Dolphin found washed ashore recovering well

Published 2:15 pm Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A dolphin found washed ashore and nearly dead after Tropical Storm Ida has made an astounding recovery, and scientists must now decide whether to keep it in captivity or set it free.

The male Atlantic bottlenose dolphin was found 150 yards north of the surf on a secluded shoreline in Alabama when the storm pushed ashore just over a month ago.

Oddly enough, the storm’s battering waves may have saved the animal. It was suffering from pneumonia and parasites, which have been successfully treated at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

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“From almost dying to what we have now is a pretty amazing recovery,” said Moby Solangi, the institute’s director. “Generally they don’t survive.”

Solangi said keeping the dolphin or releasing it is a difficult decision because there are so many factors to consider in its chances for survival.

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins need up to four years to mature and largely depend on their mothers until then. Behavior from fishing to fending off sharks is learned from older dolphins in its pod, said Shea Eaves, a research assistant at the center.

Scientists believe this dolphin is about 2 years old. The only way to tell for sure would be to count growth rings in its teeth, and that’s not an option if it’s alive.

The next best way to estimate its age is to consider its size.

There are formulas to estimate the age of a 191-centimeter and 200-pound dolphin, such as this one. But scientists have to know whether it’s a coastal dolphin or a member of the subspecies that lives far offshore.

To that end, Blair Mase, a Miami-based scientist with National Marine Fisheries, who will be involved in the release decision, awaits genetic data that should show this dolphin’s place of origin.

Even if deemed old enough to survive without its mother, there are other factors that could keep the dolphin from the sea.

The highly social dolphins depend on one another for food and safety. For the Ida dolphin to survive, it would need to find a pod, if not its own, then another to take up with, Solangi said. And either way, it will likely have to muscle its way into the pod’s hierarchy, he said.

“He can’t live a solitary life,” Solangi said. “He’s going to have to find a group of animals that will accept him, and there’s going to be a tussle, and in that tussle, if he’s not well enough, he’s going to be eliminated.”