Watch: Five ways we use science to save dolphins

The Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team of the International Fund for Animal Wedlfare (IFAW) responds to stranded dolphins along more than 700 miles of coastline in southern Massachusetts - one of the top dolphin stranding hotspots in the world.

Here are five innovative ways IFAW’s team is using science and technology to return healthy dolphins back to the sea.

1. Blood Analysis

IFAW uses several point-of-care veterinary blood analysis machines to help determine the health of the dolphins we rescue. With just a small amount of blood, we can determine in short time if the dolphin is suffering from infection, dehydration, metabolic disorders, physiological stress from stranding, and/or organ dysfunction. We can then use this information to provide medical treatment and to inform decisions regarding care.

2. Heart Rate Monitor

Vital signs including heart rate are observed to help IFAW staff monitor the dolphin’s condition and stress level. If a dolphin shows increased signs of stress or symptoms of shock, we can often take simple measures to reduce these effects. Bluetooth heart rate monitors (like those used by many athletes) are used to continually monitor heart rate and store heart rate data. Our staff can even see the heart rate and an electrocardiogram (ECG) right from our smartphones!

3. Ultrasonography

Ultrasound is a non-invasive diagnostic method that uses high-frequency sound waves to capture real-time images of a dolphin’s internal anatomy. While most people have seen an ultrasound of a baby in the womb, it is also a valuable diagnostic tool beyond pregnancy.  At IFAW, we also use ultrasound to detect pregnancies in stranded dolphins. While pregnant dolphins may react differently when stranded, confirmation allows us to handle them to meet their special needs. Ultrasounds also allow us to visualize the internal organs, blood vessels, muscle, and blubber. We use ultrasound to assess body condition by measuring blubber thickness and to aid in detecting illnesses and abnormalities such as pneumonia or tumors.

4. AEP Hearing Test

In the aquatic world where sound travels much farther than light, hearing is essential for a dolphin’s survival. Disease and natural and man-made noises can affect hearing and may contribute to a stranding. IFAW uses the Auditory Evoked Potential (AEP) method (the same test used to assess hearing in newborn babies) to measure dolphin brainwaves in response to sound. AEP assesses the range and threshold of a dolphin’s hearing allowing us to determine the presence and degree of any hearing loss. It is conducted during the transport to the release site.

5. Satellite Tagging

The best way for us to know if a dolphin survives after release is to attach a tracking device. Before release, a satellite transmitter “tag” is attached to the dorsal fin of some dolphins to provide this information. The transmitter relays location data that allows us to track a dolphin’s movement, and some tags even tell us how deep and for how long they dive. This information helps us determine if the individual tagged dolphin survives and we are able to use the data to inform future rescues. Satellite tag data are analyzed and compared with the diagnostic and physical exam information collected before release. These analyses have helped us in determining which dolphins have the best chance of survival and developing treatments and supportive care protocols to increase the chance of survival.

By using these technological tools and scientific methods, IFAW successfully released 56 dolphins back to the ocean in the first few months of 2017 alone. And the data collected provides critical knowledge to further increase survival rates for stranded dolphins in the future.

--KP

IFAW’s stranding response is conducted under the authorization of a Stranding Agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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