New Research Could Help Scientists Better Understand Respiratory Disease in Dolphins

Published: October 23, 2013

New Research Could Help Scientists Better Understand Respiratory Disease in Dolphins

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—Dolphins are universally adored for their intelligence and for, what some say are, the marine mammals’ "human-like" characteristics.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that the lungs of dolphins function similarly to those of humans.  Now a new tool created by researchers sheds some light on the similarities and differences, which will help them to better understand respiratory problems faced by dolphins.

"Lung function testing is a standard diagnostic tool in human respiratory medicine," said Dr. Andreas Fahlman, Assistant Professor of Life Sciences, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.  "It is what would be looked at if you have a respiratory disease such as asthma, as well as for research, in sports medicine, and to measure metabolism."

Fahlman and Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Micah Brodsky have developed a tool to study dolphin lung function called a "Pneumotachometer," or flow meter. The device is cone-shaped and fits on the blow hole of the dolphin.  As the dolphin breathes in and out, the "Pneumotachometer" measures the animal’s respiratory flow rates, as well as the oxygen and the carbon dioxide levels of the expired gas. Fahlman and Brodsky successfully tested the apparatus in April in collaboration with Dolphin Quest-Oahu.  

The Dolphin Quest staff trained the dolphins in such a way that allowed Fahlman and Brodsky to gather important data in a controlled environment, which would be impossible to recreate in the wild.

"The data we collected will also provide baseline values for healthy dolphins, or what is normal," said Fahlman.  "This information can then be used for early detection of disease both in captive and wild animals." 

Collaborators from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution recently used the dolphin "Pneumotachometer" in an attempt to improve the design of the suction cup mounted dive computers that are often attached to wild dolphins and whales for research.  What they discovered is, although the tags are small, they interfere with the hydrodynamic shape of the dolphins, and increase the amount of energy required for swimming.

"If you are running on a treadmill, you burn more calories than if you are resting," said Fahlman. "The same is true of dolphins; if they are swimming, diving, hunting for fish, then they burn more energy."

For the collaborative project with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the dolphins at Dolphin Quest were trained to follow a remote controlled boat while wearing a tag. Click here for video.  A sensor on the boat tracks the dolphin’s speed and how long the animal swims. The session ends with the dolphin giving a voluntary breath sample into the custom-made device.

It will take several months for University scientists to carefully analyze all of the data collected, but Fahlman says he is already finding that dolphins have an amazing respiratory capacity.  Fahlman hopes that accurate knowledge of what causes disruptions in a dolphins respiratory system will help us understand the environmental changes that could be affecting the number of dolphins in the wild.

"The many challenges facing wild dolphins are so complex, it is imperative that we all come together to find solutions," says Rae Stone, DVM, President and Partner of Dolphin Quest. "This groundbreaking work is a wonderful example of what can happen when esteemed scientists, engineers, physiologists, and animal behaviorists collaborate with these amazing animals."