ATLANTA – Georgia Aquarium is announcing the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE published findings from the Cetacean Welfare Study, the largest-ever groundbreaking, multi-institutional study of how physical habitat, environmental enrichment, and animal training impact the welfare of cetaceans in zoos and aquariums worldwide. The collection of nine manuscripts highlights tools and findings that can be utilized for the continuous improvement of the care and welfare of cetaceans in professional care.
From Chicago to Singapore, data was collected across 46 cetacean habitats at 43 accredited facilities in seven countries. Over the course of the data collection phase of the study, which took place in 2018 and 2019, scientists gathered information regarding 216 common and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, 13 beluga whales, and eight Pacific white-sided dolphins.
Georgia Aquarium contributed physiological data from its common bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales. Specifically, the dolphins at the Aquarium wore special packs that collected data on their behavior, swimming, spatial use, and videos were collected to gain insight into their behavior and social interactions. This data from the dolphins and beluga whales ultimately added to the robust set of information that would inform these findings on cetacean health and welfare.
Using cutting-edge technology, the study explored cetacean welfare through various lenses, including habitat characteristics, training programs, environmental factors, and demographics like age and sex. An important outcome of the work was a whole new set of research tools, including the creation of an iOS app, ZooPhysioTrak—a comprehensive database of health and welfare biomarkers from all the participating institutions that provides veterinarians and cetacean care managers with standard health reference intervals and welfare indicators to compare their animals’ test results (from blood and fecal samples). This resource places important health and welfare information directly into the hands of cetacean caregivers and managers like never before.
"Thirty-four Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums member facilities from all over the world eagerly participated in this groundbreaking study in order to contribute to an increased understanding of cetacean welfare,” said Kathleen Dezio, AMMPA president and CEO. "We commend Dr. Lance Miller and his colleagues on this cutting-edge research that will empower zoo and aquarium professionals with important new tools and insights to help them continue to enhance the welfare of the inspiring animals in their care."
Additionally, findings suggest the environmental enrichment programs and social management of bottlenose dolphins are more closely related to behaviors likely indicative of positive welfare than habitat characteristics. This suggests that welfare is less related to the size of the animals’ habitat, and more related to how the mammals are cognitively challenged through their environment enrichment and appropriate social management. Coming out of the study, institutions implemented additional protocols to their already existing and robust enrichment programs to continually grow and enhance them based on findings from this study.
“Association of Zoos and Aquariums members are known for providing the best care and welfare possible for their animals. This groundbreaking study provides new insights into how our members can better care for cetaceans. The important science-backed findings will also help enhance our rigorous accreditation standards related to cetaceans,” said Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
These findings, and others from the study, will be used to enhance cetacean care and welfare best practices, and will advise future animal welfare research, which advances the goal of zoos and aquariums everywhere to continuously improve knowledge and welfare assessment tools for species under professional care.
“This study shows that progressive zoos and aquariums are able to provide exemplary care for cetaceans and are committed to continuously improving using the latest science, as well as being a step forward for the welfare and ultimately conservation of a number of cetacean species,” said Dr. Martín Zordan, chief executive officer of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "This work is especially significant when we consider that ex situ conservation has been recognized as an important tool for conserving several cetacean species as stated in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) 2020 report Ex-situ options for cetacean conservation.”
Principal investigators are Douglas Granger, Ph.D., professor and director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at the University of California, Irvine; Lisa Lauderdale, Ph.D., animal welfare scientist in the Animal Welfare Research Department for the Chicago Zoological Society; Jill Mellen, Ph.D.; Lance Miller, Ph.D., vice president of conservation science and animal welfare research for the Chicago Zoological Society; and Michael Walsh, DVM, clinical associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. The collection of manuscripts can be viewed at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0255506.
Funding for this project was provided through a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Grant #MG-30-17-0006-17, with additional support from partner facilities.
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ABOUT GEORGIA AQUARIUM
Georgia Aquarium is a leading 501(c)(3) non-profit organization located in Atlanta, Ga. that is Humane Certified by American Humane and accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Georgia Aquarium is committed to working on behalf of all marine life through education, preservation, exceptional animal care, and research across the globe. Georgia Aquarium continues its mission each day to inspire, educate, and entertain its millions of guests about the aquatic biodiversity throughout the world through its hundreds of exhibits and tens of thousands of animals across its eight major galleries. For more information, visit georgiaaquarium.org