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Our biologists regularly interact with Reef Lagoon's resident rays as part of their enrichment and training program. The secret ingredient to building trust between species? Positive reinforcement...and food!
One of the primary behaviors they continually work on is encouraging the cownose rays to swim to a “station,” or a specific location in the habitat. When a ray approaches the station (in this case, the biologist’s hand) they will immediately be rewarded with a piece of food, positively reinforcing that desired behavior. Once the animals are accustomed to swimming to that spot to receive their food, it becomes much easier for biologists to perform health care tasks in the future, like conducting annual physicals or administering medication.
All animal training at the Academy is performed through this type of positive reinforcement, meaning the animals get rewarded when they complete a desired behavior, but are not punished in any way if they don’t. And, of course, all of our animals still get fed even if they don’t do the desired behavior. You can imagine that learning a new behavior can sometimes take many training sessions—and treats!
Pictured: A cownose ray doing the "hand target" behavior, which allows biologists to lead them to different areas of the habitat.