Field Notes- The Tale of the Pilot Study: Where little goes as planned and not all data fits into a spreadsheet.

“Please put your tray tables up and your seats in their upright position to prepare for landing.”  Looking out the window, a mosaic of vivid aqua, bright cerulean, and deep indigo below indicates that we have reached our island destination in the middle of the Pacific. The flight attendant’s announcement instigated a flurry of activity through the cabin; excited passengers dressed in their tropical vacation’s finest, eagerly discussing their Hawaiian getaway plans and days of ocean-based fun. Although I have come to Hawai‘i to work, I feel the same level of excitement. After living in Hawai‘i for five years, it is always a treat to return to a place that I consider home, but even more delightful is that I am returning as a scientist ready to contribute to the conservation of one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world: the Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi).

Field work is much more pleasant when it is in a pretty place.

For my PhD research, I am fortunate to be a part of two wonderful research teams from The Marine Mammal Center collaborating on how to improve animal welfare, foraging development, and reintroduction success in three species of phocid (or ‘true seals’). One team is located at the Center in Sausalito, California where Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) and Eastern Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) are rescued and rehabilitated. The other team is at Ke Kai Ola (meaning ‘the healing sea’ in Hawaiian), a hospital and visitor center in Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i, rescues and rehabilitates Hawaiian monk seals.

“The Burrito” is where the rehabilitation pools are located, but Ke Kai Ola also has a medical room, a fish kitchen, an office space, and an open-air lanai for education and outreach presentations.

Driving through the lava fields of the Hawai‘i Ocean Science & Technology park campus, Ke Kai Ola’s landmark becomes apparent. “The Burrito” sits right on the coast and is a covered, open-air hospital with filtered salt-water pools to rehabilitate seal patients that come to Ke Kai Ola from around the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). The Marine Mammal Center partners with the state and federal authorities to coordinate the rescue and transport of any sick or injured Hawaiian monk seals. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has regular research vessels that transport monk seals from NWHI islands and atolls, and the US Coast Guard aids in the transport of monk seals from MHI.

For my Ke Kai Ola pilot study, I had planned to arrive a few weeks after the NOAA vessel dropped off seal patients to be rehabbed for the summer to begin collecting behavioral data. The vet team and I had coordinated a data collection schedule and I had remotely trained up an eager group of research assistants; all that was left was to prep materials and software that were going to be used in the study. However, often science doesn’t go according to plan, and 2 weeks before I was to begin data collection, we found out there were no seals in NWHI to be rescued and rehabilitated. For a small population of 1400 individuals, this is great news, yet as my collaborators and I troubleshooted next steps, we had to suppress our disappointment of no data with words of encouragement like, “but yay for fat pups and healthy seals”! Now you may be thinking, “No data?! This is going to be a short article” but remember, two of my study’s species are a bit more local.

Seals are one of the few things that would get me out this cozy coastal cabin in the Marin Headlands before sunrise.

Prior to landing on the little rock in the Pacific, I was at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito finishing a two-week pilot study (i.e. a mini study to test feasibility and new research instruments) identifying behavioral patterns of the quirky elephant seal weaners and adorable harbor seal pups. During a previous research project, I had noticed that harbor seals became very responsive to human presence during their rehabilitation and seemed to detect the behavioral patterns of humans especially around structured feeding times. I wanted to see if elephant seals responded to humans in a similar way, and to do so, my observations needed to occur before the crews began prepping the morning feeds for over 150 animals. My days included waking up at 5:15am, bundling up in layers to combat the chilly winds and classic bay area fog even though it was June, and hiking up the hill to the Center from my cozy, coastal room dedicated to visiting researchers and veterinarians. In order to develop my ethogram (i.e. a list or catalogue of behaviors that are being studied in animal behavior research, and this blog’s namesake) I employed some “old school” animal behavior methods: sitting, watching, and recording animals being animals all. day. long. Anyways, back to Hawaii…

With the help of my non-changeable ticket (lesson learned to always read the fine print!), I “decided” to go visit Ke Kai Ola anyways. I would have over a week to build enrichment (i.e. stimuli used to promote behavioral diversity and reduce undesirable behaviors in animals1), establish relationships with my research assistants and the vet staff, and could identify behavioral patterns of the current patient, RH38. A warrior of a seal, RH38 came from Kaua‘i with a series of mysterious life-threatening health issues that led to a trip to the local (human) hospital for a CT scan– the first ever on a Hawaiian monk seal. Many long critical care hours were dedicated to this juvenile female. By the time I saw her in June, her unofficial status was “fat and sassy” and she was just released back into the wild last week-  a miraculous feat that conservation researchers and animal caretakers all dream about, considering her original prognosis.

RH38 looking much healthier than when she first arrived at Ke Kai Ola. You may notice some green on her face and flippers. This is algae that grows on Hawaiian monk seal coats over time. Hawaiian monk seals go through what is called a “catastrophic molt” where they shed their fur and top layer of skin in a short period of time to reveal a smooth silver coat. When released, RH38 donned her recently-molted shimmery coat!
(Photo Credit: Laura Grote © The Marine Mammal Center- NOAA permit #18786)

I quickly became attuned to RH38’s daily behavior repertoire, and similar to the elephant seals and harbor seals at The Marine Mammal Center’s Sausalito hospital, she too was very responsive to the daily husbandry routine. Although expressed slightly differently, all 3 species showed some level of “anticipatory behavior” which is described as a purpose-driven behavior indicating some level of reward-seeking that can increase in frequency and intensity as the reward gets “closer”2. Anticipatory behaviors can usually be seen around structured events that have positive rewards- such as feeding time.

