tongs or by simply throwing the chuck of food into the water ahead of the shark after it has touched the target.

The tank is pretty crowded, and Bob told us it takes some practice to know precisely where and when to throw the food so that the right shark gets it. We talked a little about the possibility of a tool to combine the cue and the food delivery, perhaps like a giant feeding wand, to help make the association between the target and the food easier to learn. He expressed interest, but wasn't certain it was necessary for what he has been trying to accomplish.

So what exactly is he trying to accomplish with the target cued training sessions? He told us one of his biggest challenges is to make sure all the sharks and fish in the big ocean tank get enough to eat to remain healthy. Rather than creating a big feeding frenzy by throwing food out for the fastest shark to eat, Bob can make sure each shark in his care gets a fair share of the food by making them take turns hitting the cue target and then getting the food reward. He can also make sure each shark gets one of the food pieces that has a vitamin supplement tucked inside.

The tank was relatively crowded, with many species of sharks and other fish. We were anxious to learn how Bob managed to keep other fish from stealing the food intended for a shark that had just touched the target. Besides his sharp aim with the food reward, Bob employs two primary techniques to prevent (or at least reduce) other sharks and fish interfering with the training.

First, he utilizes a technique used by many aquarists with really big tanks, called species-specific station feeding. The idea is simple - always feed one species, and none of the others, in a certain area of the tank. The sharks of that species learn it is "worth their while" to congregate in that area at feeding time, but none of the other species bother to hang out there. The result is easy, segregated training even in a heavily populated tank. Very cool idea, and one that we think might be adapted for application by people using the R2 Fish School Kit to train fish in a well-populated community tank at home.

Central to making species-specific station feeding work is the ability to deliver food to one and only one species in that area of the tank. Bob accomplishes this using careful aim when he tosses the food, or with long tongs he uses to hold and deliver food to individual fish. In the R2 Fish School Kit, this same reinforcement specificity is accomplished with the Feeding Wand. I may be a bit biased, but observing Bob it was clear that his method required a lot of practice, skill and coordination. The Feeding Wand makes it a lot simpler and easier for anyone, even kids to deliver targeted reward to fish. Of course Bob would need a BIG feeding wand to serve the same purpose for his babies!

To build on the feeding station idea, and further discourage one species from interfering during the training/feeding session of another, Bob uses cues with different shape and color for each species. It is quite clear from watching them that the sharks can distinguish the targets, and only approach the specific target they've learned is theirs.

As the video shows, the target for the Zebra sharks is a yellow circle, about the size of a small Frisbee. A lot bigger than the tip of the feeding wand that serves as the cue used in the R2 Fish School! For the Bonnetheads, the target is a white and blue rectangle. For the Black Tips, the cue is a red triangle, which reminded us of the symbol for danger - which seemed appropriate, since the Black Tips seemed the most excitable and potential dangerous of all the species Bob is training. Finally, the target for Eugene the grouper is a white elbow from a piece of PVC pipe. However Bob told us candidly that Eugene was just learning the target, and actually is really rising from the bottom when he sees Bob waving his hand from a particular spot along the edge of the tank.
After participating ourselves, we wholeheartedly agreed with Bob that the most enjoyable part of a training/feeding session was when he physically interacted with his star pupils, the two female Zebra sharks named Sushi and Nori. The Zebras immediately swam up to platform over the water when Bob stepped onto it, and allowed Bob to touch and manipulate them.

Bob said it wasn't always that way. In fact, when he first arrived at the Pittsburgh Aquarium in late '05, the two Zebras were a mess. Their behavior was so erratic that they'd get lodged in the rockwork of the big ocean tank, requiring divers to enter the water to help extricate them. Finally the curator put them in a big 10,000 gal quarantine tank in the back. By the time Bob arrived, the zoo staff was at the end of their rope, and nearly ready to surplus the two sharks to another aquarium.

Having observed first hand the benefits of training marine animals (sea turtles) at the Moody Gardens aquarium where he worked previously, Bob hoped he could do something to keep these majestic sharks in Pittsburgh. So he embarked on the long process it would take to train them. He said progress was slow at first - it took several months of once-per-day training sessions before they'd regularly touch the target.

Maybe it was their initially very stressed condition, maybe it is has something to do with feeding wand design in the R2 Fish School Kit, or maybe the common home aquarium fish are just smarter than sharks :-), but that is a whole lot longer than the 5-7 days we've found that it typically takes for the fish we train to learn to associate the feeding wand with food.

Bob said he could tell when it finally 'clicked' in their minds, and since then he's been able to accomplish amazing things with these two, including reintroducing them into the 'general population' in the big tank.

But re-socializing them was just the beginning. As you can see from this photo of Bob, Kyle and Sushi (I think), they let him turn them over on their back, so Bob can inspect their underside, and take blood samples twice a year to check on their health - all without stressing the fish. Kyle and I can attest they remained amazingly calm through the process. Bob thinks they are probably just doing it for the food reward that they quickly suck into their mouth when Bob gives it to them. But he couldn't rule out the possibility that they enjoy the interaction. It seemed to Kyle and me that they appreciated having their belly scratched, and we were only too happy to oblige, as Kyle is demonstrating!

Even more impressive than "rolling over," Bob has trained the Zebras to remain calm and still while he lifts their 50-lb bodies out of the water for up to 8 seconds at a time! They were like, er, fish out of water, but they calmly submitted to the experience, which Bob says makes it MUCH easier to weigh them without causing them stress. Here is Bob holding up Nori (I believe) while Kyle touches her skin which felt like sandpaper. It was an amazing experience. I can only imagine the patience it must have taken, and the trusting bond Bob has obviously developed with them, for the sharks to allow him to lift them out of their natural habitat and into the air.

We then participated in an octopus feeding session, and Bob patiently answered a barrage of questions we had about his shark training experiences. But I'll save Q&A for my next post.

Overall it was a wonderful and inspiring visit. Bob's success shows that training can have practical value for the quality of life of both fish, and their caretakers.


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