CHICAGO, IL — Over the past decade, the health and wellbeing of marine mammals in captivity have received a lot of public scrutiny.
The largest study ever published on the effects of habitat, environment, training, and welfare on dolphins and whales in zoos or aquariums is now available.
Scientists are now able to use new physiological insights from bottlenose dolphins at Brookfield Zoo, Illinois, to care for marine mammals.
They were fitted with ‘Mtag’ activity trackers as part of a two-year study of cetaceans.
“The data output that the animals gave us, how active they were and what type of behaviors they were engaged in, how they explored their habitat,” said Rita Stacey, curator of marine mammals at Brookfield Zoo.
The study authors stated that the goal of the research was to provide real science and data for the care and training of marine mammals in professional facilities.
“What we found was that things like enrichment programs and social management were much more closely related to behaviors indicative of animal welfare than things like habitat size,” said Dr. Lance Miller with the Chicago Zoological Society, who was also one of the study’s principal investigators.
Dr. Miller said that one important finding was the importance of enrichment programs to help animals emulate the behaviors they would do in the wild.
“As a scientist, we try to study to find out what those behaviors are. And from an animal care standpoint, they try to make sure that they’re providing those opportunities for those animals,” said Miller.
Dolphins participated in a teamwork activity as part of an enrichment program. Together, they pulled on nylon straps to loosen the ends of a teamwork tub to release the treats inside.
“We are looking to provide them different things to solve, different devices that might encourage them to come together socially to investigate something new,” said Stacey.
Technology is also a key component.
“Not only do we have baseline data on all of our animals, but now I can look at reference ranges that we didn’t have before,” said Stacey.
As part of the welfare project, they’ve developed a Zoo Physio App that allows care staff and veterinarians to track animal health at their fingertips.
“It is a tool now that I can use to ensure that my animals are experiencing really good welfare and that they’re thriving,” said Stacey.
The study involved 43 institutions from seven countries, including the John G. Shedd aquarium in Chicago that is home to white-sided and beluga dolphins.
“When we see things that we know are important to belugas because they do it in in the ocean, they do it in really healthy populations like vocalizations, swimming together, cooperative behavior. We want to integrate that into this environment,” said Steve Aibel, senior director of animal behavior and training at the Shedd.
Aibel said that the study reinforced many of what their trainers had been doing.
“There’ll be a lot of things that we pull out of this study that will help us make our program even better than the excellent care that we have today,” said Aibel.
Scientists believe that these care will be able to preserve the behavioral diversity and wellbeing of marine mammals for many years.