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Crew members inviting the dolphin to swim into the globe.

Sandys, Bermuda – (June 17, 2019) – Dr. Jason Bruck, a dolphin researcher from Oklahoma State University’s (OSU) Department of Integrative Biology began a groundbreaking new study last month at Dolphin Quest Bermuda with his team of scientists to measure the bottlenose dolphin’s field of vision.

The results from this study serve two important initial purposes. It will help inform guidelines for boaters to prevent human-caused boat injuries to wild dolphins, and it will provide important insights into how biologists can collect undetected and non-invasive hormone samples from wild dolphins using drone technology. Wild dolphin hormone sampling helps scientists understand and measure dolphins’ stress levels due to a variety of things including human-caused factors in the ocean like industrial oil extraction, shipping noises, military sonar and other sounds.

Measuring cortisol levels can provide an indication of dolphin stress. Cortisol samples can be collected from the breath exhaled from a dolphin’s blowhole, which is much like a person’s sneeze, laden with fluids. Taking a blowhole sample from a wild dolphin is a challenge, and this is why drone technology is being explored. The ability to develop quiet drones that can take advantage of visual blind spots will be key to successful sampling in the wild.

“We are trying to understand where dolphins can see and where they can’t see around their head”, says Dr. Jason Bruck. “They have eyes on the opposite sides of their heads, and we think they are pretty good at seeing things from the sides, but we hypothesize that they have a blind spot above their heads based on behavioral anecdotes taken from those who work with dolphins on a daily basis. However, we have never systematically studied that, so this is one of the things we are studying this summer in Bermuda at our partner facility Dolphin Quest. We will be looking at where the blind spots of the dolphin are so we can position collection devices where we want them without startling the animal.”

By collaborating with the marine mammal specialists at Dolphin Quest Bermuda, Dr. Bruck is able to collect data in a controlled, safe environment where the animals voluntarily participate in the study. The marine mammal specialists approach training process as a fun new game for the dolphins. The animals learn to swim into the globe where LED lights are positioned 360 degrees around their head. The dolphins are then asked to whistle when a single light turns on to indicate they can see it. This helps the scientists determine the dolphins’ blind spots as the light moves around the animal’s head and will help scientists find the best drone approach techniques in wild animals.

“This is a very important study because it highlights the value of animals under human care and their relation to helping animals in the wild”, says Dr. Bruck. “Having the ability to work with facilities like Dolphin Quest is critically important in order for us to get data to help wild animals. For example, dolphins in the wild are not going to give us the opportunity to look at their field of vision with a globe structure over their heads, but we can collect that information from the dolphins at Dolphin Quest.”

Pictured: Dolphin Quest Marine Mammal Specialist teaching dolphin to make a sound when it sees the LED light up.

Diagram of possible field of vision results for a bottlenose dolphin

“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. “As animal lovers, we need to unite in support of science and crucial conservation initiatives right now, today. Working together, we can create a brighter future for dolphins and whales in the wild.”