Story by: Cedar Key Beacon

Dr. Stefanie K. Gazda began researching Cedar Key bottlenose dolphins in 2001 for her master’s thesis. She came to the area to study bottlenose dolphins’ foraging behavior and over the years her research has led to the discovery of many aspects of dolphin behavior.

Dr. Gazda began calling her research Cedar Key Dolphin Project in 2010 and it is now the project’s official name. Over the years, she has expanded the goals of the program to: study the bottlenose dolphin population structure; fit in with the UF stranding network and assist in a crisis; and gather data to show the feasibility of bottlenose dolphin research along the Nature Coast.

Cedar Key is a great place to research dolphins because the coastal area of the Big Bend is relatively pristine compared to the more built up areas where dolphin behavior is being studied.

In addition, the water in the Big Bend area where Dr. Gazda is conducting dolphin research is shallow enough to observe foraging and social behavior. She explains that other than being a graceful marine animal that “we all enjoy watching, dolphins act like the canary in the coal mine,” because dolphins are an indicator of ecological health. This makes learning about their behavior, habitat and foraging an important tool to help keep the Big Bend area pristine.

On Dr. Gazda’s first trip, she documented a specific feeding behavior not observed in bottlenose dolphins before. It is called driver-barrier feeding. One dolphin will assume the lead and drive fish toward other dolphins lined up as a barrier. As the fish jump to get away both the barrier dolphins and the driver dolphin catch the jumping fish. Dr. Gazda stated that each dolphin has an assigned function and the same dolphin will act as the driver. The driver-barrier foraging is unique to Cedar Key.

Dr. Gazda stated that it is also interesting to note that although a bottlenose dolphin has a range of up to 1,000 miles, most dolphins in this area remain here.

The dolphin dorsal fins are as individual as fingerprints, which allow researchers to recognize individual dolphins. Dr. Gazda has been photographing dolphins and their fins since her first visit in 2001 and has been able to recognized dolphins in Cedar Key this year that were here in 2001. She did not see any overlap of Cedar Key dolphins with those in Withlacoochee or Crystal Rivers. This behavior of not traveling to other areas means that if something happens in one area such as a change in temperature, current or outflow from a power plant, it will not necessarily affect dolphins in another area the same way.

Another behavior of dolphins that Dr. Gazda explained was how dolphins breathe. They are voluntary breathers, meaning that dolphins cannot breathe if they go to sleep, so they “half-sleep.” The dolphin shuts down one side of its brain and the opposite eye to rest, while the other side of the brain stays awake and signals the dolphin to surface to breathe.

There is still much to learn about the feeding, habitat use, travel and social behavior of dolphins. She is hoping to receive a multiyear grant, but would like to continue her research here in Cedar Key. Donations for the nonprofit Cedar Key Dolphin Project can be made on the website at cedarkeydolphinproject.org or on Facebook by searching for Cedar Key Dolphin Project and clicking on the donate button.

Marine Animal Rescue

The Aquatic Animal Health program in the UF College of Veterinary Medicine has partnered with UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station for the new Marine Animal Rescue group.Dr. Gazda has, as one of her goals, to fit in with the Marine Animal Rescue. Toward that goal, Dr. Gazda and stranding biologist Mackenzie Russell have combined forces.

Russell stated that of 1,000-plus miles of shoreline, only five counties in Florida are without a rescue program.

The structure of agencies responsible for marine animal oversight is complicated. Russell explained how the new Marine Animal Rescue program works. The responsibility for marine animal rescue falls to two organizations, state management by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and federal management by the Office of Protected Resources, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program under the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Although, the Aquatic Animal Health Program under UF has always actively assisted FWC and NOAA, the new Marine Animal Rescue group covers Dixie, Levy and Taylor counties without marine rescue programs. As typical for the Nature Coast, the area is vast and the workers are few. Russell recently conducted the University of Florida’s first Marine Animal Rescue Stranding Volunteer Training at the Lower Suwannee Refuge Headquarters.

The Aquatic Health Program at UF/IFAS supports education, research and conservation of Florida’s aquatic wildlife. The research on cetaceans, dolphins and whales has been limited because of the size of the animals and special needs. Therefore, Dr. Gazda’s research can be put into practical application almost immediately in the Nature Coast area and shared with other areas that lack research.

The more information gathered about the basic biology, behavior, nutrition, as well as morbidity and mortality factors will help in keeping marine animals healthy and help in rehabilitation of stranded aquatic animals. If, unfortunately, a marine animal dies, examining and testing the animal can obtain much information.

For more information or to volunteer contact Mackenzie Russell at Russell.m@ufl.edu.

A recent example of the combined efforts of rescue groups was June 29-30 when the UF Marine Animal Rescue responded to reports of three stranded short-finned pilot whales in Taylor and Dixie counties. During those rescue missions, UF Marine Rescue Team, UF veterinarians and volunteers, NOAA responders and veterinarians, Clearwater Aquarium staff and Aquarium volunteers, Cedar Key Dolphin Project volunteers and residents of Levy, Dixie, and Taylor counties all combined efforts in to assess and help.

What should you do if you see a stranded marine animal? Do not try to help it back into the ocean. The stranded animal may be sick or injured and needs to be examined by a marine veterinarian. Call the FWC Wildlife Alert hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or the UF hotline at 352-477-0344 or marine radio on VHF Channel 16.

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