SAN DIEGO — “Spike” the sea lion is making waves in the science community, learning how to play video games on the deck of a sea pen in the San Diego Bay off the coast of Point Loma.
The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program cares for the branch’s sea lions and dolphins, aiming to keep marine mammals happy and healthy longer.
“His (Spike) ability to understand the concept of controlling a cursor on a screen, then progress through a series of more challenging games, marks the first recorded success in testing cognition of California sea lions with an animal-controlled interface,” said Maison Piedfort, with the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific.
Spike, who is a fan of fish, ice and naps, participates in the Enclosure Video Enrichment (EVE) system, using his snout to press a button and maneuver a cursor through a maze while his trainers cheer him on. He is then rewarded with herring after finishing a training session.
More than 750 sessions have been attempted between Spike and other sea lions in the program, according to Navy officials. Spike, however, is the first to complete training on the gaming system.
“Spike is clearly enjoying himself, just like you or I would when noticing our practice transform into mastery. For Spike and his fellow gamers, that joy has translated into three years of voluntary sessions, some without the positive reinforcement of food. Over that period, Spike showed improved weight maintenance and performance in voluntary health checks, though the research hasn’t definitively linked the two to gaming just yet,” Piedfort said.
The dolphins also have their own gaming system, a large screen visible from the water that happens after sunset due to the sunlight interfering with the visibility of a projector set up on the pier.