Complex environmental enrichment for dolphins

Environmental enrichment is a key component in improving the psychological and physiological welfare of animals under professional care. When you visit Brookfield Zoo, you may notice a variety of enrichment items in the animal’s habitats. Enrichment is one way that the animal care staff can promote activity and species-specific behaviors, as well as provide opportunities for choice and control. The bottlenose dolphins at Brookfield Zoo have an extensive enrichment program that includes environmental enrichment devices that can be used to present novel problems and cognitive challenges.

One of these devices is a dolphin vending machine that requires the dolphins to figure out the correct number or type of weights needed to release food from the machine. The vending machine was designed to encourage the dolphins to swim throughout the entire depth of the habitat by using sinking weights and to be used by multiple dolphins simultaneously. Dolphins utilize multiple problem-solving strategies to retrieve the food and each dolphin interacts with the vending machine differently.

Not only are we able to learn about how the dolphins solve problems, but we are able to learn about how enrichment can be used to promote positive social relationships and increase habitat use. We found that the vending machine was enriching for the dolphins while it was in the water and resulted in changes in their behavior that carried over to the rest of their day. The dolphins spent more time swimming with each other, particularly for the dolphins who participated in solving the vending machine together. They also increased the amount of time they swam in the bottom of the habitat. The dolphin who spent the most time solving the vending machine played with other dolphins and with other enrichment objects more often as well!

The dolphin vending machine is a great example of how enrichment can be used for multiple purposes. Complex enrichment can be used to both promote positive welfare throughout the animal’s day and to study animal cognition, behavior, and problem-solving. This information can be used to develop new complex enrichment devices that will continue to enhance the care we provide!

Published March 23, 2021