News Release
Contact: Sondra Katzen, Public Relations, 708.688.8351,
January 14, 2021                                     
NOTE: Download photos from the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program following press release.
50 Years of Groundbreaking Dolphin Research Highlighted in Upcoming
Virtual Event about Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

Brookfield, Ill. — In October 1970, two male bottlenose dolphins were tagged near Sarasota, Florida, in Palma Sola Bay. That moment would eventually blossom into the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), which today conducts the longest-running study of a wild dolphin population anywhere in the world.
The SDRP was the first to document the year-round residency of populations of bottlenose dolphins in coastal waters. This pioneering discovery about dolphins has since been followed by many other findings just as groundbreaking. Today, the SDRP is the model program for dolphin studies in locales around the world, and the Sarasota dolphins are used as a reference population for comparative studies of at-risk dolphins in other places, including Louisiana where the dolphins of Barataria Bay continue to be plagued by the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
The public can learn more about the SDRP’s 50-year history and some of its major findings during an upcoming virtual lecture, “The Dolphins of Sarasota Bay—Lessons from 50 Years of Study,” on January 26, at 7:00 p.m. CT featuring Randy Wells, Ph.D., director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.

This is the second virtual program being offered as part of a new Winter Lecture Series by the Chicago Zoological Society about Brookfield Zoo's rich history, incredible animals, and innovative conservation programs. To learn more and register, visit
The SDRP, started by Dr. Blair Irvine, is today led by Dr. Wells, a dolphin conservation biologist widely respected for his expertise, who is often consulted by U.S. and foreign governmental and nongovernmental officials about all aspects of dolphin biology and conservation. Dr. Wells was a high school student working as an assistant to Dr. Irvine on the early dolphin-tagging initiative.
“What has developed over the decades is certainly beyond anything we could have imagined when we first started tagging dolphins,” Wells said. “Blair and I are humbled by the fact that the program is now recognized by many around the world as a pioneering model for the study and conservation of dolphin populations.”
The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program has been operated by the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) since 1989 and, since 1992, has been based at Mote Marine Laboratory, within the home range of Sarasota Bay dolphins.
“The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program is a flagship program of the Chicago Zoological Society,” said Dr. Stuart Strahl, president and CEO of the Society. “We are extremely proud of our 30 years of involvement with this program, as it exemplifies our mission to inspire conservation leadership by engaging people and communities with wildlife and nature.”

The program’s first discovery in the early 1970’s that dolphins were long-term residents of Sarasota Bay set the stage for staff to be able to study individual animals throughout their lives. This unique level of background knowledge has led to new understandings about the dolphins’ biology, ecology, social structure, and health—and an overall richer understanding of dolphins and the challenges, big and small, that the animals face in their day-to-day lives, providing guidance on how we can help them.
“We found that dolphin communities in localized areas are exposed every day to multiple, concurrent threats from both natural and man-made sources,” Wells said. “Cumulatively, these can have a great impact on the future of individuals and populations. Today, much of our research is focused on characterizing and attempting to mitigate these local threats through research, outreach, education, and even direct intervention.”
Thanks to the program’s expertise, staff is often called upon to lead or support efforts to rescue individual dolphins impacted by human-caused problems such as entanglements or boat strikes. The SDRP has been involved in the rescues of 22 bottlenose dolphins along Florida’s west coast—rescues that have played a role in supporting future generations of dolphins.
“Over the past 50 years, our research of tracking individual animals has shown that a single female can produce 11 calves or more during her reproductive years,” Wells said. “Helping dolphins survive to produce future calves is crucial for long-term dolphin communities to maintain long-established social structures and survive and thrive into the future. Every individual matters.”
A key focus of the SDRP has also been to train the next-generation of conservation leaders in the U.S. and worldwide. Today, alumni of the SDRP’s training have moved into key positions in wildlife management, including positions at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, and other organizations around the world.
All told, research conducted through the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program has shown that dolphins have wider, more complex and intriguing lives than the grinning animals popularized in movies and on TV. Over the past 50 years, staff has learned that the dolphins have lived in their coastal neighborhoods for many generations. “We need to do what we can to protect the health of our shared backyard to make sure the dolphins can continue to survive and thrive, and so we can continue to enjoy the benefit from our coastal marine ecosystem,” Wells said.

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Photo Captions
Photo credit: Chicago Zoological Society/Sarasota Dolphin Research Program—photos taken under NMFS Scientific Research Permit No. 20455

2-F125,2271,F280,leap S8287 S28 2017-01-04 B138kw.JPG: Resident Sarasota Bay dolphins leap in a boat wake.

S8458 S01 26DEC17 060mw.JPG: Four resident mother-calf pairs entering Sarasota Bay through Big Pass. The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program was involved in interventions with three of these moms. Without intervention, these moms and their subsequent calves would likely not have been available for the photo.
S8946 S46 2020-04-11 C0001kbh_resize.JPG: Sarasota Dolphin Research Program staff conducting photographic identification survey.

tagjump_hdr.jpg: A resident Sarasota Bay dolphin leaping with suction-cup-mounted DTAG that records sounds and behavior for up to 24 hours.

2-TMJK,LIZ1 S8279 S47 2016-12-12 A092km.JPG: Local dolphins leaping in Sarasota Bay, Florida.

3-F248,mj S8368 2017-05-19 B007sb.JPG: Sarasota Dolphin Research Program staff performing photographic identification survey.

10-AMV_20180829_043_3000_Tt_JGON.JPG: Bottlenose dolphins

20200519 TursiopsTues original slides.jpg: Examples of dorsal fin features used to identify individual dolphins in Sarasota Bay.

FB66 S7579 S21 15Jul13 A023sh.jpg: Long-term Sarasota Bay resident male dolphin with fresh gashes from a boat propeller. The dolphin did not survive these injuries.

3877edd6-1618-4ddb-b004-e7d4f12ce6b7.jpg: Sarasota Dolphin Research Program staff rescue a young bottlenose dolphin entangled in fishing line.

CZS Staff 6Mar20: Sarasota Dolphin Research Program staff (pictured left to right):
Top row (tower): Jonathan Crossman, Dr. Katie McHugh; middle row: Kim Bassos-Hull, Aaron Barleycorn, Dr. Krystan Wilkinson; bottom row: Jason Allen, Dr. Randy Wells, Dr. Christina Toms, and interns Jessica Barrios, Leticia Magpali Estev√£o, and Amy Cabeceiras

Wells photo: Randy Wells, director of the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

About the Chicago Zoological Society
The mission of the Chicago Zoological Society is to inspire conservation leadership by engaging people and communities with wildlife and nature. The Chicago Zoological Society is a private nonprofit organization that operates Brookfield Zoo on land owned by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. The Society is known throughout the world for its international role in animal population management and wildlife conservation. Its Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare is at the forefront of animal care that strives to discover and implement innovative approaches to zoo animal management. Brookfield Zoo is the first zoo in the world to be awarded the Humane Certified™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals, meeting American Humane Association’s rigorous certification standards. The zoo is located at 8400 31st Street in Brookfield, Illinois, between the Stevenson (I-55) and Eisenhower (I-290) expressways and also is accessible via the Tri-State Tollway (I-294), Metra commuter line, and CTA and PACE bus service. For further information, visit


Sondra Katzen
Media Relations Manager
Office: 708-688-8351
Cell Phone: 708-903-2071


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