I always get some sort of reaction out of informing people that I worked with dolphins during a college summer. Fellow undergraduate researchers tell me how lucky I was, describing how time stood still as they bent over pipettes or huddled in library stacks. Relatives exclaim that they have always wanted to “swim with dolphins.” Someone inevitably mentions the television series Flipper.
But conducting fieldwork with bottlenose dolphins is so much more than just the novelty of working with one of the planet’s most charismatic and beloved animals — though that is no small perk. Bottlenose dolphins are comprehensive study systems for a huge range of scientific questions. How does mercury contamination affect predators at the top of the food web, or animals with long lives? What is the impact to marine mammals of different diets in the wild and in zoological parks? What is the purpose of group living? How much can an animal learn?
Collecting biological, behavioral, and ecological data on bottlenose dolphins can do a lot to answer these questions, and researchers are fortunate to have the data trove that comes with a long-term natural laboratory such as the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program. My own work with bottlenose dolphins helped me tackle the question of whether social interactions influence how animals learn to communicate. Read more about how I identified this topic, obtained and analyzed my data, and enjoyed being part of a research community.