News Release
 
Contact: Sondra Katzen, Public Relations, 708.688.8351, sondra.katzen@czs.org
 
December 9, 2021
 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
 
NOTE: Scroll down to end of press release to download photos.
 
Oh Baby! Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program
Documents Record Number of Dolphin Calves in 2021
 
22 documented births in the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population
exceeds previous record set in 2017
 

The Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program has documented 22 dolphin births in 2021 to the long-term resident bottlenose dolphin community of Sarasota Bay, Florida, exceeding the record of 21 set in 2017. The newest calf was first observed with its mother, known as Squarenotch, on Dec. 2.
 
Forty-four-year-old Squarenotch has been observed since 1980 and this is her sixth documented calf. “It’s great to see the continuing productivity of the Bay’s dolphins, and really interesting that it was one of our older females that put us over the top,” said Dr. Randy Wells, vice president of marine mammal conservation for the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) and director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), which is based at Mote Marine Laboratory.
 
Squarenotch was one of the 466 dolphins that Wells documented as part of his University of California, Santa Cruz Ph.D. dissertation “Structural Aspects of Dolphin Societies,” which he completed in 1986. As part of that work, Wells examined the population structure and social units of dolphins in Southwest Florida. His studies further expanded knowledge of the Sarasota Bay dolphin community, building on research that began in 1970 with the seminal finding that the Bay’s dolphins were long-term residents across decades and generations. Today, the Bay’s dolphins are the focus of the world’s longest-running study of a wild dolphin population.
 
Finding that identifiable individual dolphins could be studied for extended periods of time in their own natural habitat has allowed researchers to gain insight into dolphin biology and physiology and delve deeply into the dolphins’ day-to-day lives of complex social interactions as a society. It has also improved understanding about their needs in the face of increased human activity in coastal waters.
 
“It’s exciting to document new calves each year as one measure of the health of the Bay’s dolphin population and the health of the Bay itself,” Wells said. “But the long-term nature of our research allows us to drill deeper and consider the question of why we had a record number of births. It appears that the red tide that reached Sarasota Bay in 2018 may have played a role.”
 
The red tide that entered Sarasota Bay in the summer of 2018 was unusually strong and lasted through the winter of 2018-2019, killing marine life and causing millions of dollars in losses to coastal economies. During and following the bloom, SDRP researchers:

  • Caught fewer than half the average number of stingrays than expected during prey fish surveys conducted during the summers of 2019 and 2020. SDRP has been conducting catch-and-release purse seine fish surveys in shallow seagrass meadows since 2004. These surveys provide information on the relative abundance of dolphin prey and other fish in Sarasota Bay.

  • Used photographic identification surveys to determine that Sarasota Bay dolphins were bitten by sharks in record numbers in 2019 and 2020.

  • Documented that 45 percent of the females that gave birth to calves in 2021 had lost dependent calves during or since the red tide. On average, 31 percent of Sarasota calves do not survive more than two years, so there were increased losses of calves during the red tide period.

 
“Adding these facts together allows us to make some tentative inferences,” Wells said. “We know that stingrays are a primary prey item for sharks. When a preferred prey is unavailable, they’ll look to alternatives. The loss of typical shark prey may have led to the increased interactions we documented between sharks and dolphins as alternative prey, which allows us to infer that increased shark predation accounts for at least some of the losses of dependent calves during that period. When we document decreased ray catches, we tend to see increased disappearances of young dolphin calves.”
 
Since Sarasota dolphins typically rear their young for about four years, the loss of dependent calves before that age during and following the red tide (2018-19) meant that more females were available to reproduce in 2020, contributing to the increase in the number of births this year, Wells said.
 
“The record number of births is a wonderful story in itself, but thanks to our long-term data, we’re able to develop hypotheses about some of the factors that may have led to this result, which should lead to a better understanding of what can happen to an animal population when an environmental anomaly occurs,” Wells said.
 
Primary funding for the photographic identification and prey fish surveys was provided by the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, which has a long-term commitment to supporting Sarasota Bay dolphin research.
 
“We appreciate the work of Dr. Wells and his team who track our dolphins, water-based ecological sentinels that help us identify whether our local environment is healthy and sustainable,” says Teri A. Hansen, president|CEO of Barancik Foundation.  

 
Further reading:  
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Photo Captions (credit: Chicago Zoological Society’s SDRP/NMFS Permit #20455)
1: Sarasota Dolphin Research Program staff observed F233’s second calf on July 11, 2021. Her previous calf was born in 2019 and disappeared that same year.

2: DolphinMom-1092-CalfSKE2-on-2021-06-03 :A270: SKE2 is the second calf mom 1092. The calf was first observed on June 1. 1092’s previous calf, SKE1, was born in 2017 and was most recently observed on Oct. 4, 2021.

3: DolphinMom-F149-Calf1498-on-2021-08-23: F149’s eighth calf was first observed on Aug. 23, 2021. Her last calf, born in 2017, disappeared that same year.

4: DolphinMom-F167-Calf1676-on-2021-08-23: F167 was observed with her sixth calf on Aug. 23, 2021. Her previous calf, 1675, was born in 2017 and was last observed on July 9, 2021.

5: Fb87, also known as Squarenotch, was born in 1977 and has been observed since 1980. Her sixth documented calf was first seen on Dec. 2, 2021. Squarenotch is one of the 466 dolphins identified by Dr. Randy Wells, director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, as he conducted his Ph.D. research.

About the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program
The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program has been operated by the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) since 1989. Dolphin Biology Research Institute, a Sarasota-based 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation was established in 1982 to provide logistical support through its fleet of small research vessels, vehicles, computers, cameras, field equipment, etc. Since 1992, the program has been based at Mote Marine Laboratory, with office, lab, storage, and dock space within the resident Sarasota Bay dolphins’ home range. The SDRP maintains academic connections including providing student opportunities primarily through New College of Florida, the University of Florida, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Duke University. The SDRP is one of CZS’s flagship programs in its Center for Conservation Leadership. Learn more at https://sarasotadolphin.org/.
 
 

MEDIA CONTACT:

Sondra Katzen
Media Relations Manager
Office: 708-688-8351
Cell Phone: 708-903-2071
E-mail: Sondra.Katzen@CZS.org

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