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Dolphin Lung Study

Lung Mechanics, Gas Exchange, and Metabolic Cost During Breath-Hold Dives, Swimming, and Beaching in Bottlenose Dolphins

Summary of Project

Project Investigators: Andreas Fahlman, Micah Brodsky, Gregg Levine, Julie Rocho-Levine

Affiliate Organizations: Texas A&M – Department of Life Sciences; Micah Brodsky Consulting

Project Started: 2013

Project Description: The main objective of the study is to develop minimally invasive methods and equipment for pulmonary (lung) function testing in cetaceans. Pulmonary function testing has the potential to provide critical information about cetaceans for early detection of disease, diagnosis, the evaluation of response to therapy, and monitoring of disease progression.

Dolphin Quest Training

  • Animals were asked to station calmly and breathe in flow meter for 2-5 minutes. To accomplish this, we reinforced a calm stationing behavior while breathing at a normal frequency and intensity in the flow meter. We started with a short duration of 20 seconds and slowly built up to a 5-minute duration.
  • They were then asked to swim, with their body completely submerged underwater, across the lagoon around a stationed person and back to the flow meter to breathe. After 2-3 breaths, they will be sent on the same swim task again and back to the flow meter for another 2-3 breaths (this was repeated for 10 laps). We utilized our hover behavior to ask our animals to submerge under the water before they were sent with a point on a swim to a B person. We started with a very short swim lap and reinforced when the entire body was under the water. When our animals were showing success with the short swim laps increased the distance and the number of laps being practiced.
  • After the 10 swimming laps, the animals were asked to station and breathe in the flow meter for 3-5 minutes.
  • A successful trial would mean no breaths are taken out of the flow meter. We would immediately communicate to our animals “good job” with our whistle when the animals held their breath until the flow meter was over their blowhole.
  • Trials were conducted with no food. In the training period of this swim trial, we reinforced all aspects of the behavior and slowly shifted our reinforcement to be at the end of the entire chain of behaviors.
  • The animals were taught to conduct the swim task at a slow swim speed and a fast swim speed. We used a slow point to signal a slow swim trial and our speed swim signal to cue for a fast swim trial.

Conservation Benefit

  • By testing these methods in a controlled environment, we establish important baseline lung function information for the species that can be used for lung health evaluations of dolphins in human care or in the wild.