Discover Your Island

Island University Researcher Studies the Secrets of Bermuda’s Deepwater Dolphins

October 05, 2015

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A researcher from the Island University is studying the secrets of Bermuda’s deepwater dolphins, a population considered to be isolated from most of the animals in the United States.

Dr. Andreas Fahlman, Assistant Professor of Life Sciences at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, was among a team of wildlife biologists, cetologists and veterinarians hosted by Dolphin Quest Bermuda and the Bermuda Aquarium in September 2015.

The team’s goal was to learn more about the health, behavior and diving physiology of Bermuda’s deep diving dolphins. Past results from this ongoing study included the deepest-recorded dive for a bottlenose dolphin, with a depth of more than 900 meters. 

Building on data collected during Dolphin Quest’s 2003, 2004 and 2005 studies, this year’s focus was on where these dolphins travel, how deep they dive, the metabolic costs of the deep dives and the unique factors that allow them to dive to such great depths. Other areas of interest included genetics, monitoring reproduction, tracking animals over time with individual identification from natural markings and measuring contaminant levels to compare to dolphins that have been studied on the East Coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico.

Although poor weather conditions prevented the team from placing satellite-linked tags on the animals and performing physical health exams, the scientists successfully spotted several groups of dolphins that included two mother-calf pairs and two groups of beaked whales. The team was also able to collect dolphin photo IDs which will provide important insights into the tracking of these animals over time.

“We believe that the Bermuda dolphin population is isolated from most of the animals in the U.S., so this serves as a control population,” said Fahlman. “We can look at the health of these animals and compare it to the health of the animals in the U.S. Last year, we had an outbreak of morbillivirus in the U.S., and this killed up to a 1,000 dolphins. One of the things we would like to do is see if this virus has spread to this population here in Bermuda.” 

The collaborating team of scientists also included Dr. Randy Wells, Dr. Katie McHugh, Aaron Barleycorn and Jason Allen from the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program; Dr. Michael Moore from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Dr. Marina Ivančić from AquaVetRad; Dr. Ian Walker from the Bermuda Zoological Society; Billy Hurley from LeeLan Consulting; and Dr. Jay Sweeney and Dr. Rae Stone from Dolphin Quest. 

Fahlman’s research area includes the respiratory mechanics of Bermuda’s deep diving dolphins. The baseline data he was able to voluntarily collect from dolphins at Dolphin Quest provides a healthy normal and can be compared to the field research on wild dolphins. Fahlman used a custom-made pneumotachometer to measure the lung function of the Dolphin Quest dolphins.

“This project is a great example of how the scientific, the veterinary and the aquaria and zoo communities work together for the conservation of dolphins in the wild,” said Fahlman.