Our juvenile alligators here at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida are fed in a very special way. Targets of different shapes and colors are assigned to each alligator and when tapped with their nose, result in a food reward. As apex predators American alligators are a heavily food-oriented species, so this target training process helps to limit their food aggression.
Target training is very popular with domestic mammals such as dogs and cats, but not seen as often in reptiles. There are often misconceptions that this type of training is not feasible with reptiles, however studies with different tortoises and lizards at the Atlanta Zoo have achieved success in a matter of weeks. Our own alligators in the Dalton Discovery Center have shown notable progress. (Gaalema et. Al, 2008)
As for what they eat, each training session usually involves bite size pieces of smelt (a small freshwater fish). This is similar to what they might eat in the wild, as they are known to eat just about any prey they can catch. It is important, however, to never feed or harass wild alligators so they don’t become accustomed to humans.
If you get a chance to see alligator training at the conservancy, you will notice a clicking noise that takes place between the alligator touching the target and receiving their food. This is a key component to this process called the bridge, which the Center for Animal Behavior notes is crucial for connecting the action preformed and the positive reinforcement received.
This makes the timing of the training process very important, as each action must be an individual step. On the other hand, waiting too long between actions can result in a disassociation of the action and the reward.
As we have progressed over a third of the way through our year long stint with this set of alligators, they have already shown noticeable improvement with their training. Initial steps in the process began with placing food over the target so when they reached for the food their snouts would inadvertently come into contact with the target. This allowed them to become familiar with the correlation of the targets and food.
After the first two months the food reward was taken out until the gator touched their snout to the target. If they did not move towards the target after about 30 seconds the target was removed to reset the session and then placed closer. The one target test improved over time and after another two months a second target was added to begin to introduce the concept of choosing their correct target. We have recently added the third target and also begun to conduct training sessions outside, so make sure to keep an eye out for our three intelligent and curious alligators during your next visit to the Conservancy!
Gaalema, D., & Benboe, D. (2008). Positive Reinforcement Training of Aldabra Tortoises (Geochelone gigantea) at Zoo Atlanta. Herpetological Review, 39(3), 331–334.
McSweeney, F. K., & Murphy, E. S. (2014). The Wiley Blackwell handbook of operant and classical conditioning. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.