Preventing, detecting, and treating disease in marine mammals and enhancing animal welfare through medicine and research.

The NMMF recognizes the great privilege and responsibility in working with animals under human care. Our Animal Health and Welfare team honors this commitment by taking the best possible care of marine mammals in all environments. Providing direct care to marine mammals allows us the unique opportunity to learn about their species in a manner not possible in the wild. These invaluable lessons are then applied to wild animal populations in an effort to promote species conservation of marine mammals around the world.
World Class Marine Mammal Care
The NMMF continually strives to advance health and welfare for all marine mammals. We often launch new efforts by examining cutting-edge research and medical advances made in human and veterinary medicine that could be applied to marine mammal medicine. We collaborate with world-renowned experts, laboratories, and facilities to help us reach our goals. We work to develop, test, and validate diagnostic tools; accurately and rapidly detect disease; and characterize the health status of marine mammal communities. Newly developed tools and techniques are then integrated into routine medical care, with an emphasis placed on preventative medicine.
Current Research Areas

We aim to make discoveries that benefit marine mammals by bringing together top-notch scientists, physicians, veterinarians, and field biologists. Our current focus areas are:

Reproduction

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, reproductive failure rates increased significantly for dolphins in affected areas. A multi-year study is underway to better understand reproductive health and causes of pregnancy failure in bottlenose dolphins. Techniques developed with managed populations have been refined and expanded to better understand dolphin reproduction in wild populations living in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cardiac Health

NMMF veterinarians and specialists from San Diego Veterinary Cardiology have refined cardiac diagnostic health techniques for bottlenose dolphins. Techniques were developed for free-ranging dolphins and dolphins in human care, and then were applied to dolphins living in oil-impacted areas in the Gulf of Mexico. These newly developed techniques will help elucidate the potential impacts of oil on dolphin cardiac health.

Kidney Health

Bottlenose dolphins are susceptible to developing kidney stones. In an effort to better understand the pathophysiology of kidney stone formation and to identify risk factors in dolphins, we have developed comprehensive kidney health studies evaluating both free-ranging and managed dolphin populations. Current studies are focused on the fish types being eaten by dolphins, with a special focus on the vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients that may be correlated with stone formation and prevention.

Anesthesia

In the 1960s, our own Dr. Sam Ridgway pioneered dolphin anesthesia. We are now partnering with Innovative Veterinary Medicine Inc. to develop a specialized marine mammal ventilator. We are also working with pulmonary experts from around the world to better characterize normal sea lion and dolphin pulmonary function. This improves the care of marine mammals during veterinary procedures and aids in the understanding of pulmonary physiology for both dolphins and sea lions.

Marine Mammal Welfare

NMMF scientists and veterinarians are exploring the relationship between dolphin vocalizations and their wellness. We have developed a hydrophone array that eavesdrops on marine mammals under our care in the San Diego Bay. By characterizing the features of dolphin-generated sound when animals are healthy, we may be able to detect, with sound alone, when a dolphin is not feeling well. If successful, this project could lead to the development and implementation of non-invasive acoustic tools for real-time monitoring of animal health and welfare.

Health Tracking and Data Management Systems for Marine Mammals
The NMMF team develops and implements medical databases for tracking animal health. These systems provide long-term tracking of individual animals, which can then be analyzed to provide insight into population health. We are proud to be involved with killer whale conservation in the Pacific Northwest by developing a comprehensive Southern Resident killer whale health database through academic, nonprofit, and government collaborations.
Application to Species Conservation

Providing high-quality care to animals in human care allows us to develop medical tools and techniques that are extremely valuable for species conservation across the globe. For example, by caring for pregnant dolphins in human care and developing ultrasound techniques to better evaluate fetal and placental health, we can better understand why wild dolphin pregnancies have failed in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Additionally, by developing techniques to better characterize the cardiac health of dolphins in human care, we can determine if wild dolphins have sustained cardiac injury, either from exposure to environmental contaminants or stranding events. Every effort is made to apply the tools and techniques developed by NMMF veterinarians and scientists to the care, conservation, and protection of wild marine mammals around the world.

Ex-Situ Conservation of Threatened and Endangered Marine Mammals

Following the efforts of the marine mammal community to save the vaquita porpoise from extinction, it became clear that there is an urgent need to help at-risk, threatened, and endangered marine mammals as early as possible. A multi-institutional, international working group is working to identify the next small cetacean species in most need of research, funding and potential ex-situ conservation efforts due to devastating threats in their natural habitats. NMMF veterinarians and scientists are planning to contribute to these efforts by applying advanced health assessment techniques, marine mammal medicine tools, and international deployment approaches to these important issues.

Consulting Services
We offer consulting services to facilities and groups around the world. If you are interested in receiving marine mammal medicine and welfare consulting services, please contact vetconsult@nmmf.org.

Animal Health and Welfare Team

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