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Dolphin research is making a big splash in 2010. The year marks the 40th year of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, part of the Florida Dolphin Research and Conservation Institute (DRCI), which is supported by the Chicago Zoological Society. Based in Sarasota, FL, this is the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population, focusing on many aspects of dolphin biology, including health, behavior, genetics, environmental change, and adverse interactions with humans. The program is unique in many respects – nowhere else in the world can researchers work with a group of wild dolphins in their natural habitat where the medical and behavioral history of each individual is so well known. “Discoveries” take place over years and decades, and knowledge about health and behavior of coastal bottlenose dolphins has been greatly enhanced by the Sarasota study. In addition to this pioneering research, the DCRI provides unique education and training opportunities to researchers around the world and helps establish dolphin conservation research programs in other countries.

Randall Wells

The program is led by Randall Wells, Ph.D., whose lifetime dedication to dolphins is featured in the book "Dolphin Man." Wells is director of DRCI as well as the Dolphin Research Program manager with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

The research focuses on five generations of bottlenose dolphins that reside year-round in Sarasota Bay. The population includes about 150 animals, most of which can be identified by Wells and his team of researchers. For 40 years, researchers have collected biological, behavioral, ecological, and health data, and the data are repeatedly used in scientific studies, as well as public policy decisions that can help protect marine animals.

“We have discovered that some of the resident dolphins live to nearly 60 years of age,” said Wells. “They are faced with threats that may be decades in the making or may require years for recovery. For example, they are still coping with the effects of pollutants that were outlawed 30 years ago and still recovering from a red tide that occurred five years ago, and we are just getting to the point where we are identifying potential effects of climate change, which has been years in the making. To detect and understand these gradual and often subtle but crucial issues requires the kind of long-term study that we have pioneered.”

In the Sarasota Bay area, the human population has doubled since the program’s inception in 1970. Human influence and environmental changes have had serious consequences for the dolphins. Recreational fishing, environmental contaminants, and boat traffic are all relatively new factors that can jeopardize dolphins’ health and wellness.

“For example,” Wells explains, “powerboats pass within 100 yards of each dolphin in the Bay once every six minutes, and about 5 percent of the resident dolphins have scars from having been struck by boats. Further, engine noise masks the dolphins’ communication sounds and the sounds of the prey fish they are seeking.”

“With this study, we’ve developed a structure that enables us to know what’s happening to the dolphins over time in response to changes in their environment. This means we can monitor the population and be aware of serious changes as they occur rather than trying to help a species recover after a crisis. That’s what often happens with wild species,” said Dr. Wells. “This has implications for more than just the bottlenose dolphins we study here; similar factors may affect other species as well. These dolphins breathe the same air, swim in the same water, eat the same fish, and in some cases are affected by the same pathogens as humans in coastal areas.”

The study in Sarasota is just one aspect of the interdisciplinary program. For example, a joint study with Argentine researchers has found that the highly threatened franciscana dolphins of the coastal waters of South America have very small ranges, like Sarasota Bay dolphins. This has led to a very different protection strategy than was previously used when it was believed that a single population ranged along the entire Argentine coast. Over the years, 25 doctoral dissertation and 30 master’s thesis projects have benefited from association with Wells and the Institute, through field research opportunities or access to data, samples, and/or guidance. Additionally, a high-school-level curriculum has been developed that immerses students in scientific investigation, allowing them to manipulate and analyze real dolphin data while gaining an appreciation for the uncertainties of science.

While data from the study in Sarasota offer valuable information to marine mammal staff at the zoo, information gleaned from the dolphins at the zoo helps inform scientists in their field research as well. The breadth and depth of the dolphin research program provides a unique framework for understanding bottlenose dolphins and has been significant in establishing the program as the flagship bottlenose dolphin conservation initiative worldwide.

The long-term research and resulting data enable Wells and DRCI to bring science to discussion about what is needed to protect dolphins now and in the future. DRCI’s research also helps build more effective efforts in public education and outreach, which both are important tenets of the Chicago Zoological Society’s mission.

“Dolphin environments are changing rapidly. We can work to manage some of these adverse changes while others are beyond our control. Our job is to do our best to make sure all the human impacts on dolphins are mitigated so these dolphins can have a chance at adapting to their changing natural environments,” Wells said.

People interested in helping protect the dolphins can support DRCI’s work not only through donations but by taking actions that help all aquatic animals. For example, people can:
  • Reduce waste and pollution. Environmental contaminants in Sarasota Bay are a direct result of pollution from all over the world; chemicals dumped in the water in Illinois, for example, affect the dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Become educated and aware of marine issues, and share your knowledge. Raising awareness about these issues and being vocal about them can encourage the public and the government to make marine issues a priority.
  • Support accredited zoos and aquariums like Brookfield Zoo that are doing conservation research and education.
This research is the world’s longest-running, most comprehensive dolphin research and monitoring program. Based in Sarasota, Florida, the DRCI now builds upon 40 years of research by investigating the biology, behavior, ecology, health, and impacts of humans on inshore bottlenose dolphins living in Sarasota Bay and other locations throughout the world.