Animal Cognition

, Volume 22, Issue 6, pp 947–958 | Cite as

Memory for own behaviour in pinnipeds

  • Simeon Quirinus SmeeleEmail author
  • Kirstin Anderson Hansen
  • Sara Torres Ortiz
  • Fredrik Johansson
  • Jakob Højer Kristensen
  • Josefin Larsson
  • Ursula Siebert
  • Magnus Wahlberg
Original Paper


Pinnipeds are aquatic predators feeding on a vast range of prey, and their social behaviour differs greatly between species (from extreme polygyny in some sea lions to monogamy in some true seals). It has been hypothesised that the foraging and social complexity of their lifestyle should drive the evolution of their cognitive abilities. To investigate how aware pinnipeds are of their own behaviour, a grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), two harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and four South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens) were trained to repeat their own behaviour on command. Three already trained behaviours were used, and the animal was asked to repeat the behaviour twice to ensure that the animal recalled its own behaviour and not the command given for the previous behaviour. All three species could recall their own behaviour significantly better than by chance. The duration for which the animals could recall their behaviour was tested using a staircase paradigm. A delay was implemented between the completion of the behaviour and the command to repeat it. The delay was increased after correct responses and decreased after incorrect responses. The performance of all species fell towards chance level after 12–18 s, with no significant difference between species. These results indicate that sea lions and true seals are aware of their own behaviour and that true seals have similar short-term memory abilities. It also shows that pinnipeds have less developed short-term memory abilities compared to other aquatic predators, such as the bottlenose dolphin. The complexity of pinniped foraging and social behaviour does not seem to have driven the evolution of short-term memory abilities in these animals but might have contributed to their ability to recall their own behaviour.


Cognition Seal Sea lion Self-awareness Short-term memory 



We thank Wayne Phillips, Benjamin Doshner and Omar del Oso from Dolphin adventure for their support and for the predisposition of the animals in Dolphin Adventure. We also thank Abel Reyes, Jesus Manuel Perez, Jesus Silva, Kelli Rust, Luis Hernández and Paola Valle for training the animals and providing their session time with them.


This study was funded by the Danish Research Council (Grant No. 400200536) and the Institute for Terrestrial and Aquatic Wildlife Research (ITAW) University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Foundation (Grant No. 60079084).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. The animals from Dolphin Adventure were kept under permits from Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources [permit: INE/CITES/DGVS-EF-P-0033-NAY/00 (PIMVS)]. The animals from Fjord&Bælt (permit: and The University of Southern Denmark (permit: 2300-50120-00003-09) were kept under permits from the Danish Ministry of Food and Agriculture. The experiments did not require an application to the Animal Ethics Committee of neither Denmark nor Mexico, as animals participated voluntarily in the experiments and were not affected by them in any way. This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Simeon Quirinus Smeele
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kirstin Anderson Hansen
    • 1
    • 2
  • Sara Torres Ortiz
    • 1
    • 3
  • Fredrik Johansson
    • 4
  • Jakob Højer Kristensen
    • 4
  • Josefin Larsson
    • 4
  • Ursula Siebert
    • 2
  • Magnus Wahlberg
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of Southern DenmarkOdenseDenmark
  2. 2.Institute for Terrestrial and Aquatic Wildlife Research (ITAW)University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, FoundationBüsumGermany
  3. 3.Dolphin Adventure, Vallarta AdventuresNuevo VallartaMexico
  4. 4.Fjord&BæltKertemindeDenmark

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