Just how healthy is the ocean along the East Coast? Dolphins could be key in finding the answer to that question and could also provide insight into long-term human health risks. Meghan Galipeau, Visitor Engagement Training Coordinator at the South Carolina Aquarium, recently participated in a dolphin study to answer those questions. Read about her unique experience below:
In early July, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in a marine mammal health and environmental risk assessment (HERA) study in Titusville, FL. This is an in depth study of the health of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL). In this study, wild dolphins are secured from the water and undergo a complete physical exam. This includes a thorough examination of their physical health, including sampling of their blood and various tissues. After this dolphin “checkup”, the animal is released back into their habitat. HERA studies have been conducted in the IRL and associated waterways, as well as in our local Charleston waters since 2001. Each HERA is carried out by about 60 marine mammal professionals, ranging from animal care staff and trainers to lab techs, vet techs, and veterinarians. The study was led by Dr. Greg Bossart and Steve McCulloch from the Georgia Aquarium, and Dr. Pat Fair from Charleston’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I have worked in Dr. Fair’s lab at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Bimolecular Research for the past year in partnership with my position on the education team at the South Carolina Aquarium. We study bottlenose dolphin habitat use and distribution in our local waters. The South Carolina Aquarium has partnered with NOAA on projects in our local waters before, including the most recent Charleston HERA study in 2013.
HERA studies closely examine how diseases in bottlenose dolphins are related to human activity, and provide insight into the overall health of the ecosystem. Some of the significant findings in these studies have focused on toxin and contaminant build up in dolphin blubber. Researchers have found that almost 90% of the dolphins in the IRL and in Charleston waters had high concentrations of contaminates such as pesticides, PFCs (perflorinated chemicals), and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in their blubber. PFCs and PCBs are human made, synthetic chemicals that are found in household items that are stain and stick resistant (such as cookware, rugs and carpets, and food packaging materials) as well as flame retardants and paints. They end up in our local waterways via run off from industrial plants and from inadequate chemical storage and leakage. These toxins make their way into the dolphins’ tissues as they move up the food chain to the top predators. The accumulation of these contaminants can compromise the dolphins’ immune system, making them more susceptible to diseases. They can cause cancer in the dolphins and also affect their reproduction. When mothers nurse their young, they unload toxins from their own bodies into their developing calf. This can significantly affect the health of the developing population.
Dolphins are apex predators, which means they are at the top of the food chain in their habitat. If the population is unhealthy, it can alert scientist to underlying threats in their environment. If something is affecting the dolphins, it is likely affecting other animals in the area, and could even threaten human health! Gathering data like this helps scientist and environmentalists make good decisions regarding conservation and environmental management.
So what can you do to help to reduce toxins in our waterways? Refrain from littering, pick up any garbage you see while out and about, recycle, and properly dispose of items containing dangerous toxins. Each small step taken by individuals can go a long way to protecting our local animals and waterways. Not only does it keep our animals safe and healthy, it will allow us to safely enjoy our waterways for many years to come!
Meghan Galipeau, Visitor Engagement Training Coordinator