Effects of Failure on California Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) Gameplay Strategies and Interest in a Cognitive Task: Implications for Cognitive Enrichment in Pinnipeds

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Danielle L Roberts, Holli C Eskelinen, Kelley A Winship, Amber M Ramos, Mark J Xitco
Journal of Zoological and Botanical Gardens
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Cognitive enrichment for professionally managed species has become more prevalent in recent years in both zoological and research settings and has been encouraged as a means of welfare enhancement. However, the task’s difficulty must be specifically tailored as it can impact the successful nature of the sessions, as tasks that are too simple or difficult may not be perceived as enriching by the animals. While pinnipeds are common in zoos, aquariums, and research facilities, few studies have explored the use of cognitively challenging enrichment in this species, and the level of difficulty and presence of failure on animal success and engagement in this type of session has not been assessed. In this study, gameplay strategies during computerized enrichment sessions were evaluated before and after a game that introduced failure, or the loss of opportunity to complete a level for a reward after an incorrect movement. Interest in participation during the session, measured as the latency without contact, was also tested as a proxy for this enrichment’s effect on welfare. When incorrect movements resulted in a short pause and removed the opportunity to finish individual levels for a reward, all three sea lions tested significantly reduced the amount of time spent on each of several strategies they employed, but significantly increased the number of button presses per strategy, suggesting the animals focused on more precise movements as their proficiency improved. Two sea lions also showed a significant decline in latency without contact following the introduction of failure in the form of a single opportunity to complete a task for a reward after previously having unlimited opportunities, while one maintained a low latency without contact across both test conditions. The results suggest that more cognitively challenging tasks incorporating failure did not cause a reduction in gameplay performance and session interest in sea lions. Individual variation was also noted in strategy use, emphasizing the importance of evaluating the individual in terms of enrichment provision.


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