Leading Dolphin Researcher
Randall Wells is one of the world’s leading dolphin researchers. As the senior conservation scientist for the Chicago Zoological Society and director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, Wells has dedicated his life to studying dolphins. He joins us to discuss the longest-running study of a wild dolphin population and his commitment to conservation. View a slideshow of images of some of the dolphins involved in the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.
We spoke with Dr. Jennifer Langan, an associate veterinarian at the Brookfield Zoo, who has assisted Wells in dolphin health assessments in Sarasota, Florida.
I’ve been involved with the Brookfield Zoo since 1999, and feel very fortunate. I’m just thrilled to be able to be involved with the program, and to work with Randy (Wells). He is very much a pioneer in marine mammal medicine, and a leader in education.
Can you tell me about the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program?
The Sarasota Dolphin Research Health Assessments are one-of-a-kind. There are numerous marine health assessments that take place, but the one in Sarasota is on a scale that’s much larger than I have ever seen. It offers people the ability to observe and participate in an ongoing health assessment of these animals.
What do the health assessments entail?
It involves knowing the background and health of the dolphins. It’s unique because Randy has been doing this for four decades. They look at about 175 animals, and some of them have been sampled repeatedly throughout the years, which is rare in wildlife medicine. Randy has been studying this for so long that he and his team know the history of these animals. They know things like where they feed, who they are related to, and which ones are troublemakers.
The assessments involve a physical examination and an ultrasound exam. We also check things like pregnancy status and nutritional health status. We take stomach samples, we look at their eyes, and sometimes we measure specific products that are exhaled in their breath. I don’t know of any other project that has as much collaboration to improve the understanding of the health, well-being, and conservation of this species.
How often are the assessments conducted?
The hands-on exams that actually involve touching the animals and taking samples usually take place once a year, over a period of five days. We typically do it in the spring or early summer. That’s when it’s safest to handle the animals, because they haven’t had their babies yet. However, several times a month there are numerous surveys that take place, like testing water quality and taking fish samples.
Why is it important for this program to continue?
I think we need this information in order for us to be able to have measurable impacts on conservation. We can only make policy changes if we have the data and information that Randy and his team have been able to collect. That information can help make important recommendations and decisions, such as the need to slow down boat traffic.
We are looking to use this information to help the conservation of these animals in the long run. Understanding how they’re surviving also has a direct connection to the ecosystem, in terms of knowing how the environment is doing.
What are some of the important discoveries that the research has contributed to?
They have been able to identify the kinds of contaminants that can potentially build up in the animals that live in these environments their entire lives. And they have been able to figure out which infectious diseases affect them, what impact red tide has on them, and who is related to whom.
This program has also provided other researchers with data to use when animals are in need of comparison. We’ve been able to use that dolphin population in Sarasota as a baseline population, and have been able to compare their health data to the dolphins in the BP oil spill.
There are increasing interactions with dolphins and fishing gear. It’s more the personal recreational fishing and less so commercial fisheries. Individuals discard fishing lines that the animals can get tangled in. There have also been increased boat strikes.
It’s definitely clear that human impacts in the environment can negatively impact the long-term survival of these animals in their ecosystem.
Are there campaigns that raise awareness about those dangers?
A lot of public outreach is done to educate the surrounding community on how to prevent those types of injuries. It’s an ongoing educational process.
What impact do these assessments have on the bottlenose dolphins that like at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago?
I think the opportunity to be able to work with free ranging animals always teaches us what to expect and what to strive for in a zoological or aquarium setting. Being able to evaluate the health of a free ranging animal helps us know what’s normal in our collection of animals, and gives us knowledge about how to care for the six bottlenose dolphins at the zoo.
How did you get involved in this type of work?
This is what I wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I have always wanted to work with zoo and wildlife species. I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the free ranging dolphin work, and have developed a specialty in ultra-sounding dolphins.
In addition to working as a veterinarian at the zoo, you are also a Professor at the University of Illinois?
I am. I’m an assistant clinical professor in the department of veterinary clinical medicine. As a professor, I spend most of my time teaching and caring for animals at the Brookfield Zoo with students and residents.
Is there something about dolphins that most people don’t know?
They have three stomachs.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
*All photographs were taken by the Chicago Zoological Society's Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, under Scientific Research Permits issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service