Posts Tagged 'Dolphins'

Happy Birthday, Chesapeake!

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Today we’re celebrating the 22nd birthday of Chesapeake, the first dolphin to be born here at the National Aquarium!

Chesapeake dolphin national aquarium

Chesapeake, affectionately nicknamed Chessie by our Marine Mammal team, was named in honor of the Chesapeake Bay. She is mother to our youngest dolphin, five-year-old Bayley.

Chessie is easy to identify as she is smaller in size, has a short rostrum or bottlenose and is usually paired swimming with her daughter!

bayley

Chessie is an energetic and playful animal. She loves to learn new things and interact with our Marine Mammal staff!

Join me in wishing Chesapeake a very happy birthday!

allison ginsburg national aquarium marine mammal expert

Get to Know Dolphin Discovery

For the 1.3 million people who visit us annually, there’s a lot to see and do at the Aquarium. However, there’s even more going on with our animals and staff behind-the-scenes.

Although our blog often offers sneak peeks into the everyday lives of our 17,000+ animals, we thought it would be fun to give our readers a breakdown from the perspective of our exhibits!

This week’s highlighted exhibit is Dolphin Discovery:

Dolphin Discovery, the Aquarium’s largest exhibit, first opened in 1990 and is home to our colony of eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins!

The Animals:

  • Six females: Nani, Jade, Spirit, Maya, Bayley and Chesapeake
  • Two males: Beau and Foster

Nani, our eldest dolphin at 42, is the mother to Beau and Spirit. Chesapeake was the first dolphin born at the National Aquarium and she is the mother to our youngest dolphin, Bayley.  Maya is a half sister to Chesapeake (via dam or mother) as well as half sister to Spirit (via sire or father).  Jade is the mother to Foster. All but one of our dolphins were born right here at the Aquarium. Nani came to us from another aquarium that had to close.

This colony structure represents a complex social group for the dolphins and provides them with essential relationships. Bottlenose dolphins live in a matriarchal society due to the level of care that females provide to their young; the males live in separate social groups consisting of a few members that are called bachelor groups or alliances.  Here are at the National Aquarium, we house our animals in what we call a nursery group which consists of all of our females ranging in age from 42 to 5 and our two males have formed a pair bonded group.

Exhibit Staff: In Dolphin Discovery, we have 13 marine mammal trainers, a Director of Marine Mammal Training, Allison Ginsburg, and our Director of Animal Programs, Sue Hunter. Our marine mammals team is responsible for the everyday care of our dolphins including medical care, diet and nutrition, teaching and learning, research, and of course a lot of playtime.

We have staff who work in this exhibit full time and we also have team members who assist with the care of dolphins. Our veterinary team, led by Dr. Leigh Clayton, provides state-of-the-art medical care to each animal on a routine basis. It’s not unusual for guests to come in and see our vet team checking in.

A Typical Day: A day in the Marine Mammal Department can start as early as 6:30 in the morning. It takes two full hours to sort and weigh out the 200 pounds of frozen fish that make up the dolphins’ diet. The dolphins get fed between 7-10 times per day, roughly every hour and half.

Sorting fish for the dolphins

Food is an essential part of their training through positive reinforcement. Our trainers work with the animals to create an enriching environment where they can learn new behaviors through play. Play is also a great way for us to build our relationship with the animals, which is key in all of the training that we do. We even help the dolphins learn certain behaviors to help us take care of them. For example, as part of regular their physicals, our veterinary team needs access to a dolphin’s fluke fin to take blood samples, so our trainers work with the dolphins through a series of play/reward sessions to obtain the desired fluke-raise behavior.

Our staff does some of this training work behind-the-scenes, but most are done during the day while guests are in the exhibit. There are many different types of sessions they participate in: some are focused on training these brand new behaviors, others are dedicated to husbandry and some consist entirely of playtime.

When we’re not working directly with the animals, we spend a majority of our time cleaning. This includes buckets, toys, the kitchen, all of our back-up areas and even the animals’ habitat. All trainers are SCUBA certified, which allows us to enter the water and scrub and vacuum each and every day.

In 2012, we changed over our Dolphin Discovery exhibit to allow our guests more access to the animals and our expert staff. Every day our dolphin exhibit is open for visitors to stop in as many times as they like for as long as they like during operating hours!

Stay tuned for next week’s highlight of Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes!

A Blue View: Why Animals Strand

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

October 2, 2013: Why Animals Strand

A Blue View podcastClick here to listen to John discuss the alarming
number of dolphins strandings observed along
the East Coast this year.

2013 has been a record-breaking year for dolphin strandings, with more than 500 dolphins stranding along the East Coast from New York to North Carolina since July 1. This number is almost 10 times the historical average for our region, and as a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared an unusual mortality event, or UME, working with partners throughout the region to respond to strandings and attempt to discover their causes.

A UME is declared when marine mammal strandings are unexpected, involve significant mortalities, and demand immediate response. Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs are important because they often serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues. Since 1991, 60 UMEs have been declared nationally with the most common species cited as bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, and manatees.

NOAA has tentatively attributed the mid-Atlantic dolphin die-off to a deadly strain of a measles-like disease, morbillivirus, based on tissue sampling. This same virus caused more than 700 dolphin deaths in 1987 and 1988, and—sadly—this current outbreak isn’t expected to fully subside until next spring.

