Researchers of the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation program (MMRC) at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute have been dedicated to rescuing injured and orphaned bottlenose dolphins for years. Winter is one such bottlenose dolphin, and her story will be told in theaters nationwide in the upcoming Warner Bros. movie, “Dolphin Tale.”

On December 10, 2005, personnel from the MMRC, along with Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Orlando and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers, rescued and initiated care of the injured and orphaned Winter from the Indian River Lagoon.

Caught in a crab trap, Winter eventually lost her tail fluke and was transferred to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater for care. Winter soon became the first bottlenose dolphin to be fitted with a prosthetic replacement. Successfully using the prosthesis as her tail fluke, Winter was able to regain propulsion as she swam.

“Winter is an inspiration to everyone involved in marine mammal care,” said Stephen McCulloch, manager of the MMRC program. “Her determination to survive and her ability to relearn how to use her tail fluke conveys the intelligence of these bottlenose dolphins. I am thrilled to be a part of this monumental achievement in marine mammal studies.”

Entanglements in discarded, manmade debris are common for bottlenose dolphins. In 2011 thus far, the MMRC has responded to five cases, one of which claimed the life of an entangled bottlenose dolphin. Marine debris, especially rubber and plastic items such as engine belts and monofilament fishing line, will resist biodegradation for decades, leading to an ever greater accumulation of these ensnaring materials in dolphins’ habitats. Although bottlenose dolphins are perhaps the most frequent victims of entanglements, turtles, whales, manatees, birds and fish also face these dangers.

The MMRC has multifaceted veterinary medicine, research, education and conservation programs involving marine mammal species from around the world. Current research programs are documenting the causes of marine mammal strandings; health status of bottlenose dolphins inhabiting the Indian River Lagoon, Florida (IRL); effects of harmful algal bloom biotoxins; population ecology of the IRL bottlenose dolphin population through a photo-identification study; and identification of emerging diseases in various marine mammal species.


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