Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Location Serves as a Conditional Cue When Harp Seals (Pagophilus Groenlandicus) Solve Object Discrimination Reversal Problems

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Location Serves as a Conditional Cue When Harp Seals (Pagophilus Groenlandicus) Solve Object Discrimination Reversal Problems

Article excerpt

Abstract

We examined the capacity of harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to use spatial context (i.e., their tank) as a conditional cue to solve a two-choice visual discrimination reversal task. Seals were trained to touch one of two 3D objects. Two of four seals experienced a context shift that coincided with each of five reversals in the reward value of the two stimuli (i.e., a reversal of S+ and S-); these seals solved the six discriminations in significantly fewer trials than did seals that did not experience a context shift with the contingency reversal. Thus, harp seals use contextual cues when encoding information. The findings are discussed in terms of harp seals' adaptations to the pack-ice environment, the constraints of the learning tasks, and the nature of the subjects that were raised in captivity.

Résumé Nous avons examiné la capacité des phoques du Groenland (Pagophilus groenlandicus) d'utiliser le contexte spatial (c.-à-d., leur réservoir) comme un indice conditionnel permettant de résoudre une tâche d'inversion de discrimination visuelle à deux choix. Les phoques ont été entraînés à toucher un de deux objets en trois dimensions. Deux des quatre phoques ont été exposés à un changement de contexte qui coïncidait à chacun des cinq interversions de la valeur de la récompense des deux stimuli (par ex., une interversion de S+ et S-); ces phoques ont résolu les 6 discriminations dans un nombre d'essais significativement moins élevé que les phoques qui n'ont pas connu de changement de contexte dans l'inversement imprévu. Ainsi, les phoques du Groenland se servent des indices contextuels lorsqu'ils codent l'information. Les conclusions font l'objet de discussions entourant l'adaptation des phoques du Groenland au milieu de la banquise, les contraintes des tâches d'apprentissage et la nature des sujets qui ont été élevés en captivité.

Harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus) are one of the most abundant marine mammals in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, yet almost nothing is known about their abilities to learn or navigate within their environment. While evidence is limited, field observations of harp seal behaviour have produced some speculation that harp seals may have good spatial abilities. For example, female harp seals are able to locate individual pups after an extended separation (e.g., a dive), and from relatively long distances, even when the pups are not visible from the female's point of origin and are providing no auditory cues to their location (Kovacs, 1986, 1987, 1995). Also, Lydersen and Kovacs (1993) reported that harp seals typically do not exceed their aerobic dive limit, which they calculated for a sample of lactating females as approximately 10.4 min. In the absence of visual cues, a seal must possess path integration abilities, that is, be able to keep track of its distance and orientation in order to return to its breathing hole before running out of air. This ability has been well studied in many other mammals (see Etienne & Jeffrey, 2004).

There has been very little research designed specifically to test the learning abilities of harp seals. Some of the few behavioural studies on harp seals involved a series of experiments on harp seal spectral sensitivity and dark-adaptation (Lavigne, 1973; Lavigne & Ronald, 1972), and hearing thresholds in air (Terhune & Ronald, 1971) and underwater (Terhune & Ronald, 1972). The seals were trained to touch one of two paddles to indicate whether or not they detected a stimulus (e.g., a light on a screen, or a tone). In one experiment, a harp seal took approximately three months to learn this task to a criterion of 90% correct responses (Lavigne & Ronald, 1972). Because these studies focused on the perceptual abilities of the harp seals, and not learning per se, the authors typically did not report the number of trials it took the seals to acquire the learned behavioural response prior to threshold testing. …

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