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A crew installing a dolphin data logger.

The United Nations report on biodiversity published this week reveals the alarming fact that extinction is now looming over one million species of plants and animals, including 1/3 of all marine mammal, shark and fish species. ( This staggering number is the highest in human history. While dolphins and whales in modern zoos and aquariums are thriving, thousands of marine mammals are suffering and dying every day in the wild due to human activities, including; malnutrition because of shrinking food supply from overfishing and climate change, pollution, ship strikes and entanglement in abandoned fishing gear.

The same week as the UN announcement, eight scientists from Duke University and The University of Michigan arrived at Dolphin Quest Oahu, located at The Kahala Resort, to conduct a groundbreaking study that will help preserve and protect dolphins in the wild. The scientists are developing conservation tools to more accurately assess the impacts of natural and human disturbance on marine mammals in the wild.

“One of the 8 projects that we are collaborating with Dolphin Quest on this month is ​developing a tool to estimate the calories dolphins burn while evading boats,” says Austin Allen, Duke University PhD candidate. “In June, we will be able to apply the techniques we are developing at Dolphin Quest to a wild dolphin population off the coast of Florida. In the future, this technology could be used to quantify the energetic impacts of boats on Hawaiian spinner dolphins.”

Quantifying how many calories dolphins burn at different swimming speeds can allow scientists to estimate how many calories dolphins expend when disturbed by boats, and ultimately how this effects population level parameters such as survival and reproductive rates. These energetic expenditures are increasingly important in light of decreasing prey fish populations which is making it harder for wild dolphins to find enough to eat.

Pictured Above: Dolphin Quest dolphin stops to pick up his data logger. If the suction cups detach, the dolphin will often pick up the data logger and bring it back to the scientists

In this study, dolphins wear suction-cup attached tags that record fine scale movement, while swimming different speeds and breathing into a device that measures exhaled gases. The exhaled gases allow researchers to calculate calories burned. Figuring out the relationship between swimming speed and energy expenditure with trained animals is a critical step in being able to apply techniques to wild populations. This research will ultimately inform science-based policies related to acoustic disturbance of wild cetaceans.

Pictured above: Dolphin voluntarily breathes into the spirometer while scientists analyze the exhaled gases in real-time

“The development of such conservation tools is dependent on our ability to gather physiological, cognitive, and bio-mechanical data from healthy animals in a controlled setting,” says Allen. “Dolphin Quest provides an ideal environment for this work since it is an accredited zoological institution with healthy animals that voluntarily participate in the study. These factors allow our team to safely gather baseline data that would be impossible to collect in the wild.”

The team works closely with Dolphin Quest’s marine mammal specialists to make the data collection process enriching and fun for the animals. “It’s all been accomplished through positive reinforcement,” says Julie Rocho-Levine, Dolphin Quest’s Manager of Marine Mammals. “Basically, we take our desired end behavior and break it down into small achievable steps for the dolphins. It’s like teaching them to play a new game. Our training philosophy is based on trust, respect, creativity and kindness.”

“Accredited zoos and marine parks like Dolphin Quest are fighting on the front lines for marine mammal conservation,” says Rae Stone, D.V.M, Dolphin Quest’s Co-Founder. “Not only are our dolphins thriving, our guests tell us when they connect with our dolphins, they are inspired to become more engaged in ocean conservation. As animal lovers we need to unite in support of real science and crucial conservation initiatives right now today. Working together, we can create a brighter future for dolphins and whales in the wild.”