Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Register
Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2016

Marine Mammal Behavior:
Captivity Vs. Natural Habitats

Sara Guarino and Heather Hill, PhD
St. Mary's University (TX)
View this issue in PDF and Digital formats.

While growing up in Italy, my favorite activities included watching animal documentaries on TV and visiting zoos and aquariums whenever I could.  Marine mammals, in particular, have always been my favorite animals that I would spend hours watching while they engaged in various interactions with one another. Learning about these animals and their behavior has always been one of my greatest passions. I have always wanted to know what these animals thought, how they communicated, and what their interactions meant.
Until four years ago, I was still unsure about how to fulfill this passion. I was at the beginning of my undergraduate experience at St Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX, when I began to be involved in marine mammal research as one of the research assistants of Dr. Heather Hill, a faculty member of the psychology department who maintains active research on cetacean behavior and cognition in collaboration with SeaWorld San Antonio (SWSA). Since then, I have been dedicating time to the study of these animals daily.
Observations in Captivity
My very first experience with marine mammal research involved coding video recordings of captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) behaviors. It took several days of practice to recognize the animals, their individual characteristics (e.g., shape and size of dorsal fins, distinct coloration), and become familiar with the behaviors and categorize them. The more time I dedicated to this task, the more my interest in studying these animals grew.
The most intriguing aspect of this experience was the variety of behaviors the animals displayed. Through the observation of the behavioral patterns of the animals, I understood how many questions I had about them. What type of interactions do they engage in? Do social interactions differ according to the social group? What is the role of the mother in the development of her offspring? How does the behavior of calves change as they develop?
These were only some of the questions that I became interested in exploring, and that I had not thought about before this experience. My involvement with killer whale research through the access to video-recordings of the SWSA killer whale population led to the completion of several projects including several conference presentations, my honors thesis, and a manuscript that will be published this summer on the journal of Animal Behavior and Cognition.
Through these projects, we have found evidence suggesting that killer whale mothers play an important role in the activities of their calves. Particularly, killer whale mothers seem to dictate the amount of time the calves interact with other killer whales, or engage in independent swim and play (e.g., motor, water, EED; Guarino, Olague, Solis, & Hill, 2014). Additional findings of killer whale sociality indicated that a killer whale calf maintained a higher level of mother-calf interaction, while it increased the time spent interacting and playing with killer whales other than the mother (Guarino, Hill, & Sigman, 2015). The investigation of the activity levels of a killer whale mother-calf pair over a 3-year period was also important to confirm the strong mother-calf bond that has been indicated in previous studies of different dolphin species (e.g., Tursiops sp.). The result of this study showed that the killer whale mothers adopted resting strategies that fit the calves’ physiological and developmental limitations. For example, during the first few months of the calves’ lives, the mother-calf pairs are more likely to engage in slow pattern swims, rather than surface floats, to give the calves opportunities to rest when they are not yet capable of floating (Guarino & Hill, 2015; Guarino, Hill, & Sigman, 2014). Finally, a review of the peer-reviewed literature of killer whale studies has helped to identify aspects of this cetacean that have received limited attention by marine mammal researchers (Hill, Guarino, Dietrich, & St. Leger, 2016).
My dedication to marine mammal research extended to the study of other cetacean species. I was enthusiastic for the opportunity to expand my research to belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). Like killer whales, the literature on beluga sociality has also received little attention by cetacean researchers. This marine mammal’s sociality was clear from the observations that I have conducted at SeaWorld. Social and socio-sexual interactions, and play activities are among the most common behaviors that the SWSA belugas display, and the composition of the social group seem to play a role in the frequency and diversity of the activities. A study about the role of calves on the behavioral repertoire of older belugas indicated that the presence of calves creates a more enriched and stimulating environment for the social groups (Hill, Guarino, Crandall, Lenhart, & Dietrich, 2015).
Behaviors in the Wild
Since I began to study cetacean behaviors, I have wondered about the differences and similarities in the behavioral trends between the animals in human care and in their natural habitat. My work as an intern of the Alaska SeaLife Center marine mammal research team, and the collaborative efforts that Dr. Hill and I have established with the Marine Mammal Laboratory, gave me the opportunity to extend my knowledge of beluga behaviors to their wild counterparts by analyzing video footage of the Cook Inlet, AK, belugas and comparing their behavioral repertoire to that of SWSA belugas.
Due to the distance at which the behaviors were recorded, through remotely monitored video cameras, the analysis of the wild beluga footage was more challenging than expected. The knowledge of beluga behaviors I have acquired during my on-site observations at SeaWorld allowed me to recognize some of the visible, surface behaviors that resembled those of the captive population and distinguish them from the behaviors that are specific to the natural habitat (Guarino, Hill, & Polasek, 2015).
My curiosity to learn more about the behavior of this marine mammal led me to connect with other beluga researchers, who have conducted their research on different beluga populations. Anecdotal evidence from the experiences of these researchers suggested that some of the observed behaviors such as maternal care behaviors (e.g., calf’s position in relation to and distance from the mother during mother-calf swims), socio-sexual behaviors (e.g., body s-posture with pectoral fin raised out of the water surface), water manipulation with different parts of the body (e.g., bubble blowing, fluke slaps, breaches), and orienting behaviors (e.g., spy hops) are shared across wild and captive belugas. Other behaviors such as feeding, milling, and travelling behaviors are specific to wild populations.
