Forty-three years ago this month, as a high school volunteer, Randall Wells started observing and studying bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay.
Since then, the data he and a team of researchers collected has revealed some amazing facts: They have names. They have male bonding. They stay for generations in one location.
For his leadership of the longest-running study of a wild dolphin population, Wells — who now holds a doctorate in biology and other degrees — was recently nominated for the 2014 Indianapolis Prize.
Frequently referred to as the world’s most prestigious award for animal conservation, the prize was initiated in 2006 by the Indianapolis Zoo. It is given every other year to an individual who has made extraordinary contributions to conservation efforts involving a single or multiple animal species.
It is Wells’ first nomination, and he has some heady competition. Renowned anthropologist Jane Goodall and ocean conservation leader Carl Safina are among the 39 nominated.
“I never thought I would be considered in the same breath as Jane Goodall,” said Wells, during an interview in his office at Mote Marine Laboratory, 1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy., Sarasota.
Blair Irvine, who initiated the dolphin program and led it through the 1970s, called Wells’ nomination “well-deserved recognition of his work and productivity.” Even as a high school student, Wells was “serious, curious” and it was obvious “research was a perfect fit for him,” Irvine said.
Winning the prize “would be a tremendous honor and we hope that it would help increase the visibility of conservation issues that dolphins face,” Wells said.
Just getting nominated draws attention to the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, a collaboration between Mote and the Chicago Zoological Society, which relies on grants and donor contributions to keep operating.
“One of the challenges we have, by conducting a long-term program, it’s not like going out one time and asking for funds to help with one cool research project,” he said. Yet continuity and consistency are what makes the program so valuable, and that becomes more obvious as Wells talks about what has been learned in 43 years.
When asked what is the program’s most significant finding, Wells points to the discovery of the first-known resident population of dolphins, who live year-round in Sarasota Bay.
“They are residents of a definable area,” Wells said, “Before we started our research, nobody knew if they swam through the whole Gulf of Mexico, if they were shallow or deep-water. We found they were residential and multi-generational. At times we’ve had as many as five concurrent generations living in Sarasota Bay, right now it is four.”
Presently, the bay dolphin population is 160, with the oldest, a female known as Nicklo — named for a low nick on her dorsal fin — estimated to be 63 years old.
Irvine pointed out that previous research of dolphin social behavior was based on captive animals. The program’s “look at the behavioral ecology of inshore dolphins” was unprecedented and its thoroughness “made possible the first in-depth communication studies of wild dolphins.”
Another fascinating finding from the communication studies concerns the dolphins’ whistles.
Wells said the researchers discovered each dolphin produces a signature whistle. And those signature whistles are the sound that other dolphins use to identify that particular dolphin — in other words, it is the dolphin’s name.
“This has not been seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom,” Wells said. The dolphin will swim and whistle to let other dolphins know he’s there. And then other dolphins will make that whistle to get in touch with it.
“That was a discovery made in Sarasota Bay dolphins and it was only possible because we had such long-term data,” Wells said.
Another discovery concerns the social structure bottlenose dolphins use to swim together. They don’t travel in family groups, Wells said, like killer whales, which are a species of dolphins, but in three distinct groups.
The first is called a “nursing group,” made up of mother dolphins with their most recent offspring. Female dolphins, who live longer than males, reproduce from when they are about 8 years old to age 48. They produce one calf at a time and the young mammals will stay with their mothers until they are 3-6 years old.
Then the youngsters break off and stay together in what are called “juvenile groups” with both males and females. Later, when they are about 10 years old, the male dolphins will find one other male dolphin and form a bond; while the females tend to rejoin their mother’s group.
“One of the coolest things that we’ve discovered out there in the bay is that adult males will form male alliances — a bond with another male — from about the time they reach sexual maturity, and they stay together until one of them dies,” Wells said.
The male bonding helps the dolphins find and catch food, acquire mates and avoid predators. According to the researcher, the two males will “escort” one female dolphin at a time and while one of them is mating with her, the other will keep unwanted male dolphins away.
Mating is common in dolphins that are developing and maintaining social relationships, Wells said. quoting his mentor, the late Dr. Ken Norris, who said, “Dolphins use sex like we use a handshake.”
Is it any wonder they are always smiling? But dolphin life isn’t all whistling, eating and mating, he said.
Like other marine life, bottlenose dolphins are facing serious concerns, especially from human activity.
“The No. 1 threat they face is from recreational fishermen. They get entangled in recreational fishing gear or ingest recreational fishing gear.”
“We see an increasing number of people feeding wild dolphins. Whether they’re doing it on purpose or whether they’re forced to put fish back because of regulations, either way the dolphins are learning to associate boats and fishing piers with food sources,” Wells said.
