Stingray target training hits the mark
The memory and intelligence of stingrays is being put to the test as part of unique research into the animals’ learning behaviour — and so far, they’ve passed with flying colours.
In a collaborative study led by James Cook University (JCU), three blue-spotted lagoon rays at Reef HQ Aquarium were given food as a reward when they hit different shaped targets.
JCU researcher Sara-Louise McCracken said while target training with sharks had been documented, the study at the aquarium is believed to be the first of its kind involving stingrays, which are close relatives of sharks.
“The targets, which are lowered into the animals’ feeding area on poles, are designed to enrich their environment by providing them with extra stimulus,” she said.
“The idea was to get the stingrays to recognise the targets as a way of getting food. For them to receive whitebait, prawns or clams, they need to go to their own individual target, which has a different shape on it than the others.”
“For the past couple of months, we’ve been doing this twice a day with the three stingrays: a mum, dad, and baby. The dad and baby, in particular, have been quick learners and will come straight to their target as soon as it goes in, no matter where you place it in the tank.”
“The benefit to the animals is that it provides them with a stimulus and variation to their daily routines.”
“Stingrays are actually very intelligent animals — this study puts their cognitive abilities to the test and shows they’re capable of picking up things very quickly.”
Target training is often used in enrichment programs in zoos to provide stimulating environments and enhance animals’ well-being.
“Most enrichment studies have targeted mammals, so it’s great to show the learning capabilities of elasmobranchs (which includes sharks, rays and skates) are on par with mammals,” Sara-Louise said.
Reef HQ aquarist, Laura Coulton said the learned behaviour associated with targets would also prove useful for health check-ups.
“This would be ideal for animal husbandry purposes, for example if we need to give the stingray a physical exam we could use the targets to encourage the stingrays to come to us directly,” she said.
“This puts less stress on them and is less invasive than having to catch them with a net.”
The next stage of the study will introduce the use of ramped feeding stations to further test the learning abilities of the stingrays.
Target training at Reef HQ Aquarium is also being used with leopard sharks.
Richard Davis, Head of Media, James Cook University
4781 4822 / 0413 451 475 firstname.lastname@example.org
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority media 4750 0846