Athena holds a target to help her feed the pig-nosed turtle (not pictured).

A turtle is no dragon, so right off the bat Athena Csuzdi, a biologist at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, has that going for her. But that doesn’t mean that training a turtle is easy.

Animal husbandry (healthcare) is the main reason for training an animal using a target. By having the pig-nosed turtle “station” in a particular area of the habitat, Athena can make sure she is getting enough to eat, while also doing a visual check of her body at the same time. She says target feeding plays a particularly important role when an Aquarium biologist needs to give medicine to an animal.

The pig-nosed turtle starts to associate a pink Wiffle ball with food.

The pig-nosed turtle starts to associate a pink Wiffle ball with food.

Athena says it took time and patience to go through the steps with the pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) in the newly expanded Tropic Zone gallery:

  1. Place food in the habitat and make sure the pig-nosed turtle is eating that first.
  2. Start feeding in a particular area and introduce the target (a pink Wiffle ball at the end of a stick).
  3. Hold the target closer to the food to reinforce the association that the target signals food.
  4. Show the target and have the turtle “station” (wait in a specific area) before offering the food.
The pig-nosed turtle’s diet includes different types of vegetables and fruit like lettuce, red peppers and bananas. She also eats earthworms and smelt (a small fish).

The pig-nosed turtle’s diet includes different types of vegetables and fruit like lettuce, red peppers and bananas. She also eats earthworms and smelt (a small fish).

Athena says despite the steps, “With her it was pretty straightforward. She caught on fairly quick.”

While visitors are familiar with marine mammal training at the Aquarium, Athena says they might be surprised to learn that aside from the pig-nosed turtle, she has also trained stingrays in order to reduce competition for food.

Watch the video below to see turtle training in action.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeSLghrz8QU[/youtube]

Written by Karen Horak, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium.

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