Zoos and aquariums have been incorporating environmental enrichment into their animal care programs for the past 30 years to increase mental stimulation and promote natural behaviors. However, most attempts to document the effects of enrichment on animal behavior have focused on terrestrial mammals. Staff at the National Aquarium in Baltimore conducted an investigation of the behavioral effects of enrichment on the seven harbor seals and two gray seals housed in the aquarium's outdoor seal exhibit. We expected that enrichment would change the amount of time the animals spent engaged in specific behaviors. The behaviors recorded were: resting in water, resting hauled out, maintenance, breeding display, breeding behavior, aggression, pattern swimming, random swimming, exploration, and out of sight. Activity levels (random swimming and exploration) were expected to increase, while stereotypic behaviors (pattern swimming) were expected to decrease. The frequency and duration of behaviors were documented for 90 hr in both the control phase (without enrichment) and the experimental phase (with enrichment). Statistically significant differences (P<0.05) in the time spent in pattern swimming, random swimming, exploration, and out of sight were observed between the two phases. With enrichment, pattern swimming and out of sight decreased, while random swimming and exploration behavior increased. These findings demonstrate that enrichment can promote behaviors (random swimming and exploration) that are likely to be normal for phocids in the wild, and that may contribute to the behavioral complexity of these seals in captivity.
Additional publication details
Behavioral effects of environmental enrichment on harbor seals (Phoca vitulina concolor) and gray seals (Hafichoerus grypus)