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SeaWorld study sets metrics for assessing dolphin health

REGION — A team of veterinarians from San Diego and around the country released a report today which creates the first-ever standards for assessing the health of bottlenose dolphins, similar to a 2019 study creating a standard for killer whales.

The veterinarians — from SeaWorld, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach and University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine — used data from 1,426 blood samples collected as part of SeaWorld’s routine preventative medicine program from 156 healthy bottlenose dolphins at SeaWorld San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio parks.

The report was published in Veterinary Quarterly and the experts were able to define health benchmarks that can be used by other veterinarians and conservation biologists to help improve the diagnosis of health, disease and stressors of wild dolphin populations.

Bottlenose dolphins in the United States are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act because they are vulnerable to threats such as disease, pollution, habitat alteration, commercial and recreational fishing, energy exploration, underwater noise and oil spills.

“It is very difficult to assess the health of a wildlife species, to in turn be able to help them, because they are typically very challenging to access and their individual histories are largely unknown,” said Dr. Hendrik Nollens, Pacific Marine Mammal Center’s vice president of conservation medicine and science and the study’s lead author.

“Our study not only reports on what ‘normal’ looks like in a large population of healthy dolphins with a known medical history, but we also compare what ‘normal’ looks like across several populations of dolphins, both in human care and in the wild. SeaWorld has uniquely equipped, on-site veterinary diagnostic laboratories that generate high-quality health data that can be shared with the scientific community,” Nollens said.

Similar to the earlier report on standards for assessing health in killer whales, the ability to collect blood-based health data of dolphins in a reliable, controlled manner provides an opportunity for scientists to understand the species’ physiology.

The results of managed population studies are valuable because veterinarians can conduct longer-term follow-up of those same dolphins to track their known age, health, reproductive and nutritional statuses. Dolphins are able to participate in such studies as part of their routine preventative medical care at SeaWorld and are trained to participate in their health care such as presenting the underside of their tail — or fluke — so a veterinary professional can draw a blood sample.

“Similar to how your primary care doctor checks your weight, blood pressure and overall health, and compares the results against a benchmark for human health, this research provides the same benefit to the dolphin population,” said Dr. Todd Robeck, SeaWorld vice president of conservation research and study author.

“We need to find ways to take better care of the animals in our oceans through research, rescue, animal care and conservation efforts, and my research partners and I are happy to share the results of this study with other scientists and animal welfare experts around the world to help do this,” Robeck said.

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