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Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

By Chicago Zoological Society Communications Team
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In October 1970, two male bottlenose dolphins were tagged near Sarasota, Fla., in Palma Sola Bay. That moment would eventually blossom into the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), which today conducts the longest-running study of a wild dolphin population anywhere in the world.

The SDRP was the first to document the year-round residency of populations of bottlenose dolphins in coastal waters. This pioneering discovery about dolphins has since been followed by many other findings just as groundbreaking. Today, the SDRP is the model program for dolphin studies in locales around the world, and the Sarasota dolphins are used as a reference population for comparative studies of at-risk dolphins in other places, including Louisiana where the dolphins of Barataria Bay continue to be plagued by the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

The public learnt more about the SDRP’s 50-year history and some of its major findings during a virtual lecture, “The Dolphins of Sarasota Bay—Lessons from 50 Years of Study,” earlier this year.  The lecture featured Dr. Randy Wells, director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.

Dolphin jumping out of the water with a tag on its back

The SDRP, started by Dr. Blair Irvine, is today led by Dr. Wells, a dolphin conservation biologist widely respected for his expertise, who is often consulted by U.S. and foreign governmental and nongovernmental officials about all aspects of dolphin biology and conservation. Dr. Wells was a high school student working as an assistant to Dr. Irvine on the early dolphin-tagging initiative.

“What has developed over the decades is certainly beyond anything we could have imagined when we first started tagging dolphins,” Wells said. “Blair and I are humbled by the fact that the program is now recognized by many around the world as a pioneering model for the study and conservation of dolphin populations.”

The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program has been operated by the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) since 1989 and, since 1992, has been based at Mote Marine Laboratory, within the home range of Sarasota Bay dolphins.


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