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Dive Depth and Duration Exceed Previous Records for Bermuda Dolphins

Dolphin Quest Bermuda Continues Wild Dolphin Study with International Team of Marine Mammal Experts

Sandys, Bermuda (September 12, 2016) – Under special permit from the Bermuda Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, an international team of marine mammal scientists, Dolphin Quest veterinarians and animal care professionals have performed a health assessment and tagged four of Bermuda’s deep water bottlenose dolphins as part of an ongoing scientific study. Information gathered from the tags is already providing scientists a glimpse into the daily lives of these animals including travel patterns, dive depths and durations, and bioacoustic information.

According to Andreas Fahlman, PhD, lead investigator of the Wild Dolphin Project and Director of Research at Oceanografic Foundation in Valencia, Spain:

“To restore the marine ecosystem following man-made damage, such as overfishing or an oil spill, we need to better understand the health and status of our oceans. The pelagic dolphins of Bermuda provide a unique opportunity as they inhabit a pristine environment that appears to be minimally affected by pollution, urbanization and shipping traffic. Consequently, understanding the overall health of this population will provide important insights about dolphins that likely have not been significantly impacted by humans. The objective of the Bermuda Wild Dolphin Project is to enhance our understanding of the health, size, and behavior of the dolphins using Bermuda’s waters. Bottlenose dolphins may be particularly sensitive to climate change. They may be the canary in the coal mine that signals severe changes at lower trophic levels.”

While each dolphin was carefully fitted with a custom designed tag and the research team conducted a health assessment, Dolphin Quest marine mammal veterinarians monitored the dolphin ‘s vital signs and ensured the dolphin remained stable and comfortable. The health assessment included ultrasound, a custom flowmeter to measure lung function, and the collection of measurements and biological samples. The data collected will be compared with other wild dolphin populations as well as with healthy dolphins in professional human care.

 

According to Dr. Fahlman, the lung function data collected are vital to understand how Bermuda’s deep diving dolphins differ from their shallow-diving cousins in Sarasota Bay, Florida and how they can regularly dive to more than 900 m for more than 13 minutes without being affected by the extreme pressure or decompression sickness. “This information will assist veterinarians caring for stranded dolphins and may provide important clues of clinical significance for humans.”

Frants Jensen, PhD, of the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Denmark, attached small sound and movement recording tags to the backs of three of the dolphins via suction cups. The tags released as programmed by the next morning after collecting detailed information on the sounds the animals make and hear as they perform their deep dives. “The short-term DTAGs will help us understand how the dolphins catch their prey, communicate with conspecifics, and how much noise they encounter in their daily life. This is the first time such tags have been deployed on offshore bottlenose dolphins that are normally extremely difficult to study. The data collected will help us understand not only the behavior of the animals here, but also how echolocating animals in general adapt their sonar to find food in different habitats.”

The four subadult dolphins in this study, named Devonshire, Hamilton, Paget and Pembroke after parishes in Bermuda, will be tracked remotely for the next several months by Randall Wells, PhD, of the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program via small satellite-linked tags that were fitted on each animal’s dorsal fin. “The data we are getting from these animals are amazing,” says Dr. Wells, “Within just the first week of tracking they have established new records for how deep the offshore ecotype of bottlenose dolphins has been documented to dive, and how long their dives last.  We are very excited to see where they go over the next few months, and to learn what they have to tell us about their diving capabilities. After over four decades of studying bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota, Florida and in collaboration with zoological institutions like Dolphin Quest, we have learned quite a bit about the coastal ecotype of bottlenose dolphins which thrive in shallow waters. The offshore ecotype found in the deep waters surrounding Bermuda are much more of a mystery, and that is why this ongoing project is so exciting,” says Dr. Wells. 

The data collected from these animals will build on previous results from Dolphin Quest’s 2003, 2004 and 2005 studies. Summaries of the dolphins’ movement patterns and other information will be made available for the public to view on the Dolphin Quest website.

The Bermuda Wild Dolphin Project is made possible through international collaboration of scientific institutions including the Oceanografic Foundation in Valencia Spain, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies at Aarhus University in Denmark, Bermuda Zoological Society, Chicago Zoological Society’s Florida-based Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, Dolphin Quest Bermuda, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.