Cognitive Foraging Enrichment (but Not Non-Cognitive Enrichment) Improved Several Longer-Term Welfare Indicators in Bottlenose Dolphins

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Isabella LK Clegg, Mariana Domingues, Elin Ström, Linda Berggren
, , , ,

Bottlenose dolphins are the most common cetacean kept globally in zoos and aquaria (hereafter zoos), and are gregarious animals with a mostly opportunistic, generalist feeding strategy in the wild. In zoos, they have limited to no opportunities to express natural foraging behaviours as they receive their daily food ration of dead fish in a series of training sessions. Enrichment provision has increased in recent years, but items are still predominantly simple and floating in nature, and do not always target the animals’ problem-solving or food-acquisition behaviours. These discrepancies run concurrently with the intense debate about dolphin welfare in zoos and how to improve it. The current study used a within-subject design on 11 bottlenose dolphins at Kolmårdens Djurpark and measured how several welfare indicators differed between two treatments of “cognitive” and “non-cognitive” food-based enrichment. The treatments were provided on an alternating basis for eight consecutive weeks: during cognitive enrichment weeks, the animals received items which stimulated their problem-solving and foraging behaviours, and during non-cognitive enrichment weeks, they received simple items paired with fish (to eliminate bias due to food value). Data were taken related to several multidisciplinary welfare parameters during enrichment provision and training sessions, and to activity budget behaviours throughout the week. During the cognitive as opposed to non-cognitive enrichment weeks, the dolphins engaged more with the enrichment, were more motivated to participate in training sessions and performed less anticipatory and stereotypic behaviours, suggesting that cognitive enrichment improved several indicators of bottlenose dolphin welfare. Valuable lines of further investigation would be to understand how individual differences and different types of cognitive enrichment impact potential welfare benefits. Our results suggest that enrichment items promoting cognitive foraging behaviours may improve dolphin welfare, and therefore zoos might prioritise giving cognitive enrichment to this species as well as considering the same for other species with similar cognitive skills and foraging ecologies.


Back to Resources