[MARMAM] Two new papers on reversal learning in seals

Nicola Erdsack erdsack at mote.org
Fri Jul 22 20:09:50 PDT 2022

Dear colleagues,

my co-authors and I are pleased to announce two new publications on 
reversal learning in harbor seals:

*Erdsack N, Dehnhardt G, Hanke FD (2022) Serial visual reversal learning 
in harbor seals (**/Phoca vitulina/**). Animal Cognition 

Progressively improving performance in a serial reversal learning (SRL) 
test has been associated with higher cognitive abilities and has served 
as a measure for cognitive/behavioral flexibility. Although the 
cognitive and sensory abilities of marine mammals have been subject of 
extensive investigation, and numerous vertebrate and invertebrate 
species were tested, SRL studies in aquatic mammals are sparse. 
Particularly in pinnipeds, a high degree of behavioral flexibility seems 
probable as they face a highly variable environment in air and 
underwater. Thus, we tested four harbor seals in a visual 
two-alternative forced-choice discrimination task and its subsequent 
reversals. We found significant individual differences in performance. 
One individual was able to solve 37 reversals showing progressive 
improvement of performance with a minimum of 6 errors in reversal 33. 
Two seals mastered two reversals, while one animal had difficulties in 
learning the discrimination task and failed to complete a single 
reversal. In conclusion, harbor seals can master an SRL experiment; 
however, the performance is inferior to results obtained in other 
vertebrates in comparable tasks. Future experiments will need to assess 
whether factors such as the modality addressed in the experiment have an 
influence on reversal learning performance or whether indeed, during 
evolution, behavioral flexibility has not specifically been favored in 
harbor seals.


*Niesterok B, Martin S, Hildebrand L, Dehnhardt G, Hanke FD (2022) 
Well-developed spatial reversal learning abilities in harbor seals 
(**/Phoca vitulina/**). Animal Cognition. doi:10.1007/s10071-022-01651-3*

In this study, behavioral plasticity in harbor seals was investigated in 
spatial reversal learning tasks of varying complexities. We started with 
a classic spatial reversal learning experiment with no more than one 
reversal per day. The seals quickly learned the task and showed 
progressive improvement over reversals, one seal even reaching one-trial 
performance. In a second approach, one seal could complete multiple 
reversals occurring within a session. Again, a number of reversals were 
finished with only one error occurring at the beginning of a session as 
in experiment 1 which provides evidence that the seal adopted a 
strategy. In a final approach, reversals within a session were marked by 
an external cue. This way, an errorless performance of the experimental 
animal was achieved in up to three consecutive reversals. In conclusion, 
harbor seals master spatial, in contrast to visual, reversal learning 
experiments with ease. The underlying behavioral flexibility can help to 
optimize behaviors in fluctuating or changing environments.


Both studies are open access and published as part of a Special Issue on 
Marine Mammal Cognition.

Best regards,

Nicola Erdsack

Nicola Erdsack, Ph.D.
Postdoc Manatee Research
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy
Sarasota, FL 34236
phone +1-941-388-4441, ext. 248
cell  +1-941-284-0708
erdsack at mote.org
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