Saturday, May 19, 2012

Scientist at Work: Playing Tag With Dolphins

Tara Thean, a biology major at Princeton University, writes from Sarasota Bay in Florida, where she is studying signature whistle development in wild bottlenose dolphins.

Monday, May 7
I saw my first dolphins at 8 a.m. on an overcast Monday morning in Sarasota Bay, Fla., just seven minutes after leaving the boat ramp near Mote Marine Laboratory. The dolphins, muscular creatures about two and a half meters long, were a mother-calf pair named Boxer and Box 1. They powered smoothly through the water with their sleek blue-gray bodies, staying close together as we watched from 50 meters away.
Few animals have had their life stories so closely documented as the dolphins in Sarasota Bay. There are people out here who could tell you about a particular dolphin’s date of birth, list the sex of each of its calves and describe its behavioral ups and downs simply by looking at the nicks and notches on its fin. From time to time, a team of veterinarians and scientists from around the world work with the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program to conduct health assessments and photo-identification surveys of the Sarasota dolphin community, gathering biological, behavioral, ecological and health data for use by field biologists, conservationists and veterinarians.

I am fortunate to be part of one such team this spring. I will write a senior thesis that focuses on bottlenose dolphins under the supervision of Laela Sayigh, a research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Laela has kindly allowed me to take part in this trip to help with data collection and to get some hands-on experience with the animals I will be thinking and writing about for the rest of my undergraduate career.


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