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The health of dolphins and other marine life in and out of captivity has long been disputed by animal lovers and activists, but now… scientists have taken the question into their own hands and delivered a more concrete answer.
A new study published by the scientific journal PLOS ONE analyzed and compared four dolphin populations; two wild, and two in human care.
The wild populations were found in Indian River Lagoon, Fla. and the other near Charleston, S.C.
Then, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta pitched in, along with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, allowing the researchers to study their populations.
And those in human care seemed to be far healthier than those in the wild. With the study stating that, “The health of dolphins in both [Indian River Lagoon] and [Charleston] populations is considered compromised with fewer than half found to be clinically normal.”
What they found was that, in the wild, dolphins have more environmental stressors and they displayed a fungal disease associated with immune suppression along with viruses and infections, some of which are potentially human pathogens.
Co-Author and Chief Veterinary Officer at Georgia Aquarium, Dr. Gregory Bossart related chronically activated immune systems (which suggest the dolphins trying to fight the disease) to our own pretty accurately by saying, “In humans, this type of prolonged smoldering inflammation is associated with cancer, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, and increased vulnerability to infectious disease.”
Dr. Bossart and other colleagues have been studying and conducting health assessments on the wild dolphins in both areas since around 2003, having checked on over 360 individuals, as a part of project HERA, which stands for Health and Environmental Risk Assessment Project.
Since 2003, researchers with HERA have recorded infectious diseases, tumors, antibiotic resistant bacteria and alarmingly high levels of contaminants in dolphins from both populations.
However, the dolphin populations in “controlled environments”, such as zoos and aquariums, had less chronically activated immune systems, which is “likely a result of encountering and fighting off illness caused by pathogens, parasites and anthropogenic pollutants in the ocean that do not exist in closely managed zoological habitats,” said Patricia Fair, lead author of the study and Research Professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Dr. Bossart noted that while the findings are not surprising, the results of the wild dolphin populations were mildly unsettling, as well. “These wild dolphins are trying to tell us something and we are not listening. As a sentinel species, dolphins are an important way to gauge the overall health of our oceans. If wild dolphins aren’t doing well, it could also indicate future impacts to ocean health and even our own health.”
While science has proven that captivity is healthier on a dolphin’s immune system, we still have a long way to go to clean up our own act and influence on the ocean, so that this amazing species can thrive in any environment.