Working with marine parks

29 April 2018 - By: Andreas Fahlman

Working with marine parks

Dolphin Lung Study
Dolphin Lung Study. Photo:Courtesy of Dolphin Quest

By Andreas Fahlman

Every animal biologist is faced with ethical, logistical and monetary burdens when performing research studies on animals, or when conducting field work. Studies on animals in human care allow voluntary participation, which enables the researcher to measure baseline physiological function in a stress-free animal. Studies on wild animals, on the other hand, are often limited as it is difficult to control potentially confounding variables. However for those studying ethology or physiology on large marine animals, marine parks and aquariums may be one option for collecting data. Working with these facilities can be a successful partnership that not only allows controlled studies on animals with minimal stress, but also provides opportunities to share the research with the public. In addition, working with charismatic megafauna often allows opportunities to communicate your research, its importance and impact to the media.

Since 2012 we have had the opportunity to work with a number of marine parks and aquariums on our research on diving physiology in marine vertebrates. We have studied respiratory physiology and energetics in a number of different species (1-9). The baseline data are collected through voluntary participation of the animals, using methods we have developed with animals under managed care, and allow us to perform comparative studies with wild animals (10), which has resulted in some interesting findings. Working with marine parks and aquariums may be an under-utilized resource for researchers interested in studies on applied biology. In many places, marine mammals are trained as part of the normal husbandry and animal care procedures and many of these behaviours can be slightly modified to allow studies on physiology. For example, dolphins are commonly trained to present their tail flukes voluntarily and often do so ventral side up. Consequently, for anyone interested in looking at changes associated with apnea, this is an excellent opportunity to obtain some data on an animal that performs this voluntarily. In addition, these facilities provide an excellent opportunity to validate and test equipment, and to train graduate students before deployment in the field.

Research within these facilities allows researchers, graduate students and volunteers to be exposed to public speaking. Many parks and aquariums offer the opportunity to present the research to their public and talk to guests about the significance of the work. Considering that many scientists find it difficult to discuss or present their work to the general public, this provides excellent opportunities to practice discussing your research in layman’s terms. Working with large charismatic animals often attracts media attention, providing yet another outlet to publicise the research. Some, like Dolphin Quest, even offer grant opportunities and most provide funding for conservation research.

From our experience, we highly recommend researchers to seek out opportunities to work with marine parks and aquariums. The collaboration between researchers, veterinarians and trainers, and the work with large marine vertebrates, has been extremely rewarding for us and we believe that the scientific community should take the opportunity to work with these great institutions. They provide unique opportunities to gather information in a safe and controlled environment that is virtually impossible in wild populations.

1. A. L. Epple, MSc, Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi (2016). 
2. A. Fahlman, A. Epple, S. Loring, D. Garcia-Párraga, M. Brodsky, paper presented at the 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, San Francisco, 2015. 
3. A. Fahlman et al., Lung mechanics and pulmonary function testing in cetaceans J. Exp. Biol. 218, 2030-2038 (2015). 
4. A. Fahlman, J. Madigan, Respiratory function in voluntary participating Patagonia sea lions in sternal recumbency. Front. Physiol. 7, 1-9 (2016). 
5. A. Fahlman, M. J. Moore, D. Garcia-Parraga, Respiratory function and mechanics in pinnipeds and cetaceans. J. Exp. Biol. 220, 1761-1763 (2017). 
6. C. Portugues et al., Impact of gas emboli and hyperbaric treatment on respiratory function of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). Conservation Physiology 6, 1-8 (2018). 
7. J. M. van der Hoop et al., Bottlenose dolphins modify behavior to reduce metabolic effect of tag attachment. J. Exp. Biol. 217, 4229-4236 (2014). 
8. A. Fahlman et al., Estimating energetics in cetaceans from respiratory frequency: why we need to understand physiology. Biol. Open. 15:5, 436-442 (2016). 
9. A. Fahlman et al., in The 6th International Bio-Logging Science Symposium. (International Bio-logging Society, Lake Constance, Germany, 2017). 
10. A. Fahlman et al., Field energetics and lung function in wild bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, in Sarasota Bay Florida. Royal Society Open Science 5, 171280 (2018).
Category: Animal Biology
Andreas Fahlman

Andreas Fahlman

Andreas Fahlman is a comparative physiologist whose research projects revolve around the central question of how animals function in challenging environments. He has devised and implemented remote data logging techniques to measure dive duration and depth, and to estimate the effects of pressure on lung function, gas exchange, metabolism, heart rate, temperature regulation, and foraging efficiency in freely-diving sea birds and marine mammals. His research efforts have included laboratory and field studies in North and South America, Europe, and Africa, from Arctic to Antarctic regions. He is currently a Research Scientist at the Oceanografic Foundation in Valencia, Spain, where he studies cardiorespiratory adaptations in marine mammals.