CHICAGO, IL — Over the past decade, the health and wellbeing of marine mammals in captivity have received a lot of public scrutiny.
Now, new research published is the largest ever to study how habitat, environment and training affect the welfare of dolphins and whales living in zoos and aquariums.
Bottlenose dolphins at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois are providing scientists with new physiologic insights into caring 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.
Study authors say the goal was to put real science and data behind the training and care practices of marine mammals living 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.
Miller said one key findings stressed the importance of enrichment programs that help the animals mimic behaviors they would engage in 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,” Miller said.
In one such enrichment program, dolphins engaged in a teamwork exercise. Working together, they tugged on nylon straps to dislodge the end caps of a teamwork tube 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,” Stacey said.
Technology is playing a major role as well.
“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,” Stacey said.
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,” Stacey said.
Forty-three institutions around the world in seven countries came together for the study, including the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, which is home to white-sided dolphins and beluga whales.
“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 the study has reinforced much of what their trainers have already 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,” Aibel said.
Scientists say they're confident that care will help them maintain wellness and behavioral diversity among these marine mammals for decades to come.