A Cognitive Approach
Another enriching experience for my knowledge of marine mammals was presented by the opportunity to manage sessions of an ongoing cognitive study that Dr. Hill was conducting on bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), Pacific white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens), and beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) populations for a cross-species comparison. This study exposed me to a different research experience than that I was accustomed to by adding a manipulation of the external environment, and exploring another research area that fascinated me. Novel or familiar stimuli (objects or humans) were presented to the animals during free-swim scenario to examine the behavioral responses, and to determine whether species and/or individual differences were present.
The results of this research has suggested species and individual variability in the behaviors and the degree of attention the animals displayed to the different stimuli (Guarino & Hill, 2016). The access to three captive cetacean populations represented the opportunity to overcome the challenges of conducting studies on wild cetacean cognition. As confirmed by the killer whale and bottlenose dolphin article inventory, the category cognition was identified as one of the least explored research areas (Hill et al., 2016), confirming the importance of conducting studies on cetacean cognitive abilities when the access to the animals is provided.
Waves of Opportunities
My most recent experience with marine mammal research allowed me to join the Associação para a Investigação do Meio Marinho team to explore the behaviors of wild common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) populations off the coast of Algarve, Portugal. During our boat surveys, I was able to apply research skills that I have learned through captive work to recognize the behaviors, and collect distribution and composition data of the wild dolphin populations.
Throughout the summer, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to observe the animals in their natural habitat, and detect the behaviors with which I was familiar through the research work I have conducted in captivity. In addition to the behaviors that were specific to the natural habitat such as feeding and travelling, I was excited to see that mother-calf behaviors, social and socio-sexual interactions, and orienting behaviors resembled those that I have observed through my work with captive animals. This field research experience also made me more aware of the importance of adopting behaviors that aim toward the conservation and the well-being of the animals.
Assessing Animal Welfare
In addition to providing amazing opportunities to learn about animal species that I am most passionate about, each and every marine mammal experience I had throughout my undergraduate career has given me the skills that mostly contributed to my growth as student, researcher, and person. The research work I have completed in the past four years resulted in a number of projects that I have presented at professional conferences. The results of these studies have contributed to the cetacean literature, exploring a variety of topics within areas that have sparsely been investigated in the past such as activity levels, maternal care, sociality, development, and cognitive abilities.
My personal experience with marine mammal research with both captive and wild animals has taught me that captive research provides the opportunity to answer questions regarding the animal welfare, while also assessing aspects that are difficult to explore in natural settings. Wild research allows one to assess the variation in the animal behavior in response to human presence through fishing boats, trawlers, dolphin watching boats, or research vessels, and to develop actions that will minimize the disturbance of the animals. These observations indicate that it is important to simultaneously maintain in-situ and ex-situ conservation efforts because these combined efforts will allow for the assessment of different aspects of animal welfare.
Guarino, S., Davila, C., Pasko, K., & Hill, H. (2014, August). What do we actually know about killer whales? A review of the peer-reviewed literature. Poster presented at the Animal Behavior Society Meeting, Princeton, NJ.
Guarino, S., & Hill, H. (2015, April). How is rest regulated for an orca (Orcinus orca) calf? Talk presented at meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association, Wichita, KS.
Guarino, S., & Hill, H. (2016, April). Familiar or unfamiliar stimuli? Right or left eye? Role of object familiarity in belugas, pacific white-sided dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins’ behavioral responses. Paper presented at the meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association, Dallas, TX.    
Guarino, S., Hill, H., & Polasek, L. (2015, December). Do wild belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) socialize and play differently than captive belugas? Poster presented at the meeting of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, San Francisco, CA.
Guarino, S., Hill, H., & Sigman, J. (2014, August). Developmental changes in activity levels for a killer whale (Orcinus orca) calf and her mother across three years of life. Poster presented at the meeting of the Animal Behavior Society Meeting, Princeton, NJ.
Guarino, S., Hill, H., & Sigman, J. (2015, April). The development of sociality and play in an orca calf. Poster presented at the meeting of the Society for Comparative Cognition, Melbourne, FL.
Guarino, S., Olague, S., Solis, C., & Hill, H. (2014, April). The emergence of independence in a killer whale calf. Talk presented at the meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association, San Antonio, TX.
Hill, H., Guarino, S., Crandall, S., Lenhart, E., & Dietrich, S. (2015). Young belugas diversify adult beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) behavior. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 2, 267–284 doi:10.12966/abc.0800.2015
Hill, H., Guarino, S., Dietrich, S., & St. Leger, J. (2016). An inventory of peer-reviewed articles on killer whales (Orcinus orca) with a comparison to bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Animal Behavior and Cognition, 3, 120–134  

