Archive for the 'Dolphins' Category

Happy 13th Birthday, Maya!

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Recently, the Dolphin Discovery staff has been very busy celebrating and continuing to commemorate a few birthdays among our dolphin family!

The first of our birthdays was celebrated by Spirit, who turned 13-years-old on April 13th. Spirit’s eyes are larger and darker in color. You can also recognize her by her crooked teeth in the lower right side of rostrum.

Spirit loves to learn new things and is very vocal and chatty. She is often seen sliding up on the decks in a game that she invented along with a few of the others!

spirit - national aquarium dolphin

Today, exactly one month later, Spirit’s half-sister Maya is celebrating her 13th birthday!

maya

Maya is playful, energetic and loves to learn new things. She is lighter in color, with a light-tipped rostrum and a very pink belly!

Maya tends to be a cheerleader of sorts for our other dolphins and she always vocalizes excitedly when the others exhibit new behaviors!

Can’t celebrate Maya’s birthday in person today? Leave her a message on our Facebook page

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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!

Dolphin Stranding Update: Investigative Range Extends Through Florida

national aquarium Animal Rescue Update

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently provided an update on the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event (UME) affecting bottlenose dolphins in the mid-Atlantic. Based on recent stranding patterns and test results from stranded dolphins, the NOAA and UME Investigative Team formally expanded the range of the event to include New York through Florida – which translates to roughly 1,600 miles of Atlantic coast.

Over the past few weeks, above ‘normal’ baseline strandings for this time of year have been reported in North Carolina and South Carolina, meanwhile, Florida is just beginning to see an increase in dolphin strandings. The population of bottlenose dolphins from New York to Virginia is mainly migratory. These dolphins are beginning to migrate south to warmer waters, which is the likely reason that North Carolina and South Carolina are seeing an overall increase in strandings.

NOAA dolphin stranding numbers

This graph from NOAA shows the total number of strandings reported this year, by state – since it’s creation, raw data from Florida’s strandings has also been collected by NOAA.

In addition to expanding the range of the event, NOAA is also awaiting final test results to determine if the virus that is attributed to this UME is also responsible for the deaths of other dolphin and whale species. Three humpback whales and two pygmy sperm whales have tested positive as carriers of the morbillivirus, however, further testing is needed to determine if these animals displayed any clinical signs and if the virus was the cause of death.

The beginning of this UME was classified as July 1, and to date the event has proven to be quite significant. According to the official NOAA website for this event, there have been more than 900 dolphin strandings from New York to South Carolina during the time frame of January 1, 2013 to November 4, 2013 – this number is 4.5 times higher than the average number of strandings.

National Aquarium continues to support this event by responding to live-stranded dolphins in Maryland. In addition to boots-on-the-ground response, our National Aquarium Animal Rescue staff are supporting the event by assisting the Incident Management Team that is coordinating the response plans within the designated UME area.

national aquarium animal rescue expert jennifer dittmar

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!

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Happy Birthday, Foster!

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Today we celebrate another exciting birthday within our dolphin family – Foster is turning 6 years old!

Foster is the son of 13-year-old Jade, who also calls the National Aquarium home. Becoming a mother is difficult no matter what species you are, but can you imagine trying to master nursing underwater!

In dolphin social groups often another experienced mother in the pod will help to raise the calf and to help teach the new mom the ropes. With Foster’s birth, the Marine Mammal team saw several of the adult females begin to produce milk and to help nurse Foster! This display from his “foster” moms earned Foster his unique name.

Today Foster resides in a pair bond or male alliance with 8-year-old Beau (son of Nani). In dolphin social structures the females live together and males for these alliances with 2-3 members in them.

Foster is very chatty with his human co-workers and loves learning new behaviors! A type of jump called back dive is one of his favorites! Foster’s favorite enrichment plays include basketball and a good game of hose play.

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Dolphin Stranding Update: Tentative Cause of Unusual Mortality Event Determined

Animal Rescue Update

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has determined, though preliminary tissue sampling, that the cetacean morbillivirus is to blame for the unusually high number of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins stranding along the East Coast in recent months.

To date, 97 percent of the dolphins tested (32 of 33) are suspect or confirmed positive for mobillivirus. This is the same virus that caused over 740 marine mammals to strand in a similar event back in 1987-88, the last time a massive die-off of bottlenose dolphins along the Atlantic Coast like this was observed.

What is the morbillivirus? 

Cetacean morbillivirus is a naturally occurring pathogen in marine mammal populations. It is not infectious to humans. At this time, there is no vaccine that can be easily deployed to stop the spread of the virus in wild, migratory dolphin populations; other than the animals natural ability to build antibodies to the virus.

Recently declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) by the federal government, these strandings have now reached numbers over nine times the historical average for the months of July and August for our region.

Although we have established a tenative cause, the UME investigation is still ongoing and stranding teams from New York to Virginia will continue to further evaluate tissue samplings and genetic sequencing. It may be years before we can truly confirm the cause for these strandings.

How is the National Aquarium involved in this event? 

National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue team responded to a live stranded bottlenose dolphin last Tuesday, August 20 at Assateague Island National Seashore. After a health assessment of the animal, veterinary staff recommended humane euthanasia due to the poor health of the animal. A full necropsy (animal autopsy) was performed by Aquarium staff to determine an underlying cause of stranding. Tissue samples have been submitted as part of the UME, and results are pending.

I have also been assisting the UME Incident Management Team with drafting a weekly Incident Action Plan that outlines objectives for response in the affected areas, staff and equipment assignments, formulating safety plans, and addressing gaps in coverage that arise during response. The Incident Command Structure is very effective when coordinating response to events such as this that cover a broad area and involve multiple government and non-government organizations.

Our team will continue to work closely with regional stranding partners and the federal government to help implement this plan and document this event for future research/learning.

As we continue to closely monitor this situation, stay tuned to the blog for updates! 

jenn dittmar animal rescue expert


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