Four Reasons Behavior Analysts Can and Should Seek Opportunities at their Local Aquarium or Zoo

behavior analysis student weighs loggerhead turtle

Amanda Mahoney, PhD, BCBA

Savannah State University

[email protected]

Some colleagues have urged our field to expand the scope of our professional practice and research (e.g. Normand & Kohn, 2013; Poling, 2010). I think this is a worthwhile pursuit and so in 2014 I started an aquatic animal learning undergraduate research group in collaboration with the University of Georgia aquarium on Skidaway Island near Savannah, GA. The UGA Aquarium is a branch of the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, which is a unit in the Public Service and Outreach Division. The aquarium is relatively small but the learning opportunities are numerous and the students love it. Savannah State University does not have an animal laboratory (yet) and so this is one of the few opportunities our students get to apply behavior analytic principles to animal behavior in a controlled environment. Although I do imagine there are economic opportunities here my own interests lie in teaching and research, so the purpose of this writing is to pitch a few reasons behavior analysts may find zoos and aquariums an ideal place to conduct research or hold a learning laboratory.

Because It Is Important

In 2014 Terry Maple published an article in The Behavior Analyst urging behavior analysts to extend the scope of their practice to zoos and aquariums (Maple & Segura, 2014). He suggested that applied research might focus on animal welfare and learning opportunities for visitors while basic research might focus on behavioral differences among the thousands of species that are housed in zoos and aquariums. Research indicates that zoo animals withheld from an enriched environment may be more likely to develop diseases, engage in stereotyped patterns of behavior, or fail to learn behaviors that are important for survival in the wild. The work of people like Terry Maple and Hal Markowitz, however, has shown that the same behaviors critical for survival in the wild may be evoked through carefully planned exhibits and feeding routines. Their research has demonstrated how positive reinforcement can replace aversive practices for medical care and generate more fun and meaningful interactions with visitors. The difference is in the lion that is given its food in a dish in the same area of the enclosure each day and the lion that must jump and problem solve to “hunt” the food suspended on bungee cords from the trees. Like all behavior analytic interventions, this is not a “one shoe fits all” approach but is individualized to the needs of the animals. There are also ample opportunities for basic and translational research in these settings. The work conducted by my lab, for example, has indicated some behavioral sensitivity toward yellow enrichment devices with two Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). By sensitivity I mean that during preference tests when given a choice between a yellow ball and an orange, blue, or green ball, the turtles swam toward and bit the yellow ball on every trial it was presented. Furthermore, under free operant conditions with food delivery for biting, the turtles bit the yellow ball much more often than the other colors. This has implications for effective environmental enrichment activities for these two turtles but if properly studied might also tell us more about the turtles’ species-typical behaviors so that rehabilitated Loggerheads might be better prepared for their release.

Because It Is Possible

Some behavior analysts may be reluctant to reach out to local zoos and aquariums if they have had no prior experience in this area. I also had no experience working in aquariums but had a bit of experience in animal training. Expertise in behavior change and single-subject research are valuable skills behavior analysts have to offer. The specific projects can grow organically depending on the needs of the aquarium or zoo. In fact, I did not offer up the first two research ideas I discussed with the folks at the aquarium; the museum curators largely guided that conversation. They described a bonnethead shark (Sphyrna tiburo) exhibiting food refusal and a tank of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) that clustered in one corner of a tank. The shark began to eat after they implemented a target feeing protocol and the jellyfish issue was resolved following a series of comparison tests that found the problem lied in the flow of water through the tank. Again, this is a small aquarium but there were ample opportunities for research and applied projects.

Because It Is Fun

I look forward to going to my internship site. It might just be the best part of my week. My students do not simply go to the aquarium, run sessions, and leave. They measure out the turtle’s food, weigh the turtle, and inform the museum curators of any concerns.  They have many of the same responsibilities that would be expected in any animal laboratory, but the fact that this is a community exhibit never escapes our notice. We have run sessions in the past with a group of middle school students on the viewer side of the tank watching a well-trained turtle emit an observing response to a target and then expertly pluck food from an enrichment device during the trial. It was clear to them that the turtle did not simply pick this up one day but that it had been trained to do so. We impress small children, and occasionally impress ourselves, and that is fun.

Because The Field Needs You To

The primary reason for working in aquariums and zoos is to benefit the animals, but new initiatives also benefit the students and the field. Poling (2010) questioned whether behavior analysts would find a way to expand our reach outside of autism and developmental disabilities so that we might survive and prosper. Few behavior analysts will move the field forward in great strides but most of us can spur modest gains over time. To that end, do not work at aquariums and zoos if that is not your interest. But seek opportunities and follow up on them with confidence… and follow up with humility, because (I believe) the greatest impact will come from collaboration.

In short, behavior analysts should consider work in aquariums and zoos because there has been a push to extend our expertise to novel areas, there is a need for our services in these settings, and the opportunities that these partnerships create for our students and our field are important.

If you are pushing the field into novel areas, we would love to hear from you in the comments below, and remember to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Maple T. L., & Segura, V. D. (2014). Advancing behavior analysis in zoos and aquariums. The Behavior Analyst, 38, 77-91.

Normand, M. P. & Kohn, C. S. (2013). Don’t wag the dog: Extending the reach of applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 36, 109-122.

Poling, A. (2010). Looking to the future: Will behavior analysis survive and prosper? The Behavior Analyst, 33, 7-17.

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  1. When I was the curator of aquariums at a large retail store, diving in the tank, feeding the fish, entertaining guests, I was just dabbling in some undergraduate classes in behavior analysis. I saw the benefits of this new field to my job as a curator. I could train the fish to do some pretty cool stuff (like my dream to get them to swim in a circle formation in order to access food). I ended up focusing entirely on behavior analysis in undergrad and eventually graduate school. The experience of working with animals before and during my education was invaluable to my skill set now. Not many behavior analysts in Arizona have worked with animals, and it allows me to solve some problems at from a different angle compared to my peers. So even if it is for the experience to gain a new problem-solving skill set, it is absolutely worth working with animals!

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