Featured Image Credit: Lauren Harris, Dolphin Research Center
Several years ago. University of Florida’s Aquatic Animal Veterinarian, Michael Walsh, D.V.M., worked with two rescue dolphins that returned to shore after being released back into the wild.
“I worked with two animals, one directly, that showed numerous behavioral problems while in rehab,” said Walsh, a clinical associate professor of aquatic animal health at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine.
“We weren’t able to test the first dolphin’s hearing, but the second animal was tested at Mote Marine Laboratory and found to be totally deaf. This suggested that the problem of adapting to new environments might be hearing-related and might be more common than we had initially thought,” he said.
Walsh considered the return of the dolphins to be a concerning behavior, as they should have gone back out into the wild. He thought that it might have had something to do with the state of the animals’ hearing. This inspired him to look more closely into why exactly the dolphins displayed this behavior. So he asked Megan Stroble, D.V.M., a then first-year veterinary medical student at UF to explore the relationship of hearing capacity and behavior changes in the wild compared to facility-housed dolphins. Her study was later featured in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine.
The study suggested that hearing assessments for animals under human care should be administered routinely as stranded animals with hearing deficits showed considerably different behaviors than animals with normal hearing.
“If we recognize that all animals will lose hearing over time, then putting technology such as the auditory evoked potential test we used into their health exams as they get older will help everyone understand how their sensory systems are doing,” says Walsh.
Hearing is an important component for odontocete cetaceans to live a normal life as it serves as their primary sense. Relying on hearing, the loss of sonar capability can cause extreme problems for an animal to live in a wild environment.
“And for their cohorts in the wild, we need to understand the implications of hearing loss so we can approach those animals differently at a time they are trying to adapt to a rehabilitative environment with the loss of their most important sense,” says Walsh.
This project was conducted with the help of SeaWorld, The National Marine Mammal Foundation, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Dolphins Plus, Dolphin Research Center, and Gulf World and Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
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