Everyone loves Bob, the green sea turtle that has been in long-term rehabilitation at the Two Oceans Aquarium after he was rescued in 2014. Bob became compromised due to a gut full of ingested plastic pollutions, leaving him vulnerable to an infection that caused brain damage. Although Bob has made a full recovery from his physical injuries, his behaviours were altered in a way that suggested brain damage, and the expert opinion at the time was that Bob would not be able to survive in the wild.
But now, a new rehabilitation technique might be able to help Bob return to the wild at long last!
Alexandra Panagiotou is a member of the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation's turtle rehab team, with a wealth of international conservation and wildlife rehabilitation experience. Alex has been tasked with studying the behaviour of Bob and devising enrichment activities that can help Bob regain and strengthen the natural instincts and capabilities that he'll need when released. These new practices began in February this year, and Alex is already seeing amazing results!
What is enrichment? "Enrichments" are species-specific activities that provide stimulation to an animal by requiring it to problem-solve, tackle a situation it hasn't encountered before, or encounter new and stimulating conditions. For example, Alex provides Bob with stimulating challenges during feeding times, where he has to give chase or search for food, collect food off of a simulated environmental obstacle, or perform some or other task that deviates from his environmental norm. During these enrichments, Alex observes Bob's behaviour and compares it to his baseline behaviour between enrichment activities to see if he is being stimulated or simply following habit.
While this is an ongoing process, results so far suggest that Bob is regaining more "wild behaviours". For example, Bob spends less time waiting near his known past feeding areas and has been shown to display territorial behaviour when he is in a known feeding area, but not in other parts of the I&J Ocean Exhibit.
"Another interesting observation seen is the increase in Bob's 'non-categorised behaviours' during enrichment activities and observations. This is a good indicator that the effects of Bob's enrichment programme include increased opportunities to display appropriate species-specific behaviours, such as inter-species interactions, floating at the surface, and overall displaying more curious and exploratory behaviours," said Alex. This means that Bob is increasingly deviating from old habits and learned behaviours, and is instead being guided more often by things like curiosity or exploration. In more human terms, Bob is slowly becoming more assertive and adaptable, and not simply "going with the flow."
Bob still has a long way to go - but the past six months of improvement have been incredible! However, this amazing enrichment work is not without its challenges - for example, Bob has started to become habituated to some of the activities, and is thus not as engaged. Fortunately, the turtle team are up to the task of devising new and more challenging activities for Bob to keep him adapting and guessing!
The initial results are promising, and it's heartwarming to see that a turtle we once thought would never be a candidate for release back into the wild may have what it takes after all. Good luck, Bob!