Once the dolphins know where the food is, they’ll keep coming back, increasing their risk of being tangled in fishing lines, grabbing baited hooks or suffering cuts from boat propellers. The researchers have documented an increase in injuries to dolphins from interactions with recreational fishing boats and gear and that has led to a public education program for humans.
The SDRP has distributed more than 300,000 dolphin-friendly fishing and viewing tip cards, and Wells would like everyone to see a 30-second public service announcement based on the story of one particular Sarasota bottlenose named “Beggar.”
They observed him for 22 years, and he was always behaving badly, approaching boats with his mouth open, seeking a fishy handout. Beggar died in September 2012. No definitive cause of death could be pinpointed by a necropsy, but there were a number of indications his lifestyle played a role in his death, Wells said. Beggar had boat wounds on his body, multiple broken ribs and vertebrae and three fishing hooks in his stomach.
Along with trying to make life better for dolphins, Wells and his team of researchers have collaborated with scientists and students from more than 23 countries, working with other dolphin species and marine life.
A joint project with researchers from Brazil and Argentina led to five of a highly threatened dolphin species being tagged with satellite-linked transmitters. The data gathered revealed that Franciscana dolphins have very small ranges, similar to Sarasota Bay dolphins.
The commercial fishers who helped catch and tag those dolphins are now more aware of the dangers they pose by using gill nets, which have been ensnaring and killing dolphins, and it has “led many of the fishermen to change the way they do things,” Wells said.
Closer to home, 27 bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico are being tracked with satellite-linked transmitters as part of an ongoing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study of the potential impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Since Sarasota Bay did not receive significant oil from the spill, the dolphins here are being compared to dolphins in Barataria Bay, La, and those found in Mississippi Sound.
“There were significant differences in health between Sarasota Bay dolphins and Barataria Bay dolphins in 2011,” Wells said, “The health problems displayed by Barataria Bay dolphins in 2011 — low weight, anemia, liver and lung disease — were consistent with suspected impacts from exposure to oil. However, studies are ongoing to try to determine if it’s Deepwater Horizon oil.”
As for the Sarasota Bay dolphins, Wells said they are “doing OK for now,” but the program’s researchers must be vigilant in monitoring their health as well as the bay environment.
A low point came in 2005, Wells said, when a severe red tide killed off 95 percent of some of the species dolphin’s prey on. The following year, 2 percent of the dolphin population was lost to ingesting fishing gear, probably because the bottlenose were trying to find other food sources.
SDRP is on the water 10 days each month, taking photographs of the dolphins, both to identify them and to observe their everyday life.
Once a year, they do health assessments, when a mobile veterinarian lab is taken by boat to examine about 10 percent of the population. “We encircle them with a net and then have them on board with the veterinarian briefly, examine them and let them go,” Wells said.
An international committee is currently reviewing the nominees for the Indianapolis Prize and will announce six finalists next spring. The winner receives $250,000 and the five runners-up will each get $10,000.
Wells knows that his nomination came from colleagues in animal conservation, but he doesn’t know exactly who nominated him. Two to four letters of support are required along with a description of what the nominee does to protect an animal species.
In addition to leading the dolphin program, Wells is a professor who has worked with numerous students seeking advanced degrees in ocean sciences, has authored or co-authored four books and led or co-led more than 170 marine mammal research projects. He also has served in several science and conservation leadership roles.
Wells grew up in Illinois and moved with his family to Sarasota in 1969.
Always fascinated by sharks, Wells went to Mote and asked to volunteer and was turned down. Then Irvine, who knew the family, brought Wells in to study dolphins.
One of the first projects Wells worked on, Irvine said, involved training dolphins to attack sharks in order to protect the dolphins.
That’s what Wells has done ever since, watching, seeking and developing ways to protect his neighbors in Sarasota Bay.
Cheryl Nordby Schmidt is a freelance writer based in Holmes Beach.
Dolphin-friendly fishing, viewing tips
Serious and sometimes fatal dolphin injuries from interactions with recreational fishing gear and boats are on the rise.
But boaters and anglers can put these 10 tips to work on the water to protect marine animals and the environment.
They were developed by marine scientists and wildlife managers working with boaters, anglers and fishing guides.
1. Never feed wild dolphins — it’s harmful and illegal.
2. Reuse or share leftover bait.
3. Reel in your line if dolphins appear.
4. Change locations if dolphins show interest in bait or catch.
5. Release catch quietly away from dolphins when and where it is possible to do so without violating state or federal fishing regulations.
6. Check gear and terminal tackle — avoid unwanted line breaks.
7. Use circle and corrodible hooks.
8. Stay at least 50 yards away from dolphins.
9. Prevent wildlife entanglements — recycle fishing line.
10. Stash your trash.
To view a public service announcement about interacting with wild dolphins, go to: www.dontfeedwilddolphins.org. For more information on Mote and dolphins, visit www.mote.org/dolphinfriendly.
Source: Sarasota Dolphin Research Program