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California Sea Lions Are Capable of Semantic Comprehension

Abstract

Two California sea lions (a 6-year-old female, Rocky, and a 3-year-old male, Bucky) were trained in a symbolic matching paradigm. Gestural signs produced by movements of the trainer’s arms and hands referred to types of objects, modifiers, and actions. Both sea lions were eventually trained with three-sign constructions consisting of Modifier + Object + Action in that order. An example of a three-sign sequence is Black Ball Mouth [glossed as “go over to the black ball (and not the gray or white balls or the black, white, and gray pipes) and place your open mouth on it]. Rocky’s modifiers consisted of size and color attributes, and Bucky’s modifiers consisted of different locations of the objects.

After 24 months of training, Rocky had a comprehension vocabulary of 20 signs (5 modifiers, 10 objects, and 5 actions), and after 20 months of training, Bucky had a comprehension vocabulary of 16 signs (2 modifiers, 8 objects, and 6 actions). Semantic comprehension is considered to be demonstrated if an organism can follow directions when each sign is contrasted with every other in a series of commands. Currently, Rocky’s semantic comprehension consists of 190 three-sign combinations, and Bucky’s semantic comprehension consists of 64 three-sign combinations.

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This paper is dedicated to the memory of Winthrop N. Kellogg, whose truly creative and dedicated work on the neural mechanisms of learning, the developing mind of a home-raised chimpanzee, and the echolocation capabilities of dolphins continues to be an inspiration to contemporary comparative psycholgists.

We recognize the support of the Office of Naval Research Contract N00014-77-C-0185 and the Research Institute of Marine World/Africa Usa. Next, we gratefully acknowledge the help of many student volunteers who worked so diligently in maintaining the sea lions and conducting the research. Special thanks to Christine Johnson, Brigit Grimm, Renee Butler, Alex Philipoff, Chris Stone, Marianne Brick, Sharon Neklason, Hilary Holt, and Barbara Beard. Thanks also to the trainers at Marine World/Africa Usa for looking after Bucky during our absence. Finally, we want to thank Drs. Louis Herman, Jim Wolz, and Doug Richards for their encouragement and wisdom in helping to get this project started.

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Schusterman, R.J., Krieger, K. California Sea Lions Are Capable of Semantic Comprehension. Psychol Rec 34, 3–23 (1984). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03394849

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03394849