For more than 46 years, the Chicago Zoological Society's Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), based on the central-west coast of Florida, has conducted the world's longest-running study of a wild dolphin population. For this program, Dr. Randy Wells and his team study dolphins to better understand these marine mammals and to protect them and their ecosystem.
Recently, they collaborated on a project with research organizations Dolphin Quest, Inc. and L'Oceanografic to learn more about the lung function, dive and movement patters, and foraging of bottlenose dolphins- the same species SDRP follows in Florida- off the coast of Bermuda. Prior to this project, little was known about these dolphins.
The project used the expertise of dolphin researchers and veterinarians from around the world. Specifically, Wells and his colleagues provided expertise on how to tag and track the four dolphins in the study- nicknamed Devonshire, Hamilton, Paget, and Pembroke- over a period of months. That's the kind of research they conduct in Sarasota and elsewhwere around the world, where their work involves detecting dolphins' travel patterns, dive depth, and duration, among other behaviors, on a long-term basis.
The ocean system surrounding Bermuda has not been significantly impacted by the presence of people or ecological disasters. That makes these waters an ideal place to observe and gather baseline data on bottlenose dolphins living in a pristine habitat. If those data were to change, it may be a warning that the health of the habitat has changed.
Photo taken by Sarasota Dolphin Research Program under National Marine Fisheries Service Scientific Research Permit No. 15543
For example, the amount of food dolphins obtain relies on how long they can hold their breath. This strategy changes based on where they live. Sarasota Bay dolphins find their food in very shallow waters, typicaly much less than 30 feet deep, while dolphins living off the coast of Bermuda must dive deeper, swim farther, and hold their breath longer than their Sarasota Bay counterparts. If the Bermuda dolphins were to show a significant difference in their diving capabilities over time, it may indicate problems in their currently healthy ecosystem.
Initital data compiled by Wells and his team show that, on occasion, the Bermuda dolphins dive to more than 3,200 feet and stay down for up to 14 mintues. That's deeper and longer than Sarasota Bay dolphins- or bottlenose dolphins studied anywhere to date.
This article originally appeared in Gateways, Brookfield Zoo’s member magazine.