Georgia Aquarium and Partners Complete Health Study of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins

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Long-term program finishes 2015 dolphin health assessments

Dr. Gregory Bossart performs an ultrasound on an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin during the 2015 Health and Environmental Risk Assessment (HERA). Photo credit Georgia Aquarium/Addison Hill

This week, researchers from Georgia Aquarium and other conservation partners concluded a study to understand the health of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and the ecosystem they live in. The research program known as HERA, or Health and Environmental Risk Assessment, examines how diseases affecting dolphins are related to potential environmental stressors and how they serve as an early warning system of changes that could impact both animal and human health. Initial findings are expected in the coming weeks.

Under a federal permit, HERA program researchers have safely examined and released more than 350 bottlenose dolphins since 2003, primarily from the Florida Indian River Lagoon (IRL). The IRL is an ecologically diverse estuary that covers approximately 40 percent of Florida’s east coast and has experienced significant changes in water quality due to land-use and pollution. This year, the assessments took place in the northern region of the IRL that has experienced three unusual mortality events (UMEs), or unexpected strandings in which a significant amount of dolphins die.

“We started this project primarily as a dolphin health assessment, but it has developed into a broader program using marine mammals as sentinels,” said Gregory Bossart, V.M.D., Ph.D., chief veterinary officer and senior vice president at Georgia Aquarium. “Dolphins are like the proverbial canaries in a coal mine. Understanding their health and determining what impacts them is important because they can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health.”

Bossart, Dr. Patricia Fair of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Dr. John Reif of Colorado State University are the co-principal investigators. Their scientific idea was launched in 2003 at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute through the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation program co-founded by Stephen McCulloch. McCulloch is presently the 2015 HERA program manager and field supervisor for Georgia Aquarium. This internationally renowned research program has yielded new marine mammal knowledge and changed the way scientists think about dolphin research.

“Our mission is to protect these magnificent marine mammals and make sure they always have a future in the coastal waters of Florida that we all share,” said Bossart. “We also hope to unlock some clues as to the cause of the UMEs.”

Over the last two weeks, a team of 50-70 specialists performed health assessments on more than 25 dolphins. The biological samples collected from dolphins will be analyzed by laboratories that are HERA scientific collaborators, and the data will then be added to the HERA database.

Since the HERA project began, the program has documented novel emerging disease, antibiotic resistant bacteria, immune dysfunction and high levels of some toxins, including mercury in IRL dolphins.

In addition to primary sponsor Georgia Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station, partners participating in this research include Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Discovery Cove, Dolphins Plus, Dolphin Research Center, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Institute of Technology, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, National Estuary Program, Ocean Embassy, South Carolina Aquarium, Texas Sealife Center and SeaWorld Orlando.

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ABOUT GEORGIA AQUARIUM, INC.
Georgia Aquarium, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that encompasses Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, and Marineland Dolphin Adventure and Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station in Marineland, Fla. The mission of Georgia Aquarium, Inc. is to be an entertaining, educational and scientific organization featuring exhibits and programs of the highest standards, and offering engaging and exciting guest experiences that promote the conservation of aquatic biodiversity throughout the world. For additional information, visit http://www.georgiaaquarium.org or http://www.marineland.net.

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Paige Hale
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