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Do They Know Us?

June 3, 2024

Do They Know Us?

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Olivia Morgan Williams Olivia Morgan Williams

We hear it all the time. Do animals know who we are?

As wild animal keepers, we walk by exhibits at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium all the time. We can see collection animals stretching their necks up to pick us out from the crowd. Sometimes, we hear California sea lion (Zalophus californianus), Halftime, vocalizing.

Can we prove that animals can tell us all apart? California sea lion, Ariana (above), is learning to do just that.

Ariana is working with us to show that sea lions have the ability to discriminate between individuals. She is learning a behavior referred to as “Trainer Discrimination” where two keepers are involved in the same session and present the same prompt at different times. Depending on who asks, Ariana will provide a different response. We take turns pointing to ourselves and saying “me”. We send Ariana between us, and Ariana will do a trainer-specific behavior – a hop in the water for one and spinning around for the other. It is up to Ariana to present the correct behavior associated with the individual keeper.

The “me” prompt remaining the same serves as a constant variable in this intellectual challenge. In providing this same prompt, she must rely on her ability to tell the keepers apart using her senses and provide the corresponding response to each keeper.

Ariana has been successful at identifying the correct keeper each time. She is providing us with insight into her ability to tell us apart.

The future of this behavior will continue to progress as more keepers have a corresponding behavior to the “me” prompt. We can also use this behavior to see if Ariana remembers past keepers who have worked with her.

Although Ariana is only proving discrimination between two keepers, she has also only been participating in this behavior for a short time. The opportunity for Ariana to show us what she knows is endless. We are thrilled that she is an incredible ambassador for her species and their intelligence.

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