Texas State Aquarium Participates in Multi-Institutional Cetacean Study

January 10, 2018

Scientists in seven countries will collect data to increase understanding of health and welfare of cetaceans in professional care.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX – The Texas State Aquarium is participating in the largest-ever, multi-institutional study of how physical habitat, environmental enrichment, and animal training impact the welfare of cetaceans in zoos and aquariums worldwide. This study will take place across 44 accredited facilities in seven countries where scientists will gather data regarding approximately 290 common and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, 20 beluga whales, and eight Pacific white-sided dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphins, the most common cetacean in zoos and aquariums, are generally regarded as a species that thrive in professional care. But there is a surprising lack of scientific-based inquiry into what conditions optimize good welfare of cetaceans in managed environments; most animal-care decisions are made using information gained from research on a smaller scale combined with professional judgment from decades of experience. This study seeks to fill that void by collecting robust and objective data that can help inform future facility design, enrichment, and training programs.

“We are excited to be a part of this groundbreaking study,” said Texas State Aquarium (TSA) Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jesse Gilbert. “The opportunity to obtain objective data from such a large number of institutions will provide a tremendous amount of information regarding cetacean welfare. This study is one of several that TSA is participating in, across multiple taxa, as part of our larger focus on animal welfare.”

The staff at Dolphin Bay, which has been at the Texas Aquarium since 2003, have always dedicated significant attention to helping ensure their Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, including current residents Shadow, Kai, Liko, and Schooner, are kept physically and mentally healthy. This includes ensuring their exhibit habitat is clean, the animals are given a healthy diet and top-notch medical care, and that they are provided various forms of enrichment – devices and activities designed to keep the dolphins active in body and mind. Through participation in the cetacean welfare study, the dolphin’s caretakers hope to collect even more information on how to provide the dolphins with the best possible welfare.

Approximately $740,000 in funding for the study is being provided through a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, with additional funding from partner facilities.

There are two main objectives of the cetacean study: developing reference ranges for indicators of health and welfare for cetaceans in zoos and aquariums and identifying factors that influence the welfare of bottlenose dolphins. Researchers will attempt to quantify welfare by measuring activity and movement through a bio-logging device worn by the dolphins, through observation of video taped segments, and through measuring hormones and other biomarkers of health and welfare.

“Cetaceans currently receive high levels of care in accredited zoos and aquariums around the world, but it is important to use science to cultivate best practices and make continuous improvements,” said Lance Miller, Ph.D., senior director of animal welfare research for the Chicago Zoological Society, and one of the principal investigators on the study.

Data collection will take place in two timeframes – July/August of 2018 and January/February of 2019. Then, data analysis will be conducted by the six principal investigators and additional project staff over the following two years, and research will likely be published in 2020.  The questions that researchers seek to answer will include:

  • How do habitat characteristics impact environment use, energy expenditure, and swimming behavior of bottlenose dolphins?
  • How does environmental enrichment influence behavioral and physiological indicators of animal welfare?
  • How does the type and timing of animal training influence behavioral and physiological indicators of welfare?

Principal investigators include Lance Miller, Ph.D., senior director of animal welfare research for the Chicago Zoological Society; Lisa Lauderdale, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Animal Welfare Research department for the Chicago Zoological Society; Joy Mench, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis; Jill Mellen, Ph.D., affiliate professor from Portland State University Biology Department; Michael Walsh, DVM, clinical associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine; and Douglas Granger, Ph.D., professor and director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at the University of California, Irvine.

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