Many of the elephant seal patients express anticipatory behavior. Food carts and groups of crew members prior to feeding times elicit this vigilant response that is often accompanied by vocalizing and the “rocking horse” where they try to rock themselves higher to see over the fence. 

To perhaps make this a bit more relatable (and to show just how immersed in their research topics scientists can become) a good example of how I express anticipatory behavior is when I am picking up my partner -who works internationally- from the airport. Our long-awaited reunion is the reward, and as I park my car at the airport, I check my watch incessantly to see if he has landed yet (even though I know I am early to the airport). At the international arrivals gate, I begin repeatedly checking the flight updates on the TV screen. Once I see that the plane has landed, and even though I know it will take awhile for him to de-board and go through customs, I get up from my seat and begin to scout out the perfect spot to see him coming through the arrival doors. The systematic checking of time, the flight updates, and the doors becomes more frequent and I grow more impatient as time goes on (as seen by me wiggling my legs back and forth, an artifact of my college swim meet days). However, once my partner walks through the arrival doors, these repeated patterned behaviors stop because I have received the reward.

Researchers are beginning to consider anticipatory behavior as a sign of how an animal is feeling about their overall environment. The justification being that if there are plenty of engaging or positive experiences to obtain reward (e.g. my partner coming home from work every day), there is less of a need to anticipate when it will come because there are many rewarding events. On the flip side, if there are only a few reward opportunities to look forward to (e.g. my partner visiting home every few months) then an individual may get really excited about the reward that they know is coming (e.g. me incessantly checking flight updates). I am hoping to dig deeper into how and under what contexts do the seals express these behaviors, and if providing enrichment would reduce the frequency and intensity of these behaviors, while also improving the development of other behaviors, such as foraging.

This “coral reef” enrichment stimulus allows seals to interact with a dynamic 3D space that is similar to a coral reef head they would see in the wild. With many nooks and crannies, we can hide fish inside that they would have to manipulate using different foraging strategies.

Unlike the layers needed in Sausalito, my attire at Ke Kai Ola included surf shorts, slippers (local term for flip-flops), and a repeated slathering of reef-safe SPF 50 sunscreen to protect against those warm, tropical sun rays while out building enrichment with the help of two very handy research assistants. Due to the positive effects of enrichment in captive settings (including rehabilitation3), The Marine Mammal Center is aiming to implement the regular use of enrichment as a part of its rehabilitation protocols. In addition to researching anticipatory behavior, my research aims to demonstrate that enrichment can improve welfare by providing more opportunities to interact with their environment in a meaningful way. Since many of the patients at the Center’s hospitals are young seals, it is imperative to their reintroduction success that they develop behavioral skills that will help them survive4. Thus, many of the enrichment designs for this project revolve around problem-solving and foraging development.

A very satisfying part of this pilot study is seeing an enrichment stimulus design come to life.

Aside from having 3 enrichment stimuli as tangible proof that I have made progress on my project (which often feels rare in the PhD process), the highlight of my pilot study was seeing RH38 interact with the newly constructed “coral reef” enrichment. Unlike other enrichment items that she had learned to solve in 3 minutes or less, this enrichment stimulus kept her occupied for over 30 minutes, and even after she had extracted all the fish rewards we had put inside, she continued to push and manipulate the stimulus around underwater! What’s more, after we removed the “coral reef” she remained active and began interacting with enrichment in a different pool, that I had not seen her seek out previously. While this is just an anecdote and has no statistical significance that quantifiable data could provide, it demonstrates that I am on the right track for my research questions, and even more impactful is that there was an immediate positive effect for RH38. 

Although my goal of gathering some quantifiable pilot data this summer fell short, I was able to: better identify the variations of anticipatory behavior between species, build relationships with my collaborators and research assistants, refine my ethogram based on the hours of behavioral observations I recorded, and I was able to troubleshoot how to collect my quantifiable data in the future. Ultimately, being able to adapt to the unexpected as well as the collection of qualitative data from this summer will help the long-term success of this research, even if it doesn’t currently fit into a spreadsheet.

Photo Credit: Tristin McHugh

Karli Chudeau is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group and a part of the UC Davis Center for Animal Welfare. She is interested in conservation management and assessing animal welfare in wildlife rehabilitation settings. Her current research examines how we can use behavioral management interventions, such as environmental enrichment, to improve reintroduction success with pinnipeds. She is also an avid ocean nerd.

All photos were taken by Karli Chudeau unless otherwise specified.


1 Swaisgood, R. & Shepherdson, D. (2005). Scientific approaches to enrichment and stereotypies in zoo animals: What’s been done and where should we go next? Zoo Biology, 24, 499–518.

2 Watters, J. (2014). Searching for behavioral indicators in zoos: Uncovering anticipatory behavior. Zoo Biology, 33, 251-256, DOI: 10.1002/zoo.21144

3 Chudeau, K.R., Johnson, S.P., & Caine, N.G. (2019). Enrichment reduces stereotypical behaviors and improves foraging development in rehabilitating Eastern Pacific Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina richardii). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, (in press).

4 Reading, P., Miller, B., & Shepherdson, D., (2013). The value of enrichment to reintroduction success. Zoo Biology, 32(3), 332–341.

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