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Training Mydas, The Green Sea Turtle
I got to see the coolest thing Saturday! -A voluntary blood draw on our green sea turtle, Mydas It was quite impressive so I just had to share a bit about it with our readers.
Mydas, named after his scientific name Chelonia mydas, is a 300lbs green sea turtle (an endangered animal) who resides in our giant Gulf Exhibit at the Audubon Aquarium. We estimate his age to be in the mid-50's, however he may be even older than that. (They can live well into their hundreds!) He enjoys a variety of fish, squid, and greens including lettuce, which is one of Mydas's favorites.
One of our talented volunteers, Gabriela, began working with Mydas 1 year ago. She noticed aquarists were having a hard time getting Mydas to station in the same spot to receive food. This can be difficult with so many different animals, eating so many different things. So she began target training with Mydas.
Target training is a very simple process that you can do with virtually any animal. I've even see a target trained gold fish! In Mydas's case, a target in the shape of a square was place in the water. Whenever Mydas touched the target he received food. This took some time but after a few consistent sessions, Mydas caught on. Gabriela began moving the target- eventually she was able to walk around the whole exhibit with him.
A sea otter trainer saw the great work Gabriela was doing with Mydas and suggested why not start training medical behaviors that would be really beneficial for Mydas? Specifically, getting in and out of a stretcher and a voluntary blood draw. Gabriela jumped at the chance and began training for these new behaviors.
Gabriela knew that for a successful blood draw, Mydas would need to keep his head above water, something all turtles are capable of doing, and sit relatively still. She started with small approximations, meaning baby steps. She would do things like hold his head above water for five seconds and feed him. This grew over time to where she could hold his head up for 90 seconds! Of course for all his hard work Mydas was rewarded with lots of lettuce and sometimes squid and capelin as well.
Then yesterday was the moment of truth. After working with Mydas for a year the whole husbandry crew was anxious to see if this would actually work. Our staff veterinarian performed the procedure and everything went flawlessly! Mydas sat perfectly still and didn't mind the extra people or the needle for his blood draw at all!
It was a really amazing thing to watch and was an especially big deal for Mydas. Because he is such a large animal regular blood work has been difficult. Because he hadn't been trained, this often meant several people holding him while we attempt to get blood, something that could be very stressful for him. In fact, studies show that if able voluntary blood draws see a dramatic decrease in stress hormones vs. non voluntary. This is a really big deal and will really help in our care of Mydas! I have to give a big congrats to Gabriela and Mydas both! Very exciting indeed!