Sara Guarino has received her bachelor of arts in psychology in the spring of 2016 from St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, TX. At St. Mary’s University, she has conducted the majority of her research work under the mentorship of Dr. Heather Hill. Sara has received several grants, scholarships, and fellowships from Psi Chi and St. Mary’s University to complete research projects and present at regional, national, and international conferences including the SWPA, the Animal Behavior Society, the Society for Comparative Cognition, the Society for Marine Mammalogy, and the APA. She has been accepted to the graduate school of Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX, where she will pursue her PhD in experimental psychology under the mentorship of Dr. Mauricio Papini, while carrying on her marine mammal research through collaborative work with other marine mammal researchers.     

Heather Hill, PhD,
completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Texas A&M University, College Station with a minor in oceanography in 1996. She earned her master’s (2000) and doctoral (2003) degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi under the mentorship of Dr. Stan Kuczaj. After 3 years working as a research assistant at the Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, CA, with Dr. Sam Ridgway, she returned to her hometown of San Antonio, TX.  Dr. Hill has been teaching psychology at St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, TX, since 2007 and is an associate professor. Dr. Hill spent the first 10 years of her marine mammal career conducting research on the mother-calf relationship and social development of bottlenose dolphins in human care. She also studied mirror self-recognition and mirror use in dolphins and sea lions. In 2007, she started studying the social behavior and cognitive abilities of belugas at SeaWorld San Antonio. She has also studied mother-calf interactions and calf development with killer whales. Currently, Dr. Hill has active collaborations with Dr. Deirdre Yeater and Mystic Aquarium, Dr. Kathleen Dudzinski at Dolphin Communication Project, Dr. Mike Noonan, SeaWorld, Georgia Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, and the Houston Zoo.


Copyright 2016 (Volume 21, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

Eye on Psi Chi is published quarterly:
Spring (February)
Summer (April)
Fall (September)
Winter (November)






Phone: (423) 756-2044 | Fax: (423) 265-1529 | Certified member of the Association of College Honor Societies
Membership Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal