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Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition | St. Francis College

Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition

Investigating the world of pinnipeds

The Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition (C-SPEC) investigates the habitat and behavior of pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and walrus). While there are a broad range of topics that we are interested in, the Center primarily focuses on two main lines of scientific inquiry – one line involves questions of cognition (i.e. reasoning and problem solving) in sea lions, and the other involves wild seal behavior and demographics in natural and urban ecosystems.


Mission Statement

C-SPEC seeks to educate, engage and serve researchers, students and the local community on aspects such as human-animal interactions, pinniped communication, habitat conservation and ecotourism. We are committed to engaging in science education and collaborative projects that foster intellectual growth and provide opportunities for students to participate in rigorous research. The Center is interdisciplinary and collaborative in its approach, seeking to engage with experts and laymen alike at the intersection of psychology and biology.

The Center plans to host special events, community outreach workshops, lectures and guest speakers, both on and off campus.

Who We Are

Dr. Kristy Biolsi

Dr. Kristy Biolsi is a Professor, and Chair of the Department of Psychology at St. Francis College. She serves on the editorial board for the Journal of the Association for the Study of Ethical Behavior and Evolutionary Biology in Literature (ASEBL), serves as a co-editor for the journal Aquatic Mammals, and is a co-founder of the Evolutionary Studies Collaborative. She received her B.S. in Psychobiology from Long Island University, Southampton College in 2001 and in 2007 she received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Her research focus was on marine mammal cognition and while at Long Marine Lab she worked specifically with the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab (PCSL). Her current research interests are in comparative cognition, focusing on marine mammals, and she has two main lines of scientific inquiry; laboratory work that is conducted at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead NY investigating category learning with two trained, California sea lions and field work which consists of data collection from surveys and naturalistic observations of the local wild grey and harbor seal population. She is the co-founder and Director of the Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition (C-SPEC).

Dr. Kevin L. Woo

Dr. Kevin L. Woo is an Associate Professor and Faculty Chair at the Metropolitan Center of SUNY Empire State College. He earned his BS in Interdisciplinary Psychology/Biology from Southampton College of Long Island University, MSc in Ecology & Biodiversity from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and completed his PhD in Animal Behavior from Macquarie University in Australia, where he employed computer-generated animations to study the evolution of signal communication. Following his PhD, he was post-doc at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Behavioral Ecology & Evolution of Fishes (B.E.E.F.) laboratory, and subsequently took up two positions first as a Visiting Professor of Psychology at Southwestern University and then a Visiting Lecturer of Biology at the University of Central Florida. His research interests are in behavioral ecology, conservation, and cognition. Moreover, in alignment with the Center's mission, he is dedicated to the promotion of science education and literacy within the urban community.

Past Student Assistants

Celia Kujala

celia kujala

Celia Kujala graduated with high honors in economics from Dartmouth College. She has had a lot of data analysis and research experience during college, her Fulbright Fellowship and her time at the Federal Reserve Bank. Though, none of her research has involved pinnipeds, she is someone who has had a lifetime interest and love of them and she is excited add to her knowledgebase and foundational experience as a Research Assistant at the Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition (C-SPEC)! She also enjoys photography and recently was open water scuba certified. She is excited to start exploring the underwater world and to dive into underwater photography.

Christopher Michael Brown

chri sbrown

Christopher Michael Brown is a recent graduate from the University of Miami with a B.S. in Marine and Atmospheric Science. He has joined the Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition (C-SPEC) as a research assistant for the 2016-2017 season. Chris is interested in the ecology, conservation and management of marine megafauna, specifically analyzing the distribution, habitat use, and predator-prey relations of marine species in urbanized environments."

Wendy Ochoa

Wendy Ochoa is currently enrolled in the BA/MA Psychology program and Biology minor at St. Francis College. She aspires to become a School Psychologist and is currently volunteering at The Center for Family Life, working with children from diverse cultures. She is also a research assistant at the Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition (C-SPEC). She became interested in aquatic animals after her trip with St. Francis College to the U.S. Virgin Islands for her course Marine Biology. She is enthusiastic about her research and grateful for the new learning experience that C-SPEC offers.

Jeanette Raymond

Jeannette graduated in May 2014 from St. Francis College with a Psychology major and French minor. During her tenure at St. Francis College she served as a research assistant at both theInstitute for International and Cross-Cultural Psychology and at the Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition.

Jeannette is also an Honors Program scholar, President of the SFC Chapter of the International Honors Society in Psychology, Psi Chi and of the Dun Scotus Honor Society. She is now a research assistant at the HIV Center for Clinical & Behavioral Studies at Columbia University.

Catherine Payne

Ashley McAvoy

Alexis Acevedo

Nofar Hagag

Jennie Magee

Hilda Posada

Research & Student Assistants

Amanda Neal

Erin Gonzalez

Arielle Jurado

Kelly Michalak

Kelly is a student currently enrolled in St. Francis College, where she is an Honors student, majoring in Biology and minoring in Psychology. She spends much of her time volunteering at various health and wellness programs through NYCares while aspiring to be a holistic doctor. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and writing, attending concerts and exploring cultures of the world.

Afia Azaah

afia azaah

Afia Azaah is currently a graduate student in the BA/MA Program in Applied Behavioral Psychology at St. Francis College. She started her involvement with the Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition (C-SPEC) as a research assistant for the 2015-2016 season, and is currently a research assistant for the 2016-2017 season. Afia has also extended her love for animal cognition into her MA Thesis which will conclude when she graduates in the spring of 2017. Afia is currently the President of the Psychology Club and serves as the graduate student assistant. She hopes to continue getting as much research experience as possible in her subsequent years following graduation as well as continuing her collaboration with C-SPEC.

Dareen Generoso

Dareen Generoso is a senior at St. Francis College majoring in Psychology and minoring in Women's Studies. Outside of college, Dareen interns at NYU Lutheran Family Health Center as a research assistant. Her inspiration to become a research assistant at the Center for the Study of Pinniped Ecology and Cognition (C-SPEC) came from taking the Marine Mammal Cognition course at SFC where she traveled to Santa Cruz, California. She aspires to become a licensed clinical social worker. However, due to her fascination with animals, Dareen also intends on developing a stronger background in animal cognition research.

What We Do

Our Research

Our research is interdisciplinary and combines laboratory work carried out at local aquariums, field work carried out in the local NYC waters, as well as conservation/public educations components.

C-SPEC is funded in part by The SFC Faculty Research Grant and the SUNY Empire State University Faculty Development Grant. All research has been approved by the SFC IACUC.

Laboratory work with California sea lions

This work is primarily being conducted by Dr. Kirsty Biolsi, the staff and trainers at the LI Aquarium, and student research assitants at St. Francis College. Research involves the study of learning and in particular how physical objects in the world are mentally represented. Many objects in the world are represented in different ways, such as through symbols (e.g., language – both written and verbal/gestural), and pictures/photographs. How one transforms a stimulus from the physical world into a mental representation and how we can use multiple items with varying physical properties to represent the same item has been an enduring and expanding area of interest in many scientific fields. For example, one can recognize an object in the world, such as a tree, and also spontaneously use a photograph, picture, or word to represent that same tree. The mental process through which this feat is accomplished is an area of active exploration. The question of whether these transformations are learned over time, or if it is an automatic cognitive process, does not currently have an adequate answer. The process appears to be effortless but often in science we find that the processes that occur most easily are in fact the most complicated. Our research in this area adds to the current knowledge base on concept learning and object representation by investigating how nonhumans represent stimuli across different mediums.

Field Studies with Local Harbor Seals

This branch of our research program consists of field observations in order to study local seal demographics and behavior in the NYC area. In particular, there are select locations of Long Island and New York City, in which Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), and hooded seals (Csytophora cristata) are local wildlife attractions during the winter months. Due to the public interest in these species, and the growing human population with its consequent development of shared habitats, it is becoming increasingly critical to understand the relationship between humans and these seal species. Our research in this area is a first step towards investigating the population distribution of these species in the area. Even though there have been collections of general population data over the years, no one has evaluated either a historically accurate or continuously updated count of NYC seal populations. We have been using behavioral observations to collect data on seal demographics which will allow us to add to the current knowledge base by collating our research with historical population records, and to update the current population data, especially in the NYC area – as these numbers are the least understood and documentation has been very limited. A historically sound and progressively mindful data collection process affords us a greater understanding of local wildlife and allows us to better understand the impact that humans have on these animals.


Education plays an important role in the success of conservation efforts. We aim to impart knowledge to the public on the conservation of local species, and to make the community aware of local wildlife. In addition to an online platform, we work to reach the public through workshops, lguest lecturesm, and outreach programs. Please also see our work with the NYC Audubon Society.

Meet the Seals of NYC

Harbor Seal Field Work

Report a Sighting

Responsible Viewing

Be a responsible viewer of marine mammal wildlife. In the United States, all marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • Stay at least 100 yards from animals viewed when on land and 200 yards away when viewing from a boat.
  • Remain quiet during the entire sighting experience
  • Do not observe the animals for more than a 30 minute period to avoid stressing them.
  • Never get in the water with the animals – they are wild animals and can be dangerous.
  • Never feed the animals – this can cause them to become sick, dependent on handouts, and disrupt their normal foraging behavior. They may also learn to approach boats/people for food which may lead to them being injured or becoming aggressive and injuring a person that does not feed them.

Avoid inadvertent harassment of the animals and note that you may be too close if you notice the animals’ behavior changing in response to your actions. For example:

    • Increasing their vocalizations
    • Leaving the water if they were swimming
    • Entering the water if they were resting
    • A change in their attention from other animals in the group, or their resting state) to focus on you.

Disturbing the animals’ natural behavior may result in their being vulnerable to predators, poor foraging opportunities, and potential illnesses.

If you come across an injured or distressed marine mammal DO NOT APPROACH. Contact he NYS Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program at 631-369-9829.


NASRC Summer Webinar

What Does A Sea Lion Know

2018-2019 Field Season

Seals of New York

Photo Gallery

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