Perturbed Pinnipeds: Improving Wildlife Rehabilitation with Animal Behavior Graduate Group Student Karli Rice Chudeau
- Working with the Marine Mammal Center and Adjunct Professor of Animal Science Jason Watters, Animal Behavior Graduate Group student Karli Rice Chudeau studies pinnipeds, a group that includes seals, sea lions and walruses
- In her research, she explores behavioral management strategies that humans can use to better prepare rehabilitating pinnipeds for reintroduction into the wild
- She’s looking at behavioral health not only in harbor seals and northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) but with the endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi)
The ocean has been a central part of Karli Rice Chudeau’s soul for almost all of her life. Though she didn’t learn how to reliably ride a bicycle until age 14, she learned to bodysurf at age two and was snorkeling by age four.
“For me, it feels more natural than being on land,” said Rice Chudeau, a Ph.D. student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. “When I’m underwater, everything is open and calm, yet invigorating at the same time. There’s just something about it that I can’t really put my finger on, but it’s definitely deep within my essence.”
This aquatic kinship Rice Chudeau feels extends to one of the ocean’s most successful mammalian inhabitants: pinnipeds, a group that include seals, sea lions and walruses.
“I feel very connected to pinnipeds in general because they’re very, very graceful in the water but look like big derps on land, and I’m a big derp on land,” said Rice Chudeau.
Along the coast of California, you can find six different species of pinnipeds, but they don’t just stick to the coastline. California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) use estuaries to venture as far inland as Sacramento, frequenting areas along the Sacramento and American rivers while foraging for food.
“I find pinnipeds absolutely fascinating because they’re amphibious,” said Rice Chudeau. “Their body shape is like a torpedo, so it’s very hydrodynamic, down to even the way their tails tucks into their flippers. It’s all super sleek.”
Despite their amphibious nature, pinnipeds can become stranded on beaches for a variety of reasons, including injury, illness and, in the case of pups, premature separation from their mother. Often, human intervention is needed to save stranded pinnipeds.
Working with the Marine Mammal Center and Adjunct Professor of Animal Science Jason Watters, Rice Chudeau explores behavioral management strategies that humans can use to better prepare rehabilitating pinnipeds for reintroduction into the wild.
“While they’re getting better, what are we doing for their behavior?” said Rice Chudeau. “How are they going to act once we release them back into the wild?”
Making rehab a physical and mental success
Before enrolling in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis, Rice Chudeau earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in psychology, from University of Hawaii at Manoa and California State University San Marcos, respectively. Throughout her college career, she remained close to the water, swimming competitively and finding opportunities to work closely with aquatic animals at places like the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif.
After working with seals in a husbandry setting for four years, Rice Chudeau formed her own research questions about pinnipeds. She started exploring these questions when she joined the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz in 2012.
Rice Chudeau’s research revolves around a concept called “enrichment,” which is used to describe husbandry techniques that promote physical and psychological health while encouraging rehabilitating animals to display natural behaviors.
“I always equate it to if you were in a hospital and you didn’t have tv, you didn’t have crossword puzzles, you didn’t have your phone,” said Rice Chudeau. “You’d be getting better physically but what about your mental and behavioral state?”
Like a bed-ridden human unable to expend energy, captive animals can display stereotypical behaviors characteristic of anxiety. In an environment like a rehabilitation pool, there aren’t necessarily a lot of opportunities for rescued pinnipeds to indulge their wild natures. A pinniped in such a setting could start displaying stereotypical behaviors, including flipper-chewing and self-scratching.
“When I get anxious or bored, I start twirling my hair or fiddle with my fingernails, so these repetitive tics are signs of anxious energy that has to go somewhere,” said Rice Chudeau. “Those stereotypical behaviors in animals are a similar reflection of that. They’re bored or they can be stressed.”
This poses a problem, especially for rescued pups who might be stuck in a rehabilitation setting during an important part of their behavioral development.
In a study published last year in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Rice Chudeau and her colleagues tested the efficacy of enrichment techniques on rehabilitating Eastern Pacific harbor seal (Phoca vitulina richardii) pups. Collecting behavioral data on 32 pups, the team found that enrichment activities promoted natural behaviors like foraging and exploration and led to fewer instances of stereotypical behaviors when compared to pups in unenriched environments. The researchers also found that enriched pups were more likely to feed independently sooner than unenriched pups.
“No one that I knew of had ever looked at the effect of enrichment in a wildlife rehabilitation setting,” said Rice Chudeau.
Bridging communication between species
Rice Chudeau’s current research is an extension of this thread. She’s now looking into anticipatory behaviors in wildlife rehabilitation settings.
In the wild, animals rely on cues from the environment to survive. But in a rehabilitation setting, human cues and routines replace these natural, environmental cues. As a result, rehabilitating pinnipeds may link these cues to certain outcomes, like associating the sound of a cart rolling past their pen with feeding. But what if the cart is going to a different pen or going to be cleaned?
“They’re cueing into these different signals that may or may not be accurate,” said Rice Chudeau. “So, is there a way that we can let them know, ‘Hey, this one cue, that means you’re going to get fed.’”
The work is informed by Rice Chudeau’s previous experience in animal husbandry. During her undergrad years, she worked as an aquarist at the Pacific Beach Hotel and created a training program for the aquarium’s Hawaiian stingrays (Dasyatis lata) to help both the divers and the rays during feeding times.
For Rice Chudeau, wildlife rehabilitation isn’t just about promoting the animal’s welfare while in rehabilitation, it’s about promoting its success after its released back into the wild as well. She’s looking at behavioral health not only in harbor seals and northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) but with the endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi), collaborating with a rehabilitation hospital in Kona, Hawaii.
“If I could have any animal adaptation, it would be to have the blood of an elephant seal,” she added, noting that the elevated hemoglobin levels in their blood makes them superb divers. “They can attach so much oxygen to their blood cells that they can dive for up to two hours, come up, take like a single breath and then go and dive again.”
For Rice Chudeau, such access to the depths would be a dream.