Biopsy dart sampling is an important field technique that involves obtaining a small skin and blubber sample without needing to physically handle or restrain an animal. This allows researchers to get precious samples from wild free-swimming dolphins. The tissue obtained can be used to look at the animals’ genetics, contaminants, stable isotopes, presence of disease, reproductive hormones, stress hormones, and lipid content. The information learned is invaluable to dolphin research and conservation. There is a need to increase capacity of this technique in the southeastern United States and other areas for management purposes. Thanks to a grant from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute/Florida Atlantic University, SDRP staff members have been able to conduct biopsy dart sampling training sessions for qualified researchers.
The training begins in Sarasota Bay, where a team of trainees is taught the basic skills needed to safely dart a dolphin, collect associated data, and process tissue samples for analysis, as well as get a chance to watch an experienced team collect samples. After trainees demonstrate the ability to safely and accurately hit a target as well as show an understanding of dolphin behavior, they are allowed to take samples under the watchful eyes of the trainers. When possible, a follow-up week of training is performed in the researchers’ own study areas. As they demonstrate the ability to safely collect samples, the trainees are allowed to take on more responsibility and try to lead the team.
To date, we have finished two rounds of biopsy training, having trained 10 researchers. As well as building capacity, the training has resulted in the collection of needed samples from Sarasota Bay, Pensacola Bay, the Indian River Lagoon, Galveston Bay, and Puerto Rico. These samples and the ability to collect more will greatly increase our ability to understand dolphins in the southeastern United States and elsewhere.
This article appeared on page 30 in the December 2015 issue of Nicks n Notches.