Many marine animals, including dolphins, whales, seals, turtles, and sea lions, are known to strand. In late 2012, frigid waters off the coast of New England caused a severe cold-stun event, resulting in sea turtle strandings in record numbers. This winter was unlike any other for our partners in New England, who called in the National Aquarium and other animal rescue organizations to help with a mass stranding of more than 400 sea turtles. Over the next 6 months, more than 240 were rehabilitated and released into warmer waters.

On the West Coast this year, more than 1,000 sea lion pups washed ashore in Southern California, many starving and dehydrated. Though the cause of this mass stranding is still officially unknown, scientists believe that the young sea lions aren’t getting the food they need due to environmental factors that are limiting prey availability for pups. An investigation is ongoing.

These are just a few recent examples, and the fact is, animal strandings—of both individuals and entire populations—can occur for many reasons. Sometimes an animal is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other times, an animal gets caught in fishing gear or is struck by a fishing vessel. Or, as in the case of the dolphins this year, an illness spreads through a population.

Those who spend time at the shore have probably seen a stranded marine animal. Even still, it can be difficult for even the most savvy beach-goer to know what to do.

First, you should never approach a stranded animal. If you encounter a semi-aquatic marine mammal resting on land, such as a seal, count yourself lucky. Appreciate the animal from a safe distance of at least 4 or 5 car lengths, take plenty of pictures, and remember that these are wild animals.

How you can help: 

  • Report any aquatic animal strandings or mortalities to the local stranding response facility. In Maryland, call the Natural Resources Police at 1-800-628-9944.
  • If you can, document the event with photos or video from a safe distance!
  • While it is tempting to want to help stranded dolphins, whales and turtles by pushing them back into the water, this can actually be more harmful to the animal.
  • Make a donation to a local stranding response organization. Events like this require a lot of basic equipment, supplies and fees for processing tissue samples.

Blog-Header-JohnRacanelli

How to Train Your [Insert Subject Here]

national aquarium animal expert update

We have all been there…contemplating how to change a behavior you don’t like in yourself or another subject. It can manifest in many ways – How do I get my dog to stop pulling on his leash? My husband to stop leaving coffee cups around the house (true story for me)? My kids to clean up their rooms? It can also be a positive behavior you want them to keep doing, such as colleagues keeping the workplace clean and organized.

Whether you are trying to decrease an unwanted behavior or increase behavior you want to see more frequently, it can all be achieved (or conditioned) the same way.

Here at the National Aquarium, and in most marine mammal facilities across the country, we use a method of training known as “operant conditioning” or positive reinforcement training.  Simply defined, this means that behavior is likely to increase or decrease in frequency based on the consequences that follow.

Chesapeake

Think about the last time you did something and what followed; if you experienced a positive outcome, you are probably more likely to do that specific something again. However, if the outcome was negative, then most likely it is not something you would want to repeat.

We use the same training technique with our dolphins. When a dolphin does a behavior correctly, we blow a whistle that basically says “good,” and then we follow it up with reinforcement. Reinforcement for the dolphins can be fish, enrichment, toys or tactile rubs.  If the behavior is incorrect, then we simply do nothing. We can choose to ask again or simply move on to something else. By not giving a reaction, we communicate to the animal that the particular behavior requested was not correct, but they still have the opportunity to earn reinforcement so the session does not become negative.

A really important lesson for any animal (or human) to learn is that it is OK to fail! Failure is all part of learning; however, it is what you choose to learn from it that provides the opportunity to grow and then succeed.

Say a child is not cleaning his or her room. The first step is to make sure that the child is capable of accomplishing such a task (i.e., is the task age appropriate?). The child receives a signal that asks them to perform the desired behavior (clean a room). Once the task is complete, they receive their reinforcement. Now I am guessing most kids do not find cold, dead, raw fish very reinforcing, so something they would like, such as piece of candy, a game of catch or sometimes something as simple as a nice big hug and lots of verbal praise, could be used as the reinforcement.

Let’s take that same scenario, only the child doesn’t perform the behavior.  Depending on the child, you can ask them to try again or even provide some help.  If not done correctly, they simply lose the opportunity for that special treat.  However, the next time you ask them to clean their room, they may remember that consequence and hopefully change their behavior. One strategy is to start simply and have them just pick up a few things, then gradually increase the amount they have to clean. In training, these steps are called approximations.

Remember the key: Always set your subject up for success!

Blog-Header-AllisonGinsburg

Update: Bottlenose Dolphin Strandings Continue in Historic Numbers

Animal Rescue Update

More than 200 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins have washed ashore along the East Coast this summer. This alarming number is seven times higher than what’s normally seen in the Mid-Atlantic region – a statistic which caused the National Marine Fisheries Service to declare an “unusual mortality event.” 

Unfortunately, following the declaration of the the event last week, the has been no curb in the number of dolphins stranding on our shores. It is estimated that 25 dolphins were found in Virginia just over the weekend.

“We don’t know exactly what’s causing it, but we suspect it might be a virus called the morbillivirus,” our VP of Biological Programs, Brent Whitaker, told CNN’s Brian Todd yesterday during an interview here in Baltimore. Click below to watch the entire interview: 

CNN interview at national aquarium

The morbillivirus, a culprit very similar to the measles, killed approximately 740 dolphins in a similar event along the East Coast in 1987.

Although the virus has been found in some of the dolphins studied this year, it will take months for the federal investigation to produce a clear answer on what’s behind this event.

As part of the Northeast Stranding Network, our Animal Rescue and Animal Health teams have been deeply engaged in the efforts to study these dolphins and determine a cause of death.

Stay tuned to the blog for more updates! 

Blog-Header-JennDittmar


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